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The Yankees and the pain of mediocrity

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Not being good enough to win, but being too bad to fall apart leaves the team stuck.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Were Craig Finn to describe the 2021 New York Yankees, he may declare them stuck between stations. The team is objectively Not Good Now — sweeps by the Tigers and Red Sox, sandwiched around a split with Tampa capped a week where the team had a real chance to turn the corner, and they didn’t.

But I also think, because we are all very Yankee-focused, we may not realize there are truly terrible teams out there. The Yankees have a -4 run differential, projected to win 89 games. Those aren’t good numbers! But the Orioles have a -58 run differential, the Diamondbacks a -64, the Pirates, -75. As much as the Yankees have aesthetically looked like one of the worst teams in the league, they objectively have not been. The point of this post is not to make you feel better or worse about the team’s play this year, more to emphasize they haven’t been terrible, but mediocre. And in my opinion, mediocre may be worse.

You can generally sort a big chunk of MLB into buyers or sellers, but there’s a trench in between that the mediocre teams occupy. These mediocre teams aren’t good enough for a major acquisition to meaningfully make the difference, however, they’re not so bad that it’s worth tearing everything up. The Yankees are in this trench, along with teams like the Braves and Phillies. There are really good players on all three of these teams — Atlanta’s not about to ship out Freddie Freeman — but they’ve all stumbled at various points in the season, and find themselves collectively on the outside looking in, at least on the division title side, if not the whole playoff race.

The problem with mediocrity is, you end up stuck. The better teams ahead of you beat you, but can also make upgrades you can’t. The Jays and Rays have better farm systems than the Yankees do, the Jays in particular can add a bunch of payroll, and while the Red Sox are close to the CBT threshold, the Mookie Betts trade ensured they were below it last year, meaning they would avoid a repeater penalty this year.

What this means is it would be very difficult for the Yankees to outbid their own rivals for the kind of major, ceiling-raising upgrade that would dramatically increase your playoff odds, the Max Scherzer or Trevor Story kind of moves. This just leaves the smaller moves — reliever depth, maybe a speedier utility infielder. These kind of moves don’t hurt a team, certainly, but they don’t give the Yankees the multiple wins needed to catch a Red Sox team five-plus games ahead of them.

But the team isn’t bad enough to rip it up, nor would such a teardown yield the returns some of the more vocal fans think it would. Comparisons to 2016 abound, sure. The Yankees traded three players, rebuilt their farm system, and were much better the next season. That kind of reminiscence ignores the market realities that made 2016 possible in the first place.

The reason why Chapman-for-Gleyber was such a heist was because the Cubs went all-in on their season, desperate to end a 108-year title drought, with one clear need and a farm system that certainly didn’t consider Torres expendable, but had a less obvious role in the near term for him. I don’t think that kind of team exists in MLB today — maybe those above-discussed Blue Jays, but they need starting arms, and the Yankees don’t have tradeable starters they’d send to a division rival.

So you have this team that’s stuck. They’re not bad enough to truly bottom out, not good enough to keep pace with the best, and with the possibility of only marginal upgrades available, the players have to play their way out of it ... despite little evidence that they’ll be able to.

Of course this is all happening right now. There’s almost eight full weeks between now and the trade deadline, more than enough time for something to change with this club. Maybe the pitching regresses in full and the team actually moves from mediocre to bad. Maybe the offense decides they can actually hit for power. We could be having an entirely different conversation in eight weeks’ time.