Bryant Snyder and Kyle McCarthy collaborated on this preview.

 

The Yankees are spoiled. They’re brats. The team made the postseason every year from 1995-2007 (and had the best record in 1994 until the strike hit), and when they missed the tournament in 2008, they responded by winning it all in 2009. Spoiled. Brats.

The team, however, is run differently these days. With next-generation Steinbrenners at the helm, the Yankees aren’t the brash, quick-spending, Dave-Dombrowski-trading team we’ve seen in the past. Things are run with a bit more pragmatism these days. They have played in just one postseason game since 2013, and haven’t cracked 88 wins in any of those campaigns. Heck, The NEW YORK YANKEES haven’t even had the game’s highest payroll in the past three seasons. Blasphemy!

This all means the team is absolute garbage and games should not be tuned in to during this season, right? Well, Brian Cashman and co. have done a fairly solid job of keeping a team trying to shed payroll competitive, and they look to do more of the same behind some exciting, young faces and some creaky, hopefully-capable ones. The Yankees offense looks to be buoyed by some of the former and is cause for some optimism. That being said, let us take a look at that run prevention crew, shall we?

The Yankees love having a good bullpen. Always have. Manager Joe Girardi, entering his tenth(!) season as the team’s skipper, manages the bullpen well and they had Mariano Rivera for a long time, so things were easy somewhat recently. The farm system, however, seems adept at producing capable relievers (David Robertson, Mark Melancon, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard) and a few good signings/trades have been made (Aroldis Chapman, Rafael Soriano).

Chapman, he of the richest reliever contract in the history of the MLB, and Betances look to hold down the back end again this year and are formidable as any duo out there. Stats could be cited about ridiculous fastballs and strikeout numbers, but everyone knows how fearsome those men are on the mound. Although, Randy Levine seems to never have watched Betances pitch, so everyone but him.

Tyler Clippard is an aging but capable setup man, and Adam Warren, if he misses out on the rotation (more on that later, ugh) is a nice middle-inning fireman. Ben Heller, Tommy Layne, Joe Mantiply, Chasen Shreve and Jonathan Holder should compete for the remaining spots. One of Layne, Mantiply and homer-loving Shreve should grab a spot as a lefty (teach your kids to throw left-handed, folks) even though Heller and Holder are more interesting. Holder just had an outright dominant season in the minors, striking out 42% of batters and getting pop-ups on another 15%. That’s 57% of automatic outs! Ben Heller has a mid-90s fastball and nice slider, which is good enough to be a solid reliever. Ernesto Frieri is also apparently back in baseball, and in camp as an NRI looking for a spot and throwing gas again.

Pitching staff is looking good, huh? Well, the rotation makes us sad. Masahiro Tanaka? Very wonderful, partially torn UCL aside. He just put up a 5 WAR season in 31 starts (a career high) with a 3.07 ERA, and is about as steady as they get. Give him the ball opening day, hope he doesn’t get hurt, and you have a Cy Young contender. A top ten pitcher is a good start to a rotation.

CC Sabathia? Makes us a little sad, actually. Mostly because he used to be so good. But, as the adage goes, father time is undefeated, and the big lefty is nearly 37 and has one decent season among his last four. Thankfully, that season was last season, as he put up a 3.91 ERA in 30 starts. Usually, a decent season for an old pitcher with a few bad seasons preceding it is prime regression-fodder, but there are reasons to believe in Sabathia. His new knee brace allowed him to stay healthier, his cutter finally stopped righties from hitting him as though they were all Manny Machado. Also, and big props to the big man, he got help for his alcoholism in 2015, and that can’t hurt your mental outlook moving forward.

Michael Pineda? Big Mike = Big Sadness. A FIP hero, thanks to his nasty stuff, great strikeout numbers and solid walk rates, Pineda never seems to put it together. The former top prospect is now a wily veteran just a year away from free agency, and still looking to figure it out. He was a top ten performer in strikeout rate and fifth in K/9, at 27.4% and 10.61, respectively. His fastball is fast and his slider is filthy, but his changeup is non-existent and his command isn’t elite. Look for more of the same for Little Mike in 2017, and then look for him in another uniform in 2018. Sigh.

