How the Yankees can fix the biggest flaw holding them back

The Yankees’ downfall from feared contender to whatever that amalgamation that skulked quickly out of the playoffs Tuesday is not about analytics.

It is about feel.

The best teams in the majors this year — think the Giants, Dodgers, Rays, Brewers and Astros — are as analytically driven as any. What they all possess over the Yankees is a better application to the data. It is not about just buying pretty tiles. It is about assembling the best mosaic. That is the art. That is the feel.

And the Yankees in their fanaticism behind velocity — out of the hand and, especially, off the bat — lost their way with a bunch of decisions that might make sense individually, but not collectively. It drained them of defense, diversity and athleticism. It was as if they never looked up to see what the Rays were doing on a shoestring budget to become the dominant force in the AL East or their West Coast doppelganger Dodgers were doing with the largest payroll in the majors.

Really, all they had to do was turn on the TV last year and watch the World Series between those teams to see how much less athletic they were by comparison.

Instead, stubbornness set in. They stuck with Gary Sanchez behind the plate and Gleyber Torres at shortstop and an offensive philosophy that bigger and stronger would generate enough runs to overcome all the other foibles. Even when they decided to add lefty bats, they did it largely by giving up prospect depth to land Joey Gallo, who was screaming from Texas in every way that he was the left-handed Sanchez and would never hit good top pitching when it mattered. The Yanks grew literally larger in physique, yet less intimidating.

The mystique and aura that once was the Yankees’ 10th and 11th men are gone. Part of it left more than a decade ago with a new mall — I mean stadium — that upped the amenities and lowered the menace for opposing players. But largely it is about one Yankees team after another being unable to excel in the postseason against any clubs outside of the AL Central. Opponents simply are not intimidated by the Yankees any longer.

Joey Gallo #13 of the New York Yankees along with Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge
Two-thirds of the Yankees outfield — Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge — bring big questions to this offseason.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

And now take a look at the AL East. The Rays have had the AL’s best record each of the last two seasons and, if anything, got younger and better this year. The Red Sox are again following their championship, bust, rise pathway from this century. The Blue Jays are ascendant. The Yanks snuck into the playoffs this year with all of their defects. They lasted 8 ¹/₂ innings. They exited with no clear sign of being better than the main division competition next year.

So what do they do this offseason to change that?

The answer revolves around Hal Steinbrenner in two major areas: 1. Has he grown disenchanted with the leadership — the folks making the mosaic? 2. How high will he take the payroll to try to paper over shortcomings.

Brian Cashman, in many ways, is the fifth Steinbrenner child. He has a year left on his contract. Hal Steinbrenner respects his counsel. I could see Steinbrenner insisting on major structural changes in the decision-making apparatus, but I would suspect his GM will be back.

Boone is on shakier ground with his contract expired. It doesn’t help his cause that he and Boston’s Alex Cora started the same year (2018) and the Yanks have now been eliminated by their most hated rival twice since then. My guess (and it is just an educated guess) is Boone will return, but have to redo his coaching staff, particularly when it comes to the hitting end. Here is a thought: If Cora is back in good stead after the Astros sign-stealing suspension, should the Yanks pursue Carlos Beltran as either a hitting or bench coach?

As for payroll, the Yanks stayed under the threshold to reset their tax with no idea what system will be in place once a new collective bargaining agreement is signed. But does the more frugal approach this year mean Steinbrenner is willing to — like the 2021 Dodgers — substantially raise payroll? Because the Aaron Judge reckoning is coming. Judge is entering his walk year. He will make $18 million-ish in 2022. Do the Yanks circumvent and try to do a long-term deal now? Or wait?

New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman stands on the field
Brian Cashman has one year left on his contract and likely isn’t going anywhere.
Corey Sipkin

Judge would join Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton as mega-pacts on the books. Would Steinbrenner then have the tolerance for a fourth with someone like Corey Seager? Stanton had a healthy, clutch, productive season. But his presence makes signing Judge long term trickier because the DH role is blocked if Judge’s athleticism wanes a bit or he needs time there to protect his body. The baseball aging curve for someone Judge’s size is unknowable and makes going long with him so tricky.

