Aaron Boone's Tough Assignment

Over the last week, the Yankees post-season has begun to take shape. It was announced that Aaron Boone will be the new Yankee manager. Boone has an excellent baseball pedigree and is genuine Yankee hero, but has also never managed or coached a professional baseball game. It is certainly possible that he is a smart, media savvy man who works well with diverse colleagues and has a keen strategic mind, but he may be overwhelmed as the manager of a big league team. Yankee fans at this point can do little but wait and hope for the best. 

I have a very fond memory of my late brother yelling the news of Boone’s home run to me over the phone. I had called my brother in San Francisco from Batumi, Georgia to get the score because I had no internet access in my shoddy post-Soviet hotel that morning. I am grateful for Boone’s pennant winning blast in 2003 and would love to see him have a few more great Yankee moments. However, less than a week after Boone was appointed manager, it is beginning to feel a bit like a set up. 

One of the reasons for this is that Japanese superstar Shohei Otani has determined that the Yankees are not among the teams with whom he is considering signing. Otani would have been a great addition to the Yankees as he could have been top of the rotation starting pitcher and valuable, if occasional, DH or pinch hitter. Otani will instead take his considerable talents to a west coast team such as the Mariners or the Giants. Thus, the Yankees have already missed out on the most attractive de facto free agent option of the offseason.

There is still plenty of time before the season starts, but at the moment, articles like this one on ESPN summarize the feeling around baseball, that the Yankees are in win now mode and that there new manager will be under tremendous pressure to deliver a world championship. The problem Boone faces, in plain English, is that expectations are extremely high, and the team doesn’t quite have the horses. It is true that a Joe Girardi led Yankee team in 2017 came within one win of the World Series, but it is also true that a lot of things went right for the Yankees in 2017 and that the Astros, and probably the Indians and Dodgers are still slightly better teams.

The Yankees are a very good team, but even barring bad breaks, injuries, players like Brett Gardner or CC Sabathia suddenly getting old or steps backwards by Luis Severino, Didi Gregorius or Aaron Judge, the team still has some problems. Greg Bird and Aaron Hicks are still pretty unproven. DH is a potential problem. Chase Headley is a useful player but not exactly a championship quality third baseman. These are not huge problems, but solving them is the difference between winning 91-95 games and losing the ALCS, and winning it all. Expecting Boone to win it all without addressing these problems is not reasonable.

The other problem with raising expectations like this is that the Yankees best window for dominance probably remains 2019-2022 because they still have some prospect related questions they need to work out. For example, Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres are very exciting players. In the long run, they will probably help solidify the outfield/DH and the infield situations, but if they are not able to do that by early in the 2018 seasons, the Yankees could make the mistake of trading them too soon. They will be much more likely to do that if they are putting the team, and its new manager, in win now overdrive.

Whoever the Yankees hired to be their new manager would have to determine, with input from the front office, whether Clint Frazier was ready to be part of a four player rotation through the outfield and DH spots, whether Torres should become the starting third baseman, if Greg Bird was a long term solution at first base and sort through a pitching staff to find three reliable starters after Severino and Tanaka. Boone’s lack of experience does not make that impossible. Additionally, if he is open to the quantitative data the front office wants to rely upon more, it may even make the task easier.

These are not easy decisions and it is inevitable mistakes will be made. However, a key to the Yankees success over the last few years, and one of the reasons Yankee baseball has been so enjoyable is that the arrogant and counter-productive macho trope about having to win every year is being put to rest. We are beginning to hear echoes of that kind of sentiment again this off-season, but unless some more player moves occur, there new manager will have a very difficult time satisfying those demanding a championship in 2018.

Photo: cc/Kevin Allison