The New York Yankees have perfected the art of having a very good but also a very disappointing season the last few years. They won the AL East in 2019 but were sent home on Jose Altuve's walk-off home run in the ALCS. Last year their season ended on Mike Brosseau's revenge homer against Aroldis Chapman in the ALDS. New York remains in search of its first title since 2009.
"Talk is always cheap, obviously, at this point, but I really like the winter we had, and the additions we made, I think, are gonna be impactful," manager Aaron Boone said at the start of spring training (video link). "The makeup of this team is championship caliber. That's what we're here to try and accomplish. Hopefully this is the year we get to the top of that mountain."
Despite postseason exits that have been increasingly heartbreaking the last few years, the Yankees had a fairly subdued offseason. They chopped approximately $50 million off payroll and will get under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold, and their biggest signing was bringing back DJ LeMahieu. They spread the money around on the pitching staff and will return with a team that looks largely the same in 2021. That's not a bad thing either, seeing how good the Yankees have been the last few years.
Let's preview the upcoming season for the Bronx Bombers.
Win total projection, odds
- 2021 SportsLine projection: 92-70
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): +550
- 2020 Record: 33-27 (second in AL East, lost ALDS)
- 2B DJ LeMahieu
- RF Aaron Judge
- CF Aaron Hicks
- DH Giancarlo Stanton
- 1B Luke Voit
- SS Gleyber Torres
- 3B Gio Urshela
- LF Clint Frazier
- C Gary Sanchez
The Yankees have offense to spare. They led the American League in runs per game (5.25) and OPS+ (117) last season, and that was with Torres and Sanchez having subpar seasons, and Judge and Stanton missing time with injury. There is every reason to believe New York will be among the highest-scoring teams in baseball in 2021. Gardner is an overqualified fourth outfielder -- he is likely to see platoon action against righties, presumably sharing time with Frazier -- and other candidates for the bench include Derek Dietrich and 2018 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar. Bruce's spot is hardly certain.
The Yankees have a slam dunk, no doubt about it ace in Cole, and then a bunch of question marks. Kluber (shoulder) and Taillon (second career Tommy John surgery) combined to throw one inning last year. Both looked very good in their spring training debuts last week, though there's a very long way to go between now and Opening Day, nevermind the postseason. German served a domestic violence suspension last year and hasn't pitched in an MLB game since Sept. 2019. He's competing with top prospect Deivi Garcia for the No. 5 rotation spot this spring. Luis Severino is potentially the ace in the hole. He is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is expected back at midseason.
Here are three things to know about the Yankees heading into the 2021 season.
1. Are they going to stay healthy?
This has been the No. 1 question with the Yankees the last few years and this year is no different. They endured a historic number of injuries in 2019 -- they put a record 30 different players on the injured list that season -- and a not-so-historic but still inordinate number of injuries last year. The Yankees overhauled their training staff last offseason and they're quick to point out this offseason was the first full offseason under new training staff head Eric Cressey, a titan in the sports performance industry.
"This is our first offseason with our new strength and conditioning staff that was put into place later in the offseason last year," Boone said in December (video link). "We've got a year of relationships and programs built, so I think we have a lot more of a specific plan for guys across the board, about what they're doing to get ready for this upcoming season."
The Yankees did not shy away from injury risk this offseason. Kluber and Taillon were their two big pitching additions and both are returning from major injuries. Judge and Stanton have combined to play 441 of 768 possible regular season games in their three years as teammates, or 57 percent. Only 129 times in 384 team games the last three years were Judge and Stanton in the starting lineup together. Almost exactly one out of every three games. That's not nearly enough.
In an effort to stay on the field, Judge and Stanton changed their offseason workout routines, specifically shooting more for flexibility than muscle. Judge has taken up yoga and Stanton has looked for ways to stay warm and limber between at-bats as the DH. Will it work? Beats me. Some of their injuries have been fluky the last few years -- Judge had hit wrist broken by an errant fastball in 2018 and he broke a rib diving for a ball in 2019 -- but there have also been a lot of muscle pulls, particularly lower body.
The Yankees have such a poor track record with injury prevention that it's fair to question their offseason approach. Was it smart to bring in two pitchers coming off major injuries, or should they have focused on players who are better bets to stay on the field? Did they do enough to protect against Judge and Stanton potentially missing more time? Even with the injuries, the Yankees have been pretty darn good the last few years. That doesn't mean they want to navigate around a barrage of them again in 2021.
