The 2018 season is now almost 20 games old, meaning we are roughly one eighth through the season. It is still early, but in baseball it is always still early until it isn’t anymore. The Yankees have been, more or less, a .500 team so far. While it is easy to point to injuries, spotty starting pitching and a bullpen that has not lived up to its advance billing, it is also true that if Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton were hitting the way they have in the past, the Yankees would be playing at least .600 ball and would be within four games of the Red Sox.
Sanchez and Stanton will probably turn their seasons around. If they don’t, the Yankees will fall out of contention quickly. The starting pitching reflects a similar conundrum. Thus far, the Yankees have only had two dependable starters, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery. Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray have been dreadful in 2018, posting ERAs of 6.45 and 8.27 respectively. CC Sabathia, when healthy, has continued to perform well as a fifth starter, but cannot be relied upon to pitch deep into games. While the Yankees could conceivably add one good starting pitcher, although as Sonny Gray reminds us, there are no guarantees there, they are not going to be able to add two effective starters. Thus, if Tanaka and Gray don’t begin to pitch significantly better, the Yankee season will be imperiled. This all puts the Yankees in the paradoxical position of needing to avoid panicking or overreacting to their slowish start, while at the same time recognizing that if nothing changes in the next two weeks or so, the season could begin to get away from them.
Much of this is due to the Red Sox who, being no hit Saturday notwithstanding, have been the best team in baseball this season. If the Red Sox had not gotten off to such a hot start, the Yankees would have much less reason to be concerned. The Red Sox are not going to cruise along at an .850 winning percentage all season, but they are likely to be very good team. The Red Sox are not a surprise team off to an extraordinary start, but a very strong team that is hitting on all cylinders. They are also a wealthy team that can add players as needed at the deadline.
While it is easy to focus on the Yankee disappointments thus far, it is equally important not to overlook the positives. Didi Gregorius has continued to develop into a star. Aaron Judge and Luis Severino are building on their very impressive work from 2017. The Yankees are also at an interesting moment regarding their next major prospects. After a slow start, Miguel Andujar has started hitting. If he continues to build on this success he will soon be an additional formidable bat in the Yankee lineup. The Yankees also brought up Gleyber Torres, presumably to take over the second base job from Tyler Wade and Neil Walker, neither of whom have played well so far this year.
Because of how the race has shaped up so far, the Yankees would be wise to give Andujar and Torres enough time to prove themselves this season, rather than cede playing time to Walker and Brandon Drury, once the latter gets healthy. Walker is not as bad as he has been so far in 2018. His OPS this year of .463 is .310 points below is career number. Given more time, Walker’s numbers would almost certainly go up. Similarly, when healthy Drury is a proven and useful player. However, if the Yankees are going to make up a 6.5 game deficit, that could continue to grow, and catch up with a very good Red Sox team, they need to do it not with solid, useful players, but with higher ceiling players. Torres and Andujar might both fail to hit over the course of the season, but they both have the potential to become impact players this year. The same cannot be said of Drury and Walker. If the Yankees were not already 6.5 games back, an argument could be made for being risk averse and sticking with the veterans, but that argument is not persuasive anymore.
The Yankees can still win the AL East, but given the way the Red Sox are playing, they will probably need to win at least 98 games. To do that, they will have to have a winning percentage of at least .615 the rest of the way. Some of what needs to happen for the Yankees to play that way, like Sanchez, Stanton and Tanaka playing better, is something over which Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman have little control but recognizing the need to take some risks will also make a difference.
Photo: cc/Daniel Hartwig