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So what’s wrong with the Yankees?
I posed that question to some scouts and rival team executives the last two days, and most of the reasons given for the 5-7 start focused on either Brian Cashman’s pitching gambles, which are trending more toward risk than reward so far, or the lineup’s surprising lack of power.
But one longtime scout, who saw more of both New York teams last year than usual because COVID restrictions limited him to watching games on TV, made an intriguing observation.
A SCOUT WEIGHS IN
“Actually, so far the Yankees remind me of the Mets from last year,” the scout said. “They don’t have good starting pitching behind their ace. They’re finding different ways to lose games, with key mistakes on defense or on the bases. And they’re not getting timely hits.
“I remember it got to the point last year where the Mets looked like they couldn’t get out of their own way, even though they had talent. It just became one of those years. Sometimes it happens to teams that don’t know how to win.
“That shouldn’t be a problem with the Yankees. They’ve won a lot of games the last few years. And it might be a case where they’re just working out the kinks early in the season. But they haven’t had that confident vibe you usually sense from them, and that has been a little strange to me.”
With that in mind, is it possible the Tampa Bay Rays knocked some of the swagger out of these Yankees, dominating them 8-2 in the season series last year and then bouncing them from the postseason as well?
The people I spoke with didn’t dismiss such a notion but they were more inclined to tie any sense of vulnerability to the lack of quality starting pitching the Yankees have gotten from anyone other than Gerrit Cole, and to some degree, Jordan Montgomery.
“That’s really the crux of the matter to me,” a second scout said. “It’s hard to win when you’re not getting much help from your starters. It can affect a ballclub in a lot of ways. The Yankees are built to hit for power and score runs but the mindset can be a little different if you’re falling behind early and there’s pressure to score.
“You have to give guys like (Corey) Kluber and (Jameson) Taillon more time to find their footing after they missed most of the last two seasons. But that’s the risk they took in rolling the dice on those guys. The Yankees are counting on them as big pieces of the rotation and so far they haven’t performed.”
A RIVAL EXEC WEIGHS IN
On that point a rival team exec added: “We talk about certainty all the time and there’s not a lot of certainty in that rotation when three of your five starters basically didn’t pitch last year, and two of them haven’t pitched much at all since 2018.”
The exec was including Domingo German, of course, as the third starter, but it is the other two who will bring continued scrutiny on Cashman this season, after he signed Kluber to a one-year, $11 million contract and traded prospects to get Taillon from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
So far both have been shaky: Kluber has pitched a total of only 10.1 innings over three starts, giving up a whopping 16 hits that have led to a 6.10 ERA, while Taillon has a 7.56 ERA over two starts.
“Kluber is getting swings and misses with his slider when he commands it,” said one scout, “but he’s leaving too many in the strike zone, and when he does that it’s getting whacked. He looks a little contact-shy -- walks have hurt him. Taillon looks like he’s feeling his way back. He’s got good stuff but he’s not locating.”
Meanwhile, German has a 9.00 ERA, leaving Montgomery (3.27) as the only reliable starter behind Cole, who has been exceptional (2-0, 1.47). And so the Yankees may need young pitchers like Michael King, Deivi Garcia, and eventually Clarke Schmidt -- out since February with with forearm soreness -- to blossom quickly, and hope Luis Severino is a difference-maker when he returns around midseason from Tommy John surgery.
“The good news for them is their bullpen has been excellent,” a team exec said, “but if they don’t get more innings out of their starters they’re going to wear down some of those relievers pretty quickly.”
Whatever their pitching problems, the Yankees are still supposed to be able slug their way to wins, but their power has been mostly missing. Their total of 13 home runs ranks ninth in the AL, while their total of 48 runs ranks 12th. And they’re stranding too many runners, hitting .229 with runners in scoring position -- 11th in the AL.
They’ve also hit into 15 double plays, most in the league. Unlike the pitching, however, evaluators don’t see the offense as being something to worry about. Not yet, anyway.
“If you tell me (DJ) LeMahieu is going to keep rolling over on breaking balls and hitting into double plays, then I’d be concerned,” one scout said. “He just got off to a slow start but I have to believe he’ll get it going, and he’s really the guy who makes them go.
“(Aaron) Judge is fine and (Giancarlo) Stanton is Stanton. He’s got too many holes in his swing to be consistent, and everybody knows he can be pitched to: Fastball in, breaking ball away, and unless he’s in one of his occasional hot streaks, seeing the ball really well, he’ll chase. They ought to hit him sixth or seventh and be happy to take the home runs when they come.
“The guy they really miss is (Luke) Voit. Obviously the power, but he’s become a good hitter, too. He hits tough pitching and he seems to be an energy guy for them, which they could use right now. They’re getting nothing out of (Jay) Bruce in his place.
“I think they underestimated the need for quality left-handed bats. They obviously have some concerns about that when they’re force-feeding (Rougned) Odor in there, and they had (Brett) Gardner hitting third the other day. But I still think their power will show up over the course of the season and they’ll score a lot of runs.”
Finally, the Yankees have a couple of glaring problems defensively: After some ugly errors early, Gleyber Torres has steadied himself a bit in recent games at shortstop, but scouts see him as a liability. And while Gary Sanchez has been OK so far behind the plate, his passed-ball issues never seem to be far from the surface.
“Those are two positions you need to be able to count on, especially in the postseason,” one scout said. “It makes them vulnerable when games are generally more low-scoring and a mistake defensively can really cost you.
“The bottom line is they’re built more for the regular season, mostly because they rely on their power. They haven’t gotten enough timely hits in the postseason the last few years and that’s been a big reason they gotten knocked out.”
With all of that in mind, the big question is obvious: Are these Yankees, who were widely considered the best team in the American League coming into the season, good enough to win a championship?
The consensus among the scouts and execs is, at the very least, the Yankees’ early-season problems have tempered expectations. That is, a championship isn’t out of reach, partly because no one sees a juggernaut elsewhere in the AL, but a lot of things would have to fall just right for it to happen.
“They’re better than they’ve played, especially offensively,” said one scout. “And they’ll be a threat in the postseason, with Cole as their ace and a strong bullpen. But their flaws have shown up early and the AL East could be better than expected, especially when you see what Boston has done to this point.
“I have to believe Cashman is going to need to add pitching at the trade deadline and that could be a problem if ownership is determined to stay under the luxury tax. The bottom line is I think everybody had the Yankees as a lock to win 95-plus games and be in the postseason. Now, as early as it is, you have to re-think that a bit.”