Alex Kielar| March 29th, 2020
The Yankees fell just short of getting back to the World Series in 2019, falling to the Houston Astros in six games in the American League Championship Series. During the regular season, they put up their second straight 100-win season, going 103-59 and rolling to their first American League East Championship since 2012. They ran right through the Minnesota Twins in the American League Division Series, sweeping them in three games, 10-4, 8-2, and 5-1.
The Yankees had one thing in mind after falling to the Houston Astros in the ALCS, signing their “White Whale” in ace pitcher Gerrit Cole. They did just that, signing him to a record nine-year $324 million contract and ensuring the Yankees have their ace. With the signing, the Yankees vaulted to being the World Series favorites. They, unfortunately, won’t see how Luis Severino will do as their second starter as he underwent Tommy John surgery in February, but they will still have a solid rotation. Anything short of hoisting the World Series trophy at the end of the season will be a failure, no matter when that season does get underway (which it hopefully will be sooner rather than later). Now let’s take a look at how the team will look.
Make sure to check out our other Team Previews here.
Sanchez didn’t quite have the complete bounce back year anyone was hoping or expecting in 2019, while he also missed part of the season with a groin injury. He still had a solid season and started the All-Star Game with a great first half (.245/.315/.556, 24 HR, 57 RBI). He played in 106 games and bashed 34 total bombs. He is still just 27 and could be entering his prime years. His catching abilities have also improved which is obviously a plus for the Yankees and their staff.
There weren’t many Yankees that didn’t suffer an injury at some point during the season, with 30 total trips to the injured list (IL). Voit was one of them, as he suffered an abdominal strain injury in July and went back later that month with a sports hernia that kept him out until late August. Even when he returned from injury, he was never the same hitter. Voit was limited to 118 games during the season, while in September and October he hit just .194. Voit should come back with a vengeance this year and with a healthy season should return to where he was in 2018 when he hit .333 with 14 homers and 33 RBIs in 39 games with the Yankees. He also hit very well in last year’s first half, with a .280 average, 17 HR, and 50 RBI.
LeMahieu was the steal of the 2019 offseason, the Yankees signing him to a two-year, $24 million contract prior to last season. He slashed .327/.375/.518 with 26 HR and 102 RBI and finished fourth in MVP voting. LeMahieu shouldn’t fall off too much this year, if at all and will continue to be one of the Yankees’ best hitters. His versatility with being able to play not just his natural position of second, but also third and first worked out very well for the Yankees last year with all their injuries. LeMahieu played 75 games at second, 52 at third, and 40 at first. He should play most games at second this year as long as the Yankees stay healthy, with Torres moving back to his natural position at shortstop after Didi Gregorious signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Urshela was a big surprise for the Yankees last year, as his bat finally broke out to go along with his already proven glove at third. He was traded to the Yankees in August of 2018 from the Toronto Blue Jays after being traded to Toronto in May of that year from the Cleveland Indians. He was called up April 6 after Miguel Andujar suffered a torn right labrum and was out for an unspecified amount of time.
Andujar wound up trying to come back from the injury on May 4, but after hitting 3-for-34 he elected to get right shoulder labrum repair surgery which ended his season. This opened the door for Urshela to start at third the rest of the season, which is now his job to lose after being a major improvement over Andujar with the glove. He slashed .314/.355/.534 with 21 HR and 47 RBI in 132 games.
Speaking of Torres, who is not only 23 (WOW!!!), he broke out in a major way last year and came into his own as a complete stud. After finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting behind his teammate Miguel Andujar in 2018, Torres hit .278 while mashing 38 taters and driving in 90 runs. The young shortstop, acquired in the Aroldis Chapman trade to the Chicago Cubs in 2016, should continue to get even better as he moves into his third season. Moving back to shortstop may take some time to get accustomed to once again, but it’s just like riding a bike.
The one good thing that comes out of this darn virus pushing back the start of the MLB season is the Yankees now have a chance to get healthy. Both Stanton and Judge would not have been able to begin the year on the original start date of March 26th. Now with the season not likely to start any earlier than late-May/June, they should both get healthy.
They also both suffered through injuries last season, with Stanton playing just 18 games and Judge playing 102. Stanton did get some at-bats in the postseason but picked up just three hits in 13 ABs (.231). Judge got several more at-bats with 34 in the postseason and picked up nine hits and one home run (.265). Depending on health, Judge should start most games in right field this season. With the way the schedule will be with possible doubleheaders weekly and expanded rosters, Clint Frazier might be someone who also gets a bench spot even with a healthy outfield.
Hicks will be close or even back after recovering from Tommy John surgery by the time the season does start, so he will play in center, with Gardner getting some time there and probably some left. Gardner was brought back for at least one more year, with a 2021 option, as he will probably retire a Yankee. If nothing else, he brings a very solid veteran locker room presence, as he is, now with the retirement of CC Sabathia, the last remaining member of the 2009 World Series Championship team. He also didn’t do terrible at the plate last season, hitting .250 and 28 home runs, and he has always been a great defensive outfielder. Stanton could start in left but will also get some games at DH, with Andujar a possibility also after getting reps there in spring training.
Andujar will wind up playing a lot of games at DH most likely to get his bat in the lineup and with his defensive woes in 2018. If he can show any type of ability to play the outfield or even first base, that improves the Yankees’ need of him as a versatile player. Tauchman had a great year last year as another guy who was traded for (from the Colorado Rockies) and surprised everybody. He should see playing time all over the outfield with a very strong arm. If his bat starts to fade at all, he will still be a solid defensive replacement late in the game. This an outfield with several different options, but the most likely starting outfield with everyone healthy is Judge in right field, Hicks in center field, and Stanton in left field.
