2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The New York Yankees. 

The Yankees finished out of first place for the third year in a row, the first time that has happened since 1991-93. The storied franchise has not been the powerhouse it used to be, like when it won 94-plus games in 11 of 12 seasons between 2001-12. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that they’re not capable of competing this coming season.

Last season, the Yankees went 87-75, finishing in second place behind the Toronto Blue Jays. They fell 3-0 to the Astros in the Wild Card game, ending their season a bit earlier than anticipated. Had a few more things gone right, such as Mark Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury staying healthy, things might have turned out differently.

Not too much has changed as the Yankees prepare for the 2016 season. The club acquired Starlin Castro from the Cubs and moved him over to second base. Castro compiled a disappointing .671 OPS with the Cubs last season and he eventually lost playing time at shortstop to prospect Addison Russell, prompting a shift to second base. Castro turned things up offensively towards the end of the year, as he hit .367 with six home runs in 116 plate appearances between August 25 and October 4. The Yankees consider him an upgrade, as Stephen Drew garnered most of the playing time at the position last year and put up a poor .654 OPS.

The Yankees also acquired closer Aroldis Chapman from the Reds for four minor leaguers. Many think the Yankees paid a relatively cheap price for the flamethrowing lefty, as Chapman was involved in a domestic dispute for which he was eventually suspended by Major League Baseball. He’ll miss the first 30 games of the season, meaning Andrew Miller will handle closing duties in the interim. Once Chapman is back, the back of the bullpen will be better than anybody’s, as Miller will share the seventh and eighth innings with Dellin Betances.

Elsewhere, the roster is familiar… and old. Looking around the starting lineup, catcher Brian McCann is 32 years old. Mark Teixeira turns 36 in April. Brett Gardner is 32. Jacoby Ellsbury is 32. Carlos Beltran turns 39 in April. Alex Rodriguez turns 41 in July. As research has shown, baseball players begin their decline around 30 years old, and many of the Yankees’ starters are well past that line of demarcation.

Age-related decline is not a guarantee, though. Rodriguez, after missing all of the 2014 season, smacked 33 home runs with an .842 OPS in 151 games as a 39-year-old. He became only the sixth player to hit 30-plus homers at the age of 39 or older. McCann hit 26 homers last year, Teixeira hit 31, and Beltran hit 19.

The starting rotation is where the Yankees have the most upside. Masahiro Tanaka is followed by Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, and one of CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. A 95th-percentile outcome would include another ace-like season from Tanaka, Pineda finally living up to his hype as a top prospect in the Mariners’ system, Eovaldi finding a way to miss bats with his mid-90’s fastball, Severino reprising last year’s impressive rookie campaign, and Sabathia having a bounce-back season. If all of this were to happen – and it’s not likely to – the Yankees would absolutely threaten for the AL East crown.

Overall, though, the Yankees are relying on too many old, injury-prone players to be fully healthy and productive over a grueling 162-game season. Plus, it doesn’t help that they’re playing in arguably the toughest division in baseball.

Prediction: Same record as last year, 87-75, third place in the AL East.

Blue Jays clinch playoff berth with Orioles’ loss to Red Sox

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TORONTO — The Blue Jays clinched a postseason berth Thursday without taking the field.

Toronto was assured of an AL wild card berth when the Boston Red Sox beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-3.

If Toronto holds its current position as the first of the AL’s three wild cards, the Blue Jays would open a best-of-three wild-card series at Rogers Centre next week.

“These guys are excited to be in this position,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said after Wednesday’s 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees. “You’ve got three really good pitchers lined up against a good Boston team, playing at home. So I think it’s more excitement more than it’s nerves or anything. I think the guys are going to come out and be ready to roll on Friday night.”

Toronto became the fourth AL team to clinch a playoff berth, joining division champions Houston, the Yankees and Cleveland. The Astros and Yankees have first-round byes.

The Blue Jays last went to the playoffs in 2020, when they were knocked out with two straight losses to Tampa Bay.

Eight of the 12 berths in the expanded postseason have been clinched: The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis earned division titles, and Atlanta and the New York Mets are assured no worse the wild cards while still competing to win the NL East. The Dodgers have a first-round bye.