“My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.'”

-Forrest Gump

 

Things felt different when the Yankees geared up for their Wild Card showdown with Houston last October. For the first time, certainly in my lifetime but maybe-also-probably ever, it felt surprising that the Yankees were in the postseason at all. They were the fourth or fifth best team in the division on paper. They were too old, too injury-prone, too damn volatile. The bottom was supposed to have dropped out several times over. Instead, they defied both age and projection. Mark Teixeira led an age-35 renaissance, topping 30 homers and turning in his most productive season since 2012. Newcomer Didi Gregorius was a surprising 3-win upgrade at shortstop over the newly-retired Derek Jeter. They were able to mask an injury-littered starting rotation in which no one made 30 starts or pitched more than 170 innings with a devastating bullpen fronted by Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. Perhaps more astounding than all of that combined, a 39-year-old Alex Rodriguez returned to baseball after a year’s suspension and played as one of the 20 best hitters in the American League, transforming himself into a cult hero in the process. A box of chocolates indeed.

NYYRecordwRC+SP ERA-RP ERA-DRSUZRBsRPay – $M
2013.525 (14)86 (27)101 (15)90 (12)21 (10)13 (13)5 (9)243 (1)
2014.518 (13)93 (20)97 (12)95 (15)-3 (15)4 (13)4 (8)216 (2)
2015.537 (9)103 (6)104 (15)91 (13)-38 (27)-20 (22)3 (11)223 (2)

 

By the time Dallas Keuchel and the Astros rolled into the Bronx for the play-in game, the Yankees had the slight air of an underdog. Some people dared claim that the Yankees were actually…likable. Not likable enough to actually root for, mind you. The $200-million Yankees will never be David, but in 2015 they were at least slightly less Goliath. That should have been the first clue that things have gotten pretty strange in the Bronx.

***

The Yankees didn’t spend one dime on a major league free agent this offseason. There’s a lot interesting about the 2016 squad, but that has to be the headline. The Steinbrenner-led Yankees haven’t sat on the sideline for an entire offseason in the entire 40-year history of free agency, yet they looked at a pool brimming with superstars like Jason Heyward, David Price, Zack Greinke, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes and opted to not even get their feet wet. The front office defended their lack of spending under the guise of efficiency. It’s an easy argument to make, particularly for the Steinbrenner brothers who have been bitten by long-term contracts time and time again, from Teixeira and A-Rod to CC Sabathia and Jacoby Ellsbury. It’s an argument they’ve largely gotten away with making as well. After all, their payroll still sits well above $200 million and is the second-highest in all of baseball. What more do you people want?

Complicating the matter further is the current Yankee roster construction. It’s hard to find a spot on the team where an upgrade was both clearly needed and available. Even in those instances, you can be assured that the Yanks already had an expensive veteran blocking the way. Sure, Heyward or Price would have looked awfully handsome in pinstripes and may have even made the 2016 Yankees favorites in the American League. But is it really judicious to make Carlos Beltran a $15 million pinch hitter, or Sabathia a $25 million LOOGY? Not to mention the possibility of blocking one of the impact-prospects the team has waited so long to develop.

There are reasonable arguments against the idea of Yankee spending spree. The real question is whether ownership genuinely believes those arguments to be in the best interest of the team, or if they’re simply using them as a convenient excuse to pocket hundreds of millions of extra dollars. The devil is in the details. While the Yankees technically haven’t cut any payroll, they’ve kept it almost perfectly stagnant for a full decade despite massive increases in payrolls and revenues around the league.

https://twitter.com/_BenDiamond/status/696831741676363779

Despite running the second-largest payroll in the sport, the Yankees invest the same exact percentage of their revenue as do the Moneyball Oakland A’s. They invest a lower percentage than the teams in Kansas City, Minnesota, Milwaukee and San Diego. Hal Steinbrenner has frequently stated that he doesn’t feel the Yankees should have to spend more than $200 million to field a winner. While this may be technically true, it’s really just a tacit admission that he simply doesn’t want to spend any more. Spending $250 million isn’t a prerequisite to producing a winning team, but the reality is that the Yankees could spend $350 million and still turn one of the biggest profits in the league. Add to that Hal’s repeatedly-expressed desire to get under the luxury-tax threshold and you start to get the feeling that ownership’s new frugal stance is something less than genuine.