Starting Rotation Projections
As I mentioned earlier, the Yankees got their ace. I really don’t have to talk too much about Cole because the proof is in the pudding. His numbers last year, his best season to date, were a 2.50 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 0.895 WHIP, 326 K (13.8 per nine), and just 48 walks. He got beat out by his teammate Justin Verlander for the American League Cy Young, but he was extremely dominant. He will have a great shot at getting his first Cy Young and World Series this year. If the Yankees get to the World Series and it goes seven games, they also won’t for some reason not use him at all in the game.
Tanaka had an up-and-down season, going 5-5 with a 3.86 ERA, 1.181 WHIP, and 7.7 K/9 in the first half and 6-4 with a 5.26 ERA, 1.325 WHIP, and 6.9 K/9 in the second half. His best month was May when he made six starts while striking out 35 (8.9 K/9) and giving just 11 runs up in 35.1 innings. He continued to be one of the best postseason pitchers, which coined him the nickname “Playoff Tanaka”, as he started three games (one in the ALDS, two in the ALCS). He went five innings in game two of the ALDS and game four of the ALCS while going six in game one. His only real hiccup was in that game as he surrendered three earned runs, but overall in the playoffs, he gave up just four and struck out 12. Tanaka enters the last year of his deal and will look to give it his all to earn a solid contract.
Another pitcher entering his contract year is Paxton who also should be close or ready to start with the team once the season does start. He had gotten surgery on his back to remove a cyst in early February and his timetable to return was set at three to four months. Four months from the time he got the surgery is June, and it is looking more and more likely that the season won’t begin until at least the beginning of June the way things have gone over the last few weeks. Depending on how he progresses and if he is able to get his arm stretched out in real game action, he could be ready by then. Paxton, like Tanaka, had an up-and-down season but his last few months were especially good as he won 10 of 11 (one ND) starts to end the year. Overall he was 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA, 1.281 WHIP, and 11.1 K/9. After being tossed around in trade talks this offseason, Happ is back which is good news after the Severino news.
Despite having the highest HR/9 rate at 1.90, Happ is a fly ball pitcher and was very susceptible to the juiced ball last year. He can still be fairly good for the Yankees with some adjustments especially as more of a back-end starter.
Montgomery should now slot into the fifth starter role if Paxton is there as Monty comes back from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2018. During his rookie and only full season, he broke out with a 3.88 ERA, 4.07 FIP, and 8.35 K/9 in 29 starts over 155.1 innings. He is still only 27 and showed increased velocity on his fastball during spring training. He can now play up more on his breaking stuff, with a sinker that sits around 91.7 MPH. He made six starts in 2018 before the elbow issues, with a 3.62 ERA and 4.22 FIP. Loaisiga is another rotation option and could see some opener duties, especially if there ends up being extra doubleheaders in the updated/abbreviated schedule.
The Yankees had one of the most dominant bullpens last season. They did lose Dellin Betances to free agency (signing with the New York Mets), but he was out all season before the appearance he got reinjured in. Chapman saved 37 out of 42 save opportunities while striking out 85 in 37 innings. Ottavino (28), Britton (29), and Kahnle (27) all held over 26 games, while the bullpen had 106 holds and 50 saves overall. The bullpen allowed 62 inherited runners (28%) to score out of 221, while Kahnle had the lowest inherited score percentage of the Yankees pitchers with at least 15 IR at 21% (7 of 34).
Players to Watch For
Mike Ford – Ford was another breakout player last season after getting called up in mid-April as he slugged .559 with 12 home runs in 50 games and 143 at-bats. He should see plenty of time at first to back up Voit this season.
Clint Frazier – Frazier struggled in the outfield last year, but his bat was fairly solid when he was up with the Yankees before being sent down to Scranton. At best he will be a fifth outfielder with full strength, but any injuries or day-offs could get him in the lineup. Whether he starts in Scranton or New York depends on roster size and need of outfield spots. His bat speed is top of the line and he slashed .267/.317/.489 with 12 home runs in 69 games and 225 at-bats.
Deivi Garcia – The Yankees’ number three prospect for 2020, Garcia dominated the Yankees’ High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton levels before getting the call-up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in July. Once he got to the highest minor league level, he struggled with a 5.40 ERA in 11 appearances. He also struggled in the spring, allowing six earned runs over 7 1/3 innings, which led to the Yankees demoting him back down to Trenton. He is likely to return to Scranton, however, once spring training resumes as rosters in the minors are frozen with Scranton full.
Clarke Schmidt – Schmidt is the Yankees’ number two prospect for 2020 and probably won’t start the season with the Yankees. But he could definitely start in Scranton after allowing five earned runs and striking out 19 over 19 innings there last season. Overall in the minors last year he made 19 appearances (18 starts) while striking out 102 over 90.2 innings.
Shorter season or not, the Yankees are hungry for their 28th World Series Championship in franchise history. They have their ace pitcher in Cole, they have a strong bullpen and powerful lineup. Health will be a big key, but they should almost run away with the AL East and win their second straight division title. The Tampa Bay Rays will be tough, so I do think it will be semi-close. The Yankees finally make it back to the World Series for the first time since 2009 (a long time in Yankee land) but ultimately fall to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. Gerrit Cole wins his first start in the Series but Walker Buehler outlasts him and shuts the Yankees bats down in game seven to bring a title back to Los Angeles.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images