It wasn’t supposed to be this easy for the New York Yankees. Floundering (for them) after their last gasp at a title was squelched by our Detroit Tigers in the 2012 ALCS, the Yankees had endured three consecutive seasons on the outskirts of the playoff picture heading into 2016. Though they made a Wild Card appearance the year before, that team didn’t feel like it had what it takes to develop into the juggernaut Yankees fans are used to seeing on an annual basis. Led by aging veterans Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and Alex Rodriguez, those 2015 Yankees felt like a mirage. On the surface, it looked like the Yanks might need to think about the ‘r’ word: rebuilding.
Those paying attention saw the truth: the rebuild had already begun. Years prior, the Yankees had gone on a spending spree on the international market. They let their division rival take the headlines for signing Yoan Moncada, instead spreading roughly $15 million on several players, including 10 of Baseball America’s top 30 international prospects in 2014 (and four of the top 10). The Yanks used their financial means to their advantage under that system, signing players in bunches while laughing in the face of the tax MLB levied on them for it.
Those players haven’t reached the majors yet, but others have. Sluggers Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge powered the offense last year, while starters Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery pitched beyond their years in the rotation. Savvy moves elsewhere on the roster solidified their depth and bullpen, allowing the Yankees to arrive ahead of schedule. What was supposed to be a down year in 2017 turned into an exciting playoff run that ended on the doorstep of the World Series.
To make things worse, they aren’t even spending yet. Sure, they traded for slugger Giancarlo Stanton, but the Yanks otherwise said “no thanks” to a wide open free agent market. They are good enough to compete already, and have the full Steinbrenner bankroll at their disposal when they need to supplement what might already be baseball’s deepest roster.
In other words, the Evil Empire is back.
Team at a Glance
2017 record: 91-71 | 2017 pythag: 100-62 | 2018 farm ranking: 2
Manager: Aaron Boone (1st year)
SB Nation site: Pinstripe Alley
Key additions: OF Giancarlo Stanton, 2B Neil Walker, IF Brandon Drury
Key departures: 3B Todd Frazier, RHP Michael Pineda, 2B Starlin Castro, 3B Chase Headley, DH Matt Holliday, LHP Jaime Garcia
Offseason headlines may have centered around Giancarlo Stanton, but the Yankees’ 2017 success was squarely on the very large shoulders of Aaron Judge. The 25-year-old rookie entered the season with people questioning whether he would make enough contact for his 80-grade power to play up in games. He emphatically answered that question 52 times, setting a rookie home run record. He also led the league in walks and bounced back from a second half swoon, setting himself up for another big season in 2018. His new outfield partner, Stanton, turned a similar trick in the National League, hitting a career-high 59 home runs in a career-high 159 games played. That latter figure is more important; we knew Stanton could crush dingers at will. Staying on the field has been — and will continue to be — the only thing that can stop him.
Center field will be manned by some combination of Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury. The former had a breakout season in 2017, hitting .266/.372/.475 in 88 games. Hicks has always had enough power and patience to make things work, but a more refined approach at the plate has given him a new lease on life in baseball. Gardner was the odd man out when Stanton was acquired, but he still has enough in those 34-year-old legs to play a passable center field. Any miscues in the outfield will be forgiven if he continues to get on base at a .350 clip, something he did in both 2016 and 2017. Ellsbury has fallen off considerably since the Yankees gave him that ill-advised seven-year deal, but modest improvements in his walk rate and isolated power (ISO) made him a league average hitter once again last year. He might not be ready for Opening Day due to an oblique injury, but will still see some playing time. Clint Frazier is more talented than any of them and could probably play center, but can also be stashed in the minors. He is also dealing with a concussion he suffered in February and might not be ready for game action for a little while.
