Travel back to Game 2 of the AL Division Series. Though it is not a place where the Yankees want to spend much time.
When I asked Brian Cashman, 24 hours later, about the controversial pitching decision from Tuesday’s 7-5 loss to the Rays, the general manager shut it down, not wanting to relitigate the case. In the aftermath of another postseason elimination, manager Aaron Boone all but scoffed at the notion it was the trigger toward losing to the Rays in the series, calling it “kind of ridiculous.”
But what is said about history and not learning from it? Before explaining why that history should lead to the Yankees seriously considering trading Luke Voit or even, gulp, Gleyber Torres, and moving on from Gary Sanchez and considering Gerrit Cole’s brother-in-law, they should return to Tuesday night. Here’s why: The Yankees really didn’t believe in their choice to open with Deivi Garcia and go quickly to J.A. Happ rather than just traditionally starting one or the other and seeing what would happen.
Boone accentuated that the Yankees were trying to negate the platoon advantages the Rays can create with their abundance of lefty and righty hitters and willingness to inject them into games at any time to gain a favorable matchup. Got it.
Except, if this is so vital, why have the Yankees stopped seeking it in their own roster construction? They have become heavily right-handed, declaring they are just seeking the best hitters and that their righty bats do well against righty pitching. Except which righty pitching? High-end righty playoff pitching (think, not the Orioles) and the Yankees’ susceptibility to it has been central to their postseason ouster the past four years.
Part of the philosophy of limiting Garcia to one inning Tuesday was to be able to bring him back Thursday or Friday. But the Yankees didn’t do that. Boone’s bullpen of trust was Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green, who combined to worked five hitless innings in Game 4. And Britton and Chapman were not as effective in extended outings in Game 5. If you are trying to create a long pitching staff, then create a long pitching staff. If not, just start Garcia or Happ traditionally.
Would that have worked? Who knows? But the Yankees were in a pitching bind afterward. So as the Yankees think about what to do to be a tougher October out, this recent history should be on their mind.
You can argue that the staff would have been fine had Tommy Kahnle and Luis Severino not needed Tommy John surgery and had Domingo German not missed a second straight postseason as ramification for violating MLB’s domestic violence protocols. But please don’t do that. The Rays put 11 pitchers on the injured list this year and lost six for good. This for a team that above all else focused its energy on run prevention. Yet with a payroll roughly one quarter of the Yankees’ payroll, they still amassed a better overall staff — not to mention that diverse lineup.
The Yankees are going to have to decide how long to run with this core. They can create a narrative that they were bounced by cheaters in 2017 (Astros) and Red Sox (2018), and actually outscored the Astros in the 2019 ALCS and the Rays in a now concluded 2020 ALDS. They are that close, so why change course?
Except those four teams were better. The Yankees have not been the best team in the AL in this recent run. To get there — history lesson — they need a more diverse offense, a deeper staff and a more sound defense (a key to Tampa Bay’s run prevention). There is no magic wand. This offseason will be complicated by a 2020 season in which revenue was lost and the strong belief more of the same is coming in 2021.
Therefore, I am going to speculate that Hal Steinbrenner will order a payroll that drops beneath the $210 million luxury tax threshold for next season. So you can scratch off signing J.T. Realmuto and Trevor Bauer in free agency and trading for Francisco Lindor, especially since re-signing DJ LeMahieu likely will be a four-year, $100 million-ish proposition. And the Yankees pretty much have to do that. LeMahieu has been their best player the past two years and represents what they have too little of — soundness on both sides of the ball with the ability to deliver high-end offense against all types of pitching.
But if LeMahieu is retained, their right-handedness and defensive liabilities remain, with Voit at first and Torres at short. Torres is not a shortstop. He does not have the elasticity and electricity for the position. But if he plays second and LeMahieu moves to first, what do you do with Voit? Giancarlo Stanton is as close to untradeable as anyone because he is not going to waive his no-trade clause plus he has seven years at $218 million still owed. Boone will not bench him as the DH in favor of Voit.
So, the Yankees have to pursue what is available for Voit — home run title and all — and perhaps even Torres, both of whom enter their first arbitration eligible offseason. Of course that would hurt, but there are few other ways to deal with the righty duplication, defensive downside and déjà vu Octobers.
The Marlins have the taste of the playoffs, a need for offense and a deep pitching reservoir. Voit and what for, say, Pablo Lopez — as long as the NL retains the DH? Voit and how many pitching prospects to Colorado for German Marquez? Or would that take Torres? How about Arizona’s Zac Gallen for Torres?
As for shortstop, I think the Yankees should stopgap for a year and then be in position to consider what projects to the greatest shortstop free-agent class ever with Lindor, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Trevor Story after the 2021 season. A lefty-hitting shortstop would be ideal, but the Yankees let Didi Gregorius walk away because they didn’t like his defense, which is superior to that of Torres.
Brandon Crawford, whose sister, Amy, is married to Cole, has one year at $15 million left, can still field short and can still hit righty pitching. Could Adam Ottavino ($9 million in 2020) be sent back to blunt some of the cost in addition to a prospect?
As for overall diversification, the Yankees should look to teams that in this financial environment might need to off-load dollars. Diamondbacks switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar, for example, is a good player who had a down year and is owed $7.5 million next year and can play most places on the field. Would a rebuilding team such as the Tigers want to add depth elsewhere by trading the versatile lefty-swinging Harold Castro? By the way, I thought Tyler Wade’s at-bats got better as the season progressed and his lefty bat and speed are helpful on the bench.
The other area to improve defensively is behind the plate, and the Yankees did that within the playoffs by going to Kyle Higashioka. The Yankees talk up Sanchez, but the reality is they seem to be trying to talk themselves into thinking he can be salvaged. What are the chances here? Maybe he will reemerge elsewhere. The Yankees should see if they can get anything for him and, if not, he is a strong non-tender candidate.
The Yankees would be better served signing James McCann as a free agent and teaming him with Higashioka to form a defensively sound, offensively capable duo. Or if they want the lefty bat, how about a trade with Cincinnati for Tucker Barnhart? Remember that removing Sanchez also removes all the drama about what to do with Sanchez, which has become a weight on an organization that has to know now it missed a window to maximize his value (they could have had Realmuto’s last two years for Sanchez in a trade with Miami).
Does the overall pitching improve without Sanchez? Maybe. The Yankees, though, have to get better at developing trustworthy pitchers. The Yankees — and even outside executives will vouch for this — have a minor league system flooded with big arms. The Rays have been expert at translating big arms into weapons whether in the rotation with, say, Tyler Glasnow, or in the bullpen, with Peter Fairbanks. Cashman overhauled his pitching leadership after last year, hoping to forge this kind of arms factory.
And this is the area to save money. The Yankees will have the most expensive pitcher ever, Cole, fronting the rotation followed (they hope) by Severino and maybe a return of Masahiro Tanaka or, if not, a not big-dollar free agent such as Kevin Gausman. But then pitchers such as Garcia, Mike King, Jordan Montgomery and Clarke Schmidt have to provide depth. Big arms such as Jonathan Loaisiga and Nick Nelson have to become part of a brigade of relief arms that Boone believes in to join Green, Britton and Chapman.
This October (history) should inform how to build toward next October for the Yankees: More lineup versatility, more pitching depth and better overall defense.
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