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The Sounds of Silence

All’s been relatively quiet on the Hot Stove front. But at least pitchers and catchers report next week.

[Picture by William O. Fletcher via Index of American Design via the National Gallery of Art]

The New Evil Empire

[Logo Credit: Chlorineer via Wikimedia Commons]

If there was one thing that seemed out of place in 1996 and 1998 it was that people around the country seemed to be rooting for the Yankees. Ninety-six was the team’s first visit to the World Series in fifteen years and there was the feel good story surrounding Joe Torre and his brother Frank, and in 1998 there was an industry-wide admiration not just for the completeness of that team but also for the way it had been built, largely from within and with shrewd trades as opposed to the failed free agency buys of the late ’80s and early ’90s. These Yankees were beloved. And it didn’t feel quite right.

After four World Series titles in five years, however, the act wore thin. And when the Yankees lost to the Angels in the 2002 Divisional Series and responded by signing Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui and Cuban pitcher José Contreras, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino had had enough. “The evil empire,” he famously said, “extends its tentacles even into Latin America.”

He was angry and defeated, so we’ll forgive his mixing of metaphors, but he gave yet another nickname to the team that already had more than any other in baseball. No longer just the Pinstripes or the Bronx Bombers, they’ve now been known as the Evil Empire for the past two decades, and for most of those twenty-one years, the name has made sense.

When the team missed the playoffs in 2008, they opened the vault and spent quickly and decisively, signing free agents Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. The result was beautiful on field and off. They won the 2009 World Series, and they were the villains again. Order was restored to the universe.

So after last year’s disappointing season it wasn’t surprising that Brian Cashman pulled the trigger on the Juan Soto deal, and most expected the 25-year-old Japanese superstar Yoshinobu Yamamoto to be next, simply because that’s who the Yankees are. They are the Evil Empire.

But suddenly they aren’t.

No one was the least bit surprised when the Dodgers signed Shohei Ohtani, but there were some audible gasps when word of the $700 million contract — by far the largest ever — was announced. It was a big number, but it didn’t really change the expected narrative of the post season. The Dodgers got their man, and soon the Yankees would get theirs.

Everything changed, however, when we learned that Ohtani would be deferring a staggering 97% of his salary. The Dodgers were getting a Rolls Royce for the price of a Pinto, so why not go shopping for a Maserati?

By following up the Ohtani deal with Yamamoto, the Dodgers did more than just strengthen their rotation while stealing a pitcher from the Yankees. They announced to the baseball world that they are the new Evil Empire. Not satisfied with being the best regular season team in baseball over the last several seasons and apparently no longer willing to subject themselves to the random chance of the postseason, the Dodgers used their deep pockets and their deep farm system to bolster a team that won 100 games in 2023.

With Ohtani, Mookie Betts, and Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers lineup will feature the reigning A.L. MVP and the second and third place finishers in the NL MVP voting, and Yamamoto will headline a rotation that also includes another newcomer, Tyler Glasnow.

That embarrassment of riches would be enough to turn the stomaches of every small market fan in America, but the truly evil — or genius — aspect of all this is the subversive innovation of Ohtani’s contract. Ohtani has been called a unicorn for his unprecedented combination of hitting and pitching, but he’s also unique in another sense. With an endorsement portfolio that dwarfs every other player in the game, he is one of the few athletes in the world, certainly the only baseball player, who doesn’t need a salary. There will be at least twelve Dodgers who will earn more money than Ohtani in 2023.

All of this is something the Yankees might once have been expected to do, but times have changed. As news broke of Yamamoto’s signing, criticism of Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman immediately swelled, but I find it difficult to lay any blame on them. Reports indicate that the Yankees offered a ten-year contract for $300M, less overall money but with a higher annual average and an earlier opt out than the Dodger deal. If had only been about the money, that Yankee offer would have made more sense.

Some fans have suggested they should’ve gone to $350M or higher, but it’s understandable that Steinbrenner and Cashman showed some restraint. It isn’t my money, but thirty million dollars a year already seems a bit high for a player who has neither stood on a major league mound nor held a major league ball. Also, there have been reports that Yamamoto simply always wanted to be a Dodger, and that the large Japanese community in Los Angeles as well as the shorter flight home to Japan both played a part as well. It’s highly possible that he was never going to sign with either New York team.

The question now for the Yankees is simple. What next? With Gerrit Cole the only sure thing in the starting rotation, will Cashman pursue Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery? Will he instead try to build a super bullpen to cover for rotation deficiencies? Will he do both?

Only time will tell, but there’s one thing we know right now. The Yankees are no longer the Evil Empire.

Flexing!

[Photo Credit: Ryan Casey Aguinaldo via Wikimedia Commons]

The Yankees, it seems, are still the Yankees.

After watching along with the rest of us as the Yankees slogged their way through an 82-80 season, general manager Brian Cashman took the first step towards a return to relevance by swinging the deal that he had to make, sending Michael King, Jhony Brito, Randy Vasquez, Drew Thorpe, and Kyle Higashioka to San Diego for Juan Soto and Trent Grisham.

That’s a big haul for San Diego, and it’s a shame that we won’t get to watch the continued development of Michael King, but think about this. The Yankees entered the off season needing to fill a hole in left field and get a left-handed hitter, and on Wednesday evening they acquired not just the best available player fitting that description but one of the best young hitters in the history of the game. There are six players in baseball history with a .940 OPS, 150 home runs, and 500 runs all before turning 25 — Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle, Albert Pújols, Mike Trout, and Soto. Want another fun statistic? Soto has 640 career walks and only 577 career strikeouts. This kid is different.

This is a player who would fit nicely in any lineup in any city, but think for a minute about what the Yankee lineup will look like with Soto. If we assume that Aaron Boone will pencil in Aaron Judge in the second spot in the order as usual, that puts Soto hitting third, Giancarlo Stanton fourth, Anthony Rizzo fifth, and Gleyber Torres sixth. Those five hitters, alternating right-left-right-left-right, will strike fear into the heart of any opposing pitcher, and I can’t wait to watch.

If there’s a criticism of the deal, it’s that it comes with no guarantee that Soto will be a Yankee for more than just the 2024 season. He’s certain to test free agency, but that’s a year from now. Tonight, he’s a Yankee. And that’s a pretty good thing.

Fire Up the Hot Stove!

If we are to see a different version of the New York Yankees in 2024, the puzzle pieces will begin to fall in place this week and next. Everyone in the Yankee Universe seems to be on edge, most notably general manager Brian Cashman, who’s been uncharacteristically explosive recently, choosing for some reason to speak his true feelings about Giancarlo Stanton just days before entering into negotiations with a franchise-changing player who happens to share the same agent as Stanton. It’s one way to go, I guess.

Anyway, in the coming days and weeks, a few things will become clear…

Will the Yankees be able to sign Yoshinobu Yamamoto?
The best pitcher in Japanese baseball officially posted on Monday, meaning that negotiations will open on Tuesday and close after 45 days on January 4th. The usual suspects will all be in on this, with the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox reportedly leading the way. I know the Yankees need a left-fielder, preferably one who swings from the left side of the plate, but signing Yamamoto has to be a priority. Slotting him in as the number two starter behind Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole would make a lot of other things possible. Including…

Will the Yankees trade for Juan Soto?
If it’s at all possible, the Yankees MUST make this trade. I hope that Jasson Dominguez is off the table, but everyone else should be in the discussion. I’m not as down on Anthony Volpe as many are, but if he (or maybe Clarke Schmidt) can be packaged with a couple other minor leaguers, I’d be thrilled. There’s a Bryce-Harper-shaped hole in this lineup, and Soto would fill it for the next ten years (assuming the Yankees sign him to a long-term deal) while hitting 400 home runs or so. Sign me up.

Will the Yankees sign Cody Bellinger?
If you look deep into Bellinger’s numbers there is cause for concern. The statheads will tell you that his hard-hit percentage last year didn’t match his actual production, which means he might regress. It was only four years ago that Bellinger won a Gold Glove and an MVP, but in the years since he’s been a bit of a mystery. In 2021 he hit .165 with an OPS+ of 44. (The league average is set at 100.) He rebounded a bit in 2022, but suddenly hit .305 with the second highest OB% of his career and an OPS+ of 133. It’s a shame that he had his peak year in his age 23 season, but he fits a need for the Yankees. He can play centerfield until Dominguez is ready to take over, then he can finish his contract out at first base after Rizzo is gone. There’s risk involved with any signing, and there’s probably a bit more risk here, but he won’t make this team worse. It’s too obvious for Cashman to pass on this.

Will the Yankees do something crazy?
Well, probably not. But there’s a possibility that Stanton would waive his no-trade clause to go back home to California, so if the Yankees want to eat the majority of his contract and include him in a deal for Soto, that would also open up the possibility of pursuing Shohei Ohtani, especially if what we’re hearing is true and Ohtani would be open to a shorter-term deal. The only downside is that if the Yankees had a lineup with Judge, Soto, Bellinger, and Ohtani, Major League Baseball might decided to cancel the season and just send the trophy to New York.

