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2017 Preview: New York Yankees

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The New York Yankees.

It was a relatively quiet offseason for the Yankees. The big move was bringing back Aroldis Chapman on the largest ever deal for a closer. They picked up a couple of free agents — Matt Holliday and Chris Carter — whose markets weren’t sizzling but who can provide some pop and, in Holliday’s case, may have one more star season left in the tank. They traded Brian McCann to clear the way for Gary Sanchez, which is wise. Sanchez posted a 1.032 OPS with 20 home runs in only 53 games and featured one of the strongest throwing arms on a catcher in all of baseball. The guy is a beast and seeing him in the bigs for a full season is one of the things I’m anticipating most about 2017.

Obviously, however, this is a club still in the midst of a rebuild. Not a complete tear-down job, but certainly a transition. And with all transitions come some pain and some adversity. Possibly a lot of pain and adversity in the immediate future.

The top of the order is calcifying, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner coming off of horrendous seasons. They’re going to start the season in their customary defensive positions and, presumably, spots in the batting order, but the Yankees really need to find better options. Sanchez has batted second in a couple of spring training games of late, and that’s pretty smart, but it’s not clear at all if that will hold up once the season starts. Even if it does, it’s pretty easy to overstate the importance of batting order and, either way, Ellsbury and Gardner are going to be in there somewhere. Same goes for Chase Headley, who has strung two poor seasons together in New York and figures to be an offensive liability once again.

Elsewhere in the lineup: some solid pop up the middle with Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius, but each are challenged in the OBP department. You can certainly win a championship if those are the two guys you have up the middle, but contending is pretty tough if your two best bats are 20-HR middle infielders who don’t get on base enough. They need some help. They’ll get a lot from Sanchez, presumably, but it’s hard to see where else they’ll get it. First baseman Greg Bird, who is coming off a lost season due to shoulder surgery, is an unknown quantity given the rust. Aaron Judge, who will likely start the year in right, is wet behind the ears. Chris Carter and Matt Holliday are going to have to step a lot at DH and first base when Bird gets a day off. All of these guys have the potential to help out, but all of them will have to exceed expectations to some degree in order for the Yankees offense to improve upon its below average status from 2016.

The rotation is fine at the very top, with Masahiro Tanaka coming off a fantastic season. The next couple of slots have familiar names in Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia, but familiarity doesn’t give you 200 innings. Sabathia had a decent rebound last year but it’s hard to say how much he has left in the tank and Pineda has been unpredictable basically forever. The back end of the rotation is going to be a cocktail of Chad Green, Luis Severino, Adam Warren, Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell, none of whom are necessarily sure bets to be reliable starters. As such, Joe Girardi is going to have to rely a lot on his bullpen. Luckily his bullpen, featuring Chapman, Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard will be excellent. For the second season in a row, the pen is clearly the team’s biggest strength.

The question on everyone Yankees fan’s lips this year will be “when do we see the kids?” Brian Cashman has transformed the Yankees farm system over the past couple of years and it now stands as one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in baseball. It’s loaded with potential future Yankees starters, such as center fielder Clint Frazier and shortstop Gleyber Torres. There’s a chance we see each of those, at least for a spell, in 2017. There are a lot more prospects in the pipeline whose ETA is looking more like 2018 or 2019.

All of which will animate and color the 2017 season in the Bronx. If the veterans exceed expectations and the Yankees are in the playoff hunt in the middle of the season — which is plausible — there will be an incentive to make a deal with some of those prospects in order to fix holes on the big club. If the veterans falter, there will be clamoring to see the kids sooner. For years the Yankees could be counted on to trade prospects off in the name of current contention. They got away from that a few years back, but a lot of it had to do with them not having many great prospects to trade. Now that they have ’em it’ll be interesting to see how Cashman approaches all of this. I suspect he’s dedicated to the rebuild and won’t make deals for the short term, but anything can happen in New York.

I more strongly suspect, however, that Cashman won’t have to make that decision. While Sanchez will be fun to watch and while it’s not crazy to think 4-5 older guys on the roster could improve over last year, the lineup still looks weak to me and the entire rotation beyond Tanaka seems soft. Best case scenario in my mind is a mediocre product through the All-Star break followed by some exciting debuts of young talent that will pique fan interest heading into 2018.

Prediction: Fourth place, AL East.

Giants remove pitching coach Dave Righetti

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After 18 years, 12 winning seasons, seven postseason runs and three World Championships, Dave Righetti is no longer a pitching coach for the Giants. He was removed from his post on Saturday, when the team announced a few reassignments as they shake up their coaching staff. Heading into the 2018 season, Righetti will serve as special assistant to general manager Bobby Evans, former bullpen coach Mark Gardner will step into a similar special assistant role to “assist in pitching evaluations,” and former assistant hitting coach Steve Decker will take a special assistant role in baseball operations.

According to MLB.com’s Chris Haft, Righetti was the longest-tenured pitching coach in the big leagues. He helped shape the careers of notable Giants’ aces like Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain — all Cy Young contenders (and, in Lincecum’s case, a two-time winner) at various points in their careers. He was there to assist Ryan Vogelsong during his stunning mid-career comeback in San Francisco. He helped newcomers like Chris Stratton and Ty Blach flourish even as the team stumbled to the bottom of the division. He was there to take the credit when a sterling rotation clinched the Giants’ 56-year, drought-snapping championship title in 2010 — and, when things went so horribly south in 2017, he took the blame as well.

Hardly anything went right for the Giants’ pitching staff in 2017. Madison Bumgarner was shelved after sustaining a serious shoulder injury in a dirt bike accident, Johnny Cueto couldn’t shake a cluster of blisters on his right hand and Mark Melancon found it difficult to justify a $62 million paycheck after pitching through an arm injury to four blown losses/saves and a 4.50 ERA. It would be a lot for any pitching coach to stay on top of, and given the team’s rapid descent from 2016 postseason contenders to last-place finishers in 2017, it’s not surprising that Evans felt the need to switch things up.

Successors have yet to be named for Righetti, Gardner or Decker, though Murray hears that the Giants could have interest in former major league pitching coach Jim Hickey. NBC Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic adds that Evans is searching for someone to “put a new voice” on the pitching staff and will likely target someone who, like Righetti, brings considerable experience to the role.