TAMPA — Aaron Boone will get a 162-game season, pandemic permitting, and he’ll have a starting rotation with the potential to be his best, by far, since he took this job.
Can that combination advance Boone to where he and the Yankees so badly want to go?
Will it turn down the heat rising on both him and his boss?
When Yankees pitchers and catchers convene at the club’s minor league complex on Thursday for the first formal workout of 2021, they’ll launch another campaign defined by immense expectations after a recent history of falling short in October. Boone will serve as the face of this endeavor, all the more so with COVID-19 limiting media access of his players; Wednesday marked his initial Zoom news conference of the season.
In answering questions for nearly an hour, Boone spoke a great deal about his high-end arms and a little (prompted by me, admittedly) about getting ready for the full campaign, the last of his current contract with the Yankees, in the wake of last year’s 60-game sprint that didn’t play to these guys’ strengths.
“I love the marathon of it, and the mundane, and that daily challenge of making sure you have that right level of focus and energy and sustaining it throughout the season,” Boone said. “Ultimately, I think one of the great things about our sport is it rewards the team that can survive a long season and that 162-game season.
“And that 162 is a number that you appreciate, you respect, you fear to some degree. And knowing if you can make it through it, usually the teams that make it through that have certainly earned it and have showed them[selves] to be the best. I feel like we’re equipped for that, and I look forward to getting the chance to go find out.”
Boone’s boss, Brian Cashman, is on record that he’d like Boone, whom he tapped as Joe Girardi’s successor in December 2017, to keep this job for another 10 years. No sign exists that Boone faces a “Championship or bust!” mandate in order to receive an extension.
Yet the inability to reach the World Series since the 2009 triumph over the Phillies, in Girardi’s second season, weighs heavily on everyone in the organization. Since 2010, the Yankees have qualified for the postseason eight times, including 3-for-3 under Boone, tied with the Dodgers for the most in that time. Going 0-for-8, and 0-for-11 overall, has intensified the fans’ vitriol against both Boone and Cashman, as will happen — Cashman for not building stronger starting rotations that can thrive in October and Boone for some backfiring tournament decisions as well as his generally upbeat vibe.
Boone’s eternal optimism serves the Yankees favorably for the long haul. It most certainly did in 2019 as the team set a record with 2,433 injured-list days and still won 103 games. When your manager doesn’t panic, you’re less likely to panic. When players like coming to the ballpark, when they feel like they can have open discussions with their manager, they generally perform better. In 2020, when the Yankees proved crazy streaky through the sprint, Boone couldn’t effectively deploy his big-picture chillaxation.
In two of his three postseasons, Boone executed decisions that backfired and lingered, sticking too long with both Luis Severino and CC Sabathia in the 2018 American League Division Series loss to the Red Sox and then deploying the Deivi Garcia-J.A. Happ combination against the Rays in last year’s ALDS. Perhaps the lessons learned plus improved personnel can lessen the chance of this recurring.
If Boone, pitching coach Matt Blake and conditioning guru Eric Cressey can get just one of Domingo German, Corey Kluber, Severino or Jameson Taillon ready to join Gerrit Cole as a high-end option in October, it would do wonders for the Yankees’ chances. Boone could leverage his marathon expertise into sprint excellence.
“Hopefully this is the year we get to the top of that mountain,” Boone said.
If they can do that, there will be no need for the manager to look out below.