The Off-Season: Let The Changes Begin
by Tim Kabel
October 18, 2021
Watching the Red Sox play the Astros is like choosing between a plate of kale or a bowl of pickled tofu. There really is no good choice. The only positive aspect about being eliminated on the first day of the playoffs is that the Yankees get a head start on their off-season planning. At this point, there has been no official decision announced regarding Aaron Boone’s future- lots of rumors but, no actual information. Perhaps Brian Cashman and his staff are chewing big wads of bubble gum, blowing bubbles, and staring off into space vacantly as they contemplate Boone and his future. I have written repeatedly that I think the Boone era should come to an end. The thing to keep in mind is that his contract has expired. This isn’t a case of bringing him back to finish out a contract. It’s not a matter of one more year. If they bring him back, it would be on a new contract. That would most likely entail three, if not four more years. For most fans, that would be like having a root canal and a colonoscopy on the same day. I do not believe that Boone has done anything to merit a new contract, which presumably would include a raise. I think it’s time for the team to go in a new direction. They have already begun to do so. I anticipate the official Boone launch in the next week or so.
Earlier this week, the Yankees announced they would not be bringing back third base coach Phil Nevin or hitting coaches Marcus Thames and P. J. Pilittere. There could be more moves coming on the coaching staff. However, since the team struggled so much offensively this year, particularly in the area of consistency, it is not surprising that the hitting coaches were almost immediately dismissed. It is fairly certain that regardless of what happens with Boone, Matt Blake will remain the pitching coach. In his two years as the pitching coach, he’s done a very good job. He is well regarded in the organization and by the pitching staff. His technical approach to pitching is the reason the Yankees hired him. It is also the reason he will retain his position. I believe the Yankees could certainly go in a similar direction with the hitting coach for next season. I don’t believe they will hire another former player who may or may not have been a successful Major League hitter. Brian Cashman is still in charge, and he has embraced the use of technology and analytical thinking.
Rachel Balkovec was hired by the Yankees in November 2019 as the organizational hitting coach. She is the first female full-time hitting coach hired by a Major League team. She has two master’s degrees. The first is in Kinesiology, which is not the study of Ralph Kiner’s malapropisms but instead, the scientific study of human body movement. She then went to the Netherlands to earn a second master’s degree. After earning her second master’s degree, she worked at a fellowship at Driveline Baseball, researching hitters’ eye tracking and pitchers’ hip movements. In 2016, she was hired by the Houston Astros to be their Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator. She learned Spanish, so she could better communicate with the players. In 2021, while working for the Yankees, she was the first female to coach at the Futures Game. She spent this season working with many of the Yankees’ top hitting prospects. Many hitters in the Yankee system excelled this year.
I would not be surprised, if the Yankees named Rachel Balkovec their hitting coach for next season. Can I guarantee it? No, I can’t. However, she is already in the organization. She is well regarded. She coached in the Futures Game. She is bilingual. She has more degrees than a thermometer, and the Yankees are clearly embracing technology and critical thinking. She is in the same mold as Matt Blake. The Yankees have high hopes for several of their young hitting prospects, including Oswald Peraza, Anthony Volpe, and Jasson Dominguez. I could be completely wrong, and they could name Steve Balboni or Wayne Tolleson as the hitting coach but, I don’t think so. Put it this way, for the hitting coach, would you rather have someone with two master’s degrees in Kinesiology who conducted in-depth analysis on hitters’ abilities to track pitchers’ hip movements or a guy who hit .237 over a five-year Major League career with 37 home runs? I’m willing to bet that if Ted Williams had the opportunity to work with a hitting coach who was an expert in human body motion, he would have jumped at the chance. The man would talk hitting for hours and used to say that he could smell wood burning when he connected well on the pitch.
Once the Yankees solidify their decisions regarding the manager and the coaching staff, they can turn their attention to the team itself. As noted above, they haven’t made any announcements regarding the other coaching positions but clearly the most important ones are the pitching coach, the hitting coach, and the bench coach. In future blogs, I will devote my attention to the positions the Yankees need to address on the field. For today, I will lay the groundwork for those articles by making general statements about what areas need to be addressed.
The Yankees must determine what they want to do at catcher. Gary Sanchez will be under contract for one more season, unless they non-tender or trade him. None of the available free agent catchers inspire enthusiasm. It reminds me of the time I was looking at ads for a kitten. I saw one for a 16-year-old cat, with three legs, one eye, and arthritis. There was not a long line of prospective owners for that little fellow. If the Yankees want to make a change at catcher, they will either need to trade for someone or if they feel Donny Sands is ready, bring him up. Otherwise, they might have to stay with Sanchez.
At first base, they could bring Anthony Rizzo back, return the position to Luke Voit and his histrionics, move D. J. LeMahieu there permanently, or acquire someone else. There are rumors the Yankees may pursue Matt Olson from the Oakland A’s in a trade.
At second base, Gleyber Torres will most likely be given at least next year to see if he can return to the offensive star he was in 2019.
At shortstop, the Yankees will have to decide whether to pursue one of the big free agents or to use a stop-gap player until either Volpe or Peraza is ready. Another option would be to keep Geo Urshela there if someone other than LeMahieu is playing first. LeMahieu will be on the team and will need to play either first or third, since Torres will most likely be anchored at second.
In the outfield, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Joey Gallo will play in some fashion. There are rumors the team may trade Joey Gallo but if they don’t, he will presumably play left field most of the time. Aaron Hicks may return from his most recent injuries but, will the Yankees want him to play center field full time? They may choose to go in a different direction.
There are several members of the 2021 team who might not return: Sanchez, Voit, Rizzo, Urshela, Gallo, Hicks, Andujar, Frazier, and possibly even Gleyber Torres. Trading Torres would allow the Yanks to move LeMahieu to second. Until the team starts making moves, it will be like listening to Abbott and Costello reciting “Who’s on first.”
As far as the pitching staff is concerned, Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino, Jamison Taillon, and Nestor Cortes would make a perfectly fine starting rotation. They may decide to add to that with a free agent acquisition or a trade. Other than some tweaking and possible redefinitions of roles, the bullpen seems fairly set.
There are a lot of questions regarding the 2022 New York Yankees. Hopefully, all those questions will eventually receive answers. It would be nice if they were the right answers. We now know that they will definitely have new hitting coaches and a new third base coach next year. The identities of those people might give an indication of the other moves the team will make. If they appoint hitting coaches who are extremely technological in their approach and embrace analytics, they may subsequently move toward younger, more athletic hitters rather than batters who either walk, strike out, or hit a home run.