Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 7, 2022

How Good, Or Bad, Are These Yankees?

Eight Saturdays ago, after blanking the Blue Jays 4-0 in Toronto, the New York Yankees had by far the best record in the major leagues, at 49-16.  Sixty-five games into the longest season, the Bronx nine had won more than three-quarters of their contests, putting New York on track to not just win the AL East, but also claim home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  With that winning percentage translating to 122 victories over an entire schedule, Yankees fans were dreaming of a truly historic 2022 campaign.

Amid the euphoria there were at least a few voices of caution, warning that maintaining such a torrid pace through the entire schedule was an extraordinarily daunting task.  In the Great Game’s modern era, only the 1906 Cubs boasted a higher winning percentage over a full season, going 116-36 for a .763 mark.  In the six decades of 162 game seasons, the 2001 Seattle Mariners set the standard of .716, with a record of 116-46.  Some of those same naysayers also pointed out that for a franchise which measures success not by regular season finishes but rather by championships won, it was worth remembering that neither Chicago nor Seattle won those seasons’ World Series.  But such calls for prudence were dismissed as the carping of cranks.

Since that June weekend, New York has played forty-four more games on the franchise’s 2022 schedule, and the many voices chattering about making history have gone silent.  In their place, and growing louder every day, are fans lamenting the club’s collapse and conjuring scenarios in which the Yankees fail to make the playoffs.  That’s because, following Sunday’s 12-9 loss to the Cardinals, which completed a St. Louis sweep of a weekend series in the heartland, New York’s record in those forty-four contests was two games below .500, at 21-23.  Were it not for Aaron Judge’s incredible season, the mark would be worse.   

Some of this is just fans being fans.  Passionate support for any club always involves a volatile and individualized mix of hoping for the best and fearing the worst.  Inevitably, especially in an age when social media gives any fan who wants it a megaphone to proclaim his or her views to the world, both extremes will be heard.  Sometimes, if one is patient, from the same voice!  For no matter how much one’s head knows that over the course of the longest season every team and every player will experience moments of great success and times of utter failure, one’s heart responds to the experience of the day.  Thus, a high becomes overly consequential and a low excessively existential.

But for the Bronx franchise, with a fanbase that must balance historical success unique in sports with an absence from the Great Game’s biggest stage, the World Series, that is now the second longest since 26-year-old Babe Ruth led the 1920 roster to the club’s first of forty appearances in the Fall Classic, something more is at work.  The rush to anoint this year’s squad as a super team reflected a need for some fans to proclaim to the world, and reassure themselves, that their favorite franchise still sits apart from the other twenty-nine members of the major league fraternity.  The other side of that coin is the dread suspicion that a roster relatively unchanged from last year’s might succumb to the indifferent play that was the too frequent pattern in 2021, and in fact for sufficiently long stretches to send the last several seasons into the nether world of disappointment and doubt.

The tale will be told over the remaining fifty-three regular season games, with whatever conclusions are drawn from them either ratified or revoked in the postseason.  As is typically the case in a contest of extremes, the most likely outcome is somewhere in between.  Although dismissed by many at the time, those cautionary voices of springtime and early summer were always just stating the obvious.  A season record boasting 120 or more wins was never in the cards.  By the same token, given the expanded playoff field, it would take a collapse of epic proportions for the Yankees to be shut out of the postseason, though caution about the team’s chances in the playoffs is surely warranted.  Other goals, which once seemed so certain, are in doubt.  The Dodgers now own the best record in the majors, and the Mets’ mark is equal to that of their Bronx neighbors.  In the fight for home field advantage through the ALCS, the Yankees’ edge over Houston is as small as it can be, just half a game.    

If the Yankees are neither as dominant as their early play suggested nor as hapless as their recent run of futility indicates, which incarnation is closer to the truth will greatly influence the likelihood of this season ending with a parade through the Canyon of Heroes on lower Broadway.  What is clear is that GM Brian Cashman believes this roster’s true self lies closer to the former than the latter.  He was not a participant in the trading deadline’s most dramatic deals, settling for an agreement with Oakland that brought starter Frankie Montas to the Bronx, and lesser trades to bolster the bullpen. 

But Cashman revealed much by executing the strangest deal of the year.  On Tuesday he sent left-handed starter and homegrown Yankee Jordan Montgomery to St. Louis in exchange for center fielder Harrison Bader.  What makes the trade perplexing is that the loss of Montgomery elevates Domingo German to New York’s rotation, though there is nothing to suggest he’s an upgrade, and it also leaves little margin if a starter is hurt or proves ineffective over the season’s final two months.  On top of that, while Bader is statistically a major improvement to the outfield defense, he is currently in a walking boot with plantar fasciitis, and won’t be playing this season until at least September, if at all.

The apparent logic behind the trade was that as New York’s fourth or fifth starter, Montgomery was likely to be left off the postseason roster, and that even if Bader contributes nothing until next season, he will ultimately fill what has been a major hole for the Yankees in center field.  Fans of Cashman are saying it’s evidence of the general manager’s forward thinking, proof that he alone among major league GMs is playing three-dimensional chess.  But with the front offices of every other contender focused on this season, this stretch run, and this year’s playoffs, those less enamored of the longest tenured GM in baseball just see Cashman once again trying to prove he’s the smartest person in the room.  The problem of course, is that people who need to do that usually aren’t.

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