Yankees Thoughts: What Could Have Been in Cleveland

The Yankees went to Cleveland four a three-game series and took two of three, winning their fifth straight series to start the season.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. I used to love Yankees doubleheaders. That was before the unnecessary rest and load management era. Now I fear them, knowing that the best you can count on is a split, especially if the Yankees win the first game with Boone and the analytics team drooling over the idea of giving as much of the lineup a game off as possible. But things are different this season.

I would like to thank the Braves and their penchant for playing their everyday lineup every day (what a concept!) has made the Yankees rethink their strategy of playing their expected everyday lineup as little as possible. The Yankees have played 16 games this season and Juan Soto, Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, Gleyber Torres and Alex Verdugo have played in all 16, and Anthony Volpe would have if not for an illness that kept him out of one game. The Yankees seem to have rethought their idiotic approach from the last 14-ish years and I couldn’t be happier.

2. The season is 10 percent over. So for the “It’s early!” crowd, it’s not that early. (And it’s never early. Every game holds equal value). And through that 10 percent the Yankees have been the best team in baseball at 12-4. Five series, five series wins. At no point last season was there a time as fun as the first two-and-a-half-weeks of this season has been, considering the only fun last year was the eight games Jasson Dominguez played in.

After beating up the lowly Marlins at the Stadium last week, but missing a chance at a sweep that was there for the taking, the Yankees went to Cleveland and beat up on the Guardians on Saturday, again missing a chance at a sweep that was there for the taking on Sunday. After winning the series opener on Saturday afternoon, my expectation level for Cody Poteet starting the second game was about as high as Clay Holmes throwing a first-pitch strike in an outing. After the Yankees held on to win the first game of the double header 3-2, Poteet allowed just one run over six innings and the Yankees blew out the Guardians 8-2 in the nightcap.

3. I was waiting for Boone to give us a ‘B’ or even ‘C’ lineup on Sunday with the Yankees having already clinched the three-game series, but nope, Boone went with the everyday lineup again. (If only he had done more things like this over the last six years I would respect him and possibly even like him.) Between this and the recent decision to urgently flip Volpe and Torres in the order, Boone is off to a good start in 2024. Here is what I wrote earlier this season about moving Volpe to leadoff:

If this version of Volpe is who he will be moving forward (and I think it is) then the Yankees may have solved their leadoff problem. With the ongoing injuries and ailments of DJ LeMahieu since 2021, and my lack of enthusiasm for Gleyber Torres in that role, Volpe realizing his potential and his former top prospect status like this would solve that problem. I don’t expect that change to happen in Arizona or next week or the week after. The Yankees, as an organization, typically take their time with lineup promotions for their young players, unless injuries make it necessary. (It took two months of Judge hitting .328/.428/.690 in 2017 for him to finally hit third in the lineup.) At the least, though, Volpe needs to be hitting higher in the order than Alex Verdugo. I don’t care about righty-lefty alternation.

In the four games Since the move Volpe is hitting .400/.550/.467 (he was hitting .375/.444/.600 before) and Torres is hitting .214/.353/.214 (he was hitting .200/.281/.240 before).

Judge’s three-run home run in the third gave the Yankees a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Cortes, in what was his third mediocre start in four starts this season, quickly gave two runs back. Jose Trevino hit a stunning solo home run in the fourth to make it 4-2, but an inning later, Cortes erased the lead. Cortes (4 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 2 HR) has given the Yankees one quality start this season.

“I was in a lot of 2-2 and 3-2 counts, but I feel like my stuff was good overall,” Cortes said about his stuff. “I was just trying to be too fine with the corners and wasn’t getting enough early contact in play.”

As the game progressed and Boone decided he was going to stick with Luke Weaver in a 4-4 game for as long as possible, it was only a matter of time until the Guardians scored a run. That run came in the bottom of the eighth when Weaver threw a first-pitch, middle-middle fastball to ex-Yankee Estevan Florial (who can only hit fastballs) and Florial crushed it to give the Guardians a 5-4 lead. It was the most expected, inevitable result of all time: an ex-Yankee getting a big, timely hit against his former team. Add in that it was Florial who the Yankees passed over countless times for has-beens and bums, and there was no way Florial wasn’t hitting a home run in that spot.

With the bottom of the order due up against Emmanuel Clase in the ninth, I figured the game was lost. Verdugo did what he does best which is roll over a ground ball to the right side, but Trevino laced a first-pitch single to left to put the tying run on. Cabrera grounded out for the second out. With a 2-1 count against Clase, Volpe smoked a double to the gap in left-canter scoring Cabrera and tying the game at 5.

4. In the 10th, the Yankees scored two runs when Rizzo singled to right with the bases loaded and no outs. In one of the few acceptable times to ever bunt, Boone had Torres bunt the runners over to second and third. A third run would likely end the game and the Yankees just needed Verdugo to put the ball in the air to score the third run of the inning. Instead, Verdugo again did what he does best and hit a grounder to the right side. The Guardians went home for an out and then threw down to first to get Verdugo for an inning-ending double play. The Yankees’ extra-inning issues since the implementation of the automatic runner were rearing their ugly head again.

Rather than use Ian Hamilton to close out the game since Holmes had already pitched in the ninth, Boone went with Caleb Ferguson. Ferguson allowed a single to Jose Ramirez on the eighth pitch of the inning-opening battle, and the Guardians were immediately set up with runners on first and third with the winning run at the plate. Josh Naylor swung at the first pitch he saw, and while a run was going to score to make it 7-6, the ground ball should have erased Ramirez at second and gotten Naylor at first. Instead, Torres flipped the ball to Volpe at second and Volpe couldn’t transfer the ball to his throwing hand and the slow-footed Naylor reached. David Fry then crushed a ball off the wall in left-center and if anyone other than Naylor had been on first the game would have been tied, but Naylor was only able to reach third. Second and third with one out and the Yankees clinging to a 7-6 lead.

