2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The New York Yankees.

The Yankees weren’t supposed to contend last year. I mean, sure, the Yankees are always, on some level supposed to contend, but last year was really and truly considered to be what passes for a rebuilding year in New York. A lot of veterans were shipped out or sidelined and a lot of young kids were getting opportunities. It wasn’t a rebuild like most teams rebuild, but it was certainly thought to be a time of transition in the Bronx.

Then all that happened were massive breakouts from Aaron Judge and Luis Severino, a full season from Gary Sanchez in which he built on his 2016 promise, solid performances from a lot of positions which were thought to be question marks, some key deals to patch holes, rebounds from CC Sabathia and a masterful performance from a shutdown bullpen all season long. That led to 91 wins, a Wild Card and a deep playoff run in which they managed to take the eventual World Series champs to Game 7 of the ALCS. Some transition year, eh?

This offseason the Yankees were buyers and sellers, shedding payroll in order to get under the luxury tax but also acquiring the biggest contract in the history of baseball. That the contract is attached to the reigning NL MVP in Giancarlo Stanton makes the “buying” part of that “buying and selling” offseason a lot more significant. The Yankees other moves were all pretty minor, but it’s safe to say that in acquiring Stanton they made the biggest splash of the offseason. In light of that, to think they are anything but the favorites in the AL East and one of the top five teams in baseball is folly.

The lineup will, obviously, be this team’s calling card. The Yankees scored 858 runs last season, second in the majors to the Astros, and they added a 59-home run hitter. And they’ll have Greg Bird all season long. And Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are going to drop bombs in the middle of that order all season long too. There will not be many times the Yankees will be outgunned in 2018.

Still, it’s possible to dwell too much on the slugging stars in the middle of the order and lose perspective. While the local tabloids are holding naming contests to give a “Murderer’s Row” or “Bronx Bombers” nickname to this crew, more grounded folks should at least acknowledge a few question marks. Stuff like the depth of the outfield, with Jacoby Ellsbury (oblique) and Clint Frazier (concussion) each suffering spring training injuries. Neither of them were necessarily going to play a huge role on a day-to-day basis, as Judge, Stanton, Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks are slated to start and/or DH depending on manager Aaron Boone’s whim. Winning teams always depend on depth, though, so it’s not nothing.

The infield is going to look a lot different this year, obviously. Sanchez will be behind the plate like last year, but first, second and third will have new looks compared to last year’s Opening Day.

Bird, who missed most of last season, will start the year at first where the Yankees hope he will show everyone what he’s capable of for an extended period. It seems safe to say he’s capable of a lot, but he needs to show that he can stand up to the grind of the season before he’s anointed the fourth Bomber.

Starlin Castro left in the Stanton trade, Chase Headley was salary-dumped to San Diego and they will be replaced by whoever wins the second/third base competitions currently afoot. Taking their places: some combination of Tyler Wade, the newly-acquired Brandon Drury, the hot-spring-hitting Miguel Andujar, Ronald Torreyes and top prospect Gleyber Torres, who will likely be manning second for good some time this season if he doesn’t get the job out of camp. Veterans Danny Espinosa and Jace Peterson are knocking around for depth. The upshot: there is a chance that the infield will be considerably better, offensively and defensively, than it was in 2017, but there is a lot of uncertainty any time you insert young players and the Yankees will be inserting young players at two key positions.

While the offense is getting all the press this spring, the pitching staff will be every bit of a strength for the 2018 Yankees.

As mentioned above, Luis Severino established himself as an ace in 2018 and, some playoff hiccups notwithstanding, will be one of the top pitchers in the game this season. Beyond him is more consistency and durability than true greatness, but people really underrate consistency and durability. Masahiro Tanaka struggled at times last year but is obviously one of the games’ better starters when he’s on. The re-signed and resurgent CC Sabathia, Sonny Gray and Jordan Montgomery were all above-average starters last year. Even if you figure father time brings Sabathia back down to earth, it’s just as likely that Tanaka regains form. The Yankees had the third best pitching staff in the game last year and a more than respectable rotation. There’s nothing I’m seeing suggesting they’ll take a big step back. It’s a solid bunch.

The bullpen, of course, may be the strongest part of this strong team.

Last year the season started with the Yankees bullpen looking like this:

During the course of the season some radical changes were made, obviously, with the Yankees acquiring Chad Green, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, all of whom dominated in the second half and the postseason. With only partial seasons from those guys, the Yankees’ pen still stood as the best in the game. They’ll all be back and, with a couple of moves around the edges notwithstanding — and with some concern built in for Dellin Betances’ late season erraticism — the pen that was lights out late last year figures to be lights out all season long. They were the best bullpen last season and look better heading into this season.

The final new thing: manager Aaron Boone. He has no coaching or managing experience and, joining a team that almost made the World Series last year, the blame for anything short of that outcome will fairly or unfairly be laid at his feet. Still, if you have to be inserted into a high-expectations situation, landing on a team with the arguably the best lineup in baseball, likely the best bullpen in baseball and a solid rotation is not a bad place to be. Managing is not an easy job, obviously, but if you’re gonna cut your teeth someplace, cutting them with the 2018 New York Yankees is about as good as it gets.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Players get injured. Players regress. The competition can outperform expectations and your own squad can underachieve their own. Stuff happens. That said, it’s hard to predict anything but greatness for the 2018 New York Yankees.

Prediction: First place, American League East.