Three Burning Questions (Pt. 1)
by Cary Greene
June 1, 2022
It finally happened! The visions that Yankee fans had on December 9th back in 2017, of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge both slotted into the lineup regularly had officially materialized for the first two months and the results helped the Yankees ravage the rest of the American League East. On top of this good news, Brian Cashman even finally put a left-handed pull hitter, Anthony Rizzo, in between Judge and Stanton and he has also simultaneously realized the value of protecting Stanton in the lineup, which Josh Donaldson has done a good job of. Combined with strong starting pitching and a very strong bullpen, the 2022 Yankees are a very tough team so far this season. There are three burning questions I’m going to tackle in a three-piece series:
Are the 2022 Yankees a mirage? Are they currently in the process of crashing back to earth, or was the recent three game losing streak just a minor hiccup?
Is the bullpen imploding? Chad Green is lost for the season due to TJS. Aroldis Chapman is now on the 15-day disabled list and may no longer be capable of closing. Will the bullpen struggle to offset the loss of these two key, high-leverage relievers.
Is the offense too reliant on home runs and still too right-handed - making the Yankees ever vulnerable to strong right-handed pitching?
Are the 2022 Yankees a mirage?
One thing that the 2022 Yankees do that they didn’t do last year is bounce back quickly. When opponents score a few runs and take a lead, the 2022 Yankees seem to repeatedly respond.
Offensively speaking, the 2022 league average OPS+ is 100 and the Yankees have a 109 OPS+, which is fifth in baseball.
When we consider Yankee teams of the recent past, they were plagued by lots of strikeouts, but they generated a lot of walks too. The problem was they also hit into a staggering amount of rally-killing double plays and they didn’t do a lot with all those base runners. In 2022, strikeouts are no longer a problem for the Yankees, the league average for team strikeouts is 394 this season and the Yankees happen to be sitting at 396 in this department. The Yankees are also still above average at taking walks too, so far they’ve totaled 167 and the league average is 150 so far - so baserunners abound! Perhaps the most encouraging stat I could find to depict how much better off the Yankees are this year, compared to last year, is that this year’s Yankees have grounded into only 35 double-plays (the league-average is 34). The eyeball-test says the Yankees are absolutely running way more this season than they have recently. It may seem like the team struggles to score runs sometimes, but they’ve actually plated 220 runs so far (6th best in baseball). Yankee pitching is of course very good so far this season and this point is earmarked by the staff’s cumulative 129 ERA+. Most years, that would be by-far-and-away best in MLB, but this year it’s “only'' good enough for third best in baseball, tied with the Astros and well behind the mighty Dodgers, who lead MLB with a preposterously good 156. World Series winners have averaged a 113.66 ERA+ since 1903 - that’s 117 years of data that says the Yankees pitching so far this season has been VERY good. According to powerrankingsguru.com, the Yankees have had the twenty-sixth easiest schedule in all of baseball to date. Yankee opponents have a .494 combined winning percentage so far this season. Only the Dodgers, Brewers and Rockies have had it easier! Baseballreference.com has the Yankees chances of making the World Series at 98.4% and they forecast the Yankees odds to win the World-Series at 11.1%. Suffice it to say, Rome is not burning. It certainly doesn’t appear that this team is a mirage. It also doesn’t appear that the Yankees are out of the woods quite yet with regards to their recent struggles. Injuries have reared their ugly heads and it’s knocked the Yankees off the torrid pace they had been sustaining into the middle of May. The Yankees now have 10 players on the injured list, four players who have been sidelined all season and six new ones that were shut down this month. This has very quietly become a code-red situation for a Yankee ball club. The question is, how long will the significant players be out and what is the plan to deal with each injury. Here’s an update on each player’s status: Most Significant Players Impacted by Injury: ● Giancarlo Stanton - Injury: Right ankle inflammation. ○ Missed games: 4. ○ Upstate from Boone on May 27: “I think we avoided a situation there, so that’s encouraging. These last couple of days have been good.” ○ This list has to begin with Giancarlo Stanton, who is a colossal force in the middle of the Yankee lineup when right. There is no replacing Stanton. He’s a key to this team - as it is presently designed. ○ The Yankees however have called up Miguel Andujar and are playing him mostly in left field. ○ Joey Gallo has shifted to right field (where he is a significantly better defender) and Aaron Judge has obviously been playing a ton of center field. Meanwhile, Marwin Gonzalez and Aaron Hicks, along with Gallo have all been pretty much ineffective. This represents an area of opportunity for the Yankees.
