The New York Yankees are in the midst of a transformation in how they build their roster. The club still spends plenty of money - they will open the season with a payroll approaching $220 million - but they have begun to preach and follow through on getting younger and more athletic throughout the roster. This was abundantly clear in the offseason when they did not sign a single player to an MLB free-agent contract. The Yankees did however take on more salary by adding three quality players, and considering the returning players, the club has improved on paper and has a chance to return to the postseason in 2016.
Nathan Eovaldi took the first step to becoming a dominant starter in 2015. After a slow start, Eovaldi went through a stretch during the summer in which he went 10-2, with a 2.93 ERA across 12 starts (73 2/3 innings). Eovaldi worked hard at mastering a split-finger fastball, while honing in on the location of his fastball. Eovaldi's season came to an abrupt end when sidelined with an elbow injury, but it seems a non-issue as he pitched well this spring.
Michael Pineda is an enigma. He owns fantastic stuff, but fails to deliver it on a regular basis. He looks like a Cy Young contender at times and a run-of-the-mill pitcher on others. The Yankees need Pineda to work deeper into games in 2016 and reach the 30-start mark; something he has never done. If he can do both, there is a chance Pineda rises to the top of the rotation.
Luis Severino enters his first full season in the big leagues and it is difficult to tamper expectations for his sophomore season after a fabulous freshman campaign (62 1/3 IP, 2.89 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 22 BB, 56 K). Severino will be working without an innings limit and if he is able to continue on the path he started last season, he could lift his name near the top of the list of the young up-and-coming pitchers in baseball.
Masahiro Tanaka's chance to show he is the best starter on the club is dwindling. Tanaka made 24 starts in 2015 and in all pitched well (24 GS, 154 IP, 12-7, 3.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 27 BB, 139 K). Tanaka has great stuff, but he is not entirely consistent and still allows too many home runs (25 in 2015). Tanaka pitches with a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, but if he can manage 30-plus starts this season, it will provide a boost to the rotation.
The competition for the fifth starter in the rotation remains unsettled with CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova awaiting word from the club at press time. Sabathia was not especially good early in spring, but his last two outings (four earned runs in nine combined innings) might be enough to make the club believe he can keep the team in games he starts. Nova finished the spring with a six-inning scoreless start, but that followed two disastrous outings.
In my opinion, the option of putting Sabathia in the bullpen seems to be a risky prospect for someone who has NEVER worked out in relief in his 15 major league seasons and might not fully embrace the role from a mental perspective. Nova has just over 17 innings of relief pitching in his MLB career, but his repertoire seems like a better bet to succeed out of the bullpen compared to Sabathia's offerings. When it comes down to it, I believe the Yankees will peg Sabathia as the fifth starter, but with an incredibly short leash.
The relief crew might look like nothing like we expected Monday. With Aroldis Chapman out until May 9 due to his domestic violence suspension, the Yankees got a big scare when a line drive drilled Andrew Miller on Tuesday, resulting in a chip fracture to his right wrist. Miller wants to pitch through the injury, but if he is unable to be ready for Opening Day, Dellin Betances takes over the closer role until one of the southpaws return.
Betances is a dominant pitcher, one who has soared to the top-tier of the relief pitcher rankings in all of baseball. The Yankees were hoping to throttle back on Betances' usage in 2016, but that desire might take a back seat due to the injury problems.
As for Chapman, he will have to work with minor leaguers for the next several weeks. He is not allowed to participate in game action while suspended, so the team will have to replicate that as much as possible to keep Chapman's arm fresh and ready to step right in May 9.
Behind the Big Three, Chasen Shreve seems to be the next in line to receive significant high-impact innings. Shreve was fantastic for much of 2015, and has been great this spring. With one more season under his belt, Shreve is an important reliever, especially with the potential loss of Miller.
Johnny Barbato and Luis Cessa, both newcomers to the roster, will join the loser of the fifth starter competition. That leaves one spot (or two depending on Miller's availability). Barbato is hard-throwing righty with a good curveball. Cessa impressed the Yankees from the start of spring and should be one of the swingmen in the bullpen. Both pitchers might find themselves getting some important innings early on with news that the Yankees will be without Bryan Mitchell for at least three months due to a broken big toe and turf toe.
The remaining slot looks to be going to another fresh face in Kirby Yates as he's the last reliever left in camp, although the club could opt to sign someone left off another club's roster. Branden Pinder, James Pazos or Nick Rumbelow -- all of whom were recently sent down to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre -- could get a shot if Miller hits the disabled list. Again, going outside the organization is always an option to sub for Miller as well.
What to expect from Yankees' pitching
In my view, everything revolves around the starting rotation, even more so because of the bullpen injuries. Yankees' starters absolutely have to pitch deeper into games in an effort to not overuse their best relievers and so that the younger relievers are not overly exposed.
The Yankees might not have a true ace, but I see Eovaldi and Severino taking the next steps in their careers, and one or the other of Tanaka and Pineda finally having a full season of starts. Finally, I expect Sabathia and Nova to trade off and on with the fifth starter role throughout the season, with the team going with the hot hand.
