Aug. 20 could prove to be a seminal moment for the New York Yankees. That Sunday afternoon, the Yankees lost to the rival Boston Red Sox, but it wasn't just that they lost. It was how they lost. The Yankees mounted a spirited three-run rally in the seventh inning to tie the game 5-5, only for the Red Sox to punch back in the top of the ninth. Boston won the game 6-5.
"They've kicked our ass," Yankees manager Aaron Boone told The Athletic after the game, which dropped the Yankees to 1-8 against the Red Sox this season. "... We just haven't been good enough."
The loss was New York's eighth straight,, which took them from a manageable four games out of a wild-card spot to an essentially insurmountable 8.5 games out. The Yankees were losing games every which way. They were getting blown out, they couldn't score, the bullpen couldn't protect leads, you name it and the Yankees lost games because of it.
"I think anything's on the table right now," Boone told MLB.com following that Aug. 20 loss.
After that Aug. 20 loss, the Yankees threw in the towel on the 2023 season and began to look toward the future. Prospects Oswald Peraza and Everson Pereira were called up prior to their next game. Soon thereafter, the Yankees and , and called up even more young players, namely Jasson Domínguez and Austin Wells.
The losing streak did reach nine games,, but changes were made. The Yankees stopped saying they were a good week away from getting back in the race, they cut some dead roster weight, and they installed young and hungry players into the lineup. Look at the starting lineup the Yankees used this past Sunday night:
- 1B DJ LeMahieu
- DH Aaron Judge (Giancarlo Stanton did not play)
- CF Jasson Domínguez
- 2B Gleyber Torres
- SS Anthony Volpe
- C Austin Wells
- LF Everson Pereira
- 3B Oswald Peraza
- RF Oswaldo Cabrera
Five rookies (Domínguez, Peraza, Pereira, Volpe, Wells) in the lineup. Add in Cabrera, and it was the first time since Sept. 18, 1932, the Yankees had six position players in their starting lineup age 24 or younger. This is the same Yankees team that, for much of 2023, had one of the oldest lineups in baseball. They completely revamped their position player group after that fateful Aug. 20.
"We just felt a different energy on the bus coming to the field today," Judge told the New York Post about adding Domínguez and Wells this past weekend. "Just a little bit of excitement, a little bit of jitters."
With all their young players, the Yankees are a far more athletic and energetic team, and more dynamic as well. They're running the bases better, playing better defense, and their at-bats are better too. If nothing else, the Yankees are playing a much more exciting brand of baseball than the dull, lethargic, and seemingly disinterested team they fielded much of the year.
It is too late to save the 2023 Yankees. The best they can accomplish now is extending the franchise's winning season streak to an impressive 31 seasons. They must win 13 of their final 24 games to avoid their first losing season since 1992. Only the 1926-64 Yankees and their 39 straight winning seasons have had a longer streak of winning seasons in baseball history.
Rather than stacking wins and getting to the postseason, the priority for the Yankees the rest of this season is continuing to play and evaluate the kids, and perhaps start to answer questions about the 2024 Yankees. Similar to spring training, evaluating players in September can be tricky, but it is necessary. The Yankees have to figure out what's real and what's noise this month.
Here now are four questions the Yankees can at least begin to answer during the season's final weeks as they prepare for the offseason and 2024.
1. How will they sort out the infield logjam?
Entering spring training, Peraza was the presumed favorite to win the shortstop job, but Volpe blew everyone away in camp and was named the starting shortstop. Volpe's season slash line is not great -- .217/.295/.405 in 512 plate appearances -- though, he's been great defensively, and he's been much better the last two months or so:
First 67 games
Last 70 games
Those endpoints aren't arbitrary. On June 12, Volpe spent an off-day visiting family in New Jersey, and he had dinner with Wells, who was playing for the nearby Double-A Somerset Patriots at the time. The two watched video and Wells pointed a few mechanical things out. The next day Volpe debuted a more closed batting stance, and the results have followed.
"A little stuff with my stance and how I set up the hip, but it was so small. We both kind of noticed it and started talking about it. I think we both took a lot away from it," Volpe told the New York Post about his video session with Wells. "... (The closed stance is) just kind of what I've always done. Realizing that one way or another you kind of get away from it was obviously frustrating, but it's nice to know that what I was doing and wasn't getting results with wasn't natural, what I always do. So kind of getting back to where I've been and where I feel comfortable. Whatever happens from there, I'll take it."
Volpe winning the shortstop job landed Peraza back in Triple-A and, other than a few brief call-ups as an injury replacement earlier this season, it wasn't until that Aug. 20 loss to the Red Sox that the Yankees called Peraza up for good. He is primarily playing third base now. It's not Peraza's natural position, but he is gifted defensively, and it's the best way to get him in the lineup.
