Negotiations between Major League Baseball and the players union are proceeding apace, and a potential July start to the season feels tantalizingly close, even if there’s a ton of (very difficult) work still to be done. After months of waiting, it’s hard not to salivate at the prospect of a full-strength Yankees squad roaring out of the gate, seizing control of a playoff position right from the start of an 82-game schedule.
But that is precisely not what these Yankees should do. If the season begins in July, the Bombers shouldn’t make wins in the early part of the schedule their primary goal. Sacrilegious as it sounds, they have other, more important priorities when baseball resumes.
After last year’s parade to the IL, followed by this spring’s shambolic cascade of injuries to key personnel like Aaron Judge and James Paxton, the team should focus foremost on the health of their players, and rebuilding their strength and stamina responsibly. After weeks spent without proper game conditioning, players who ramp up too quickly in pursuit of a hot July start could face dire consequences. If that seems hyperbolic, you’ll have to take it up with the Yankees organization.
Chris Ahmad, the team doctor who recently performed Luis Severino’s Tommy John surgery, recently issued just such a caution, especially as it relates to the injury risk for pitchers:
“I often use a car analogy to create an image for patients and families. Going fast with a return to baseball is like tail-gaiting the car in front of you at high speed. You simply don’t have time to respond when driving 76 mph with 2 feet separating you and the car ahead. A high-speed crash can ruin your career,” Ahmad said. “This is especially true in bad conditions such as night time, rain, winding slippery roads, etc. If we slow down, we dramatically improve safety. When conditions allow, we speed up and avoid injury.”
The long-term implications of such injuries apply to the team generally as much as each individual member. Aaron Hicks is signed until at least 2025. Giancarlo Stanton until 2027. Does the team really need to further jeopardize their health for a July return?
And let’s not even broach the possibility of hobbling Gerrit Cole by rushing him back prematurely, because Yankees fandom might explode if such a scenario unfolded, no fully operational Death Star needed.
Thankfully, the Yankees’ oft-touted depth still exists. The team has a slew of young players who are worth giving time, either to speed their development or to prove they can contribute consistently.
In a topsy-turvy year, why not further evaluate what the team has in up-and-comers like Mike King and Clarke Schmidt, or even in guys who have seen real big league time like Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade? By dividing playing time more democratically, Aaron Boone can buy time for the team’s revamped training staff to manage injury risks.
If this more patient, depth-oriented approach hurts the team in the standings, there’s no need to panic. The proposed playoff structure for this season is generous: seven American League clubs will be eligible for postseason play. Even if the Yankees slump their way into August, they will have time to recover.
82 games offers plenty of wiggle room for teams to start sluggishly and round into form as the season wears on — just ask any NBA fan. Peak Shaquille O’Neal often used the first months of the league’s 82-game schedule to work himself into shape in time for the playoffs.
Sure, likening the 2020 Yankees to the Lakers of 20 years ago is comparing a Big Apple to an orange. But at the end of April last season, the Yankees stood at a good-but-not-great 17-12, second in the AL East to Tampa Bay. After their 82nd game, they had surged to 54-28, good for an MLB-best winning percentage of .659.
And they achieved this distinction largely on the strength of their deep and resilient bench. Given the depth of their roster, and the risks of moving forward too hastily, the Yankees would be wise to treat the upcoming season as a marathon — even if it’s a shorter race than they’re used to.