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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.

Report: Some MLB teams using outside labs for COVID-19 testing

MLB COVID-19 testing
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The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Zach Buchanan report that the Diamondbacks are one of several teams that have used labs other than the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Utah to process COVID-19 testing. MLB has encountered delays with its testing, despite promising 24-hour turnaround time, so teams have tried other avenues — with the league’s endorsement — in order to get faster results.

The SMRTL had processed performance-enhancing drug screenings for MLB. The league converted it to process COVID-19 tests amid concerns that having a season and all of the testing that would be required throughout would take away testing resources from the general public. That some teams are utilizing labs other than the SMRTL suggests the league, indeed, is usurping those resources.

In prospect Seth Beer’s case, he tested positive for COVID-19. He needed to test negative twice consecutively to be cleared to return to play. Beer went to a third-party site in the Phoenix area. He received his second negative test and was cleared to return on July 9.

The Diamondbacks said that the labs they have used have assured them that they are not taking away tests from the public. That seems like a claim MLB and the D-Backs should demonstrably prove. Per Rosenthal and Buchahan, the D-Backs have gone to an outside lab about 20 times, which accounts for less than one percent of COVID-19 tests taken by players and staff. Still, those are 20 tests that could have been used by the general public. And if the D-Backs and a handful of other teams already are using outside labs, then the rest of the league likely already is or soon will be doing the same. In the end, there will be a lot more than 20 tests taken at outside labs by MLB players and staff. Considering that “Tier 1” players will be tested every other day throughout the season, the total of third-party tests taken — if things continue the way they are now — could easily reach into the thousands by the end of October.

We all want baseball back, but the players, coaches, and all other staff are no more important than cashiers, teachers, and delivery drivers, so they shouldn’t have more access to COVID-19 testing simply by virtue of being associated with Major League Baseball and all of its influence and financial muscle. It would be unethical for MLB to be cutting in line ahead of other people who need testing just as much as if not more than the players.