Fire Up the Hot Stove!
The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series, claiming their 4th championship since 2004. Congratulations to them. But now begins the long winter of baseball’s offseason, and every other team’s jockeying for position to knock them off.
The Yankees had a good season. Despite a rash of injuries to key players and underperformance from others, they still won 100 games and the wild card. Unfortunately, Boston won 108. So how do you improve what is already a really good team by 9 more wins? That’s the question that Brian Cashman will have to answer over the next 5 months.
It’s no secret where the Yankees need to improve. The principal difference between the top two teams in the AL East (and Houston, who won 103 games in the West) is the starting rotations. Boston and Houston had much better starting pitching than the Yankees all season, and the result showed in the final standings and in the playoffs. What’s more, the Yankees are looking at losing 3 of their starting pitchers to free agency. Boston has 1 and Houston has 2 pitchers set to hit the market.
But the offseason challenges don’t end there. Those 3 pitchers are part of at least 11 players (and possibly 12) who could leave the Bronx for other green pastures. It also doesn’t include the fate of SP Sonny Gray, an ace pitcher who has proven to have Ed Whitson disease. In other words, Cashman & Co. could well be looking at replacing 52% of the roster over the winter, while maintaining relevancy. Now add in injuries to SS Didi Gregorius, an uncertain situation at first base, an overcrowded outfield and perhaps the best free agent class in history, and this has the making of being one of the most entertaining hot stove seasons in a long, long time.
Starting Pitching: Only two starters are guaranteed to return, Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. Despite Severino’s well-documented struggles in the second half last season, I believe he will bounce back perfectly fine next year. His issues stem from two sources, I think: first was a hangover effect from the increased workload in 2017 (it isn’t an uncommon occurrence in baseball). The other is that multiple other teams said Sevy has a habit of tipping his pitches. I don’t care what you throw, if the other guy knows what’s coming he can hit it. Tanaka has managed to pitch his entire career with an elbow ligament that threatens to snap apart on every pitch. Will this be the year it finally does? Suffice it to say, the Yankees need at least 5 more quality starting options before breaking camp.
The most intriguing possibility is the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner. The Giants look poised to engage in a total rebuild, and Bumgarner is a quality ace with a proven record of pitching his best when the lights are brightest. If they make him available, the Yankees should go all in on him. Sonny Gray could be the centerpiece of this trade. Even though he demonstrated a severe case of the yips when pitching at Yankee Stadium, he did pitch to a 3.17 ERA and 1.155 WHIP on the road, and his best years came across SF bay in Oakland. Both Bumgarner and Gray are 29 years old, and both remain under team control through 2019. On paper, it’s a good match.
Other trade targets could include Zack Greinke, Tyler Chatwood, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Zach Wheeler. As for free agents, everyone expects the Yanks to go hard after Patrick Corbin, an NY kid who had a breakout season in 2018. Also, expect the team to work hard to resign JA Happ, and if that fails, then to turn to beg CC Sabathia to come back. The other top FA options include Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Nathan Eovaldi, and Gio Gonzales. There’s also the possibility Clayton Kershaw opts out of his contract, and Cole Hamels will probably be bought out of his. There is also a bevy of kids in the high minors who can serve as either trade or depth pieces. There will certainly be plenty to choose from, which means none of us should ever be subjected to the “Luis Cessa Experience” again.
Bullpen: The Yankees rode a historic bullpen to those 100 wins last season. The “four closers” (Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, and David Robertson) combined for 211 innings, 44 saves, a 1.066 WHIP and 320 strikeouts. Now, Robertson and Britton are both scheduled to hit free agency, and it seems likely that given the dearth of good closers in MLB these days, both will be able to find jobs as the closer for a new team.
Fortunately, quality bullpen arms seem to be the one constant the Yankees farm system churns out. Look for kids like Chance Adams, Tommy Kahnle, Steven Tarpley, JP Feyereisen, Cole Coshow, and Ben Heller to get a chance to fill in. At the same time, you can expect Chad Green and Jonathan Holder to move up in the pecking order. All in all, this is the one part of the team the Yankee brain trust doesn’t need to think too hard over, nor do they need to worry about allocating lots of money to fix it.
Catching: The Yankees know they’ll be returning the same catchers as in 2018. Gary Sanchez will be the starter, backed up by Austin Romine. The good news is that Romine has rounded out into a quality backup backstop, the kind of guy you can play 85-90 times a year and not get a headache from it.
The bad news is Sanchez was one of the most disappointing players for the Yankees last year. A combination of injuries, bad luck, and attitude contributed to what was easily the young catcher’s worst season. If he can turn it around (and the talent that nearly won him a ROY in a half season is still there), the Yankees have a building block. If not, they have a decision to make. But that looks to be something for next offseason, not this one.
