The New York Yankees are going to surprise some people this year—it’s probably best we get this right out in the open.
Last season was a weird one for them. Labouring through the last of the Alex Rodriguez days along with other aging contracts like Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann, the Yankees did a very un-Yankee like thing at the trade deadline and shed dead weight in favour of seeing what their youthful rookie prospects could do.
Typically, in a situation like this, a team sells off some of their top talent, loses a ton of games down the stretch and gets a slightly better draft pick than they currently were allotted. Some even refer to it as the art of tanking.
Not the 2016 Yankees though. With their closer Aroldis Chapman and best player Carlos Beltran gone, the Yankees actually improved. Prospects like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez were called upon to fill space and mostly tryout for the next year’s Yankees. At season’s end though, they did much more than that. With Sanchez becoming a rookie of the year candidate, the Yankees improved from a .500 team to that of one that would project to win 89 games over the course of a full season.
Sure, with an 84-78 record at season’s end they slightly over-performed their Pythagorean record of 79-83. With solidified and somewhat youthful talent at all nine positions now though, the Yankees are a real threat to contend for a playoff spot this October. Don’t sell them short, this is a Yankees team like no other we’ve seen in recent past.
IF/OF Dustin Ackley,
RHP Nathan Eovaldi,
RHP Nick Goody,
C Brian McCann,
RHP Blake Parker,
LHP James Pazos,
1B Mark Teixeira
RHP Albert Abreu,
LHP Aroldis Chapman,
RHP Jorge Guzman,
DH/OF Matt Holliday,
SS Ruben Tejada
If there is one “weakness” or soft spot to the Yankees this season, it’s probably their starting rotation. Headlined by Masahiro Tanaka and complimented by Michael Pineda, C.C Sabathia, Luis Severino and Chad Green, the Yankees rotation isn’t the reason they’ll contend for a playoff spot this year. Gone is Eovaldi, who provided some upside for the Yankees last season, with Severino replacing him this spring. In 11 starts last year, Severino pitched better than his 5.83 ERA might suggest, but is going to need to improve his command significantly this season if his top prospect tag is going to come to fruition.
Behind him, Green is going to be entering his first full season after getting a taste with eight starts last season. With 25 per cent of fly balls clearing the fence last season against Green, it’s conceivable better numbers are on the horizon for the young right-hander. Given a hard contact rate of 38.5 per cent though, I wouldn’t exactly say that’s automatic though.
In the bullpen though, the Yankees are as strong as any organization across the major leagues. Names like Jonathan Niese, Chasen Streve and Jonathan Holder may not wow you as filler arms in their pen, but when you finish it with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, it rarely matters what the rest of the parts look like. Last year the Yankees finished fourth in fWAR for relievers without Chapman beyond the trade deadline or in the first month and change of the season (granted they did have Andrew Miller). Given an entire year, the sky is the limit with this bullpen. Safe to say if you’re down a few runs entering the latter third of the ball game, you can probably untie those shoes and start packing up your gear for the clubhouse—this game is over.
Catcher: Gary Sanchez
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the 2017 New York Yankees without mentioning Sanchez in the first few stanzas. Coming off a .299/.376/.657 rookie season, Sanchez has been given the reigns as the starting catcher and will have large expectations thrust upon him starting on opening day.
After hitting a whopping 20 long balls in just over 50 games, don’t expect the power output to drop significantly this season thanks to playing in Yankee Stadium. While Sanchez likely isn’t a .300 hitter, Steamer projects him to finish the season at .268/.329/.492 which is still well beyond the average for a major league catcher.
First Base: Greg Bird
After sitting out all of last season due to injury, Bird is ready to build on the Sanchez-like 2015 campaign he had, playing in 46 games and hitting .261/.343/.529. Bird had a strong debut as a rookie in 2015 and has had an even more impressive spring training thus far hitting .444/.528/1.639. Sure it’s just spring training—the land where numbers mean as much as quantum physics in a kindergarten classroom—but with a whole season separating Bird’s last performance, it’s all we have to work on.
Steamer projects him to smash 23 home runs .266/.345/.473 this season, which places him well above the league average at his position.
Designated Hitter: Matt Holiday
Matt Holliday hit 20 home runs in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform last season. Moving to Yankee Stadium this season, he should have no problem repeating.