I keep thinking about the winter of 2008. After missing the playoffs in the final year of the old Yankee Stadium, Cashman responded by rebuilding the Death Star by signing CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. All of that spending translated into the 27th (and last) World Series championship. Here’s hoping all this brings number 28.

The Whirled Series

Elvis Andrus takes a Strike (5067137417)
It would be really great if I could just be happy for these two teams, the Rangers and the Diamondbacks, but instead I see one team that did what I had hoped the Yankees would do (sign Corey Seager) and another that was only two games better than the Yankees in the regular season, compiling just 84 wins in a much weaker league. Instead of watching the drama of the World Series, I’ll be wondering how these two teams managed to get there.

But you’re probably a better person than I am, so you’ll just be enjoying the games. So what do we think? I’ve got the Rangers in five and dreams that the Yankees will be playing in October next season.

The Outside Looking In

Well, this is awkward. The Yankees might already have stumbled off into the sunset, but eight teams are still alive. While the rest of the baseball world is gushing about the drama — the drama! — of October baseball, here we sit. About a month ago I ran into an acquaintance of mine who happens to be a Dodger fan. We hadn’t seen each other in a few months, so after we exchanged pleasantries he slid a knife into my kidney. “I guess you’ll have some free time in October since the Yankees won’t be playing.”

There was a hint of smile on his face, just enough to make me wonder if he was giving me shit or stating a fact. It didn’t matter. If I’m being honest, the silver lining of this cloud is that my life right now doesn’t revolve around the vagaries of Major League Baseball scheduling or Aaron Boone’s bullpen management. I know my friend suffered dearly on Saturday night as Clayton Kershaw self-immolated on the Dodger Stadium mound, and there was part of me that was grateful it wasn’t Gerit Cole and the Yankees suffering a similar fate. It turns out there is freedom in mediocrity.

But there’s also bitterness. I couldn’t be happy for Minnesota fans who got to watch their team win a playoff series for the first time in forever, so instead I wondered aloud why the Twins were celebrating as if they’d just won the World Series. Look away; I am hideous.

Because the baseball, I’m told, has been brilliant. Carlos Correa (sorry) continues to craft a postseason résumé that screams Cooperstown; Bryce Harper still rounds third like a man possessed, making all of us wish he had run through Hal Steinbrenner’s stop sign and into Yankee pinstripes all those years ago; the Arizona Diamondbacks have looked the Dodgers dead in the eye and wondered why they’re supposed to be scared.

It’s October, and it’s baseball. It just ain’t us.

What Just Happened?

The New York Yankees were officially eliminated from playoff contention following their rain-drenched loss on Sunday afternoon, but the key word there is “officially.” Anyone who had been watching this team closely over the past few months must’ve seen this coming. This has been a flawed team for the past 200 games or so, and even though there was surely some bad luck that contributed to this season’s demise, at no point could anyone have looked at the 2023 Yankees and considered them a serious World Series contender, even though that’s exactly the message we heard from Yankee management coming out of Spring Training.

So what happened? There were some good ideas that backfired. Carlos Rodón, for example, was one of the most sought after free agents of the winter, but injuries postponed his debut until July, and he probably shouldn’t have been on a major league mound that soon. What would the season have looked like if the Yankees had gotten thirty healthy starts from him? Could that have been worth an extra seven wins?

Some bad decisions played out exactly as most expected. The acquisition of Josh Donaldson, for example, was never a good idea, and I’m guessing no one in the baseball world was surprised by how it played out. He was a known clubhouse cancer on the backside of his career. If he had been able to play 140 games a season with an OPS in the .800 to .900 range, his “personality” issues might have been tolerable, but that wasn’t the case. Instead the Yankees got the two worst seasons of his career (predictable for a third baseman in his age 36 and 37 seasons) which included an OPS of .682 in 2022 and .659 before he was DFA’d this August. Calling it a disappointment is like describing Romeo and Juliet as a failed relationship; in both cases the chorus told us exactly what was going to happen.

In some cases, there was just bad luck. Luís Severino was injured for much of the year. Anthony Rizzo fluked into a concussion, played with symptoms for about a month, and then went on the injured list for the rest of the season. Domingo Germán pitched well for much of the season and then threw the 24th perfect game in major league history; five weeks later he showed up at Yankee Stadium so drunk that the team had no choice but to end his season. We’ll likely never see him in pinstripes again. And obviously the unluckiest turn of all came when Aaron Judge, the best player on the planet not named Shohei Ohtani, fractured his toe on an inexplicably placed cement curb in right field at Dodger Stadium, causing him to miss a month of time. Oh, and one last thing. Jasson Domínguez’s torn elbow ligament came after the season had already cratered, but in some ways it was more crushing than any of these other misfortunes.

Just as championship teams can point to a dozen breakout performances and key moments that propelled them to success, so can the 2023 Yankees list all of these things and more as contributing factors in this disappointing season. The problem, though, is that many of these issues have raised questions that must be answered this off-season if the organization wants to get back to the playoffs in 2024.

Here’s an overview of the situation as I see it, beginning with a look at the sure things and then speculating about the rest of the roster.

The Foundation

No franchise in baseball can boast a stronger pairing of a starting pitcher with a position player than the Yankees do with Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge. Both players are in the primes of their careers, and both are locked into long term contracts, and each player is among the best in the world at what they do. Even though Yankee fans took a while to warm up to Cole, he has been worth every penny of the nine-year contract he signed with New York prior to the 2020 season. If you’re strictly looking to quantify his value with statistics, consider that he’s led the league in starts and pitched 200 innings or more each of the past two seasons, and those have been dominant innings. With one start (probably) remaining this season, he currently leads the league in winning percentage, ERA, starts, innings pitched, ERA+, WHIP, and hits per nine innings. He probably won’t be the unanimous Cy Young Award winner, but he’ll win in a landslide.

All of that is what the Yankees knew they were getting for their millions, but I’m not sure they knew they’d also be getting a second pitching coach. The last time the Yankees had a starting pitcher this good, it was Roger Clemens, but there’s one huge difference between Cole and Clemens. (Okay, two, but that’s not what this is about.) Clemens famously disappeared between starts, as allowed by the organization. Cole, however, appears to be that rare pitcher who is constantly teaching the craft. During his starts this season he’s been guiding young catcher Ben Rortvedt, the rookie who became Cole’s personal catcher midway through the season. In July and August Cole was often seen vigorously shaking off Rortverdt from the mound and barking at him in the dugout, but they seemed to work well together in September. Cole often praised the rookie following starts. Rorverdt’s position on the roster is far from secure, but the growing relationship between the future Hall of Famer and the future journeyman speaks to Cole’s value. More important than that relationship, however, is what we see when Cole isn’t pitching, when he spends nine innings as a professor to the young starters on the Yankee staff, all of whom frequently credit Cole for their success. If we see Clarke Schmidt and Michael King and others develop into solid starters, it will be largely because of what they’ve learned from Professor Cole.

And then there’s Judge. It’s hard to imagine that people once wondered about the player who is now universally seen as one of the five best overall players in the game. In 2022 he had one of the best offensive seasons in history, and he was almost as good this year. He won’t get any MVP votes this season, but you could argue that this year, even more than last, proved just how valuable he is to this team. The forty-five games he missed in the middle of the season doomed the Yankees, but somehow — even while playing hurt — he’s still been brilliant. Sure, there are the thirty-five home runs, but note that Judge has an OPS over 1.000 for the second year in a row, a rare exacta indeed. And while some have been asking for weeks that the Yankees shut him down, he showed this week why that never was going to happen. Even as Yankee fans drifted away from the season, they never drifted away from Aaron Judge. Their phones buzzed and told them about his first inning home run on Friday night, and then again when he hit his second. They raced to their televisions to see his fourth at bat, and they were rewarded with his third home run of the game, capping a 4 for 4 night that also included a double and reminded everyone that there is only one Aaron Judge. You don’t shut down a player like that for the same reason you don’t throw a sheet over Michelangelo’s David. There is a greatness in genius, even when the genius is playing out a string of otherwise meaningless games.

Like Cole, Judge’s leadership will be crucial as the Yankees look to rebuild either with youth or with external options. When he was named Captain after re-signing with the Yankees this winter, the general consensus from the rest of the players was that he had already been the de facto captain, the same as Derek Jeter had been the team leader long before he was officially named. What strikes me about Judge, though, is that his brand of leadership, at least what we see of it, isn’t as natural as Jeter’s. Judge has had to grow slowly into this role, and it still seems to be a work in progress. There’s always a pause before he answers any question, almost as if he’s asking himself how Jeter would respond. He always gets the answers right, and he seems comfortable, but it doesn’t come as easily for him. Jeter, it seems, was born to lead. Judge is teaching himself along the way, and it’s been interesting to watch.

The Supporting Cast

The success or failure of the 2024 Yankees will not be determined by Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge, even if they’re both able to duplicate their stellar 2023 seasons.

