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The Yankees Are In No Man’s Land

The signs were there.

The Yankees entered the pandemic-shortened 2020 season the odds-on favorites to roll past the competition en route to championship No. 28. And that was for good reason. Since the second half of 2016, Brian Cashman meticulously assembled a roster boasting present day stars and up-and-comers, a dominant bullpen with a rotation that yet left much to be desired. The Yankees made their way towards the mountaintop each of the three years prior but couldn’t plant their flag at the top, whether it was dropping a 2-1 game in the ALDS a year ago, an ALDS exit at the hands of the Red Sox, or the Astros cheating scandal.

What occurred over the 60-game slate was unexpected by pundits and fans alike. The Yankees were the very definition of ebb and flow, starting off the season 16-6, then winning just five of their next 15. They turned around and went undefeated in 10 straight games, but ended the year 2-6, good for a 33-27 record and an invitation to the expanded postseason, where they were outed by the rival Tampa Bay Rays.

There was good. DJ LeMahieu earned his second MVP-caliber campaign in his second season in New York, the organization finally landed their ace in Gerrit Cole and Luke Voit lead the league in long balls. There was bad, too. The rest of the starting staff, Gleyber Torres being sapped of his power and Gary Sánchez's continued downfall. The injured list? That was ugly as well.

The disappointing season was chalked up to the wild and unpredictable nature that was 2020. Cashman decided to run the core of the roster back, sans swapping Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton for Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, who combined for 63 total innings since 2019.

That decision by Cashman and company has shown who the Yankees really are: not a championship contender, but a team that needs to reevaluate its future before dreaming of a World Series.

The Yankees are 41-39 entering play on Friday, a club that takes one step forward and two steps back on what seems to be a weekly basis. They went 5-10 through the first half of April before finishing the month winners in seven of 11. May was largely a success, as the team went 17-7 to start the month, including winning streaks of six and four games. The month came to a sputter when the Yankees were swept by the feisty yet lowly Detroit Tigers.

New month, same results. Split with the Rays. Sweep Toronto. Win two of three against the Twins and Athletics but drop each game in the series against the Red Sox (twice) and the Phillies.

Inconsistency is the name of this team’s game—and it’s not only in the win-loss column.

On the offensive side, the Yankees are far from the juggernaut people expected. The lineup ranks in the bottom half in all of baseball in batting average, runs per game, BABIP and ISO. They’ve hit into the second-most double plays and are dead last in stolen bases and attempts.

Aaron Judge has been, well, Aaron Judge. He’s slashing .285/.382/.522 and is on his way to his third All-Star Game while maintaining and sustaining health for the first time in his career. Sánchez has seen a resurgence over the last month, sporting an OPS of 1.035 with eight home runs in June. Gio Urshela is once again getting it done on both sides of the field while Giancarlo Stanton has mashed 14 home runs to go along with 38 RBI.

But where there are ebbs, there are flows.

The aforementioned Torres and his lack of power has gone from eyebrow raising to downright alarming. He hit a combined 62 home runs in his first two big-league seasons, but has just three in 2021 while ranking poorly in average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and barrel percentage, among other categories.

LeMahieu, fresh off a six-year, $95 million extension, has a .721 OPS while seeing his normally-solid defense diminish. Luke Voit can’t stay healthy, and both left and center field have been black holes since Opening Day.

It’s the pitching, too. Cole is still an ace, with or without sticky stuff. Jordan Montgomery has emerged from the farm as a reliable starter every fifth day. But both Taillon and Domingo Germán have both struggled mightily in their returns to baseball in 2021, sporting FIP’s north of 4.50 and WHIP’s above 1.20. Kluber threw a no-hitter on May 19, went on the IL on May 27 and the jury is still out if he’ll return this year.

In the 'pen, Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga and Lucas Luetge have all proved their worth, but Zack Britton, Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson can’t stay healthy either. Aroldis Chapman was unhittable through May. In 11 appearances in June, the closer has allowed an opposing triple slash of .368/.500/.658, which was capped off by an all-time bad performance on Thursday morning against the Angels.

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The roster construction is a large factor. That does fall largely on Cashman’s shoulders, but ownership has its fair share of blame, too.

