Yankees season preview, prediction: World Series mantra especially true now

Yankees season preview, prediction:  World Series mantra especially true now

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World Series or bust.

It’s the mentality typically found in The Bronx, but that’s especially true heading into this season. The Yankees are set to get the first full year out of their $324 million man, Gerrit Cole, and they possess a lineup they were intent on keeping together and a bullpen they’re confident is as good and deep as any in the majors. Despite their typical lofty goals, the last time the Yankees got to the Fall Classic was in 2009, and this season a handful of obstacles could stand in their way: the health of the rotation, continued inability to stay on the field from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton or the failure of Gary Sanchez to shake off his dismal 2020 season. The Yankees believe those questions have been addressed and their injury-prone sluggers and deep — but potentially fragile — rotation can withstand the rigors of what the sport hopes will be a 162-game season.

A year ago, the Yankees fell short to the Rays in both the AL East and in the ALDS, but the Rays lost starting pitchers Blake Snell and Charlie Morton and the Red Sox are in the midst of a retooling. The Blue Jays spent freely this offseason, adding George Springer and Marcus Semien to an already potent lineup, and could pose the most dangerous threat to the Yankees within the division.

The Yankees are set to rely on Cole as the ace of a revamped rotation that includes Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, a fearsome offense that still has to prove it can hold up in the playoffs and a bullpen that will be without Zack Britton for the first few months of the season as he recovers from elbow surgery.

Yankees essentials

Most important hitter: DJ LeMahieu is their most consistent hitter, but it’s Aaron Judge who is the most important. While the Yankees know what to expect from LeMahieu, they’ve been waiting for Judge to repeat what he did in 2017, when he dominated over a full season. Injuries have gotten in the way of that happening in the years since, but Judge has been immensely productive when he has been in one piece. His inability to stay on the field is among the reasons the Yankees revamped their strength and conditioning program prior to last season. Judge will turn 29 next month and is slated to become a free agent in 2023. If he’s going to live up to his potential, now would be the time to do so.

Most important pitcher: Gerrit Cole is entering his first full season with the Yankees after signing the biggest deal ever for a pitcher prior to last year. Cole made a dozen starts during the truncated regular season. After his first eight outings, the right-hander had a 3.91 ERA before the Yankees switched things up and replaced the struggling Gary Sanchez with Kyle Higashioka behind the plate for Cole’s starts. He finished the season with a 1.00 ERA in four outings with Higashioka and their shared success continued in the playoffs. This year, the Yankees have to determine how to get the best out of the 30-year-old Cole, and they haven’t given up on the idea of pairing him with Sanchez.

Will have a bigger year than expected: Coming off a historically bad season, Sanchez looked better at bat and behind the plate this spring and the Yankees seem committed to sticking with him. They didn’t cut ties and sign J.T. Realmuto, and they have Sanchez scheduled to start behind the plate on Opening Day with Cole after giving up on that combination last season. Sanchez slumped through the latter part of the spring, erasing at least some of the good vibes he had created, but scouts continue to believe his body and swing look better than they did a season ago. He already bounced back after a dreadful 2018 season with a solid 2019, so he may be in store for another rebound.

Most likely to disappoint: While Giancarlo Stanton has looked good this spring, and has been healthy enough to at least toy with the idea of playing him in the outfield on occasion, the 31-year-old played just 41 regular-season games over the previous two years while dealing with myriad injuries, from his left biceps to his right knee to his left hamstring. Eric Cressey, the Yankees’ director of player health and performance, is trying to keep Stanton — and everyone else — on the field and productive. Stanton, however, has dealt with health issues ever since arriving in New York.

Key call-up: Deivi Garcia lost out on the fifth starter spot to Domingo German, but he’ll no doubt be in The Bronx soon enough, as the Yankees will almost certainly need at least seven — and likely more — starting pitchers to get through the season. Whether it’s Garcia or Clarke Schmidt, who also made his MLB debut last season and will be sidelined by an elbow strain to open the season, the rotation will need to be reinforced at some point. And both young right-handers stood out as much with their confidence as with their stuff, which still needs to be refined.

Biggest managerial decision: Among the main refrains this spring will be how the Yankees handle not just the workload of their rotation, but also the bullpen. While every team will have to deal with this issue to some degree as they figure out how to build up pitchers whose innings were limited last season, Aaron Boone and his staff are also dealing with two important starters — Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon — who have hardly pitched at all the past two seasons due to injuries. Since the Yankees intend on playing deep into October, they want to make sure their best arms remain available for the postseason.

Don’t be surprised if: Jordan Montgomery takes the next step in his career. He has incorporated a cutter into his arsenal and his velocity has been up this spring, which he has coupled with better command. It has added up to an impressive spring, and the 28-year-old seems poised to fulfill the promise he showed as a rookie. The left-hander will be another starter the Yankees need to monitor, because he hasn’t pitched a full season since throwing 155 ¹/₃ innings during that 2017 rookie campaign.

Sure to make fans grumble: You mean besides the first three-game losing streak? Probably the outfield situation. While Judge will be a fixture in right field if he holds up physically, there are bound to be questions in the other two spots, with Clint Frazier set to take over in left and Aaron Hicks trying to finally fulfill his potential in center. Brett Gardner, expected to serve as an “awesome” fourth outfielder, according to Boone, will either be playing too much — or too little — for the fans’ liking, especially if Frazier or Hicks gets off to a slow start.

Will make the playoffs if: Their starting pitching holds up. Their lineup is deep enough to overcome just about any slump or injury during the regular season, but it remains to be seen if the same can be said for the rotation.

Will miss the playoffs if: Everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. Perhaps multiple injuries to the rotation or Sanchez, Stanton and Judge all missing significant time? It would be a colossal upset for them to have to stay at home this October, something they haven’t done since 2016.