"We're making a commitment to these guys that they're going to be playing regularly," Boone told MLB.com after Peraza and Pereira were called up. "We're hoping that in the short term that's something that serves us well in the ability to win games, bringing up talented players that can provide a spark and some athleticism."
Along with Peraza and Volpe, the Yankees also have Torres, who at 26 is suddenly one of the team's veterans. Torres is having a very strong season -- he's hitting .272/.339/.466 with 24 home runs and a career-low 14.2% strikeout rate -- and is entering what should be his peak years. He's also one year away from free agency, so decision time is coming. The Yankees have three options:
- Trade Torres this offseason (or at next summer's deadline, I suppose).
- Keep Torres and let him play out 2024, then take the draft pick when he becomes a free agent.
- Sign Torres to a long-term extension.
The Yankees also have veterans DJ LeMahieu and Anthony Rizzo under contract next season. LeMahieu is most valuable as a super utility player who shifts seamlessly between first, second, and third bases depending on the day's needs. , LeMahieu has played first base with Torres at second, Volpe at short, and Peraza at third lately.
Having five players (LeMahieu, Peraza, Rizzo, Torres, Volpe) for four infield spots is a "problem" rather than a problem. Injuries happen and five players for four spots will turn into four players for four spots soon enough. The Yankees are trying to come up with ways to get everyone into the lineup together though, including playing Torres in the outfield, something he's never done.
With Hal Steinbrenner at a Florida Complex League game, the Yanks folk believe their upcoming organizational meetings may debate some changes, from the development in that and their low A league teams as well as the possibility of trying Gleybar Torres in the outfied— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) September 1, 2023
"He could do a lot of things," Boone told the New York Daily News about Torres potentially playing the outfield. "So that's maybe for another day, but I had not heard that."
It should be noted that shortstop Trey Sweeney, New York's first-round pick in 2021, has 13 home runs with strong contact and plate discipline numbers at Double-A this season. He figures to move up to Triple-A next year and possibly make his MLB debut later in the season. Sweeney would give the Yankees a sorely needed left-handed contact bat, though he's not in the picture just yet.
Right now, I'd say the only lock for the 2024 Yankees infield is Volpe at shortstop, with Rizzo likely to be at first base as long as his post-concussion symptoms are not a long-term issue. Otherwise Torres could be traded (or shifted to the outfield), Peraza could play second or third (or get traded himself), LeMahieu could bounce around, etc. Things are pretty wide open other than at short.
The Torres situation is most pressing and it feels like a decision has to be made one way or another this offseason. Either trade him or extend him. Trading him in the offseason will be easier than trading him at the deadline, when the standings could limit possible suitors, and given his trajectory this year, the price to extend him is trending up. Waiting until next year could cost tens of millions.
Replacing Torres would not be easy -- Peraza is highly regarded but is still only a .207/.311/.269 career big league hitter -- but trading him is certainly an option. How good of an option? Impossible to say without knowing the trade offers.and that could lead to an inflated trade market that nets the Yankees more than expected.
Peraza has played 170 Triple-A games over the last three seasons and has done all he needs to do down there. He needs to play in the big leagues to continue his development. The Yankees could certainly take all five of these infielders into 2024. These roster "problems" have a way of working themselves out. It's just a matter of determining the best alignment.
2. Will Domínguez be the starting center fielder?
He is right now, I can tell you that much. The Yankees salary dumped Bader, who is a few weeks away from free agency, on waivers last week specifically to clear center field for Domínguez the rest of this season. The 20-year-old prospect has performed well so far -- two homers, a double, and a four-game hitting streak -- but four good games does not win you a job next season.
"He's comfortable," Boone told the New York Post about Domínguez over the weekend. "When he goes up to the plate, there's not a lot of anxiety. He plays the game with ease. Obviously the skill set jumps off the page at you."
Domínguez, nicknamed El Marciano -- "The Martian" -- for his out-of-this-world skill set, is the most hyped prospect since Bryce Harper and the hype was unfair and out of control when he first signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2019. He was compared to Mike Trout initially. I mean, come on. How can you compare anyone to Trout? All that did was set unrealistic expectations, and for some people, anything short of superstardom will mean Domínguez is a bust.
The fact of the matter is Domínguez is an excellent prospect even if he's not the next Trout or Juan Soto or [insert prodigy here]. He lost his age-17 season to the pandemic yet still reached Double-A as a 19-year-old and the majors at 20. His plate discipline is top notch for his age and his exit velocities are on par with grown men. There's an awful lot to like here.
"He's got a chance to be a great player in this league," Boone told MLB.com this past weekend in Houston. "He's off to a pretty good start. With all these guys, I think we're going to see bumps and growing pains along the way. But to come in here against a really good team and a great environment and have them handle themselves the way they have is really, really encouraging."