The other issue hanging over the Yankees is shortstop. They believe that their best two close-to-the-majors prospects are Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe. Had there been a 2020 minor league season, maybe one or the other would be ready next year. But it is more likely 2023. So the Yankees have to stopgap shortstop in 2022. They could go super big with Seager, whose lefty bat would help and whose physique and offensive profile translates to third base when the time comes.

They could try for Marcus Semien, who this year showed he can play second. He is athletic with a great clubhouse rep and his signing would detract from the Blue Jays. I see Seager and Semien as more probable than Javier Baez, Carlos Correa or Trevor Story in the expensive aisle — and, though I love Seager’s lefty stroke, I would favor Semien. If the Yanks shun the big price tags, here are two trade candidates they should pursue:

1. Nicky Lopez

The Royals do not tend to want to trade homegrown products they like. But their best prospect, Bobby Witt Jr., is a shortstop and ready, and Aldaberto Mondesi is still on the roster. So Kansas City has coverage. Lopez does not have the power the Yankee baseball ops likes. But this team needs some batting average in the lineup, defense on the field and athleticism on the bases — all areas in which the switch-hitting Lopez excels.

2. Jake Cronenworth

Do the Padres have to lower or reimagine their payroll after spending a record amount in their most disappointing season ever? At the past trade deadline, Padres GM A.J. Preller was willing to attach prospects to move Eric Hosmer (four years, $59 million left). I wouldn’t take on Hosmer if I ran the Yankees because Anthony Rizzo is a grade or two better overall fit if they can bring him back. But could the Yankees get reasonable access to the versatile, lefty-swinging Cronenworth if they were willing to take on the two years at $16 million owed Drew Pomeranz or the two years at $37 million owed injury-prone Yu Darvish?

Nicky Lopez; Carlos Beltran; Jake Cronenworth
Nicky Lopez; Carlos Beltran; Jake Cronenworth
AP, Charles Wenzelberg

Rizzo is a good fit for the Yankees, but I wouldn’t give the 32-year-old more than a two-year contract. Would any team?

The Yankees have good pitching depth as a base, especially with Luis Severino indicating he is healthy and could be in line to join Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery and Jameson Taillon as the rotation cornerstone. Can you believe enough in Justin Verlander post-Tommy John surgery and enforcement of sticky stuff to gamble a strong one-year deal to reunite with Cole, replace Corey Kluber and push Nestor Cortes, Domingo German and Michael King to relief/rotation protection.

Anthony Rizzo #48 of the New York Yankees rounds the bases
Anthony Rizzo is a good fit in the Bronx, but for how long?
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

The other key item for the Yankees involves fumigation not accumulation. Gallo is the hitting Sonny Gray. He seems to want no part of this environment. The Yanks cannot expect as much back as they gave up, especially with Gallo nearing his walk year, but analytic-heavy teams would still love his skill set and believe outside of New York it would flourish. The Yankees have to have feel here, not stubbornness — did they really watch these two-plus months and think Gallo will be a much better version in New York Year 2?

For the second straight season, Gary Sanchez was no longer the starter for the biggest games. He has tried hard to be better all-around but there is too much energy-sapping drama for too little offense to do this one more year. Tyler Stephenson emerged this year for Cincinnati making lefty-swinging Tucker Barnhardt more expendable. The Yanks should either trade for him or try to sign him if the Reds don’t pick up his $7.5 million option.

As with Sanchez, the Yanks squandered the chance to trade Miguel Andujar, Clint Frazier and Luke Voit when they had value. The Yanks have to examine why so many of their players have initial shows of offensive excellence followed by injury and/or downturn in performance (Gleyber Torres is in this group too). All are arbitration eligible. And the Yanks have to begin thinning the 40-man roster and payroll of non-athletic, defensively challenged righty hitters.

An era began in 2016 when the Yankees traded Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller for, notably, Torres and Frazier. They reached the ALCS the following year and the playoffs all five seasons since. Yet, the window on this era appears to be closing, if not closed without a title. The Yankees can’t keep stubbornly holding onto players and, particularly, an offensive philosophy that can become even less viable if rule changes are adopted to try to make speed, putting the ball in play and defense more valuable.

An organization with feel would realize that.


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