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The Yankees needed a bat more than a pitcher, but got neither at the trade deadline

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With the trade deadline come and gone, the Yankees have no help on the way other than hoping for the returns of injured players. Considering the frequency of injuries since last season, that’s a lot to hang your hat on. We’ve already seen Aaron Judge’s injury recurrence. Who’s to say that won’t happen with Giancarlo Stanton or James Paxton? The Yankees could have added some insurance via trade yesterday, but ultimately, nothing came to fruition. It was apparent that the team balked at costs, most notably on the pitching side of things. Per Andy Martino, the ask for Lance Lynn and Mike Clevinger was sky high:

This year might have seen the highest deadline prices yet. According to league sources, the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians were asking for two of Clint FrazierDeivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt for Lance Lynn and Mike Clevinger, respectively.

If that’s accurate, I can live with not dealing for a starter. The Yankees would have had to either: a) give up two potential long-term rotation arms or b) give up one long-term rotation arm and actively hurt the offense this year by trading Frazier. B is untenable given the offense’s current status, which leaves you with A. Dumping García and Schmidt for either Lynn through 2021 or Clevinger through 2022 would have been a tough pill to swallow. I can’t blame Cashman for not pulling the trigger there.

I know it feels like the Yankees have a pitching problem — and don’t get me wrong, it could be better — but the offense is the real culprit of late. There are no shortage of guys slumping (Gary Sánchez) or guys banged up (Gio Urshela, Luke Voit). Then there are players like Mike Tauchman, who’ve lost the magic from a year ago. Same goes for Mike Ford.

To illustrate the team’s lack of a pitching problem, at least in comparison to the offense: the Yankees have allowed just 4.21 runs per game this year, which is 8th-best in baseball. That’s barely behind the pitching-heavy Rays, who sit at 4.08. Meanwhile, the offense has averaged 3.6 runs per game since August 16th. Remember, Judge and Stanton aren’t coming through the door anytime soon. Gleyber Torres seems closer, but it’s not like he was hitting all that well when he was healthy.

Oh, and need I mention Luke Voit’s “foot stuff”? Imagine if that gets any worse and he needs to spend time on the injured list. This offense is teetering and it’s essentially led to division title hopes going up in flames, especially after yesterday’s loss to Tampa Bay. So for me, not getting at least one bat was far more disappointing than passing on Lynn or Clevinger.

The Yankees reportedly went after Starling Marte, but he wound up with the Marlins. Miami traded Caleb Smith and two prospects for Marte. I know Smith had a nice run in 2018, but the 29 year-old lefty hasn’t been special since. I’m not going to pretend I know much about Humberto Mejía or Julio Frias, the prospects sent to Arizona. Neither played above High-A last year, though Mejía has gotten some big league time this year out of necessity given the pandemic. The Yankees couldn’t beat that?

There’s nothing to do now other than sit back and hope for the best. Maybe there is a little bit of Next Man Up magic that’ll resurface in the coming weeks, but frankly, I’m having a hard time being optimistic. As many have said, that novelty has worn off quickly. Trading for a hitter might not have been a panacea, but there’s no doubt it would have been a boost.

Looking Ahead at the Yankees’ Coming Roster Crunch

Unless MLB and the Player’s Association agree to extend the 30-man roster, which is possible, the Yankees’ active roster will shrink from 30 to 28 on Thursday. That alone would crowd things. However, we should expect to see both Aroldis Chapman and Luis Cessa return soon as well. In other words, the Yanks’ already packed roster is about to get even more crowded.

As a reminder, here is where the 30-man roster currently stands, including the 6 players on the restricted and injured lists:

Like I said, things are already packed as it is. This is not going to be an easy decision by any stretch. Still, there are some obvious areas where the team may make a few cuts. Let’s begin by working though the mandatory two-person cut on Thursday. I’m assuming that the Yankees will want to keep as many pitchers rostered as possible. That’s how they use their pen and it’s how they’ve built their rosters over the past few years. In other words, they’re not going to just send down two relievers.

