Can the Middle-of-the-Pack Yankees Turn This Season Around?

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIJune 19, 2021

New York Yankees' Rougned Odor hits a home run during the fifth inning of the team's baseball game against the Oakland Athletics on Friday, June 18, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The New York Yankees returned home to the Bronx on Friday night for what was supposed to be a celebratory homecoming. The COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted, and a full-capacity crowd was expected at Yankee Stadium for the series opener against the Oakland A's.

Instead, only 24,037 showed up, and they booed their own team, as a pitcher who was supposed to wear pinstripes earned the win in Kelly green.

It's tough to know what to make of the Yankees these days. They swept the Toronto Blue Jays this week but were undone by AL West-best A's. The game was mostly tied until the sixth, when Oakland went single-single-home run for a two-out rally and went up 5-3. The team came back home with some swagger after that sweep but was unable to build on that showing.

"You're up against a good opponent, and it's razor-thin," manager Aaron Boone said in his postgame Zoom press conference. "You have two outs, and nobody's on looking like you're going to get out of that inning. So obviously, there is frustration that we didn't pull one out tonight."

Meanwhile, James Kaprielian, once a can't-miss Yankees prospect after New York selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft out of UCLA, earned the win for the A's, limiting the Yankees to three earned runs on three hits over 5.2 innings.

The Yankees gave up Kaprielian in a trade for Sonny Gray in 2017. In New York, Gray was never the ace he was in Oakland. He's now having a career resurgence in Cincinnati, and Kaprielian is doing exactly what he was expected to do in Oakland.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Should they have hung on to Kaprielian?

Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

It probably stings a little considering how little starting pitching depth the Yankees have behind ace Gerrit Cole. The only thing they can do now is try to build on some of the good things they've done lately and wait to see if they can plug some of the holes at the trade deadline at the end of next month.

There is a belief that they can turn things around and start climbing the standings. It's one of the most cliche cliches in the book, but they take it game-by-game and never doubt when they're down, especially since four of the last five wins and six of their last eight have been of the comeback variety.

"I think that confidence is growing within our group," infielder DJ LeMahieu said Friday. "We had the lead, they hit a homer and I felt like we were going to come back one way or another, but we just couldn't put anything together. But I think our confidence is growing from our group in those situations."

So, what is plaguing the Yankees, and what can be done about it?

The Yankees live and die by the home run. They slugged two of them Friday, and they've hit 27 in their last 16 games. But there aren't a lot of rallies like the ones the A's put together in the sixth. They just have to out-slug their opponents on most nights.

This feared lineup wasn't producing offensively to start the season, but it overcame that cold open. LeMahieu, the 2020 American League batting champ, came into the game hitting .306 over his last eight. He went 1-for-4 with a two-run homer against Oakland to improve on those numbers.

"I'm not super hot right now. The ball is not a beachball right now," he said. "But I think I'm where I need to be."

It's where the Yankees need him to be because they aren't getting a lot of production from Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar. But Brett Gardner and Gary Sanchez have been hot as of late, which is a good sign for an offense with the 15th-best OPS that needs to overcome a thin starting rotation.

Jameson Taillon had a good outing, but he's still making adjustments after missing the 2020 season to rehab from Tommy John surgery.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

"It's been the in-game execution," Taillon said. "I can play catch with the best of them, I throw great bullpens, but when it comes down to it, you need to make the pitch when the game is on the line and there are runners on base. You have to have that mentality of, 'I'm going to make this pitch, and I'm going to out-execute the hitter.' I feel like, to this point, sometimes that just comes and goes."

The Yankees will rely on Taillon heavily as we get deeper into the summer. With Corey Kluber out and Deivi Garcia getting beat up in Triple-A (1-2, 8.10 ERA, exited after the first inning during last start with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), Taillon has to remain durable and eat some innings until the Yankees can get some reinforcements.

"Hopefully, I can put my foot down and go back to who I know I can be and who I know I need to be going forward," he said.

So where will these reinforcements come from? The bullpen is the fourth-best in MLB (second-best in the AL), and the Yankees are getting a decent amount of innings from their starting pitchers (361.2), but they have to get innings from somewhere with Corey Kluber (shoulder) and Luis Severino (Tommy John rehab) both out right now.

It's clear they need to target a starter.

They could try to get someone like Matthew Boyd from the Detroit Tigers. The 30-year-old left-hander would help alleviate the pitching situation now and into next season since he's under team control through 2022 (arbitration-eligible this winter).

The big target would be shortstop Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies. That would solve a lot of their problems. The pressure would be taken off Torres. Rougned Odor is fine off the bench, but Story would put them over the edge.

But taking on Story would require the Yankees to go over the luxury-tax threshold.

The other option is to change managers, but no matter how much fans on Twitter try to get a hashtag trending, it's not going to sway the organization from keeping a manager who is so popular with the players. A managerial change is not the right option to begin with. It might have been George Steinbrenner's preferred way of doing business, but these are different times and chaos is bad for the ballclub. Midseason firings signal chaos.

The Yankees aren't chaotic; they're just in the middle of the pack. There is still time to turn it around, and the performance of some of the hitters as of late indicates that they can right the ship. But they can't do it without some pitching help. After all, this year is all about pitching.

It’s too soon to boo. The Yankees aren't dead in the water yet.


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