Estevan Florial came up for a cup of coffee recently but in 11 at-bats, he did absolutely nothing and he squandered the opportunity. To top it off, he hasn’t looked good at all in center field defensively. I’m not convinced Florial is ready and I believe the Yankees may look for answers elsewhere in center field - be it through a trade or perhaps by utilizing a different internal option.
Could Ender Inciarte get called up? I think it’s a remote possibility but seeing as how he’s out of options, the Yankees may want to hold off on bringing him up because once he’s up, that’s pretty much it. If he doesn’t stick, the depth chart takes a massive hit. More likely, the Yankees will turn to Tim Locastro as the next man up.
Meanwhile, Miguel Andujar continues to try to establish himself but in 28 plate appearances, he’s only sporting a .607 OPS so I’m guessing he’s not a viable solution for the Yankees either. Still, he hit well in Scranton, so perhaps with a bit more time, he could regain his MLB form.
Aaron Hicks is obviously untradeable. He also doesn’t hit left-handed well and his defense has gotten a lot worse. It may be time to dump him as he’s presently taking up a valuable roster spot for a team that truly needs all-hands-on-deck due to all of these injuries. The same could be said for Joey Gallo as well, which means it looks like the Yankees may be in the market for multiple outfielders by the time the trade deadline rolls around. Speculation will abound in the coming weeks as to what players the Yankees should target. Hopefully most of it will be somewhat realistic and the teams involved will be carefully considered. We learned last season that if a team isn’t actively shopping a player, they are highly unlikely to consider a trade. ○ Stanton has fortunately been improving by the day and he took some BP on Friday at Yankee Stadium. He’s expected to come off the IL when he’s first eligible June 2 and that’s absolutely terrific news for the Yankees, but due to the injury, will they use Stanton at all in the outfield this season going forward?
● Aroldis Chapman - Injury: Left Achilles tendinitis. ○ Status: 15-day injured list since May 24. ○ Missed games: 5. ○ Aaron Boone’s Latest Update on Chappy, on May 28: “There is a period of shutdown. Chapman will keep his arm moving.” ○ A first-place team without a closer is not a good thing. Aroldis Chapman, when right, is a devastating force at the back-end of the Yankees bullpen. The team’s whole strategy previously was to get a lead and then bridge games to him. ○ Clay Holmes is presently the best option the Yankees have as a closer. He has zero big-league experience closing, but the Yankees have nonetheless handed him the ball in some extremely high leverage situations recently. In 5.2 innings worth of high-leverage situations, Holmes is holding opposing batters to a .188 average, so far he’s holding the fort but is it wise to roll for the next “however-long” with Holmes as the main option as the Yankees Closer? ○ A return by mid-June probably is “best case" for Chapman. I’m not sold on Chapman at this point, I think he represents a massive risk-reward proposition for the Yankees, but unless he gets his fastball back, he’s becoming a liability due to age and decline.
● Zack Britton - Injury: Tommy John surgery on Sept. 8, 2021. ○ Status: 60-day injured list since March 13. ○ Missed games: 46 ○ Aaron Boone’s Latest Update on Britton, on May 28: “Britton is really encouraged by where he’s at. He had a version of Tommy John, so his timeline is potentially shorter than the normal 12, 14, 16 months.” ○ This means he could be back as soon as early September, best case scenario. He could really help the back of the bullpen and who knows, he might wind up closing for the Yankees by the time the playoffs roll around. ○ The Yankees have attempted to replace Britton with a mix of the seldom used Wandy Peralta and Lucas Luetge.