"Hopeful is certainly an appropriate word," GM Brian Cashman told reporters, including MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, when asked in January about keeping players on the field. "We made the commitment because we believe, despite the risk, it was a position worth taking. Now we're going to test drive that, for better or for worse. By placing a bet, we're going to count on the better than the worse, but I can't dismiss there is risk. I believe and hope they'll have a positive impact."
2. Can Torres and Sanchez rebound?
In 2019, Torres and Sanchez were All-Stars who combined to hit 72 home runs at crucial up-the-middle positions. In 2020, Torres hit three home runs and slugged .368, and Sanchez was simply one of the worst hitters in the sport. That the Yankees still scored the most runs per game in the American League despite those two contributing little (and Judge and Stanton missing time to injury) is a testament to the team's offensive depth.
Gleyber's struggles were rooted primarily in passivity. He took too many fastballs in the strike zone, pitches he crushed in 2018 and 2019, and that seems correctable. Torres has made tremendous gains with his plate discipline in his three big league seasons -- he's cut his strikeout rate from 25.2 percent to 21.4 percent to 17.5 percent the last three years -- though perhaps the pendulum has swung too far toward discipline, and he needs to be a little more aggressive.
Sanchez posted the highest strikeout rate (36.0 percent) and lowest chase rate (29.8 percent) of his MLB career last year. His problem was not expanding the zone. It was missing pitches in the zone, particularly fastballs. From 2017-19, Sanchez missed with 17.5 percent of his swings against fastballs in the strike zone. Last year it was 26.4 percent. The MLB average is 17.5 percent. Sanchez went to the team's spring training complex after the season to work on his timing, and also played winter ball for the first time in years.
"Usually when you lose control in the box, it's because you're out of balance in your lower half," Sanchez told Hoch last week. "I've used that leg kick for quite some time. Usually that's where you find trouble because sometimes if you use it too much and you're too ahead, you're going to find yourself out of time. If you stay too far back, you also find yourself out of time. For me, it's finding that balance that works for me."
Torres and Sanchez are off to strong starts this spring, which is nice, but it is only spring training. I'm pretty confident Torres will rebound in 2021. Maybe he won't hit 38 home runs again like he did in 2019, but I expect him to be a comfortably above-average hitter. I wouldn't worry about a just turned 24-year-old this talented having a down year in a bizarre 60-game season, especially not when he mashed in the postseason (.435/.567/.696 in seven games).
Sanchez having a rebound season is less certain only because even when he is at his best, he's a flawed hitter prone to prolonged slumps. He is the best power-hitting catcher in the game -- Sanchez has hit 115 home runs since 2016, the most among all catchers despite not being called up for good until Aug. 2016 -- and his exit velocity remains elite, even last year, but he won't hit for a high batting average and will strike out a bunch. The Yankees have the lineup depth to hide him in the No. 9 spot. To be at their best though, they need Sanchez to perform like 2019 rather than 2020.
3. The pressure is on
Now that the Dodgers have a World Series title, . I don't think it's close either. Since their current core emerged in 2017, the Yankees have lost in the ALDS twice and in the ALCS twice, and so far this group has topped out with a Game 7 loss in the 2017 ALCS. On paper, they're as good as any team in the American League, but it's time to get over the hump and into the World Series.
Boone,, is entering the final year of his contract. His two predecessors (Joe Torre and Joe Girardi) won championships early in their tenure, buying them some rope. Boone doesn't have the same luxury, and while Cashman and ownership are said to love him as a manager, it's hard to say his job is safe. It's easier to replace the manager than it is to replace the roster, and if the Yankees fall short again, Boone's future will become a hot topic.
Judge and Sanchez (and Green) are two years away from free agency, and who knows how many peak years big-money veterans like Britton, Cole, Chapman, LeMahieu, and Stanton have remaining. The American League is fairly wide open -- the Blue Jays and White Sox are the only Junior Circuit clubs to improve considerably this winter, right? -- so this is as good as it gets for the Yankees. They're never going to have a better opportunity to win a title with this core than right now.
"We certainly feel like we've been one of the best teams and rightfully have championship expectations, which we will again have this year," Cashman told Hoch in January.