The Rebuilder’s Dilemma: What do Yankees do when strugglers are stars?
I’m not often one who thinks about rebuilding. That’s both because I picked a favorite baseball team that virtually never has to rebuild, and because I prefer to root for current players, as opposed to longing for better ones.
Nonetheless, with a high portion of the Yankees offensive roster struggling, I began not to think about rebuilding, but to think-about-thinking about rebuilding.
As I wrote a few weeks earlier, several of New York’s struggling hitters were once seen as golden prospects.
And when they are looked at as individual case studies, it can be easy to come up with explanations as to why they might rebound, or why their current struggles are merely the product of small sample size.
Such defenses of players seem to be a rational exercise when applied to individuals. But when applied to a whole team it seems absurd. It’s perfectly plausible that one sub-.200 hitter could drastically rebound.
But three or four? That’s a lot to ask for.
A Lesson from the Merseyside
I don’t know how many Yanks Go Yard readers are also English soccer fans, but for those who are, perhaps you’ll understand the confusion I felt when I became an Everton fan in 2014-15. It was a bad year for the team. A hot finish to the season led them to finish 11th out of the 20 teams, but earlier in the campaign, Everton was in a race to the bottom (and that’s worse in soccer than in baseball, as losing teams are demoted to the equivalent of the minors).
The fan club I watched games with was furious with the team: they saw it as wholly inadequate. Yet I noticed when it came to individual players, virtually everyone was considered either a star (Romelu Lukaku, Seamus Coleman, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Tim Howard) or a prospect on the verge of becoming one (Ross Barkley, John Stones, James McCarthy).
I’d listen one day to our seasoned fans complaining about how bad our defense was, and the next day about how any one of our four starting defenders were a must-keep asset.
The 2014-15 Everton squad was faced with what I call the rebuilder’s dilemma. It’s “easy” to rebuild a failing team, when it can clearly be broken down into unsuccessful players and a few tradable assets. But in the case of that Everton squad, there seemed to be a contradiction between the perceived stardom of the individual players and the perceived stardom of the team as a whole.
Simply put, how do you blow up a team when you can’t single out any one player for replacing?
What About in Baseball?
Rebuilder’s dilemmas are more likely to come up in sports like soccer or basketball than in baseball. That’s because these are games where teamwork plays a clear and substantial role, and therefore it is plausible for a team with good individual players to nonetheless underperform.
Baseball, by contrast, is a fairly individualistic game. Nonetheless, there are situations where a team that looks good on paper can be a disaster on the field.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the Philadelphia Phillies established what verged on being a dynasty. They won a World Series in 2008, won the pennant again in 2009, and then put together a terrifying pitching staff consisting of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
Yet by 2012, the Phillies were a .500 team. In 2013, they had a losing season. In 2014, they had another.
The Phillies, in short, had three disastrous seasons before deciding to rebuild. Why? Well, would you rebuild if you had Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in your rotation? Would you rebuild if a healthy Chase Utley might still be a very good player? Would you rebuild if you thought that a struggling Ryan Howard could make a few adjustments and then weaponize his power once more?
Prior to the 2015 season, the Phillies traded Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. This was a devastating move, considering that Rollins’ one-team tenure at shortstop had long paralleled that of Derek Jeter. But even then the Phillies took their time in accepting that they were in rebuild mode. Cole Hamels stayed in Philadelphia until the July non-waiver trade deadline, and Chase Utley only left prior to the waiver trade deadline August.
What About the Yankees?
Neither the Phillies analogy nor the Everton analogy fit the Yankees perfectly. Still, as I recall the historic successes of names like LeMahieu, Urshela, Torres, Andújar, Sánchez, Frazier, Gardner and (the now injured) Hicks I can’t help but remember that Everton squad, and the incongruence between the prestige of its players and their ultimate lack of success
From 2012-15 meanwhile, Phillies management were operating on a fairly convincing logical premise: the odds were that a team as talented as theirs couldn’t continue to underproduce. The problem with such thinking, however, is that there is an equally persuasive counter-premise: the odds are that a team with so many question marks won’t turn all, or perhaps even most, of those question marks around.
That’s the funny thing with logic. Smart people can make opposing ideas sound equally rigorous and persuasive.
Right now, the Yankees are relying on a lot of question marks. Some of them: (the now rebounding) Torres, Frazier and Andújar, can reasonably rely on the small-sample size defense. Gary Sánchez is walking a far tighter rope, but even he deserves more slack. The tragic irony of his recent base-running blunders, especially when he tried to stretch a base-hit into a double against Detroit, is that they are the result of him finally trying to add speed to his toolset. And bad as the numbers look, Sánchez is unmistakably improving on his moribund 2020.
As I said, I’m not pro-rebuild. I would be more than happy for Marcus Thames and Aaron Boone to work some magic, and get this current offense in playoff form. But if the Yankees do make big changes, it will be fascinating to see what they are. The 2015 Phillies rebuild might have been a long time coming, but it nonetheless required the team to take a leap of faith: throwing away the potential of the past, and clinging onto the promise of the unknown.