Will Brennan was up next and with the infield in, Ferguson got the ground ball he needed, hit directly at Torres. Torres couldn’t field the ball cleanly and then he couldn’t pick it up following his initial bobble and Naylor raced home to tie the game at 7.

“I missed it for a couple seconds,” Torres said, “and when I got the ball, it was too late.”

Four pitches later, Andres Gimenez hit a line drive to Soto in right field that was hit too deep for Soto to make a play at the plate. 8-7. Game over.

5. Volpe and Torres’ defense cost the Yankees in the 10th, but it’s not why they lost the game. It’s one of the reasons, but not the only reason. Cortes was mediocre again, and he wasn’t helped early on by Rizzo who forced Cortes to throw 13 additional pitches because of errors. Giancarlo Stanton was foolishly thrown out on the bases in the sixth, Judge left two on in the seventh, and Verdugo hit the ball the only place on the field he couldn’t hit it in the 10th. Add that all up and you get an excruciating one-run, extra-inning loss.

“We’ve got a lot of special players around that infield,” Judge said. “Days like today happen, and we’ve just got to move on. Everybody on this team knows [infield defense] is one of our strengths.”

Then again, it took all of that, all of those missed opportunities, poor pitching, sloppy defense and baserunning miscues and the Guardians still needed 10 innings to eek by the Yankees by one run. If there’s a positive to take away from Sunday’s debacle it’s that the Yankees were an all-around mess, and nearly came away with a sweep against a pretty good team in Cleveland.

“Tough one,” Boone said. “We just didn’t make a few plays we needed to make. When you grind through and get a lead there, it’s always tough [to lose].”

6. If you’re of the camp that the Yankees are 12-4 and everything is rainbows and butterflies, well you were likely of that same camp when everything went the Yankees way in the first half of 2022 before they played .500 baseball for about 250 games. I don’t view the 2024 Yankees as a 16-game sample size and sweep all the glaring issues under the rug or push them into the closet to worry about for another day. That’s something the front office does and why the team is mired in a 14-year World Series drought.

The Yankees’ offense has been Soto (.344/.468/.541), who has been as advertised, and Volpe (.382/.477/.564), who has been a completely different player than he was in his rookie season. Judge (.207/.373/.448) has been OK, Stanton (.250/.291/.538) has been better than expected and Cabrera (.289/.347/.533) has been a pleasant surprise when he has played (thankfully, we don’t have to watch Jon Berti play instead of him for the time being). But that’s it. Two guys you can count on every at-bat (Soto and Volpe), two guys who have had their moments (Judge and Stanton) and a forgotten utility player (Cabrera) who has had enormous hits in the first two-and-a-half weeks. Even with the Yankees’ offense running at about 25 percent most days and as high as about 40 percent at its best, the team is still 12-4 with the best record in baseball. There are problems though, both offensive and defensive problems.

7. Rizzo is one of those problems. For someone who tried to play through post-concussion symptoms for more than two months last year, and was allowed to play through them even after reporting them to Boone, I don’t know how Rizzo isn’t currently being re-evaluated for an ongoing concussion issue. You may think, “Well, of course the Yankees evaluated him recently and cleared him to play,” however, you probably also thought they evaluated him in May, June, July or August of last season, or after he complained about head issues, when instead, they just kept playing him.

My concern isn’t necessarily about Rizzo’s bat, which has been so-so through 16 games, it’s about his defense. If Rizzo was having depth perception issues last summer from his late-May concussion, I don’t know how anyone could watch him play in 2024 and think those issues aren’t lingering. Rizzo has been unable to pick short hops on throws from infielders, has bobbled and booted routine ground balls hit to him, has let would-be double play balls go under his glove and now is even dropping throws that reach him in the air. He looks lost in the field, when at his best, he’s one of the very best first defensive basemen in the world.

8. Rizzo isn’t the only infielder having a hard time. The up-the-middle tandem of reigning Gold Glove winner Volpe and Torres has been a mess. Short hopping routine throws to first, airmailing inning-ending balls into the camera well, kicking around ground balls hit right at them. I’m less concerned with Volpe since I do trust him and the plays in the late innings in Arizona and Cleveland are hopefully just unfortunate, ill-timed mistakes. I’m extremely concerned about Torres who isn’t just not fielding, but isn’t hitting at all and has a history of running the bases as if he has to be pegged to be thrown out.

9. Verdugo is the other issue offensively. (You can disregard the catching situation offensively since I expect the duo to come up with a hit every other week.) However, my expectations for Verdugo weren’t much given his status as a league-average hitter in his career, so he has been about as good as I thought he would be, which isn’t very good at all.

10. At some point, I would think, Judge will have his typical numbers (if he’s not already headed there) and Rizzo, if healthy, will be a trustworthy middle-of-the-order bat with a stellar glove, and you would like to think Torres will figure it out. Add in DJ LeMahieu possibly going out for a rehab assignment this coming weekend and the problems and fears of the 2024 offense just being the 2023 offense with Soto and a better Volpe may be able to dissipate. For now, given the lack of production the Yankees have received from so many important names and spots in the lineup, it’s amazing they’re 12-4. But I’ll take it.