Will the Yankees’ season be saved by Aaron Judge’s return?

Some people who helped put this team together know little about the 2023 New York Yankees. A staff member asked, “Have you ever seen anything like this?” It sounded like a small plea for therapy. “What does this mean to you?”

When you look at their roster and player stats, it is a puzzle. Anthony Rizzo is nearly hitting his 300th home run in his career. In the last 38 games, he has a slugging percentage of.239. DJ LeMahieu won a batting title with a.364 average less than three years ago. Now, he’s over 130 points below that. Since June 3, when Aaron Judge got hurt, the Bronx Bombers are the only team that has scored fewer runs than the Yankees. That’s the Kansas City Royals; the Yankees’ batting average of.220 is the lowest of any team. Their left fielders as a group are hitting.227, and in some ways, they’ve been much better at hitting than they have been at defense.

When the Yankees were playing in Boston earlier this season, manager Aaron Boone used a question about how Judge’s injury would affect the team to attack the “narrative” that the Yankees are a weak team without the slugger.

Yankees activate Aaron Judge, expect slugger to play tonight vs. OriolesCreator: Al Bello Credit: Getty Images

Judge is finally back in the lineup for an important series in Baltimore, and now Boone and the rest of the staff are hoping that the story is true: that the Yankees are a different team when Judge is in the lineup (he went 0-for-1 with three walks in Friday’s 1-0 loss). The organization believes this team could be ready to make a deep playoff run if and when they can. With the trade deadline in just a few days, the Yankees wouldn’t even be able to play in October games. Last week, after the Yankees lost all three games in Anaheim, Boone said, “We stink right now.” We own up to it. We need to improve. Everyone knows where we are.

This is hard to believe for a team that hasn’t had a losing record in 30 years. For Yankees fans, it’s unbearable, with angry fans filling New York message boards demanding trades and lobbying for a leadership rebuild. They complain that Hal Steinbrenner isn’t like his father, that manager General Brian Cashman can’t find an outfielder, and that Boone’s bullpen and lineup decisions, especially with an underperforming offense, leave little room for error.

But there won’t be a mass exodus on Tuesday, and there won’t be any changes to the headliners shortly. Cashman fired hitting coach Dillon Lawson at the All-Star break. It was the first time in his 26 years as general manager that he fired a coach during the season. He can rest easy knowing Boone will be around for the rest of the season. Cashman signed a new deal to keep him with the team through the 2026 season. And while it’s true that Steinbrenner doesn’t run a business like his father, who was a successful owner but also made some scary decisions that have been forgotten over time, you may have noticed that they have the same last name. He’s not going anywhere; the team, worth billions of dollars, is too valuable.

Executives from rival teams are hoping that the Yankees will get more help before the deadline. Based on Cashman’s long history, they think some moves will be made in the last few hours. The Yankees have talked to the Chicago Cubs about trading for outfielder Cody Bellinger, who could be the best position player traded this summer and would fill the left-field hole in Boone’s lineup. The Cubs weren’t sure if they were selling or buying as of Friday afternoon. A source in the business world wrote dryly, “Firmly on the fence.” A few other outfielders are also available, including Mark Canha, Tommy Pham, and Randal Grichuk from the New York Mets and the Colorado Rockies, respectively.

The Yankees are an all-star team, but they may or may not be able to play again, depending on how Judge’s right big toe is doing. When he returns to the team, he won’t be anywhere near 100 percent healthy. He has said that he might need surgery in the offseason. If Judge doesn’t have a major setback, Boone will play him when he’s ready. The Yankees’ medical staff will get daily feedback to help Boone decide if Judge should be in the lineup and, if so, in right field or as the designated hitter (DH).

If Judge is healthy and close to the player he has been the past few years, the Yankees think they could put together a team that could make a lot of noise in the playoffs, thanks largely to a strong bullpen.

During the World Series last year, a Yankee employee talked to a Phillies employee. Philadelphia had just taken a two-game lead over Houston, and the Phillies employee was happy about how likely the team will win a title.

The Yankees clerk had just seen Houston’s bullpen shut down the Yankees’ offense in the ALCS. “They might not score another run in the series,” he said, almost right but not quite: The Phillies have scored three runs in their last three games.

In 2023, the Yankees’ bullpen is a lot like Houston’s. They have the best ERA in the majors at 3.20, leaving runners on base at a rate of 76.1%, and allow the second-fewest home runs. (every nine entries cost $0.80). After Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, and other veteran starters, Boone has a versatile group of high-level relievers and a lineup that has shown it can be strong.

At least with Judge on it. When he’s on the field, the Yankees are 30-19, but when he’s not, they’re below.500. Whether it’s a story or the truth, it’s a total mystery.

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