Still, even with that in mind, it’s tough to see any outfield cuts. (Besides, Giancarlo is an outfielder in name only at this point.) The Yanks want to get Andújar game action – and they have – and Tauchman has already proven to be extremely valuable as a reserve outfielder. That just leaves the infield for a position player cut, as both catchers are obviously staying, and we know LeMahieu, Torres, Urshela, and Voit are not going anywhere.

Estrada, Ford, and Wade are left. The Yankees have every reason to believe that Ford is the real deal, and they likely see him as filling an obvious left-handed void in the lineup. I would be very surprised to see Ford get sent down at any point this season, frankly. (Plus, they’ll need a backup 1B and there’s no indication they want to try Miggy there right now.)

Between Estrada and Wade, well, I think the Yankees have already told us which of the two they believe can help the 2020 club right now just based on allocated playing time. Neither see a ton of time on the field, but Wade has appeared in 7 of the team’s 8 games. (He’s often used as a defensive replacement, but that’s valuable in and of itself.) Estrada, by contrast, has appeared in just 1 game. I’d be willing to bet the Yanks send Estrada to the alternative site in Pennsylvania when rosters contract on Thursday.

Now let’s look at the bullpen. Again, we know who is not going anywhere: Britton, Green, Loaisiga, and Ottavino. Those guys are locks. I’d also argue that King, since he is stretched out and able to make a spot start here and there, is also a lock. That leaves us with 5 pitchers. Here they are, with their number of available options in parentheses (if applicable), and their 2020 usage so far:

  • Luis Avilán: 2.2 IP in 3 G
  • David Hale: 3.1 IP in 3 G
  • Jonathan Holder (1): 2.1 IP in 2 G
  • Brooks Kriske (3): 1.0 IP in 1 G
  • Nick Nelson (3): 3.0 IP in 1 G

The usage here, coupled with the options, makes it pretty clear that the first guy to go is Brooks Kriske, right? The Yanks haven’t turned to him much and he has 3 available options. Nelson looked very impressive on Saturday and my guess is that if he were going to go down, it would have been after he threw 40+ pitches. That didn’t happen. Just based on this, I’d say that Kriske is the first to go. It’s a straightforward decision as far as these things go.

So, to wrap this part up, I’d expect the Yankees to send both Thairo Estrada and Brooks Kriske down to the alternative site later this week. They have other options, but that’s how it looks to me.

The imminent returns of Luis Cessa (this week) and Aroldis Chapman (soon) complicate things a bit. It all depends when they’re ready. If either return before the supposed 28-man contraction on Thursday, I still expect Kriske to be the first to go. Remember, for all the grief he caught last year, Cessa was actually really solid for his role.

When Chapman returns, likely a few days after Cessa, I’d expect him to replace either Nelson or Holder. If it were me, I’d go Holder – he really struggled in 2019 and still has a remaining option – as I want to see what Nelson has. I like the upside in the short season. That’s also an argument to move on from Avilán or Hale, who are just okay, but the team might as well preserve depth and capitalize on all of its options.

Whichever route they go, though, I think we all want to see Chapman on the roster over any of them. That’s a no-brainer. All in all, these are good “problems” to have.

What the Expanded Playoffs Mean for the Yankees

(Via MLB)

A few hours before first pitch last night, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to expand the 2020 postseason to 16 teams. Sometimes you really just have to stand in awe of MLB’s ability to surprise, don’t you? Changing the season format on literally Opening Day is incredible. Needless to say, this new format changes this considerably. Here are the new rules:

  • There will be 8 teams from the American League and 8 teams from the National League, totaling 16 playoff teams.
  • Every division winner and runner-up makes the dance, with each league’s 1-3 seeds being divided by division winner record and seeds 4-6 divided by best runner-up record. Seeds 7 and 8 – the true wild cards – will be the league’s best remaining records. (Lamely, all ties will be resolved mathematically.)
  • The new Wild Card round will be a best-of-three series all played at the higher seed’s park – 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, and so on.
  • Crucially, there is a $50 million pool that will be divided up and distributed to players participating in the playoffs. (This is actually a good get for them.)