Helping the Yankees’ outfield logjam is a lack of a true designated hitter on their roster. Any of the six players listed above could slide into that spot without much fuss, and odds are all will see at least a game or two there during the season. Oddly, catcher Gary Sanchez might see the most time there of anyone. While he’s a great framer and capable receiver, Sanchez’s bat is far too valuable to only use 120-odd games per year. Instead of Salvador Perezing him for 150 games, the Yankees can slide Sanchez to DH and use Austin Romine, another capable defender, behind the plate. Romine endured his worst offensive season to date in 2017, producing a .565 OPS in 80 games. Sanchez, meanwhile, made his first All-Star team and produced the first of many four win seasons behind the plate. Pessimists will note that the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Runner-Up saw his OPS drop by more than 150 points last year, but that’s only because his ‘16 pace was unsustainable. I’m sure the Yankees will take a 126 OPS+ and 30-plus homers annually without even the slightest complaint.
The Yankees’ infield isn’t quite as proven as their loaded outfield contingent, but they have enough depth to make things work. New acquisitions Neil Walker and Brandon Drury will hold down the fort at second and third base for now. Walker went unsigned nearly all winter despite putting up an .801 OPS while playing multiple positions last year, while Drury didn’t quite live up to the preseason breakout hype many people — including those giving fantasy team advice — bestowed upon him. How much they really play remains to be seen, because the Yankees have prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar waiting in the wings. Torres was always a longshot to make the Opening Day roster, both due to service time considerations and his ongoing recovery from Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow. Andujar, meanwhile, has done nothing but hit over the past year-plus. He was productive in both Double and Triple-A last season, had a strong showing in eight big league plate appearances, and posted a .916 OPS this spring before the Yankees optioned him to the minors on Sunday.
Shortstop Didi Gregorius took another step forward offensively last year, hitting a career-high 25 home runs. He has quietly become a part of the launch angle revolution, upping his fly ball rate only when pulling the ball. All 25 of last season’s dingers came to the pull side, while he still used all fields (to a certain extent) for run-of-the-mill base hits. He also played his usual solid defense en route to a career-high 3.7 rWAR. First baseman Greg Bird is still searching for that prolonged breakout, but only because he hasn’t been able to stay on the field. He missed significant time due to injury again in 2017, but left Yankees fans salivating with a monster second half and postseason. We’re still only talking about 152 plate appearances here, but Bird’s excellent minor league numbers — in which he hit for average and power, and showed a patient eye at the plate — certainly bode well. Utility player Tyler Wade is also having a nice spring.
Unlike the Tigers, the Yankees didn’t cave to veteran pressure when considering their Opening Day starter for the upcoming season. Luis Severino, a flamethrowing righty with just over 300 career innings under his belt, will get the ball when the Yanks open in Toronto on March 29. Severino averaged 97 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball last year, and struck out 230 batters in just under 200 innings. His performance earned him a start in the AL Wild Card Game which… did not go well. He rebounded from there to pitch adequately in his next three postseason starts, and should be in line for another big season in 2018. Last season’s Opening Day starter, righty Masahiro Tanaka, endured a rough first half in which he all but lost his excellent command. He surrendered 23 home runs before the All-Star break, resulting in a horrible 5.47 ERA. Things got a little better from there thanks to an uptick in slider usage, and he managed a 3.40 FIP with nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings in the second half. One wonders what all those slider and splitters will do to his sometimes wonky elbow, but for now, Tanaka looks just fine.
Two years ago, no one would have imagined CC Sabathia would still be an above-average big league pitcher. He was coming off three consecutive seasons below replacement level heading into 2016, and was entering his age-35 season. That he left the team prior to the 2015 AL Wild Card game due to a longstanding battle with alcoholism was just another reason to think the former Cy Young winner was done. Lo and behold, Sabathia has proven everyone wrong. It hasn’t been pretty at times — his 4.38 FIP since 2016 is over a half-run higher than his ERA — but a cutter-heavy four-pitch mix has generated lots of soft contact and a higher ground ball rate than we previously saw from Carsten Charles. It could all come apart at any minute, but Sabathia was crafty enough to put up a 2.37 ERA last postseason when pitchers with far more stuff couldn’t stay on the mound.
