Our previews of the AL East teams, part of looking at all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, continue with the New York Yankees, who finished in fourth place in the division last season.
Although they finished six games over .500 last season, the Yankees finished in fourth place in the division for the first time since 1992. They’re in the middle of a youth movement, though, following the retirements of DH Alex Rodriguez and 1B Mark Teixeira. Also gone from the team are veteran OF Carlos Beltran and C Brian McCann — who both went to the Astros, Beltran in free agency and McCann in exchange for a couple of minor-leaguers. One reason the Yankees traded McCann is because one of the first of the young Yankees to come up to the majors back on August 3 was C Gary Sanchez, who got the call-up and performed well at the plate. Sanchez is expected to be joined by a couple more rookies this season, with 1B Greg Bird and OF Aaron Judge looking likely to begin the season as starters at their positions. They’ll be joining veterans like OF Jacoby Ellsbury, 3B Chase Headley, and new Yankee Matt Holliday, who is likely to spend a lot of time as a DH after signing a one-year deal with the team this winter. The other notable free-agent acquisition made by the Yankees this offseason is RP Aroldis Chapman, who is returning to the Bronx after being traded to the Cubs at the trade deadline last season; the closer signed a five-year deal.
The Yankees’ .252 batting average was slightly below the MLB average of .255 and their .720 OPS ranked in the bottom 10 as a result of hitting just 183 home runs, which put them in the bottom half of the majors. After coming up in early August, Sanchez hit .299 with 20 home runs and a 1.032 OPS with a 3.0 WAR. Those 20 home runs were the third most on the team, putting him just two behind team leader Beltran and one behind 2B Starlin Castro. Ellsbury hit .260 with 9 home runs and 20 steals for the year while OF Brett Gardner hit .261 with 7 home runs.
The Yankees’ 4.16 ERA finished barely better than the league average of 4.18, helped by a strong performance by the bullpen. In his 31 games with the Yankees before being traded, Chapman posted a 2.01 ERA with 20 saves and 44 strikeouts in 31.1 innings (including his time in Chicago, he notched 36 saves on the season with a 1.55 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 58 innings). RP Dellin Betances, who got some time in the closer’s role after the team traded both Chapman and RP Andrew Miller, struck out an impressive 126 batters — which led all relievers in the majors — in 73 innings with a 3.08 ERA in 12 saves. The rotation didn’t do as well, beset by injuries and subpar performances. SP Masahiro Tanaka was the best of the bunch, and his numbers aren’t what you want to see from your ace. He posted a 3.07 ERA with 165 strikeouts in 199.2 innings. SP CC Sabathia had one of his best seasons in a while, but that resulted in a 3.91 ERA with 152 strikeouts in 179.2 innings. It just gets worse from there with SP Michael Pineda going 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA in 175.2 innings over 32 starts. Pineda did rack up strikeouts, with 207 of them on the season.
The offense will look pretty different from last season with guys like Sanchez and Bird replacing the likes of Beltran and Teixeira. One problem you have with young hitters is you don’t know how they’ll adjust to major-league pitching. Sanchez did well for the two months he was in the majors last season and if he can replicate that, it will give the Yankees strong production out of a position that doesn’t usually feature a lot of offensive ability. As long as the rookies don’t entirely flame out, the Yankees should at least increase their home run totals this year, and potentially their overall offense. The pitching, however, is a different story. Without acquiring any starting pitching, the rotation is likely to struggle again this season. The best shot at improvement could be with P Luis Severino, who split time between the rotation and bullpen but is expected to be a full-time starter in 2017. Chapman and Betances should be able to anchor the bullpen well this year, whenever they get a lead handed over to them.
The Yankees are in a tough division — as evidenced by a fourth-place finish despite winning 84 games — so, while the team should be improved this season, it’ll be hard to make the playoffs coming out of the division. They’ll likely be fighting with the Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays for positioning, but I think the Yankees are — at best — the third-best team in the division, behind Boston and Toronto. Without a strong rotation, I can’t see them winning many more games than they did last year. If they can trade for a top-of-the-rotation guy by the deadline, maybe they’ll compete for a wild card in the American League, but without that I don’t see it happening. Still a year or two away from returning to the postseason.