On these pages last year, we declared that the New York Yankees had finally returned to their old Evil Empire ways. From basically buying Giancarlo Stanton that winter to a recent eight-figure spending spree on the international market, the Yankees were finally starting to flex the financial muscles they bared so often under late owner George Steinbrenner.
“To make things worse, they aren’t even spending yet,” we wrote. Last season’s failures — yes, a 100-win season can be a failure if your closest rival tosses you aside like a rag doll en route to their fourth championship in 15 years — would have warranted a big money signing or two under The Boss. The Yankees had an easy upgrade available this offseason in Manny Machado, who would have fit nicely in their infield this year and beyond. Patrick Corbin would have solidified their rotation, even after picking up James Paxton. You could even squint and find a spot for Bryce Harper in that crowded outfield. George sure should have.
Instead, the Yanks opted for more modest upgrades. Paxton and DJ LeMahieu are fine baseball players, and their additions have not gone unnoticed, to say the least. But with a generational talent available for what the Yankees might consider a tax write-off and a starting rotation already in flux, one wonders if New York truly did enough to prepare for the 2019 season. Their fans don’t quite think so — our friends at Pinstripe Alley gave their offseason a ‘C’ before the club ironed out a pair of team-friendly contract extensions — but projection systems say otherwise.
It’s weird, though, isn’t it? After years of free spending, to the point that this article was a fun read every January, we’re left wondering if the Yankees — the damn New York Yankees — actually did enough this offseason to close the gap between themselves and the reigning champions.
Team at a glance
2018 record: 100-62 | 2018 pythag: 99-63 | 2019 farm system rank: 20
Manager: Aaron Boone (2nd year)
First series vs. Tigers: April 1-3
Key additions: LHP James Paxton, 2B DJ LeMahieu, SS Troy Tulowitzki, RHP Adam Ottavino
Key subtractions: OF Andrew McCutchen, RHP David Robertson, IF Neil Walker, RHP Lance Lynn, RHP Sonny Gray
How scary is Luis Severino’s injury?
Pretty frightening, actually. Severino was scratched from a spring training start earlier this week due to rotator cuff inflammation, words no pitcher wants to hear. The Yankees will undoubtedly be cautious with their ace, and have already shut him down for two weeks, putting his Opening Day availability in serious doubt. Naturally, this has fans wondering who could be called in to replace Severino, and they are not taking it well.
And, well… I don’t blame them.
The internal options to stand in for Severino include German, Loaisiga, Luis Cessa and Chance Adams, though none have proven themselves as viable long-term big-league starters. German is probably the most dynamic of the group, allowing a meager .181 average against his curveball last year, and the spin rate on his four-seam fastball was in the 95th percentile, suggesting it has a lot of deception.
Both Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga piled up the strikeouts in short stints at the big league level last year, but they also finished with ERAs above 5.00. Cessa was just as hittable, except without the gaudy strikeout rate, and Adams had trouble with his command, walking nearly five batters per nine innings at Triple-A. None of these players are particularly bad to have as a sixth starter, especially when you consider Loaisiga is just 24 and pitched very well in the minors last year, but asking any of them to shoulder a number of innings is asking for trouble. Severino may be just fine, but odds are one (or more) of New York’s starters will go down at some point — remember, one of them is having heart problems — which could put the Yanks in even more of a bind. For a team with championship aspirations, this is a rather thin starting rotation.
What happened to Gary Sanchez in 2018?
Remember the annoying debates? No, not those debates — I’m talking about the ones between Tigers and Yankees fans in 2016, when Michael Fulmer was closing out his Rookie of the Year season with Gary Sanchez hot on his heels. Fulmer (rightly) took home the hardware, but many believed the young backstop to be the better bet going forward. Sanchez backed up those assertions with a strong sophomore campaign, hitting .278/.345/.531 with 33 home runs and 4.4 fWAR, best among all MLB catchers.
Sanchez’s numbers cratered last year, though. He hit an abysmal (for him) .186/.291/.406, and his home run total (18) was nearly halved from the year before. The excuses seem largely physical; Sanchez posted a .631 second-half OPS while dealing with a nagging groin injury, and was plagued all year by a left shoulder issue that was addressed surgically this offseason. We may not see the same Sanchez early in 2019 — as Tigers fans know, offseason surgeries can take much longer to heal than expected — but by year’s end, he will likely be viewed as one of the best catchers in baseball once again.
Down on the farm
New York’s farm system has taken a big hit in recent years, falling from the No. 2 spot on Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings to 20th in 2019. This is no fault of their own — if anything, they succeeded by graduating Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres to the majors. But if we’re nitpicking, the Yankees are now without much impact talent near the top of their farm system. They should be fine on the position side, but as mentioned before, their rotation depth could be an issue. Righthander Jonathan Loaisiga, a former rookie ball washout who nearly moved to the Italian League, is their top prospect and best hope at a passable replacement starter. He’s another undersized starter with a big fastball, which the Yankees seem to love, but he dealt with shoulder issues of his own last summer.
Behind Loaisiga, their depth is dwindling. We’ve heard Estevan Florial’s name for a few years now, and he showed a patient approach at High-A Tampa last year. The power was lacking, but a hand injury (and the league itself) did not help. He is still another year or two away from the majors, but is a bundle of raw talent capable of reaching stardom. Chance Adams still appears on their list because of his age (24), but he is probably destined for the bullpen at this point. Most of the other names at the top of the system are in short-season ball, with the few exceptions (Albert Abreu, Deivi Garcia) also likely serving as bullpen fodder in the end.
Player to watch: Miguel Andujar
No pressure, right? New York’s refusal to pursue Machado this offseason puts a fair amount of pressure on Andujar to produce, both this year and in the future. The 24-year-old Dominican was up to the challenge at the plate in 2018, hitting .297/.328/.527 with 27 home runs in full-time duty. He finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting to some guy named Ohtani, and proved that his gaudy minor league numbers were for real.
The other side of the ball was a much different story, however. Andujar committed 15 errors and was worth -25 Defensive Runs Saved, a total reminiscent of what Nicholas Castellanos produced (-30 DRS) in his rookie season. While there is prior evidence of other stone-handed infielders improving their numbers, most of them eventually moved away from the Hot Corner. While Andujar may eventually slide across the diamond or into the DH role, third base is his show in 2019. This may be a tough pill to swallow for Yankees fans who dreamt of seeing Machado age gracefully at the position, but the club doesn’t have another choice at this point. They whiffed on Machado and (supposedly) preferred target Nolan Arenado, and now have to hope Andujar can fill the position going forward.
Projected record: 97-65
For all of the handwringing about Machado, Corbin, and other potential free agents lost, the Yankees are still projected to be one of the best teams in baseball. FanGraphs has them at the very top of their projected standings, while Baseball Prospectus has them second to the Houston Astros. Both publications project a healthy margin between them and the Red Sox. Between a few modest upgrades, positive regression from Sanchez, and a full season from Gleyber Torres — not to mention all of the big names we haven’t even mentioned in this preview yet — the Yankees should easily clinch another playoff spot, and are well-equipped to make a deep October run.
But until they answer a few questions (namely, the rotation concerns) and find their way back to the postseason, many will still be left wondering if New York did enough to improve this winter. It’s a tough criticism for a team projected to finish 30 games over .500, but the Yankees’ historical dominance over the rest of baseball has invited this level of scrutiny. It’s not just enough to have a great regular season in New York. Until they can get back to the Fall Classic — something Machado, Corbin, or another high-priced free agent certainly could have helped achieve — we’ll be left wondering if the Evil Empire went a little too soft.