The New York Yankees took an unconventional path to 103 wins in 2019. Injuries marginalized their star players, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and Luis Severino. The surprise contributors – Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Cameron Maybin, Mike Ford – more than carried the load. By the end of the 2019 season, the Yankees had used 54 players in all. Only seven teams used more. Only one of those seven teams (Tampa Bay) reached the postseason.
At the time, what the Yankees did seemed exceptional.
The 2021 season has rebuked this idea.
Start with the New York Mets. They’ve used 55 players already, yet they began the day in first place in the National League East. Star shortstop Francisco Lindor and pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom are all on the injured list. Through Tuesday, the Mets have combined to lose 4,522 man-games and 9 Wins Above Replacement Player to the IL, according to Baseball Prospectus. To put that in perspective, every position player to suit up for the Arizona Diamondbacks this season has combined to produce 10 WARP.
The Dodgers are in a similar place as the Mets. They’ve won 61 games despite not having shortstop Corey Seager for most of the season; despite 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger batting .163; despite three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation being lost due to injuries (Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May) or investigations (Trevor Bauer). They’ve used 50 players this season.
You can practically throw a dart at the standings and hit a team waiting on an injured star to boost their playoff aspirations.
The AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox welcomed outfielder Eloy Jimenez back Tuesday, and they expect to have catcher Yasmani Grandal before October.
The Angels are without three-time AL MVP Mike Trout and third baseman Anthony Rendon – $65 million worth of 2021 salary sitting on the injured list. At full strength, they might be better than a .500 team, but the front office can only use its imagination.
Third baseman Alex Bregman hasn’t played in a month. Justin Verlander hasn’t thrown a pitch in a year. Yet the Astros are comfortably in first place in the American League West.
Depending on your team, fans might compare this season to a Ship of Theseus thought experiment. The Greek philosophers fashioned the idea like this: imagine a boat made of wood sets sail upon the water. The sailors must repair the boat along the way, replacing its wood planks one by one. By the time the ship returns ashore, none of the original planks remain. Can it still be called the Ship of Theseus, even though its materials constitute a new boat altogether?
The baseball version of the question is this: how many core players can you take away from your team and still call them the Mets, the Dodgers, the Angels, or the White Sox?
I’ve written a lot recently about the causes and effects of a baseball season without superstars like Trout, Seager, Mookie Betts, and Ronald Acuña Jr. It’s a lingering reminder of the COVID-induced weirdness that began last year, limited the 2020 regular season to 60 games, and carries important real-life consequences for teams struggling to get through 162 games today. It’s a valid pretext for placing a runner on second base to begin the 10th inning, as unsightly as the tiebreaker rule is. Mostly, it’s a bummer.
The revolving-door rosters on some of the game’s most compelling teams also cast a strange feeling over this year’s trade deadline.
By Wednesday afternoon, the Yankees were in agreement with the Texas Rangers on a deal to acquire slugger Joey Gallo. If completed, it would be the rare blockbuster trade that both shapes and solidifies the identity of a contending team, matching the mashing Gallo with a pair of giants in Judge and Stanton.
Gallo is not a mere rental; he can’t become a free agent until after the 2023 season. Still, his role on the Yankees feels a bit like a veteran actor brought in to bail out a struggling sitcom. Think Will Ferrell’s character arc on “The Office”. It might make the show more watchable in the short term, but everyone would have been better served if the existing cast members had merely played their roles.
You can find echoes of this elsewhere.
The players who signed the two biggest contracts after last season – Bauer and Lindor – haven’t delivered as expected for the Dodgers and Mets, respectively, albeit for very different reasons. Whatever their presidents of baseball operations do between now and Friday at 1 p.m. PT would seem less like two superteams gearing up for October, but rather the sailors on the good ship Theseus furiously replacing their leaky planks just to make it home safely.
By the end of the season, I’m not sure what the Mets, or the Dodgers, or any of the trigger-happy contenders will look like. We’ll recognize their uniforms, if not the names on the backs of their jerseys. All of it makes for a different kind of trade deadline, in a different kind of season, in a different kind of world.