Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone look back on resilient 2019 team, eye improvement in 2020

Art or Photo Credit: Willie J. Allen Jr.

Brian Cashman pushed aside a blue curtain, walked on to a small stage, sat behind a table draped with a blue cloth that featured an interlocking "NY" inside the Yankee Stadium conference room and prepared to reflect on 2019 and peek ahead to 2020.

But, before the Yankees' general manager was asked one question, he disclosed that Aaron Hicks will undergo Tommy John surgery this week and is expected to miss eight-to-10 months. Now the Yankees won't have their center fielder for a chunk of next season, which is frustratingly identical to last year's post mortem news conference in which they announced that shortstop Didi Gregorius would have the same surgery. Gregorius returned in June.

So, before Cashman was asked about the Yankees losing to the Astros in the ALCS, about the potential of upgrading the starting rotation or about the endless injuries that beset the team, he unloaded the most impactful headline of the day regarding Hicks. The veteran outfielder was sidelined for over two months with an elbow injury before returning for the ALCS, but doctors had told him surgery was a possibility. I always felt Brett Gardner would return to the Yankees next season anyway, and the Hicks injury makes that seem even more certain.

A season ended harshly on a hanging slider from Aroldis Chapman to Jose Altuve. A new season has now begun, an offseason filled with questions about how the Yankees can improve and overcome that October roadblock known as the Astros.

"We thought we were on a magic carpet ride with all the good things going our way," Cashman said, "But, ultimately, it ended in Houston."

Why did the ride end? Cashman cited the Yankees' inability to produce with runners in scoring position, not pitching, as the reason they lost to Houston. And he's right. The Yankees' offense curdled in the postseason, especially with men in scoring position as they went 6-for-35 against the Astros. Meanwhile, the Yankees had a 3.13 earned run average in the ALCS.

Both Cashman and manager Aaron Boone, who followed Cashman to the podium and, symbolically or not, was dressed all in black (sneakers, warmup suit and baseball cap), called the Yankees "a championship-caliber" team.

"Just because we lost doesn't diminish the fact that this was a championship-caliber roster that was capable of winning the whole thing," Cashman said. "We just obviously struggled in certain categories with Houston, and that denied us that ultimate prize."

Boone added, "It's hard to ever get over the sting of losing, especially when you feel like you're with a special group of guys that's certainly of championship caliber and knowing that you're really close."

Since Houston's Gerrit Cole isn't yet a free agent, neither Cashman or Boone are allowed to discuss his impending availability. So I asked them if the Yankees planned to be aggressive in adding an ace-type pitcher. I'm confident everyone in the room knew I was referring to Cole, who is the best pitcher on the planet

"I think we're always aggressive in trying to attack areas that need improvement," Cashman said.

Obviously, Cole will be available. He will be available at a hefty price tag and is almost certain to eclipse David Price's seven-year, $217 million contract, which is the richest for a starting pitcher. The Yankees haven't signed a pitcher to a nine-figure contract since Masahiro Tanaka in 2014, but Cole is a dynamic starter they could and should pursue.

"Do we have to do that to make the next step?," said Boone, about adding an ace-type pitcher. "No. Not necessarily. The bottom line is we're a play or two away from still playing right now. There's so many factors that go into the winter into how your club shakes out that you got to let it play out."

In addition to Hicks's upcoming surgery, Cashman also announced that Tanaka had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from his right elbow and that Luke Voit underwent surgery for core muscle injuries. Both players are expected to be ready for Spring Training.

Here were Cashman's thoughts on other topics.

On previously not acquiring Justin Verlander or Cole or not signing free agent Patrick Corbin, all elite and durable starters who are competing in the World Series: "I don't regret our process and there are certain things in that process that are controlled and some things that are out of our control." He added, "You put your best foot forward and you live with it."

Cashman said the Yankees didn't pursue Verlander in a trade with the Tigers because they were abiding by internal luxury tax limitations. He added that the Yankees attempted to obtain Cole from the Pirates, but Pittsburgh preferred Houston's offer. The Yankees proposed a deal of five years for $100 million for Corbin, but he eventually signed with the Nationals for six years and $140 million.

On possible changes to training and medical staff after a season in which a record 30 players were on the injured list: "Is there something in our process that is faulty? I can assure you that has been a major focus. I've described it as CSI: The Bronx. That has occurred, has been occurring and, if there are any changes, you will eventually be made aware of them."

On the possibility of Jacoby Ellsbury, who will enter 2020 in the final year of a seven-year, $153 million deal, being an option to replace Hicks in center field: "It's hard to say, based on how things have played out. Right now, he's not someone that's in a position, health-wise, for me to be answering anything in the affirmative at this time."

On Gary Sanchez's 2019 performance: "I thought Gary Sanchez had a great season, obviously, outside of the injuries. Gary is part of the solution."

On the future of Domingo German, who was placed on administrative leave in September over a domestic violence issue, and is surely facing additional punishment: "In his circumstance, we have to wait for this whole process to play out. I don't have any answers as to where they are. It's between Major League Baseball, the Player's Association and Domingo German."

As a general manager, Cashman said it's important to not get too emotional after a depressing series loss because he needs to focus on making decisions for next season. But Boone, who exits the room or changes the channel whenever he sees Altuve's series-ending homer, said the pain of losing can motivate the Yankees to be even better in 2020.

"In just reflecting on it, it's trying to get over it and move past it as best you can, knowing that it's something you're going to drag with you for the rest of your life," Boone said. "When you get close and you have a special group like that, the ending hurts a lot. But it also is, again, not that you need a lot of fuel going forward, it is also something that you desperately want to move on and try and get back to that point and push through. So that's where the work almost immediately starts and that's where the focus is."