This is a good offseason to need a center fielder because Cody Bellinger will be a free agent, and he turned only 28 in July. He's having a resurgent season, one that will earn him MVP votes and features the best contact rates of his career (by a lot). Whichever team signs Bellinger will be buying peak years in bulk. Also, his swing is capital-P Perfect for Yankee Stadium. To wit:
If the offseason passes without a single "the Yankees are interested in Bellinger" rumor, I will be stunned. That doesn't necessarily mean the Yankees will sign Bellinger, just that you can be sure they'll make a phone call. Other free agent options are Bader, a native New Yorker, and Kevin Kiermaier, who is similar to Bader (great glove, iffy bad, injury prone) but fits better as a lefty bat.
The thing is, the Yankees will have room for Bellinger (or Bader or Kiermaier) and Domínguez next season. One of GM Brian Cashman's biggest failures this year is not finding a reliable left fielder. Erstwhile shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa leads the team in left field starts and Yankees left fielders rank 25th among the 30 teams in WAR. Left and center fields are wide open.
Domínguez is a big kid, he's built like a fire hydrant, and it's possible his days in center field may be numbered. He could follow the Ronald Acuña Jr. path and begin his career in center before sliding over to a corner full-time in Year 3 or 4. That's not something to think about now though. For the moment, Domínguez is capable of playing center and will finish the year there.
My sense is the Yankees want to see things through with their young players and aren't eager to give out another big contract, even for a seemingly perfect fit like Bellinger. Unless Domínguez falls flat these next few weeks in a way that presents major red flags, I think they're prepared to give him a full season in center field in 2024 the way they were prepared to give Volpe a full year at shortstop in 2023. This question might not be much of a question at all. The 2024 center field job may already be El Marciano's.
3. What's the catching situation?
Last spring training, the Yankees cut bait on Gary Sánchez and went all-in on defense behind the plate with Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino, with Ben Rortvedt as the No. 3 option. None stand out with the bat (though Trevino had a great first half in 2022 and was selected to the All-Star Game) but all are superlative glovemen.
According to the various defensive metrics, New York's catchers have been the best in baseball the last two seasons, and it's not particularly close either. Look how well they grade out compared to the runners-up:
Defensive runs saved
Blue Jays (+27)
Brewers (+27.5 runs)
Rangers (+25 runs)
The Yankees have gotten league-best defense behind the plate the last two years. At the same time, their catchers rank 28th among the 30 teams in on-base percentage (.264) and 22nd in OPS (.627). They are sacrificing a lot of offense to get that elite defense, and hey, that can work. The Astros won the World Series with light-hitting Martín Maldonado behind the plate last year.
With the Wells call-up, the Yankees are shifting gears to a bat-over-glove catcher. Baseball America says "Wells is not likely to be an average defender, but he's worked diligently and has improved his catching by quite a bit." They add his arm strength is a concern. That showed up in the minors: Wells was 15 for 116 (13%) in throwing out runners before his call-up this year.
That said, Wells can really hit (career .846 OPS in the minors), and the Yankees are committed to playing him the rest of this year. Wells caught all three games in Houston this past weekend before Rortvedt, who replaced Trevino as Gerrit Cole's personal catcher when Trevino had season-ending wrist surgery in July, was behind the plate to catch Cole on Tuesday.
Yankees pitchers praised Wells over the weekend -- "He's phenomenal at adjusting and a real great communicator," Michael King told the New York Daily News after Sunday's game -- though, clearly, he is not at the same level defensively as Higashioka, Rortvedt, or Trevino. All four of these players are under team control next year too. A decision at catcher is coming and soon.
Installing Wells as the starter next season, as opposed to giving him a look in meaningless games down the stretch this year, would require a philosophy shift by the Yankees. They have prioritized top of the line defense behind the plate the last two years and Wells won't give them that, but he is almost certainly their best option at catcher offensively. Do they sacrifice defense to get the bat?
Higashioka, the longest-tenured player in the organization (drafted in 2008), is both the oldest (33) and closest to free agency (one year) among New York's catchers. That suggests he could be moved this offseason, with Trevino and Wells pairing behind the plate next year while Rortvedt returns to Triple-A to again serve as the No. 3 option. Wells could always go back to Triple-A too.
Point is, the Yankees appear to be in a good place behind the plate heading into 2024. They could go all-in on defense again with some combination of Higashioka, Rortvedt, or Trevino, or they could work in Wells' bat. And, of course, Wells has to perform these next few weeks to really force the issue. He's getting an opportunity to play. Now he has to capitalize and make the decision difficult.
