There is this well-worn, bottom-line evaluation of any team when it comes to professional sports: It is either moving toward a championship or away from one.
As of midnight Wednesday, when the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association expired and owners instituted a lockout, it was easy to determine that direction for the Yankees.
By any objective measure, they certainly had not moved closer.
When MLB, which rarely misses an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot, shut down for who knows how long, a club that lost to the Red Sox in the American League wild-card game had done little to improve itself.
And the inactivity made an already enraged Yankees fan base even more so.
Brief pause here.
Though the Yankees clearly are not a better outfit than the one that fell to the Red Sox on Oct. 5 at Fenway Park, it is fair to add a "yet" to that analysis.
Whenever a new CBA is reached — and fans should brace themselves for a protracted battle — the Yankees will have plenty of options available to improve their roster, whether it be on the trade or free-agent markets.
Making few headline-grabbing moves before the lockout doesn’t preclude the Yankees from doing so once it ends. Their considerable roster questions still can be answered with players of quality that would make a 28th World Series title a distinct possibility.
But it is equally fair to call into question the decision-making process that will go into those acquisitions, regardless of whether managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner gives general manager Brian Cashman an open checkbook to fix the existing roster problems.
During last month’s GM meetings, Cashman said he had more "latitude" with the 2022 payroll — a result of getting the 2021 payroll under the $210 million luxury tax threshold — but fans shouldn’t assume that means the kind of George Steinbrenner-esqe mega free- agent deals other teams (the Mets, for instance) made before the lockout are a fait accompli.
It could change, but indications are that Hal Steinbrenner, who already has a projected payroll of well over $200 million in 2022, isn’t inclined to go there.
Instead, indications are the Yankees are tripling down on their all-in approach to analytics and sports science and the like in regard to pretty much all baseball decisions. That often can mean a more conservative fiscal approach.
Though that has yet to be fully demonstrated from a player acquisition standpoint, there are examples, including with coaching staff additions.
Dillon Lawson, the organization’s minor league hitting coordinator since 2018, is being elevated to hitting coach (Cashman plans to hire two additional hitting coaches). Desi Druschel, the team’s minor league manager of pitch development, is being promoted to assistant pitching coach (Cashman wants two assistants in total under pitching coach Matt Blake).
Both promotions come from far more of an analytics background than not, which has done nothing to ease the behind-the-scenes "us vs. them" organizational tension — as it was described by one club insider over the summer to Newsday — when it comes to the relationship between those in the ever-expanding analytics department and those outside of it, and who ultimately has the most sway in decisions made.
As has been written here repeatedly: the Yankees’ obsession with analytics, performance science, etc. isn’t a bad thing in and of itself (they should obsess far less over all things Tampa Bay Rays, but that’s another topic).
Any club not trying to use as much information as possible is committing organizational malpractice.
Still, there are issues at times of messaging — both by whom and how — in the analysts’ presentation of that information to those in uniform, including to the players, and overall accountability.
As an executive in one National League club’s analytics department put it recently to Newsday:
"Welcome to the battle of scouts versus analysts that’s been happening since Moneyball. Scouts were often able to see their mistakes and grow, while the analysts hid behind computers and poked fun while they left no paper trail so they could always deflect blame."
When the above quote was relayed to him this week, one Yankees staffer responded simply: "Has a familiar ring to it."
It is just as big a problem for the franchise as who plays shortstop next season.
And the latter may well prove to be more easily solved.