How do you fix an identity crisis?
That’s the problem Brian Cashman faces in trying to turn around the 2021 Yankees, and why the more conventional solutions, typically found in these six weeks leading up to the trade deadline, don’t feel like the cure-all in this case.
Cashman parachuted into Buffalo’s Sahlen Field for Tuesday night’s game against the Blue Jays — not literally, though he’s jumped out of a plane in the past — and from what he witnessed during the Yankees’ 6-5 comeback victory, any GM probably could fool himself into thinking a revival was possible at any moment.
Tuesday was actually one of the Yankees’ most inspired efforts of the season as they improved to 2-21 in games when their opponent scores five or more runs. True to form, all three of their homers — Gary Sanchez, Brett Gardner, Chris Gittens (first major-league hit) — were solo shots, and Clint Frazier’s pinch-hit, RBI-double in the eighth inning delivered the game-winner.
The back end of the bullpen held together, despite a rusty eighth from Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman mostly put Goo-gate to bed with a clean ninth that featured the return of his nasty split-finger fastball.
But the Yankees have been such underachievers this season that one W doesn’t register much in the feel-good department. They need weeks to undo the 10-week malaise that’s haunted this group, and the stain could be so deep in the fabric of this roster that Cashman may not be able to get it out.
Manager Aaron Boone hasn’t had much luck to date, but Cashman refused to put this sub-par performance on him or his coaching staff. The GM proudly said during Tuesday’s 45-minute Zoom session with reporters that he’s never fired a manager or staffers in-season and he’s not about to start now. He likened such moves to "throwing meat in a cage so somebody can feed on their frustrations," then added, "that’s not something I believe in."
Others in Cashman’s position haven’t felt that way. Especially when they’re the architect of what was supposed to be a championship-caliber roster, and the Yankees were universally considered to be that when this season began. Turns out, Cashman’s timing was off. He spent years assembling a roster of "big, hairy monsters" — a favorite phrase he borrowed from his mentor, the late Stick Michael — only to have MLB essentially deflate the baseball for 2021. On top of that, Cashman convinced Hal Steinbrenner to cut Gerrit Cole a record check for $324-million, then see the Yankees’ ace singled out as perhaps one of the highest-profile abusers of the now-banned "sticky stuff."
Could Cashman have predicted either damaging legislation? Probably not. Both trends were building momentum in recent years, but MLB’s direct responses to the backlash happened relatively quickly in each case. In the final analysis, though, the composition of this underperforming roster is his fault, and if he won’t shake up the field staff to create better results, or is unable to assemble a more successful mix of players, Cashman ends up being the one on the hook here.
"Ultimately we are charged with finding a way to fix what’s ailing us," said Cashman, referring to his entire staff, including Boone and the coaches. "And the ultimately responsibility on that is me. I’ve told our personnel that I don’t intend to let us fail. I will find a way to try to get us back on line. I believe that every player in that room is capable of more than they’ve provided — in some cases, not all. And they do too."
Cashman doesn’t seem to have many options besides faith at this point. He’s only a few million under the $210-million luxury tax threshold, a line that Hal didn’t want to cross this winter, and no one is taking the oft-injured player mucking that up for years to come, the $325-million DH, Giancarlo Stanton.
Even if Steinbrenner did authorize another major cash infusion for this year’s roster, are the Yankees really spending their way out of this? When an entire lineup slumps for two-plus months, it doesn’t seem like such a widespread illness can by remedied by trading for a player or two midseason. Cashman deserves tons of credit for only missing the playoffs four times during his 23-year stewardship, but just one World Series title (and appearance) over the past 12 seasons is a huge demerit on his resume.
Not many people would bet on that changing this year, either. Thursday’s win was only their sixth in 19 games as the Yankees barely remain over .500 (34-32). They did hop over the Blue Jays into third place, however, eight games behind the division-leading Rays.
"I don't have an answer for why we are where we're at today, but we don't intend to be here," Cashman said. "The results have just failed so far and we need to obviously get on that winning track. Get our numbers where they belong in that win column and become relevant again, because right now, we have not been the relevant powerhouse in the American League. We’ve been everything but that."
That’s a fact. The Yankees have been defined by all the stuff they can’t do this season, which doesn’t usually get a team where they want to go.