It’s been four years since the Yankees last won a playoff game. The icons of a previous dynasty are long gone, and the fruits of a much-improved farm system are on the way. For the time being, this is a team in transition, trying to contend in the short term while preparing for the long term. Recent spending has been relatively restrained while the organization has emphasized player development the past three years.
Whether the Yankees are a playoff team in 2017 will depend on the performance of young hitters in the middle of the order and young pitchers at the back of the rotation. The team has integrated younger talent in recent years, but never have the Yankees been this reliant on unproven players.
By selling at last year’s trade deadline, general manager Brian Cashman built one of the top minor-league systems in baseball, but even he acknowledges that the Yankees are going to have to cross their fingers at many key spots this season.
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Masahiro Tanaka finished with a career-high 199.2 innings last season. He was third in the American League in ERA and received some down-ballot Cy Young votes. Tanaka eased health concerns to solidify himself as a legitimate No. 1 starter. But the rest of the Yankees’ rotation is far less reliable. CC Sabathia is coming off a bounce-back year, but he turns 37 in July and is still pitching with a bad knee. Michael Pineda is just 28 and apparently healthy, but his 4.82 ERA was one of the worst in the majors last season. Nathan Eovaldi was lost to Tommy John surgery, leaving Sabathia and Pineda as the de facto Nos. 2 and 3 starters. The rest of the rotation will be decided by an open competition among at least a half dozen candidates, including former top pitching prospect Luis Severino, who looked dominant in 2015 but didn’t win a single start in 2016. His future might be in the bullpen, but the Yankees are committed to giving him at least one more chance as a starter.
At last year’s trade deadline, the Yankees traded Aroldis Chapman for a boatload of prospects. Five months later, they brought him back on a five-year, $86 million contract. With Chapman back as closer, Dellin Betances will step back into the setup role that made him an All-Star each of his three big-league seasons. Former closer Tyler Clippard is also returning as a third late-inning option, making the Yankees’ bullpen a continued strength even without Andrew Miller. Manager Joe Girardi likes to keep his top relievers confined to relatively rigid roles, and he does that by leaning heavily on at least one versatile, multi-inning reliever. Several rotation candidates, particularly Severino and Warren, stand out as go-to options for that job. While the Yankees have been impressed by left-handed specialist Tommy Layne, the left side of the bullpen is a relative weakness. The team will once again count on a series of young relievers to shuttle back and forth to plug the bullpen gaps. September call-up Jonathan Holder was among the top relief pitchers in the minors last season and could get an early opportunity.
Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro were each buy-low trade acquisitions, and they tied for the team lead with 70 RBIs apiece last season. Gregorius isn’t in the same class with Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, but he has emerged as a good two-way shortstop. He’s a strong defender, and he’s made significant offensive improvements against left-handed pitching. Castro was erratic in his first year with the Yankees, but he reached a career-high with 21 home runs while getting used to the second base position. The Yankees’ minor-league system has considerable middle-infield depth, but most of that talent is at least a year or two away.
If not for a shoulder surgery, Greg Bird might have taken the reins at first base last season. The 24-year-old left-handed hitter made a strong first impression in 2015, but he missed all of last season. He and right-handed Tyler Austin seem to be the top candidates to replace retired switch hitter Mark Teixeira. Bird and Austin have 16 career home runs between them; the Yankees will need them to provide some pop in the middle of the order. At third base, the Yankees are still committed to Chase Headley for two years. There isn’t a ready replacement in the system, so the job is Headley’s for better or for worse. Last season he had a .756 OPS in the five months after a brutal April.
In each of the last two years, $153-million center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has been outperformed by the similar-but-far-cheaper Brett Gardner, who just won his first Gold Glove in left field. Ellsbury and Gardner are poised to once again hit back to back at the top of the order, though another bout of inconsistency could lead Girardi to reconsider. The bigger question is what to do in right field. Last August, hulking prospect Aaron Judge made quite the first impression with a long home run in his first big-league at-bat, but he wound up hitting just .179 with far too many strikeouts. Aaron Hicks also underwhelmed in his first year with the Yankees. Those two seem to be the right field frontrunners, with Austin and Rob Refsnyder in the mix. Highly touted prospect Clint Frazier could be ready to play a role by midseason.
After just two months in the majors, Gary Sanchez so thoroughly took hold of the catching job that the Yankees traded Brian McCann in the offseason. Sanchez hit 20 home runs in 53 games, one of the most dominant arrivals in franchise history. Sanchez will almost certainly hit either third or fourth. He just turned 24, and already the lineup revolves around him.
With an opening at DH and a need to improve against left-handed pitching, the Yankees signed veteran Matt Holliday to a one-year, $13-million deal. He’ll be the everyday DH and perhaps a backup option at first base. Even in a down year, Holliday’s .782 OPS would have been second best in the Yankees’ lineup last season. New York also made the somewhat surprising move of signing slugging first baseman Chris Carter to a one-year, $3.5 million deal right before spring training. Carter tied for the National League lead with 41 home runs with Milwaukee last season, but he also struck out a NL-high 206 times. Where exactly he fits in the first base/DH picture remains to be seen with Bird and Holliday the projected everyday starters. Catcher Austin Romine, infielder Ronald Torreyes and right field candidate Hicks seem poised to return to their bench roles from last season. Refsnyder and Austin could also bring some versatility and right-handed balance off the bench, while Mason Williams provides a speedy alternative to either Gardner or Ellsbury in the outfield. Frazier, Tyler Wade and Kyle Higashioka will be waiting for call-up opportunities.
For years, Girardi carried a reputation as a manager who leaned too heavily on veterans and stubbornly refused to play prospects. That reputation has somewhat faded in recent years, but this young roster still seems to be unlike any Girardi has managed since his debut with the Marlins in 2006. He will have to show patience in a win-now environment.
If Sanchez is the real deal, Severino returns to form, Judge and Bird provide some power, and the rotation has enough depth, the Yankees could be a playoff contender with a bright future. If not, the growing pains could be ugly and again leave the Yankees sitting home in October.