Rounding out the rotation are Sonny Gray and Jordan Montgomery. Tigers fans are familiar with the former, as Gray’s introduction to the baseball world at large came at Detroit’s expense in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS. Though the Tigers got their revenge a few days later, Gray went on to star in Oakland’s rotation for the next couple years before an awful (and random) 2016 season. Gray bounced back last year, though his walk and home run rates took a turn for the worse after being traded to New York. Montgomery, meanwhile, came out of nowhere to steady the Yankees’ rotation with 155 1⁄3 strong innings last season. The former fourth round pick did not receive any prospect hype whatsoever throughout his rise up the minor league ranks, but he mixed his five-pitch arsenal well enough to maintain a 22 percent strikeout rate with a walk rate around eight percent. He was oddly better at home than on the road, and will need to keep right-handed hitters at bay to avoid any regression in 2018.
If New York’s starters do regress at all, they can fall back on arguably the deepest and most talented bullpen in baseball. Closer Aroldis Chapman wasn’t his usual self in 2017, but bounced back from a mid-summer demotion to post a 0.61 ERA from August 20 until the end of the regular season. He didn’t lose any velocity, which bodes well for the rest of his five-year deal. I will also mention that he seems like an awful human being. Righty Dellin Betances had his own ups and downs during the 2017 season, including a walk rate that ballooned to 16.9 percent. He was still able to Al Alburquerque his way to a 2.87 ERA thanks to a strikeout rate that approached 40 percent, but the Yankees might avoid using him in high leverage situations at first until he proves the command is right. This cautious approach is possible because New York has gobs of hard-throwing relievers at their disposal. This non-exhaustive list includes David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, former Tigers prospect Chad Green, Domingo German, and Pinstripe Alley favorite Jonathan Holder. Green, Robertson, Betances, and righty Adam Warren were all worth more than 1.0 rWAR last year despite not being the full-time closer (though Betances closed for a bit).
Down on the farm
After that rundown of such a talented roster, you would expect the minor leagues to be a little barren, correct? This isn’t the case with these Yankees. They boast one of the deepest and most talented farm systems in the majors, headlined by soon-to-be graduates Torres and Andujar. Outfielder Estevan Florial could also be a star in the making, but concerns about his hit tool and future position could limit his overall upside. There are also a number of impact arms to be found, including righthander Chance Adams and southpaw Justus Sheffield. Both are consensus top-100 prospects on the cusp of the major leagues that could slide into the Yankees’ rotation if needed. Former No. 4 overall pick Dillon Tate is also hanging around, but his solid ERA in 2017 was somewhat marred by a lack of strikeouts. Righthander Albert Abreu also landed on multiple top 100 lists, but is still a couple years away from the majors. They will drop in the rankings when several of these players graduate this season — midseason trades may also make a dent — but the cupboard is far from bare.
Player to watch: Luis Severino
For some reason, it was a surprise to people when Severino was tabbed to start the AL Wild Card Game last October. That the 24-year-old was pulled after recording just one out is beside the point: Severino was money all season long for the Yanks. The 23-year-old bounced back from a down 2016 season in a big way, holding opponents to a 2.98 ERA in 193 1⁄3 innings. This was no mirage, either; Severino struck out nearly 30 percent of hitters and managed a 3.08 FIP. If we want to go further, he generated a 13 percent whiff rate, which ranked 11th among qualified MLB starters, tied with some guy named Strasburg. Severino also got ahead, ranking eighth in MLB with a 65.1 percent first pitch strike rate. There may be some ups and downs ahead for Severino — he’s still only 24, after all — but it shouldn’t take much goading for you to keep an eye on a young pitcher with as much raw talent as Sevy.
Following a semi-teardown at the 2016 trade deadline, 2017 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Instead, the Yankees won 91 games and came within 27 outs of the World Series. They were arguably better than that, with a pythagorean expected record of 100-62 and a ridiculous .654 third-order win percentage. They trimmed some payroll fat during the offseason, and added a whole lot of muscle in Giancarlo Stanton. Add in a few more talented prospects like Torres, Adams, and Andujar, along with the current core of Judge, Sanchez, and Severino, and I have a hard time seeing how this team fails. Even if they falter in 2018 — and I don’t think they will — they are set up better than any other club in baseball for a long and prosperous future.
And then they will sign Bryce Harper next winter, just because they can.