As for the bullpen, if Miller can pitch through the injury and not make things worse, the club will have avoided a big issue. Once Chapman comes back from the suspension, the Yanks will be tough to beat when they have a lead after six innings. However, the squad cannot rely on those three names alone; Shreve will need to continue his assent and at least one more reliever will need to step up his game so the backend of the pen remains strong in September.
Brian McCann set career highs in home runs (26) and RBIs (94) in 2015, regaining much of the offensive prowess he displayed while with the Atlanta Braves. Behind the plate, McCann suffered a downturn in framing skills according to StatCorner, but threw out 36 percent of potential base stealers, which surpassed the league average of 32 percent. Similar offensive stats and a return to elite level pitch framing that McCann had been know will be a certain advantage the Yankees have over other teams.
The Yankees are virtually relying on a repeat performance from Mark Teixeira after the 35-year-old smashed 31 home runs in just 462 plate appearances in 2015. Teixeira faltered as the calendar changed to August after reviving his career over the first four months of the season. Worse for Teixeira, he suffered a season-ending injury after fouling a ball off his shin causing a fracture. Teixeira was able to sustain health until the freak injury, but has not played more than 123 games in a season since 2011. Teixeira looked agile at first base and saved plenty of errors around the diamond, something I expect to continue again this season.
One of the major trades the Yankees made this offseason was for 26-year-old Starlin Castro. Castro has enjoyed a very good spring, which is a continuation from his superb offensive finish to the 2015 season. In my opinion, Castro has the most upside of this group from an offensive standpoint and remains young enough to flourish. Castro is still learning the position, but he has shown good range and his powerful arm will aid him make up the difference if he finds himself out of position at times.
Chase Headley is coming off what has become an average season from him from an offensive standpoint, and as such, expecting much more is likely a mistake. Headley had an impressive two-month summer stretch in 2015, so the ability is still there, but he slumped offensively along with almost everyone else as the season wound down. Hitting toward the bottom of the lineup, Headley's bat is not as important as the necessity of his fielding efforts bouncing back to form after making an uncharacteristic 23 errors in 2015.
Didi Gregorius grew as a hitter in 2015, and since he is just 26 years old, there is still a chance he can grow further at the plate. Gregorius, who was expected to provide above-average fielding, failed to do so from the onset. He seemed to be pressing and it was affecting much of his defensive game. Once Gregorius felt comfortable in pinstripes, he showed the slick fielding and strong arm many proclaimed he possessed. Once the fielding came back to form, Gregorius began to hit.
Brett Gardner was the consummate top of the order hitter for the first half of the 2015 season, helping him earn his first All-Star appearance. Unfortunately, Gardner's production fell off the map over the season's final three months. Worse, it was the second straight season in which Gardner suffered a second-half slump. The Yankees absolutely need Gardner to utilize his speed on the bases and in the outfield this season. Gardner has professed to want to steal more bases and it is imperative that he does so when he finds himself in a good running situation. In the field, Gardner defense is diminishing according to advanced metrics, something that must improve in spacious Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees desperately need Jacoby Ellsbury, along with Gardner, to have banner and complete seasons in 2016. Ellsbury got off to a great start in 2015, helping to catapult the Yankees into first place after the first month-plus of the season. Unfortunately, Ellsbury was hobbled with a knee injury in May of which he never fully recuperated. The Yankees hope Ellsbury's offensive decline was due to the balky knee, because if it was simply about age the team will be dreading the moment they signed him to a seven-year, $153 million before the 2014 season. Provided he is healthy, Ellsbury is still a decent fielder who can cover enough ground in center field, albeit with a weak arm.
Carlos Beltran looked old and overmatched during the first month of the 2015 season. His bat was slow, and his feet were like cement in the field. The work in the outfield never really improved for the 39-year-old, but his bat was the most consistent on the roster from May 1 on. Beltran was an incredibly productive hitter, and I have no reason to believe he cannot duplicate that this season. I do think Beltran will be given more rest in 2016 and might be removed for defense in tight games, but his swan-song season in the Bronx could be one to remember.
No one knew what to expect from Alex Rodriguez when he returned to the field after a full season off; certainly 33 home runs and 86 RBIs was seemingly out of the picture. Rodriguez's late-season doldrums likely stemmed from extensive playing time after missing the entire 2014 season. Like Teixeira, A-Rod will require some extra rest this season and the club has a host of players who can grab a half-day off when the 40-year-old veteran sits.
The Yankees will likely rest Teixeira more often in 2016, using Dustin Ackley as the primary backup at first base. Ackley, a left-handed hitter who can also play the corner outfield positions, has some pop in his bat so there will not be too much of a drop in offensive production when he is in the lineup. The Yankees might give away some defense when Ackley is covering first, but he is athletic enough to be a fair defender.
Aaron Hicks is expected to play at least three or four days per week in an effort to keep the starting outfielders strong. Hicks can play each of the outfield positions quite well, and he may have yet to reach his offensive potential. Hicks feasts on left-handed pitching so it would make sense to see him face as many southpaws as possible this season. If Hicks can pick it up from the left side of the plate, he could be a special addition to the club.