The roster crunch theory similarly falls flat when you consider that the Yankees’ brass let the rival Red Sox steal Cuban mega-prospect Yoan Moncada away last February. Moncada came with rave reviews and represented the kind of talent injection that would have meant worlds more for the Yankee farm system than for an already-stacked Boston one. Brian Cashman was later quoted saying, “I would doubt there’s any disagreement on the scouting assessment of the player. It just comes down to how much money you’re willing to commit. It was a significant offer. But it fell short of where he’s rumored to have signed.” According to reports, that offer fell short by approximately $7 million, or roughly an extra 1% of the Yankees’ overall revenue stream.

While the above issues are of reasonable concern to Yankee fans, you’ll forgive the rest of the baseball world if they’re not shedding any tears, particularly as the Yankees have spent the offseason reminding people of just how unlikable they can be. The team did, after all, make its’ familiar trip to the playoffs last year and, despite keeping their wallet sealed this winter, are a reasonable threat to do so again in 2016.

***

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, L

2. Brett Gardner, L

3. Carlos Beltran, S

4. Mark Teixeira, S

5. Alex Rodriguez, R

6. Brian McCann, L

7. Chase Headley, S

8. Didi Gregorius, L

9. Starlin Castro, R

—-

B- Austin Romine, R

B- Rob Refsnyder, R

B- Dustin Ackley, L

B- Aaron Hicks, S

 

Castro is the only addition to a starting lineup that scored the second most runs in the AL last year. He replaces Stephen Drew at second base, whose greatest contribution to the 2015 Yankees was far and away “Is Stephen Drew Over .200,” a Twitter account that chronicled his year-long duel with the Mendoza Line. It was a tale of two halves for Castro in the Windy City, as he posted an abysmal .247/.283/.321 batting line in the first half and started losing playing time to the Cubs’ seemingly infinite crop of young infielders. Castro responded by improving to .295/.319/.464 in almost 150 fewer second-half plate appearances, but with Addison Russell’s emergence the writing was on the wall. After signing Ben Zobrist in early December, Castro was shipped to the Bronx in exchange for swingman Adam Warren and infielder Brendan Ryan.

Despite Castro’s roller coaster tenure with the Cubs, his upside remains intriguing. At just 26 years old, and with several above-average seasons already under his belt, it would be hard for him to not be at least a modest improvement on the production the Yankees have gotten from second base since Robinson Cano’s departure, with the possibility of being something more.

The main issue the Yankee offense will face in 2016 is in coaxing the same kind of production from veterans like Teixeira and A-Rod. Both of them played beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in 2015 and the team was still only able to muster a wild card berth. Teixeira is now 36 and hasn’t played more than 123 games in a season since 2011, and as much as everyone wants to see A-Rod ride 2015’s wave into another excellent season, the odds are firmly stacked against him as he enters his forties. Compounding the issue is Greg Bird’s torn shoulder labrum, which robs the Yankees of their main insurance policy on the two aging sluggers and one of the saviors of 2015.

With the exception of Gregorius at shortstop, the rest of the starting lineup is largely filled with veterans in their early-to-mid 30s who are more likely to be adequate than exceptional. None of the main projection systems see any Yankee position player being worth more than 3 wins in 2016, and most fall somewhat short of that. A lineup of 2 to 2.5-win players can work just fine, but it’s easier to get behind that strategy if there are a few players to dream on. It’s hard to identify one of the 30-somethings in this lineup as someone who might go full Lorenzo Cain, double his projected value and drag the Yankees to a division title. It’s much easier to imagine two or three of them falling short and sinking the Yankees in the process.