Inking a $13 million contract, Holliday will be relied upon to be the mainstay at DH this season with veterans Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira part of the history books. If he can remain healthy throughout the season, Holliday could be a key player on a surging Yankees squad.
Second Base: Starlin Castro
Playing in his first full season in pinstripes in 2016, Castro had a bounce back year at the plate crushing 21 home runs while hitting a .270/.300/.433 line. His 94 wRC+ is more the bi-product of a man who has a hard time (to say the least) walking, as he walked in just 3.9 per cent of his plate appearances last season.
Castro will be a starter again this season and should have no problem keeping that role throughout the year if he can remain healthy. If he’s at all able to find that pitch selection from 2014 where he walked in 6.2 per cent of his plate appearances, look out AL East.
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Performing in his second season with the Yankees, Gregorius had another successful year setting a career high in home runs with 20 on the campaign—more than double his total from the year before.
At this point in his career, what you see with Gregorius is likely what you’re going to get and there’s nothing wrong with that. As an above average defender who puts the ball in play, doesn’t strike out a ton (or walk for that matter), Gregorius is just one more piece that keeps the Yankees at the top this season without overflowing.
Third base: Chase Headley
In Headley’s second full season in a Yankees uniform, he quietly regained some of the value he had during his hay days as a San Diego Padre. Hitting .251/.329/.383 with 12 home runs, it wasn’t all his offence that made him nearly a three win player by Fangraphs’ standards.
According to Fangraphs, Headley saved seven runs last year at third, which is 13 runs over his 2015 mark. Whether that is sustainable this season or not is up for debate but if he’s able to continue his defensive acuity, he should be able to remain on the field as an everyday player.
Left Field: Brett Gardner
Brett Gardner had a perfectly Brett Gardner season in 2016, hitting .261/.351/.362. His wRC+ did drop below the ever-scary 100 mark, mostly due to a decrease in power with nine fewer long-balls last year than in 2015.
Such is the life of a 33-year-old outfielder who relied on his small field and average power to hit 15 plus home runs the last two seasons prior to 2016. Last season also saw his stolen base mark drop below 20 bags for the first time since an injury riddled 2012, and the lowest mark while playing over 100 games of his career. For a guy that walks in a tenth of his at-bats, the value is certainly never going to evaporate completely, but you are starting to see the manifest changes in one declining Brett Gardner.
Centre: Jacoby Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury is one of the last remaining Yankees from the big spending era, and he regained some of that former top outfielder value last season hitting .263/.330/.374 while getting back on the field more last year after only playing 111 games in 2015.
His nine home runs are certainly nothing to write home about, giving him just a 91 wRC+, but his fielding skills did yield him a value of 2.0 fWAR last season which is a good sign for the 2017 Yankees outfield. Fangraphs Steamer projects him to hit .261/.324/.382 next season with a slight dip in his fielding value. All in all, not far off his 2016 self.
Right Field: Aaron Judge
Aaron Judge was one of the few rookies who got a taste of the bigs in 2016 and that taste was a little bitter to say the least. Hitting .179/.263/.345 in his 95 plate appearances in the Majors, things didn’t go exactly according to plan considering his 44.2 per cent strikeout rate.
Going into his second season, it’s fair to assume that Judge is going to continue to have some problems striking out still—that problem doesn’t just evaporate overnight—so get ready to see some whiffing again this season. That said, if Judge is worthy of the praise he’s had as a top prospect moving through the Yankees system, he’s going to make the adjustment and when he does, watch for some towering fly balls and yet another productive player in a Yankees uniform.
Fangraphs is a little bullish on the Yankees, predicting just an 81 win season with a pretty much even run differential and you wouldn’t be wrong if you sided with that prediction either. The starting pitching is a tad on the thin side, Gary Sanchez likely won’t do in 2017 what he did a year earlier and Aaron Judge will likely continue to swing at thin air.
But there is the possibility that this all works out. That Sanchez is above average, Tanaka’s elbow holds up, and everyone pulls their own weight. Who knows, they may even get an upgrade in the rotation at the deadline and Gleyber Torres tears his way onto the scene and is a contender for rookie of the year. I’m of the opinion that this team is a contending one for an American League wild card position in the neighbourhood of 87 wins.