In sports, such as in life, uncertainty is the name of the game. No one knows what each day will bring, just as no one knows how a particular hitter or pitcher will perform in a season, or in a singular contest. Whether we take a bird’s eye view at an entire campaign, or drill in on an individual game, at-bat, or the spin rate and velocity of one upcoming pitch, there’s no telling exactly what is in store.
But with each passing day in a typical MLB season, some of the uncertainty begins to wane. We get clearer pictures of athletes’ true talent, of each team’s playoff chances, of the direction of franchises and players alike. The more baseball is played, the more we know about the people and teams playing it.
And yet, here are the 2022 Yankees. These Bombers have played 143 games, and in at least a few ways, there’s been little uncertainty through all of them. New York got off to a historic start, spiking their playoff chances to something like 99 percent within weeks. They’ve played well in recent days, alleviating concern about their division chances. To some extent, there’s been little uncertainty about the ultimate destiny of this team.
Look closer though, and I’d posit that this Yankees team has raised more questions than answers, more than any other Yankee squad during this run of contention. Despite putting together a successful season on the whole (mid-summer nosedive notwithstanding), the way this Yankees campaign has unfolded has left the club with more uncertainty about the near-future than we’ve seen since The Core Four bowed out nearly a decade ago.
Imagine, if you will, March of 2023. Think of Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees hosting the San Francisco Giants. Who is starting for the Yankees that day?
Giancarlo Stanton and DJ LeMahieu are under guaranteed contracts that run another five and four years, respectively, and will all but definitely be a part of the Opening Day lineup barring injury. Jose Trevino, having established himself as a first-division starter thanks to his superlative defensive work behind the plate, is also unlikely to be going anywhere, not as he hits arbitration for the first time at the age of 30.
We’ve named three players. Can you name another that you’re supremely confident will be penciled in on the lineup card six months from now?
There’s a mundanely simple answer as to why this Yankees roster suddenly holds so much uncertainty for the near future: the team’s good players are free agents, and its bad players are mostly old, expensive, and under contract. It’s created a situation in which the players the Yankees need are flight risks, and the ones they have under control they’d rather jettison at the soonest opportunity.
Aaron Judge obviously looms large over this conversation, having made a lucrative bet on himself in turning down the Yankees’ extension offers prior to the season. He will parlay his historic season into an enormous payday this winter. On one hand, the Yankees must be the team to provide that payday, or risk seeing their lineup plunge into mediocrity. On the other, one cringes at the thought of relying on Hal Steinbrenner to pony up the dough necessary to keep the face of the franchise in the Bronx.
Elsewhere, the Yankees’ second-best qualified hitter this year, Anthony Rizzo, has a player option for $16 million for 2023. Rizzo’s recent injury issues cloud the situation somewhat, but with a 136 wRC+ and steady defense to his name, the first baseman is due much more than what he can make on his option.
Andrew Benintendi, the team’s starting left fielder at full health, is a free agent after this year, and should be looking for his first big deal at the age of 28. He has the feel of a pure rental after having been acquired by the Yankees six weeks ago, but time will tell if the club has him in their plans.
We’ve gone through the bulk of the Yankees’ top position players, and are left with a core of players under team control for whom nothing is certain. Josh Donaldson is under contract for 2023 but has done nothing this season to make one feel comfortable about his future prospects. The 36-year-old has seen age-related decline sap him of his ability to strike the ball with authority, and he’s dealt with injuries for much of the year. His on-base and defensive skills make him playable, but the smart money says the Yankees would prefer another team pay him the $23 million he’s owed for next season.
Gleyber Torres, once an offensive cornerstone, floundered for two-plus months, and at times seems to be playing his way out of town with the occasional bewildering on-field brain fart (hopefully, his resurgence over the past week sticks). The less said about Aaron Hicks’ deteriorating skillset and the three additional years that he and the Yankees are technically wedded, the better.
Remaining inhouse players include players less than starting caliber (Isiah Kiner-Falefa), exciting but unproven prospects (Oswald Peraza, Anthony Volpe), and guys that have yet to put on a Yankee uniform (Harrison Bader, under contract for one more season).
Compare the state of the Yankees, whose future lineup core consists of two 33-year-olds with injury issues and a catcher they traded for days before the 2022 season started, to that of other World Series contenders. The Astros run six deep with high-quality major league starters in the fold for years to come. The Blue Jays might run even deeper. The Rays will churn their roster as always, but have enormous depth and will run out a respectable squad in perpetuity. The Dodgers may lose Trea Turner to free agency this winter, but otherwise, they are the Dodgers.
None of this is to say that the 2023 Yankees are doomed! It’s just that it’s startling how a team that may well win 100 games has done so in a way that’s left the near future so very uncertain. They’ve played for five months, and have somehow generated far more questions than answers regarding just who the club can count on going forward.
Of course, part of why the ‘23 Yankees aren’t doomed is the other half of the equation we haven’t touched on: the pitching. While two-fifths of the rotation (Jameson Taillon and Luis Severino) can hit free agency, the Yankees have pitching depth, an ace to anchor it, and a quality coaching staff and player development system that churns out helpful contributors. There is uncertainty on the pitching side, but not nearly that of the lineup, and the staff comfortably projects to be a plus into 2023 and beyond.
It’ll have to, though, because we just can’t hold our breath on the Yankee offense once the calendar turns over. So much depends on bringing Judge back, and even with the superstar in the fold, the Yankees have countless looming questions to answer once the offseason hits. The Yankees are still the Yankees, with (theoretically) endless financial resources, a still-respectable farm system, and enough talent on hand at this moment to win it all. They surely can figure out this particular roster puzzle when it comes time to solve it. But for now, we’ll watch them finish out this strange season with little idea of what’s coming next.