Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
HOUSTON - The sense of devastation was acute in the Yankees clubhouse on Saturday night, in the minutes after Jose Altuve shocked Aroldis Chapman with the home run that ended their season.
Teams lose in October all the time, of course, and typically take it as a normal part of the game - but the hugs, tears and downcast glances marked this one as different.
Whether it was Aaron Boone stopping at each locker for hushed conversations, Luke Voit and Aaron Judge clutching one another in an extended embrace near the food room, or third string catcher Kyle Higashioka walking alone in a daze, sniffling, the players took this defeat atypically hard.
These Yankees believed themselves special, mentally tough enough to overcome setbacks ranging from key summer injuries to a ninth-inning deficit in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. Boone's "next man up" catchphrase was hard-earned, and the team internalized it.
For a few minutes on Saturday, D.J. LeMahieu's game-tying home run seemed another piece of evidence that this roster was touched with grace, capable of ending the franchise's championship drought. When Altuve spoiled that just a few minutes later, the Yankees didn't seem able to process the heartbreak.
Surely their fans, too, were stunned - and hungry for the front office to be aggressive in making moves to push these Aaron Judge-era teams past the Astros and into the World Series. This desire is wholly understandable, given the mounting frustration sowed by a decade-long absence from the fall classic.
But really, Brian Cashman and his lieutenants know better than to radically change the composition of a club that won 100 games in consecutive seasons and is set up to be a perennial winner for several more years.
In a few days, the front office will begin its annual scouting meetings, which follow every season. During those sessions, they will evaluate literally every pending free agent, and form a plan for the winter. We're told that several folks internally have already been prepping for that.
The team's most obvious shortcoming is high-end starting pitching. It's fair to say that the Yanks should have traded six years of Miguel Andujar and six years of Clint Frazier for two years of Gerrit Cole. But the Astros snagged Cole instead, and there's no undoing that one.
Even that non-move was an example of the type of process that works for Cashman more often than not. Wholly transformed from the George Steinbrenner years, the GM now believes that coldly evaluating one smart business decision after another is the path to success.
That's not to say that Cashman still won't pick his moments to go all-in. He was ready to trade for a top starter in July, but there was no ace available. In talks for mid-rotation options like Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman and Zack Wheeler, teams were asking for multiple prospects. The Yankees needed a Cole or a Max Scherzer, and those items were out of stock.
During that trade deadline season, Cashman did offer top prospects for a reliever, according to sources, but the potential trading partner upped the ask.
Point is, the Yankees' passivity might have cost them the pennant, but it was not by choice. There was simply no palatable deal to be made.
Moving forward to this offseason, it will remain challenging for Cashman to land that elusive ace. The early expectation is that Cole will find a more eager suitor elsewhere, perhaps on the West Coast, and that he prefers that location. One MLB executive estimates that Cole, 29, will find a deal of at least seven years and make $33-35 million per year.
Stephen Strasburg can opt out of his deal with Washington, but early speculation in the industry points either to a new deal with the Nationals or a flirtation with his hometown Padres.
All of this can change, if Hal Steinbrenner decides to push Cashman to shop in that aisle. When the Yankees truly want a free agent, as they did with CC Sabathia in 2008, they do not allow themselves to be denied. But it seems more likely that next year's rotation leads with James Paxton, Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. Paxton proved himself as an ace in the second half of this season, when he settled into New York and rediscovered his curve ball, and in Game 5 of the ALCS, when he ditched the curve and attacked with a fastball that he was feeling.
Add to that a full season of Severino and the return of Domingo German after what the Yankees expect will be a lengthy suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident. Depth pieces like J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery and Michael King will help fill out the group.
Yankee fans: We really do understand why this would not excite you, especially the day after that traumatic game. Perhaps it even fills you with rage. But this is a solid group, and Cashman could always bolster it with, say, a Madison Bumgarner or another mid-to-back end free agent.
The offense is not without questions, but the return of Andujar's bat will either help at first or third base, depending on what Voit and Gio Urshela offer going forward. Giancarlo Stanton has become a major bummer. Didi Gregorius went from a core piece to a possible ex-Yankee.
It might be worth exploring moving Gary Sanchez, whose recurring slumps in receiving the ball remain troubling, if he can bring back a fresh star. Over in the New York Post on Sunday, columnist Joel Sherman floated the idea of acquiring Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor. That's obviously worth a shot.
Cashman will explore every sexy possibility, but he needn't feel desperate to make an all-in move. He's already built a great team, and hired a manager who showed this October that he is on the verge of becoming one of the game's best (it was striking, the difference between Boone's shaky feel against the Red Sox last year and total command of a complex game plan this month).
It doesn't hurt that the Red Sox organization is working through a transition, the Rays are brilliant but forever lacking in resources, and the Astros will try to reclaim their pennant next year without Cole and with Justin Verlander a year older.
Cashman is seasoned enough to know when it's time for radical action, and time to remain on course. The initial prediction here is that he'll explore the former this winter, but remain comfortable with the latter.