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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.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Rays 6, Marlins 4: A pinch-hit, walkoff grand slam from Daniel Robertson completed a stunning last-inning comeback for the Rays, who trailed 4-1 from the second inning all the way until the ninth. The blast, in addition to being cool as hell, salvaged a win in the series for the Rays, denying the Marlins the sweep. Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer struck out 13 in six innings, but he allowed four runs — three earned — on eight hits.

Diamondbacks 6, Rockies 1: Zack Greinke was outstanding, striking out 13 and allowing only one run on two hits over eight innings of work. Backing him up was a two-run triple and a bases-loaded walk from Nick Ahmed, a two-run single from Jeff Mathis and an RBI double from Steven Souza, not necessarily in that order. Not in that order at all, in fact. I just listed them that way because that’s the order in which they interested me. Beware of unreliable narrators, dudes. It’s a classic trope, but one which still snookers the noobs.

Padres 10, Phillies 2; Phillies 5, Padres 0: In the first game Freddy Galvis had his second straight three-hit game against his old club in a row, Travis Jankowski and Wil Myers each had two RBI and the Padres rattled off 15 hits. In the second game Vince Velasquez took a no-hitter into the sixth and ended up allowing only two hits over seven shutout innings as the Phillies earn the split in the twin bill.

Fun Padres note: yesterday, for whatever reason, some random Padres fan went back and found a tweet I made two years ago about Padres general manager A.J. Preller. The tweet came in the wake of that scandal in which Preller was caught hiding players’ medical information from other clubs in the course of transactions.  In it I said that it may be difficult for other GMs to trust Preller in deals in the future and that because of that the Padres should fire him. For what it’s worth, I thought they should’ve fired him for dishonesty regardless, though they obviously did not.

Anyway, the person who found my tweet retweeted it and several other Padres fans responded back to me yesterday afternoon with mockery, noting that Preller subsequently received a contract extension and that the Padres have a great deal of top prospects in their system. Nowhere, however, did any of those people note that the Padres currently have the worst record in the National League and are working on their eighth straight losing season and their ninth in their last ten. And that it isn’t even close, as they have not won even 80 games in any of those losing seasons and aren’t likely to this year either. But yep, they sure got me with that tweet. I feel totally owned.

Pirates 9, Reds 2: It was 6-0 Buccos after two and 8-0 after four and by then the Pirates were thinking about their super short flight up to Cleveland and the Reds were thinking about catching up on whatever Sunday night prestige TV everyone is into at the moment. I don’t watch much of that and I lose track of that stuff, but “Better Call Saul” is coming back in a couple of weeks and that’s my jam. Anyway, Corey Dickerson homered for the fourth time in three days — he was 4-for-5 on the afternoon — and Starlin Marte went back-to-back with him during Pittsburgh’s four-run second frame. Gregory Polanco and Sean Rodriguez also went deep as the Pirates sweep the Reds for the first time in nearly five years which does not seem like it should be right at all but, yep, it is.

Royals 5, Twins 3: Here’s something Vegas was not taking prop bets on: Drew Butera hitting an inside-the-park homer. A tiebreaking, three-run inside-the-park home run, that is. Which, yes, was given a HUGE assist by an ill-advised attempt to make a diving catch by the center fielder and some backup by the right fielder that was apparently called in via regular U.S. Mail, but let’s not take this away from Butera:

The Royals took three in a row from the Twins and in doing so completed their first series sweep in just under a year, which does not seem like it should be right at all but, yep, it is.

Blue Jays 5, Orioles 4: The O’s led 4-1 heading into the bottom of the eighth but a pair of two-run homers — from Randal Grichuk and Yangervis Solarte — changed that pretty quickly. J.A. Happ‘s latest audition for would-be trade partners went well (5 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 9K). John Axford‘s did not (1 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 1 BB), but hey, he vultured a win.