You thought Michael Pineda was sad? How do Luis Severino, Chad Green and Bryan Mitchell make you feel? Bad, I bet. Or you hate the Yankees. Luis Severino, the top prospect flashing mid-90s heat and a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts in 2015 looked poised to make a run at the top of the rotation last season. Severino instead decided to put up a rousing 8.50 ERA as a starter last year. That is nothing short of astonishing, in the worst way possible. He was dominant out of the bullpen, but nearly everyone would be disappointed with Severino the reliever at this point, no matter how good he can be there. His fastball command is lacking, but his slider is sharp and his changeup was once very, very good. Look for him to be the fourth starter, because the Yankees need him to be, and that’s really it.

Chad Green and Bryan Mitchell look to be the fifth starter, unless the team selects Adam Warren, who has had success in the rotation for a spell. It seems, however, that the Yankees prefer Warren in the bullpen, and so it goes. Mitchell, 25, looked ready to snag a rotation spot last year before injuring his toe and missing six months somehow. He came back to handle rotation duty fairly well for being rusty, and he has impressive raw stuff, including the best curveball in the organization. If he doesn’t make it, the team takes him north as a reliever.

Chad Green, on the other hand, is fifth starter or in AAA, and one has to imagine he would prefer to be at Tropicana Field come April 2. Green came over in the Justin Wilson trade, along with Luis Cessa (who was optioned earlier this spring) and added fastball velocity and became a legit starting option. He’s 25, but he had a 26.3% strikeout rate last season, which is Pineda-esque. In a good way, we promise. Strikeout rates are usually a decent indicator of run-prevention ability, and once upon a time in 2016, Green threw six shutout innings while striking out 11 Blue Jays, which is incredible. A game score of 79 against that lineup? Yeesh. That was actually the best Yankees start of 2016, according to ESPN’s game score.

While the rotation is very unsexy, rife with question marks and due for unimaginable sadness in 2017, there is also some real upside there. Expect the rotation to be better than expected this coming season, but also worse than expected. Don’t forget, kids like Jordan Montgomery, Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield and James Kaprielian will be debuting as early as this season, or maybe next. There’s help on the horizon. But also, Tanaka, Pineda and CC can all leave after the season. Have fun! Enjoy Arby’s?

Run prevention is all well and good, but this is 2017, people. They didn’t juice those baseballs last year because people hate home runs, OK? (You really think Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro are capable of 20 dingers normally? No, you don’t). It’s all about runs, baby. As Matt Vasgersian says, “Can’t win if you can’t score,” so let’s see what that offense can do this year.

The Yankees, the Bronx Bombers, if you will, really failed to produce offensively last season. They finished lower than 18th in every major statistical category, which isn’t much of a shock when you consider that the eventual team leader in HRs and AVG was Carlos Beltran, a player who was dealt to the Texas Rangers prior to the 2016 trade deadline. In an effort to remedy the lack of offense the team has been suffering from the last few seasons, the Yankees will be looking towards some younger players.

It’s been close to 20 years since the Yankees last had a core of young talent at the big league level, think back to the ‘Core Four’ of Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera (but don’t forget Bernie Williams). Prior to the 2016 trade deadline, the Yankees farm system was ranked a middling 13th in baseball. After dealing Beltran (to the Rangers), Andrew Miller (Indians), and Chapman (Cubs) for a haul of prospects, the Yankees system is now ranked 2nd according to Keith Law. Going into the 2017 season, the Yankees have a plethora of promising young players, a few of which we’re going to get to see at the big league level this season.

If we’re going to talk about the infusion of youth, let’s start with Greg Bird. Bird initially got his first taste of big league ball when he was called up back in August of 2015. In 178 PAs he produced to the tune of .261/.343/.529 with an OPS+ of 135. Bird was poised to be a legitimate backup to veteran Mark Teixeira until he tore his labrum, effectively ending his 2016 season before it had begun.

Teixeira retired after the 2016 season and with a full year to recover, Bird came into spring training looking to claim the starting first base job. His competition was fellow prospect Tyler Austin and the newly acquired Chris Carter, the 2016 NL home run king (41). With Austin suffering a fractured foot this spring, Bird will be at first base on Opening Day. Carter will likely be Bird’s backup and it also stands to reason that he could see some platoon work, giving Bird a rest on days where the team is facing a lefty. It’s a nice luxury to have a guy with that kind of power coming off the bench, especially when that power is only costing the team $3.5M for one year.