There’s a lot that can be said about all of this, of course. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of more than half the league making the playoffs in baseball. I just don’t like it. I’m okay with it for 2020 specifically given, well, everything, but I always assume these rule changes are here to stay. That’s usually how it works! I just hope that this particular change comes and goes with pandemic baseball. Could be worse.

Regardless of my feelings, this new format has a tangible impact on the Yankees. Let’s get into how this all breaks down.

Playoff/World Series Odds

On some level, the new format is a good thing for the Yankees (and everyone else). It offers a massive level of protection against injury, slumps, a slow start, etc. That seems pretty obvious. All things are not created equal, though. The expanded postseason format definitely hurts top teams like the Yankees more than it helps them.

FanGraphs’ playoff odds calculator provides a good illustration. Before the new format, it gave the Yankees a 72.9% chance of making the postseason and a 10.9% chance of winning the World Series. Then, after the new rules were implemented, the playoff odds jumped to 91.4% while World Series odds declined to 1o%. (In a show of how important each game is, both the Yanks’ playoff and World Series odds jumped a bit after their 4-1 win last night.)

FiveThirtyEight has a slightly different calculation, obviously, but it’s mostly the same result. The new format increased the Yanks’ playoff odds (81.6% to 94.5%) while decreasing World Series odds (14.4% to 13.6%). (Baseball-Prospectus’ PECOTA standings – my preferred projection system – haven’t yet been updated to reflect the new system but will likely yield a similar outcome.)

This all tracks. Expanded playoffs mean more teams but also more playoff games, which makes it more difficult to actually win the World Series. Not rocket science, but for a team like the Yankees, it’s definitely a small irritant. At FiveThirtyEight, only the Nationals, Twins, Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers – all of whom could be considered favorites – saw their title odds decrease.

A Sprint vs. A Jog

For weeks, we’ve been focused on how the 60-game season is wholly unique in baseball history. With each win “counting” the same as 2.7 wins in a regular 162-game season, that placed an unprecedented importance on each game. A two-week skid here or a 10-game slump there could derail a whole season. That calculus is now changed, as demonstrated by the playoff odds above.

Will that change the Yankees’ strategy? It could. As Derek noted earlier today, it might influence the way the team manages playing time. It’s really hard to imagine the Yankees missing the postseason in virtually any circumstance now. It’s also almost as difficult to imagine them not hosting all 3 games in the Wild Card round. (Remember, they’d have to be the lower seed to be on the road for the Wild Card games, which means seed 5-8. It’s borderline unfathomable, but anything is possible.)

In other words, making the dance is all but guaranteed at this point. That means we might see more rigid bullpen use of top arms, more lineup variance on a day-to-day basis, and just generally more inflexible rest scheduling. The sprint has become a jog, so it a careful team like the Yankees may deploy a 2020 strategy like we see the NBA. (60 games, while short, is still long enough for the best teams to separate themselves in most cases, I think. The Yanks and Dodgers will still be comfortable.)

Now, if the Yankees really struggle and my confidence proves unfounded in the coming weeks, then this is all subject to change. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that – and, right now, there’s no reason to think it will.

Trade Deadline

Finally, this significantly alters the trade deadline calculus. The new deadline was pushed back to August 31 and was already going to be a weird, unpredictable one. First, there is only a month to size up your team and standing. Second, I was curious to see if teams will want to give up prospect talent to go all-in on an uncertain season. Now, though, there’s an additional layer: nearly every team will still be in the race.

That most likely means a stagnated market. There will be fewer sellers, and, theoretically at least, more buyers. It’ll make it harder for the Yankees to trade for another bullpen arm or replace an injured player if push comes to shove. The good news is that the Yankees are already really deep and talented, so they shouldn’t be relying on the trade market this year anyway. But it is another factor to consider.

I’m sure there will be other impacts down the line – it’s still amazing to me that this happened less than 24 hours ago on Opening Day – but that seems like the basics for now. In a short season, it’s probably fine. Give me more playoffs to watch this year and I’m happy, even if it hurts the Yankees. I’ll absolutely hate it if this is here to stay, though.