Injury that would hurt the most: Gerrit Cole. The Yankees could probably withstand an injury to any position player, and even with Zack Britton out, their bullpen looks strong. Although the Yankees like the depth of their rotation, they are counting on Cole to live up to his reputation. The right-hander has been as durable as any pitcher in the majors since spending time on the disabled list in 2016 with right elbow inflammation.

Playing the field

First base: After leading the majors in home runs last season, Luke Voit will begin this year on the IL due to surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his left knee suffered in camp. He’s expected to be back in May, which should leave him plenty of time to make another sizable impact on the lineup. It’s the third straight year he’s had to deal with a physical issue. Voit’s misfortune opened the door for Jay Bruce, just when it seemed the lefty slugger’s time with the Yankees might be coming to an end after signing a minor league deal in the offseason. Bruce had a promising start to spring before fading, but the Yankees will use him as their primary first baseman with Voit out.

Second base: The Yankees let it be known what they thought of DJ LeMahieu this offseason, holding off on virtually all of their plans until they signed the 32-year-old to a six-year, $90 million deal to secure his steady bat in the lineup. LeMahieu looks to continue his run of success since becoming one of the top hitters in the game with the Yankees over the past two seasons. While the rest of the offense is fearsome, much of it comes with inconsistency or health concerns, with LeMahieu as a notable exception.

Third base: Much like Voit, Gio Urshela joined the Yankees with little fanfare — less, actually. But he also has developed into one of their most consistent threats at the plate and capable of making just about any throw from third base. He has shown off that arm strength again this spring following December surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow. Any thoughts Urshela might not be ready for Opening Day — possibly giving Miguel Andujar a chance to make the team — were quickly dismissed, and he has looked healthy throughout camp. He’s among a handful of Yankees who hasn’t looked good at the plate this spring.

Shortstop: Even general manager Brian Cashman has acknowledged Gleyber Torres is probably better as a second baseman, but that’s LeMahieu’s position. Torres appears to have shaken off his rocky 2020, when he arrived at spring training 2.0 in less than ideal condition. He finished last year in strong fashion, was praised for the work he did during the offseason and has looked good throughout camp. The next step for Torres — who is still just 24 — is to regain the form at the plate he showed two years ago, when he exceeded expectations and hit 38 homers.

Left field: Clint Frazier was anointed the starting left fielder before spring training even started and nothing changed, even after Brett Gardner was brought back to The Bronx. Frazier, 26, took advantage of the opportunities he was given in 2020 when injuries depleted the Yankees’ outfield and he was brought back from the alternate site. Still, Frazier had just seven plate appearances in the postseason, as Gardner picked up more playing time. Will the Yankees resist the urge to go with Gardner’s longer track record if Frazier runs into trouble this season?

Center field: Aaron Hicks signed a seven-year, $70 million extension before the 2019 season, when he was coming off a career year. After a lower back injury early that year, Hicks wound up needing Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow following the season and wasn’t himself last year. His walk rate skyrocketed last season and he has vowed to be more aggressive this season, while he also tries to avoid the injured list.

Right field: Aaron Judge dealt with a fractured rib before last year’s shutdown, and then a right-calf strain sidelined him twice in August. Judge didn’t homer the rest of the regular season following his eventual return from the calf injury, but he hit well in the playoffs. At the plate, Judge caused mild concern by waiting until the last week of spring to hit his first Grapefruit League homer. But there’s little doubt about how productive he can be if he’s OK physically.

Catcher: Few issues loomed larger heading into spring training than the status of Gary Sanchez, who showed up determined to make people forget about how much he had fallen off offensively last season. He put at least some of the fears to rest with mammoth homers early in camp and his work ethic defensively has been praised by the pitching staff. There’s only one way for Sanchez to return to his former place in the game, and that’s by producing during the season. If he doesn’t, the Yankees showed a willingness, last October, to go to Kyle Higashioka, and they likely wouldn’t hesitate to put him behind the plate again.

DH: Giancarlo Stanton’s six home runs in seven postseason games reminded fans why the Yankees traded for him — and his enormous contract — prior to the 2018 season. He has put up some eye-popping numbers on Statcast this spring, with most of the hardest-hit balls throughout camp. But unless he can avoid the injuries that have haunted him the past two years, his prowess at the plate won’t do the Yankees much good.

Starting pitching: Gerrit Cole will be the ace, but will the rotation hold up? Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon hardly pitched the last two years and Domingo German sat out all of last season due to his MLB suspension. German has been outstanding, along with Jordan Montgomery, giving the Yankees even more confidence that their starters will be solid, and Luis Severino is expected to return from last year’s Tommy John surgery sometime around midseason.

Bullpen: The revamped relief corps took some hits this spring. Zack Britton likely will be out until June following arthroscopic surgery and fellow lefty Justin Wilson is dealing with shoulder tightness. They swapped out Adam Ottavino for Wilson and Darren O’Day. Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman have looked good, with Chapman starting to use his newfound splitter more often.

Bench: Gardner will provide lefty versatility off the bench, as well as defense in all three outfield positions, which is what the Yankees are also hoping to get out of Mike Tauchman, who doesn’t have any minor league options left. Bruce looked solid at first base and in the outfield for most of camp and still has power from the left side, but Tauchman was deemed too valuable to let go. Tyler Wade will no doubt fill a role throughout the season, especially backing up at shortstop, and Higashioka has shown he can be relied upon behind the plate.

Prediction: 101-61

The Yankees feel good about their pitching depth and their lineup is proven. With the Rays and Red Sox likely to take a step back in the division, the biggest threat might come from the Blue Jays, but the Yankees should still be able to win the AL East — before the real test begins.

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