The single most important Yankee next season will be Anthony Rizzo. In a lineup ridiculously devoid of left-handed power, Rizzo’s absence was crushing. Entering his age 34 season, there’s no reason to think that a healthy Rizzo won’t return to what he was before his concussion. He hit 32 home runs with an OPS+ of 132 in 2022, and his home splits look even better, with 19 home runs in 71 games in the Bronx. If the Yankees get more of this next season, the offense will be decidedly different.

Perhaps the most enigmatic player on the Yankee roster is Gleyber Torres, and there’s no telling how he will handle what could be his final season in the Bronx before he heads into free agency. Next season will be his age 27 season, a year typically seen as the peak of a baseball player’s career. Gleyber’s 2019 campaign — at only 22 — seemed to be the harbinger of a Hall of Fame career. With 38 home runs and an OPS of .871, it seemed the Yankees had found their next great player, but things went sideways. When compared to his brilliant first two seasons, the four seasons since can be seen as a disappointment, but it’s important to note that this is a young second baseman with 49 home runs and a 115 OPS+ over the past two seasons. It will be cheaper to let him go and put someone like Oswald Peraza at second base, so that’s probably how this will shake out following 2024. If so, I’ll miss him when he’s gone.

If Torres and Rizzo are healthy and productive in 2024, the Yankees will have some decisions to make regarding Peraza and D.J. LeMahieu. (I don’t expect Isaiah Kiner-Falefa to return, leaving that utility role to Oswaldo Cabrera.) Peraza is too young and (potentially) too good not to play regularly, but the only regular spot will be third base, which would leave LeMahieu without a position thanks to the fact that Giancarlo Stanton has become entrenched at DH.

Aside from the need for more left-handed hitting, this is probably the biggest problem facing the Yankees during this off-season, the $64 million question, if you will. (Coincidentally, Stanton is owed precisely $64 million over the next two seasons, then $54 million over 2026-27, with $20 million of that covered by the Marlins.) With a contract that doesn’t match his production, Stanton isn’t going anywhere unless the Yankees choose to put him out to pasture. Every time Stanton had a nice game or two, reporters dutifully asked Aaron Boone if he thought Stanton was getting on a roll, and Boone would always respond with some variation of the same script: “He looked good tonight, but we’re waiting for him to really lock in. When he gets on one of his rolls, it’s something special.”

The reality is that we should probably begin to talk about Stanton in the past tense. When he used to get on one of his rolls, it was incredibly impressive. But just like there was no legitimate comp for Stanton when he was in his prime aside from Paul Bunyan, we have no one to point to that gives us hope that he can return to his former fearsome self. He will still be relatively young next season at age 34, but it doesn’t seem likely that a muscle-bound, injury prone player like Stanton will somehow awaken memories of the athletic young right fielder that he once was. His last season in Miami was his best, as would be expected from a 27-year-old slugger, and but he hasn’t come close to that season as a Yankee. In fact, he has never been within a hundred points of his 2017 OPS (1.007), and this season he was three hundred points below that high water mark. Worse than that, in terms of outfield athleticism, he looked closer to Bill Buckner than Barry Bonds this season, and while there could be some lingering injury that we haven’t heard about it, he won’t be contending for any Gold Gloves moving forward.

So here’s the dilemma.

Let’s assume that Anthony Rizzo is healthy and plays 140 games at first base. That leaves three players (Torres, Peraza, and LeMaheiu) to cycle through second and third base with very few starts available at DH considering a healthy Stanton (I know, I know) will need at least 100 starts in that spot. Stanton isn’t just a short term obstacle in terms of daily lineup construction; that’s a relatively easy problem to solve. The larger concern is that he’s a long term obstacle in terms of roster construction. Because he can’t be moved, the Yankees might be forced to choose between Torres and Peraza this winter, not next. In an ideal world they’d enjoy 150 games each out of those two in 2024, then let Torres walk if that’s what they decide. (Fans would be wise to remember this log jam when they’re clamoring for the next high-priced free agent. There are always problems on the back end.)

All of this brings us to Anthony Volpe, the shortstop of the future who became, simply, the shortstop after the small sample size of spring training earned him the job. There’s a temptation to look at his year in two halves, before the June 13th chicken parmesan dinner and after, but even if we look at his full season, it’s hard to argue with the young man’s success, even if there are a few glaring questions.

Just for fun, let’s start out on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive stats are notoriously nebulous when you’re looking at only one season, but that’s all we have with Volpe. According to Fangraphs, he ranks thirteenth out of all major league shortstops, just ahead of Corey Seager in fourteenth and significantly ahead of Carlos Correa in fifteenth. Only Wander Franco and top-ranked Dansby Swanson have more defensive runs saved, and it should be noted that of the twelve players ranked ahead of Volpe, only the Mets’ Francisco Lindor has played more innings than the Yankee rookie. Volpe didn’t win the job with his glove, so it’s significant that he’s been above average in the field.

There’s an argument out there that Yankee fans want so badly for Volpe to be good, perhaps even become the next Derek Jeter, that they overlook his flaws as a hitter. I won’t bother to compare Volpe’s numbers to Jeter’s rookie season, because it wouldn’t be fair to compare him to the greatest shortstop in Yankee history, so we’ll just look at him alongside other rookies in 2023. Only eight rookies have more than Volpe’s 21 home runs, and only nine have more than his 60 RBIs, accomplishments that are both probably a bit surprising. If we narrow the focus a bit and look at his post-parm numbers, we find that he’s been slightly above average as compared to all other shortstops — twelfth in WAR, ahead of players like Jeremy Peña, Elly de la Cruz, and Carlos Correa.

One of the glaring questions I mentioned, however, has to with his stolen bases. Perhaps that famous meal weighed him down a bit; Volpe has only ten post-parm stolen bases, limiting a portion of his game that had been dynamic in the season’s first two months. Normally the league catches up with a rookie’s hot start at the plate, but we may have seen the same thing with Volpe’s base running. He never seemed to be a great base stealer, just a smart one. He mastered the hopping-skipping start that Yankees coaches have been teaching, but perhaps that was more gimmick than innovation. It’s possible that just like some young hitters are exposed once the league discovers they can’t hit curveballs, maybe the same thing has happened with Volpe. I have no way of knowing, but early in the season he was on pace to steal sixty bags; we may never see him swipe as many as twenty-five.

Considering all this, Volpe has shown enough that the Yankees don’t need to consider moving him off of shortstop either in favor of Peraza or any other external options. It’s easy to argue that they should’ve signed Correa or Seager or Trea Turner or someone else, but they didn’t. It makes no sense to re-litigate any of those cases. Anthony Volpe is the best option going forward.

The Fix

After Jasson Domínguez exploded on the scene in the first week of September, it seemed like maybe at least one problem was solved. The Yankees had their centerfielder, and they had some much needed left-handed power, albeit from a switch-hitter. Even at the time it seemed a bit silly to pin the organization’s hopes on a twenty-year-old, but with his injury putting the Martian in the background at least until July, that glaring hole in the lineup looms even larger.

The obvious fix for this is Cody Bellinger. Sure, it stings that the Yankees could’ve had him on the cheap last winter, but they should look forward, not back. After his resurgence with the Cubs this season (.305/.355/.531) with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases heading into his age 28 season, Bellinger is primed for a pay day, and with such an obvious fit in New York — just imagine his left-handed bat hitting behind Judge — his agent Scott Boras must be drooling. Observers estimate that Bellinger could demand something in the neighborhood of $200 million over six or seven years. If that’s the case — and if the Yankees are serious about winning championships — this is a deal that must be done. He solves many problems immediately, and if Jasson Domínguez eventually becomes the player the organization hopes, his ascendancy would mitigate any concerns about the back end of Bellinger’s deal. Domínguez would take over centerfield in 2025 and Bellinger could move over to left. In 2027, after both Rizzo and LeMahieu are gone, he could even become a full-time first baseman. There have been no great Yankee teams without power threats on the left side of the plate. It’s high time they get back to that.

More Fixing

The pitching staff doesn’t demand as much attention as the offense, but there are still concerns. With Cole locked in as the #1 starter and a (hopefully) healthy Rodón at #2, and a (hopefully) healthy Nestor Cortés at #3, there are two spots to fill after that, or four if the Yankees adhere to David Cone’s way of thinking. Clarke Schmidt made significant strides this season, erasing any questions there might have been around him, but the biggest revelation has been Michael King.

When necessity forced King out of the bullpen and into the rotation, he showed why he has never stopped wanting to be a starter. All you really need to know is this. In his six games since being converted to a starter, King has allowed just four earned runs in 28.1 innings while striking out 42 and walking just 4. That translates to a 1.17 ERA with a WHIP under one. There’s no going back on this. He will be in the rotation in 2024, without question, and he just might be great.

The looming question mark is Luís Severino. No Yankee pitcher has endured as many injuries as Severino, but I still hope that the Yankees bring him back, if only because I love rooting for him. That injury history will certainly lower his price tag, but more importantly it will shorten his contract. I can’t imagine any serious contender will offer him more than a two- or three-year deal, which could make him affordable enough for a return to the Bronx. My fingers are crossed.

