Mediocre Yankees may have 'nightmare' Gerrit Cole scenario on the horizon -- what will it mean for Aaron Boone?

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312711694 021020 AARON BOONE Treated Art
312711694 021020 AARON BOONE Treated Art

The days of the obligatory manager-watch in the Bronx are long gone, unless Hal Steinbrenner suddenly demonstrates the intolerance for underperforming that defined his late father. But that doesn’t mean the pressure on Aaron Boone isn’t increasing exponentially these days.

On the heels of a sweep at the hands of the rival Red Sox -- and a curiously passive reaction from Boone to a crucial bad call -- the Yankees look like a mediocre team that is more likely to miss out on the playoffs than it is to win the championship they’ve been chasing in earnest since getting close in 2017.

I say that partly because the Sox stamped themselves as legitimate contenders this weekend, outplaying the Yankees at every turn and looking much more fundamentally sound, with much better situational hitting, leaving little doubt the AL East is significantly deeper and tougher than expected.

The Rays are already in the Yankees’ heads, after all, and again proving they have a secret sauce of sorts that assures they’re no fluke at the top of the division. And the Blue Jays, who moved up into third place in the AL East on Sunday, are a young team on the rise that just needs a little more pitching to be a force as well.

So, yep, the Yankees are in fourth place, 6.5 games out of first. And it’s June now, not April or May, so it’s far from early anymore -- just as it’s far from certain this team is going to morph into an offensive juggernaut as expected.

After 60 games, they’re 14th in the American League in runs scored. And their best hitter, soon-to-be 33-year-old DJ LeMahieu, looks like he got old overnight as if he’s the very reincarnation of Roberto Alomar going over the cliff for the Mets once upon a time at age 34.

In addition, the lack of left-handed hitting is becoming more and more glaring by the day, and not something the Yankees can easily fix anytime soon.

As if all that’s not enough, the Yanks may find themselves at the epicenter of MLB’s decision to begin cracking down on pitchers who are loading up the baseball with sticky substances to increase spin rates and make their breaking stuff move like whiffle balls.

Indeed, all eyes will be on Gerrit Cole when he takes the mound Wednesday in Minnesota, after his spin rates dropped significantly in his less-than-dominant start last Thursday against the Rays.

The issue is front-and-center after Twins star Josh Donaldson broke a code of sorts by publicly questioning whether Cole’s reduction in spin rate was a result of MLB’s crackdown, perhaps scaring him into pitching substance-free.

As a result, Boone found himself in the position of having to defend Cole when questioned by the media on Sunday, and he did so, though not definitively.

“I don’t make much of it,” Boone said. “Gerrit, as well as our staff, are mostly above board and they’ll be able to handle the situation in the right kind of way and it’s not going to affect the type of pitchers they are.”

Consider the “mostly above board” as wiggle room, if you will.

Cole, who blossomed into a superstar upon being traded to the Houston Astros in 2018, has come under some suspicion before. Trevor Bauer, whose own spin rates dropped significantly in a losing start on Sunday, made unspecified accusations a couple of years ago about what Cole, his old UCLA teammate, was doing in Houston.

And then in January, a former clubhouse manager for the Los Angeles Angels named Brian Harkins, who was suing his old team over being fired after MLB had informed the Angels he’d been providing pitchers with a sticky mix of rosin and pine tar, revealed a 2019 text from Cole that indicated the star pitcher was essentially asking for a shipment of the stuff.

So, while the belief among baseball people is that many pitchers are loading up to an extreme these days, it’s only natural that Cole, the $326 million man, comes under intense scrutiny, especially if his spin rates -- and his strikeout numbers -- are down again on Wednesday.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning at Yankee Stadium.
New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning at Yankee Stadium.

As one long-time scout told me on Monday:

“This is a potential nightmare scenario for the Yankees. No one knows exactly how far umpires are going to go (in checking pitchers for illegal substances and potentially ejecting them), but if it’s scaring someone like Cole into backing off on the junk then it’s already having an effect.

“It’s pretty obvious the Yankees badly need him to be dominant this year for them. And he’s there for, what, another eight years? I’m really curious to see what he does in his next start.”

In short, this is hardly what the Yankees or Boone need right now. For while you can make the case that GM Brian Cashman should be held more accountable if this team continues to underachieve, especially since the absence of left-handed hitting defies the traditional formula for winning in Yankee Stadium, the manager seems more likely to pay the price.

Boone is Cashman’s guy, hand-picked to replace Joe Girardi within weeks after the Yankees made their surprise run to Game 7 of the ALCS in 2017, so there’s no way the GM wants to have to fire him.

But if the Yankees do miss the playoffs this season, public pressure will be such that even Steinbrenner, non-reactionary as he seems to be, likely would be forced to appease his ticket-buying fan base in some fashion.

And considering the complete faith the owner has always expressed in Cashman, Boone is in a much more vulnerable position, especially since his contract is up at the end of the season.

After all, in addition to not hitting, the Yankees have looked undisciplined, especially on the bases where they’ve run themselves into more outs by far than any team in baseball. And when a team doesn’t hit, it always creates the perception of a lack of energy or intensity, which fairly or unfairly reflects on the manager.

As such, it wasn’t a good look for Boone on Sunday night when he failed to argue one of the most egregious third-strike calls of any season, after Rougned Odor was called out on a curve ball well outside in the ninth inning of a tie game with the winning run at third base.

And when third-base coach Phil Nevin, just back from a scary bout with Covid-19, got ejected instead, it looked even worse for the manager.

As former Yankee Phil Hughes tweeted, “Phil Nevin can barely walk and he’s the guy standing up for his guys?”

If that was a former player’s public reaction, it was logical enough to believe the Yankee dugout was thinking much the same way. Boone has shown plenty of fire in going after umpires at times, to be sure, even getting ejected as recently as last Thursday. Yet, given all the factors Sunday night, with the Yankees desperately trying to avoid the sweep, his inaction fed into the fan perception that he’s too mild-mannered of a manager.

In truth, Boone seems to be mostly what Cashman was hoping for when he hired him: A skilled communicator who is smoother under media questioning than Girardi and has built solid relationships with the players. But at some point, the standings are going to supersede any of that.

So we’ll see. First, we’ll see if Steinbrenner is willing to rescind his ultimatum regarding the luxury-tax threshold if Cashman has the opportunity to deal for high-priced help at the trading deadline. If he’s not, he’ll take some heat for that.

Then, unless the Yankees shake off their lethargy, especially offensively, and turn themselves into a championship-caliber ballclub over the next few months, we’ll see if the owner is ever going to exceed his own patience threshold -- something that has always differentiated him from his famous father.