New York Yankees 2019 season preview: It's World Series or bust for the Bronx Bombers
Early injuries threaten to throw a wrench into New York's title hopes
It's not often a 100-win season feels like a disappointment, but it does when you're the New York Yankees and you finished eight games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, and they stomped you in the ALDS en route to a World Series title. When spring training opened a few weeks ago, Yankees manager Aaron Boone admitted he watched Boston's postseason run.
"I don't know if it was to torture myself or what," Boone said to reporters, including the Associated Press. "You put this hat on and this uniform on, to get to wear a big league uniform, you shouldn't need much motivation, but to watch a team that you know so well that's certainly one of your rivals celebrate where you want to be, I think that adds a little fuel to the fire, certainly."
The Yankees responded to their ALDS defeat with a very active offseason. Certainly the most active among American League contenders. They signed five major league free agents and swung two notable trades, all while losing only one significant contributor (setup man David Robertson) off their 2018 roster.
Did the Yankees do enough to win their first AL East title since 2012 and their first World Series title since 2009? Let's preview the upcoming season in the Bronx.
- Aaron Hicks, CF
- Aaron Judge, RF
- Giancarlo Stanton, DH
- Luke Voit, 1B
- Gary Sanchez, C
- Miguel Andujar, 3B
- Gleyber Torres, 2B
- Troy Tulowitzki, SS
- Brett Gardner, LF
New York's lineup is fairly fluid. There will be days Hicks, the team's only notable left-handed hitter (he's a switch-hitter), bats third between Judge and Stanton to break up the strikeout prone righties. Also, LeMahieu is expected to play nearly everyday with Tulowitzki and Gardner getting regular days off. (When Gardner sits, Stanton would move to left field, Andujar would move to DH, and LeMahieu would play third.)
That is the planned rotation. It is not the rotation the Yankees will have on Opening Day, however. We're going to discuss the starting rotation in-depth in a little bit. Hang tight.
The Yankees have an outrageously deep bullpen. In terms of projected WAR, FanGraphs has it as roughly 40 percent better than any other bullpen. Betances, Chapman, and Ottavino all finished in the top nine in strikeout rate last year and Britton is one of the game's premier ground ball pitchers. Green would be the ace setup man on most other teams. With the Yankees, he's no better than their fifth best reliever. The Yankees are designed to smother their opponents with power arms in the late innings.
Injuries have already thinned out the rotation
. He was warming up for his scheduled Grapefruit League start when he felt some pain and had to be scratched. An MRI showed no structural damage, but Severino received a cortisone injection and anti-inflammatories, and will not pick up a baseball for at least two weeks.
Meanwhile, Sabathia is still working his way back from offseason knee and heart surgery. He isn't injured, really. He's just behind everyone else in spring training because his December angioplasty cut into his offseason work and put him behind schedule. Sabathia started his throwing program two weeks ago and is about three weeks behind the other starters.
The Yankees will be without Severino and Sabathia on Opening Day. They know that for certain. () So, at the moment, the team's rotation depth chart looks like this:
- RHP Luis Severino (will miss Opening Day with shoulder injury)
- LHP James Paxton
- RHP Masahiro Tanaka (likely to start Opening Day in Severino's place)
- LHP J.A. Happ
- LHP CC Sabathia (will miss Opening Day after offseason knee and heart surgery)
- RHP Luis Cessa
- RHP Domingo German
- RHP Jonathan Loaisiga
- RHP Michael King (will miss Opening Day with elbow injury)
- RHP Chance Adams
- RHP Drew Hutchison
"I could see (an opener) being considered from time to time. I don't consider it a lot, but I could see it coming into play," Boone said of employing the opener by using a reliever such as Chad Green to start a game. "There are so many things that go into that for us. A long stretch of games, you may want to give a guy an extra day. When we are healthy and right, I don't see it that much."
The Yankees expect Sabathia back in mid-April. Severino's return is a little more up in the air because shoulders are tricky --, so you can be sure they'll be cautious with him -- though they are optimistic he'll be back at some point in April. That said, the Yankees already knew they were going into the season short one starter, and now their best pitcher went down with a shoulder problem. That's not good.
The best case scenario has Cessa, German, and Loaisiga combining for only a handful of starts in April. And, because the Yankees will play 16 of their first 21 games against the rebuilding Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, and Royals, they might be able to weather the storm with the kids. Clearly though, the Yankees can not afford another rotation injury, nor they can they afford Severino's shoulder issue to linger. It is only early March and already their rotation depth has been compromised.
There's help coming midseason
At least in theory. Lefty Jordan Montgomery, who led all rookie pitchers in WAR in 2017, is on track to return from Tommy John surgery shortly after the All-Star break. That's an extra piece of rotation depth who could slot in as a starter if needed, or simply serve as depth and the occasional spot starter. The Yankees need Montgomery now, really, but that's not possible. Getting a guy like him back at midseason is the next best thing.
With all due respect to Montgomery, the Yankees are most looking forward to getting shortstop Didi Gregorius back this summer. He had Tommy John surgery following last season -- Gregorius said he felt his elbow give out on the throw on this play during the ALDS, specifically -- and so far everything is going well with his rehab. He should begin swinging a bat soon.
The Yankees have declined to give a firm timetable for Sir Didi's return but he is expected back sometime in July or August. Gregorius is the team's best pure left-handed bat -- their lineup is very right-handed heavy at the moment -- and he's essentially the captain of the infield. He's developed into a clutch hitter and a difference-making defender. The Yankees will miss him, for sure.
On one hand, getting players like Gregorius and Montgomery back at midseason would give the Yankees a real nice lift. On the other hand, it's difficult to project someone coming back from Tommy John surgery to have an immediate impact. There could be setbacks or complications, or it could simply take them some time to get back up to speed. It's a major procedure and things don't always go according to plan.