But the biggest wild card in all this, and perhaps the biggest prize, is 25-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a potential free agent pitcher from Japan. He has been the best pitcher in Japanese baseball, and while he isn’t Shohei Ohtani, he projects as a solid #2 or #3 pitcher in the major leagues. He has twice won the Sawamura Award as the NPB’s top pitcher, and the Yankees are interested. (So are the other usual suspects, namely the Mets and the Red Sox.) If you wondered why general manager Brian Cashman wasn’t on hand to celebrate the 1998 Yankees a few weeks ago in the Bronx, it’s because he was in Japan scouting Yamamoto; Cashman sat in the front row as Yamamoto threw a no-hitter. Sure, the Yankees could give Ohtani half a billion dollars, but it probably makes a lot more sense to give $60-$100 million to Yamamoto and hope for the best.

The other benefit of this is that Yamamoto’s addition to the rotation would make someone like Clarke Schmidt available as a possible trade chip to get a left fielder. They could even add Torres or Peraza and a prospect or two if they want to shop for someone like Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds.

The Decision Makers

Notably absent from all of this is any speculation about Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman. Recently there have been some baseball insiders opining that the Yankees need a complete organizational overhaul, and while I understand that argument, there’s nothing I’ve seen from Hal Steinbrenner that indicates he might be inclined to take such drastic measures. I don’t think Brian Cashman is going anywhere, and if that’s correct, not only do I assume Boone will be back, I don’t think anything would change even if he were fired.

We’re at a point where baseball managers are simply extensions of the front office. Even Boone’s in-game decisions regarding pinch hitters and pitching changes are likely informed by mountains of analytics and pre-determined organizational theories, and big picture strategies around lineup construction and load management are also data driven. If Cashman were to fire Boone and replace him with someone else, whether it’s Casey Stengel or Casey Kasem, I don’t think there would be much change aside from fewer arguments with the umpires and fewer pop culture references in the press conferences.

The Dream

Finally, here’s the team I hope I get to watch in 2024.

Staring Lineup
3B D.J. LeMahieu (R)
CF Cody Bellinger (L)
RF Aaron Judge (R)
1B  Anthony Rizzo (L)
2B  Gleyber Torres (R)
DH Giancarlo Stanton (R)
C    Austin Wells (L)
SS  Anthony Volpe (R)
LF  Oswaldo Cabrera (S)

Bench
Oswald Peraza
Estevan Florial
Ben Rorverdt

Starting Rotation
Gerrit Cole
Carlos Rodón
Michael King
Nestor Cortés/Clarke Schmidt/Luís Severino
Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Exogíino Agonistes

It was the best story of a bleak season in the Bronx. Sure, Aaron Judge is still one of the best players on the planet, and yes, Domingo Germán pitched a perfect game, but nothing really compared to the jolt of excitement provided by Jasson Domínguez’s promotion to the major league level.

After four years of marinating in the minor leagues, Domínguez arrived last week with a literal bang, launching a home run with his first major league swing, victimizing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander. Proving that wasn’t a fluke, he hit three more home runs after that and peppered line drives around the field, all with the hint of a smile that seemed to tell the world that he knew he belonged.

While it didn’t erase the pain of 2023, it suddenly reshaped my outlook for 2024. This eight-game stretch didn’t convince me that Domínguez would produce a full season with an OPS over 1.000, but I knew he would be good enough to play 150 games in centerfield, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit imagining him producing numbers reminiscent of Ronald Acúña’s. I went from thinking that the Yankees would be wandering in the wilderness for a few years to believing they could be great again next season, and all because of the tantalizing talent of one twenty-year-old kid.

This is the beauty of baseball, a game that traffics in hope and dreams unlike any of our other sports. While one team’s fans are celebrating their heroes who have just won the World Series, the rest of us are dreaming on the potential of youngsters who might grow up to be legends. I once spun those dreams around a kid named Rubén Rivera only to watch them disappear like smoke, but a few years later the dream was about a kid named Derek Jeter and everything worked out. The thing you have to remember about baseball is this — you never know.

And so when I heard the news about Jasson Domínguez and his torn UCL, I was devastated.

My first selfish response was to mourn what was lost. Suddenly the rest of this season became nothing more than a series of meaningless games, and the hope I held for 2024 was diminished. (Not dashed, only diminished.)

But more than all of that, there was pain for Domínguez. Something else inherent to baseball is the joy that comes with watching a young player’s success, whether it’s headline material like Domínguez’s brilliant start or even just a ground ball up the middle for a marginal prospect’s first major league hit. As we watch from the stands or from our seat on the couch, we imagine our own childhood dreams coming true, and even the grizzled veterans in the dugout are taken back to their own debuts. Never are smiles more genuine, never are cheers more uplifting.

For a week and a day, Jasson Domínguez was walking in a dream world. Late last week reporter Meredith Marakovits asked Domínguez a simple question: “What’s the best part of being in the majors?” and his response was even simpler: “Being in the majors.”

For the next six to eight months, he won’t be. He’s only twenty years old and he still could have a brilliant career in front of him, but we’ll have to wait a while to see it. And that’s a shame.

The Future Is Now, or The Martian Has Landed

Back in early July I imagined one possible future for a Yankees team that was struggling, and two months later most of the moves I suggested back then have come to pass. Oswald Peraza has been playing third base for a few weeks, Josh Donaldson was finally released, and the Yankees have firmly embraced the future, admitting that there isn’t much to hope for in the present.

I’ll admit that it never occurred to me that they’d waive center fielder Harrison Bader just to save three quarters of a million dollars, but they might simply have felt like his spot on the 40-man roster was worth more than that. Bader’s roster spot, and possibly his position in center field, will be filled on Friday in Houston by Jasson Domínguez.

While Domínguez might only be the Yankee’s #2 overall prospect, he’s likely #1 in Yankee fans’ hearts. Since the day he signed back in 2019 at the age of sixteen for $5.1 million, a franchise record for an international free agent, the stories surrounding the young Dominican have been the stuff of legend. Nothing that happens in Houston this weekend will determine whether he turns out to be Mickey Mantle or Paul Bunyan or Rubén Rivera, but I’m certain people will be watching.

Promoted along with Dominguez will be catcher Austin Wells, meaning that five of the Yankees’ top six prospects entering 2023 will be in the dugout. If Aaron Boone adds these two newcomers to the lineup along with the youngsters already there, we could see one of the youngest Yankees lineups in the past few decades. Imagine this…

1B  D.J. LeMahieu
RF  Aaron Judge
2B  Gleyber Torres
DH Giancarlo Stanton
CF  Jasson Dominguez
C    Austin Wells
SS  Anthony Volpe
3B  Oswald Peraza
LF  Everson Pereira

It promises to be an interesting weekend.

Reality Bites

With the Yankees falling to 60-61 after one of the worst roadtrips in recent memory (2-7 in games against Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta), the baseball world has taken notice. Sure, we’ve all been watching, so we know that the Yankees have been struggling for more than a full calendar year, but now suddenly it’s a story.

The fact is, the Yankees have been under .500 for two hundred games now. I know that sounds preposterous — I mean, it is preposterous — but it’s true. On July 7th of last year, Gerrit Cole led the Yankees to a 6-5 win over the Red Sox to improve the team’s record to 60-23. They’d actually win again the next day to reach a high-water mark of 61-23, on pace to win 117 games, and all the talk was of rainbows, shamrocks, and World Series rings.

But then, as you know, the bottom dropped out. They limped home at 39-40, meaning since that win over the Red Sox, the Yankees have gone 99-101. This isn’t even a sample; this is just who they are.

Closer to the end of the season I’ll post a deeper analysis of what’s gone wrong along with my ideas about how to fix things, but for now let’s just hope they can beat the Red Sox. Because that would be nice. It’s always nice to hope.

At the Signpost Up Ahead…

Just when you thought things couldn’t get stranger for these New York Yankees, that’s exactly what happened.

I guess it wasn’t that much of a surprise when they essentially stood pat at the trade deadline. This team is what it is, and with no significant offensive additions available, it probably made sense not to trade away any prospects for the fool’s gold being peddled out there.

No, that’s not the strange part. Two days ago Anthony Rizzo went on the injured list with concussion-like symptoms, and he reported a few troubling things, including a recent inability to keep track of the number of outs in an inning. As much as fans might criticize Rizzo for his abysmal summer, this seems a bit more important.

Alongside Rizzo in the Life vs. Sport file, we’ve got Domingo Germán. Two days ago the Yankees announced that he will be undergoing treatment for alcoholism and will not appear again this season. When pressed about it that afternoon, all parties declined to give any more information than that, except to say that there was an incident that spurred the ultimate decision. Now we hear reports that Germán appeared to be intoxicated when he arrived at the Stadium and was physically and verbally aggressive when players and staff members attempted to manage him. (Presumably after calling the 1950s for some advice, they apparently locked him into a sauna in an effort to sweat the alcohol out.)

In the wake of all this, it’s difficult to be too concerned about how the Yankees do in this current stretch of games against some of the best teams in the American League, but that’s the nature of the game. The calendar stops for no concussion victim, no alcoholic, no suffering fan. “We play today, we win today. Dat’s it.”

