For weeks now, the Yankees have occupied a very interesting position in the baseball hierarchy.
Aaron Judge’s home run chase demanded the attention of the entire sport, even if the conversations surrounding what is and isn’t the real record quickly overshadowed the actual accomplishment of hitting 62 home runs, which is spectacular.
But outside of Judge and the few other stars on this team, the Yankees haven’t had the type of overall success that defined the first half of their season. When they were winning at a historic pace, it was all about everybody, 26 players coming together as one to post a near-.700 winning percentage before the All-Star break.
That has not been the case since. Injuries played a huge role in that (Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Nestor Cortes Jr., Luis Severino, Clay Holmes, Matt Carpenter, Michael King and Ron Marinaccio all spending time on the injured list was quite unfortunate) and losing deadline pickups Andrew Benintendi, Frankie Montas and Scott Effross late in the year only made things harder.
But some basic regression also bore its way into the Yankee clubhouse, something that was both sort of predictable given just how hot they were at the beginning, and also explains how a team that was once flirting with the all-time wins record ended up in a do-or-die game with the offensively inept Guardians.
Jose Trevino turned back into a pumpkin. Holmes, when healthy, was one of the most erratic relievers in the league down the stretch. Aaron Hicks’ .890 OPS in July gave way to a .361 in August, effectively ending his tenure as a starting outfielder.
Now, in both Monday’s Game 5 of the American League Division Series with Cleveland and potentially beyond, it is clear that the Yankees need some of that depth to reappear. One player cannot carry a team through October, and even if he could, Judge’s 2-for-16 line with nine strikeouts across the first four games didn’t do the Bombers any favors.
Stanton has had an even worse time, going 1-for-12 in the first four games. Both of the sluggers’ homers were kind of wasted, too, as they both ended up coming in Yankee losses. Rizzo (4-for-14 with three walks) qualifies as the only big name on offense who has consistently shown up. Gleyber Torres finally met his postseason foil and Carpenter has been limited to just one plate appearance.
The star of the series, at least among the position players, has been Harrison Bader. The center fielder was brought in to be a star role player, supplying stable defense at a premium position and hitting at the bottom of the order. He’s done that and more, knocking three improbable home runs and leading the Yankees in RBI through the first four games. Had just one more player from the role player basket emerged like Bader, this series would not have needed five games.
Oswaldo Cabrera got his big Yankee moment in Game 3 with a colossal home run, but that went for naught when the bullpen blew the lead, and Cabrera has looked overmatched at times, striking out eight times. For the Yankees to have any hope of actually reaching their main goal — a 28th ring fitting for the organization — the rest of the non-superstars in the lineup need to do something.
They don’t all have to hit like Bader, but they can be something like Josh Donaldson, who used four walks to post the highest on-base percentage of any Yankee through the first four contests. What they can’t do is hit like the catcher tandem. Trevino and Kyle Higashioka went 0-for-10 to help put the Yankees’ backs against the wall.
On the pitching side, Jameson Taillon is suddenly thrust into a starring role. Taillon, who was the fifth starter for most of the regular season, has an unenviable task in Game 5. The pressure is coming from every corner of the Yankees’ universe: from the fans, from the media and likely from within. After Game 4 ended and Taillon was announced as the first pitcher for Game 5 — it likely won’t be a traditional start, as they have a cavalcade of relievers ready to go after him — he acknowledged that getting the Yankees past the pesky Guardians won’t be easy.
“I feel like they do a lot of different things pretty well,” he said. “They have a bit of thump in the middle, contact throughout. They have aggressive guys, patient guys, fast guys. So yeah, I mean, it is a good challenge.”
That sounds like something opposing pitchers would have said about the Yankees in May and June. While it doesn’t totally apply anymore, Bader and his career 97 wRC+ have certainly cosplayed well enough as a thumper.
“The only thing you really try to do is game plan properly,” Bader told reporters following Game 4. “Once the game starts, any time you try to force an action, you know, I found it doesn’t really work well. For me, you get fast, you get sped up. And in a game where there is a lot of emotion behind every pitch, the only way to do it in my opinion is to slow it down. You know, the game slows down, it’s a lot easier to execute your approach and what you’re trying to do.”
That’s all that’s left now. The hype from the early part of the season, the Yankee mystique, the overwhelming financial advantages they have over the Guardians, those are all irrelevant for the next nine innings.
If the Yankees can’t execute, and especially if the roster stratifies into useful and useless again in Game 5, there will be yet another offseason in the Bronx spent wondering how to construct a team that won’t turn partially invisible in the postseason.