The New York Yankees have the third-best record in baseball heading into the All-Star break. Despite this, what more can be done to improve the roster in 2018 and beyond?
Alas, the Bombers enter the All-Star break having lost two in a row to the AL Central division-leading Cleveland Indians despite besting perennial Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber on Thursday.
After a split with Cleveland that was preceded by another split against the cellar-dwelling Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards, the Yankees, victims of subpar starting pitching outside of Luis Severino and CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation, will begin the season’s second half 4.5 games behind the white-hot Boston Red Sox while losing out on the Many Machado sweepstakes.
As it stands today, the Yankees would play the wild card game at home against the Seattle Mariners, a shocking prospect considering their 100+ win pace.
In spite of what ails this club, there remains a substantial amount of positives for the pinstripes:
The likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, and Greg Bird seem to have busted their respective slumps. In his last six games, Bird boasts a 1.053 OPS, slugging three homers and 11 RBIs, two of which came in the Yankees’ two victories against the Indians. A resurgence from him all but obliterates any acquisition talk involving a Mike Moustakas.
In fifteen July games, Stanton has managed a triple-slash line of .349/.388/.587, all but recapturing his MVP form from last season. A beast on the road this season, Stanton, once he has Yankee Stadium figured out, should exceed the expectations thrust on him when general manager Brian Cashman acquired the former Marlins star in December.
While posting a slash line of .304/.339/.500 in July, Didi, who continues to astonish with his glove, has reverted to the player he was during his torrid start to the season in April. The reemergence of these three in the lineup will be what this club needs to match what Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez have sustained with Boston thus far.
On the disabled list since June 25, Gary Sanchez appears ready and focused to return, having begun his rehab start in Scranton with a fury, blasting a long solo shot against Rochester in the RailRiders’ 3-1 win on Sunday (he did so again Monday night).
His return will be a welcome one: according to Marc Carig, a senior baseball writer for The Athletic, opponents have run amok on the basepaths against New York in Sanchez’s absence, stealing bases at an 86% clip against the likes of Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka. Sanchez, along with All-Star teammate and Rookie of the Year candidate Gleyber Torres, also on the DL with a hip injury, will likely return by next week and provide the Yankees the boost they need to start the second half strong.
In his tenth year with the club, Brett Gardner‘s remarkable consistency, be it in the field or at the plate, has defied his age. The 34-year-old’s two-homer effort on Thursday (he turns 35 in August) pushed New York past Cleveland 7-4, with six of his nine homers this year either tying the game or giving his club the lead, according to Katie Sharp.
Aaron Hicks is quietly turning in an even better campaign in 2018 than his 2017 season when he was named an All-Star. Behind Mike Trout, an emerging bat in Brandon Nimmo, and Charlie Blackmon, Hicks owns the fourth-best OPS in the majors at the centerfield position (.839), with 16 homers and 44 RBI to his credit.
With the loss of Brandon Drury for an extended period, Miguel Andujar, with 27 doubles, two triples, and 12 home runs to his name (to date, 46% of his 89 hits have gone for extra bases), provides a sure presence at the plate despite his seven errors in the field, giving the club no pressing need to acquire Manny Machado for a World Series run when he can be had this winter as a free agent without the need to relinquish any prospects to acquire him by July 31.
If anything, Andujar will either play himself into a higher grade trading chip or a player of a high enough caliber to negate the pursuit of Machado in free agency.
Alas, the aforementioned points concern a strength the Yankees have touted in the second year of an accelerated and aggressive rebuild: the lineup. With 493 runs scored (third in the majors), 161 homers (first), 1508 total bases (second), and a team OPS of .793 (second), the Yankees remain a force at the plate despite no player hitting above .300 and a collection of hitters spending time on the DL (Sanchez, Torres, and Drury) or miring in slumps (Didi, Bird, and Stanton).
The club’s fortunes here will only improve with New York only facing two teams with an above .500 record in July and August (Tampa Bay and Boston) and the Bombers benefitting from the ascension of players busting out of slumps and returning to the lineup.
