Each year in October when every team resets to 0-0 and the postseason begins, all of the participants have the same theoretical bite at the World Series apple.
Winning the World Series is a gargantuan task, which is why just making the playoffs in the first place and being in a position to take that bite is so important. But for the Yankees, a team that’s made ten empty-handed trips to the playoffs since their last World Series appearance, those bites at the apple have proven rotten.
The question for them, just like every team trying to crack the maddening code that rarely rewards the regular season’s best team, is how to ensure that they enter the biggest time of the year with their chompers ready to bite.
“You’re trying to just build yourself as best you can, trying to coach them up and prepare as best you can to be in the best situation to put the odds more in your favor,” manager Aaron Boone said at his end-of-season press conference. “That’s the best I can say it to you.”
The 2022 Yankees were beset by a plague of injuries in the second half, creating a huge disparity between their 57-24 record (.704 winning percentage) pre-All-Star break and their 42-39 (.519) mark afterward. Injuries kept important players like DJ LeMahieu, Andrew Benintendi, Michael King, Ron Marinaccio and Scott Effross from appearing in a single postseason game, interrupted the regular season rhythms of Anthony Rizzo, Luis Severino, Nestor Cortes and Giancarlo Stanton, and left Matt Carpenter, Clay Holmes and Frankie Montas still clearly affected by the time the postseason rolled around.
“It’s not ideal,” Boone said of his team’s time spent in the training room. “In the first half, we had that by and large, really good health and consistency. Unfortunately, we were having to try some things out on the fly in the postseason. That’s not always ideal but it’s also necessary at times. Obviously you want to just roll in with what got you there.”
Instead of being at full strength and in the best position to recapture their first-half swagger, as Boone alluded to, the Yankees were cobbling together a makeshift lineup in each postseason game. Aaron Hicks getting injured against the Guardians left him out of the Houston series entirely, depleting the roster even further, and the hits to the bullpen forced pitchers Jameson Taillon and Clarke Schmidt into unfamiliar relief roles that they ultimately did not handle well.
“We typically have teams on a yearly basis that enter the postseason with a chance to win,” Brian Cashman said after the Bombers were eliminated. “This year’s particular squad, we got depleted going into the postseason, we had a lot of injuries. The record [down the stretch] doesn’t reflect the talent. It reflected a lot of havoc wreaked on the roster as we entered the second half as well as the postseason.”
While that is all true, the fact of the matter is that even with a clean bill of health, the Yankees would have needed players to produce their 90th-percentile results to get over the Championship Series hurdle. When guys like Carpenter, Jose Trevino and Gleyber Torres — major pieces of the early-season surge — somewhat predictably regressed to varying degrees in October, the Yankees became grist for the Astros’ mill. As Cashman addressed, getting key players back at the right time doesn’t mean a whole lot if they can’t play well.
“We were also trying to rehab our closer during the postseason,” Cashman reminded. “We were giving at-bats to someone in Matt Carpenter who hadn’t played in two months. It is what it is. It’s all hands on deck, but we were clearly not the defined roster that you know what you’re going to get. The roster, in certain places, turned into auditions or curiosity. ‘We’ll give it a shot and see where it takes us. Hope for the best.’”
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The easiest way to ensure that the best does come is to have some better backup plans in place. Trading for Benintendi, Effross and Montas were attempts to become as foolproof as possible, and injuries always come with a dash of randomness that is impossible to predict, but some more overall depth would certainly help. After Benintendi came over and before he ended up getting hurt himself, Hicks was positioned to be a veteran bench presence. He hit .176 with a .526 OPS from Aug. 1 through the end of the regular season, though, and was viewed by many as a straight up liability by playoff time.
Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza are poised for bright futures but were being asked to fill a void that was begging for a competent, proven player that never arrived. Tim Locastro and Marwin Gonzalez were total nothing burgers. The truly elite teams (think Astros and Dodgers) have talent coming in from all angles, whether it’s the farm system providing depth, savvy external pickups or the 21st through 26th players on the roster, all of whom seem to come up with big plays when needed.
Perhaps having Benintendi and LeMahieu on the field would have created that annoying depth for opposing pitchers to deal with, and if Carpenter had been a resting pinch-hitter rather than a starter putting more strain on his injured foot, his at-bats might have looked better too.
But this year’s bite at the apple was extremely unconvincing, and had a few things broken differently against Cleveland, it could have knocked the Yankees’ teeth out in four or five games.
“You try and construct a roster going into a season — and on the fly during a season, obviously at the trade deadline — it’s hard to get it exactly right,” Boone assessed. “There’s always the unknown that can come up, especially in those final two-plus months of the year.”
“The players that were involved, I gotta give them credit for being team-first,” Cashman added. “Clay Holmes for instance is a ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to help’ guy, but we didn’t know what the results would be like. Carp, same thing. Those are the type of guys where, if we can get them right, they give us our best chance. I think ultimately that was why we had that second half record.”
The sobering truth for the Yankees over the last decade and change is that nothing has been inherently wrong with their bites at the apple. There is no magic formula that leads to cresting at the right time. A cocktail of bad injury luck and poorly-timed slumps doomed them this time around, but perhaps worst of all, the Yankees only true excuse is that they simply have not been good enough.