Infield: Perhaps no area of the team will require more attention than the infield. As mentioned, Didi Gregorius injury in the last playoff game will have him sitting until at least September of 2019, leaving a huge hole at shortstop. Miguel Andujar may well win this year’s ROY, but his defense was among the league’s worst at 3B. Gleyber Torres was as good as advertised at second base, but Greg Bird disappeared among more injuries and anemic production and may be facing the end of his road. Luke Voit, former St. Louis castoff, came over and provided a needed boost at first base – but can the Yankees count on him to be the answer? They tried to build Bird’s career from a cameo in 2015 – and three years later we’re still waiting.
Of course, the name on everyone’s list of infielders is Manny Machado. The erstwhile Oriole and Dodger may have played his way out of the Bronx with his postseason antics, though. Nobody argues with the talent, but Manny has demonstrated that he is very much a selfish player. That’s an attitude that simply will not mesh with the Yankee way. One thing this generation of Steinbrenners does not want is a return to the Bronx Zoo days of the 1970’s.
So, what to do? I suggest the Yankees get bold. The other mega free agent available is Bryce Harper. I suggest the Yankees sign Harper, but not for the outfield. To play first. Yes, you heard that right. his left-handed bat will help balance the lineup, his dynamism will add an athletic component that was largely missing last year and while there have been questions about his maturity in the past, his down year last year came largely from him not trying to put up huge numbers but help his decimated team win. Next, I would move Andujar into a 3B/OF role with the idea of him taking the bulk of LF reps by the next All-Star break. Then, I would go after this year’s Swiss Army knife player, Marwin Gonzalez, primarily to play short, but also to get reps at 3B and as needed elsewhere. Once Gregorius is back, Gonzalez moves permanently to third and Andujar becomes the regular left fielder.
Those moves also free up Bird and/or Voit to become available in a trade for a starting pitcher, where they might have more value to the Yankees. Depth would also be improved, as the Yankees have plenty of well-regarded utility types down on the farm, led by #16 overall prospect Thairo Estrada, along with Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes.
Outfield: What do you do when you have 5 former All-Stars, and a consensus top 50 prospect, for three positions?
That is the dilemma facing the Yankee brass when it comes to the outfield. Suffice it to say none of Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, or Giancarlo Stanton are going anywhere. Look for all three to reprise their roles in right field, center field and as the primary DH, respectively.
That leaves at least three (and if the Yanks adopt my Andujar plan, four) players to squeeze into one spot. So how to do this?
First is through attrition but in different ways.
Brett Gardner has patrolled left field for the Yanks since 2008. He is the last of the 2009 champions still on the team, but the Yankees have until Wednesday to decide whether to exercise the buyout or renew the contract for $12.5 million. Here’s the thing: how much do you pay for intangibles, like leadership, hustle, and grit? Because that’s about all Gardy has left in the tank. He still wants to play – and he thinks he still can – but the results are no longer showing up on the field. My guess is we’ve seen the last of Gardner in Pinstripes until a future Old-Timer’s Day.
The other player whose time has passed is Jacoby Ellsbury, the incredibly disappearing and enigmatic center fielder. I realize the Yankees don’t want to admit signing him was a terrible mistake, and I know they don’t want to eat the remaining $47.5 million on his contract. But here’s the thing: the guy can’t stay healthy enough to even take batting practice, he can’t play anywhere but center (and that poorly), can’t throw, can’t steal bases anymore. His contract is a sunk cost. Better to pay him to go away then pay him to take up an even more valuable roster spot, especially now that the team is finally under the salary cap.
That leaves Clint Frazier as the fourth outfielder. The uber-prospect suffered through a dismal season last year, stemming from a concussion suffered near the end of Spring Training. In limited action (54 games) in the minors, Frazier didn’t show too many ill effects, hitting .305 with a .950 OPS. He should be fine in 2019.
So, here’s my projected (wished for?), waaaay-too early Opening Day 2019 roster:
CF: Aaron Hicks
RF: Aaron Judge
1B: Bryce Harper
DH: Giancarlo Stanton
C: Gary Sanchez
3B: Miguel Andujar
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
LF: Clint Frazier
2B: Gleyber Torres
UT: Tyler Wade
UT: Ronald Torreyes
IF: Luke Voit
SP: Luis Severino
SP: Madison Bumgarner
SP: JA Happ
SP: Masahiro Tanaka
SP: Patrick Corbin
CL: Aroldis Chapman
RP: Dellin Betances
RP: Chad Green
RP: Jonathon Holder
RP: Tommy Kahnle
RP: Chance Adams