For the last four seasons, I’ve gone into spring training hoping the New York Yankees have shored up their lineup enough to contend for the division title. But the last four seasons only resulted in major disappointments. Guess what? I’m right back there hoping again this year.
Yankee GM Brian Cashman accomplished a rather dramatic makeover of the team last year. Gone are aging veterans Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixiera, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, each of whom were among the best in the game in his heyday. They were among the last remnants of the days when the Yankees would routinely go out and spend whatever money they needed to in order to acquire the best available free agents. Perhaps more importantly for Cashman, also gone are the big dollars the Yankees were paying them.
Cashman’s moves also unloaded two of the game’s top relievers, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom were instrumental in their respective team’s drive to the World Series last fall. Those deals had a lot of Yankee fans scratching their heads. When Miller and Chapman were combined with Dellin Betances in the Yankees bullpen, the trio of flamethrowers was truly a “lights out” staff, able to cover up the weaknesses in the Yankees’ starting rotation.
So, what’s the basis for my excitement again this spring?
The Yanks have a new corps of young players who have the potential to get the Yankees back into being perennial contenders for the division title. The Yankees’ farm system has been criticized for rarely producing new stars since the mid-1990s with their “Core Four” consisting of Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Pettitte. But recently their player development organization has produced a number of newcomers who have shown what the future may hold for the Yankees. Additionally, in trading away the big-name players last year, they picked up a bevy of prospects from other teams, perhaps not major-league ready yet, but on the cusp of making the jump to the big leagues.
Catcher Gary Sanchez leads the way for the Yankees’ optimism Yankees. He put together one of the most exciting rookie seasons in the history of the game last year. In only 53 games last season, Sanchez banged out 20 home runs and 42 RBI, while compiling a .299 batting average. He finished second in the voting for the Rookie of the Year Award. After the trade deadline last season, when many people thought the Yankees had cashed in their chips for the year, Sanchez almost single-handedly kept them in contention for a wild-card spot, before losing six of their last seven games. The big question for 2017 is whether Sanchez can continue his success over a full season. Will pitchers figure him out and make adjustments to pitch around his strengths?
In addition to Sanchez, home-grown youngsters Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Tyler Austin will be competing for starting jobs. Bird missed all of last season due to injury; but if his 2015 season (11 HR, 31 RBI in 46 games) is any indication, he could very well be the regular first baseman.
Judge, a big 6-foot-7, 275 pound outfielder, made a big splash in his major-league debut last year, getting seven hits in his first five games, including two towering home runs. His physique and power is reminiscent of a major leaguer from the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Howard, who also put up some big power numbers. Judge wears uniform Number 99, and Yankee fans are hoping his RBI numbers in 2017 will approach the number on the back of his jersey.
Austin could wind up being a valuable utility player at first base, in the outfield, and as a designated hitter. Like Sanchez and Judge, he showed some power in his brief stint on the major-league roster last year.
The Yankees have “veterans” Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro anchoring the middle of the infield. In fact, both were still only 26 years old last year, but now have five and seven major-league years, respectively, under their belts. In coming to the Yankees from Arizona in 2015, Gregorius faced the risk of being a major disappointment as Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop. But he has responded well and been a steadying presence in the lineup. Plus, he did his part with the offense last season with an uncharacteristic (for him) 20 homers and 70 RBI. Castro had been a three-time all-star with the Chicago Cubs before coming to the Yankees last year. He also didn’t disappoint fans with his 20 home runs and 71 RBI in 2016.
The true veterans in the Yankee lineup will be outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, both 33 years old this year. Ellsbury’s performance really hasn’t measured up to the big-dollar, long-term contract he signed with the Yankees after the 2013 season, as he hasn’t been as effective in getting on base and stealing bases with the Yankees as he did with his former Boston Red Sox team. Gardner has been a serviceable player during his career with the Yankees. If the outfield becomes crowded with the blossoming youngsters, Gardner could become expendable and be put on the trading block later in the season.
Cashman’s re-signing of Chapman for 2017 automatically puts the Yanks’ bullpen back into the elite category again, even without Miller. If Yankee starting pitchers can get the team six innings of solid pitching with a lead, there will generally be a good chance Chapman and Betances can shut the door on their opponents in the late innings.
But there’s the rub; that’s a big “if” with respect to the Yankee starting pitchers. The starting rotation could likely wind up being the Achilles heel of the team. It was last year, and the Yankees’ front office did nothing during the off-season to change it for the start of 2017.
There’s no question Masahiro Tanaka is a legitimate ace. He finished with a 14-3 record and 3.07 ERA, but his strikeouts per nine innings are almost two less than his rookie season in 2014. He suffered arm problems in the second half of 2014, but elected not to have surgery. Consequently, his innings pitched have been limited to compensate. The Yankees desperately need him to stay healthy. Sixteen-year veteran CC Sabathia, once the ace of the staff, has struggled in the last three seasons, since he’s lost significant velocity on his pitches. However, during his last six outings last year, he seemed to have figured out how to pitch effectively at lower speeds, as his ERA dropped by almost half of the previous months.
Right-handed starter Michael Pineda took a step backwards last year. He typically gave up too many runs early in his games and put the Yankees in a frequent position to have to play catch-up ball. He’s an intimidating hard-thrower (averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings), but he needs to pitch further into his games. Luis Severino is one of the Yankees’ top home-grown pitchers, but after he lost his first six decisions last year he was sent back to the minors. When he returned for the last two months of the season as both a starter and reliever, he showed improvement. The question for Severino is whether he has matured enough to take the Number 4 slot in the rotation. Chad Green and Adam Warren will fight for the fifth slot. However, the overall depth of the starters will be a problem. It’s puzzling that the Yankees didn’t go to the free-agent market over the winter to add some depth. It’s not apparent there is another arm from the farm system ready to step into a big league role.
On the free-agent front, the Yankees did add two pieces. Former St. Louis Cardinal Matt Holliday was signed to a one-year deal. He’s a good pickup, since he brings some veteran leadership, and if healthy will add some more pop in the lineup.
But when the Yankees also signed free-agent slugger Chris Carter right before spring training, it was perplexing why he was added. It appeared they already had enough versatility among their current position players, and it didn’t look like they would have a power shortage. However, Carter was a 40-home run guy last year, but he also brings a ton of strikeouts (led the American League with 206). Presumably, he will be used primarily as designated hitter. Perhaps GM Cashman is using him as a hedge against one of the younger players not living up to expectations or as a contingency in case of injuries. The only saving grace is that the Yankees didn’t have to pay much for him ($3.5 million). Maybe Cashman will use him as trade bait for another pitcher later into the season when another club is looking to add some home runs.
Cashman made some great decisions last year in the make-over of his club. Yankees fans will have a different experience with this younger club. They’ll have to show some patience, but they should also be excited about the prospects of a contending team now and into the future. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Yankees were referred to as the “Bronx Bombers,” with the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, and rest of the cast of powerful hitters. We could be looking at the “Baby Bombers” over the next few seasons. I surely hope so.