The Yankees’ World Series hopes expired with a whimper late Tuesday night when Gleyber Torres hit a slow roller toward third base that Eduardo Nunez scooped up and threw to first baseman Steve Pearce — one former Yankee to another — just in time to record the final out.
In the aftermath, as the rival Red Sox’ division series victory began to settle in and the Yankees emptied the contents of their lockers into cardboard moving boxes, there were inevitable what-ifs.
What if Gary Sanchez’s towering, bases-loaded fly ball had carried five feet farther in the bottom of the ninth? What if the front row of the right-field seats hadn’t swallowed up Christian Vazquez’s fly ball in the fourth? What if Giancarlo Stanton, so menacing and self-assured, had not looked so feeble when it mattered most?
A day later, the questions trace back farther.
Somewhere in the Yankees’ quest to refashion how they operate — General Manager Brian Cashman’s effort to prove he could do more than win a checkbook championship — it no longer became just about winning, but about doing so on their terms.
For Hal Steinbrenner, that meant adhering to his belief that you do not need a $200 million payroll to win a World Series. So the Yankees have trimmed their payroll the last three seasons — to the lowest levels since at least 2006 — and this year got below the luxury tax threshold for the first time. That will allow them to reduce their penalty by up to 30 percent next season.
There is no word yet on whether they will raise a banner on opening day to celebrate the achievement.
When Cashman quipped in spring training that the Yankees — once famously labeled the Evil Empire by the Red Sox executive Larry Lucchino — had become The Little Engine That Could, it was no joke.
They are operating like the Tampa Bay Rays, with one eye peeled on the bottom line and the other on tomorrow.
Otherwise, the Yankees might have claimed pitcher Justin Verlander on waivers last August from Detroit, instead of passing because he was owed as much as $78 million through 2020. (Verlander instead went to Houston, where he throttled the Yankees twice in the American League Championship Series last season on the way to winning the World Series.)
Or the Yankees might have been willing last winter to part with Miguel Andujar, who blossomed into a rookie of the year candidate, in a deal for pitcher Gerrit Cole, whom the Astros got from Pittsburgh to pair with Verlander at the top of their rotation. (Cole was brilliant in his Houston playoff debut on Saturday, allowing three hits, one run and no walks with 12 strikeouts in seven innings in a win over Cleveland.)
Yes, the Yankees made a splash over the winter in acquiring Stanton, but he essentially fell into their lap when he refused a trade to St. Louis or San Francisco and all but forced Miami to send him to New York. And the Yankees consummated the deal only after they were able to dump enough salary to stay within their budget.
But the Yankees did little to address the shortcomings that were laid bare by the end of last year’s unexpected run to the A.L.C.S. Adding Stanton only augmented a strength, giving them another right-handed slugger. The team did little to address situational hitting, and nothing to tackle what even Cashman acknowledged was the biggest need: bolstering a solid but unspectacular pitching rotation.
It returned intact, and the Yankees starters’ E.R.A. of 4.05 was 14th over all in the majors and ahead of only two other playoff teams — injury-riddled Oakland and besieged-by-thin-air Colorado.
Sonny Gray was demoted to the bullpen; Jordan Montgomery was lost to an elbow operation; C. C. Sabathia’s frail knee did not become sturdier; and Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino each had a stout half and an abysmal one. The acquisition of J. A. Happ helped, but not as much as the July trade the Red Sox made to solidify their rotation, adding Nathan Eovaldi, who shackled the Yankees in Game 3, just as he did in two other starts in August and September.
Then there was the decision after last season to replace Joe Girardi as manager with Boone, who had never coached, managed or worked in a front office since retiring as a player. The Yankees’ search was deliberate, taking more than a month, by which time five other vacancies had been filled, including the Red Sox’ hiring of Alex Cora.
“It’s not a short-term decision, it’s a long-term effort,” Cashman said at the news conference introducing Boone. “We’re betting on the ceiling of Aaron Boone and what he brings.”
Indeed, Boone, in many ways, appeared to be the right man for the job. He was more relatable to his players, conveyed a loose, genuine confidence, and was less contentious with the news media. But in the last two games of the division series, his inexperience was exposed.
For all the times Girardi was criticized for managing a middle-of-May game as if it were October, Boone twice managed October games as if it were the middle of May. He stuck with Severino and Sabathia long enough to put his team into holes they could not escape.
By the end of Tuesday night, it was hard not to contrast the Red Sox with the Yankees.
The Red Sox had a young, confident, relatable leader who managed boldly. About two months after the Yankees made their big investment in the hit-or-miss Stanton, the Red Sox signed the free-agent J. D. Martinez, who had the capability to hit as the situation dictated. In Game 1 of the division series, he hit a three-run homer and later made an out that advanced a runner who eventually scored. In Games 3 and 4, he knocked in a run with a sacrifice fly.
While Cashman has been reticent about sacrificing his best prospects in trades, his counterpart in Boston, Dave Dombrowski, showed no such hesitation. His July and August acquisitions — Ian Kinsler, Pearce and Eovaldi — each made crucial contributions.
“I thought our approach in the playoffs last year was lacking a little bit,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in the celebratory visitor’s clubhouse. “This year, you could see our approach was much more aggressive, from the staff on through baseball operations to the coaching staff, they did a terrific job. All year long.”
The Yankees have plenty of decisions to make this winter. The core of their roster is set, but Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, Zach Britton, Neil Walker, Lance Lynn, Happ and Sabathia are free agents. Brett Gardner has a team option that may not be picked up. Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances and Austin Romine will be entering their final year before free agency.
The most pressing need, though, remains starting pitchers who can be counted on in October.
If the Yankees have the inclination (and the budget), they can now begin examining trade and free-agent markets, turning their attention once again to tomorrow since they have run out of todays.
A regular analytical column looking at major league baseball.
- Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin’
- This is 18 Around the World — Through Girls’ Eyes
- Hurricane Michael’s Deadly Strike Leaves Florida Panhandle Reeling
- Trump Attacks the Fed as Stocks Fall and the Midterms Loom
- Opinion: Goodbye, Political Spin, Hello Blatant Lies
- Kanye West’s White House Rant Steals the Spotlight From Trump
- Hurricane Michael: The Damage in Pictures
- The Prince and the President: Khashoggi Case Raises Saudi-Turkey Tensions
- Opinion: I Loved Kanye West and Hated Taylor Swift. Then 2018 Happened.
- Matthew Shepard Will Be Interred at the Washington National Cathedral, 20 Years After His Death