On the other hand, instead of getting to watch the Yankees win 11 games en route to World Series number 28, this year we’ll get to watch 13 wins. That’s the best glass half full perspective I can muster, but I’d be okay with that.

Looking Ahead at the Yankees’ Rotation

It’s official: Gerrit Cole is starting next Thursday’s Opening Day game against the Washington Nationals. It is not under the circumstances any of us want, but a Cole-Max Scherzer Opening Day matchup is A-OK with me. That’s about as marquee as it gets. This news is obviously unsurprising to anyone who thought about this for even half a second. But how does the rest of the Yankee rotation shake up?

Opening Day is only 12 days away, which means we can start projecting the rotation with some confidence now. Here’s how things look as of today, with the caveat that things can change fast.

The Extra Day of Rest & Early Schedule

First things first: we have a good framework to project the rotation. Aaron Boone spoke yesterday about the importance of giving Gerrit Cole an extra day of rest going into the season opener. “We just value that sixth day going into this first start”, he said yesterday. Had they relaxed Cole’s schedule now, Boone added, “then [Cole would] be rolling into his opening day start on the fifth day, coming off a time when maybe we’re trying to push him a little bit.”

Based on that quote, I think this maxim is broadly applicable. It seems like the Yankees are trying to get their starters up to speed as soon as possible before going into the regular season. (It is a little weird that Cole isn’t going to pitch in an exhibition game against non-Yankees, but I trust Cole and the Yankees on this. He’ll be ready.) This all makes sense, and that’s before considering the schedule, which will also come into play here.

The Yankees will play their first game next Thursday, July 23. The season is going to be a real sprint after that, with the Yanks playing 19 games in 21 days. Really, it’s 18 games in 19 days. Here’s how that breaks down:

  • Opening Day is on the 23rd, and the Yanks are off the next night (7/24).
  • Beginning on 7/25, the Yankees will play 16 consecutive games before their next off-day on August 10.
  • They’ll then play two straight against Atlanta before another off-day on August 13.

Remember, that’s essentially the first third of the season. It is also probably the toughest stretch, where they’ll play Washington (3), Philadelphia (4), Boston (3), Baltimore (3), Tampa Bay (4), and Atlanta (2). Of those, only Baltimore is can be considered a soft matchup, and again, it’s a full third of the season. It’s a massively important stretch for the Yankees.

In other words, I think we can basically expect every Yankee starter to get the Cole “extra day of rest” treatment. The Yanks will want their guys fresh and rested headed into the sprint of a season after quickly ramping up the intensity in camp.

How Things Line Up Right Now

The caveat here, of course, is that Masahiro Tanaka is hurt. While we know he’s been doing some throwing and exercise, there is still no timetable for his return. That makes sense. Short season or not, the team has to prioritize Tanaka’s health. It is very obvious he will not be ready for at least the first week of the season. That leaves Gerrit Cole, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery, and an open slot (likely to be filled by Clarke Schmidt or Mike King) for the fifth spot.

Since we now have more clarity about the rotation in the next few days, we can take Boone’s comments about Cole and apply them to the whole rotation. That means the regular 4 days of rest for now, with an extra 5th day for the season. Here’s how that shakes out for the rest of camp and the exhibition games, with my speculation in italics:

  • Gerrit Cole: Threw 84 pitches on Sunday, will start intrasquad game on Friday, and pitch Opening Day on 7/23 on his sixth day. (This is confirmed by the Yankees.)
  • Jordan Montgomery: Threw 58 pitches last Thursday and is starting tonight’s intrasquad game. (Based on the normal timeline, Montgomery would start the second exhibition game against the Mets on July 19.)
  • James Paxton: Threw 66 pitches in an indoor Friday workout and will pitch in tomorrow’s intrasquad game. (Based on Boone’s timeline, Paxton would start in the final exhibition game against Philadelphia on Monday, July 20.)
  • J.A. Happ: Threw 3 innings on Saturday and will pitch again on Thursday. (Based on our timeline, Happ will pitch again on Monday, July 21 in an intrasquad game.)
  • Clarke Schmidt: Threw 2.2 innings on Saturday and will pitch again on Thursday. (Based on our timeline, Schmidt will either pitch again on Monday, July 21 in an intrasquad game against Happ or on Tuesday, July 22.)
  • Mike King: Pitched on Sunday and will pitch again either Friday or Saturday’s exhibition against the Mets. (King’s lineup is unclear based on this schedule, but he’d be on track to pitch on regular rest against the Mets on Saturday.)

