John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
They won 103 games last season despite an historic number of injuries, then signed the best pitcher in the American League away from their biggest threat, ratcheting up expectations to the height of the Joe Torre years.
And then last week the Yankees announced that James Paxton had back surgery that could cause him to miss at least the first couple of months of the season -- an eerie reminder that nothing is ever guaranteed in sports.
So welcome to the start of spring training, where the most important goal will be to get through six weeks in Tampa with everyone not named Paxton ready for Opening Day.
Toward that end, Brian Cashman overhauled the team's training/strength & conditioning staff, hiring Eric Cressey, a big name in the sports performance industry, to oversee a new approach to keeping players injury-free.
The Paxton news, however, is also a reminder that sometimes injuries are more bad luck than anything else. After last season you'd think the Yankees are due some good luck, and in the end that will largely dictate their level of dominance in 2020.
Health aside, then, here are their Five Most Intriguing Storylines going into spring training this week.
1) All Eyes On Cole
Before it became in vogue in recent years for hitters to track pitches in the early days of spring training, rather than actually swing at them, the practice known as "live BP" was always great fun to watch, as pitchers overmatched teammates who were shaking the rust out of their bats.
It was in that setting where Phil Hughes was once dubbed the next Roger Clemens by awed hitters, and Manny Banuelos looked like the next Ron Guidry.
Suffice it to say nobody is going to want any part of swinging the bat in February against Gerrit Cole and his high-octane mix of pitches that added up to the rather staggering total of 373 strikeouts over 249 innings last season, including the post-season.
As such his spring training outings no doubt will be must-watch events, as the hype will build for Cole to deliver on his $324 million contract, the richest ever signed by a pitcher.
It could make for suffocating pressure, especially in the glare of the Bronx spotlight, but Cole made a tremendous first impression at his press conference, looking and sounding remarkably at ease amidst all the pomp and circumstance.
Furthermore scouts say his studious approach to pitching, which was refined in Houston via analytics, combined with his electric arsenal of pitches, should make for a smooth transition as a Yankee.
2) Will Stanton Ever Earn His Pinstripes?
Yes, it's a pretentious cliché that speaks to the Yankees' standing as the most successful franchise in the sport, but the fans seem to take it to heart. With that in mind it's fairly remarkable that a player of Giancarlo Stanton's freakish talent is two years into his tenure in the Bronx and yet to be embraced in the Bronx.
Indeed, his October failures in 2018 and an injury-marred 2019 season again put the burden of proof on Stanton and his huge contract, which has only eight years to go, by the way.
If he stays healthy you'd think he'll hit 40-plus home runs without a sweat, and easily 50-plus if the ball is flying the way it was last season.
Surely that would go a long way toward winning over the fans, but in truth, on a team with championship-or-bust expectations Stanton probably needs his own huge moment in October to be accepted and, yep, earn those pinstripes.
3) Is Deivi Garcia The Next Big Thing?
"Big" should be in quotes, of course, because at 5-foot-9, Garcia's size is part of the fascination about him and his explosive fastball.
In any case, as the new phenom in the Yankees' system, the righthander zoomed up the organizational ladder last season at age 20, posting eye-popping strikeout numbers along the way. Garcia ran into some turbulence upon reaching Triple-A, but even there he averaged 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings, creating excitement for what's to come in 2020.
His size has led some scouts to project him as being most effective as a reliever in the big leagues, but Garcia will be in the mix as a candidate for the starting rotation in spring training, especially since Paxton's injury has created more opportunity. If he takes another step forward from last season, he might just force his way into the No. 5 spot.
4) Where Does Andujar Fit?
There has to be some sort of role for Miguel Andujar, right? Scouts consider him one of best young pure hitters in baseball, raving about the hard contact he made as a rookie in hitting .297 with 47 doubles and 27 home runs in 2018.
But his defense, particularly his throwing, was already a problem and now he's coming back from labrum surgery on his right shoulder, while Gio Urshela recently earned Cashman's endorsement as the incumbent at third base based on his unexpected breakthrough 2019 season.
So Andujar will get a look at both first base and left field in Tampa as the Yankees try to figure out how to best get his bat in the lineup at least on a semi-regular basis.
After all, Andujar's bat could be a difference-maker come October, and that's what matters most for these Yankees.
5) Why is Clint Frazier Still Here?
At age 25 he's not a kid anymore in terms of his baseball career, yet after all of the hype over Frazier's "legendary bat speed," as Cashman famously called it upon trading for him in 2016, his future with the Yankees is murkier than ever.
Indeed, with the emergence of Mike Tauchman last season adding to contingent of Yankee outfielders, Frazier loomed as an obvious trade candidate this winter.
However, scouts say his value has slipped dramatically, especially after his glaring defensive problems in the outfield surfaced last season. As a result, one scout said, "Cashman probably felt (Frazier) has more value as injury insurance than as a trade chip."
And so while Frazier has shown he can hit big-league pitching during his various stints in the big leagues the last three years, even a spectacular spring might still leave him in limbo, waiting for an opportunity that might never come in the Bronx.