The Yankees are in first place again. There was roughly a 20-year stretch where they were in first the entire time, one of you fell asleep when you were supposed to be on watch, and here we are. The first-place Yankees. Again.
The Yankees haven’t finished under .500 since the Marlins and Rockies came into the league. They’ve won 13 division titles in that time, while neither of those teams have won one. When the Yankees fell on tough times, they decided not to rebuild, but to reload with a little less authority in recent years. That meant winning 84 games and feeling down about it, even though that’s something the Padres have done in just 10 of their 49 seasons. Nobody even had time to feel bad about the Yankees. And now they’re in first place again.
There are sorts of different ways to quantify what the Yankees are doing, but stick with the obvious: They lead the American League in runs and home runs, and they’re second in adjusted OPS. They’re out-hitting, out-slugging, and out-walking nearly every other major league team. And, just to show off, they’ve stolen 27 bases in 32 attempts, too.
That the Yankees are outscoring teams isn’t the most surprising thing in the 2017 season. Everyone is agog with Aaron Judge, ample colossus, and for good reason. Yankee Stadium is going to help power hitters more than the typical ballpark, and they’ve clearly targeted some specific players to play into those strengths. Their lineup was a drag last year, but they still hit 182 homers.
When I look at the Yankees’ roster, though, I’m shrieking, “HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?,” in all caps, and it has nothing to do with Judge. It has nothing to do any suggestion that the Yankees have been lucky, an argument quickly countered by a reminder of the time missed by Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius. It’s an honest, frantic question, and my incredulity stems from something I can state in a single theory:
If you wanted different parts of the Yankees’ surprising offensive juggernaut this offseason, you could have had them.
This is all supposition, all guesswork, because I don’t really know how the Yankees value their players internally. They might have seen every one of these offensive explosions coming, and they might have yelled at you to keep your grubby paws away from their burgeoning superstars. But if we assume they were evaluating these players in a similar fashion to the rest of the world, we can do this exercise up and down the lineup.
If you wanted Aaron Hicks, you could have had him. The Twins traded him for a young catcher who has struggled mightily, but we don’t even have to go back that far. We’re talking about five months ago, when Hicks was an all-defense, no-bat tools monster, closer to Jordan Schafer than Austin Jackson on the are-we-going-to-get-anything-out-of-these-tools spectrum. The Yankees wouldn’t have just given him away, certainly, but if you called with a live-armed kid in A-ball, one of the the six right-handers in the organization who threw 100 without knowing where it went, they would have listened.
Hicks is Mike Trout now, give or take. The samples are small and the season is young, so he probably won’t be Trout by the end of the season, but it’s hard not to be convinced that a switch has flipped deep inside Hicks’ primary motor cortex. He’s excellent now. And your team could have had him.
If you wanted Starlin Castro, you could have had him. In his last 302 games over two seasons, his OBP was under .300, and it’s not like the defense made up the deficit. His 21 homers last year weren’t that impressive if you adjust for the park and the league-wide spike, and he was owed more than $20 million. The Yankees wouldn’t have just given him away, but they weren’t going to pretend they had all the leverage, either.
If you wanted Matt Holliday, you could have had him. The future Hall of Nearly Greater was 37 and looking for a one-year deal. His bat looked slow, and when he fielded a ball, his entire body sounded like the Iron Giant biting through a car. The Yankees are paying him $13 million. You could have had him for $14 million.
If you wanted Brett Gardner, you could have had him. The Yankees received offers, but nothing they liked. Well, make them like one of your offers, smart guy. Gardner is hitting .289/.381/.521, and he’s still overqualified in left. Like Castro, the Yankees wouldn’t have just left him in a bonnet on another team’s doorstep, but Gardner makes real money. He didn’t have to be traded, but exchanging him for prospects would have fit in with the organizational austerity.
If you wanted Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley, you ... well, I’ll be honest, you can probably still have them if you ask really nicely. But you also good have had them in the offseason. They haven’t been All-Stars, but they’re solidly above-average when it comes to OPS+. They’d each be the second-best hitter on the Giants, give or take.
If stats are your thing, take a look at the projected OPS for each of the above hitters according to Baseball Prospectus, compared to their actual OPS:
Actual OPS vs. PECOTA projections
|Player||2017 PECOTA projected OPS||Actual OPS||Difference|
|Player||2017 PECOTA projected OPS||Actual OPS||Difference|
While the actual Headley and Ellsbury numbers are close enough to be non-stories, it’s just as important that they aren’t awful, which can happen to veterans in their mid-30s. They’re relatively close to their best-case scenarios, just like the other players in that table. And, again, your team could have had them.
There are a couple of ways to look at this information. The first is obvious and cynical. What comes up, must come down. Regression to the mean. It’s May, and not all of these players have to be contributing by July. If you’re an Orioles or Red Sox fan, you can warm yourself with these thoughts. I won’t stop you.
But as someone who watched the Yankees win over and over and over again, I’m not convinced. This is the team that dug Bartolo Colon out of the earth and made him useful again. This is the team that was supposed to crumble in a fog of age and tears, but kept coming back with 30- and 40-somethings who never seemed to decline. This is the team that acquired all of these players in the first place.
The Yankees just might be good at cobbling together a baseball team, even when they’re not paying people $150 million to play for them. These surprising seasons don’t all have to be found money. There can be a little science and baseball acumen involved. There can be a lot of science and baseball acumen involved.
And while the Yankees are laying waste to the rest of the American League, that ghostly thought keeps echoing through your head. My team could have had all of these guys. It might not last, but it doesn’t have to go away just because no one predicted it.