Projecting the Rotation Schedule

All of this means we have a pretty good idea for how the rotation would line up for the first third of the season. Obviously, things are never this neat. Tanaka will return at some point (hopefully soon) and the Yanks may use Chad Green as an opener, or even as a 6th “starter.” We have no idea how that will shake out, though, so let’s leave that to the side for now. Let’s also assume Schmidt wins the job.

As of today, the rotation lines up to be Cole, Montgomery, Paxton, Happ, and Schmidt, giving everyone their extra day to start the season. It also works out pretty neatly for that pivotal 19 game stretch I highlighted above. Check out the distribution, with asterisks denoting an extra day of rest:

  • Gerrit Cole: 4 starts (July 23*, July 29*, August 3, August 8)
  • Jordan Montgomery: 4 starts (July 25*, July 30, August 4, August 9)
  • James Paxton: 4 starts (July 26*, July 31, August 5, August 11*)
  • J.A. Happ: 4 starts (July 27*, August 1, August 6, August 12*)
  • Clarke Schmidt: 3 starts (July 28, August 2, August 7)

That seems about right to me. Utilize the battle-tested guys up front – even if it puts a lot of emphasis on Jordan Montgomery right away – and give Schmidt the fewest starts of the bunch. Perhaps they go to King, but given the way they’ve talked about Schmidt so far, I think it’s his job. Plus, the current pitching schedule lines up really neatly for Schmidt. I don’t think that’s an accident.

The Yanks could insert Tanaka into this rotation at any point to minimize Happ’s innings or remove Schmidt from the rotation. They could also insert him into the rotation to give guys an extra day of rest, too. The point is the Yanks have options here.

A lot can change, but as of right now, I feel pretty confident that this is how the Yankee rotation will shape up. I wish Tanaka was healthy, but I’m pretty confident in this group to start the season. Hopefully, they hit the ground running and show the rest of the league that they’re as good as we all think they are. I think they will.

Getting a Hair-Cutch

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It was brief, but Andrew McCutchen’s time with the Yankees had an impact on me. In the moment, it was easy to appreciate the .251/.421/.471/.892 (145 OPS+) batting line. But both then and going forward, it was easy to appreciated Cutch as a person and a player. All around, he’s a funny, charming guy and a great ambassador for the game of baseball. So when he speaks, we ought to listen. In an article published yesterday, Cutch spoke, specifically about the Yankees’ hair length and facial hair policy. And all I can say is that he’s right.

While the policy may do a good job of saving players from their own bad hair and facial hair choices, it’s antiquated and stodgy at best and suppressive and racist at worst.

We live and baseball exists in a much different time than when the policy was implemented in 1973. Baseball, as many have said many times, needs to be better at letting individual players and personalities shine through; this policy runs contrary to that idea. As the biggest name and biggest brand in baseball, the Yankees need to catch up with the times and the other team.

While the Yankees hold a special place in our hearts and heads because we’re fans, on a bigger level, they aren’t any more or less special than any other team. Like the other 29, they’re a team trying to win and a business trying to make money. They aren’t priests or monks and Yankee Stadium isn’t a church or a monastery. They are not a city on a hill or a shining beacon or some morally superior club because their players look a certain way; they’re just a baseball team.

Sure, as a business, they can set rules, including a policy like this, but that doesn’t mean they should (other businesses shouldn’t either, generally speaking). Baseball isn’t like the office or wherever that we go into (or used to!) every day; it’s an entertainment product and not letting the stars of said product express themselves to the fullest isn’t necessary.

In the era of “Let the Kids Play” and players using their voices for bigger causes, of the need to market the stars, the Yankees’ policy is lagging behind. They need to get with the times.

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