Should Gregorius and/or Montgomery return as scheduled at midseason and give the team a boost, the Yankees would be thrilled. And, if not, they'll be right back where they are now. Whatever Gregorius and Montgomery give them this year is a bonus. There's a chance they have a real impact though.
Does Tulowitzki have anything left in the tank?
The early spring training indications are ... maybe? The Yankees signed Tulowitzki to a league-minimum one-year contract after the Blue Jays released him and ate $38 million in salary, and already Tulowitzki has two homers this spring, including this one against his former team:
Tulowitzki has also made several nice plays at shortstop, which has Boone more excited than the home runs. From Erik Boland of Newsday:
"More than that [the homers], the way he's moving in the field," Aaron Boone said. "It's great to get some early results and get some homers out of the gate. But I'm probably more excited about how he's moving in the field and how he's attacking the ball and playing free and easy. He looks really athletic out there. I think that's the thing I'm even more excited about."
Tulowitzki has not appeared in a big league game since July 2017 following an ankle injury (2017) and dual heel surgeries (2018). Also, he is 34 now, which is the point where you'd expect age-related decline to show, even with perfect health. At the league-minimum, Tulowitzki is a worthwhile roll of the dice. The Yankees have him penciled in as their starting shortstop while Gregorius is sidelined though, which seems a tad aggressive, but that's the plan.
Boone has indicated the Yankees will take it easy on Tulowitzki early in the season in an effort to keep him healthy. He's yet to play back-to-back days this spring and the team plans to give him regular off-days in April, with Torres sliding over to shortstop and LeMahieu manning second base in the interim. The Yankees have offense to spare, so they don't need Tulowitzki to do much at the plate. Solid defense is the greater priority. Can Tulowitzki still provide that? The early indications this spring say yes, but we'll see what happens once the games and wear-and-tear pile up.
Sanchez and Voit are x-factors
In 2017, Sanchez was in the conversation for the best catcher in baseball. He followed that up with miserable 2018 season that saw him hit .186/.291/.406 and miss two months with two separate groin injuries, and require offseason shoulder surgery. Despite his passed ball issues, Sanchez rates well as a pitch-framer and thrower, and the Yankees rave about his game-calling. That said, he does his best work at the plate, and last season was a massive disappointment.
On the other side of the coin, trade deadline pickup Luke Voit was a huge surprise, hitting .333/.405/.689 with 14 home runs in 39 games after coming over from the Cardinals. Voit wrestled the first base job away from Greg Bird -- the Yankees say Voit and Bird are competing for the job this spring, but I don't buy that -- and his underlying numbers are excellent (min. 100 batted balls):
- Average exit velocity: 93.0 mph (10th in MLB)
- Expected batting average: .296 (14th in MLB)
- Expected slugging percentage: .670 (1st in MLB)
- Expected weighted on-base average: .437 (1st in MLB)
In those 39 games in pinstripes Voit was an elite level hitter, and he wasn't doing it with seeing-eye ground balls and bloop singles. He was driving the ball with authority. Most 27-year-old rookies are fool's gold. Sometimes they turn into Jesus Aguilar or Nelson Cruz though. The Yankees have an excellent track record when it comes to plucking future impact players from other teams (Gregorius, Hicks, and Green are great examples) and Voit could be the latest.
Sanchez's established ceiling is very high. He hit .284/.354/.568 with 53 homers in 175 games spanning 2016-17. We've seen what he can do when he's right. Voit's ultimate ceiling is a little more uncertain. I would be surprised if he proves to be a true talent .333/.405/.689 hitter. Eventually pitchers will find a weakness and he'll have to adjust. Can he be a .270/.350/.480 guy though? That'd be a heck of a lot better than what Bird has given them the last two years (.196/.287/.399).
Losing Gregorius stings, for sure, but when you're building your lineup around Judge and Stanton, and have strong complementary players like Hicks, Torres, and Andujar, you're going to score a lot of runs. Sanchez returning to form and Voit proving he's for real would take this offense from well-above-average to absolutely devastating.
About that home run record
Last year the Yankees hit a record 267 home runs and they became the first team in history to have 12 players hit double-digit homers. To me, the most insane home run record is the Yankees becoming the first team in history to get at least 20 homers from all nine lineup spots. That is insane. Here are their home run totals by lineup spot:
The Yankees set all those home run records despite Sanchez having a disappointing year, Judge missing seven weeks with a wrist injury, Torres spending most of April in Triple-A, and Stanton having a down year relative to his career averages. Prior to 2018, five teams in history hit 250 home runs in a season. All five had at least one 40-homer hitter and multiple 30-homer hitters. The Yankees had neither. Stanton led the team with 38 homers. Judge, Hicks, Gregorius, and Andujar tied for second with 27 apiece. As the homer totals by lineup spot show, this was a deep attack. It's not two or three guys doing damage.
Even with Gregorius slated to miss half the season, if not more, the Yankees are poised to challenge their own home run record this season. They aren't being shy about it either.:
"Oh definitely. You get this whole team healthy, we're going to crush the record that we set last year," Judge said after Sunday's game. "We've got a good team, a lot of guys that could make a lot of solid contact, and a lot of big boys that when they make contact, man, it goes. We're a team that's primed and ready to do that."
The Yankees hit home runs. It's what they do. No, they are not focusing on the home run record over winning. It's just that one leads to the other. Hitting a home run is the single best thing a hitter can do in any given at-bat and the Yankees do it better than anyone. Even with Gregorius hurt, and even if Voit proves to be a fluke, the Yankees should again be the most powerful team in baseball this season. They're able to change the complexion of any game at any time with one swing of the bat.
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