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The inertia of the Yankees

The team’s prime directive and worship of rationality has led one author to apathy.

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Yankees’ 2022 season is over.

We have an entire winter to get through everything that went wrong with this team this season, to speculate on what if any free agent moves will be made. We’ll even have time to break down exactly the ways that Brian Cashman’s offseason strategy completely backfired: Josh Donaldson’s bat completely disappeared and he’s under contract for another season, Isiah Kiner-Falefa was Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Ben Rortvedt didn’t play a single game, and with all due respect to Lou Trivino, the trade deadline was a bust.

For now, they just weren’t good enough.

The lineup wasn’t deep enough to cover for the untimely slump of Aaron Judge from a well-designed Astros plan of attack. The bullpen was thin and poorly-managed, even if they did stand on their head in the ALCS. We have the one thing that the Yankees tried to improve, the defense, not having the impact the team was hoping — a botched, would-be double play being the final, fatal error in Game 4 of the ALCS.

On October 3, 2017, the Yankees played their first playoff game of the “Baby Bomber” era. The lineup was as follows:

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Gary Sánchez, C
  4. Didi Gregorius, SS
  5. Starlin Castro, 2B
  6. Greg Bird, 1B
  7. Aaron Hicks, CF
  8. Jacoby Ellsbury, DH
  9. Todd Frazier, 3B

Luis Severino had the ball. This game was seen as the opening of the window, the beginning of a new era of Yankee baseball. Since then, the roster has turned over three or four times, the club has added stars like Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole, discovered hidden gems like Clay Holmes and Nestor Cortes, and Judge has been the de facto captain the whole way through. And the results have ultimately been the same every year.

In my opinion, it all comes back to one central problem – the organization has no sense of urgency. Part of this is from necessity. Baseball’s a marathon; you can’t get too worked up over any one game because there are 161 other ones you have to get through. But at the same time, the Yankees have The Plan, and not only will they seemingly never deviate from The Plan; they don’t appear capable of building in contingencies for what happens when The Plan doesn’t work out.

The shortstop debacle this postseason is the obvious example, but just one of them. IKF wasn’t getting it done in the ALDS, and hadn’t exactly set the world on fire in the regular season, but the Yankees were hesitant to go to any other option until they really had no choice — and then once the change was made, to either Oswaldo Cabrera or Oswald Peraza in the ALDS and ALCS, they couldn’t keep that consistent.

The devotion to The Plan comes from the organization’s prime directive: get into the postseason, preferably as a higher seed, and keep the payroll flexible year-to-year to avoid the repeater tax. This is not a World Series-or-bust team, and because of that, no matter what is said publicly or which scapegoat is thrown to the press, the grand strategy will not change.

In 2020, or even last year, that would be frustrating. Instead, the winter of baseball apathy has begun. The Yankees will have to make a decision about whether or not to let the most talented player they’ve developed since Mickey Mantle leave in free agency. Someone from the coaching staff or front office might lose their job. The team will probably make an addition or two along the margins, and we’ll show up for Opening Day with a team that will be projected to win 95 or so games.

There will be no deviation from The Plan.

I wish I could get upset, go on Twitter and scream about firing Aaron Boone and George Steinbrenner in his grave and all that. Yankee fans are yearning for a World Series victory, yearning to finally slay the dragon that is the Houston Astros — the team that for all of New York’s money and supposed analytical advantages, continues to beat them, continues to be better. The gap may even be growing — this is the third time the Yankees and ‘Stros have faced off in the ALCS, and the Astros were more dominant in this one than either 2017 or 2019.

The Aaron Judge saga will keep us at PSA occupied until a decision is made. I can’t bring myself to care about the World Series, not when the dragon just kicked New York’s ass and the National League representative has done the “imprudent” and “high-risk” things the Yankees have refused to do, like sign Bryce Harper and given the best catcher in baseball a contract into his mid-30s.

There’s an Andrew Friedman quote that I love, that perfectly sums up the attitude a front office should have — if you’re rational about every single free agent, you’ll end up finishing third on every single free agent. Rationality matters. You need to be careful and considered, not overreacting to any one game because there are 161 other ones to worry about. Too much rationality is what seems to be defeating the Yankees, though. Too much concern about neutralizing risk, without an appropriate understanding of the potential payoff.

This was one of the strangest seasons I can remember — and those readers who have much longer memories than mine, I hope you agree. The one constant, as the team went from Best Team of All-Time to middling to AL East champion to dogs watching the Astros celebrate on their turf, was a lack of urgency, a reliance on The Plan, a comfort in the club’s own rationality. Unless that changes, the Baby Bomber Era — arguably already over — will end without a single World Series championship, something that was unthinkable on October 3, 2017.