HOUSTON — The visitor’s clubhouse at Minute Maid Park just before midnight here Saturday was so quiet that sniffles and hugs made up the only sounds.
Still in uniform, Aaron Judge stood frozen at his locker. Masahiro Tanaka leaned his head against a wall and stared into space. Zack Britton put his arm around Tommy Kahnle to console him. Dellin Betances hobbled out of the room on crutches. With tears in his eyes, New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone went around the room embracing his players, some of whom he would never again see on his team.
The Yankees’ 2019 season closed shut after a 6-4 loss to the Houston Astros in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series — another season gone by without a World Series title, let alone an appearance in the final round.
“It’s a failure,” Judge, the right fielder, said, adding later: “When it comes down to it, it’s black or white: Either you did your job and got where you wanted, or you didn’t. We weren’t able to.”
So a winter of self-examination beckons for the Yankees and their front office. How can they close the gap on the Astros, who have toppled them twice in the ALCS over the past three years? Who of this group that won 103 regular-season games will be back?
The most immediate decisions involve closer Aroldis Chapman, who gave up the series-ending home run to Jose Altuve on Saturday night, and key free agents such as shortstop Didi Gregorius, outfielder Brett Gardner and Betances, a reliever.
Chapman had another stellar season — 2.21 ERA, 37 saves, his sixth career All-Star selection. Although he has said he would like to finish his career with the Yankees, Chapman maintains the right to opt out of the remaining two years and nearly $34 million on his contract. He has shown a unique ability to maintain his velocity and strikeout power over his 10-year career. But given the demand for proven closers, could he secure a bigger payday even though he will be 32 next season?
The Yankees have an in-house replacement already in Britton, a former closer. But with Betances departing and relievers’ performances so fickle, could the Yankees also withstand the loss of Chapman? One solution could be flipping their bullpen-centric formula and building a stronger starting rotation instead.
“I still think starting pitching is what’s going to get you a World Series championship at the end of the day,” said Britton, one of several relievers who was worn down by the end of the ALCS. The Yankees’ strategy worked during the regular season — outscoring teams with their potent offense so that their best relievers could secure the wins — but was strained in October.
Other decisions will be coming soon: Five days after the World Series ends is the deadline to extend one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offers for 2020. That seems too steep a price for any of the Yankees’ key free agents.
Gardner, a team leader who has spent his entire career with the Yankees, could be kept at a different rate. Gardner, 36, earned $9.5 million this season, hit a career-best 28 homers and still played stout defense in left and center field. Or does Mike Tauchman, who emerged as a capable fourth outfielder and will be seven years younger than Gardner next season, fill that role?
After Saturday’s game, Gardner said he hadn’t put much thought into his future but hoped to keep playing. “He’s still got a lot left in the tank,” Judge said. “I hope he comes back.”
The chances of a return are cloudier for Betances and Gregorius. Betances, who will be 32 next season, had the largest workload of any reliever in baseball from 2014 to 2018. His injury plagued 2019 season limited him to one game. An Achilles tear, which Betances was rehabilitating in hopes of avoiding surgery, was the latest culprit.
Granted, Gregorius missed two months of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he regressed at the plate and in the field. He finished the regular season hitting .238 with 16 home runs, 61 RBIs and a .718 on-base plus slugging percentage. His postseason was uneven. After Saturday’s game, Gregorius, who will be 30 next season, said he hoped his future was with the Yankees.
Gleyber Torres, 22, one of the Yankees’ stars this season, proved to be a serviceable shortstop in Gregorius’ absence. Torres could handle the position and allow D.J. LeMahieu to return to his longtime position, second base, where he won several awards for his defense.
Injuries were a major theme in 2019, and their aftereffect will be felt next season. Can center fielder Aaron Hicks, who unexpectedly returned for the playoffs from an injury in his throwing elbow, avoid Tommy John surgery? Will Miguel Andujar, who had season-ending surgery in his throwing shoulder in May, return to form and be installed back at third base? Or was the breakout season of Gio Urshela, a better defender than Andujar, more than a flash in the pan? After a second half of the season compromised by a lingering sports hernia injury, will Luke Voit be next season’s first baseman?
Perhaps the biggest health-related question involves outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. Will he stay healthy in 2020 and produce at the level the Yankees expected when they took on the remaining $265 million and 10 years of his massive contract? In 2018, Stanton hit 38 homers, drove in 100 RBIs and played through a hamstring injury to log 158 games. This season, calf, biceps, shoulder, knee and quadriceps injuries limited him to 23 games, including the playoffs.