Red Sox 9, Tigers 1: Red Sox recaps feel the same every day. They won. They scored a lot of runs. They got a great pitching performance. Yawn. It’s, like, the banality of dominance or something. Sure, they lost on Saturday and only scored one run in a 1-0 win on Friday, but I didn’t recap those. Perception is everything. Anyway, Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a three-run homer and Chris Sale cruised through six, striking out nine Tigers and not allowing a run. Andrew Benintendi and Eduardo Nunez each knocked in a couple.

Rangers 5, Indians 0: It was the Rougned Odor show as the Rangers’ second baseball knocked in the first three runs of the game via a single, a sac fly and a homer. Ryan Rua‘s two-run homer accounted for the other two Texas runs as Yovani Gallardo tossed six shutout innings and the pen covered the rest. Also: first pitch temperature was 102 degrees and it went up to 108 as the game wore on. I’m firmly on the record thinking that the Rangers are ripping taxpayers off in getting them to build them a new ballpark when they have a pretty new one already, but boy howdy do they need that air conditioned one to get finished because this is simply ridiculous.

Dodgers 11, Brewers 2: Matt Kemp smacked two solo homers and had three hits and scored three runs in all and Chris Taylor drove in three as L.A. blows out Milwaukee to take two of three in the series. Manny Machado had a couple of hits and drove in his first run as a Dodger. He finished his first weekend in blue 5-for-13 with a double and a couple of walks. The Brewers played atrocious defense too. Maybe Ryan Braun isn’t a first baseman? Just a thought.

Cubs 7, Cardinals 2: Jose Quintana allowed two runs on six hits and, most significantly, did not allow a home run to Matt Carpenter, and that’s more than opposing pitchers from the last six games against the Cardinals could say. Really, the dude has been on fire. So on fire that the Cubs played a three-man infield against him in the first, moving Kris Bryant to the outfield out of respect for Carpenter’s 12-at-bat streak of hitting for extras bases. My dude laid down a bunt single. Respect:

That was it for the Cards, though. It was competitive for most of the game but Kyle Schwarber hit a tiebreaking homer with two out in the sixth inning and the Chicago broke it wide open with three runs in the eighth, helping them take three of five from the Cards.

Mariners 8, White Sox 2: Ryon Healy hit two three-run homers in this one — one in the first inning, one in the eighth — as the Mariners win in a romp. The other two runs came in the course of a five-run first inning via a bases-loaded walk drawn by Kyle Seager and a Denard Span sac fly. Healy is far from a complete player — he has 20 homers on the season but he hits for poor contact and seems to hate walks like de Havilland hates Fontaine — but it sure was a hell of an afternoon for the big lug.

Angels 14, Astros 5: Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler and Kole Calhoun all went deep, with Calhoun driving in three as the Angels salvage the final game of a three-game set with Houston. Trout’s first inning single ended a streak of 16 plate appearances without a hit. Trout slumping is . . . weird and unsettling. Andrew Heaney allowed one run over six.

Athletics 6, Giants 5: Matt Chapman singled in Marcus Semien in the bottom of the 10th for a walkoff win. The win also gave Jeurys Familia his first win in his first game as an Oakland Athletic after he pitched two scoreless innings. This after only arriving in Oakland about an hour before the game began after catching a 7 a.m. flight from New York. Between that and no longer having to be a New York Met, things are looking pretty good for him these days.

Nationals 6, Braves 2: Anthony Rendon doubled in two in the first and Bryce Harper homered and drove in two as the Nats split two games with the Braves in a rain-shortened series. Saturday’s game was postponed and this one was delayed almost two hours at the outset and featured an hour and a half delay in the middle of it. Nothing like a steamy late July day in Washington. Besides, as Nats manager Dave Martinez noted after the game, they made the most of it:

“It’s part of it. We play outdoors. But the boys hung in there. They were all pretty loose in the clubhouse, honestly. Watching Shark Week. So, it was good.”

Live every week like it’s shark week.

Mets vs. Yankees — POSTPONED:

Another rainy day in New York City
Softly sweet, so silently it falls
As crosstown traffic crawls

Memories in my way in New York City
Tender, tough, too tragic to be true
And nothing i can do

City workers cheer
The taxis disappear
Another rainy day in New York City