Cashman hoping lefty power shakes up race

Yankees GM takes a page out of 2000 playbook in bid for similar success in '21

August 1st, 2021

There was another season when the Yankees decided they needed more left-handed pop in their batting order -- and made that decision at the end of June, not the end of July, back in 2000. They were 38-35 at the time, tied with the Blue Jays in the loss column but three games behind in the American League East, just a half-game ahead of the Red Sox. At that point, Brian Cashman made one of the best trades he ever made, dealing for Cleveland’s David Justice.

It turned out to be the kind of dream, in-season trade all general managers think about making. Justice would belt 20 homers for the Yankees in 78 games that year, finally hitting a three-run shot into the upper deck at the old Yankee Stadium in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series against the Mariners that put the Yankees into the World Series.

“Get your tokens ready,” Yankees announcer Michael Kay shouted during his call of Justice’s homer that night, “you might be getting ready to board the subway!”

He meant for the Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets, which the Yankees won in five games. On the way there, the Yankees won the AL East with only 87 victories that year. But they still won it. And they wouldn’t have done it without Justice.

Fast-forward to now. Cashman didn’t just go out and get one left-handed bat at the Trade Deadline, he got two: Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo. Gallo was supposed to be the bigger home run threat, especially with that short right-field porch at the new Stadium. But it is Rizzo who has hit homers in his first two games as a Yankee, on the road in Miami. The Yankees have won both games against the Marlins.

One week after losing three of four to the Red Sox at Fenway -- the last defeat coming when the Red Sox unloaded on them with five runs in the eighth inning, after Domingo German had kept them hitless through seven innings -- the Yankees’ circumstances are these as they head into the final game of the Marlins series:

Their record is 55-48 heading into play on Sunday. They are suddenly just five games behind in the loss column to the Red Sox, who are in a bit of a freefall right now -- and six behind in the loss column to the first-place Rays, who took it to the Sox again on Saturday night at the Trop. There was a lot of noise in New York last week during the run-up to the Deadline about how much the Yankees might be willing to give up (and they ultimately gave up a half-dozen prospects to get Gallo and Rizzo) to make a run at a Wild Card spot.

I don’t believe Cashman looks at things that way -- especially given the state of the Red Sox's pitching and at the fact that Tyler Glasnow, the Rays’ ace, is facing Tommy John surgery. Cashman can’t give up as much of his farm system as he just did if he doesn’t think his team can win the division.

The Yanks are within striking distance. It’s not as if they’re trying to come back from being 14 games behind in July -- the way they did in 1978 against the Red Sox.

And the Yankees don’t have to look back 20 years to give themselves hope. They need only to look back two years, to the National League East and the Nationals. The Yankees were five games over .500 when the Trade Deadline came and went on Friday afternoon. Two years ago, the Nationals were six games over (57-51) at the Deadline, 6 1/2 games behind the Braves, just a half-game ahead of the Phillies -- this after being 19-30 at one point. They didn’t end up winning the division, but they played 36-18 ball the last two months and ended up writing one of the great baseball comeback stories by winning it all.

This Yankees team is not that Nationals team, starting with starters. The Yankees have one true ace in Gerrit Cole. The 2019 Nationals had both Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, aces both, carrying them to a title the way Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling once had for the Diamondbacks in ’01 -- and that mattered as mightily in October as the way Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto hit.

But the Yankees’ batting order just got better, got lengthened. They ended up with Rizzo and the Red Sox didn’t. Somehow, the Yankees came into this season not thinking they needed lefty/righty balance, especially at Yankee Stadium. They have it now.

Cashman said this the other day:

“When I addressed the frustrations of how the season had gone to whatever point it was, I said, 'It’s up to me to try to do everything in our power to fix it, me and my staff and our ownership.' That was our commitment -- and we’re trying to do that and we’ll see how it plays out.”

It’s only played out for two games against the Marlins. Cole still got smacked around by the Rays on Thursday. There’s still that scrum for two Wild Card spots in the AL if the Yankees don’t win the division. But Cashman saw a long time ago, when Justice prevailed, how much of a difference one lefty bat could make in a close race. He just got two.