Five questions facing Yankees this offseason

October 14th, 2021

Giancarlo Stanton walked out of Fenway Park still chewing on the two missiles that dented the upper half of the Green Monster; drives, the slugger was convinced, that would have been home runs in any other stadium. It didn’t seem the right time to tell him that Statcast claims that 19 of the 30 Major League parks would’ve held the second drive, Yankee Stadium being one of them.

In some ways, that’s the story of the Yankees’ 2021 season. It looked great on paper -- like the echoing thunder of Stanton’s drives in that American League Wild Card Game, the star-studded roster fooled announcers and others in the media into believing big things were ahead. The rollercoaster ride was entertaining at times, but it was a group that ultimately fell short of expectations.

Not knowing if it would be his final act as the Yankees’ manager, Aaron Boone addressed the team after that loss in Boston.

“It’s just a tough spot for all of us,” Stanton said. “He had some words of encouragement, words of ideas to improve -- what we need to do to make this next step and go from there.”

1. Who will manage the 2022 Yankees?
Each passing day without a clear indication on this topic raises the intrigue level -- will Boone stay or will he go? What should happen? Thus far, it seems that the Yankees haven’t decided. In the case of the Yankees’ last managerial change, Joe Girardi learned his fate five days after the final out of the 2017 American League Championship Series. Gleyber Torres’ fly ball ended the Yankees’ 2021 season on Oct. 5.

You can fit that pause to your narrative -- eagle-eyed observers have spotted Boone driving in and out of Yankee Stadium this month, perhaps a hint that they are working on a new contract, or at least that planning is underway for 2022. However, the reported dismissals of hitting coaches Marcus Thames and P.J. Pilittere, plus third-base coach Phil Nevin, indicate that it will not be business as usual when pitchers and catchers report next spring.

Boone’s .601 winning percentage in the regular season works in his favor; his 11-11 record in the postseason does not, having only tasted the AL Championship Series once with a star-studded roster. Nevin’s departure dents Boone’s standing, leaving a vacancy for the clubhouse enforcer, someone who can chew out a player for failing to hustle or a mental miscue. If Boone did not return (and the Padres vacancy could appeal to him, given Boone’s Southern California roots), the imagination runs wild with possibilities.

Buck Showalter is a short car ride away in the YES Network bullpen. Carlos Beltrán nearly shifted from the Yankees front office to the Mets dugout, and even with the baggage of his Astros ties, he’d make a compelling candidate. After all, Beltrán has sat on the sidelines while Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch found their way back into the spotlight. Internally, the Yankees believe that Carlos Mendoza will be a successful big league manager.

2. Will Hal Steinbrenner demand changes?
When Steinbrenner last spoke to the media in a July Zoom call, the Yankees managing general partner preached patience, saying he wanted to see the season through before making any decisions. The time was ripe for second-guessing or demanding change; the afternoon of that Q&A session came hours after one of the Yanks’ trademark “gut punch” losses, allowing seven runs in the ninth inning to the Angels.

“I’m aggravated, frustrated, angry,” Steinbrenner said then. “But that’s not going to push me into a knee-jerk reaction to get rid of somebody that I believe the players respect, want to play for, want to win for and, overall, has done a good job keeping that clubhouse together.”

He was discussing Boone, and it got better from then, with the Yanks winning 51 of 82 regular-season games to qualify for postseason entry. Yet the club hardly lived up to the “championship-caliber” phrase that Steinbrenner has favored for years. The franchise has not been to a World Series since 2009, but arguably more concerning, they have only won the AL East twice (2012, ’19) in the last nine years. As they learned at Fenway, having to roll the dice in a one-game playoff can be a recipe for disaster.

Their competition, particularly in the division, seems to wield athletic rosters that can do more with less. What’s the secret sauce: Analytics? Scouting? Mystique and aura? Steinbrenner must ask why, then address it.

3. What’s the plan at shortstop?
Now that the Yankees have pulled the plug on the Gleyber Torres experiment at shortstop, they need a more permanent solution than sliding Gio Urshela over from third base. The crop of free agent shortstops is excellent, and Carlos Correa knew precisely what he was saying when he teased that he loved the “stripes” of the New York teams. Other options from the big-ticket aisle include Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Javier Báez.

The Yankees have a couple of promising shortstops on the rise in Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, but neither is thought to be a realistic choice for ’22; Volpe and Peraza are rated as the Yanks’ No. 1 and No. 3 prospects, respectively, per MLB Pipeline, with their projected big league debuts set for 2023. Perhaps a one-or-two year stopgap is the answer.

4. Is it time to move on from Gary Sánchez?
For the second successive season, the Yankees went into a win-or-go-home game with Kyle Higashioka behind the plate and Sánchez on the bench. Part of that is Gerrit Cole’s apparent preference to throw to Higashioka, but if your starting catcher isn’t playing in your most important game of the year, then he’s not your starting catcher.

Some within the Yankees’ front office favored non-tendering Sánchez last offseason rather than boost his salary to $6.35 million; those voices figure to be amplified by Sánchez’s middling .204/.307/.423 (99 OPS+) slash line with 23 homers and 54 RBIs in 117 games.

Despite the one-knee-down approach that Sánchez incorporated in 2020, he ranked in the 17th percentile of pitch framing this past season, per Statcast. By comparison, Higashioka was in the 84th percentile. So if not Sánchez or Higashioka, who? It’s a thin free agent catching crop, headlined by Yan Gomes and Manny Piña. The trade market might be the way to go.

5. Who’s on first?
Anthony Rizzo made an immediate impact after being acquired from the Cubs in a late July Trade Deadline deal, adding left-handed balance and a sharp glove to the Yanks’ infield, offering a complementary piece behind Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the batting order. Rizzo fit in nicely, contributing a .249/.340/.428 slash line (110 OPS+) with New York, but it might have been a one-and-done cameo.

Rizzo turned down a five-year, $70 million extension from the Cubs, and with Rizzo having turned 32 in August, no one could argue if the Yanks decided to prioritize a Judge extension instead. Luke Voit remains under team control, but his injury issues prompted the Rizzo acquisition, and Voit was on the trade block in late July. He could be on the move this winter.

So, once again, who’s on first? Write Voit’s name in pencil for now, but DJ LeMahieu has appeared in 106 games there as a Yankee, proving to be a capable defender. Ideally, you’d like to have more power and a left-handed glove at first base, but LeMahieu could be a decent fit -- especially if Torres takes second base and Urshela is at third base.