Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 11, 2018

The Offseason Arrives, Three Weeks Too Soon

Only one city gets a parade. That is the immutable truth about how the longest season ends every year, twenty-nine fan bases processing disappointment and doubt while one team and its faithful celebrate. That party is just three weeks away now; perhaps even sooner if one team dominates the World Series. The celebration may take place in Houston, toasting the first team to repeat as champions in nearly two decades. Or the location may be Boston, cementing a reputation for winning that has long since buried the old canard of a jinxed franchise. Perhaps the parade will commemorate the first title for the Brewers or the seventh for the Dodgers. Either would mark the end of a championship drought that is now measured in decades.

One certainty is that this year’s parade route will not be along the Canyon of Heroes, rolling up Broadway in lower Manhattan beneath tons of confetti floating in the breeze, ending with a joyous ceremony at New York’s City Hall. When a 9th inning rally against a struggling Craig Kimbrel came up one run short late Tuesday night, the Yankees’ season ended with a three games to one American League Division Series loss to their archrivals from Boston.

As fans of every franchise in any sport are wont to do when a season ends unhappily, Yankee faithful have been busy assigning blame for the fact the Great Game won’t be played in the Bronx again until winter’s snows have come and gone. General manager Brian Cashman failed to bolster the starting rotation last offseason! Fire Cashman! First-year manager Aaron Boone was calmly chewing bubble gum as the final out was made! Axe Boone! Slugger Giancarlo Stanton had just four singles in the ALDS and left fifteen men on base in the four games! Trade Stanton!

Pundits covering the team have weighed in as well. In the New York Times Billy Witz made owner Hal Steinbrenner the scapegoat for his edict that the team’s payroll had to fall below the luxury tax threshold, thus resetting the Yankees’ tax rate for future years. Witz caustically wondered whether the Yankees “will raise a banner on opening day to celebrate the achievement” before asserting that the team was “operating like the Tampa Bay Rays, with one eye peeled on the bottom line and the other on tomorrow.”

Cheap sarcasm aside, there is a kernel of truth at the core of each of the complaints. Steinbrenner’s determination to rein in payroll took New York out of the running when Detroit decided to trade right-hander Justin Verlander at last year’s trade deadline, and it meant the Yankees’ front office couldn’t engage for prized free agent pitchers Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta in the offseason. Stanton’s first career trip to the postseason was surely more nightmare than dream, the lowlight coming on a flailing strikeout in the bottom of the 9th on Tuesday. In contrast to the intense Joe Girardi, Boone did at times seem almost too laid back, though his hesitancy to go to the bullpen in both of the last two games was surely far more consequential than debating whether he can manage and chew gum at the same time. And while Cashman’s budget may have prevented him from considering the top pitchers available, the GM ultimately did absolutely nothing until this July to shore up the Yankees most obvious weakness, their starting rotation.

But as those looking to scapegoat often do, the unhappy fans and critical pundits tend to cherry pick their evidence. Cashman is, after all, the same general manager who was widely praised for his deft moves at the 2016 trade deadline, when he adroitly stockpiled young talent including Gleyber Torres, who was an All-Star second baseman in this, his rookie season. It’s true that the Yankees could have upgraded their rotation by trading for Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole last winter, who instead went to Houston where he has emerged as a star. But the price would have been 23-year-old Miguel Andujar, who outshone his fellow rookie Torres down the stretch and will likely finish as the runner-up in the vote for AL Rookie of the Year. Not making the Cole deal is a wash, at best. And while Verlander proved a major boost to the Astros rotation, Arrieta posted middling numbers for Philadelphia and Darvish was a disaster for the Cubs before injury cut short his season. Not every prized free agent turns out to be a prize.

With no prior experience either managing or coaching at any level, Boone was a risky choice for New York after Girardi was let go. Most managers exercise an extremely quick hook on starters in the postseason, and it’s easy to argue that Boone stuck with Luis Severino in Game Three and CC Sabathia in Game Four too long. His decision to call on Lance Lynn, another starter, with the bases loaded in relief of Severino was also questionable. But the first year skipper also led his team to the third best record in baseball, a nine game improvement over 2017 and the team’s first 100-win season since 2009.

Stanton’s first campaign in pinstripes ended as it began, which is to say miserably. But even with a wretched start he wound up leading the team in runs, RBIs, and homers, and was second in hits and doubles.

Even with keeping the payroll under the luxury tax threshold, New York still spent more than twice what Tampa Bay did on salaries this season. Witz’s attempt to make the two teams comparable is just silly. It also ignores two absolute truths. First, Steinbrenner’s assertion that championships can be won without spending $200 million on payroll is a fact. Since the Yankees’ last title in 2009 the payroll of every World Series winner has been less than that number, and only the Cubs in 2016, with total salaries just over that year’s threshold of $189 million, have been subjected to the luxury tax. Second, as the only team to be assessed the tax every year since 2003, the Yankees have paid more than $319 million, or over $120 million more than paid by all other teams combined. That would buy a whole lot of starting pitching.

By many standards the Yankees just concluded a great season. Achieving the century mark in wins would have been good enough to top the majors in six of the previous ten years and would have trailed just one team in three others. Along the way New York shattered the single-season mark for team home runs, clubbing 267. After playing just one postseason game in the four years between 2013 and 2016, the Yankees made the playoffs for the second straight year.

Still, by the standard that matters most – winning a World Series – New York came up short, something that everyone on the team and all those in the stands were forced to deal with when replay review confirmed that Torres was out at first on the bang-bang play that ended the Yankees campaign. For all its slugging might New York’s lineup was too often weak at situational hitting. The team’s batting average was just .249 this season, lowest of the ten playoff teams. The four runs the Yankees scored in the last two games were tallied without benefit of a hit, plated instead by a pair of sacrifice flies, a groundout, and a hit batsman with the bases loaded. Last winter’s doubts about the starting rotation are now one year more concerning. Then there is the opposition. For while the Yankees improved this year, the Red Sox and Astros did so to an even greater degree.

Those are the challenges as the offseason begins earlier than desired in the Bronx. Finger pointing aside, everyone associated with these Yankees has earned the right to figure out how this team, with all its youth and promise, can take the next step. But at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue, every season ultimately has but one goal. So soon, very soon, that step must be taken. Yankee fans want a parade.

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Responses

  1. “Wait until next year!” An unfortunate refrain for many fans each year. A good report, Mike.
    Ω

    • Yes that is the universal lament, embodying in equal parts present pain and eternal hope. Thanks Allan!

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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