John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Yankees look like a sure bet to win 100-plus games for a third straight season and, especially as the Red Sox seem to be moving closer to trading Mookie Betts, are likely a shoo-in to win the AL East for a second straight year as well.
But they didn't spend $324 million on Gerrit Cole to hang a division title banner in the Bronx, now that their championship drought is at 10 years and counting.
Here, then, with input from scouts, are five players who have the most to prove, specifically in terms of helping put the Yankees over the top in October.
1) Giancarlo Stanton
By now, the transition-to-New York period should be well behind Stanton, after two years in the Bronx, yet it feels as if he has more to prove than when he showed up in 2018 seemingly as a gift to the Yankees from old friend Derek Jeter.
Failing badly in October one season and missing all but 17 games the next haven't endeared the 2017 NL MVP to Yankee fans, put it that way.
So now, considering his team won 103 games essentially without him last season, Stanton is likely going to need a big October moment or three to ever win over his new fan base.
But hitting, say, 50, home runs during the season wouldn't hurt, and scouts I talked to say that should merely be a matter of staying healthy. He did hit 59, remember, three years ago in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in Miami.
"In Yankee Stadium he ought to hit 40 without even trying," was the way one scout put it. "With the juiced ball last year he could have gone for 60 if he hadn't been hurt.
"We'll have to see if the ball is flying again but if he gets into a flow, he'll hit line drives the other way that carry into the right-field porch, besides all the balls he'll turn on and hit 450 feet.
"Look, he's probably never going to be the guy the Yankees want up there in in a big spot against a tough right-hander, because he's always going to be vulnerable to hard breaking stuff and high velocity up in the zone, but he's so strong and explosive that all he needs to do is stay on the field to put up big numbers.
"That's the biggest concern for the Yankees: he's been injury-prone and now he's going into his 30s. If I'm the Yankees I'm going to DH him as much as possible to try and eliminate some of the injury risk."
2) Gerrit Cole
Cole was going to have huge expectations coming to New York no matter the final numbers on his contract, but there's no getting around it: signing the highest deal ever for a pitcher, nine years and $324 million, puts the Yankees' championship-or-bust mantra squarely on his shoulders.
Not that there's any reason to think Cole won't be up to the task, after two years with the Astros transformed him as a pitcher. He mostly ditched his two-seam sinker in favor of more high fastballs and breaking stuff, leading to his spectacular 2019 season that saw him rack up 373 strikeouts in 249 innings, including the postseason.
Still, the pressure of trying to live up to such a contract as a newcomer can be suffocating, as we've seen over the years. And though the Yankees are going high-tech with their new pitching coach, there is at least some curiosity as to whether Cole will miss whatever secret sauce the Astros provided in terms of analytics and technique.
However, three scouts I spoke to all indicated they'd be shocked if Cole doesn't adjust quickly and have a dominant 2020 season for his new team.
"There's no doubt the Astros opened his eyes to the best way to use his stuff," one scout said, "but he took that information and ran with it because he's got a great intellect for pitching and he studies his craft.
"I think that will help him deal with the expectations, because he's really into the process of pitching, and when guys like that can focus on the process, executing pitch to pitch, it can be the best way of blocking out all the outside noise.
"The bottom line is he's the ultimate strikeout pitcher at a time in the game when strikeouts have never been easier to come by, and he might still be getting better."
3) Luis Severino
The good news for the Yankees is Severino is still only 25, turning 26 in February, and he already has a third-place and ninth-place finish in Cy Young Award voting. The head-scratching part is that he hasn't been able to sustain his periods of dominance, either because of injury or spells when he loses his command.
As a result, it's still hard to know if Severino is ever going to be the ace he has looked like at times, especially during the first half of the 2018 season, or something less.
"Obviously the stuff is there," one scout said, "especially now that he seems to be getting a feel for his change-up. But his command comes and goes at times, especially with the slider, and it worries me a little that those command issues have been noticeable in the postseason, when you have to be able to control you emotions.
"I'm interested to see if having Cole as a teammate helps him. It should take some pressure off him needing to be the ace and maybe he learns from the way Cole attacks hitters with similar-type stuff."
4) Gary Sanchez
So how does a guy who led all catchers with 34 home runs make it on this list? Well, his defense remains something of a hot-button topic, and perhaps more to the point, being a Yankee means October matters most, and Sanchez has been mostly brutal in his three postseasons.
For his career he's hitting .176 in the postseason with a .608 OPS over 111 plate appearances. Last year was worse, as Sanchez hit .129 (4-for-31) with one home run and 16 strikeouts, 12 of them in the ALCS against the Astros when a big hit here or there from him could have changed the course of the series.
"It's enough of a sample-size in the postseason to ask if it's significant," was the way one scout put it. "He's shown a tendency to chase in those situations, especially breaking stuff down, and he gets himself out too often that way.
"It's a little bit like Stanton: he'll put up numbers in the regular season but his problems with passed balls and his strikeouts tend to be magnified in the postseason. He has to overcome that somehow."
5) Miguel Andujar
From rising star third baseman in 2018 to…what in 2020? The stunning emergence of Gio Urshela last year while Andujar was out with a shoulder injury leaves the former starter without a position, while most of the at-bats at DH figure to go to Stanton and Sanchez.
The Yankees have already indicated that Andujar will be asked to try playing first base in spring training, and maybe left field as well. Make no mistake, they're going to try to find at-bats for the 2018 Rookie of the Year runner-up because they believe he'll go back to hitting line drives all over the ballpark, but it will be up to him to prove he can handle different positions to earn regular playing time.
"There's nothing fluky about how much hard contact he makes so he's always going to be an asset," one scout said, "but the footwork and the long-arm action at third base were a concern before he had shoulder surgery, so I need to see what he looks like now.
"You also need to see Urshela do it again with the bat, but if he does, first base might be the best option for Andujar. He should be able to play that position. I know they like (Luke) Voit but Andujar has much more potential as a hitter."