Not The Weekly Mailbag: 2022 Postmortem
And yet again, it ended with a thud. I was tempted to pen an emotional reaction to the end of the season following the conclusion of Game 4, but visceral reactions in public writing aren't necessarily my style unless the situation truly calls for it. So instead, I decided to wait until Friday's usual Mailbag slot to pen a collection of thoughts regarding the end of the season and what the Yankees should be moving forward. Those of you who have read my comments on articles in the Comments Section likely know where some of my thoughts are heading. Others will be new. In any case, I think there is something fundamental that should be discussed: what does it really mean to pursue a World Series title? What does it mean to be "all-in"? And what does it mean if not everyone is "all-in"?
There is a lot of talk around the Yankee Universe about the Yankee front office believing that good enough is, indeed, good enough. I personally believe that is an unfair assessment. This is a family-friendly site, so I'll censor my words here, but there is a saying about excrement flowing downhill, and I think it applies here. When employees are not empowered to do the right thing or what they know is best, it leads to half-measures and twisted logic. More importantly, it leads to inconsistent results. That doesn't mean that the people doing the job don't know the right way; it means they are forced to make decisions that are less correct than their "Plan A". That doesn't mean that those employees aren't doing their best with the hand their dealt, nor does it mean they made the wrong decisions given the circumstances.
I think we all need to keep that perspective when thinking about the current New York Yankees.
Thanks, as always, for sending great questions to the SSTN Mailbag. As I told a couple of you that sent questions, questions I received this week will be featured in next week's SSTN Mailbag, and there's always room for more, so keep sending them in to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. For now, here are my scrambled thoughts on the Yankees of 2022 and beyond:
On Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone...
These are the hottest and most critical topics facing the Yankees right now: the General Manager and the field Manager. I know that many of you think that I am a Yankee apologist and will semi-blindly find a way to agree with the Yankees' thinking on a variety of topics. I assure you, that isn't the case. As you will see, I find plenty of fault with all of the players in the last 13 years. Much as I believe in Brian Cashman's talent, I don't believe he is remotely excused from criticism. But does that mean that a change will net different results than what we've seen since 2009? I'm not so sure.
I want to take you back in time to what I believe is the most critical offseason in recent Yankee history: 2017-2018. Start Spreading The News was in its infancy, reborn from the ashes of It's About The Money, and while Paul, Ethan, and others of us who came along for the ride were scrambling to figure out how to produce consistent content, the team was finally exciting again after a seemingly long stretch of boring baseball while the Yankees reloaded and waited for the Baby Bombers. In 2017, the Baby Bombers arrived a year or two earlier than anyone expected, and went toe-to-toe with the Astros in the 2017 ALCS in one of the most exciting series I have seen in recent years. You will never convince me that the Yankees wouldn't have won that series had the Astros played by the rules (as many of us suspected something fishy was going on even then), but the fact remained that the core of what could be a dynasty had finally "arrived." Bloggers like ourselves had speculated that the Yankees would again be aggressive in supplementing the Baby Bombers once they were ready, however with the Baby Bombers arriving a year early, the Steinbrenner family had other priorities.
You see, the Steinbrenner family was paying a 50% tax on all dollars spent above the luxury tax threshold given their status as repeat offenders. Instead of pushing their chips to the middle of the table to build the next dynasty, Brian Cashman was given an edict: do not spend above the $197 million luxury tax threshold. Despite the fact that the best thing the Yankees could have done that offseason was go get a big time pitcher to pair with Luis Severino (which, by the way, Cashman had tried to do earlier that season by pushing to acquire Justin Verlander via waivers, but was vetoed by Hal Steinbrenner), Brian Cashman's hands were tied, and he sat out of the bidding for Yu Darvish.
Instead, Cashman had to get creative, and if he couldn't add to a weakness, he would add to a strength. Giancarlo Stanton was coming off of an MVP season and was available in the Marlins' fire sale. Sure, his contract would be an albatross on the backend, but the AAV was budget friendly and Stanton projected to have another 3-5 really good years. So Cashman went with Plan B.
Let's fast forward to 2018-2019. The Yankees reset their luxury tax burden just in time for two of the best free agents to hit the market in seemingly forever: two superstars in their mid-20s who projected to be All-Stars for at least another 7 years in Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Arguments could be made that both fit the roster perfectly, and bloggers like Paul, myself, Mike Axisa, and others made those arguments as loudly as possible. Again, austerity was in vogue, so the Yankees did nothing. Let's be real: you're Brian Cashman. You're the New York Yankees, with revenues that exceed even some Fortune 500 companies. Do you really not want to sign one of those two? If you gave Brian Cashman truth serum, I have zero doubt but that he wanted to sign one of Harper or Machado. Ownership's arbitrary budgets left Cashman scrambling for Plan B, but that doesn't mean that he didn't know what the right move was at the time.
