On April 25th, 2019 the San Francisco Historical Society hosted a discussion of my book Baseball Goes West: the Dodgers, the Giants and the Shaping of the Major Leagues. The discussant was longtime baseball executive Corey Busch. The event was held at the San Francisco Athletic Club.
My favorite baseball player ever died this month. Perhaps that is a rite of middle aged American male passage. Willie McCovey was a gigantic left-handed slugger who hit his first home run when Eisenhower was President and George Christopher was mayor of San Francisco, the city where McCovey played most of his career. He hit his last home run for the Giants when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Dianne Feinstein was our mayor. During his very long career, McCovey was often overshadowed by his more famous teammate with whom he shared a home state, Alabama, and the same first name. McCovey was not as good as Willie Mays, but almost nobody ever was. Nonetheless McCovey a formidable power hitter. When he retired in 1980 McCovey’s 521 career home runs tied him with Ted Williams for second most ever by a left handed hitter. At that time, the only player with more round trippers from the left side of the plate was Babe Ruth.
What do the following players from Yankee history, Bob Meusel, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, Gene Woodling, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson and Paul O’Neill have in common? All were outfielders who, except for Jackson, were very good Yankee players, but not quite of Hall of Fame caliber. Reggie was a truly great player, but spent only five years in pinstripes. However, they have something else in common as well; they all played fewer games in the outfield for the Yankees than Brett Garnder has. Currently, Garnder has played the eighth most games in the outfield in Yankee history. If he plays 50 next years, he will pass Hank Bauer an move into 7th place on that list, one hundred more games patrolling left or center field will push him past Hall of Famer Earle Combs into sixth place. The next question is a little easier. What do Rickey Henderson and Derek Jeter have in common? They are the only two players who have stolen more bases with the Yankees than Gardner.
If the Yankees want to improve at first base, there is another player on the Giants who would be a more intriguing option. Buster Posey has been the face of the Giants franchise more or less since he was brought up to the team during the 2010 season. He has led them to three World Series victories and is a likely future Hall of Famer. However, he will be 32 years old when the 2019 season opens, may not be a full time catcher anymore and is clearly in the decline phase of his career. From 2012-2015, Posey posted an OPS+ of 145. Over the last four seasons, that number has declined to 117. That is still valuable production, but not what is needed from the middle of the order on a contending team, a role the Giants expected him to play in 2018. Moreover, Posey is owed $88.5 million over the next four years, so the Giants are stuck paying him more than what he is worth at this phase of his career.
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.
The Yankees have had their share of injuries this year as Greg Bird, Clint Frazier, Brandon Drury, Jordan Montgomery and others have spent time on the disabled list or recovering from injuries, but none of these injuries have been to a genuinely central player. Bird had won the first base job,but was the fourth best power bat on the team when spring training began. Montgomery is a valuable back of the rotation starter, but very far from being an ace, while Drury is an intriguing role player, but not much more. On balance, the Yankees have been lucky to have eluded major injury to one of their key players. Indeed that is one of the reasons they have the second best record in all of baseball.
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.
The Yankees this year have some obvious and very impressive strengths. Their right-handed power is the best in the game. Sanchez, Judge and Stanton could conceivably combine for 120 or more home runs. The bullpen, despite Betances rough first outing, is also good enough to play well into October. The rotation, while not the best in the game, is nonetheless strong. All this makes it difficult to process the potential weaknesses of this team. This is exacerbated by a New York media climate the turns every journeyman traded to the Yankees, at least at first, into a potential star, and refuses to recognize a hot spring by a second tier prospect for what it really is.
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.
In 1968, Mantle was one of the best hitters in the league who, while not the dominant player he once was, still was a valuable patience and power guy who was very valuable to the Yankees. None of this was evident at the time because front offices and management, although aware that it the game was dominated by pitching, did not fully understand its impact. Similarly, Mantle’ primary skill during his last two years was his ability to draw walks, something that was almost entirely unappreciated, even unrecognized, at the time.
It is also the case that the season could end differently and bring disappointment to Yankee fans. In addition to the questions marks at second, third and the back of the starting rotation, there are many other possible ways 2018 could go wrong for the Yankees. This is true of every team and is pretty much part of the game, but it is useful to think of what those stumbling blocks might be. Luis Severino or Aaron Judge might regress from their breakthrough years in 2017. Gary Sanchez might prove unable to field hold well enough to hold down the catching job full time. Greg Bird and Giancarlo Stanton, who both have struggled to stay healthy throughout their career could lose significant time to injuries. Additionally, other key contributors like Didi Gregorius or Masahiro Tanaka could suffer serious injuries.
Jacoby Ellsbury is not a terrible ballplayer, but he is an extremely overpaid one. He is useful as a fourth or fifth outfielder who is no longer the offensive threat he once was, but who can still field reasonably well, has some speed left and is a left-handed bat on a team that tilts heavily to the right side. He would be a good player to sign in spring training to a one or two year deal for two or three, or even five, million dollars per year. Unfortunately, the Yankees owe him more than $21 million per year from 2018-2020.
Since the trade that brought Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, most of the speculation around the team has focused on second base, third base and the starting pitching. The rest of the lineup seems pretty set and very potent. Nonetheless, there are some mid-level questions that remain. As the season goes on, particularly if a player or two gets hurt and stops hitting.
At 41, Campy seemed like a player from another era. He had started his career with the A’s when they were still in Kansas City and called the Athletics. He had gone on to a long career and was the solid fielding shortstop and frequent leadoff hitter on the A’s from 1971-5 when the team won five straight divisions and three World Series. Campaneris was not quite as well known as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson or Vida Blue, but he was just behind them. He signed with the Rangers as a free agent following the 1976 season, but while continuing to play well faded from the baseball spotlight pretty quickly.
One of the stranger stories of this Yankee offseason is been how little respect Jordan Montgomery seems to have received. Last year, Montgomery finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting despite having more WAR than any American League rookie other than Aaron Judge. While not an ace, Montgomery was a more than solid back of the rotation starter going 9-7 with a 3.88 ERA as a 24 year old rookie. Montgomery was in the rotation for essentially the whole season, making 29 starts and no relief appearances while striking out almost three times as many batters as he walked. These are not Cy Young numbers, but pitchers like that have real value, especially when they are 24 year old lefties. Despite this performance during the regular season, Montgomery did not pitch at all in the postseason, while the Yankees have spent much of the offseason trying to bolster their pitching rotation and therefore limit Montgomery’s 2018 role.
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.
Ron Guidry was a great pitcher, but the arguments against putting him in the Hall of Fame are clear. He had a short career and was only an impact player from 1977-1985. Other than 1978, he was never the best pitcher in the American League. He has much fewer wins that most Hall of Fame starting pitchers. On balance, I would not place Guidry on the top of my list of players who have been overlooked by Cooperstown, but the problem with selecting somebody who is so clearly under qualified as Jack Morris is that it makes it easy to make arguments for people like Guidry, and yes Tommy John, Rich Reuschel and Luis Tiant as well. Morris’s election was more of a statement by the Hall of Fame than a true recognition of greatness, but it was a very strange statement.