● Josh Donaldson - Injury: Right shoulder inflammation. ○ Missed games: 6 ○ Aaron Boone’s Latest Update on Chappy, on May 27: “He went through some light throwing and some hitting (on Friday at Yankee Stadium). He’s feeling better. Hopefully it’s something that is a short thing and he keeps making improvements and this is something that benefits him.” ○ I’m not sure how I feel about the Gio Urshela/Gary Sanchez trade at this point. Isaiah Kiner Falefa is “barely” “stopping the gap” at shortstop and Josh Donaldson hasn’t really been an upgrade from Urshela, who can also play shortstop. That said, I think if Donaldson can stay on the field, he could potentially really help the team. Right now, Marwin Gonzalez and DJ LeMahieu are covering for Donaldson and while LeMahieu is playing very well, Gonzalez is showing he’s not the answer many hoped he would be.
The Yankees need a utility player who can handle shortstop and third base. I thought, worst case scenario, that Urshela could be that guy for the Yankees this season. Gonzalez is a massive downgrade. Tyler Wade could have also been serviceable.
At this point, I think the Yankees have to make a trade to fill the Utility Infielder need, seeing as how both Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza have both hit brick walls after being promoted to Triple-A to start the season. Neither seems primed to make the jump to the big leagues any time soon. ○ Donaldson has been battling shoulder discomfort in his throwing arm off and on since spring training. While Donaldson received fluids through an IV on Tuesday to address COVID symptoms, he also had an MRI on his shoulder, which revealed inflammation. He was given a cortisone shot to calm down his shoulder barking.
● Chad Green - Injury: Right flexor tear. ○ Missed games: 8. ○ This is a devastating loss for the team, no doubt about it. Green has been a cog in the Yankee bullpen for a long time and while he hasn’t always been perfect - his last name is Green! I jest, seriously though, he’s “the” bridge guy so replacing him for the balance of the season is a massive issue. ○ It does feel like Clarke Schmidt is moving into Green’s slot in the bullpen, as he’s been lights out this season, tossing a scoreless eighth-inning Sunday to lower his ERA to 0.64 on the year. He’s been pretty phenomenal. ○ Green will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery this week. HIs career in pinstripes may be over as well as he was in his walk year.
● Jonathan Loaisiga - Injury: Right shoulder inflammation. ○ Missed games: 4. ○ Update from Boone on Loaisiga: “We’re hoping (with Loaisiga and Chapman) they’re fairly minor situations. I think Lo has a 10-day shutdown period, but hopefully we’ll start to ramp up from there.” ○ Johnny Lasagna, who is he really? A frail starter? A failed bullpen convert? Or, when right, a true high-leverage bridge reliever on a World Series team? There is no denying the upside, yet - wow. This year Loaisiga hasn’t exactly been on point. I’m not sure he’s truly cut out to be a relief pitcher, but he’s so fragile, what else can the team do with him? ○ Loaisiga is on a schedule to resume throwing sometime next weekend and should be off the IL by early-to-mid June if he has no setbacks flushing out the inflammation. ○ The Yankees have attempted to turn to Ron Marinaccio to fill Loaisiga’s role but he’s proven highly ineffective to date, struggling with command to the point where he’s become a liability. Manny Bañuelos and David McKay will be next in line for a try-out, but is either really a high-leverage option like the Yankees had hoped Loaisiga would be this season? I think a trade may be in the cards as the Yankees look to bring a power righty into their bullpen, someone capable of bridging the gap to the closer.
The next tier of injured players who, while not significant players, would still improve the team if they were healthy.