Like a Blister in the Sun

In August of 1990 I left my house for the 39-mile trip to Anaheim Stadium to see a very bad Yankee team take on the Angels, but I never made it. I was driving an orange late 70s model Ford Pinto, and numerous things went wrong. First, I ran out of gas soon after getting off the freeway near the park, but after walking a few miles to and back from a gas station I discovered a deeper problem, the details of which have faded, but on that evening demanded a trip to a service station and some hard-earned cash out of my pocket. While I was walking the hard streets of Anaheim and haggling with a mechanic, the Angels’ Luís Polonia was hitting an inside the park grand slam, if you can believe it. The Yankees would lose 9-5, the fifth of six consecutive games they’d drop on a road trip that was as abysmal as my wanderings that night, and they’d end the season 67-95, buried in last place.

What I’m telling you is that things have been worse.

So even though I was disappointed as I watched the Yankees lose two of three to Colorado and confused by their first two losses in this series, I knew there was no way my son and I could skip the series altogether.

The late afternoon start was a double-edged sword. Ticket demand was low, so I was able to get two seats in the fifth row, midway between first base and the foul pole, without having to sell a kidney; but I knew we’d be baking in the ninety-degree sun for most of the game. It was a tradeoff I was willing to make.

When I took a tour of Fenway Park last spring I bought an MLB Ballpark Passport, a binder with pages for each major league ballpark so you can validate your visits to stadiums around the country by stamping the appropriate page with postage-style cancellation stamps available in every park. It’s fun. What I didn’t know when I bought it was how much I’d enjoy each exchange with the person armed with the stamp. In the Fenway gift shop, the sales woman at the counter was too nervous to do it, so she called over a co-worker; at Dodger Stadium the woman at Guest Relations positively lit up and said, “Oh, I love when people bring these in!” And then we talked for a minute about the parks I’ve been to and which ones I’m hoping to visit next.

In Anaheim last night, it was even better. The gentleman behind the counter was happy to apply the stamp and sign his name next to it, but then he noticed the scorebook I had with me, eyeing it as if it were a relic from the past.

“Hey, look at that! Where’d you get that? Can I take a look at it?”

It was actually a gift from a reader of this site several years ago, and I take it with me to every game, showing my age more than anything else. Why would any normal person spend time tracking information that’s readily available in real time on any smart device? I suppose for the same reason that I wear a tie to work, do crossword puzzles, and call friends on their birthdays.

“Hey, John. Come out and take a look at this! Look what this guy’s got…”

John emerged from a back office and immediately stepped into his role.

“Wow. Where’d you find that? My daughter plays softball, but everybody’s gone digital now. They’re using iPads.”

I half expected someone from Antiques Roadshow to come out and give me an appraisal.

Once we got to our seats, armed with a pretzel and a couple sodas, first pitch was still thirty minutes away and there were a handful of players out on the field. Nearest to us was Giancarlo Stanton, languidly stretching in the sun, then jogging a few gentle strides into the outfield before returning to the foul line to begin it all again. Dozens of fans stood in a crush along the rail, desperately calling for his attention, but Stanton didn’t seem to hear them. This was every single day for him, a superstar getting ready for work.

But then after a few minutes he turned towards the rail and slowly, slowly, slowly walked towards them. The mass of humanity before him surged and roiled, and dozens more fans flooded down from the seats above, each with a ball or a card or a hat or a jersey to be signed. They stood on the plastic seats to get better angles for their photos or to extend their reach into Stanton’s orbit. Two members of stadium security trundled down the steps and one dutifully told everyone not to stand on the seats; when no one heeded he only shrugged his shoulders and watched. Stanton stood in the eye of the storm, neither relishing the attention nor resenting it. We were ten or fifteen feet away, and I’m not sure if he ever spoke, ever smiled, or ever interacted with anyone beyond the exchange of the object to be signed. It didn’t matter, though. A small boy in a Yankees t-shirt emerged from the pile and bounced towards his father, clutching an autographed ball and a story he’ll tell for the rest of his life.

The Angels grabbed a 2-0 lead after Carlos Rodón walked Shohei Ohtani (two days late) and then coughed up a home run to Tyler Ward. There was another walk and a bomb (Luís Rengifo) in the second inning to make it 4-0, and then two more runs from a rally in the third and the Yankees were down 6-0. In the space of thirty minutes, all hope was gone.

As always when the Yankees are playing in this stadium, there were Yankees fans everywhere, especially along the right field line where supporters of the Bronx Bombers traditionally sit after raiding the secondary market to be closer to their heroes. It’s normally the most raucous area of the park, but on this afternoon it was subdued, and not just because of the oppressive heat. Everywhere I looked there were Yankees fans shaking their heads. There was muttering to my left and right. Out on the field it was the same. When a Yankee would strike out to end an inning — there were a preposterous sixteen strikeouts — he’d trudge slowly towards his position, shoulders sagging, head shaking in disbelief. A teammate would arrive with his cap and glove and there might be a pat of encouragement, or there might be more head shaking. They were a somber bunch out on the field, and so were we.

I didn’t notice it during the game, but as Carlos Rodón walked off the field after one of those disastrous innings, he responded to some heckling by blowing a kiss towards some dissatisfied Yankee fans sitting behind the dugout. This might’ve been the worst thing that happened, simply because Rodón has no idea what could be in store for him if he brings that nonsense to the Bronx. After Tommy Kahnle gave up a run in a messy eighth inning, he returned to the dugout and destroyed an electric fan.

No matter how frustrated you are with this team, I guarantee that the players are even more frustrated. On Wednesday afternoon, the weight of it all was showing.

But as I say, it’s fun going out to the park. When Franchy Cordero went deep to lead off the eighth and then the Yankees loaded the bases later in the inning, putting them one swing away from tying the game, the stadium suddenly woke up and it seemed louder than it had been when the Angels were scoring.

It isn’t like Friday night in the Bronx against the Red Sox, but there’s something special about being in a visiting stadium surrounded by so many cheering Yankee fans. It brought me back to a similarly warm afternoon in July of 1994 when Don Mattingly came off the bench in the ninth inning with the Yankees trailing 4-2 and promptly blasted a ball into the seats, sending all of us into a frenzy, or even just last season when we were in the stands to watch Aaron Judge hit his 50th home run.

All of us were poised for something similar, and the “Let’s-Go-Yan-kees” chants were echoing across the stadium, but when Oswaldo Cabrera struck out to strand all three runners, all the air came out of the balloon.

If you’re wondering why things look so bleak for this team, it’s really quite simple. The Yankee hitters struck out sixteen times on Wednesday afternoon and evening, and the Yankee pitchers yielded eleven walks. If you were to feed only those two numbers into the Baseball Probability Machine, I’m sure it would return a win probability of five percent or so.

As we walked out of the park, my son asked how long the flight back to New York would be, and my answer was quick. “About five hours or so, but it’s gonna seem an awful lot longer for them.”

We were home in a blink, though, and even if I’d known ahead of time how it was all going to shake out, I still wouldn’t have missed it.

Summertime Blues

Youse guys stink. Or some variation is prolly what you’re thinking of our boys these days. And who could blame you?

What we’re seeing right now is depressing, ain’t it?

The Assistant

What follows is the transcript of a press conference convened in the early hours of Monday, July 10, in the Yankee Stadium press room. The press had gathered to hear from Hal Steinbrenner, chairman and managing general partner of Yankee Global Enterprises; Brian Cashman, general manager of the New York Yankees; Aaron Boone, field manager of the New York Yankees; Aaron Judge, team captain of the New York Yankees; Derek Jeter, Hall of Fame shortstop and Captain Emeritus of the New York Yankees; Jason Zillo, vice president of Communications and Media Relations for the New York Yankees; and Hank Waddles, writer for the New York Yankees blog, Bronx Banter.

Zillo: Ladies and gentlemen of the press, thank you so much for being here on what should be a rare off day for all of you. With that in mind, I’m going to hand things over immediately to Mr. Steinbrenner.

Steinbrenner: Thank you so much, Jason. I think everyone here knows that success and failure here is measured by only one metric. My wife and I were vacationing recently at a villa in Northern Italy, and I just couldn’t take any more of these reports I was getting from the states. The losses. The struggling offense. I knew that my father wouldn’t have been able to stomach it. You know, people don’t think I hear the criticism, but I do. I know that people think I’m not my father, that I don’t want to win the way he did, but let me tell you… So I got Cash on the phone, and I told him enough was enough.

Cashman: I can confirm all of that. Mr. Steinbrenner — this Mr. Steinbrenner — wants to win just as badly as his father did. Even more so, I think sometimes. So we’re making some changes at the organizational level. It’s unusual for any team, especially for this organization, to make sweeping changes in the middle of the season, but here’s why…

[Cashman takes a large championship ring off of his finger and forcefully bangs it on the table in front of him before continuing.]

Cashman: This is ring #27, from 2009. I look at this ring every night before I go to sleep, and I can’t believe it’s been fourteen years since our organization won this ring. Four. [click] Teen. [click] Years. [click]. And it’s not good enough. So I decided to look in the mirror, and I realized that I have to take some responsibility. Maybe I have to step back.

