Hours after the Yankees’ season ended in a sweep by the prepotent Astros, stadium workers cleaned things up for the final time, media members said their goodbyes until spring training, and players grappled with the fact that they wouldn’t be putting their jersey on again this year.
The finality of a season’s end comes very abruptly. One day you’re beholden to a game played between two white lines of chalk, the next you realize that the next four months are full of vast emptiness. When that realization hits, it’s natural to wonder what could have been done to stop that feeling, or at least delay it.
Sunday’s last ditch effort by the Yankees was a textbook example of too little, too late.
The type of offensive performance that kicked off Sunday’s loss — three runs and five hits in the first two innings — would have carried much more oomph had it surfaced in any of the first three ALCS games. The Yankees failed to score more than two runs in any of those losses, putting them between a rock and a potential facelift during the upcoming offseason. When they lost two different leads in Game 4, they also proved that even their strong starts can’t hold up under the weight of Houston’s American League dynasty.
Perhaps better offense in the first three games would have still gone for naught as well, but there’s no way to know. What we do know now is that the 2022 Yankees were built for the regular season. With slump-prone batters up and down the lineup, injuries decimating the limited depth they had on the position player side, and a manager who can’t seem to figure out his in-game strategies, the playoffs exposed the Yankees’ weaknesses in a way that a 162-game schedule masked.
Even one of last year’s main talking points, which had been all but forgotten this year, reared its ugly head just in time to sink the season. Infield defense ended up being responsible for the Yankees’ Game 4 death. Whether it was Gleyber Torres’ errant flip, Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s poor positioning to receive the ball, or some combination of both, that play in the seventh inning was the unquestioned turning point in a game that sent the Yankees deeper into their championship drought.
Should Aaron Judge leave in free agency and the team can’t wrangle adequate replacements, patience will run even thinner than it did inside the stadium on Saturday and Sunday. The downfall of this team was many things, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise for anyone who watched them after the All-Star break. All the talk about how they’d be fine, how there was a winning foundation here, and that August was a slight, inevitable regression wound up being Yankee-doodle optimism. In reality, this was a team carried by its superstars, and when the biggest one laid an egg in the postseason, it came with a rotten smell.
In dissecting this cadaver, some things are right underneath the skin. Far too many at-bats in the postseason went to players that were overmatched or punched above their weight class all year. Josh Donaldson does not have it anymore. DJ LeMahieu has to be the starting third baseman next season and they need a much more defined plan in left field, where free agent Andrew Benintendi may not be back.
The lack of a truly reliable reliever outside the big three — Jonathan Loaisiga, Wandy Peralta and Clay Holmes — also led to that trio being used like drywall over a gaping hole. Eventually, they were going to crack. All three gave up big hits in the decisive Game 4 defeat, but no one should put the series loss on that relief trio.
Instead, go a little deeper and realize that outside of Judge, Kyle Higashioka (who was a non-factor in October) and the Oswaldo Cabrera-Oswald Peraza duo (whose roster spots, ideally, would have gone to LeMahieu and Benintendi) were the only homegrown Yankees to get an at-bat in the ALCS. Building a contender through free agency and trades can work — just look at the Padres, who were similarly constructed of players from other organizations — but that means those external moves really have to work.
With the Yankees’ recent allergy to big free agent contracts, the front office hasn’t even given themselves a chance to meaningfully replenish the team on the open market. And while trades from yesteryear landed Torres, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo, the most recent ones got Kiner-Falefa and Donaldson, as well as some deadline pickups that ended up missing the playoffs with injuries.
The way to create sustained success is through the farm system. Houston developed Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker while having wunderkinds Jeremy Pena and Framber Valdez in their minor league incubator. Of course, Houston also traded for a young Yordan Alvarez and an old Justin Verlander, but the difference is they have talent coming in from all angles, whereas the Yankees try to create those angles in increasingly hard-to-figure ways.
Having good players in the majors, potentially even better ones coming up through the minors, and a few acquisitions to round things out is the path toward long-term greatness. The Yankees’ scheme of having one MVP entrenched in the lineup with no promise of reinforcements besides a bunch of aging outsiders is not the move. Even worse, when the Yankees have had highly-touted prospects, they’ve either gotten rid of them or never found a way to give them consistent playing time, robbing them of both on-field value and trade value.
They need to spend 2023 actually figuring out what they have in Cabrera, Peraza, Clarke Schmidt and potentially Anthony Volpe too. Estevan Florial has been put in purgatory as well, but he can’t be much worse than Aaron Hicks, and keeping him in Scranton doesn’t help anybody.
There’s also the glaring need to, still, hit for contact more often. Losing Judge would obviously create a power void that needs to be filled in some respect, but getting out of the bottom third of the league in contact rate absolutely has to be addressed.
“One of the big impacts we added this offseason was contact,” Kiner-Falefa said as the Astros tore up Yankee Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. “The two main contact guys [LeMahieu and Benintendi] got hurt. I think early in the year, we were able to win in so many different ways. In the playoffs with some of those guys down, we weren’t able to manufacture runs in other ways. That hurt us.”
The shortstop whom so many fans grew to despise needs to get together with the similarly hated general manager and relay that message loud and clear. Keeping Judge is the first priority, but to create a less exploitable team in the postseason, power has to give way to finesse. A team based on slugging becomes useless when they can’t hit the ball. A team based on contact, at least to a greater extent than the Yankees have been, creates many more ways to win a baseball game.
Put it all together and there’s a long list of changes staring down this Yankee organization this offseason. That’s just the nature of coming up short. The sudden shock of one season coming to an end now gives way to the long grind of trying to get right for the next.