BOSTON – It was already a full hour after their wild-card loss to the Boston Red Sox Tuesday night, and yet the New York Yankees were still having trouble processing another October failure. Aaron Boone said his players were "crushed." And indeed they were.
Gerrit Cole appeared to be in a daze on Zoom, telling reporters, "I'm sick to my stomach."
Aaron Judge said, "every part of me can't believe it ended like this."
Brett Gardner couldn't even bring himself to change out of his uniform.
Gone, in one night, was the expectation of a run for the World Series. The Yankees barely made it to the wild-card round—it took a 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on the final day of the regular season to get there—but that was supposed to be the starting gun on bigger, better things.
To the very end, Boone kept promising the Yankees would find an extra gear. The Yankees were a fluky, 92-win team, no match for the 100-win Rays over the summer. But just wait, they said. October will be a different story.
Only, the journey ended with an embarrassing 6-2 loss at Fenway Park where literally everything went wrong. Cole only got six outs. The offense was once again silenced, and the game's most important sequence—Judge trying to score from first on Giancarlo Stanton's blast off the Green Monster in the sixth inning—ended in disaster, as he was cut down at plate thanks to perfect relay throws.
The Yankees will spend the next few days counting their regrets, but the real questions are ahead of them.
It's been four years since Boone replaced Joe Girardi and ushered in a rising core of young stars. The Baby Bombers, they were called.
Not only has Boone failed to deliver a championship, but his team has also gone backward since 2019, getting eliminated a round earlier than the year before in back-to-back playoff runs.
Where do the Yankees go from here? The answer will depend on the outcome of five major issues.
1. Is Boone History?
This will be an agonizing decision for ownership, which holds Boone in such high personal regard. Executives consider the manager a man of integrity whose leadership style is based on trust and faith in his players. But that's not the same as saying Boone is still the right man for the job.
He was hired in 2017 because the front office had grown tired of Joe Girardi's rigid personality and tense demeanor in the dugout. Girardi managed like a high school football coach; with his tight crew cut, he looked more like a state trooper than a baseball lifer. The pendulum needed to swing the other way.
Boone was younger, more engaging, a better communicator. He was and still is a people person. That chemistry worked for two years during the regular season, as the Yankees put together back-to-back 100-win campaigns in 2018 and 2019.
However, neither season yielded a championship. Even though the Yankees privately seethed at the Red Sox and Astros' cheating in '18 and '19, those were the Yankees' two best chances to break through.
More recently, the league is "closing the gap," Boone said. But instead of a counter-move, the Yankees have stalled. They're a talented team but are no longer considered a cutting-edge force.
GM Brian Cashman may well decide the Bombers need a less accommodating leader who can impose his will on the player. With his contract set to expire, Boone was asked if he expected a new contract or if he had managed his last game.
"We'll see what happens," Boone said. "Whatever does happen, I'm at peace with it. I can hold my head high."
2. Is Cole Really the Ace?
He's the Yankees' best pitcher; of that, there is no doubt. However, a second-half slump (4.14 ERA) raised questions about Cole's long-term standing with the Bombers.
He's not going anywhere, not with seven years left on a nine-year, $324 million contract, but Cole has stopped making the Yankees feel invincible whenever he takes the mound. Put it this way: Cole's two-plus inning pummeling by the Red Sox wasn't an isolated incident. He allowed 18 earned runs over his last 19.2 innings.
Getting Cole to explain this drop-off has so far been unsuccessful. He won't discuss life without Spider Tack and insists a strained hamstring, which he first injured in August, was not a factor down the stretch.
If so, then what did happen?
One possibility is that Cole needs another alpha starter to push him as Justin Verlander did in Houston.
The Yankees have no such partner for Cole. Masahiro Tanaka, a fixture for so many years as the No. 2, was allowed to leave last winter as a free agent. He was replaced by Corey Kluber, who, aside from an early-season no-hitter, never regained his former star power.
Cole is basically on his own in the Bronx. Even his pitching coach, the young, affable but largely inexperienced Matt Blake, doesn't seem to offer much help. Blake appears uncomfortable, perhaps even intimidated, coming to the mound to talk to Cole.
Finding another dominant pitcher—make that a dominant personality in the rotation—will have to be on the Yankees' to-do list this off-season.
3. Will the Lineup's Philosophy Ever Change?
The Yankees love home runs: they're geared to hit rockets beyond the stadium's short porch in right field. But the obsession with power came at a steep price.
The homer-or-nothing approach was vulnerable to prolonged slumps, particularly against better pitching. The Yankees ranked 19th in the majors in runs scored. In their final three games of the year, including their loss against the Red Sox, the Yankees scored only five runs on 14 hits.
Cashman may finally realize it's time for a new business model. He doubled down on power at the trade deadline, sending four prospects to the Rangers for Joey Gallo, who proceeded to hit .160 and struck out on 38.6% of his plate appearances in his time with New York.
It’s clear the Yankees need a more diverse lineup, less interested in big swings than consistent contact. That will likely end Gary Sanchez’s time in the Bronx and force Cashman to think long and hard about Gleyber Torres’ future.
For now, Torres is the second baseman; he showed flashes of maturity at the plate after being switched off shortstop. But it’s anyone’s guess who next summer’s shortstop will be.
It’s possible a one-year place holder will be brought in via free agency until prospect Anthony Volpe, currently at Class-AA, is ready. Or perhaps the Yankees opt to pursue big-money free agents to be Corey Seager or Trevor Story, which would mean trading Torres and transitioning Volpe to second base.
In either scenario, the Yankees are likely to lose the valuable Anthony Rizzo to free agency. His presumed asking price—$100 million over five years—will be beyond the club’s reach while still paying Cole, Stanton and. D.J. LeMahieu huge salaries. Judge might be added to that list this winter, too.
4. What Happens to Gary Sanchez?
Ownership gave the enigmatic catcher one last chance in 2021 to jump-start his career. By the end, though, Sanchez had mostly lost his job to Kyle Higashioka. One member of the organization said in the weeks before the playoffs, "we tried and tried, waited and waited for Gary."
If he can’t be traded, don’t be surprised by a non-tender. The dissatisfaction with Sanchez extends beyond his bat (.183 average in the second half) but behind the plate as well.
Already in his seventh major league season, Sanchez is still making mental errors that dumbfounded Boone and his coaching staff. Even those in the front office who advocated for Sanchez admit they were wrong.
The Yankees are likely to move on from Sanchez, not only to replace him with a more energetic force in the lineup but with a better defender, too. Sanchez was third-worst in defensive runs saved (-10) and his framing of pitches (FRM) was a meager -2.4.
5. Is it Time to Sign Aaron Judge to a Long-Term Deal?
The slugger lived up to his end of the bargain, staying healthy and enjoying his best year since his breakout 2017 campaign. Now only a year away from free agency, the Yankees need to decide whether they'll keep him waiting through the 2022 season.
Even though Judge would seem to have checked all the boxes, one executive suggested a commitment is still no sure thing.
For one, the Yankees rarely make such moves prematurely. And second, "both sides (the owners and players) need clarity on the (Collective Bargaining Agreement)."
With the possibility of a labor disruption before Opening Day, don't be surprised if Judge is left hanging. It's unlikely he'll leave in 2023—Judge himself said, "I'd like to be a Yankee for life, finish my career here."
Until then, his contract is one of several matters that an organization in flux needs resolve.
It's going to be a frenetic winter for the Bombers. Not necessarily a good one—just very, very busy.
Stats obtained from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.