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Sunday, August 14, 2022

The Yankees need a spark to bring back the good vibes

Almost everyone who has run Cross Country in New York City has run the Van Cortlandt Park hills at some point in their career. Located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx at the end of the 1 train — conveniently, just a short walk from where new Yankees center fielder Harrison Bader attended high school — the two-and-a-half mile course has everything. It begins with a sprint across an open field that geese use as a bathroom and ends with a long straightaway that passes by numerous baseball and softball fields. In between, however, is a brutal gauntlet whose hills were christened by my high school classmates with names not suitable for print. It was an agonizing course, even when it wasn’t riddled with downed trees and mudslides after a storm, or even a swarm of bees (true story).

Perhaps more than any other sport, the baseball season is a long-distance run, not a sprint. With 162 games on the docket, its season dwarfs the 82-game ones played by the NBA and NHL, while the NFL’s 17-game season looks downright puny. This length gives a lot of time for the season to ebb and flow. Batters have the time to work their way out of a slump, like Aaron Hicks did in July (and then work their way back into one, like he has in early August). A team to dig itself out of an early hole, such as the 2021 Yankees did after starting the season 6-11 and limping to a 41-41 record on the Fourth of July. It also gives a team an opportunity to completely collapse at the end, as happened to the 2011 Red Sox. The story of the season can change on a dime, for better or worse.

We’re seeing that play out a bit right now with the current Yankees squad. After stumbling out of the gate with a 7-6 record, the team decided to leave 2021 in the rearview mirror and went on an absolute tear. Thanks in part to an 11-game winning streak, the vibes were immaculate. These were the 2022 Yankees, not last year’s edition, and they were on top of the world. No worthwhile production from Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks? No problem, Anthony Rizzo will start off hot, and Aaron Judge will be absolutely historic. Gerrit Cole struggling to keep the ball in the park? That’s okay, Nestor Cortes and Jameson Taillon are pitching like aces. The comparisons to 1998 started pouring in early and often, as these Yankees became the puppetmasters of the American League.

Since the start of July, however, the vibes have been a bit off. First were the three “series” against the Houston Astros that saw the Yankees never hold a lead, as both their wins were of the Aaron Judge walk-off variety. Josh Donaldson and Aaron Hicks have been mired in deep, deep slumps. Injuries to Luis Severino and Michael King began to take their toll on a pitching staff that has been prone to meltdowns of late (even if it’s still ranked high in most categories). And to top it all off, Brian Cashman eroded most of the positive energy he brought to the team through the additions of Andrew Benintendi, Frankie Montas, Scott Effross, and Lou Trivino by sending away homegrown starter Jordan Montgomery to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for outfielder Harrison Bader — who is currently on the IL!

The Yankees are clearly in need of a jolt. Fortunately, there’s someone currently sitting in Triple-A Scranton that can do just that: Oswald Peraza. After a slow start to the season in which he slashed .193/.268/.318 through his first 23 games, the young shortstop has been on fire at the plate. Since the start of June, he has posted a .301/.375/.528 slash line with nine home runs, ten doubles, and 15 stolen bases, all while showing off a slick glove. With Isiah Kiner-Falefa waddling to an 85 OPS+ and defense that is not consistent enough for a defense-first shortstop, there’s a decent chance he’d be an instant upgrade at the position no matter how you want to look at it (aside from syllables in his name, that is).

More important than his performance on the diamond, however, would be the potential impact on the clubhouse. At this point in a season, the dog days of summer, it’s easy for a team to get into a rut, especially when it’s playing .500 ball — the weather is hot, the pennant race isn’t quite in your face yet, and minor aches and pains are really starting to settle in. Teams need a midsummer jolt.

It could come in the form of an impact trade or group of trades, such as the flurry of moves that the Atlanta Braves made to reinvent their outfield at last year’s deadline, or the Astros’ addition of Justin Verlander in 2017 and Zack Greinke in 2019, or even the Yankees’ acquisition of Alfonso Soriano in 2013. It could come from a player who comes out of nowhere to become an impact player, as Nestor Cortes did for the Yankees last year when the entire pitching rotation was on either the injured list or the COVID list. Or it could come from the promotion of a top prospect, whether he lights the world on fire (as Gary Sánchez did in 2016) or simply electrifies the clubhouse while providing important depth (as Xander Bogaerts did for Boston in 2013).

With the trade deadline now in the rearview mirror — the only major roadblock to Peraza’s promotion, as you wouldn’t want to risk losing some of his luster as a prospect while he was being dangled as trade bait — now is the time to make the move. Peraza’s promotion, even if he doesn’t light the world on fire at the plate, gives the fanbase something positive to rally behind after a deadline that sucked some of the air out of the fanbase, and it injects new energy into the clubhouse. The Yankees are currently stuck in a rut in the hills, trying to find the final straightaway that brings them to the finish line; a top prospect like Peraza might just be the jolt the team needs to bring back the good vibes.

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