More than an hour after Gleyber Torres’ fly ball floated into Fenway Park’s right-field expanse, representing the end of the Yankees’ 2021 season, Brett Gardner was still wearing his assigned road-gray uniform with "NEW YORK" stitched across the front -- every piece of gear, sans the cleats.
The only remaining link to the franchise’s most recent World Series championship, Gardner never could have guessed that he’d possess just the one ring a dozen years later. Now 38, Gardner’s final big league at-bat may already have occurred -- and, if so, he felt no urgency to engage what waited outside the clubhouse walls.
“I’m not going to wear it home and sleep in it tonight,” Gardner said. “I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. You don’t know how many chances we’ll get to put the uniform on again, and go out there and do what we do. It just feels good to still have it on.”
As Gardner rested inside yet another pin-drop quiet October clubhouse, similar to the ones preceding it -- Houston (2017), Yankee Stadium (’18), Houston again (’19) and San Diego by way of the Rays (’20) -- he expressed hope of reporting to a sunny Spring Training and taking the field once again with his teammates.
Gardner has a $2.3 million player option, which the team can buy out if they decide to shuffle the roster -- and considering manager Aaron Boone’s remarks after Tuesday’s game, in which he said that “the league has closed the gap on us,” the team may already be leaning toward sweeping changes.
“Looking back to ’18 and ’19, I felt like we were one of the teams -- really razor thin between us winning the world championship and the Red Sox and the Astros,” Boone said. “It’s not just the Rays and Astros and Red Sox anymore. It’s the Blue Jays, the Central teams are coming, the Mariners and Angels. These teams are on ground with us, and we need to keep on getting a little bit better.”z
Nothing should be off the table as the Yankees enter the offseason, including engaging top free agents or making aggressive trades. Their financial resources are a weapon that some of their competition (the Rays, for example) cannot match, and there should be no shame in using that as a blunt object in the hyper-competitive American League East.
The Yankees must closely examine each aspect of how they do business, including the analytics department, where their competition seems to be achieving more with less. New York’s lineup construction was suspect early in the season, requiring moves to import left-handed bats in Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo, but the Bombers were still too one-dimensional.
A fluky 55-34 record in games determined by two runs or fewer, and MVP-caliber performances from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, obscured their offensive underperformance: The Yanks scored only 711 runs and owned a +46 run differential, far below the division-winning Rays (+206), White Sox (+160) and Astros (+205). There was a lot of swing-and-miss in the Yankees' lineup, yet Tampa Bay struck out more, walked less and hit the same number of home runs (222) as New York, while scoring 146 more runs.
“Overall, it was tough for us to really be the offensive juggernaut we’ve come to expect,” Boone said. “I’m not sure why we didn’t realize our potential there.”
Who’s the boss?
Technically now a free agent, Boone said that he “can hold my head high” as he heads toward managerial limbo. Over four years at the helm, Boone has steered the Yankees to a .601 winning percentage (328-218) in the regular season, but his clubs have advanced no further than the AL Championship Series.
Within the organization, the appetite for change is less rabid than, say, on social media. Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman offered votes of confidence during the season, reiterating that they considered Boone to be the right person for the job, lauding his communication style and connection with players.
Changes to the coaching staff seem more likely than a managerial change. It was notable that Judge spoke strongly in favor of Boone after Tuesday’s game; Judge’s words carry weight with the Yanks’ players and brass.
“He’s just a special person, a special coach,” Judge said of Boone, “and I’m hoping for more in the future.”
What other moves could be coming?
Even had the Yankees advanced past Boston, they would have had their hands full with the Rays, largely pinning their hopes upon Judge, Stanton and Gerrit Cole. They must build a better supporting cast around Judge and Stanton, preferably with less swing-and-miss and better athleticism.
Gary Sánchez was on the bench for yet another winner-take-all game and may have caught his last game in pinstripes. Rizzo is a free agent, Luke Voit’s future is in question, the club has abandoned any thought of Torres as their shortstop of the future (Corey Seager or Trevor Story, anyone?) and Gardner might be elsewhere, leaving a rehabbing Aaron Hicks as the most likely option in center field.
That’s a lot, and we haven’t even addressed the pitching. His underwhelming start at Fenway notwithstanding, Cole is the ace of a rotation that doesn’t hold a candle to the last championship trio of CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett. Of more recent vintage, they could have used someone like Masahiro Tanaka, a solid No. 2 to slot behind Cole.
Maybe Luis Severino can be that guy; Jordan Montgomery and Jameson Taillon were solid mid-rotation starters. Corey Kluber tossed a no-hitter in May, but it’s impossible to say what he would have given the Yanks during a deep playoff run. One area where the Yankees might relax: their bullpen was a strength, especially after Cashman’s move to acquire the unheralded Clay Holmes in July.
“There’s a lot of uncertain, uncharted waters with this team heading into the offseason,” Gardner said. “Even sitting here right now, I love that coaching staff. I love that group of players in that room, and I still believe in them, even though the season is over. So we'll see what the offseason holds. Hopefully we'll have a chance to run it back.”