How long? That’s the question for the New York Yankees right now. How long until Aaron Judge returns from his toe injury? How long can a lineup featuring this many big names — even in his absence — continue to be this bad? How long can this team maintain contact with the high-flying AL East and AL wild-card races without serious changes? And how long can the team-building status quo in the Bronx hold?
As to the first question, conflicting information abounds, but the reigning AL MVP is working out and could reportedly return as soon as Friday. Assuming Judge is physically ready to perform, that would be a boon to the Yankees’ immediate chances — or at least their watchability. But Judge’s potential return underlines the bigger questions that mushroomed in his absence.
For the second straight season, the Yankees’ bats have withered with Judge on the shelf. Since June 4, the first game without Judge, New York’s offense ranks 27th in the majors by wRC+, a park-adjusted production metric, entering play Wednesday. The established veterans billed as Judge’s supporting cast have been almost uniformly out of sorts. Over that span, Anthony Rizzo is batting .175/.285/.241 (a 53 wRC+), Giancarlo Stanton has eight homers but very little else (77 wRC+), and former batting champ DJ LeMahieu has mustered a punchless .212 batting average (71 wRC+). If this all sounds like a more dramatic rehash of last summer’s swoon, just without Judge holding things together, that’s because it is.
This troubling pattern is stoking rarely seen anxiety in the Yankees’ front office. Longtime GM Brian Cashman, winner of four World Series rings in the role, had never fired a coach midseason until he dismissed hitting coach Dillon Lawson earlier this month and installed Sean Casey as his replacement for the rest of the season.
Hitting coaches are notoriously easy to scapegoat and difficult to accurately gauge from the outside. Lawson, who rose up through the player development ranks having never played professionally, helped instill a mantra in the Yankees organization: “Hit strikes hard.”
Casey, a famously friendly former All-Star who had never coached in the majors before this appointment, emphasized that every hitter is different, but his philosophy might sound familiar.
“One thing I will stress is controlling the zone and hunting in the zone,” Casey told the New York Post after he was hired.
Unsurprisingly, changing the messenger hasn’t quickly altered the results. What it did do was send up a flare that Cashman and team owner Hal Steinbrenner are perhaps feeling less secure about the ongoing prospects of a core that hasn’t missed the playoffs since a quick, tactical sell-off in 2016.
Let’s get some basic caveats out of the way: Cashman has earned the benefit of the doubt many times over. A huge majority of MLB organizations would happily trade their recent lots in life for two 100-win seasons, a 99-win season and two ALCS appearances — the franchise’s top-line successes since Aaron Boone took over as manager in 2018 — and several beyond that would love to get a peek inside the Yankees’ pitching development pipeline.
The fact that the Yankees haven’t reached a World Series, that they keep getting snuffed out by the Astros, is frustrating, but it’s part of the game. What’s more damning — as they look up at a suddenly robust field of nimble challengers in the division and the league at large — is a bevy of missed or skipped opportunities to reimagine or at least refresh a formula that now looks dangerously close to its expiration date.
The Yankees have spent the past half-decade gesturing at an emphasis on rising young talent, something akin to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ model that every team — including the Subway Series rivals, Steve Cohen’s more flamboyantly flat New York Mets — wants to employ. Clubs as proud as the Yankees don’t exactly come out and say that, but there has been clear restraint at work, despite the consistent, top-level spending that kept Judge in town and reeled in Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodón.
That restraint was at its most public in shepherding Anthony Volpe to the majors and preemptively keeping his spot warm by avoiding major signings at shortstop, but the hesitance reared its head in a series of non-events: Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Corey Seager, George Springer, Manny Machado. Name a top-level talent who became available in one way or another over the past five years, and the Yankees were logically connected, only to fall by the wayside or actively back away.
Yet over that same time, only two teams have given more plate appearances to hitters in their age-32 seasons or older. That’s not inherently a problem, if your foundational 30-plus group has elite headliners, a la the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. It’s more of a problem when your veterans struggle with durability (Giancarlo Stanton) or tip rapidly toward career twilights (Josh Donaldson).
Judge will join the 32-and-up group next year, and as the front office determines whether to deal for Randal Grichuk or some such temporary aid this season, it seems prudent for them to start thinking about stickier sidekicks.
As tempting as it is to look at the Mets and the San Diego Padres and tsk tsk exorbitant spending, the Yankees look like a tale of too little ambition, not too much. Or, maybe more accurately, it appears they might’ve tripped themselves up by spreading their ante among a host of riskier plays instead of going all-in on one.
Perpetually chasing a championship but also plotting a less archetypal Steinbrenner player-acquisition course, the recent Yankees have responded to roster holes by plugging in post-peak names or half-measure solutions, glancing forward to the hopeful day when a wave of youth takes over and evokes the Core Four. Many of those short-term solutions served their purpose for a time, but almost all of them have wound up contributing to a nagging sense of inconsistency and medium-term dread that Volpe and top prospects such as Oswald Peraza and Jasson Dominguez shouldn’t be asked to cure on their own.
Meanwhile, that parade of known stars for whom the Yankees declined to take the plunge has largely outperformed the team’s eventual alternatives. The age-29-and-up crowd used to be, and probably still could be, the Yankees’ wheelhouse. The best players in that bunch are getting expensive, approaching free agency or otherwise running into situations that might facilitate changing teams. Since the start of 2021, Judge has been the very best of that group, but the Yankees have employed nobody else in the top 30.
If the Yankees had stepped up for any one of them — made an old-school Boss move, for lack of a better term — it might’ve leveled off the team’s eye-popping dependence on Judge. It almost certainly wouldn’t have hampered the development of Volpe or other young hitters if the organization were truly committed to finding them at-bats. And it probably would have everyone involved feeling less jumpy about injuries and slumps.
It’s true that winning baseball teams require far, far more than just elite players at the top of the roster, but it might be high time the Yankees recast their wide net back into superstar waters.