Count out the Yanks? 1 big reason why it's not time for that yet

July 21st, 2023

Suddenly the Yankees, who were 10 games above .500 and six games behind the Rays in the American League East when Aaron Judge ran into that outfield door at Dodger Stadium the first weekend in June, are in last place in the East. They are 9 1/2 games behind the Orioles in the loss column with a 50-47 record and 3 1/2 games out of the third Wild Card spot in their league. They just lost five of six on the road to the Rockies and Angels. For many fans, this feels like rock bottom.

They were 35-25 the night Judge hurt his right big toe more seriously than anyone could have imagined at the time. Since then, they are 15-22 and gotten you to think that Lionel Messi’s new soccer team in Miami is going to score more easily than they do. Yankees fans must look at the team they were with Judge and the team they are without him and think that his $360 million contract was actually one of the shrewd bargains in baseball history.

It might feel crazy to think that Judge is going to come back and the Yankees are going to make a move just like that, especially not after all the dreary baseball the Yankees have played over the last six weeks. But it is also crazy to completely write them off until we all see if they can go back to being the 10-games-over-.500 team they were with a healthy Judge.

“We stink right now,” manager Aaron Boone said after the Yankees were swept in Anaheim.

But Judge is supposed to be on his way back soon. Giancarlo Stanton’s bat has shown signs of life lately. When Nestor Cortes is fully healthy again, he goes back to the top of their rotation with Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodón. And maybe when all of that happens, and if Anthony Rizzo and DJ LeMahieu can finally get their bats going again, the Yankees can look like something more than the 85-82 team they have been since last season’s All-Star break.

Is last place unusual for the Yankees, now just nine games away from the Trade Deadline? It is highly unusual for a team that is almost always in the playoffs and hasn’t had a losing season since Bill Clinton was president. They’re in last place and not even thinking about first place nearly 100 games into the season.

But what they are doing now is trying to play themselves into the tournament, along with everybody ahead of them in the AL East. And guess what that means? Getting into the tournament, getting one of those three Wild Card spots, gives them a chance to be the 2023 version of the 2022 Phillies. And all the ’22 Phillies did was go from barely grabbing the final Wild Card spot with 88 wins to being two-games-all with the Astros in the World Series before the Astros put them away.

This Yankees team is yet to prove it is as resilient as that Phillies team was last October. Still: That team organized itself around both the skill and will of one great star, which means Bryce Harper. The Yankees have that kind of star in Judge.

We know all the things wrong with the Yankees right now. But what we don’t know, because no one knows, is just how much Judge can change things once he gets back. It doesn’t mean that they can suddenly turn into the late-summer Phillies of one season ago. But with more than 60 games left, and not knowing if there might be reinforcements coming over the hill at the Trade Deadline, it doesn’t mean that they can’t, either.

Buck Showalter, who has his own problems with a Mets team a lot further away from a Wild Card than the Yankees are, talked the other day about how the pitch timer seems to be going faster lately. But it is the whole baseball clock that seems to speed up every season when we get close to the Deadline, and then turns into a sprint to the finish of the regular season after that.

Things are about to go really fast for the Yankees, who come home to play the Royals now, then the Mets, then three against the Orioles, who might be the best story of the entire season. But it’s still too soon to write the Yankees off, not until we see what kind of story they can still write when the story’s main character is No. 99.