By Andy Singer
With roughly 2 weeks left in the 2021 Regular Season, the Yankees find themselves 9 games back of the AL East lead and half a game back of the Red Sox and Blue Jays in the Wild Card hunt. To say that this is a disappointing season is an understatement. Despite that fact, hope is not yet lost. The Yanks get two more tune-ups against weak teams (Cleveland and Texas) prior to facing off against the Red Sox, Jays, and Rays to end the season. No matter how terribly we feel about how the Yankees have played this season, the reality is that the Yankees very much control their own destiny over the next two weeks. A team that’s been as inconsistent as the Yankees this season can’t ask for much more. Personally, no matter how much this Yankees team deserves a one game do-or-die situation, I still hate the one game Wild Card round. It really should be a 3-game series – make the winning team expend some effort and pitching to face a division winner in the next round. Luck plays a large role in the playoffs, but a one game Wild Card game takes that to new extremes. Ironically, as disappointed as I am in the Yankees’ recent performance, that stroke of luck is why I still have hope for the Yankees to make a run in the playoffs. All the Yanks need to do is get in and get hot at the right time. I remain skeptical of the likelihood that the Yankees will get hot at the right time, but we’ve already seen it happen once this season, so there is precedent. Regardless, the next couple of weeks should be exciting.
As always, thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll discuss some ideas for re-tooling, options for first base next season, and how to patch the 2021 bullpen! Let’s get at it:
D.A.G asks: Between the inconsistent hitting and bullpen meltdowns, there is little reason
to think even if this team miraculously made the playoffs, it will get beyond a wild card game.
Despite saying all this, less has been said/written about the Yankees farm system which has performed at a very high level this year.
There are players in Double A Peraza, Breaux, Waldwichuk, Wisniewski and Vazquez who could take the leap next year and take over roles such as SS or 3B and starting pitchers (not to mention if he can get over his injuries, Clark Schmidt) that can replace players whose stats dont match the back of their card or who have underperformed.
The Yankees can retain key middle infielder Lemeihu while moving on from Gleyber and Urshela whose prior rep/age/salary could net nice trade compensation, also allowing them to acquire via FA as luxury tax resets any SS (sounds like from reports the lefty Kyle Seager) as the market is robust (while retaining key middle infield minor league prospects Peraza and Volpe. They could also trade Urshela mid season if Volpe is ready at that point.
I would love for the Yankees to further explore the possibility of trading Judge, but it would need to bring back a better package than a similar player as Betts (where the BoSox return seems underwhelming, especially with Betts bringing a title to LA already).
There’s a lot to unpack here. I understand that Yankee fans are frustrated about the wild inconsistency this season, and now the bullpen that was largely responsible for keeping the Yankees afloat earlier in the season has completely collapsed in recent weeks (more on that later). Despite those justified feelings, there is still reason to hope for better days in the short period of time remaining in this season. As I said in my opening monologue, a one game Wild Card really does present the Yankees with an opportunity. The team would surely send Gerrit Cole to the mound in a Wild Card game, which certainly helps the Yankees chances in such a scenario. From there, it’s possible for the team to catch fire. Unlikely based on what we’ve seen this season, but certain bats have been much better recently, and with improved defensive alignments, I’m not yet ready to give up on this season.
Despite my optimism, I agree with the general idea that significant changes are needed prior to next season. Change should start with the coaching staff, but I think that the 2021 season has shown that the Yankee infield in particular needs an overhaul. I never expected to agree with that sentiment this season, but here we are. Gleyber Torres is an enormously talented ballplayer. While the rabbit ball almost certainly inflated his power output in 2018 and 2019, he still made plenty of impactful contact that would have given him 20+ home runs and gobs of doubles. That’s a valuable player to have in the middle infield. That player is still in there, but the Yankees need to determine if different coaches or approaches can help rebuild his swing. If they can, we’ve seen that Gleyber’s defense at 2B is good enough to make him a plus option there as long as he hits and continues his improved baserunning beyond this season. If Gleyber really can’t hit anymore, then this whole discussion is moot, and the Yankees will certainly be looking around for middle infield help this offseason. Internal evaluations of Gleyber Torres’ future will be key in shaping the Yankees’ moves for the future.
The future is arguably less certain for Gio Urshela. Very quietly, Urshela has struggled at the plate and in the field around multiple injuries that have cost him time this season. He’s making less contact, with very little pop, and his defense has not been able to make up for the loss of offensive value. I was intrigued by the possibility of an Urshela trade coming into this season (as much as I loved watching him at 3B), and I think this season only makes an Urshela trade a greater possibility.
