The easiest person to blame for this is Giancarlo Stanton whose ninth inning strikeout with two runners on base in game four was just one of several times in that series when the slugger came up empty in potentially game changing situations. That strikeout will likely be the enduring memory from a solid, but unspectacular season from Stanton, his first with the Yankees. However, the fault cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Stanton. The problem is bigger than that and starts with a team that had five batters with 100 or more strikeouts, two more with between 90-99 whiffs and 180 more team strikeout than the Astros, Red Sox or Indians, the other teams that made it into the final four in the American League.
Top Yankee prospects are either a few years away like Estevan Florial or Anthony Seigler, major question marks like Clint Frazier or, like eight of the team’s top ten prospects according to MLB.com, pitchers. Overall, the system is no longer very impressive. The highest ranked, again according to MLB.com, Yankee prospect is Justus Sheffield at 31st. The Yankees placed a respectable but not overwhelming four prospects in MLB’s top 100. Prospect ranking are imperfect and always in flux, but these rankings are consistent with what we know about the system-no elite prospects ready to contribute immediately and a lot of somewhat unformed pitching.
Drury represents a different challenge. The Yankee brass remains relatively enthusiastic about him, but it is difficult to know how seriously that should be taken. Drury has established himself as a decent ballplayer with a solid glove and a career OPS+ of 96. Because he can play second third and the corner outfield positions reasonably well, he can bring value to the Yankees. He is also only 25, it is likely that if he stays healthy, he will improve as a hitter. It is, however, less likely that he will be as good a hitter and Andujar or Torres.
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 are a good team now and came within a game of the World Series because they, albeit very briefly, stepped off the win now treadmill that had mired them in being a good but never good enough team for all but one of the years from 2001-2015. Jumping back into that position too quickly by trading off prospects for veterans who are no longer very good or losing confidence in young players too quickly would be a big mistake, but it is not hard to see the Yankees going down that road. They spent the offseason raising expectations. If the next month looks like the last two weeks, things could get ugly in the Bronx pretty quickly.
In the last two weeks, the Yankees have added two infielders, Neil Walker and Brandon Drury. Drury was acquired for two second-tier prospects while Walker was a free agent who signed a one year four million dollar contract. Neither of these qualifies as major acquisitions, but they could have a significant impact on the team. Drury and Walker are both respectable big leaguers who can help a contending team. The Yankees could win the pennant with either of them in the starting lineup, but it is less clear they could win with both of them as regulars.
Sometimes in baseball, and in life, the best moves are the ones you don’t make. The Yankees would be well served to keep this in mind in the coming weeks. As it stands now, the Yankees have a very good team, but the team also has several major question marks. They will go into the season with real strengths at several positions, like catcher, shortstop, designated hitter, the bullpen and the starting outfield. However, they will be starting unproven players at first, second and third base and have a starting rotation that has several question marks.
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.
Many Yankee fans may not be aware or fully understand the significance of Judge being 25 in his rookie season. One way to think about Judge’s age is that he is only eight months younger than Mike Trout and is six months older than Bryce Harper, two of the premier sluggers in the game today. Similarly, Judge’s 8.1 WAR in 2017 ranked him 20th all-time among 25 year olds and tied for 73rd in seasons for players 25 and younger. Those rankings are impressive, but indicate that while he had a good 2017, he did not have a historically good one.