"Kind of thrown into the fire and a high-leverage situation and a hostile environment and made it look pretty easy," Yankees catching coordinator Tanner Swanson told the New York Post about Wells catching three games in Houston. "... He's checked a lot of boxes in terms of just the ability to handle a lot of different things when the stakes are high. Obviously it's a small sample, but there's been no signs that any of it has been too much to handle."
4. What about the pitching?
The Yankees will enter the offseason with questions in their rotation behind the great Gerrit Cole and the questionable Carlos Rodón, who has been mostly hurt and ineffective in his first season as a Yankee. Here is New York's 2024 rotation outlook using only players currently under contract or team control:
- RHP Gerrit Cole
- LHP Carlos Rodón
- LHP Nestor Cortes (coming off a pair of rotator cuff injuries)
- RHP Clarke Schmidt (has come into his own the last three months or so)
- RHP Domingo Germán (currently away from the team receiving treatment for alcohol abuse)
- RHP Jhony Brito
- RHP Randy Vásquez
- RHP Luis Gil (rehabbing from Tommy John surgery)
Brito and Vásquez each made spot starts earlier this season and are currently in the bullpen. Vásquez, who was called up along with Domínguez and Wells last week, threw two scoreless innings Friday. Brito followed with 3 2/3 scoreless innings in a one-run game Saturday. He's looked excellent in his six relief outings this season. The bullpen might be Brito's long-term home.
The rotation wild-card is Michael King. King is not a rookie and he's been an effective and trusted setup man the last two years, but the Yankees are giving him a chance to start the rest of the season. While being held to a 70-ish pitch limit, King allowed one run in five innings against the Astros on Sunday, and there has not been a significant decline in stuff with his move into a starting role.
"He definitely has the weapons to do it," Boone said about King as a starter. "It's just a matter of transitioning, and can he then hold the stuff in extended outings? With what he's been through now in his career, and the confidence he's gained as a pitcher in this league, and I think a real good understanding of what he has and what he can use, I wouldn't be surprised at anything he's able to do."
Even if King shows he can start in this league, it seems likely the Yankees will add a veteran starter in the offseason. Not a big-ticket signing like Rodón, necessarily, but a reliable veteran to chew up innings and make sure the Yankees don't overwork their young pitchers. And the Yankees have young pitching coming. Consider their upper level pitching prospects:
|2023 level||IP||ERA||K%||Baseball America system rank|
RHP Chase Hampton
High-A and AA
RHP Will Warren
AA and AAA
RHP Drew Thorpe
High-A and AA
RHP Richard Fitts
RHP Clayton Beeter
AA and AAA
None of them project to be an ace, but Hampton (No. 53) and Thorpe (No. 100), the minor-league strikeout leader, both rank among the Baseball America's top 100 prospects, and Beeter could debut in September. The Yankees have been fortunate health-wise too. All five of these guys stayed healthy and racked up a lot of innings this year, putting them in position to help deep into next season.
"I think Beeter would be in the conversation," Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake told the New York Daily News about the team's rotation depth options last month. "Obviously, Will Warren's on the radar. I would think they'd probably give some guys a shot that have been in Triple-A most of the year."
Beeter, Fitts, Hampton, Thorpe, and Warren could all reasonably contribute to the 2024 Yankees. That isn't to say they will make an impact and be difference-makers (next year or ever). It just means that, on paper, the Yankees have depth and some young pitching on the way. You need waves and waves of pitching and the Yankees appear to have it.
Give the Yankees a truth serum and I think they would tell you their ideal 2024 rotation would be Cole, Rodón, a starter to be acquired, healthy Cortes, and either King or Schmidt, in that order. That would leave the other of King or Schmidt as depth, ditto Brito and Vásquez, and not force the Yankees to lean too heavily on their prospects early in the season.
Of course, injuries have a way of changing rotation plans, which the Yankees learned this season. Rodón and Luis Severino got hurt in spring training and that landed Brito and Schmidt in the Opening Day rotation. When injuries hit -- when, not if -- the Yankees will deal with it, and next year that could mean Beeter, Fitts, Hampton, Thorpe, or Warren get an opportunity (or all of them).
"That's the hard part with it," Blake told the New York Daily News. "Obviously, you want guys to try and finish off their development as much as possible in Triple-A, but then there's needs at the major league level. So you're always kind of balancing."
As a fan, it's easy to get greedy and ask "who's next?" right after a young player debuts. We all want the shiny new toy. With the Yankees, this is who's next: the young pitchers. The Yankees have five quality -- not elite, but quality -- pitching prospects at Double-A and Triple-A, all of whom could be a factor next year. September 2023 is about the bats. 2024 will be about the arms.
"We have some exciting young players," Boone told MLB.com last month. "Whether they're here now already or in our system, and in some cases, other guys still knocking on the door."