Let's fast forward to the 2022 ALCS for a moment. The Yankees struggled to hit throughout the lineup in the ALCS. Harrison Bader and Anthony Rizzo hit, but multiple big bats went cold and other contact-oriented hitters were hurt. How might Machado have looked this year instead of Josh Donaldson? How about in the ALCS? How might Harper have looked in LF instead of pushing Oswaldo Cabrera into uncharted territory at the most important time of year? The Yankees didn't lose those games by much; one bat might have been a difference maker.
And there is the crux of the problem. Through it all, Cashman has built excellent teams that consistently perform well in the regular season and reach the playoffs. Cashman has made mistakes, just like every GM, in particular in building the roster for 2021. Cashman made a cold, hard look at his decisions after 2021 and changed course. He admitted he needed left-handed hitting, and did what he could to acquire it. He admitted they needed more contact; he attempted to find contact-first hitters. The ability to admit when you're wrong is one that is paramount in a good leader.
The one bad decision that hasn't been rectified is Aaron Boone. On this, I believe Cashman's hands are tied as well. Last year, it was Hal Steinbrenner, not Brian Cashman, that announced Aaron Boone's return. The story was the same this year. While Steinbrenner does not meddle in every decision, he has meddled where it affected his wallet and where it affected his ability to market. Until that changes, you can put whomever you wish in the GM chair, and it won't make any difference.
The proof is in the pudding. Cashman has assembled excellent teams that are often one or two pieces short. In some very key situations, that falls on Steinbrenner.
On The Offense
Dillon Lawson was hired to modernize and fix the offense. Throughout much of the regular season, it worked. The Yankees were an offensive force in the first half, and multiple players had flipped the script on 2021. DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, in particular, were significantly better in 2022 when healthy. Aaron Judge produced the best season of his career. Additionally, the team even one games in the first half with timely hitting and small ball, something the Yankees were terrible at in previous seasons.
It all fell apart in the 2nd half as the team largely relied on Aaron Judge solely for offense. We don't like to hear this, but the reason is pretty simple: injuries. Matt Carpenter, DJ LeMahieu, Andrew Benintendi, Giancarlo Stanton, and I suspect Jose Trevino was banged up. That's half of the lineup! And remember, the bottom of the order was not meant to contain boppers.
Again, I've seen a ton of writing about the problem with Exit Velocity and Launch Angle, but guess what? There is a strong correlation between offensive performance and higher exit velocities, particularly when average launch angle is between 8.5 and 13.5 degrees. I showed this in a post last season. Those numbers remained true in 2022 when you dig into the stats.
I think Dillon Lawson showed that his concepts work when guys stay healthy. I simply think the Yankees were one or two pieces short offensively, which is something they can solve going into the 2023 season
On The Trade Deadline
Hindsight is always 20/20, but the trades Cashman made at the time were the right moves. I was one of the lone voices sitting in the corner saying that while I really liked Jordan Montgomery, Harrison Bader was a key piece to the Yankee puzzle, more so than Monty. I (and Brian Cashman, more importantly) was right. Bader was the best player on the Yankees in the playoffs, even taking into account the couple of defensive miscues. I opined that he would hit in the playoffs given his skills against fastballs over 94 MPH, and he did. Score one for Cashman.
Hayden Wesneski was a decent prospect, but not one who fits into the Yankees' future plans. Scott Effross showed plenty of skills when he pitched. He got hurt, which happens. No way Cashman and crew should have predicted that one. While the trade didn't work in the playoffs, that doesn't mean the process was wrong.
I wasn't a big Frankie Montas fan, and in fact I said I wouldn't trade for him prior to the start of the 2022 season. However, Cashman got Oakland to throw in a good reliever in Trivino. Cashman gave up good pitching prospects in Waldichuk, Sears, and Medina, but it was in an attempt to go for it in October, given his budgetary restraints. It's a risk I think GMs should be willing to take.
Everyone preferred Luis Castillo to Montas, but the cost was exorbitant. I don't think pitching cost the Yankees a shot at the World Series.
As I said above, I genuinely believe that the Yankees are one or two offensive pieces away from a contender if Judge stays. All bets are off if the Yankees can't keep him. However, I don't think that hope is lost, and I don't think that the roster needs to be gutted to build a World Series winner.
The real question is: is Hal Steinbrenner in it to win it? Until that is the case, I fear that we will continue to be disappointed.