They were 84-59, cruising to a division title and looking every bit the champion of the two previous years. Then the 2000 Yankees forgot how to win. For three weeks, they were the majors’ worst team. No hyperbole — the worst team.
They closed at 3-15 and were outscored by 89 runs (the average game was an 8-3 loss). They nearly blew a nine-game AL East lead. They hit terribly, pitched worse and raised concern if they were as good as we all thought they were.
They ultimately beat the Mets in a Subway World Series to three-peat.
That team from two decades ago has resonated in the last month, as the Yankees arguably assembled their worst sustained spurt since then. They pitched terribly and hit worse and have raised concerns if they are as good as we all thought they were.
Will these Yankees repeat the flip-the-switch happy ending of that group? They are not pedigreed champions like the Yankees of Jeter and Mo and Bernie. But they have been really good the past three years and generally are run expertly, so I do not want to dismiss them.
Nevertheless, all warts were supposed to be camouflaged by a bullpen and a lineup that were both deep and filled with power. When those areas were simultaneously terrible, the warts were exposed.
Maybe it was just a bad month in a bizarre season, and placing too much emphasis on it would be like worrying in September 2000 about the Yankees. Except these warts are hard to ignore or forget, especially because they imperil more than October 2020. Longer-term issues have arisen:
1. The Yankees have spent the past three seasons insisting what we were seeing — the decay of Gary Sanchez’s game — is not what they were seeing. They talked power and pitch-framing/game-calling and downplayed or dismissed all the non-competitive at-bats and pitches that escaped him.
How much is stealing a strike or two a game and hitting a massive homer once a week worth? Sanchez has become Rob Deer as a catcher. He began the weekend hitting .122 and striking out 41 percent of the time — and this isn’t Aaron Judge working the count on the way to large strikeout totals. This is deer-in-the-headlights, no-shot whiffs.
Every attempt to remake Sanchez on one side of the plate or the other seems to leave him a worse overall player, one with less confidence and less promise that tomorrow will be better.
The window to trade him and receive a strong return is like Joe DiMaggio — part of the Yankees’ past. Sanchez cannot be a free agent until after 2022. But how long do they want to keep going with this soap opera, which does have a draining impact on the whole club?
J.T. Realmuto is a free agent after this season, but I can’t imagine the Yanks adding another huge contract to Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton. Here is a question for the Yankees: Is their 2021 team better with Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka or, say, James McCann and Roberto Perez?
2. The Yankees have struggled without Judge and Stanton in the lineup. But those guys will be sidelined quite often. They have been in the same lineup in just 130 of a possible 370 regular-season games since 2018 (35.1 percent), and the Yanks are 86-44 in those games (.662 winning percentage)
Judge and Stanton may be so big and strong that the force with which they play guarantees annual injuries. That creates a day-to-day problem, but also a year-to-year one. The Yanks always are going to have to have outfielders and bats to cover for the absences (throw in the oft-injured Aaron Hicks, too). So just throwing Clint Frazier or Mike Tauchman into every talk-radio trade becomes trickier.
3. The team of Ruth, Gehrig, Reggie and Mattingly had MLB lows in batting average (.182) and homers (nine) by lefty hitters at the same point of the season, entering this weekend. The recent philosophy has been just get the best hitters, and the Yanks have done a lot of winning the past three years being more right-handed than perhaps any time in their history. But this lack of diversity and production is brutal.
Signing Hicks for seven years at $70 million has been a mistake — he intersperses timely homers between IL stints and passive at-bats. Tauchman took one step back from last year, Mike Ford took three. Tyler Wade is a 28th man. Brett Gardner’s distinguished career looks near the end. Estevan Florial is a rumor. Greg Bird a memory. Where is even a single lefty bat for 2021 that the Yankees can believe in?
4. The Yankees hired essentially new staffs to address health and pitching after the 2019 season, and their health has remained a problem, and most of their veteran pitchers have been worse. Brian Cashman has said that it takes time for new protocols to have impact and not to make hasty judgments. That might be particularly true about decisions based on this crazy season. Still, these areas need to show better results in 2021.
5. Gleyber Torres was the third-place hitting shortstop on the belated Opening Day. Is he either going forward? He has hit better since coming off the injured list, but he will have to demonstrate that his 2019 output was not simply overinflated by Little League star numbers against the Orioles. But the bat is way easier to believe in than the idea Torres is a major league shortstop. And the Yankees should not throw away defense there.
Torres would be better at second. But then what to do with free agent DJ LeMahieu, whose tough at-bats and gamer nature would be tough to replace. Are the Yanks best with Torres at second and LeMahieu starting 50 games each at first, second and third, and the Yanks adding a defensive shortstop. Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons are both free agents and strong defenders. They also are both righty hitters, at a time when the Yanks might want to be tightening their budget.
The pipe dream remains the switch-hitting Francisco Lindor, whom the Indians will probably make available this winter. But that will cost prospects, probably about $25 million next year, and he is a free agent following the 2021 season.
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