They took a risk on the Kluber and Taillon acquisitions instead of opting for someone like Lance Lynn, a sturdy starter with experience in New York. They opted to keep the status quo on the outfield, despite Aaron Hicks’ injury history, Brett Gardner’s age and Clint Frazier’s small sample size of success. Hicks is now out for the year, Gardner is a 37-year-old everyday center fielder hitting below the Mendoza line and Frazier has lost his job to third baseman turned left fielder Miguel Andujar. 

They’re too right handed and lack collective athleticism. The talent, despite the name value, hasn’t been there.

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“Point blank, the Yankees have not been a good team,” said one National League front office member. “They’re fourth in the division, and that’s where I’d rank them as a team. The Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays are in a better position to succeed.”

The Rays have a top-three front office, one that can turn over talent on a yearly basis and still put a winner on the field. The Red Sox have been one of baseball’s biggest surprises and look to be getting a major reinforcement in Chris Sale in the coming weeks. The Blue Jays are stacked with young talent.

It can be argued the Yankees have a combination of all three. Their front office is highly regarded, despite what you read on Twitter. They’re getting a reinforcement in Luis Severino later this summer. They have young talent. Things just aren’t clicking.

With July arriving, all eyes are on the Trade Deadline. Cashman has come out and said the Yankees will be buyers. But if the stagnant play continues, should the GM and Senior Vice President look to his 2016 blueprint and retool the franchise?

Not so fast.

“I don’t see many trade chips that make sense,” the front office member continued. “Chapman has value, but the Yankees would have to eat money which doesn’t make sense for them. Britton is damaged goods. Green definitely has some value, but he’s not getting you a top-10 prospect. There are 25 relievers that can be had in a trade. It’s a robust market.”

There is value beyond the bullpen. Both Urshela and Montgomery were two names mentioned that could bring back value to the Yankees, but moving those two, “makes no sense with the way [the Yankees] operate financially,” since they’re both arbitration eligible until 2024.

“Torres may be their best trade chip, but I don’t see [the Yankees] giving up on him just yet. Judge is obviously someone who can change the direction of the organization if you trade him. But he’s the face of the franchise.”

When a franchise is in a rut, more needs to be done than a Deadline acquisition or free-agent signing. A real shakeup may be necessary to put the team in a new direction.

“Sometimes you need a new voice, a new philosophy,” said the front office counterpart. “Cashman has done a fairly good job over the years but this is his team. This is his mess.”

Cashman has been with the organization since 1986, starting as an intern and eventually taking over as GM in 1998. He’s been highly regarded both within the organization and in baseball for nearly over two decades.

One name mentioned that the Yankees could turn to is Brian Sabean, former executive vice president of baseball operations with San Francisco Giants. Sabean began his career with the Yankees, first as a scout in 1985. By 1990, he was named Vice President of Player Development/Scouting and is noted as someone who helped bring in names like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada to the organization, amongst other talent.

“Sabean is a great baseball guy, has a great pedigree. He did a great job with the Giants. He’s personable and smart." 

He isn’t an ideal candidate; front offices continue to skew younger, and Sabean is 65 years old. But his history with the franchise makes him an intriguing name to keep an eye on.

More likely is a managerial change, despite Aaron Boone being handpicked by the organization. Current bench coach Carlos Mendoza would be a familiar yet fresh voice for the locker room. Jay Bell was interviewed by the Yankees for their managerial opening in late 2017 despite only reaching A ball as a manager. Joe Espada held numerous roles with the Yankees, both in the front office and on the coaching staff, and is viewed as an eventual manager. Don Mattingly is more of a pipe dream, but the Yankees legend has a mutual option with the Marlins for the 2022 season.

There are a lot of decisions to be made in the weeks and months ahead. It wouldn’t shock anyone if the Yankees go on a hot streak, make a run towards the playoffs and sputter once again. It also wouldn’t be a shock to see this team sit around .500. After all, they’re 74-66 since the start of last season, with no improvement in sight.

The present doesn’t look as bright as it has since this current championship window opened. The future is unknown.

The Yankees are in no man’s land and who knows how, or if, they’ll get out of it. 

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Follow Dan Federico on Twitter (@DanJFederico). Be sure to bookmark Inside The Pinstripes and check back daily for news, analysis and more.