From Evil Empire to Junkyard Scrapers – A Yankees Story

Back in December 2018, during the winter meetings, Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, delivered one of the more memorable quips of our times in baseball. When addressing the team’s interest, or lack thereof, in free-agent slugger Bryce Harper.

“If something doesn’t make sense today, it doesn’t mean it won’t make sense tomorrow,” Cashman said. “All I can keep telling you is, you know where my current focuses are, but at the same time, we’re a fully operational Death Star.”

That offseason the Yankees did not sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado as many of their fans wanted. Coming off the back of a 100-win season in 2018, the Yankees proved Cashman’s words to be roughly true by going three wins better in 2019. They ended up losing, 4-2, in a tight ALCS against the Astros but the 2019 Yankees were a very good team.

Flashforward to 2023, on May 3rd, the Yankees sat last in the AL East with a 16-15 record and Yankees GM Brian Cashman said, “Don’t count us out. Don’t give up on us . . . This is a championship-calibre operation.”

They put out this lineup against the Guardians.

I have no qualms with the top four of this lineup. They are all reasonable hitters, but they shouldn’t be the 1-4 of the juggernaut “Evil Empire” New York Yankees. The 5-through-9 is close to vomit-inducing, at least from an offensive-production point of view (Bader, IKF and Higashioka are all good defensively).  What on earth has happened to the Yankees that they need to rely on below-replacement-level players like Willie Calhoun and Jake Bauers.

It’s like going from hiring galaxy-renowned Boba Fett to hiring the likes of Greedo or Zam Wesell.

Injured Beef Boys

Obviously, a key factor in this is injuries. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson are all on the IL. They would make this lineup much more of an offensive threat. This would move most of that top four down in the lower-order slots where they should be and remove a few of the weaker players of the lineup.

But why do the Yankees not have the depth here? They shouldn’t be going into a season thinking that they are going to get full playing time out of these players so they knew they would need to have depth, especially in the outfield area. They do have Aaron Hicks, but he’s at the point of his career where he is a platoon bat at best.

The Yankees don’t have the depth of major league calibre players one would expect to deal with the pretty obvious fact that some players will get injured.  They made this glaring hole in their Death Star, and it exploded in front of them. (Sorry, last Star Wars joke)

But that would be okay if they had the right prospects lying in wait in the minors ready to go.

The Outfield Pipeline

According to most of the prospect experts out there, the best outfield prospects for the Yankees are not ready to play in the majors in 2023. They are all playing in Double-A (Jasson Domínguez and Everson Pereira) or High-A (Spencer Jones) right now, and whilst they are playing well, they aren’t looking ready to make a massive jump to the majors right now.

So given the current talent isn’t ready, what happened to the talent that should have already made it to this lineup? The name that jumps to my mind here is Estevan Florial.

In 2018, he was ranked the 26th-best prospect in baseball. He dropped to 66th in 2019 and off this list entirely by 2020. Injuries and the pandemic have massively impacted his playing time and analyst outlook on him, but he has proven himself in the minors. In 2022 he had a 124 wRC+ in Triple-A with 15 homers and 39 stolen bases, but when promoted to the majors, he went 3-for-35 with a whopping 37% strikeout rate.

In 2023, he’s still hitting well in the minors (128 wRC+), but the 30% strikeout rate is still disturbing despite a big improvement in his walk rate.

Reclamation Projects

With their top outfield prospects not ready to be coming up to the majors and their previous top prospects failing with the chances given, the Yankees have turned to what I call reclamation projects. Their Triple-A team down in Scranton this year has seen a bunch of ex-major leaguers who all had below replacement level performance.

In addition to Willie Calhoun and Jake Bauers, they’ve got Billy McKinney, Wilmer Difo, Kole Calhoun, Michael Hermosillo and Franchy Cordero. Cordero briefly starred on the main roster mashing four homers in his first seven games but then went 1-for-28 in the next 11.

The way the Yankees seem to operate here is like they are trying to find the next Mike Tauchman, someone who can light the world on fire for a short amount of time while their main players are hurt. And to be honest, Bauers might be one of those candidates.

Bauers was picked up by the Yankees midway through last season from the Reds, and he put a 105 wRC+ in Triple-A, which, whilst being better than the 52 he had for the Reds, doesn’t light up the board to say hey let’s get this guy up to the majors. What does, though, is his 201 wRC+ from 87 PA in 2023.

He’s dropped this strikeout rate and improved his walk rate whilst still mashing nine homers. He had performed well enough for the call-up.

Calhoun, on the other hand, put up just a 105 wRC+ in Triple-A before he was called up, and in his 50 PA so far, he has a measly 53 wRC+ for the Yankees. He’s still looking very similar to the player that struggled to get playing time for the Rangers and the Giants last season.

The Way Forward

The Yankees ended up beating the Guardians 4-3 in extras, with Bauers having the two hardest-hit balls of the game (107.4 & 105.1 mph); the latter being a home run off Shane Bieber.

Calhoun also hit a homer.

And drove in the tying run in the bottom of the ninth

If I’m honest, it’s a smart way to go about plugging gaps in your roster when players are injured. But I also think the Yankees have the financial clout that they shouldn’t be getting into this issue in the first place.

If Bauers can keep this up, then he will be a relief to some Yankees fans, as this team needs some run support. I don’t think Calhoun is going to be much good on this lineup, and expect him to not be on it pretty soon.

The Yankees are also missing players on the pitching side, so given all of that, being over .500 is actually a good point to build on. They just happen to be in the toughest division in MLB right now, and they need to be a lot closer to that fully operational Death Star if they want to give themselves A New Hope of making the playoffs this season.

Russell is Bat Flips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician.  If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom then you’re doing baseball wrong.

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