MLBNew York Yankees

Season Preview: Bombers Focus on Chase to 28

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For the New York Yankees and GM Brian Cashman, it once again became apparent that a “fully-operational Death Star” is not what you want in your ballclub. It was that direct quote in December of 2018 that hyped the 2019 season, where the Yankees once again had fallen short of the ultimate goal. They added Gerrit Cole, at the time the best pitcher in baseball, to make the team bigger and better. But for those who have never seen the original Star War’s trilogy, even a bigger and better Death Star blew up at the end of The Return of the Jedi when the Republic found a weakness in its structure. That’s what the Rays did as they dominated the Bronx Bombers to take the AL East before sending them packing for good in the postseason.

The Yankees had the same struggles that they usually do: injuries. In a 60 game set, Aroldis Chapman pitched in just 13 games. James Paxton was limited to just five starts. Aaron Judge saw action in just 28 games, Giancarlo Stanton 23. The starting pitching that they tried so hard to shore up pitched to a 4.35 cumulative team ERA.

After annihilating the Indians in the Wild Card round, the Yankees seemed poised to show the world that their second place finish to the Tampa Bay Rays was a fluke. A healthy lineup was scarier than any in baseball and they finally were. With Gerrit Cole on the mound, they won 9-3 in the first game, capped by a Stanton slam. They dropped Games 2 and 3 in 7-5 and 8-4 tallies, respectively. They dominated Game 4. With momentum on their side, it was once again Aroldis Chapman who sent the Yankees home in heartbreak, much like years past. With the past well-documented with Michael Brosseau, it was Brosseau who chipped away until he got his pitch, ending the Yankees season after Chapman had tried to hit him in the head earlier in the season after being down 0-2 early on in the count.

Offseason Focus

Key Additions: Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Darren O’Day, Derek Dietrich.
Key Subtractions: Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, JA Happ, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino.

For most of the offseason, the Yankees were fixated on re-signing key talents. It wasn’t until January 27th that the Yankees were able to rope MVP candidate DJ LeMaheiu back in, doing so on a six year pact valued at $90M. In fact, it was only Friday night that Brett Gardner finally re-signed.

The Brett Gardner reunion is a fascinating one, as it seemed as though the Yankees had zero interest for most of the offseason. Gardner saw a lot more playing time than anticipated in 2020, primarily due to injuries to regular starters. In 49 games, he hit to a pedestrian .223/.354/.392 slashline. Yet, it’s similar to the slashline he usually offers, as his .747 OPS is four points higher than his career OPS. That said, his value was always in his baserunning and defense, which has declined with age. The 2015 All-Star is only a year removed from an .829 OPS. In a lineup that’s all or nothing, Gardner adds a tough at bat that always battles, as one of the league’s scrappiest hitters. Gardner is the only remaining Yankee from the 2009 championship squad, their most recent championship. All of this being said, The Yankees are hopeful that the $4M spent for 2021 on The Gardy Party ends up for depth purposes.

The Crowded Outfield

Clint Frazier is finally set to play full-time. The 26-year-old was drafted fifth overall by the Indians and was the centerpiece of the Andrew Miller deal in 2016. Armed with awe-inspiring athleticism, a quick and fluid swing and tremendous work ethic, the Yankees were rather excited at the prospect of him being a major part of another dynasty core from 2018 forward. It hasn’t quite panned out that way for the Yankees or Frazier, who has been hampered with a number of concussions throughout his tenure as a major leaguer.

Finally healthy in 2020, Frazier went off in 39 games. He posted a .905 OPS 160 plate appearances and had less than 20 Ks more than walks. The Yankees hope that he can be joined in the outfield by Aaron Judge, the 2017 MVP candidate that arguably should’ve won over the winner Jose Altuve. The mutli-time All-Star is a freak of nature who has a stellar .948 lifetime OPS, yet has been unlucky in regards to injury. With everybody healthy, the Yankees have five quality outfielders. Following the aforementioned 2017 season, the Yankees acquired 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, who had just launched 59 homeruns as a member of the Miami Marlins. Stanton has only played 145 or more games in a single campaign in just four of his eleven seasons, albeit last years only featured 60 games on the itinerary. Stanton has not been popular to the bleacher creatures, but perhaps they’re a little harsh? I break down how well he compares to a Hall of Fame Yankee here.

In a loaded offense, it isn’t potential MVPs such as Stanton, DJ, Judge or first baseman Luke Voit who hit third, rather Aaron Hicks. The teams excellent defensive stalwart has solidified his role as the team’s number three hitter. In 2020, Hicks posted a marvelous .379 OBP despite an underwhelming .225 BA. This is due to his 41 walks, higher than his 38 K total, adding another element to the lineup. With Hicks in front of the big sluggers such as Stanton, he makes the pitcher work and shows the hitter on deck the stuff. When he’s hot, he’s almost always on base for them to drive in a big run. The Yankees lineup lacks patience, which Hicks provides in an incredible manner. Aaron Hicks is the closest thing the Yankees have to a Bernie Williams type player in 2020, and Bernie Williams is one of the biggest keys to the late ’90s dynasty.

