The overall view of the 2018 New York Yankees just depends on who you talk to.
There are the optimists. The Yankees won 100 games for the first time since 2009, just two and a half years into their “rebuild.” Aaron Judge not only proved that his 2017 Rookie of the Year campaign wasn’t a fluke, but he also emerged as the surefire leader and heartbeat of the organization. Both Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres were promoted with much fanfare, and not only lived up to their minor league hype but also were integral parts of the team’s impressive offensive production. Luis Severino emerged as an ace (for the first half, anyway), the bullpen collectively lived up to the offseason hype and general manager Brian Cashman, once again, pulled off a number of shrewd trades that helped the ball club down the stretch.
And then there are the pessimists.
The Yankees collectively struck out 1,421 times and hit just .249 with runners in scoring position in the regular season. Gary Sanchez looked just as bad on offense as he did on defense. Greg Bird was worse. For all the good Severino did in the first half, his post All-Star break and playoff performances were extreme causes for concern. Of course, there was Aaron Boone‘s season long performance, where analytics largely won over gut feelings, resulting in curious lineup changes and pitching decisions, with the latter being displayed on the biggest stage during the ALDS.
All things considered – and despite finishing the season sooner than the year before – 2018 can’t be categorized as a failure.
That also doesn’t mean changes can’t be made.
There are five (if Didi Gregorius didn’t need Tommy John surgery, six) locks from the starting lineup that will be back next season: Judge, Sanchez, Torres, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton.
Despite varying levels of success over the course of the year, third base, first base and left field will be three positions to keep an eye on this winter.
Some may think it’s crazy that the hot corner isn’t set. After all, Andujar slashed an impressive .297/.328/.527 in 149 games, had 27 home runs, 47 doubles and 92 RBI and is just 23 years old with five more years of control. But it’s his defense that puts his future in the Bronx in doubt.
Andujar played in 1169.1 innings at third base and committed 15 errors while looking uneasy throughout the course of the campaign. He also had a league worst UZR (-16.0) and defensive rating (-14.0). Most notably, Aaron Boone wasn’t risking his production at third throughout the postseason, as Andujar was pulled for a defensive replacement in the in two of the five playoff games and didn’t start in the decisive ALDS Game 4.
Manny Machado will be linked to the Yankees from the day the Los Angeles Dodgers are finished playing up until the day he signs his lucrative free agent deal. The fit is a strong one; not only are there rumblings that Machado not only wants to be a Yankee but will also move back to third base to accommodate the team, but he’s also a contact hitter that’s coming off a tremendous 2018 (.297/.367/.538, 37 HR, 107 RBI). Questions about his effort and personality have been raised but his possible addition would almost certainly be welcomed by most.
The question comes down to this: does Cashman, the front office and ownership continue to value cost-controlled players at a low salary? Or, with a second straight finish without the Commissioner’s Trophy since their youth movement began, do they go back to their old ways and chase arguably the biggest prizes on the free agent market?
Similar to third base, there is already someone in place with the potential to be an everyday producer at first: Luke Voit.
Voit, an afterthought in the Chasen Shreve deal with the St. Louis Cardinals that many viewed more for the acquisition of international bonus pool money than actual return, became a folk hero to Yankees fans over the second half of the season.
But that wasn’t always supposed to be the case. After all, the organization has been touting Bird as the most natural hitter at any level, with his power numbers expected to surge with the short porch in right field in Yankee Stadium. For the third straight season, injuries affected the Baby Bomber in a major way, as he hit just .199 with a .672 OPS in 311 plate appearances.
Voit, boasting strong exit velocity and a mature approach at the plate, took over the reigns at first base in mid-August. He immediately boosted the Yankees both in the box score and in the clubhouse. Once acquired, the Missouri native impressed with his average (.333) and on-base percentage (.405), all while finding his power stroke in the Bronx (14 HR, 33 RBI, .689 SLG). Similar to the Andujar situation, Voit also has five years of control; at 27, Voit may well be just entering his prime.
The expectation is that Bird will get another opportunity and battle Voit for the job during Spring Training. But the free agent market does feature intriguing names that could pique Cashman’s interest.
Marwin Gonzalez is an interesting fit. He’s played all across the diamond and the ability to plug and play is something the Yankees like to have on their roster. Gonzalez struggled in the first half but hit .275 with an OBP of .352 the rest of the way, and his contact-first approach is something the Yankees could sorely use in their lineup.
Daniel Murphy is another name to watch. Another contact hitter (see the theme?), the former Met has never had a problem playing in the spotlight and, despite getting up there in age, is still hitting at a high level (.299 AVG, .790 OPS). Plus, his declining power numbers could see a boost in the Bronx and his left-handed bat would provide balance to the lineup card.
Then there is the Paul Goldschmidt question, one that just arose courtesy a recent Buster Olney tweet. The Arizona Diamondbacks star is a premier, MVP-caliber first baseman, and his numbers (.290 BA, .922 OPS in 2018) and price tag ($14.5 million team option) align with current Yankee front office philosophy. At the same time, his right-handed bat wouldn’t help the lineup’s diversity and prospects may not be worth giving up for someone entering free agency at the end of 2019.
Meanwhile, left field may be the biggest question mark of them all.
Career Yankee Brett Gardner has a $12.5 million player option that will likely be declined. Even if he’s back at a lower salary, it’s hard to envision Boone sending him out there day in and day out.
Andrew McCutchen came to the Bronx just in time before the waiver trade deadline expired and provided a jolt into the Yankees’ offense. The veteran emerged as the team’s leadoff hitter for the stretch run and sported a .421 OBP.
McCutchen, a free agent, could be in line for a reunion – if the price is right.
And let’s address the elephant in the room.
