The New York Yankees were hardly favorites to return to the postseason, but they certainly had the pieces in place to make a run. Unfortunately, several variables kept the Yankees from reaching their goal in 2016. Will the organization take measures to address the mistakes during the offseason and through the regular season?
False sense of security in Teixeira and Rodriguez
The Yankees scored the second-most runs in the American League in 2015, led by surprise production from first baseman Mark Teixeira and designated hitter Alex Rodriguez. The players combined for 64 home runs and 165 RBIs that season, completely surpassing expectations. However, the Yankees made a poor assumption that they would receive similar performances from an injury-plagued Teixeira and an aging Rodriguez.
Further, the Yankees had no answers for the problems their performances presented, in part due to the season-ending injury to first baseman Greg Bird and the slow decision to take at-bats away from Rodriguez.
The Yankees can learn from this lesson, by not assuming that production in 2016 portends to exact efforts in 2017. The biggest instance of this in my view centers on Gary Sanchez.
The Yankees' catcher burst onto the scene in 2016, putting up numbers literally never witnessed in the history of the game. Sanchez drilled 20 home runs in 229 plate appearances, and the Yankees simply cannot expect that kind of production from a player with just two more plate appearances at the major league level than in this career.
In my opinion, the Yankees should maintain the services of veteran backstop Brian McCann, regardless of the potential windfall in prospects he might generate on the trade market. McCann, while declining some behind the plate, could be a potent source of production in the middle of the order as the Yankees primary designated hitter.
McCann kept a streak alive in 2016 of hitting at least 20 home runs (nine seasons) and I believe that number could easily be obtained considering the additional rest he would receive by not catching a full season. McCann provides insurance should Sanchez suffer a sophomore slump and remains an important presence in the clubhouse.
Eovaldi and Pineda continue to disappoint
The Yankees traded for Michael Pineda before the 2014 season and Nathan Eovaldi prior to the 2015 campaign, banking on the potential upside the talented right-handers possessed. Young and controllable, both pitchers showed glimpses of attaining their perceived ceilings at various times, however any measure of success was met with discouraging outcomes.
The Yankees will only have one of the two pitchers available to them in 2017, as Eovaldi underwent his second Tommy John surgery just after the season ended. The club could field offers on Pineda this offseason as he enters his final season before hitting the free agent market.
Hopefully, the Yankees have learned not to build a rotation around the presumed No. 2 and No. 3 hurlers in the rotation that have multiple question marks. These slots should be reserved for pitchers who have proven abilities, not ones where hope leads the decision making process.
The Yankees cannot afford to make the same mistake for 2017. While there are some upside arms in the system, the Yankees must minimally seek a viable No. 2 starting pitcher through the free-agent market (maybe Rich Hill), the trade market (possibly White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana) or both to pair with Yankees' ace Masahiro Tanaka.
Middle relief fails to provide bridge
The Yankees conceived one of the best backend of the bullpen trios in history, combining Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. Regrettably, the Yankees middle relief crew had a rough time trying to keep games close in order to make 'No-Runs DMC' useful as often as possible.
The Yankees once again used a slew of pitchers who had little-to-no experience in the big leagues via their Triple-A shuttle to/from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, as well as a collection of retread relievers, some of whom couldn't hold jobs at various big league stops.
The results from the second year of the reliever shuttle should be enough to end the run, or at least revise the way the Yankees used it. I can understand one spot that rotates with a fresh arm, but consistently maneuvering two or three relievers provides no stability.
Again, the Yankees should look to the free agent market to rebuild their bullpen. The club will surely be involved in discussions for one of three elite relievers in the game - Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon. Adding one of those relievers will allow the Yankees to use Betances once again in multi-inning "fireman" efforts and veteran reliever Tyler Clippard as a set-up man.
The Yankees have the benefit of having Adam Warren's experience and Bryan Mitchell's talent as a potential swingman to then concern themselves with finding two relievers from a batch of young in-house talent, some of whom might be starters that do not crack the top five in the rotation. The difference must be in how the Yankees utilize the pitchers, first by extending longer leashes to their stays in New York, as well as using hurlers that can extend beyond one inning of work, yet still be dominant during the entire appearance.
No spark at top of order
Finally, the formulation at the top of the order has to change. First, that can easily occur via a trade of Jacoby Ellsbury (though unlikely due to the $85.72 million and four years left on his deal) or Brett Gardner (more likely, as he is owed $24 million through 2018). Alternatively, the Yankees can separate the batters at the top of the order.
After watching Ellsbury and Gardner together slotted in the top two spots in the Yankees order, I have concluded that they do not gel well together. The Yankees have tried each outfielder in both slots and minus a small stretch here and there, the results have been underwhelming.
Having two players with the exact abilities hitting first and second inhibits the Yankees offensive production in the long run. Regardless of which batter is at the plate first, they have displayed an inability (or lack of confidence) to make things happen on the bases. Moreover, neither player is the prototypical No. 2 batter. More often than not, the No. 2 hitter fails to build off the leadoff hitter's plate appearances. It's almost as if whoever is the leadoff hitter, he defers to the No. 2 batter when on the bases, versus forcing the pitcher and catcher to take notice of his presence.
Ellsbury has performed best as the leadoff hitter in his career and Gardner has shown the ability to adjust regardless of where he is placed in the order. If Gardner was to shift well down in the lineup (seventh through ninth), I believe he would be more productive at the plate and on the bases. Having another player who has the ability to make things happen in the bottom third of the lineup creates a different dynamic for opposing teams to concern themselves.
The Yankees will be starting the 2017 season with a fairly clean slate and numerous new faces are expected to contribute to the club's efforts. As the club develops a new core of young players, the Yankees chance for immediate and future success will be directly correlated to their ability to learn from the mistakes of previous seasons.