You know who is about to have a miserable month?
Unless he acquired ESP from his days working at ESPN, Boone simply cannot be right on every personnel choice he faces for the playoffs. And the Yankees manager faces a remarkable number of questions about who plays where and when considering he is in charge of a 99-win division champ.
He will stick with his mantra that these are good problems to have because the choices involve talented players. Let’s see if he is still saying that in a week when every 20/20 hindsight champion with anger and a social media account is calling him a puppet of Brian Cashman’s analytics group or demanding his dismissal.
Short of the Yankees going 11-0 en route to their first championship since 2009, Boone should expect a hellish ride full of first- and second-guessing and perhaps players grumbling because they are not playing when they thought they would. Anthony Rizzo will play first base, and Aaron Judge will start, of course. But beyond that, there are going to be debates about how the Yankees roster is deployed. So let’s expand 3Up to take a look at Boone’s puzzle:
1. Who is closing?
This also easily can be expressed as: Who is setting up? Or even: Who are the Yankees including in their bullpen?
Using the “wrong” reliever on May 10 tends to send Yankees fans into the kind of fury that should be reserved for surgical mistakes. So if Boone, say, brings in Lou Trivino in the sixth inning of a playoff game and the righty gives up the lead, he should expect questions about why he didn’t use Jonathan Loaisiga, Scott Effross or Goose Gossage — as well as questions about why he hasn’t yet handed in his resignation.
The problem is the Yankees don’t have someone like Gossage or Mariano Rivera to anchor the ninth and make this about the baton pass from starter to closer. Aroldis Chapman lost control, confidence and his job. Clay Holmes went from an All-Star to the Pitts (if you get it, tell a friend). Holmes and Wandy Peralta finished the season on the injured list, but the Yankees believe both will be active for Game 1 of the Division Series on Tuesday.
But play it out. If the Yankees are leading the Rays 4-3 in Game 1 and the starter (we will get to that subject in a few paragraphs) is finished after six innings, what is the path to the finish line? Is Boone really going to strategize how to get the ball in the ninth inning to Holmes, who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 26 and hasn’t been trustworthy since the first week in July?
The relievers throwing the best down the stretch were Effross, Loaisiga and Trivino. The Yankees believe in Peralta’s fortitude, but he hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 18. Will Domingo German and/or Clarke Schmidt be given responsibility?
And what of Chapman?
Two weeks ago, the Yankees were contemplating whether his roster spot would be better used in another way. But injuries to Zack Britton and Ron Marinaccio took them off the chessboard, at least for the first round. That assured Chapman would keep his roster spot through the regular season, and it might also now get him on the postseason roster.
And now a historical aside: In 1996, Graeme Lloyd had a 17.47 ERA for the Yankees during the regular season. Damaso Marte had a 9.45 mark in 2009. Neither was a certainty to make the postseason roster. But both did because they were lefties with stuff. And the Yankees might not win the championship either year without them; they were brilliant in the playoffs.
On the basis of his pure stuff, do the Yanks throw a dart and hope that Chapman has a Lloyd/Marte moment or three in the playoffs? It is hard to forget he has given up two of the most devastating homers in Yankees postseason history and just how erratic he was this year. He is going to be a tough choice either way.
My suspicion is Boone will use the Yankees bullpen much like Kevin Cash deployed the Rays relief group in getting to the World Series in 2020. Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Pete Fairbanks each appeared in postseason games as early as the fifth inning and also had saves. They were used interchangeably as the main high-leverage guys — with Aaron Loup and Ryan Thomson as the other relievers in Cash’s circle of trust.
I think Boone uses Holmes, Effross, Loaisiga, Peralta and Trivino interchangeably as his circle-of-trust relievers; German, Schmidt and Lucas Luetge are around for length and emergencies; and Chapman is a break-glass-if-needed wild card.
2. Who starts Game 1?
A few weeks back on “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman” podcast, Boone said it would be Gerrit Cole. But he hedged late in the season. The question really should be: Who do you want starting a win-or-go-home Game 4 or Game 5 if it gets there? Because whoever starts Game 1 would have full rest for Game 4 and one extra day rest for Game 5.
So if the season were on the line, do the Yankees want Cole or Nestor Cortes starting? Or do they want Luis Severino, who looked so great with seven no-hit innings in his last start in Texas?
Jameson Taillon would be lined up to start a Game 4, if necessary, if the Yankees lead the series, 2-1. If the Yankees trail 2-1, I would suspect the Game 1 starter would go in Game 4. That would leave Taillon to start Game 5 with the Game 2 starter perhaps available for a few innings of relief.
I think the Yankees should start Cortes in the opener. I believe Boone will go with Cole.
3. Who plays second base?
DJ LeMahieu came back from his toe injury to produce four singles in 16 at-bats over five games with two walks, one strikeout, lots of groundballs and no signs of his best results. Meanwhile, in his final 17 games, Gleyber Torres hit .391 with 11 extra-base hits, including five homers. His defense at this moment also is better than LeMahieu’s.
Case closed, right?
Well, I do think Torres will start Game 1, but what I cannot shake is how much Boone admires LeMahieu. He knows that LeMahieu, when right, can hit top-end playoff pitching and will never be intimidated by a big spot. But is LeMahieu even close to right?
