Even after a breath of fresh air via a win over the Guardians last night, there’s no question — things are bad. Last place is last place. I’m not here to tell you they’re not bad, either. It’s not too early to be seriously worried. Many of the holes on this team aren’t necessarily things that we can expect to positively regress to the mean, and all else aside, it’s clear that this is not the kind of juggernaut that we’ve been somewhat conditioned to expect for much of the Aaron Judge era. I still believe, however, that it’s a little too early to start panicking. As bad as it feels right now, all is not yet lost. Breathe with me.
“It’s only April” doesn’t apply anymore, but it’s still helpful to look at things a little more broadly. ZiPS projects the Yankees at 87 wins now; Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA is even more bullish, seeing them in the 92-win range, not even a game worse than the Rays’ projected landing spot. This doesn’t mean that the Yankees are necessarily likely to be within shouting distance of them in the division come season’s end, only that it thinks the Rays aren’t nearly as good as the first month of the season would have us think. It’s a sentiment echoed by ZiPS, which projects the Yankees (.542) and Blue Jays (.541) to both play better ball than the Rays (.536) over the remainder of the year.
Somewhere around 87 or 90 wins isn’t ideal, especially given where expectations were entering the season. But again, there’s a difference between “don’t be worried” and “don’t panic,” and while it would be quite silly for a 15-15 record to not be worrisome, it would be silly to panic over it. Last year’s NLCS participants came in with 87 and 89 wins respectively; It’s always better to be a 100-win team than a 90-win team in any case, but randomness is king come playoff time. Sliding in as the fourth or fifth seed in the bracket instead of the first or second is disappointing, yes. Is it worth freaking out over? Not until the offseason.
Even if Aaron Judge ultimately requires an IL stint for the hand injury that’s bugging him, it seems likely to be a relatively distant memory by the time the stretch run comes around. And although it’s always a mistake to make the assumption that Giancarlo Stanton will be healthy, it’s worth noting that the big man has managed to get healthy and back in the lineup for the postseason every single year he’s been in a Yankees uniform, even in years when he missed the large majority of the regular season. Things are always going to be bad when you take a team’s two best hitters out of the lineup. If they’re going to continue to be out of the lineup forever, then yeah, maybe it’s time to freak out. But if Judge and Stanton’s current recovery times are accurate — and even if they wind up being longer than anticipated — they’ll still be back with plenty of time to both help with a playoff push and contribute come October.
It’s gotten to this point in large part because Franchy Cordero and Willie Calhoun have played like Marwin Gonzalez or Jay Bruce rather than becoming depth-pickups-turned-stalwarts in the vein of Matt Carpenter or Gio Urshela in past seasons, and because the returning platoon triumvirate of Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa have been sub-replacement level. It’s been tough to watch, but again, broad view: those are holes in the lineup that can still be filled, and though the speed at which Brian Cashman has seemingly identified and addressed clear flaws in the roster has been subpar in recent years, I’m hard-pressed to believe he’s going to stand idly by and let this group continue to cost them wins for the duration of the season.
Some of those reinforcements are already coming. There may be a time to panic over the morbid state of the outfield, but until we see what Harrison Bader brings to the table, it’s still impossible to fully judge where it stands. If Playoff Bader shows up, the outlook is already considerably brighter, and even the good-but-nothing-special bat he displayed for most of 2018-21 would go a long way towards preventing free-falls like the one we saw last week.
Further outfield shakeups are almost certainly in the cards. Given his contract status, the IKF experiment appears overwhelmingly likely to end before the summer is out, and though most fans could have told you this before the season starter, it’s clear that Aaron Hicks has reached the Keuchel/Bumgarner line of being visibly washed enough that management has no choice but to eat the sunk cost. Oswaldo Cabrera has minor league options and can be sent down if he continues to struggle. If and when those things happen, replacements will arrive — the outfield trade market is typically lively in the summer — and how those replacements play will likely have a bigger impact on the final outcome of this season than how Cordero and Calhoun have disappointed. If whatever new faces we see in the coming months also struggle, then yeah. Time to panic.
The pitching side of things is simultaneously simple and more complicated. The problems are less easily solvable: one simply cannot project on Carlos Rodón or Luis Severino’s health in October the same way you can for even Judge or Stanton. Still, the fact that those two are even in the back pocket is a reason to hold off on melting down just yet. A positive prognosis on either of them changes the trajectory of the team considerably. It’s hard, I feel, to get a good grasp on the Yankees’ ultimate outlook until we have a sense of whether that prognosis is in the cards or not.
There’s less of a case for optimism on the pitching end than the hitting end, but a few things still remain true. First, Gerrit Cole is one of the two or three best starters in baseball at any given time. Second, in spite of the bloated ERA, Nestor Cortes appears to be more or less the same pitcher he’s been since re-joining the Yankees in 2021. Third, even with all the injuries they’ve suffered, the Yankees’ bullpen is still one of the best in the league. Those three facts alone are more than enough to put you in “anything can happen” territory come October. If they coax enough passable starts from Domingo Germán, Clarke Schmidt, Jhony Brito, and whomever else, to bridge them not even through the regular season, but just until Severino and Rodón’s return and/or a trade acquisition can be made — the starting pitching market, too, is ever robust come July — then this season will be effectively stabilized.
Of course, to this point, they haven’t coaxed enough passable starts out of them, and that needs to start happening very soon if we’re actually going to be able to stay in non-panic mode. And none of this serves as an excuse for the current state of the team, to be clear. It didn’t take any kind of genius in February to say that planning a Hicks/Cabrera experiment in the outfield with Franchy Cordero, Willie Calhoun, and Rafael Ortega as the fallback was a recipe for disaster, or that trading a rotation’s worth of intriguing young starting pitching for Frankie Montas and Scott Effross was a brutal overpay. It would be pretty nice to have Hayden Wesneski or JP Sears right now. This should be in a juggernaut, and it isn’t, and that’s disappointing, even if not quite full-on panic-worthy.
In any case, there’s just too much baseball left to play to expend too much energy declaring the season already lost at a 16-15 record. 88 wins can get you to a World Series. It isn’t what was expected coming into the year, but with Tampa Bay speeding further and further off into the distance at the top of the division, it’s better to focus on what’s attainable rather than what isn’t. A World Series is still attainable, even if a 100-win season isn’t. As long as that’s still the case, we should be able to keep the glass case on top of the panic button shut.