NEW YORK — In one very critical way, the offseason can be more fun for the optimistic fan than the baseball season itself. Namely, in the winter, none of the players whose injured list stints will cut short promising individual campaigns and disrupt their teams’ best-laid plans have gotten hurt yet.
Last year, Aaron Judge played in all but five of the New York Yankees’ games. His historic performance was worth 11.5 wins, and at times, it seemed he was carrying the team en route to a first-place finish in the American League East. To lose Judge would’ve been a disaster, and the Yankees brass believes this was made evident in the winter, when they offered him a $360 million contract to keep him playing in New York for the next nine years.
The Yankees are home this week, but Judge is not playing in New York after he was placed on the 10-day IL on Monday due to a hip strain. Even if his absence is brief, it highlights a potential flaw in the Yankees’ plan to make the postseason for a seventh straight season and finally return to what fans would consider their rightful place in the Fall Classic. That is: The best players aren’t much help if they’re hurt — and no matter how it looks in retrospect, that kind of thing is hard to predict and hard to prevent.
“Obviously, it's not the team that we've put together,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Wednesday before his team’s walk-off 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Guardians, which saw both Oswald Peraza and Harrison Bader, playing in just his second game this season, depart due to possible injuries. “We've had a lot of injuries.”
Cashman was assessing a team that finished the first month of the season last in the competitive AL East (though still above .500, a testament to how tough the division will be to top). The Yankees’ 13 players currently on the IL are tied for second to the New York Mets’ tally, and their missing projected production is the highest in baseball. Along with Judge: designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton, third baseman Josh Donaldson, starting pitchers Luis Severino, Frankie Montas and Carlos Rodón (who has yet to pitch in pinstripes).
The result has been a Yankees club that currently ranks in the bottom third of baseball in runs scored, batting average and OPS. Drill down a little deeper, and it’s even more troubling. The Yankees rank second-to-last in offensive production from their outfield — last if you look just at left field, where Aaron Hicks has gotten the bulk of playing time. (He currently has an OPS+ of 4; 100 is league average.) Elsewhere on the diamond isn’t all that much better: The Yankees are 17th at third base and 26th at catcher.
“We've got what we've got, and we're going to go with what we've got unless something can be obtained elsewhere that makes sense,” Cashman said about left field in particular. “But there's no guarantee that will happen.”
His tautological word salad is indicative of some circumstantial futility to fix the situation. First of all, he’s not a doctor — and the ones the Yankees have aren’t magic anyway, even if Cashman insists the team has full confidence in its medical staff. Beyond that, it’s a tough time to be a baseball team looking to “buy,” in trade parlance. During the half-hour in which he addressed reporters, Cashman repeatedly stressed how ill-timed all these IL stints are — both because they’re coming all at once and because very few teams are looking to strike a deal this early in the season.
The offseason, however, is an excellent time to add depth.
And unfortunately for Cashman, who had to face the tape recorders Wednesday, his boss, team owner Hal Steinbrenner, promised at Judge’s (re)introductory news conference in December that the Yankees were “not done yet” supplementing their squad. That no further impactful moves were made might’ve been forgotten or at least forgiven if the team had gotten off to a hot start. But with better depth desperately needed one month into the season and glaring holes at positions that seemed prime candidates for upgrades in the winter, that comment casts a spotlight on missed opportunities.
Cashman was equivocal Wednesday in how he explained the team’s inaction in the wake of such a promise. He chalked it up the vagaries of deal-making. The Yankees were willing to make a trade, but no suitable offers emerged. Even in retrospect, he said he stands by those decisions.
“I don't think there's anything that was on the table that I could have pulled down that would make a difference, no,” he said. “So no, I don't see any missed opportunities.”
That’s difficult to believe if only because having acquired more healthy players then would certainly help now. And it’s hard to square with his assertion that the shortcomings are his responsibility (“If you want to convict somebody, convict me.”). Either the team construction is faulty and he’s to blame (“the more recent moves have not worked out”), or he did the best that anyone could have and there’s nothing to regret.
The reality is that baseball teams are judged on their results, despite the outsized impact that injuries can have. It’s an un-fun part of the sport that the people involved understand all too well. Good team construction guards against those injuries that you can see coming; great team construction guards against even those that you can’t.