If there is something to dream on though, it’s the kids. One of the earliest and possibly shrewdest moves of the offseason was the deal that netted the Yankees 26-year-old outfielder Aaron Hicks in exchange for catcher J.R. Murphy. Hicks struggled badly through his first two big league seasons, but seemed to turn a corner in Minnesota last year by cutting down on strikeouts and hitting the ball with more authority. Hicks was worth a win and a half for the Twins in just under 400 plate appearances. He’ll see the field plenty in New York, acting as a left-handed platoon piece, defensive replacement and inevitable injury fill-in for one of the most chronically banged-up outfields in the majors. Murphy was made expendable by the team largely because of the re-emergence of prospect Gary Sanchez, who ranked third on Baseball Prospectus’ Yankee prospect list this winter. Sanchez slashed .274/.330/.485 as a 22-year-old across two minor-league levels last year, and is currently competing with Austin Romine for the backup catching gig. Even if he should come up short, it’s more likely than not that we see Sanchez in the Bronx at some point this summer.

Someone who will officially not begin the year with the big club is Aaron Judge, who was optioned to minor league camp on Sunday, but whose impending big league promotion will be one of the most highly anticipated events of the 2016 season…an event already being dubbed Judgement Day. The 6’7”, 275-pound hulk ranked first by BP among Yankee prospects, and 18th in all of baseball. Barring injury, it seems safe to say he’ll at least get his cup of coffee in 2016, but with questions of age and production swirling around Carlos Beltran in right field, it’s conceivable that he could find himself playing the Greg Bird role on this year’s club.

***

1. Masahiro Tanaka, R

2. Luis Severino, R

3. CC Sabathia, L

4. Michael Pineda, R

5. Nathan Eovaldi, R

The Yankee rotation is the antithesis of the starting lineup – young, exciting, easy to dream on – and yet equally as volatile. With the exception of the 35-year-old Sabathia, the rotation doesn’t boast a starter over the age of 27, yet each of them comes with varying degrees of uncertainty.

For Sabathia and Luis Severino, that uncertainty comes in the form of age. Sabathia has seen a precipitous decline since signing a contract extension after the 2011 season, in which time his body began to break down, his fastball velocity dipped more than 4 mph, and his ERA ballooned to nearly 5. In a separate and much more serious matter, Sabathia left the team on the final day of the regular season last year to check himself into rehab for alcoholism. CC took to the Player’s Tribune this spring to detail his struggle and also confirm that he’s in a much healthier state of mind, excellent news first and foremost for himself and his family, but also for the Yankees and the rest of baseball.

On the other end of the spectrum is the 22-year-old Severino, who burst onto the scene last August and immediately lived up to his billing as one of the top prospects in the system. Severino was a revelation in his 62 innings, posting a 2.89 ERA and striking out 56 with just 22 walks. Yankee fans might be eager to anoint him an ace, but projection systems have done their best to temper expectations, pegging him for an ERA closer to 4 in 150 or so innings. It’s also important to remember how easily pitchers break, and at a slight 6’0″ and 195 pounds, Yankee fans getting too attached could be asking to get their hearts broken.

Explaining the volatility of Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi is not quite as clear-cut. They are both righties in their mid-20s with explosive stuff, and yet both have had trouble consistently translating that stuff into sustained success. Pineda, for instance, had an All-Star caliber first half in 2015, posting a 3.64 ERA and striking out 111 batters against 13 walks. In the second half his ERA exploded up to 5.80 and he missed nearly a month with a forearm strain. By contrast, Eovaldi got smacked around to the tune of a 4.50 ERA in the first half, striking out just 71 batters in 98 innings despite dialing up a 97 mph average fastball velocity. In the second half, Eovaldi began relying heavily on a new pitch, a splitter, which helped him drop his ERA to 3.68 and strike out nearly a batter per inning. Frustratingly, he missed nearly all of September with elbow inflammation. The ability to find consistency (and stay on the mound) will go a long way in determining whether Pineda and Eovaldi can take a step forward or if they’ll have Yankee fans continuing to hold their breath every fourth and fifth day in 2016.

