Yankees fail to get better now or in the future by standing pat

NEW YORK – It would be irresponsible to speculate on the source of the expletive. The voice came from somewhere deeper in the Yankees clubhouse than the media are allowed to venture. The sentiment, however, was clear and unmistakable.

At 10 p.m. ET Monday — after a lackluster 5-1 loss to the division-rival Rays, which came on the heels of a series loss to the division-leading Orioles — someone with the Yankees yelled a word that starts with “F” and rhymes with “schmuck” loud enough to be heard through the wall and puncture the haze of disappointment.

A few minutes later, Yankees captain Aaron Judge emerged to offer, if not answers, then at least some semblance of accountability. In his third game back from a lengthy injured list stint during which the team went 19-23, Judge walked three times with little lineup protection around him. Now, the reigning AL MVP — whose 199 OPS+ this season indicates that, when healthy, No. 99 has been 99% better than league average — offered his assessment of how the Yankees ended up here.

“Even coming out of spring training, that first couple of weeks, first month, is so important,” he said. “We play 162 games, but you’ve got to come out of the gates ready to roll, and you’ve got to bring your A-game from Opening Day on. I think from the very beginning, we just didn’t …”

It seemed like Judge was going to offer more detail on what exactly the Yankees didn’t do (play well?), but instead, he pivoted to credit the competition.

“Other teams got a step ahead of us,” he said. “And when you get a lead in this division, with how competitive it is, it’s tough to climb out of that hole.”

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‘We’ve put ourselves in a hole’

The American League East is undeniably the toughest division in baseball this year. With fewer intra-division games as part of a new balanced schedule, five teams that would’ve previously kept each other in check somewhat have been free to run rampant. As April turned to May, the Yankees were 15-15, an even .500 for last in the AL East, while the Rays were still riding an early unbeaten streak to a nearly .800 winning percentage.

Two months later, the Rays have fallen back down to earth a bit but retain a firm hold on the top wild-card spot, while the Yankees are still trying to climb out of the division’s basement, despite a record (55-51) better than that of the first-place team in the AL Central (Twins, 54-53).

In the Yankees’ defense, it’s just the second time ever in the divisional era (since 1969) that an entire division is over .500 at the start of August. But to their discredit, when you watch them lose, it’s difficult to see how they’ve won even as much as they have. And lately, they’ve been losing more often than not, coming off consecutive sub-.500 months in June and July.

“We’re not getting the guys on base. We get guys on base, and we can’t move them over or drive them in,” Judge explained — and if that sounds like all offense that doesn’t come on the long ball, well, it is. The Yankees are sixth in baseball in home runs but second-to-last (ahead of only the A’s!) in batting average, which nets out at 23rd in OPS+ and 22nd in total runs scored.

Combined with a top-heavy rotation that falters after Gerrit Cole and a surprisingly strong bullpen, that’s good enough for 10 games back in the division, 3.5 back of the last wild-card berth and on pace for 84 wins — which would be the fewest for the storied franchise since they last missed the postseason in 2016.

Which brings us back to Monday night.

“We’ve put ourselves in a hole,” Judge reiterated, “but we’ve still got a lot of ball games left, and we’ve got a job to do.”

The problem is, before they could get to any of those games, the Yankees as an organization would have to decide what to do at the trade deadline.

‘We’ll see where the dust settles’

Last week, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was already hedging, laying the groundwork to justify an underwhelming deadline.

“Certainly in my chair, I understand it’s a lot more complicated than just ‘go get this guy,’ ‘go get that guy,’” Boone said inauspiciously. “Because it always takes sometimes even more than just the two teams to tango. Things got to match up, you know.”

Before Monday’s loss to the Rays — when the Yankees had played all but one of the games that would serve as a reference for what the front office should do at the deadline — he was still equivocating.

“We’ll see where the dust settles,” Boone said. “And then we’ll know, like, this is us, this our team moving forward, or we add something — whatever it ends up being.”

Two hours before the 6 p.m. ET Tuesday deadline, when the New York media got their last chance to talk to Boone before said dust would settle and teams would calcify, he offered no further clarity:

And as Major League Baseball entered the final hour of opportunity for front offices to either bolster a team they believe can make a deep October run or lay the groundwork for a brighter future, still the Yankees remained dormant.

The Yankees’ peculiar position at this point in the season is, indeed, confounding. The team is pretty good, with little more than a series’ worth of games separating them from a playoff spot (assuming the right teams lose), yet they’re unable to keep pace in the division and potentially facing a scenario in which they miss the postseason to an AL Central team with a worse record. The day before the deadline, the Yankees’ playoff odds, according to FanGraphs, were at 23.1% — high enough to propel a push from a more aggressive or impatient club but lower than those of eight other AL teams jockeying for six spots (which doesn’t even include the Angels, who are all-in despite even lower odds).

As the clock ran out, even without games taking place, the Yankees’ odds slipped in response to other teams clamoring for available talent while New York stood still — no more likely to make the postseason this year than they were previously and no better prepared to contend in the future. And if there were no moves to be made, because the team employs too many underperforming veterans on unwieldy contracts, that reflects earlier errors — as much an organizational failure as the franchise-record 30 strikeouts in the past two games.

‘They’re making adjustments on us’

In the end, the Yankees made a single trade at the deadline, acquiring right-handed reliever Keynan Middleton from the Chicago White Sox. Middleton’s swing-and-miss rate is exciting for a generally reliable bullpen but one that lacks overpowering stuff. It’s the kind of move a team makes when it is already comfortably postseason-bound.

If Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees front office aspired to or attempted deals — in either direction — only to accomplish nothing, that’s an indictment of their process. As Boone referenced, there are a number of factors outside the control of any one team, but it’s a results-based industry. The construction of the current Yankees roster is clearly flawed in ways that could continue to reverberate; opportunities to alter that construction must be maximized. If the Yankees really think that looks like nothing more than waiting out the current underwhelming club, what an uninspiring message for fans.

The deadline last year netted a number of players who have yet to appear in a game for the Yankees this season — with Frankie Montas, Scott Effross and Lou Trivino all having spent the entirety of 2023 on the injured list. Harrison Bader, the blockbuster return for starter Jordan Montgomery, has been a dynamic defender but below league-average at the plate, while Mongomery posted the best numbers of his career in St. Louis before being dealt again this deadline.

There are failures to be found in every organization’s transaction history, but the Yankees following a bad trade deadline in 2022 with barely even participating in 2023 amounts to a team that’s all-around older, slower and worse off than the Yankees squads that have consistently contended yet still come up short of expectations in recent seasons.

Although Judge is not the problem, he was forced to address the listless offense following Monday’s loss.

“We have to make adjustments,” he said. “You got to make in-game adjustments because these teams we’re playing are coming for us, and they’re making adjustments on us.”

That’s the problem with hoping that if you stay the course, the situation will improve: The competition won’t wait for you to catch up, and the shortcomings that landed you in a hole to begin with will only grow more stark by comparison.

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