● Domingo German - Injury: Right shoulder impingement syndrome. ○ Missed games: 46 ○ Update from Boone regarding German on May 28: “We’ll probably start to put that plan together about getting him out and pitching. I think we’ll consider (using him in any role). Obviously, we’ve seen him be a really good starter. The biggest thing is he’s a really good pitcher. I’m sure we’ll have those conversations as his build-up starts and on where we are from a need standpoint and go from there.” ○ I’m not a big fan of his but, when right, he’s capable of contributing. This year, considering how good the Yankee rotation is, he’ll have to come out of the bullpen. Too bad Cashman didn’t trade him last November, when his trade-value was at an all-time-high and the entire league was starved for starting pitching. This was a big missed opportunity on Cashman’s part. ○ The Yankees basically replaced Domingo German as a starter with Nestor Cortes and I can’t imagine a scenario other than <gulp> injury, forcing the Yankees to have to dig deeper into their system to find a fill-in. J.P. Sears might actually have a leg up here and seeing as how the Yankees have kept him stretched out and have opted not to do that with Clarke Schmidt, German has really slipped on the Depth Chart. German also has an option remaining so the Yankees will be in no rush to call him up. ○ German threw a two-inning simulated game on Saturday at the Yankees’ player development complex in Tampa and “looked good,” according to one of the hitters that he faced, rehabbing outfielder Tim Locastro. German is set to soon begin a rehab assignment in the Yankees minor league system.
● Tim Locastro - Injury: Left lat strain. ○ Missed games: 21. ○ Update from Boone on Loaisiga: Locastro told Boone on Thursday that he was “ready” come to come off the IL and the speedy bench player took a step in that direction Saturday in Tampa getting six live BP at-bats facing German and minor leaguers at the Yankees’ player development complex. ○ Locastro is a nice depth piece in terms of late game defense and pinch running. ○ Personally, I’d move on from him in favor of other players who offer more than he does offensively, but the Yankees like him because his speed off the bench can change games and there is no doubt that he can play the outfield at a high level, though he’s probably best as a left fielder. ○ Presently, Miguel Andujar is taking the opportunity that Locastro vacated with his latest injury. ○ The Yankees will decide in the next day or so whether or not they want Locastro to play one or two rehab games before coming off the IL. This may spell the end for either Joey Gallo, Kyle Higashioka, Ron Marinaccio, Marwin Gonzalez or Miguel Andujar. It is hard to speculate how the Yankees may play it regarding reintegrating Locastro into the mix.
● Stephen Ridings - Injury: Right shoulder impingement. ○ Missed games: 46. ○ Update from Boone on Ridings: Ridings still hasn’t begun throwing, but surgery isn’t on the table at this point, Boone said on Saturday. ○ Personally, I was all-about Ridings being a huge factor in the Yankee bullpen this year and his injury was an absolutely severe setback towards him being able to impact the team in a meaningful way this season. ○ He has three options remaining, so I expect him to have to work his way back into the mix after he is cleared to play, which seems a long way off still at this point.
● Ben Rortvedt - Injury: Partially torn meniscus in left knee. ○ Update from Boone regarding Rortvedt on May 28: “Benny is doing pretty well. He’s still in the fairly early stages (of recovering). He’s walking and doing his rehab stuff. Hopefully he’ll start some baseball activities potentially (this) week.” ○ When he does come back, it may mean the end for Kyle Higashioka, who is out of options. Rortvedt meanwhile has two options remaining and the Yankees other catcher, Jose Trevino has one option remaining but is playing far better than Higgy is. ○ Rortvedt underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on May 17 and was in the Yankees clubhouse walking without crutches on Friday. He hopes to be back playing sometime in July.
Does this mean more difficult times lay ahead for the Yankees? Nope. Not really. Because of how bad baseball is, the Yankees have the 17th easiest schedule remaining for the rest of the season. The bottom line is, for a team like the Yankees, the schedule really is a breeze. They’re going to win games, even if they don’t hustle to first base on grounders that seem like automatic outs. Their manager, Aaron Boone, will happily tolerate this sort of thing for a couple of related reasons.
The first reason Boone is okay with his players loafing regularly, sometimes multiple times in games, is that regular season games really don’t mean much to good teams and the second is that the Yankees don’t need to play with a true sense of urgency because they routinely win two out of every three games they play. The Yankees win thanks to stellar pitching and also how hard they hit the ball when they do make contact. Sure, some of the hard hit balls turn into easy double plays, but some go for home runs with men on base and Boone and the Yankees know it all evens out. They’re a talented team.