The issue with trading either player is the fact that both had such down seasons. Torres at least has the pedigree as a former Top-50 prospect around the league, so his value is likely higher than Urshela’s. I agree with D.A.G that a mid-season trade involving Urshela would likely be easier, giving him the opportunity to rebuild his value. Unfortunately, if Torres is entrenched at 2B next season, finding Urshela playing time will be difficult, as I expect the Yankees to find a real SS next season. I really expect the Yankees to try to fix Torres this offseason, so I think that makes Urshela the odd man out.
As far as finding a SS is concerned, I have a feeling we’ll be taking a much deeper dive into the SS market in the coming weeks. The Yankees have been connected to Corey Seager and Trevor Story by multiple sources, but I’m not sure one of the big free agents really makes the most sense for the team. As D.A.G astutely notes, the Yankees have seen some stunningly good performances from a couple of middle infield prospects this season: Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe. Both players are likely to stick at SS defensively and have significant offensive upside. AAA and AA will be huge tests for both Peraza and Volpe, respectively. The book on Peraza is that despite his obvious skills, he needs work against upper level breaking balls and pitch sequencing, so he’ll need some time at AAA next season. Volpe has had possibly the best season of any top prospect in the minor leagues this season, proving talent evaluators and observers like yours truly wrong this season. However, the jump to AA from A+ is significant, so we still need to see how Volpe responds. I am excited about both prospects, but I think that projecting either player to make an impact in 2022 is overly ambitious.
I would like to see the Yankees find a stop-gap SS with real defensive chops who can approach average value at the plate. It would give the Yankees time to figure out if the kids are for real while improving the Yankee roster in the meantime.
As far as trading Judge is concerned: no. The Yankees need to act like the Yankees and lock up Judge long-term, even if the backside of the contract looks bad. Judge is a star that consistently lives up to that status with his play on the field. The Red Sox should have locked up Betts, and it was penny pinching that led the team to deal him with such a lopsided return. The Yankees should not trade Judge, but if they got a return anywhere close to as meager as what the Sox got for Betts, the Yanks should be ashamed of themselves.
Jeff asks: Who is the Yankees first baseman next year? Luke Voit? Anthony Rizzo? Lemahieu? Someone else?
That’s going to be one of the more interesting questions of the offseason. While Anthony Rizzo’s offense leaves something to be desired at first base, it is clear that his defense at the position is of real value. I love Luke Voit, but he struggles to stay healthy. I’d love to see him stick around as a DH, but I do think the Yankees need to limit his exposure on defense due to his lack of range and stiff hands. I’ve written about LeMahieu in the past in reference to first base, and my opinion has not changed: LeMahieu is far more valuable as either a super utility defender or as a second or third baseman. LeMahieu simply doesn’t have the bat to carry value at first base, and his defense there actually is below-average.
In truth, I’m not sure if any of the 3 guys listed in the question are the Yankees’ first baseman next season. I’d prefer to see Voit get the majority of his at-bats at DH, Rizzo just doesn’t hit enough to be the first baseman going forward, and I think LeMahieu is best used in another role. I’ll give you a crazy idea, though: how about a trade for Matt Olson? I have no idea if the A’s would even entertain such an idea, given that he’s the best hitter on the team, has 2 years of team control remaining after this season, and is a rock in the A’s infield, but there’s little doubt but that he’s a perfect fit for the Yankees as a left-handed power hitter who plays good defense at first base, and has drastically improved his contact and strikeout rates. It would likely take a blockbuster deal, but the A’s have shown in the past that they’re willing to deal, so the idea is one I find intriguing.
Brad asks: Is there anything the Yankees can do to patch the brutal bullpen we’ve watched blow game after game recently? It’s awful to watch and it’s costing the Yankees games!
Yes, it is immensely painful. I’m not really sure how the Yankees or any team can compete when the closer falls off the rails and is frequently hurt, 2/3 set-up men (Britton and Loaisiga) are hurt, the third setup man is clearly fatigued with shaky confidence, and the bulk guy is Andrew Heaney. Times are tough!
Maybe the Yankees could have called up a couple of starting pitchers on the 40-man roster to pitch out of the Major League bullpen (looking at you, Luis Medina), but the reality is that we really can’t project that one or two guys could catch lightning in a bottle to boost the team. It’s a bad answer, but the reality is that the Yankees need someone, whether it’s Chad Green, Albert Abreu, Clay Holmes, or someone else to step up.