To this point, there persist a variety of questions and concerns:
What is to be done with Clint Frazier? Given the collective play of Hicks, Gardner, Stanton, and Aaron Judge, the Yankee outfield remains in terrific shape, leaving Frazier the odd man out for a second consecutive year. Will he ever enjoy consistent playing time at the major league level with New York? Or will he be part of a trade to acquire a starting pitcher?
Will the club retain Brett Gardner in 2019? Gardner, whose contract expires at season’s end, forces Cashman to continually demote Clint Frazier and question whether or not the organization should bring the veteran back next year the way they did with CC Sabathia this season. In a lineup of star power, Gardner remains the soul of the club, a veteran presence the Yankees cannot afford to lose.
Why do the Yankees incessantly give Neil Walker and Chasen Shreve playing time? Walker, signed on a one-year contract valued at $4.5 million, is hitting .197 on the year with a .563 OPS, a redundant utility player with Brandon Drury having returned to the club alongside the speedy Tyler Wade, with Tyler Austin a viable option at AAA.
Contrarily, Shreve has proven himself the outlier and worst arm in an otherwise stellar Yankee bullpen, a pitcher who is barely worthy of mop-up work. Tommy Kahnle, still in Scranton, needs to figure out his velocity issues so New York can effectively terminate the Chasen Shreve experiment once and for all.
How exactly will New York address Jacoby Ellsbury? Sidelined with a litany of ailments all season, Ellsbury, Cashman’s largest blunder as Yankee GM, a player whose albatross contract does not run out until 2020, is manager Aaron Boone‘s seventh-best option, as far as major league-ready talent in the outfield is concerned, behind Judge, Stanton, Hicks, Gardner, Frazier, and perhaps even Billy McKinney.
Not playing in the majors for a full year drastically diminishes his trade value, which is barely viable at this point, even if the Yankees agree to take on the bulk of his remaining salary.
Quite frankly, the sterling pitching options for New York, from Jacob deGrom to Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner, are likely pipe dreams, especially with the San Francisco Giants still in contention, and the other remaining choices out there, from J.A. Happ to Michael Fulmer and Cole Hamels, do not inspire much, have not yielded positive results against the Yankees’ competition for the pennant, and are not worthy of the organization’s top prospects.
The Yankees’ best option could be to procure arms for the bullpen, call up Justus Sheffield, who ought to remain untouchable in any future trade talks, when the rosters expand on September 1, hope Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka build from their most recent turns in the rotation, and vest in a lineup that will only improve with the additions of Torres and Sanchez in the season’s second half.
As free agency begins in December, New York could have their choice of former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, Patrick Corbin, who has already expressed a desire to play in pinstripes, and Clayton Kershaw, should he choose to opt out of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. To supplement, nine of the Yankees’ top-ten prospects are pitchers, including Sheffield, Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, and Dillon Tate, not to mention Jonathan Loiasiga and Domingo German, who have illustrated flashes of brilliance in their forced time with the organization, thanks to Tanaka’s stint on the DL and Jordan Montgomery‘s recent Tommy John surgery.
The Houston Astros are looking to win a consecutive division title for only the second time in the franchise’s history, a feat they have not accomplished since ’97 and ’98, when they went on to win a third division title in ’99, and remain the favorites to repeat as World Series champions at season’s end.
Despite their tremendous first half, the Boston Red Sox only truly boast one standout arm in their rotation in Chris Sale, who has regularly faded in the season’s second half and has yet to win a Cy Young as a result of such puzzling dissipation, and will lose Eduardo Rodriguez, their second best pitcher this season, for an extended time to injury, as David Price and Rick Porcello continue to waver between phases of fading into oblivion or outright implosion.
Should the Yankees finagle a way of surging past both teams to represent the American League in the World Series, they are likely to face lesser competition in the National League, a circuit that remains wide open with the inexperienced Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves vying for the NL East, the young Milwaukee Brewers, duking it out with the 2016 champion Chicago Cubs for the NL Central, and the defending NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who recently acquired Machado, looking to pull away in the NL West, none of whom has reached 60 wins in the breathtaking fashion the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees have, especially with the latter beginning this campaign at 9-9.
What Brian Cashman musters in the coming weeks remains a mystery, but given his track record, he can and will put New York in a position to win it all this year with brighter prospects awaiting the club in 2019 and beyond.