NEW YORK — It has become an annual event, this news conference held during an off-day while two other teams play in the World Series, at which the New York Yankees try to explain why things didn’t quite work out for them this year but will surely be better next year. Instead of a championship ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes, the Yankees offer you a parade of excuses in the bowels of a deserted Yankee Stadium.
“One hit this way, one bounce that way and maybe it's a different conversation,’’ said manager Aaron Boone, speaking the language of losers throughout history.
“This is a championship-caliber team,’’ GM Brian Cashman said. “Just because we lost doesn't diminish the fact that this was a championship-caliber roster that was capable of winning the whole thing.’’
And yet, the fact remains that for the 10th consecutive October, the World Series transpires without the Yankees, a drought that would seem like an eyeblink to most teams — it’s 33 years between flag-raisings for the Mets, for instance — but in the annals of a team that bills itself with some justification as The Greatest Franchise in the History of Sports, this would have been a source of shame in a previous era.
But that mission statement — win or die — seems to have been buried with George Steinbrenner, who passed a mere nine months after the Yankees won their last World Championship in 2009.
Now, a 103-win regular season seems to be an accomplishment in itself, and to hear Boone and Cashman tell it, success in October can now be reduced to a roll of the dice.
“Watching a team that was a wild-card entry in the World Series with a 2-0 lead currently, it shows you that difficulty of navigating October,’’ Cashman said. “Every one of these teams ... obviously had a chance to take that final bow. Clearly this final chapter of the 2019 season hasn't been written yet.’’
For the Yankees, it has, however, and left unsaid was the potential embarrassment of just who that “wild-card team’’ — the Washington Nationals, to you — is taking advantage of. That would be the Houston Astros, who won more games than any team in baseball and clearly looked like the better team when they met the Yankees in the ALCS.
But to acknowledge that would be to confront the ugly truth, which is that even with their 103 wins, their first AL East title since 2012, and their approximately $226 million payroll, the Yankees still have a lot of work to do to reach the level that they constantly talk about but now rarely achieve.
To be sure, Boone and Cashman did a remarkable job this season with a roster that suffered a record number of IL stints and for much of the year fielded a nightly starting lineup with names that none but the most obsessed Yankees geek would recognize.
Much of the credit for that goes to Cashman and his staff, who seemingly availed themselves of an endless pool of talent upon which to draw. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks went down with injuries? Cashman plugged the holes with Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin and Mike Ford. Miguel Andujar tears a labrum, Cashman plugs in Gio Urshela. Luke Voit gets hurt, D.J. LeMahieu, signed almost as an afterthought last winter, slides over to first base and puts himself in the conversation for AL MVP.
And Boone, given a different set of characters on virtually every night, was able to juggle these spare and often unfamiliar parts into a regular-season juggernaut. If he’s not the AL Manager of the Year, I’m not sure who is.
But there is an Achilles’ heel to this team, and this organization, and that is in evaluating and acquiring starting pitching. That is without question.
And it is a sore spot among the Yankees hierarchy, as evidenced by a rather testy standoff on Thursday between the normally affable Cashman and Sweeny Murti, the Yankees beat reporter for WFAN radio.
It started with what seemed to be a perfectly reasonable question: “There are several starting pitchers that you passed on that are in World Series right now …”
“I didn’t pass on them,’’ Cashman interrupted, demanding specifics.
“Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Patrick Corbin …”
Cashman attributed the failure to acquire Verlander to “directives from above’’ to stay under the luxury tax. “Did we not make an offer for Patrick Corbin?’’ he asked. “The Washington Nationals made a more significant offer for Patrick Corbin.’’
And it has been well-documented that the Yankees balked at parting with Clint Frazier and either Andujar or Gleyber Torres for Cole when he was put on the block by the Pittsburgh Pirates last winter. Now an Astro, Cole is a leading candidate for the 2019 AL Cy Young Award.
And Dallas Keuchel, who sat idle for half the season, helped lead the Atlanta Braves to the NL East title after they outbid the Yankees for his services.
“I don’t regret our process,’’ Cashman said. “There are some things that are out of our control. In the case of Keuchel, we lost out by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin. You put your best foot forward and then you live with it.’’
But considering that the Yankees were willing to take on the remaining 10 years of Giancarlo Stanton’s contract and the $275 million commitment that went with it, which has turned out to be a disaster, and invested $24 million in LeMahieu without even knowing where he would fit, which turned out to be the move of the year, it is clear that if the Yankees want somebody, they will do what’s necessary to get him.
And despite Hal Steinbrenner’s and Randy Levine’s public vows to stay under the luxury tax threshold, that became mere lip service this year — they blew past the cap by some $20 million.
If the Yankees truly wanted Corbin or Keuchel, they would have made sure to put in the highest bid. If they truly wanted Verlander, they would have swallowed hard and bid farewell to Frazier and Andujar.
But it seems as if Cashman and his staff determined that none of those pitchers was worth what was being asked for them. Subsequent results seem to indicate they were wrong.
It is true that the Yankees have been burned by free agent deals with pitchers in the past. Hideki Irabu, Carl Pavano, Kei Igawa and Jaret Wright jump to mind. They are understandably gun-shy about giving long-term deals to starters, especially those over 30. But those past failures seem to have colored their thinking on signing just about any starting pitcher. Last winter, they acquired James Paxton via trade, and after a rocky beginning he turned out to be a keeper.
But it will be interesting to see how they approach this winter’s free-agent crop, which includes Cole, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner — who the Yankees are said to be interested in — and possibly Stephen Strasburg, who has an opt-out in his deal with the Nationals.
Early indications are this offseason will be more of the same.
“I think we’re always aggressive and trying to attack areas that need improvement and it just comes down to what's available in the marketplace,’’ Cashman said. “If there's something that's available that we seem to be able to match up with and push through on, we’ll be aggressive.”
Asked if he thought the Yankees needed to add an ace to their pitching staff for next season, Boone said, “Not necessarily. I mean, the bottom line is, we're a play or two away from still playing right now. I feel pretty confident that, heading into next spring, we’ll have a team that I would say is on that shortlist of teams that can truly say we're a championship contender.’’
Which is precisely what they said last year, and the year before that and the year before that, going back to October 2010. Maybe this year, they actually mean it.
But just in case, better reserve that room in the bowels of Yankee Stadium for this time next year.
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