The Yankees will not be viewed as the lovable, up and coming "Baby Bombers" this season. Instead, the Yankees will come out of the gate as the hunted "Evil Empire," which comes with one expectation; winning a World Series title.
It is a poorly kept secret that a championship is the Yankees' Spring Training mantra year in and year out. However, over the last few seasons, fans, the players, coaches and front office would admit under truth serum that the club was not the best team in the league. Fresh off an incredible 2017 season and courtesy of a strong returning cast, more impact prospects on the horizon and a rather large addition (literally and figuratively), the 2018 Yankees have a legitimate chance to reach and win their 28th World Series.
Teams often relish the role of the underdog. Working under stamped down expectations from those outside the organization tends to create an "us versus them" mentality. The Yankees seemed to ride that sentiment through much of the 2017 season. That mindset is history.
The Bronx Bombers came out firing at the outset of the offseason by trading for National League MVP, Giancarlo Stanton. They shuttled Starlin Castro to Miami in the trade and they weren't finished dealing as they also shipped Chase Headley back to San Diego. As of now the Yankees are willing to go with two rookies - Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres - at the open slots once held by steady veterans, which tells me that the club believes in the strength of the rookies and the supporting cast around them.
The rhetoric from Yankees' manager Aaron Boone and players in camp is that they are ready to make good on the revived outside perceptions of the club's potential. The Yankees have questions, but there are reasons to believe the squad will not fold under the pressure of outsized expectations.
The Yankees should have learned a good deal about what it takes to win based on the ups and downs in 2017, both as a club and on the player level.
The team burst out of the gate hot and took a modest lead in the American League East, going 30-20 through May. The team went 41-42 from June through August and then blitzed through September/October (20-9). The Yanks stayed hot, stretching the eventual World Series champion Astros to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series.
On an individual level, several Yankees dealt with their own peaks and valleys through the season, which should help them in 2018. The best example is Aaron Judge's absolutely fantastic production leading up to the All-Star break - .329/.428/.691 with 30 home runs and 66 RBIs - that was followed by a terrible slump which lasted about 30 games. Judge's temperament never changed, rather he kept grinding on the field and when he turned the corner in early September, his production propelled the Yankees to a strong regular season finish.
Other young players that rode their own rollercoaster during the season, including Greg Bird, Aaron Hicks and Gary Sanchez, should be able to translate the shift from rough patches to hot streaks into a learning experience as well. Pulling out of slumps in time to assist the team when the pressure has reached a pinnacle was no small feat and each of those players delivered in key spots as the regular season concluded and/or in the playoffs.
Another factor to consider when talking about Bird, Judge and Sanchez - and farmhands on the way - is that they came up through a winning farm system. Experiencing victory as a team at various levels will go a long way toward how they handle the circumstance in the big leagues. Understanding what it takes to get the job done at the lower levels is a key component to driving the hunger at the Major League level.
Finally, while the Yankees might be a younger club than they've been in several years, they are also graced with the presence of critical veteran players led by Brett Gardner, David Robertson and CC Sabathia, all of whom have been a part of the club's winning culture for many years. The trio understands how to play from out in front among the favorites and can be integral to instilling that mindset with the rest of the club. Add Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Didi Gregorius, Stanton, Masahiro Tanaka and Adam Warren to the conversation and the Yankees have plenty of successful and experienced players (without old age attached).
The Yankees longing to take the next step is palpable. The team tasted the sweet nectar of being at the top, the sourness of falling back and the refreshment of climbing back into a pennant race. The group gelled as they dug deep last season; the players' desire to win and not simply compete took shape. The Yanks have the talent to deliver a championship and enough experience - and experiences - to lean on in order to avoid crumbling under the pressure of expectations that are once again truly attainable and not merely lip service.