In the second part of our Yankees 2017 season preview, we cover the offense and provide a prediction for the team's finish in the standings...
Gary Sanchez burst onto the scene last August, delivering a 20-homer performance and shattering records in the process. Sanchez, 24, entered spring training with numerous doubters, but he demonstrated that he is ready to build on his rookie production. Behind the plate, Sanchez has improved his receiving and has one of the best catcher's arms in the game.
At first base, Greg Bird assumes the role he seemed set to after a blistering rookie performance in 2015. Unfortunately, Bird suffered a season-ending shoulder injury before spring training last season. Bird, 24, benefitted from not pushing the rehab process as he came to camp strong and looks poised for a big season after launching seven home runs this spring. He should provide solid defense at first base.
Starlin Castro enters his second season with the Yankees, hoping to build on an average 2016 season. Castro is inconsistent and streaky -- but still just 27 years old -- so there is room for a big season, if he puts in the extra effort required. Castro made a solid transition to second base, but again, occasional brain lapses bring down his overall performance.
Chase Headley returns to the hot corner with low expectations due to his less than stellar overall numbers in his first two seasons in New York. Headley, 32, consistently gets off to slow starts and while he catches things back up in the summer, he tends to fall off at the end of the season. Headley is a fine fielder, having returned to form in 2016 after a dreadful fielding performance in 2015.
Ronald Torreyes will be the starting shortstop in place of Didi Gregorius, who is out until early-May with a right shoulder injury. Torreyes, the Yankees utility infielder in 2016, was quite good in the role. The 24-year-old makes decent contact and should not be a complete drain at the plate. It remains to be seen if Torreyes' deficiencies will be exposed when playing full time.
Left fielder Brett Gardner will bat leadoff for the Yankees and the club hopes his on-base prowess sets the table for the rest of the batting order. The Yankees need Gardner to be the constant spark, which means more than just getting on base. He has to get back to wreaking havoc on the bases by attempting more steals. Gardner won a Gold Glove award in 2016 and is also seen as an above average left fielder according to advanced defensive metrics.
Jacoby Ellsbury has yet to fulfill the seven-year, $153 million contract he signed before the 2014 season. Ellsbury's 2016 season was his worst in pinstripes and as such he has been moved down the order. Ellsbury, 33, will hit fifth for now when Gardner is in the lineup, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi believes there is some pop in Ellsbury's bat. An adequate center fielder, Ellsbury must elevate his game offensively regardless of what part of the order he hits.
Aaron Judge beat out Aaron Hicks for the starting right field gig with an incredibly strong spring. After a poor call-up performance last summer, Judge went straight to work in the offseason and this spring, making adjustments to his swing and approach in an effort to reduce strikeouts. Judge, who turns 25 in April, projects as a player who might hit 30+ home runs if he can minimize strikeouts. Despite Judge's immense frame, he moves well in the outfield and has a plus arm.
The Yankees signed 37-year-old veteran Matt Holliday to be the club's designated hitter in 2017. Holliday looked quite comfortable in the DH role this spring and his presence in the dugout and clubhouse will go a long way for the young players on the roster. Holliday's power and keen eye at the plate should play well as protection for Sanchez and Bird depending on how they are employed in the batting order.
Bench and injured players
Hicks, 27, got off to a hot start this spring providing stiff competition to Judge. Hicks continues to intrigue based on his pedigree (he's a former first round pick) and flashes of fine play. However, he is better served in the role of the backup in order to provide each outfielder days rest, which could provide him close to 400 plate appearances this season.
Chris Carter was signed as an insurance policy for Bird. Carter, 30, is a one-dimensional offensive player -- home runs or strikeouts -- with little to give in the field. With Bird displaying he is at full strength, Carter will garner a very occasional start and a bunch of pinch-hitting opportunities.
Austin Romine assumes the backup catcher position for the second straight season. Romine, 28, fared well in the role last season and there is little reason to believe he cannot continue to support the club behind the plate in 2017.
The final bench spot goes to Pete Kozma, who will serve as the Yankees utility infielder. Kozma, who turns 29 in April, is a glove-first player who won the spot because he can play shortstop whereas his closest competitor, Rob Refsnyder, cannot.
Touching briefly on Gregorius, the Yankees are going to miss his bat for the first month of the season. The drop off from Gregorius to Torreyes in the field will not be as evident. Gregorius, 27, turned in a career year in 2016, so it will be interesting to see how the shoulder injury affects his production in 2017.
Bottom line and prediction
As we mentioned in the pitching preview, the Yankees will need to improve their offense in order to support what could be a shaky rotation. The lineup projects to be stronger than what the Yankees trotted out in 2016, but there are no assurances that each of the young players reaches their maximum potential.
Girardi will have to keep a keen eye on the top of the order and be ready to make changes if Gardner gets off to a poor start and Ellsbury picks up where he left off this spring. Girardi and the front office must provide Judge with a significant number of at-bats in order to see if he is indeed a part of the club's future.
I'm less concerned with the offense and a strong bullpen than I am with the rotation. After Masahiro Tanaka, there may be too many question marks to offset. The Yankees need at least two pitchers to produce like No. 2 and No. 3 starters, and I'm not certain that will happen.
The Yankees appear better on paper in several spots on the roster, but they significantly outperformed their predictive record based on run differential in 2016. While there is a chance that could happen again, my sense is that it could even out in 2017.
If the offense dramatically improves from 2016 and a bullpen picks up the expected slack from the rotation, the Yankees might find themselves in a wild card battle this summer. If the team fails to reach its potential in two or more facets -- the offense, rotation and bullpen -- they could be selling again at the trade deadline.
I predict the Yankees will finish 87-75, which could be enough for a wild card berth. I'll contend that the downside could get ugly (think the 77-win range) with a top win total of 92 wins if everything clicks.