The one man in the rotation whose performance isn’t an issue is the de facto ace, Masahiro Tanaka. His uncertainty, rather, resides in his right elbow; a partially torn UCL that has helped shorten each of his first two seasons in the U.S. and threatens to erase a year and a half of his career should it suddenly require Tommy John surgery. Tanaka has pitched brilliantly through his first 290 major league innings despite the injury, establishing one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in the majors and keeping an ERA under 3.20. If the team could manage a way to keep him on the mound for 200+ innings then he’d likely contend for a Cy Young. Instead, he’s a ticking time bomb and we’re all just waiting for the moment he blows up the Yankees’ season Wile E. Coyote-style.

***

CL- Aroldis Chapman, L

SU- Andrew Miller, L

SU- Dellin Betances, R

MR- Chasen Shreve, L

MR- Nick Rumbelow, R

MR- James Pazos, L

LR- Ivan Nova, R

If age and volatility are the Yankees’ Achilles’ heel, then this bullpen is whatever the opposite of that might be. Hercules’ bicep? This bullpen is the Hercules’ bicep of the 2016 Yankees.

Hercules' Bicep

The team’s bullpen was already stupid. Miller and Betances combined for nearly 5 wins above replacement last year. They got an extra 1.5 from Justin Wilson on top of that and one more from Chasen Shreve for good measure. They backed that up with a smorgasbord of arms, 22 additional in fact, that rotated onto and off of the 25-man roster like a game of musical chairs. It was one of the most productive pens in baseball and a major reason why the team was able to overcome an erratic rotation and secure a spot in the postseason. In those playoffs, the world watched as the Kansas City Royals won a second straight AL pennant and then their first World Series in 30 years, largely on the back of Wade Davis and a similarly dynamic bullpen. When the offseason kicked off, multiple teams made immediate attempts to recreate the kind of endgame success that teams like KC and New York had found. The Red Sox gave up a king’s ransom for Craig Kimbrel. The Astros dealt away top prospects for Ken Giles. The Dodgers, with Kenley Jansen already in tow, attempted pair him with the best reliever in the game before backing out due to domestic violence allegations.

There’s no getting around it. The circumstances in which the Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman are, at best, extremely unfortunate. A lot can be and has been written about the sleazy method in which the Yankees used Chapman’s domestic violence case not as an opportunity to bring to light or take a stand against such behavior, but as a vehicle to acquire him on the cheap. Chapman has since been handed a 30-game suspension by MLB, the first such punishment under the league’s new domestic violence policy. I acknowledge that any attempt to analyze or marvel at him as a baseball player will feel a bit shallow after this, but it’s hard to preview the 2016 Yankees without talking about their biggest 2016 acquisition.

The Yankees acquired Chapman from the Reds in late December for a quartet of middling prospects. There isn’t much to say about him as a pitcher that hasn’t been said hundreds of times before. His average fastball velocity is 99.5 mph, and it has reached as high as 105. He’s struck out 15.4 batters per nine innings for his career. He threw all of the fastest pitches in the game last year. All of them. As a baseball player, Aroldis Chapman is a video game character. Adding him to Miller and Betances likely gives the Yankees three of the top five relievers in the majors, and will make Joe Girardi’s job one hell of a pleasure.

That, of course, won’t be until Chapman’s suspension concludes in May. Until then, Girardi will only have two fire-breathing relievers to choose from, as well as Shreve and what will likely be a another rotating door of middle relievers and long-men. Note to Yankees opponents: score your runs early.

***

The Yankees’ uncharacteristic absence from the free agent market, whatever the reason may be, leaves them with a nearly-identical roster to last year. In some ways that is good. There is certainly a lot of talent on this club, and that was at least partially reflected in the 87-75 record that allowed them to host the AL Wild Card game a year ago. In other ways, it’s easy to see some regression coming. Clearly an 87-win team isn’t so good that it can afford that kind of margin for error. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees won 90 games and the East. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they lost 90 and finished in last. Like life, the 2016 Yankees are a box of chocolates.

Prediction: The offense takes a step back, the rotation a step forward and the bullpen remains elite. The Yankees go 85-77, finish second in the AL East and compete for a Wild Card spot for the second straight year.

 

Read more of Andrew’s work at Mattingly’s Sideburns. Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

Statistics and projections from Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Projected lineups from Roster Resource. Contract information from Cot’s Contracts.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs, and salaries via Spotrac.

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