As for the other 75% of the infield, it’s looking like more of the same from last year. Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, and Starlin Castro have the third base, shortstop, and second base jobs respectively locked up. Unfortunately, Gregorius will be sidelined until at least May with a shoulder injury. Didi had a solid 2016, producing a line of .276/.304/.447 with 20 HRs and 70 RBI.

It’s not clear how the Yankees will cover this loss immediately, but they won’t be rushing their No. 1 prospect, SS Gleyber Torres, who will be starting the year in AA Trenton. With no experience at that level entering 2017, it’s unlikely Torres cracks the bigs this season. Castro is a former SS and could see time there leaving Ronald Torreyes or “fan favorite” Rob Refsnyder to play 2B in the interim. Torreyes has experience at SS as well as third base. While these scenarios could work, none of them will really be adequate in terms of replacing an above-average shortstop. Thankfully, Sir Didi shouldn’t be out too long.

The Yankees saw a number of departures between 2016 and now. Alex Rodriguez was released mid-season and subsequently retired. Brian McCann was traded to Houston in the offseason. This left a bit of a hole at the DH spot, a hole that was filled with the acquisition of veteran Matt Holliday. Holliday signed a 1-yr/$13M contract this offseason after spending the last 7½ seasons with the Cardinals. The 37-year old is obviously near the end of his career and he’s coming off of his worst season as a big leaguer. Coming into a healthy 2017, it’s not unreasonable to think that the career .303 hitter can contribute some steady offense to the lineup. It’s a safe bet that he’ll be the primary DH and it’s unlikely he’ll see any real OF time. We hope.

The Yankees outfield is bound to feature some youth as well. The everyday outfield is looking like it will be veterans Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and some combination of Aarons in right: Hicks and Judge. So far both have had decent showings in Spring Training but one would believe the edge has to go to Judge, having been one of the Yankees’ top prospects since he was drafted in the first round in 2013. The big man, listed at 6’7″, has great tools, including top-end power, but has some strikeout questions to answer if he can be productive.

Hicks was acquired last year from Minnesota and served mostly as a fourth outfielder. A former top prospect himself, Hicks is an above-average defender but has failed to produce offensively at the big league level. With him only hitting .217 last season, it’s very reasonable to assume that Hicks will assume the same backup role as last season. While he has these three guys in front of him, he has some pressure behind him as well. Clint Frazier is an exciting young prospect that was acquired in the Andrew Miller deal, and he will be starting 2017 in AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but it’s reasonable to think he could make his debut at some point this season. His bat speed has the potential to produce above-average power. As long as he produces down in AAA, it’s likely he’ll get a shot as Ellsbury has been a frequent victim of the injury bug.

In rounding out the Yankees offense, it makes sense to talk about the proverbial elephant in the room. Gary Sanchez was called up last season and immediately amazed. Only appearing in 53 games, the Yankee catcher made a strong push for Rookie of the Year but finished second to Detroit’s Michael Fulmer. Sanchez put up an impressive line of .299/.376/.657 with an OPS+ of 168, a number reminiscent of Barry Bonds at his peak. While it’s crazy to believe that he’ll sustain 2016’s torrid pace, Sanchez will be the anchor of the Yankees offense this season. It will also be interesting to see how Girardi will use his young catcher. He pretty much had the starting catcher job locked up by last September and he’ll see most of his time there. However, with not much in the way of offense from other sources it’s likely Sanchez could see some DH time on days where Romine is catching. Sanchez will obviously need a break behind the plate every few days but the Yankees can’t afford to have his bat out of the lineup as often.

 

Breakout Pitcher

Jonathan Holder has some nasty stuff, and legitimate ability out there. Even though he’s banished to the pen, look for him to carve out a real role out there.

Breakout Hitter

Greg Bird wasn’t even healthy in 2015, when he was 35% better than average over a decent handful of PAs. He’s also been the best hitter this spring (out of anyone), and while looking at Grapefruit League statistics is about as useful as trying to put a pin back in a grenade, it’s good to see he’s shaking the rust off after surgery.

Final Prediction

83-79 – The bullpen will be great, the offense will show promise but have growing pains, and the rotation will be better and worse than expected. The Yankees will hover around WC contention, but just not have enough to get there. The future of the team is bright though, and the Evil Empire is rising.

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