For three years now, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has been linked to the pinstripes. His favorite player of all time is Mickey Mantle. His favorite singer is Frank Sinatra.
Oh yeah, he’s pretty good at baseball, too.
Harper had a down year in D.C. and still hit 34 home runs, reached 100 RBI for the first time in his career and led the National League in walks (130). He’s entering his physical prime (he will be 26 on Opening Day) and his left-handed bat will help balance out the RH-heavy Yankees lineup. Cashman has been reluctant to hand out long, super-lucrative contracts in recent years but Harper would almost certainly be the exception to any rule. A Harper signing could be similar to the Stanton acquisition, where the Yankees benefit just as much off the field – in terms of revenue, merchandise, etc. – as they do on it.
But if the Yankees remain reluctant to spend, they still have Clint Frazier.
There is no guarantee with one of the top players in the farm, as concussions derailed his 2018 season. But Frazier, the prize in the Andrew Miller trade back in 2016, has been dynamic when healthy. The 24-year-old slashed .305/.388/.562 in High-A and Triple-A this past year and his energy is a welcomed addition to the clubhouse.
Then there is shortstop — one that wouldn’t be a question mark if it wasn’t for the aforementioned elbow surgery.
While this could make Machado even more of a possibility, an educated guess would be that Cashman only chases one superstar, with Harper being a better fit for this team.
But there options, both internally and externally.
One suggestion would be to move Torres to shortstop; while that could stunt his growth with the glove at second base, he would be shifting to his natural position. If that becomes the plan, Neil Walker could be in the running to return to the Bronx, where he finished strong after a rough start to the season. Jed Lowrie (.353 OBP) and Asdrubal Cabrera (23 HR, 75 RBI) could be short-term options that can move to super-utility roles once Gregorius returns.
If the Yankees opt to keep Torres at second, a reunion with Adeiny Hechavarria and his spectacular defense is something that can’t be ruled out. Internally, Tyler Wade would have the chance to receive yet another big league shot. While he’s struggled in his limited time in the majors, his skillset and potential aren’t something the organization should be giving up on just yet.
Regardless of the question marks surrounding the offense, the Yankees boasted one of the most potent lineups in baseball, with 267 home runs leading the majors.
But if the organization wants to take their team back to the promised land next year, it’s the pitching that will need to be addressed. And that’s both the rotation and the bullpen.
When it comes to the starting rotation, Severino and Masahiro Tanaka are the only locks to return. CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ will be in the running for short-term deals, with recent reports suggesting that the latter will be more inclined to come back over the former. While Sabathia has emerged as one of the unquestioned leaders in the clubhouse, Happ’s regular season success on the field (7-0, 2.69 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 1.05 WHIP) and comparative youth and health make him the safer bet.
Among free agent targets, Patrick Corbin appears to be the most likely to don pinstripes this offseason. The Syracuse, New York native has expressed an affinity for the Yankees franchise in a midseason USA Today article.
He also happens to be the best pitcher on the market.
Corbin, 29, had his best season to date as the top hurler of the D-Backs’ staff. Through 33 starts, the southpaw pitched in 200 innings and generated a 2.47 FIP while averaging over 11 strikeouts per nine innings. Most importantly, Corbin’s .217 batting average against, low walk rate (6.0%) and 48.5 ground ball percentage fit perfectly into the comfy confines of Yankee Stadium, while his status as a left-hander can help neutralize the short porch in right field.
Names like Charlie Morton and Nathan Eovaldi are strong back-end candidates but the Yankees’ dedication to developing young players points to a prospect getting a shot at the final spot on the staff.
Justus Sheffield will immediately come to mind, and for good reason. Long considered the best pitcher in their farm system, the 22-year-old lefty impressed with a .195 BAA and 123 strikeouts in 116 innings of work. Mike King will be another name that will get a long look in Spring Training after a standout 2018, where he made stops in High-A, Double-A and Triple-A while pitching to a 1.79 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 152:29 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Similar to the offense, the bullpen was another Yankees’ strong suit. They ranked third in FIP (3.33) and fourth in ERA (3.38) while pacing all of baseball in both strikeouts per nine innings (11.4) and WAR (9.7).
Despite the overall success, there will be new faces in the relieving corps. Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green and Jonathan Holder will remain in the Bronx but both Zach Britton and David Robertson will be free to sign anywhere this winter.
The Yankees should – and probably will – discuss retaining both veterans. The likelihood, however, is that only one will come back.
Britton found success over the latter half of his tenure in New York, which could translate to teams looking at him as a closer. That’s something the Yankees can’t offer.
Robertson, meanwhile, has spent all but two and a half of his 12 major league seasons in pinstripes and is interested in a reunion. After his success in 2018 — which included a 2.97 FIP, 11.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, and .183 BAA — retaining the 33-year-old’s services isn’t only likely, but expected.
During the season, rumors surfaced that Andrew Miller had interest in a return to the Yankees. His injury concerns and 2018 season, where he posted his highest ERA since 2011 and lowest strikeout total since 2010, could be a cause for concern. If the veteran is willing to take a one-year, prove it deal, a contract could be agreed upon, especially after the recent success Miller had in New York. But anything more is something the organization should steer clear from.
In what shouldn’t come as a surprise, Stephen Tarpley will get a shot to make the club in March after a dominant stint in the minor leagues and impressive cameo as a September call-up. Justin Wilson – a hard throwing southpaw that struck out over 11 batters per nine innings this past season – is another former Yankee that can be of Cashman’s interest.
For most teams, an appearance in the divisional round isn’t considered an unsuccessful season — but in the Bronx, it’s championship or bust, year in and year out.
This club may be stacked on paper but there is still work to do to catch the Red Sox and Astros. Cashman and company will look to do just that.
Dan Federico is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.
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