Austin Romine deserves a lot of credit for making it back to the major league club as the backup catcher. While he might be passed by Gary Sanchez at some point this season, Romine showed a good deal of perseverance by improving his hitting skills and sticking to learning the craft behind the plate. Romine will be perfectly fine as McCann's backup for as long as the club feels Sanchez needs in Triple-A.
Ronald Torreyes was a member of five clubs during the last two seasons (including two stays with the Yankees) and finds himself as the club's utility infielder. Torreyes beat out Rob Refsnyder and Pete Kozma in the process. Torreyes is a strong defender, who can play second base, shortstop and third base. Torreyes' ability to spell Gregorius at shortstop, along with his solid on-base skills, it helped push him to the role.
What to expect from the Yankees' offense
The Yankees offense seeks to remain one of the top run-scoring units in the league and I believe they can approach their numbers from last season as a group.
When Ellsbury and Gardner are at their best, it allows for the Yankees middle of the lineup batters to reach their max potential. When Ellsbury and Gardner struggle to get on base, it forces the run-producing bats to press and leads to the complete downfall of the offense.
Expecting both Teixeira and Rodriguez to reach the offensive metrics they achieved in 2015 might be a stretch, but they certainly have the ability to come close provided they receive ample rest. With McCann and Beltran, the Yanks can withstand occasional slumps from Teixeira and Rodriguez.
The bottom third of the Yankees lineup will generally consist of Headley, Gregorius and Castro in what will probably be a fluctuating order. Expect Hicks to get his fair share of plate appearances, and prosper in his role.
What to expect from the Yankees' defense
I believe the Yankees defense is solid. I am not sure if they will be spectacular, but I also do not see defense dragging the team down. A lot depends on how Castro grows in his position, and if Headley can return to the dependable fielder, he was when he arrived in New York in 2014. The Yankees will benefit from having Hicks on the bench to spell any of the outfielders, especially on days in which he plays in right field for Beltran.
Joe Girardi continues to find it difficult to command respect from Yankees fans. Some of this he brings on himself, but it is also part of the fans desire to win - all the time.
Girardi owns a reputation as a manager with his binder full of statistical information and being unable to remove himself from what the numbers suggest. At the same time, many claim Girardi sticks with veterans too often and fails to develop young players.
A lot of that remained the same in 2015, but Girardi has shown some signs of change. He benched Ellsbury for last season's wild card game. He allowed Severino to prosper in the rotation versus sending him down when the other starters were healthy. He named Mitchell a part of this season's bullpen instead of relegating him to the Triple-A squad. Barbato and Cessa will get a chance to show their abilities.
The list of "unconventional for Girardi" moves continues to grow; maybe he finally sees the need for some balance. This season will once again test his abilities to get the most out of an aging roster and a group of talented and inspired young players.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his brain trust deserve some credit for the offseason they put together. Without damaging their farm system, and in dealing two relievers, the club upgraded in spots of need, and put a stamp on the backend of the bullpen.
The Yankees turned a 28-year-old lefty with control problems into two young promising pitchers, with one (Cessa) already making the club. They lost an important piece in swingman Adam Warren, but gained a boost at second base with Castro. This was especially important, as the keystone has been a black hole since Robinson Cano left for Seattle. Finally, the Yankees jumped on a bargain basement price for the hardest throwing closer in the game in Chapman.
Expect the Yankees to continue to hone their system by moving pieces from one aspect of the club for another. The Yankees will have some decisions to make with young players this season such as Sanchez, Refsnyder and Aaron Judge. When is it the right time to bring them up and let them stick? Alternatively, will a player from another team, one that is young and cost-controlled become available?
What does it all mean?
The Yankees have the benefit of going through this transformation phase with plenty of talented players filling the roster. Are they the favorites to win the American League East among the national baseball media? Hardly. Should the teams in their division take them seriously? Absolutely.
The Yankees, as all clubs, need to stay healthy. It is hard to quantify how a team will perform without believing each of the players charged with the task of winning is on the field 90-100 percent of the time. In my view, if they avoid major injuries along the way, the club has enough to succeed to reach the postseason in 2016.
Part of the reason the Yankees have a chance to win the AL East is because they play in a division without a superior team. Each club has its flaws, and its strengths. Teams with a potent offense have a suspect rotation (Toronto, Boston and Baltimore), and another team possesses a collection of good arms, but fails to scare opponents in the batter's box (Tampa Bay).
The Yankees on the other hand seem to be the most balanced team in the division. Yes, they are older in spots. It is true that they are more susceptible to injuries because of past issues. Nevertheless, if the rotation has three members rise to their abilities, the backend of the bullpen pitches to the back of their baseball card, and if the Yankees can manage to be in the top-5 offenses in the league, (they scored the second most runs in the AL in 2015) they can certainly be a force in the division.
I believe that the Yankees will finish with a record of 88-74, which might be enough to win the division considering I fully expect a good deal of cannibalism among the AL East teams. I feel 88 wins gets the Yankees back into the postseason, and if they can, they will have as good of a chance of reaching the World