Jack Curry: Are you resigning?

Steinbrenner: Brian is not resigning, and he hasn’t been fired. We’re just reimagining things. I think I’ve come up with a way to help the office run more smoothly. We’ll have co-general managers going forward.

Brian Hoch: How can that possibly work? Who’s in charge? Is this new guy the assistant general manager, or the assistant to the general manager?

Steinbrenner: Again, these are co-general managers. Brian will be in charge of big picture decisions (budget, salaries, scouting) and his co-general manager — this morning we’re introducing Hank Waddles — will be in charge of the day-to-day stuff. Trades, roster decisions. He’ll also consult with Boone on lineup constructions and bullpen usage.

Curry: I’ve got two questions for Waddles. One, what makes you qualified for this position? Two, when can we expect to see some changes?

Waddles: Thanks for that question, Jack. First of all, I’m more than qualified. I’ve been watching Yankees baseball for more than forty years now. My entire life has been preparation for this moment. But really, this isn’t rocket science, which brings me to your second question. I’ve got some changes to announce right now.

First, we made a few transactions just a few minutes ago. Josh Donaldson has been designated for assignment. I don’t think I should have to explain that move to anyone here, but I will because it highlights a major change in this organization. If you look at the back of his baseball card, you’ll see that Donaldson was once a great player, but that’s no longer the case. I actually had a conversation with Boone about this. He keeps saying that Donaldson has had just one bad month, but it’s been more than bad. It’s been historically awful. In 99 at bats, he has ten home runs, five singles, and 31 strikeouts — balanced against just eleven walks. And this idea that this is just one bad month? In 132 games last year he was actually worse with an OPS of .682. This organization can’t have a player like that taking up roster space, so his locker is empty right now. I wish him well.

Next, we’re sending Billy McKinney and Franchy Cordero back to Scranton. We’re considering trade options for them, but you won’t see them in pinstripes again. They both filled in when they were needed, but I just don’t believe that they have anything else to offer. We’ve seen their ceilings. And just so you know where we’re headed, there are a couple other players you won’t be seeing in the Bronx any time soon — Willie Calhoun and Jake Bauers.

We’ve also called up Oswald Peraza from Scranton, which might not be that much of a surprise. Also, releasing Donaldson opens up a spot on the 40-man, and we’re filling that with Estevan Florial. He’ll be joining the team in Colorado and starting in left field. He’ll continue in that spot at least through the end of July.

Hoch: Can you explain your rationale for those moves?

Waddles: You know the rationale for those moves. First of all, we can’t continue to play D.J. LeMahieu every night and just keep telling each other that he’s better than what he’s shown. Well you know what he’s shown? He’s shown us exactly who he is, and there’s no sense putting him in the lineup every night just because of who we’re wishing he could be. Peraza has been playing third down at Scranton, and now he’s gonna play third for us up here. Just like Florial, he’ll have a thirty-game stretch to show us what he can do. We believe he’s gonna be great.

And Florial? That’s the easiest of all these decisions. This is a kid with a .985 OPS. I mean, NINE-EIGHTY-FIVE! What is he even doing in Scranton when we can’t score any runs in the Bronx? What else does this kid have to prove?

Cashman: To be honest, I had completely forgotten he was even in the organization until Hank reminded me this morning.

Steinbrenner: It really is the perfect example of big-picture-little-picture.

Waddles: He probably still strikes out a bit too much, but here we are at the all-star break and he’s got 21 home runs and 18 steals. There aren’t too many players in baseball with that type of a power-speed package, and since we’ve got a glaring hole in left field, this move is obvious. The organization placed bets on all these guys multiple times over the years when they decided against signing any of those marquee free agents, decided against including them in deadline deals that could’ve helped us in the short term. You can only hold your cards for so long. I believe it’s time to lay our cards on the table and see what happens. It’s been working well so far with Anthony Volpe, and we believe — I believe — it’ll work with this group as well.

Curry: What do these moves mean for Isaiah Kiner-Falefa? And is this a rebuild?

Waddles: This might surprise you, but I’m a big IKF fan. We’re lucky to have him. Booney and I have been talking, and I think he’ll still be in the lineup somewhere at least four or five nights a week. But this is definitely not a rebuild. We’re here to win games and win championships. Period. But what have we been doing so far in 2024? Who here feels like the old model was working?

Curry: A question for Aaron Boone. How do you feel about all this? It seems like you’ve lost some of your autonomy.

Boone: You know, that’s not how I see it. Hanky and I spent some time this morning…

Waddles: Never call me that.

Boone: Sorry about that, it’s just a tendency. Hank and I spoke this morning for a while when we met, and here’s what strikes me about him. I really like his compete. You know, he’s gonna get after it. I’m not worried about this at all — our working relationship or this team in general. I mean, I’m excited! Right? We’re in a position to get everything we want. It’s all right there in front of us, and with our rotation coming together — for the first time really — gosh, I’m just excited! And Hank’s got some great ideas.

Waddles: And here’s another one. Giancarlo Stanton is our right fielder. End of discussion. We’ll get him off his feet a couple times a week and give him a DH night, but he’s our right fielder. So through the rest of this month and into August, here’s the lineup you’ll see:

C Higashioka/Treviño
1B Rizzo
2B Torres
3B Peraza
SS Volpe
LF Florial
CF Bader
RF Stanton
DH LeMahieu

But we’ll roll IKF through second, third, and the outfield spots to give guys time at DH. I’d imagine IKF will start more games than D.J. Doesn’t that sound about right, Aaron?

Boone: Yes, that’s what we talked about. Again, I really like the looks of this lineup.

Waddles: Oh, and another thing — the Martian will be landing on September 1st, guaranteed, and he’ll be playing. It seems like the Yankees have been the only team in baseball that’s afraid to bring up young prospects, but that stops now. I mean, the only reason he isn’t coming up right now is that we’ve got Florial and Peraza ready to contribute. But you can mark your calendars right now — Jasson Dominguez will be in the starting lineup on September 1st. To help move him along, we’re moving him up to Scranton today.

Hoch: And what about when Judge returns? How will he impact all this?

Judge: Maybe I should answer that. What everyone knows but is afraid to say out loud is this — I don’t know if I’m gonna be back out on the field this season. No one knows. This team can’t afford to wait for me, they’ve got to get out there every night and compete, and this line up gives us the best shot at that. If I can get back sometime in August or September, I’ll just fit in wherever and whenever Hank and Aaron — hey, did you hear that? Hank… Aaron? Anyway, I’ll be happy to jump in wherever they feel like I can help the team.

Curry: I’m wondering something else. Derek, why are you here this morning? What’s your role in all this?

Jeter: No reason, really. No role. They mentioned that I was always Hank’s favorite player, so I thought it would be cool to stop by and say hello.

Waddles: Yes. It’s been very cool. Now let’s get to work.

Perfect!

It was a night when the game was on more as background than anything else, so as I pulled my pork shoulder out of the pressure cooker during the third inning, I didn’t really notice what was going on in Oakland. A bit later while dicing an onion I took off my glasses for a moment to wipe away some tears and  watched as Giancarlo Stanton pounded a home run deep into the stands in left and then punctuated the blast by spiking his bat into the turf, more in exasperation than celebration.

I shredded the pork, popped it under the broiler for a few minutes while I warmed some tortillas on the comal, then called the family for dinner. Still, I had no idea.

The Yankees built a rally in the fifth inning, but my family and I were sitting in the dinning room with our carnitas tacos, so I didn’t see the string of hits that led to all the scoring; I only knew that it was 7-0 and that the tacos were delicious.

Back in the kitchen to pack up leftovers for tomorrow, I peeked at the game and noticed that Domingo Germán was still on the mound. After he gave up 15 runs in 5.1 innings over his last two starts, this was at least as surprising as the offensive outburst, but, I told myself, these were the A’s — not just a bad team, but an historically bad team.

Not until Germán struck out Esteury Ruíz for the last out of the sixth did I realize what was going on. Kind of. The camera zoomed in on Germán as he strode off the mound, and my eye was drawn to the game summary that popped up onto the screen: Oakland 0 0 0. He was throwing a no-hitter?!?

I caught up with the rest of the baseball world when the game returned from commercial break and I heard Ryan Ruocco cast superstition aside and tell us that Germán had retired all eighteen batters he’d faced. Inexplicably, the pitcher who had once been so lost was pitching a perfect game.

For the next nine outs, I hung on every pitch. But here’s the thing — there was no drama aside from the constant references to Don Larsen and David Wells and David Cone (and Mike Mussina). There was nothing dramatic happening between the lines. Germán’s final three innings went like this:

0-1 fly out
1-2 strikeout
0-1 groundout

0-1 pop out
0-1 groundout
3-2 groundout (seven pitches, the only hint of apprehension)

1-2 groundout
0-0 fly out
0-0 groundout

Germán needed just 25 pitches to get those final nine outs, and seven of them were spent on one batter. When Ruíz swung at Germán’s first pitch with two outs in the ninth, the contact was good enough that I imagined a base hit between shortstop and third, but when the camera view switched, there was Josh Donaldson calmly taking the long hop.