If he is, well, stick with me.
4. Who plays third base?
That will probably be Josh Donaldson, right? His defense has been strong all season, and maybe he will run into a pitch or two in the postseason. But Donaldson ended his season 0-for-15 with some shaky defense. In his last 14 games, he had two doubles, no homers, a .222 average and stuck out in 20 of 61 plate appearances.
Do the Yankees believe Donaldson will hit good postseason pitching? He spent a lot of 2022 guessing and overmatched.
Is LeMahieu an option to start at third? When fully healthy this year, LeMahieu played better defense at the position than was anticipated.
Again, which version of LeMahieu is available to the Yankees?
5. What’s the outfield?
This question might be made simple. If Andrew Benintendi (hamate) cannot make it back in time for the playoffs, the Yankees will line up with Oswaldo Cabrera in left field, Harrison Bader in center and Aaron Judge in right. But what if Benintendi is deemed ready? I’m still not sure he starts.
The Yankees have loved the extra defensive boost Bader has provided in center and the overall boost Cabrera has supplied. The Yankees won a championship in 1998 with rookies Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer sharing left field. It has only been 44 games for Cabrera, but based on those 44 games, I would ask: Is Benintendi even an upgrade? Maybe. The rookie has not flinched yet and has shown a high baseball IQ. Will that continue into the playoffs?
Here is one to think about: If Benintendi does come back, can the Yankees line up Benintendi in left, Judge in center and Cabrera in right with Bader available to come in late for defense? If he does come in late for defense, he goes to center, Judge to right and who would you play in left: Benintendi or Cabrera?
6. Who plays shortstop?
Isiah Kiner-Falefa, right? Yes. Definitely.
But if an important ground ball is hit to short late in a close playoff game, would you rather have Kiner-Falefa stationed there or Oswald Peraza? You might ask the same thing even about which of those two you would want taking a big late at-bat.
The major league sample size for Peraza is far smaller even than for Cabrera. But have you seen enough to at least ask whether he Peraza a better option than Kiner-Falefa?
7. Who is the catcher?
This has been so much easier the past few years when Gary Sanchez was just losing his job about this time of the season.
The Yankees have gotten so much all season in performance, especially on defense, and spiritually from Jose Trevino. But Kyle Higashioka hit .339 with three homers in September, and also is a strong defender.
My guess is Trevino starts Game 1, but there could be starts for Higashioka as well. More importantly, the trust in Higashioka will lead to more aggressive pinch-hitting for Trevino.
8. Who is the DH?
Giancarlo Stanton. That’s who it is going to be. His postseason history alone (nine homers in 18 games) is going to give him the nod. And his homers in each of his last three regular-season starts suggest maybe he is just about to get hot.
But there sure were a lot of long stretches of bad at-bats this year. Is Matt Carpenter really going to be back? He hasn’t played since Aug. 8. Who knows if he can recapture what he had before fracturing his left foot, when for 154 impressive plate appearances, he was the Yankees’ toughest at-bat not named Judge. He hit lefties and righties. He hit good pitching. He hit in the clutch. He hit with two strikes.
If he is back and capable, he becomes the No. 1 pinch-hitting option for someone such as Trevino — and maybe even for Donaldson and Bader in certain spots.
9. Who is on the roster?
The roster goes back to 26 for the postseason. There can be no more than 13 pitchers.
My guess is 12 pitchers: Cole, Cortes, Severino, Taillon, Holmes, Effross, Loaisiga, Peralta, Trivino, German, Schmidt and Chapman.
With two off days, I think there is no need for more, though remember in the playoffs there is no automatic runner to second base in extra innings. A game will have a chance of going much longer.
Chapman is the only lefty reliever. Could they also take Lucas Luetge rather than a long guy such as German or Schmidt? Would they take Luetge instead of Chapman? Is Miguel Castro in play?
They could always take 13. But that would hinder some offensive maneuverability.
The worry on Chapman is this: If he goes in Game 1 and can’t find the strike zone and has to be yanked quickly, effectively removing him as an option the rest of the way, the Yankees would be down to 11 pitchers. For that reason, do they take Castro? My gut is still Chapman.
That leaves 14 slots for position players. I think there are 11 locks: Trevino, Higashioka, Rizzo, Torres, Kiner-Falefa, LeMahieu, Donaldson, Stanton, Judge, Bader and Cabrera.
If Carpenter is healthy, he is on. I don’t think Benintendi has the time to make it.
That would leave two spots from among Peraza, Marwin Gonzalez, Aaron Hicks and Tim Locastro. Though he surprisingly lasted the whole season, Gonzalez becomes an easy removal here. Cabrera offers Gonzalez’s switch-hitting and defensive versatility. Carpenter and LeMahieu can be the lefty and righty bats off the bench. Cabrera can be the backup shortstop. But maybe Peraza is the backup shortstop. If the Yankees believe Peraza offers a comparable base-stealing threat to Locastro, this would be an easy choice. I think that is hard to definitively believe so early in Peraza’s career.
Because of that, I think Peraza doesn’t make it, and they end up going with Hicks and Locastro.. But it will be a close call.
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