Do Underperforming Players Bounceback?

Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres.

It was yet another trying campaign for “The Sanchize.” I wrote in detail on October 10th regarding the catching situation in the Bronx, noting that I feel Kyle Higashioka has earned the opportunity to start behind the plate in the game’s premiere market.

Sanchez has the tools. In fact, I’d argue his arm is second in all of baseball only behind Willson Contreras of the Cubs as a catcher. Yet, he doesn’t know how utilize these tools and he’s frankly not even a mediocre catcher, an absolutely terrible catcher. He doesn’t call games well, he doesn’t have high marks in categories such as pitch framing and with the way Tanner Swanson had him sitting on his back knee last season, he wasn’t able to make routine saves behind the dish. With a bat as incredible, per the media, as Gary Sanchez’s, it should be worth it. Yet, that bat isn’t all it’s made to be and hasn’t been for awhile. Despite his 17% barrel percentage being up there with the likes of 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper, Athletics superstar Matt Chapman and Rays All-Star second baseman Brandon Lowe, he produced a mere .159 BABIP. This should be telling that he was a victim of bad luck, but when you combine it with a 36% K rate it’s hard to believe there’s no correlation to an unusually atrocious BABIP. He had the highest pull percentage of his career and posted an OPS+ of 69, which is only nice if you’re making an immature joke on Twitter. For comparison, league average OPS+ is 100. Meanwhile, his backup is doing this in the postseason:

Gary Sanchez got benched in the seasons most important games because Higashioka, a minor-league journeyman until finding his spot on the Yankees roster a few years ago, was deemed more reliable. “Higs” even became the personal catcher for the ace Gerrit Cole, in similar vein to how Greg Maddux preferred pitching to Eddie Perez as opposed to Javier Lopez in the 1990s for the Atlanta Braves. In seven starts with Higashioka as his battery dish, he posted a 1.79 ERA and gave up only six homeruns, whereas with Sanchez it was an ERA of 3.91 and 12 homeruns in eight starts. Manager Aaron Boone commented on Sanchez the other day.

“We had some really good conversations and put some really good things in place that will hopefully allow him to grow,’’ Boone said. “We demonstrated with our actions we believe in him. He can be a game-changer at the plate when he’s right. Hopefully, this is the year he puts it all together. We have a lot of confidence in that, but we’ve got to get it out of him, too.”

-Yankee skipper Aaron Boone.

It’s clear that they’re counting on a bounceback from Sanchez. Even more evident, is that they’re prepared for a bounceback from young phenom Gleyber Torres. Torres, entering his age 24 season, was the main piece in the 2016 Aroldis Chapman deal with the Chicago Cubs. Torres offered the Yankees a total value of 0.0, via BBRef’s WAR measurements in 2020. For comparison, his back up (Tyler Wade), posted a 0.6 WAR under the same measurements. With DJ returning, it confirms that Torres will be the team’s starting shortstop. In just 320 innings at short in 2020, Torres had -9 in the DRS column, one of the worst historical seasons in MLB history defensively for a shortstop. With the Yankees pitching woes already being well-documented, shoddy defense does not help the cause. For Torres, it was a down 2020 with the bat, too. He hit just three homeruns, a far cry from the 38 he slugged in 2019, albeit playing in 102 less games. His .243/.356/.368 slashline is solid for a shortstop, yet it isn’t the gaudy video game numbers we had grown accustomed to with Torres. All in all, he finished at a 102 OPS+, right at league average, and the offensive season should be an outlier. Torres is a lot more realistic of a bounceback candidate than Sanchez, despite being just as horrid a defender at his respective position on the baseball diamond.

A third bounceback candidate is Miguel Andujar, although “Miggy” may not see the playing time that would allow him to work out his kinks. The player who was once tabbed the Yankees longterm hot corner option has not worked out in that way. A terrible defender, the prospect of him actually being the long-term third baseman were bleak from the get-go, but it’s Giovanny Urshela who’s stepped into that role. A savvy low-risk trade with divisional foe Toronto Blue Jays, Urshela offers a more steady glove at a premium position and has batted .310 with an .881 OPS as a Yankee. Although Andujar finished second behind Shohei Ohtani in the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year voting, he saw only 12 games of action in 2019 when he tore his glenoid labrum. In 62 at bats in 2020, Andujar hit to a .632 OPS.

With promise still there and unfulfilled, Andujar enters spring training fighting for his career security, a motivation that can be dangerous for any opposing pitcher. Andujar hopes to take the job out from underneath Urshela’s feet this spring in Tampa.

The Pitching Situation

Potential closer Zack Britton.