Germán had quickly spun around after releasing his ninety-ninth and final pitch, likely fearing the same result I had, but now the ball held him like a magnet. As Donaldson fired across the infield, the ball pulled Germán, who now saw what was coming. The ball popped into Anthony Rizzo’s glove for the 27th and final out of the game, and Domingo Germán slowly spun between the mound and first base, the zero on his back suddenly significant. His arms stretched out in celebration for a brief moment until first his catcher, Kyle Higashioka, and then the rest of the team engulfed him. It was a moment.

Fifteen minutes later, after Meredith Marakovits had interviewed Germán and then Higgy, no one had left. In this moment no one was worried about Aaron Judge’s torn ligament or Josh Donaldson’s anemic bat or Carlos Rodón’s rehab assignment. It was the purest regular season celebration you’ll ever see, as every Yankee on the roster stood smiling on the Oakland Coliseum turf not wanting that moment to end. Germán and his catcher stood shoulder to shoulder and posed for a picture, and then their teammates filled in around them for another. After the last photo was snapped, Germán brought the game ball to his lips for a kiss and then pointed to the heavens.

It was perfect.

June Gloom

When people think of Southern California they imagine sunshine that never stops with just enough of a breeze to cool the sunbathers and gently lift the blond hair of the smiling women you pass on the street.

Honestly, it’s like that a lot of the time, but not in June. Now is the time when various atmospheric conditions combine to create a marine layer that creeps in overnight like a blanket, tucking in the coastal cities and hiding the sun until mid-morning or even early afternoon. June Gloom. It’s dismal and depressing. The perfect analogy for what’s been going on with the New York Yankees.

Everything was wonderful before the calendar turned to June. They boasted one of the top offenses in baseball in May, leading everyone in home runs and perched near the top in many offensive categories, and Aaron Judge was the runaway winner of the American League Player of the Month. He slashed .342/.474/.882 while hitting 12 home runs with 25 RBIs in just 21 games. The common line of thinking was that he was even better than he was in 2022.

But on June 3rd he crashed into the fence at Dodger Stadium and the Yankee offense crashed along with him. Twenty days into this gloomiest of months, the Yankees currently rank dead last in batting average, on base percentage, and OPS. Dead. Last. Looking at the June numbers for the players expected to take up the slack in Judge’s absence, things look even gloomier…

Player June Statistics
Stanton .122/.234/.293  2 HRs, 2 RBIs
Rizzo .083/.185/.104  0 HRs, 4 RBIs
Donaldson* .162/.256/.568  5 HRs, 7 RBIs
Torres .204/.278/.429  3 HRs, 5 RBIs
Volpe .167/.222/.310  3 RBIs, 2 SBs
Bader Zero games played.
* Josh Donaldson, inexplicably, has six home runs on the season and two singles. That’s it.

Ah, but there’s some good news. Harrison Bader returns from the injured list and will presumably start in center field against the Mariners tonight, and we’ll hear all about the added length he’ll bring the lineup. That’s obviously a good thing, but nothing will get better until the other guys listed above begin to do something. Anything.

Maybe tonight’s the night. We can hope, right?

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

When Mookie Betts stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning on Friday night, the Dodger Stadium scoreboard boasted an ominous stat — the one-time Boston Red Sox superstar and current Dodger icon had hit 40 leadoff home runs in his career, twenty of those with the Dodgers. I’ve never been a pessimistic fan, but a negative voice in my head suggested that number forty-one might be coming up. Two pitches later it was 1-0, Dodgers. Ten batters later it was 6-0, and before everyone had gotten to their seats the game was essentially over.

There are lots of Yankee fans in Southern California, and there’s good and bad to that. I’ve gone to see the Yankees play the Angels when Anaheim felt more like the West West Bronx, and nothing could be more fun. But the downside is that when the Yankees only make a few appearances out here, the interest is high and the ticket prices are higher. When they’re playing a team with an actual fan base that appreciates the history as much as they appreciate their own team, the prices are higher still. There were moments last week when I wondered if I might have preferred to save my money and watch the games on TV.

Thankfully, though, my son insisted we go to at least one of the three games, so I pulled on my Jeter jersey, he wore his 99, and we were off. I paid almost three hundred dollars for two reserve seats (high, but almost directly behind the plate) and it took us about two hours from our driveway to the stadium, but it was completely worth it.

Many will see this as blasphemous, but Dodger Stadium — the structure — isn’t that special. It lacks the history of Fenway and the charm of Wrigley (the only two stadiums built earlier), and it doesn’t have the unique architectural design seen in the post-Camden Yards parks. Dodger Stadium is beautiful mainly because of where it sits, high atop a bluff overlooking the Los Angeles skyline with sight lines looking beyond the foothills and into the Southern California mountains. Baseball’s early ballparks were either wedged into cities that wouldn’t give another inch or built in such a way that the urban symbiotic sprawl eventually made it difficult to find the divide between town and team, but that isn’t the case here. In the most L.A. kind of way, Dodger Stadium is aloof but welcoming, modern but classic. Even if it doesn’t feel old, even if it’s symmetrical, Dodger Stadium is forever the jewel of Los Angeles.

So how could we not go?

After that nightmarish first inning, I was beginning to wonder. Given his first two starts, I had been excited to see Luís Severino pitch. As awful as his final line looks (4 IP, 9 hits, 7 runs, 3 HRs), it almost wasn’t that bad. The Betts home run was one thing, but Sevy was undone by six consecutive hits later in the inning — five singles and another home run. A couple of those base hits were rockets, but there was bloop and a ground ball and a check swing thrown in as well.

No one wearing pinstripes would take solace from what I’m about to write, but it’s true — after that first inning, the Yankees outscored the Dodgers the rest of the way, thanks to home runs from improbable sources. Just hours removed from the injured list, Josh Donaldson went deep twice, and Giancarlo Stanton hit one of his own. It wasn’t enough to make the game interesting at any point, but it certainly was enough to make me dream about a potent Yankee offense. Maybe.

Oh, and there was also Clayton Kershaw. I’m not sure what the national narrative is on Kershaw nowadays, but he has to be the most under-appreciated first ballot Hall of Famer in history. In a city that loves to elevate heroes, Kershaw has been the forgotten superstar. If there’s one thing more certain than his eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown, it’s the response you’ll get if you voice that opinion to a group of Dodger fans. Invariably, one of them will say, “Yeah, but he can’t win in October.” I don’t care much about the Dodgers one way or the other, but it’s maddening to me.

Watching Kershaw on Friday night was a pleasure, even if it was at the expense of the Yanks. He never looked overpowering the way he once was, but he was always in control. Sure, he yielded two home runs, but neither one mattered. When he walked off the mound following a perfect seventh inning, the fans sent him off with polite applause. It was his league-leading seventh win of the season and the 204th of his career.

All in all it was a fun night at the ballpark, mainly because any night at the ballpark watching baseball with your son is nothing but fun.

Yankee Privilege

Just a few weeks ago the team was in disarray, and some of the less optimistic members of the fan base were giving up on the season (in May!) and predicting an October without Yankees baseball. The rotation was in a shambles, the bullpen was running on fumes, the reigning MVP was on the injured list along with several other important cogs, and Aaron Boone was being booed at the big ballpark in the Bronx. The mighty Yankees were in last place in the American League East. The End Times had arrived.

But over the past two weeks the Yankees have won 11 of 14 games and climbed out of the cellar and into third place. You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

First of all, Aaron Judge is good, and it’s good to have him back in the lineup. All he did upon his return was earn A.L. Player of the Week honors by slashing .500/.621/1.273 with five home runs, eleven RBIs, and a stolen base thrown in just for fun.

The home runs, though. A couple of them were the types that mere mortals might hit, standard shots that landed in the first few rows of the bleachers, but two in Toronto traveled over 450 feet each. The first broke Toronto hearts as conspiracy theorists were certain he had peeked into the dugout to get information about the pitch as it was being delivered, while the second broke an actual Toronto Maple Leaf, a plastic display beyond the bleachers in straight away center field, a problem park designers never could have foreseen.

We also got more evidence of something we’ve seen for quite a while from our new Captain. He’s never said anything remotely controversial in any postgame interview, but he’s secretly a low-key shit talker. We first saw this back in 2021 when Judge homered in Houston and clutched his jersey tightly as he rounded third. He was clearly referencing José Altuve’s similar (and controversial) gesture following his series-ending home run the previous October; after the game Judge “diffused” that talk by explaining he was just a bit chilly since the Astros always had the air conditioning on full blast. Sure.

After all the buzz about the dugout peek before that home run in Toronto, Judge took lots of abuse and cheating accusations from the fans in the bleachers as he stood at his post in right field. When he went deep again the next night, he pointed out towards those same fans while rounding first base and heading towards second; after the game he explained that he was actually pointing at the Yankee bullpen to acknowledge their hard work. Right.

Later in the dugout the cameras caught him celebrating with his teammates, and now he covered his eyes with his hands. No peeking.

Is he petty? Yes. Do I love it? Hell, yes.

