The New York Yankees are in an odd and precarious position. They’re one step from that precious peak, the World Series, and also fighting every day to find a shred of solid ground in the batter’s box.
Two losses to the Houston Astros to begin the ALCS have magnified the instability of the Yankees' offense. This is a lineup in flux, with high-stakes questions demanding answers immediately — as the series shifts to New York on Saturday — and in the anxious winter ahead. Who else is going to reliably hit alongside Aaron Judge now? And would his supporting cast improve if he remains with the Yankees this offseason?
Even in the latter half of October, manager Aaron Boone is scrambling to adequately fill in the lineup around Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo. In Game 2, he moved Harrison Bader, the club’s hottest hitter, into the leadoff spot and bumped Gleyber Torres, batting .148 in October, to the No. 5 slot. Bader and Torres helped create the Yankees’ runs and opportunities for more, but if anything the shuffle accentuated just how unsettled the bottom half of the lineup remains.
Hopeless looking strikeouts at the bottom of the order snuffed out the Yankees’ rally in the fourth inning, and then thwarted their ninth-inning comeback attempt. Maybe more telling was the seventh inning. One frame after Astros starter Framber Valdez allowed two hard-hit balls that turned into outs only thanks to excellent defensive work (and some luck), Dusty Baker sent him back out for the seventh, seemingly tempting fate in a postseason game. But the Yankees’ 6-7-8 hitters — Josh Donaldson, Kyle Higashioka and Oswald Peraza — more than justified Baker’s confidence. Valdez struck them all out in a flash.
The Astros haven’t lit the world on fire either — Jose Altuve is 0-for-the-playoffs — but their lineup still poses threats almost all the way through. The Yankees, on the other hand, are reaping what were always clear downsides of risks and half-measures taken over the past year.
Yankees lineup conjuring bad memories of August swoon
When the Yankees' lineup temporarily crumbled beneath Judge in August, knocking the team off a record win pace and out of the top seed in the AL postseason chase, it looked a bit like this.
Like any team this late in a season, the Yankees are dealing with some injuries (DJ LeMahieu) and cold streaks (Torres), but they have struggled to find enough healthy and competent bats to hold the line. Over the course of a 162-game season, that summer stumble didn’t keep them from approaching the ultimate goal — they’re in the ALCS, after all — but it exposed cracks.
Unless you’re the Los Angeles Angels, a generational 10 WAR season will paper over a lot of those, and that’s exactly what Judge’s superhuman 62-homer season did. If you look at overall team offensive production in the second half, the Yankees look perfectly solid. They ranked eighth in baseball by FanGraphs’ park-adjusted metric wRC+, sandwiched between the two clubs vying for the NL pennant.
But Judge, who was an astounding 151% better than the league average hitter over that span, accounted for an unwieldy amount of their success. Of the 10 Yankees hitters who took the most plate appearances in the second half, only three posted better than average batting lines. The Padres and Phillies, on the other hand, had eight above-average hitters apiece among their 10 most used batters.
When October baseball pares down the pitching and amps up the difficulty level, that sort of imbalance can become a glaring, line-breaking menace.
Aaron Boone, Brian Cashman caught between past and future
Last winter, the chief question facing longtime Yankees general manager Brian Cashman revolved around the left side of the infield. With big-ticket shortstops Carlos Correa and Corey Seager on the market, Cashman chose to instead attempt to build a bridge to highly rated prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza. Eschewing the free agent options, he traded for defense-first shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa and aging third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Where the Yankees were perhaps understandably unwilling to commit to Seager for the 10 years he agreed upon with the Texas Rangers, Cashman’s choice raised more eyebrows when Carlos Correa signed a deal with the Minnesota Twins that allowed him — perhaps even encouraged him — to opt out after one season.
That deal paid Correa $35.1 million in 2022, and paired him Gio Urshela, who the Yankees dealt away to land Kiner-Falefa and Donaldson. The comparison between very realistic options is stark.
Minnesota paid its tandem $41.65 million for two seasons of strong production that totaled 6.8 FanGraphs WAR. Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa, meanwhile, both finished the season with batting lines worse than league average. The Yankees wound up with a $28.45 million tab for 2.9 WAR, and still have $21.75 million committed to a 37-year-old Donaldson next year.
Increasingly unsure of Kiner-Falefa, the Yankees began occasionally deploying pop-up rookie Oswaldo Cabrera at shortstop for his superior offensive spark. Then, in September, they brought up Peraza — viewed as the second-best of the prospects behind Volpe — for his debut. He showed significant promise in 18 games, batting .306 and displaying plate discipline that hinted at a decent level of comfort against major-league pitching. But then the Yankees left Peraza off the ALDS roster entirely.
He joined the roster for the ALCS after Aaron Hicks’ knee injury necessitated a change, and was thrust into the starting lineup in Game 2.
The Yankees know more about Peraza’s development than you or I, but given the weight placed on Volpe and Peraza, shouldn’t he be getting a full opportunity to stop the carousel at shortstop?
Maybe he will get that now. Whether it’s helpful in the Astros series may matter even less than how the front office’s priorities are perceived by the man with a bird’s eye view from right field.
Is this a team built to win around Aaron Judge?
As Aaron Judge surveys his suitors this offseason, are the Yankees the one most committed to building a winner around him? It sounds like an absurd question, and it has been for much of the past 30 years. But the Yankees’ choices in recent offseasons feel like a recalibration, if not an outright retrenchment. After flexing to get Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole, they also spent to retain DJ LeMahieu. It may be that the injury-hampered, aging results they are getting from Stanton and LeMahieu, combined with this crop of intriguing shortstop prospects, has altered the tendencies of the second-generation Steinbrenners, or of Cashman himself.
They ran out the oldest crop of position players in baseball in 2022, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — ask the 2021 San Francisco Giants. But the other side of that coin can reveal itself quickly — ask the 2022 San Francisco Giants.
The teams with similarly stacked payrolls and ambitions — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and those ever-present Astros — are invested in younger, seemingly more durable position players than the Yankees currently are. Stanton is signed through at least 2027, LeMahieu through 2026. Anthony Rizzo is inked as a stable presence for at least 2023. As for the only hitters of note under age 30, Torres is scheduled to remain under team control through 2024 and Bader will reach free agency after 2023.
That lean toward veterans is informed by relatively sparse development wins on the position player front and also creates immense pressure to change the pattern.
Where the Yankees have been wildly successful in finding and growing pitchers, those clubs they run with financially, and chase in terms of on-field success, have a more robust recent track record of filling their rosters with productive young hitters. Cashman and company clearly believe that they’re about to introduce the baseball world to some of their own. But does Judge — whose value they very publicly assessed in the spring — buy into the future they’re selling? And are they willing to pay up to convince him of their commitment?
Based off 2022, you could understand if the promises look as empty as the bottom of the batting order.