If a manager is in the last year of his contract, but no one hears much about it, does it make a sound? A player’s impending free agency generates a lot of analysis — from Yankees like DJ LeMahieu and James Paxton to league-wide newsmakers like Mookie Betts — but chatter around New York skipper Aaron Boone has been muted. Boone is in the last of a three-year deal, with a team option for 2021. While the Yankees will likely exercise that option, they’ve shown they’re willing to make a big change after a successful season, letting Joe Girardi go after he steered them to the precipice of the 2017 World Series. What can Aaron Boone do to avoid a similar fate?
Boone’s managerial career got off to a stellar start. His implementation of the Yankees’ forward-thinking tactics played a big role in his success, and helped transform the team’s approach to hitting, pitching, fielding, and running. He debuted with a 100-win season in 2018, and then backed it up with a 103-win campaign last year. He guided the team to the 2019 ALCS after a season of relentless injury troubles, and placed second to Rocco Baldelli in Manager of the Year voting.
With all that success, it’s tempting to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But therein lies the conundrum: the Yankees were broken last season, to the tune of 39 trips to the IL, and Boone somehow still made it all work. He propped up last year’s uneven pitching staff and juggled lineups - 140 different iterations, excluding pitchers, per Baseball Reference - out of necessity, but it’s hard to say if his approach should be replicated. Will the same MacGyver-style tactics work now that Boone has an embarrassment of riches?
Last season, Brett Gardner led Yankees outfielders with 550 plate appearances. Aaron Judge logged 447. No other outfielder had more than Mike Tauchman’s 296. Thanks to the injury-driven roster churn, opportunities to play were plentiful. With Giancarlo Stanton reportedly healthy, Judge banking on a full season, Aaron Hicks eying a summer return, and even more depth behind them, the outfield will be crowded. The formula Boone uses to divide limited at-bats will be crucial to the team’s on-field product and off-field chemistry. Some of his lineup rotation will be by design, but the degree to which he tinkers will matter. The designated hitter role might be the fulcrum on which many lineup decisions will rest. If Boone and the Yankees decide to rotate the starting lineup, even in good health, the DH spot will help facilitate those changes.
Positional flexibility will be key as well. DJ LeMahieu’s bat was indispensable last year, but his versatility across the diamond gave Boone room to breathe when filling out the lineup card. The Yankees asked Miguel Andujar to learn first base and left field to give him more opportunities at the plate, but having another multi-functional piece helps the bigger picture, too. Tyler Wade is a popular candidate for the 26th roster spot for this very reason. His plug-and-play ability brings value beyond the box score.
The pitching staff presents similar challenges. Last year’s rotation was inconsistent and rarely went deep into games, and after helping shoulder the load all season the bullpen appeared overexposed in October. With Gerrit Cole as an anchor and a healthy Luis Severino back in the mix, the Yankees should get better performances out of their starters and ease the burden on the ‘pen. But James Paxton’s early absence adds strain to the lower rungs of the rotation, and in turn, the relief corps. There’s a passel of young arms that could fill in at the back of the bullpen or function as openers, but Boone will have to balance what’s best for their development with demand for their services. FanGraphs projects Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino, to rack up 65, 65, and 68 innings pitched respectively, all more than they threw last season. And though Chad Green seems to think he won’t be pressed into opening duty, the idea no longer seems far-fetched. Like the lineup, the pitching staff is equipped with more firepower than last year, but Boone’s calculus is still tricky.
And as challenging as the numbers game might be, the human element is even tougher to measure, and even more important on a team this talented. For all his tactical savvy, Boone was brought in to be a player’s manager, a leader who could both motivate and relate to these young Yankees. With a deep, potent roster, can he keep every guy bought in and contributing at his peak? By all accounts, he commands respect in the clubhouse, and he will need it to hit paydirt in October of 2020. When it comes to the postseason, getting close and getting it done are two different beasts. In the wake of another World Series near-miss, and amidst a festering cheating scandal that could be easy to fixate on, Boone’s highly-touted intuition and charisma will matter as much as any strategic decision in pursuit of the ultimate prize.
Hal Steinbrenner bet big this winter on the championship window of this Yankees core. Though it’s not making many headlines yet, this season is the perfect opportunity for Aaron Boone to make certain it’s his window, too.