Harrison Bader is also back, and he’s brought both his bat and glove. The added length to the lineup makes a huge difference — his big home run on Sunday turned the game for the Yankees — but anything he does with a bat in his hand is gravy. Last year we all convinced ourselves that Aaron Judge was a great center fielder, but this year we’ve seen that Bader is elite. Your eyes will tell you that, but the numbers back that up. Five days ago Katie Sharp tweeted that when balls are hit to him with a 75% catch probability or lower, Bader has caught seven of the nine, the highest success rate of any outfielder in baseball.

With Judge in right and Bader in center, the Yankees have Gold Glove caliber fielders in those two spots, which leaves… left field.

When the Yankees signed Aaron Hicks to a seven-year, $70 million deal prior to the 2019 season, it looked like a brilliant move. He was a high level centerfielder with an excellent arm and he had just hit a career-high 27 home runs with an OPS of .833. I don’t need to tell you this, but it was all downhill from there. Instead of providing solid defense in left and a switch hitting bat with pop towards the back end of the lineup, Hicks became an overpaid albatross and the target of merciless booing at the Stadium — and even on the road.

Hicks was finally released a few days ago, a disappointing end to a Yankee career that once held so much promise. I always rooted for him — both because he’s from my hometown, Long Beach, California, and because it’s always good to have someone who looks like me wearing the Yankee pinstripes. It was the right move, but I’m still a little sad about it.

There are other things swirling about. All members of the starting rotation not named Gerrit Cole remain an enigma. Nestor Cortés has been inconsistent, the legend of Carlos Rodón has yet to materialize, and Clarke Schmidt is Clarke Schmidt. Domingo Germán has shown brilliance on a few occasions, but that only makes him more maddening; he’s currently serving a ten-game suspension for pitching with an illegal substance on his hand. He had been checked and warned before, and Schmidt was checked and warned during Germán’s suspension, so it seems like the blame lies as much with the organization as it does with the players.

But just as the lineup has benefited from the reinsertion of Judge and Bader, the rotation suddenly looks a lot more viable with the addition of Luís Severino, who was virtually unhittable in his season debut against the Reds on Sunday.

As much as we like to wring our hands and worry that this team can’t possibly play with the Rays or the Dodgers or the Astros or whichever team is the scariest, the cupboard is far from bare. The surge of the last two weeks has allowed everyone to breathe, and with Cole on the mound tonight to start an important series with the Baltimore Orioles (and when was the last time the Yankees and O’s played an important series?), things are looking up for the first time in weeks, maybe for the first time all season.

So if you were born in the shadow of the old Stadium, if a parent or grandparent brainwashed you in your youth, if you were drawn by Mantle or Munson or Mattingly or Jeter, or if you fell in love when you convinced your parents to take you to a game during a family vacation to New York City, take a minute to be grateful that you hitched yourself to this team way back when. Have there been frustrations and heartbreak and incomprehensible trades? Sure, just like any other team. But through it all, we’ve been the luckiest fans in the world.

The Darling Buds of May

If Shakespeare was right, and rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, perhaps this current Yankee slide, like all things, is temporary. We all saw what happened yesterday. Just as we were foolishly putting a win in the bank and thinking about winning a series against the best team in baseball, everything collapsed in the worst possible way. A 1-0 loss would’ve been bad enough, but to watch Gerrit Cole cough up a six-run lead and then watch the Rays celebrate a walk-win a few innings later… Well, it was a bit too much to take. Cole hasn’t just been the best pitcher in baseball, until Sunday afternoon he had been the one truly consistent player on the Yankees roster. The one sure thing.

But then suddenly he wasn’t.

This happens in baseball. Aaron Boone summed it up well after the game, I thought. He acknowledged that it was a tough loss, but he also pointed out something we tend to forget — this is baseball. There will be crushing losses like this one, just as there will be improbable comebacks. We just tend to remember the former rather than the latter. The Rays, no doubt, are telling themselves that they deserved yesterday’s win because they refused to give up, and while that may be true, I can’t imagine they’ll remember this game come September. This is baseball.

So if we can convince ourselves to move past the improbability of this game — even the improbability of this current string of injuries — maybe we can begin to see some positive signs. The most obvious one is Harrison Bader, who has suddenly become one of the most productive players on the team. Tuesday should bring the return of Aaron Judge, maybe, and not long after that we could see Josh Donaldson. (I’m not a fan, but he would add consistent play at third along with a bat that pitchers would at least have to pay attention to.) There’s hope.

My Magic 8 Ball has nothing encouraging to say about Giancarlo Stanton (“Ask again later”) or Carlos Rodon (“Outlook not so good”), but Luís Severino is about to start a rehab stint, which is something, I guess.

But if you really want some good news, there’s this. The Oakland A’s are in town, and they just might end up being the worst team we’ve seen in years. Sometimes the schedule smiles.

It’s All in the Cards

I was probably seven years old when I bought my first pack of baseball cards from the Melrose Market in Southfield, Michigan. It would’ve been in 1977, and card collecting couldn’t really have been called a hobby back then.

We’d rip open our packs desperately looking for players we knew, then we’d sort them by team, wrap each team in a rubber band, and toss them all into a shoebox. In the five decades since then, the hobby exploded (in the 1980s), imploded (in the 90s), and enjoyed an unlikely resurgence (during the pandemic).

In the 46 years since I bought my first pack, everything has changed about the hobby. What once was simple — open the packs and collect the cards — has become an elaborate enterprise that resembles a lottery more than anything else. Collectors today don’t complete sets. In fact, most are only interested in the limited run insert cards that are randomly shuffled into the packs. The common cards are about as interesting to collectors today as the crisp pieces of gum were years ago.

I’ve got several crates of cards out in the garage, most worth nothing at all, but there are a few treasures that will bring in some money when I eventually sell them. The starting lineup of the 1961 Yankees, rookie cards of all the Hall of Famers who debuted in the 1980s, and some of Derek Jeter’s most desirable cards. It’s been twenty-five years since I was actively collecting, but every spring I’ll make a point to buy a few packs of the latest set, just to see what they look like and to get a taste of the glorious anticipation that shoots from your fingertips to your brain as you open a pack of cards. Say what you will about the hobby and the foolishness of paying actual money for small pieces of cardboard, but there’s really no feeling quite like opening a pack of baseball cards.

So when I finished my grocery shopping this morning, I turned the cart towards the back of the store to the hobby section, and I found what I was looking for — Topps 2023 Series One. A box with seven packs inside, price tag $24.99. Let’s open a pack together…

J.T. Realmuto, Phillies
It’s a nice card. Realmuto seems to have just hit a walk off, and he’s looking into the dugout and pumping his fist. And those home Phillies jerseys with the red pinstripes are definitely in the running for second-best uniforms in baseball.

Zack Thompson, Cardinals
Nothing special here. The standard mid-windup photo that most pitchers get.

Kris Bryant, Rockies
On the one hand, why in the world did the Cubs trade this guy? On the other, maybe they were right.

Tanner Rainey, Nationals
See Zack Thompson, but with a boring uniform. Why teams started using their spring training unis in actual games is completely beyond me.

Bobby Witt, Jr., Royals
The best thing about this card is the Topps All-Star Rookie trophy cup in the corner. Topps went away from logos like this for a while, but it was a nice move to bring them back. I loved these when I was a kid. Still do.

Alex Cobb, Giants
The Giants home uniform is another one of my favorites, so it’s too bad that they’ve also fallen victim to the alternate jersey disease. Here Cobb is wearing white pants with a hideous orange jersey, not the classic cream. Such a shame.

Josh Naylor, Guardians
He’s not rocking the baby, but he is celebrating like he’s just done something important. Even though he’s never really done anything important.

Matt Chapman, Blue Jays
It’s like the pack was watching the game today and is taunting me.

Rafael Devers, Red Sox
This is an insert card, but a worthless one. For some reason Topps is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the 1988 set, possibly the lowest point in the company’s history. (You could argue that 1987 is their most worthless set, but it doesn’t really matter.) Anyway, Devers is depicted here on the 1988 design, which is hardly memorable.

Ozzie Albies, Braves (Stars of MLB)
This is another insert, and it isn’t too interesting. Apparently it’s worth 75¢, which seems about right.

Shane Bieber, Guardians
When Bieber was great, he was probably the most uninteresting great pitcher we’ve seen in the past forty years. Greg Maddux was about as exciting as a metronome, but somehow he made that interesting. Bieber? Not so much. Boring pitcher, boring card.

Kevin Gausman, Blue Jays.
More taunting. Here he’s depicted just after releasing the ball, with his long hair flying out from under his hat, reminiscent of the guy in the Maxell tape ad from so long ago.

Sandy Alcantara, Marlins
Probably the best pitcher that no one’s ever heard of. The last column on the back of his card is WAR. Once upon a time we got games, innings pitched, wins, losses, hits, walks, strikeouts, and saves — and that seemed like a lot of information.

Darick Hall, Phillies
Never heard of him before today.

And that’s it. Kind of a dud of a pack. No Yankees, no superstars. But I’ve got six more packs to go…

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver