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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.

Sean Manaea pitches the first no-hitter of 2018

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Athletics southpaw Sean Manaea delivered his first career no-hitter against the Red Sox in a decisive 3-0 victory on Saturday night. Any thought of a perfect game was banished in the first at-bat, when Mookie Betts drew a leadoff six-pitch walk to open the first inning. From there, Manaea was nearly flawless, holding the Sox to four total baserunners and striking out 10 of 30 batters faced — a career record.

Manaea was gifted a three-run lead thanks to RBI doubles from Jed Lowrie and Stephen Piscotty and Marcus Semien‘s solo shot off of Chris Sale in the fifth inning. While the Red Sox managed to draw two walks off of Manaea, they didn’t come anywhere close to plating a run. Andrew Benintendi tried to break up the no-no in the sixth inning with an infield hit down the first base line, but strayed out of bounds and later saw his hit reversed on a call of batter interference.

Entering the ninth inning, the 26-year-old lefty was sitting at just 95 pitches through eight frames of no-hit ball. He quickly deposed Blake Swihart and Mookie Betts with a groundout and fly out, then walked Benintendi on seven pitches. Any threat the Red Sox might have posed was soon eliminated, however, as Hanley Ramirez ground into a force out to complete the no-hitter.

Manaea is the first A’s pitcher to toss a no-no since Dallas Braden’s perfect game against the Rays eight years ago. The last time the Red Sox were on the losing end of a no-hitter was also against an AL West rival, when the Mariners’ Chris Bosio clinched a 2-0 no-no on April 22, 1993. Manaea’s feat is even more outstanding given how dominant the Red Sox have looked this season: prior to Saturday’s defeat, they boasted a 17-2 record and had yet to be shut out during the regular season.