Zack Britton was the Yankees unsung hero of 2020, stepping up and posting a scintillating 1.89 ERA, complimented by a 228 ERA+, as the teams closer in the absence of Aroldis Chapman. Perhaps, he’d be the teams closer if they weren’t paying Chapman an astronomical amount of green this season. Of course, this isn’t anything new to Britton as he finished top five in Cy Young voting as the closer of the Orioles in 2016, when he posted 47 saves and a 0.54 ERA. Yet, he made headlines this past week for all of the right (or wrong, depending on how you perceive the situation) reasons: as a human. When asked about how he feels about teammate Domingo German coming back, he was rather candid in his response noting that he wasn’t happy and that you can’t choose your teammates. He said that people who commit domestic assault have no business remaining in the sport. It’s fascinating because Britton is teammates with both German and Chapman. German is returning from his 81 game suspension levied in 2019, but Aroldis Chapman was suspended under the same league policy as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. It was during that investigation that the Yankees brought him to the Bronx for the first of his two stints with the club.

Britton and Chapman lead a dangerous bullpen, bolstered by the signing of All-Star sidearmer Darren O’Day. The 38-year old Jacksonville, Florida native made his name as an Oriole and Britton’s setup man during their days in Baltimore. The 2015 All-Star has since pitched for the Braves, having been cut loose as his option was declined following a 2020 where he posted a 1.10 ERA.

Two key departures from the bullpen are former Rockies, as the Yankees dealt Adam Ottavino and his wipeout slider to Beantown, a rare trade between the two clubs and Tommy Kahnle, who signed with the World Champion LA Dodgers as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

From a player going down from Tommy John, two players look to return from the procedure: Luis Severino and Jameson Taillon. Severino has resumed physical activity, yet it’s still unlikely that he should be ready for Opening Day. Such is not the case for Taillon, as the brand new Yankee was acquired from Pittsburgh on January 24th. Taillon will return from his second TJS. Taillon and Corey Kluber were brought in to replace James Paxton (who returned to Seattle), JA Happ (Minnesota) and Masahiro Tanaka (returned to Japan) in the rotation from their 2020 departures. German will also be eligible to pitch his first turn in the rotation.

On paper, this would’ve been the best rotation in MLB even three years ago. Yet, it’s unfair to call it as that even before it has the opportunity to pan out. Between Kluber, Severino, Taillon and German, the group totaled just one inning of work in 2020. Kluber has finished top three in Cy Young polling four times, winning the honor twice and as recently as 2017. Since the start of the 2019 season, it hasn’t been the same story of excellence for the 35-year-old. Kluber has pitched only 36.2 innings and has a 5.65 ERA over that stretch. The Yankees brought him in on a low-risk, high-reward move for $11M, hoping he doesn’t end up the same way that Cole Hamels did for the Braves last season. That said, Kluber does have a 2.25 lifetime ERA in Yankee Stadium, albeit in a small sample size.

Domingo German was never a frontline starter, either, despite an eye-popping 18-4 record in 2019 prior to his suspension. Over his first 243 innings, German has a 4.52 ERA.

For Taillon, it’s a fresh start. Pitchers, an excellent example being a guy he teamed up with in Pittsburgh and will re-unite with in New York in Gerrit Cole, doesn’t have the best track record with their arms. Former teammate Tyler Glasnow of the Rays is another player to point to. That said, it’ll be intriguing to see how his success in Pittsburgh and a weak NL Central division translates to a small ballpark in Yankee Stadium, lineups that feature the designated hitter as well as much stiffer competition regarding divisional foes.

Gerrit Cole is going to be Gerrit Cole, which is why you paid premium to bring him to New York. After Cole, there’s way too many question marks to be impressed by the rotation. The game is not played on paper.

My Projected Opening Day Roster

Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge.

2B DJ LeMahieu
RF Aaron Judge
CF Aaron Hicks
DH Giancarlo Stanton
1B Luke Voit
3B Giovanny Urshela
LF Clint Frazier
SS Gleyber Torres
C Kyle Higashioka
Bench: Gary Sanchez, Brett Gardner, Thairo Estrada, Miguel Andujar, Derek Dietrech.

RHP Gerrit Cole
RHP Corey Kluber
LHP Jordan Montgomery
RHP Jameson Taillon
RHP Domingo German
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman (closer), Luis Cessa, Deivi Garcia, Chad Green, Darren O’Day, Zack Britton, Michael King.

Outlook For 2021

2020 Homerun Leader Luke Voit.

For Yankee fans, there is plenty to be excited for. One player I didn’t touch on in detail is first baseman Luke Voit, who led baseball in homeruns in 2020. If a pitcher such as Corey Kluber can return to the glory and prominence he once had as a Cy Young caliber arm, then they’d have one of the most formidable frontline duos in MLB. A team such as the Rays had a number of departures, including integral rotation arms such as Charlie Morton and 2018 Cy Young recipient Blake Snell, who are both going to torment National League hitters for the foreseeable future. The opportunity for an American League pennant is certainly a possibility, just a number of things have to go right. But in the eyes of Yankee fans everywhere, the front office who has put the team together and the players that will hit the field, anything less than a record-extending 28th ring is a failure in 2021. The Yankees have not won it all since 2009, a 12-year drought is an eternity for the vaunted glory of the pinstripe tradition. It was Giovanny Urshela who, in the article photo, took that long stroll back to the dugout as the Tampa Bay Rays rushed the field in celebration as Joey Wendle snagged a missile off of Urshela’s bat to send the Yankees home packing. In 2021, they use that for even more motivation to not suffer the same fate.

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