Comparing these Yankees to 1998 has faded, but here’s what’s ahead for Aaron Judge & Co.
Gone are the daily at-this-pace comparisons to the world champion 1998 New York Yankees, winners of a franchise-best 114 regular season games.
A flat July, with a 12-17 record through Aug. 7, ended all that.
Here was the cold reminder that the 2022 Yankees left spring training with more of a third-place profile than a club ready to blaze through the tough and talented AL East.
And that was before anyone imagined the Baltimore Orioles would be in a playoff conversation.
Elements that fueled the Yankees’ wild first-half success – avoiding the injured list, supreme starting pitching, Clay Holmes’ emergence as closer – have faded, bringing them closer to Earth.
But it hasn’t much closed the divisional gap, with the Yanks enjoying a 10.5-game lead through Tuesday.
Yet, they’re now at an interesting juncture, having stumbled in and out of the MLB trade deadline, with some very good reinforcements – and one puzzling subtraction – as they aim toward October.
Everything is still in front of Aaron Boone’s Yankees. Here's everything they're going for in order to make this a memorable season:
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Aaron Judge still chasing Roger Maris
As the wins piled up in 1998, putting the division far out of reach, those Joe Torre-led Yankees found another motivating goal.
“You’re chasing history,’’ David Cone, a 20-game winner on that Forever club, recently told NorthJersey.com. “That keeps you going day in and day out, so that you don’t get complacent’’ during the dog days of summer.
These days, the Yankees’ historical chase has become a personal battle: Aaron Judge vs. Roger Maris’ famous single season franchise mark of 61 homers set in 1961.
Judge basically lets the bat talk for him on this march, with 44 homers through 110 games, putting him ahead of the Maris pace.
But the occasional days of rest, especially before off days, might keep Judge from the extra at-bats necessary to pass Maris.
Establishing that new franchise record would be one more major chip on Judge’s side, as he motors toward free agency this November, having far surpassed the Yanks’ early April extension offer.
Judge’s motivator, as he’s stated multiple times, is his first World Series ring.
It's all about getting to October
The 1998 Yankees held an 11-game AL East lead at the All-Star break and made no additions at the trade deadline during Brian Cashman’s first summer as GM.
At that time, future Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson was in his free-agent walk year and of interest to the Yankees.
But the player cost (the Yanks wouldn’t part with young Mike Lowell just then, or Ramiro Mendoza) and the idea of not messing with their team chemistry kept the Yankees on the sidelines.
Ultimately, Johnson was traded from Seattle to Houston (then in the NL), and the Big Unit went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in his 11 Astros starts.
The 2022 Yankees held a 13-game lead at the break, and they lost five of their first seven games coming out of the break, underlining an already-established reality.
They needed another frontline starter, a better lefty hitting outfielder than Joey Gallo, and relievers to counter the significant loss of Michael King and Chad Green to season-ending injuries.
In short order, Cashman delivered starter Frankie Montas, .322-hitting left fielder Andrew Benintendi and relievers Scott Effross and Lou Trivino via trades.
But an element of team chemistry was impacted with the quizzical trade of lefty starter Jordan Montgomery, a lifelong Yankee and a popular clubhouse figure who was having a solid season.
What leadership means when it matters most
Many of these current Yankees bear the scars of sudden October exits.
Back in 1998, an 89-win Cleveland team “was certainly capable of taking us out,’’ with its loaded lineup. And the Yanks were down 2-1 to Cleveland in the best-of-seven AL Championship, before road victories by “El Duque’’ Hernandez and David Wells turned the series around and Cone closed it out in Game 6.
That club had the requisite clubhouse leadership, including Cone, Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, a fiery Jorge Posada and a third-year veteran in Derek Jeter.
On this club, with the presence of Matt Carpenter (now on the IL), DJ LeMahieu, a former world champ in Anthony Rizzo and Judge, the clubhouse has balance.
“Judge is clearly front and center,’’ Cone said. Speaking before the trade deadline, Cone said “there’s a really good vibe’’ with the 2022 Yankees “that brings them closer together.
“We had that in ’98, too. Even though we had various personalities, we were pretty tight.’’
Now comes the physical part
Getting Rizzo past his chronic back issues and Giancarlo Stanton (Achilles) back in the lineup are key to a true Yankees postseason run.
They need to get Holmes’ sinker going again and get Luis Severino (lat strain) back in the rotation, to be a major factor behind Gerrit Cole heading into October.
"We think he's going to be an integral part of any type of playoff run we hope to go on,'' Cashman said recently, betting on Severino's health and performance after trading Montgomery for injured center fielder Harrison Bader, a player they're banking on to make an October impact.
And they need Cole to more frequently resemble the ace they hired to lead this staff to championships.
The Yankees have eight weeks to get things in order before the tournament begins.