The Weirdness of the 2019 Yankees
As the last month of the regular season approaches, the weirdness of the Yankees 2019 season remains extraordinary. The Yankees have exceeded most pre-season expectations as they have been in control of the AL East race since before the All-Star break and have a good chance of finishing the season with the best record in the big leagues. They have done this with Luis Severino, Deilin Betances, Giancarlo Stanton, and Miguel Andujar being non-factors, with Didi Gregorius and even Aaron Hicks having some value, but hardly being among the most important contributors on the team. Moreover, the team’s best starting pitcher, and only starter with an ERA+ under 100, has been Domingo German who was expected to be vie for playing time this season. Relief pitching is the only part of the team that has performed as expected as Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton have led one of the baseball’s best bullpens.
Some of the Yankees success has come from good but either flawed or unspectacular seasons from players like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, but from other less expected quarters as well. Gleyber Torres has had a breakout season in which he has filled in so well for Didi Gregorius that the latter’s long term future with the team has to be in doubt. DJ LeMahieu has proven to be a great addition as well giving the Yankees an excellent leadoff hitter while providing excellent defense at three positions. However, the key to the Yankees success has come from players who they picked up late in the offseason for essentially nothing. Gio Urshela, Cameron Maybin and Michael Tauchman have played solid defense while posting OPS+ of over 130 each. The value of these three players as the Yankees battled injuries has been as central to their success as it has been unexpected.
For fans the season has been amazing. Despite more injuries to key players than any team in modern history, and a starting rotation that essentially lived up to the lowest of preseason expectations, the Yankees are running away with their division. Every few weeks, a previously unheralded player becomes a star. The latest Yankee to do that is Mike Ford who came into this season having played six seasons of minor league ball, but not a single big league game. The 27 year old career minor leaguer now has nine home runs in 117 plate appearances and an OPS of .849.
Nonetheless, asthe Yankees season winds down and they prepare for the postseason this strange season raises a lot of questions for manager Aaron Boone. With veterans like Stanton and Gregorius likely to come back in time for the playoffs, Boone faces a decision. Peak Giancarlo Stanton is a better player than Tauchman or Maybin, just as Peak Didi Gregorius is better than Urshela, who would lose playing time if Gregorius plays shortstop as Torres would go to second and LeMahieu would move to third. However, what we have seen from these players in 2019 suggests that the team is stronger with Urshela and Tauchman in the lineup.
Boone has several things to consider. The first is what decisions maximize the Yankees chance of winning in the post-season, but as manager, he inevitably will have other questions on his mind as well. Because of the breadth of options facing him, should the Yankees not win the World Series, Boone will be blamed no matter what he does. If in a decisive game he sits Stanton and Gregorius or Voit in favor of the hotter hitting Tauchman and Urshela and the Yankees lose writers and critics, and maybe even decision makers in the Yankees front office will bemoan the Yankees being eliminated in a game in which their big stars didn’t play. Similarly, if Stanton goes hitless in an elimination game that the Yankees lose, those same people will criticize Boone for sitting Tauchman, who was the better player throughout 2019.
The good news is that given the way this strange season has gone for the Yankees it is unlikely Boone will have to confront this dilemma, but it is an intriguing thought experiment. If every Yankee outfielder, within reason, were healthy Tauchman, Gardner, Maybin, Judge, Stanton and Clint Frazier-who will likely be called up on September first-would all be competing for three starting spots and probably no more than five post-season roster spots. A similar group of infielders could include Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, LeMahieu, Torres, Gregorius, Ford and Urshela, would be vying for at most six roster spots and four or five, depending on if one of the outfielders, most likely Stanton or Frazier takes over the DH spot, places in the starting lineup every night in the postseason.
Yankees fans could drive themselves crazy trying to figure this out, but the good news is this won’t happen. The way this season is going, a new rash of injuries will hit the club and Thairo Estrada and Tyler Wade will find their inner Rogers Hornsby and carry the team to a World Series victory.
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