2021 Season Preview: New York Yankees

(Photo: David Richard, USA Today Sports)

New York Yankees

by Ben Poon

2020 Record: 33-27 (2st in the AL East, Lost 3-2 to TB in ALDS)

2020 Payroll: $178,990,714 (2nd in MLB)

Projected 2021 Lineup (Lineup projections via Rotochamp, stat projections via Steamer)

  1. 2B DJ LeMahieu, .295 AVG/.355 OBP/.455 SLG, 3.9 fWAR
  2. RF Aaron Judge, .252 AVG/.373 OBP/.515 SLG, 4.4 fWAR
  3. SS Gleyber Torres, .276 AVG/.358 OBP/.506 SLG, 4.1 fWAR
  4. DH Giancarlo Stanton, .252 AVG/.348 OBP/.541 SLG, 2.4 fWAR
  5. CF Aaron Hicks, .239 AVG/.359 OBP/.434 SLG, 2.8 fWAR
  6. 3B Gio Urshela, .270 AVG/.325 OBP/.470 SLG, 1.9 fWAR
  7. 1B Jay Bruce, .232 AVG/.301 OBP/.470 SLG, 0.1 fWAR
  8. C Gary Sánchez, .222 AVG/.308 OBP/.475 SLG, 1.7 fWAR
  9. LF Clint Frazier, .249 AVG/.326 OBP/.458 SLG, 1.1 fWAR

Projected 2021 Rotation

  1. RHP Gerrit Cole, 201 IP/3.54 ERA/1.09 WHIP, 5.1 fWAR
  2. RHP Corey Kluber, 156 IP/4.19 ERA/1.23 WHIP, 2.5 fWAR
  3. RHP Jameson Tallion, 133 IP/4.64 ERA/1.33 WHIP, 1.7 fWAR
  4. LHP Jordan Montgomery, 122 IP/4.41 ERA/1.30 WHIP, 2.0 fWAR
  5. RHP Domingo Germán, 131 IP/4.64 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.5 fWAR

Offseason Recap

As the sports world was put on pause for the majority of early 2020, Opening Day for the MLB regular season was delayed. However, the Yankees shined a beacon of hope upon the country on July 23rd, as they began their quest for their 28th ring against the reigning-champion Washington Nationals. The 2020 regular season for the New York Yankees had its ups and down, with no shortage of injuries once again. This tumultuous 60 game stretch earned them a 2nd place AL East finish behind the Tampa Bay Rays and the #5 overall seed in the 2020 MLB Playoffs. With an expanded postseason, the Yankees faced the #4 seeded Cleveland Indians, where they made quick work of them, sweeping the series 2-0. Down 4-1 in Game 2, Gio Urshela had a revenge grand slam against his former team to give the Yankees a lead. While the Yankees tried to blow it on numerous occasions, DJ LeMahieu’s go-ahead single in the 9th inning off of Brad Hand completed the comeback and sealed the fate of the Tribe. Following the Cleveland series, the Bombers headed out West to face the AL East Champion and #1-seeded Rays. And while the Yankees put up a spirited fight, Randy Arozarena, Mike Brosseau, and the Tampa Bay bullpen stymied the Yankees just enough to win the series 3-2. 

Many questions arose among the Yankee faithful following the Tampa Bay series, particularly about some of the decisions made by manager Aaron Boone. Some examples of the questionable decision-making were choosing to bring in JA Happ in the 2nd inning of Game 2 and pinch-hitting Mike Ford in the later innings of Game 5. Regarding the Happ decision, it felt like the Yankees were overthinking the situation, as young gun Deivi García looked just fine in his first inning of work, with exception being an Arozarena home run. The strategy was obviously to get the Rays to start all their lefties and then use the reverse Uno card on them to have them switch to their righties. This might have worked if not for JA Happ being hot garbage, as he proceeded to let the game get away from the Yankees and allow the Rays to even the series. In real time, I didn’t think the move was that bad, as I appreciated the creativity behind the decision. After some reflection, though, the quality in pitcher was just too much of a drop off for it to warrant success in the long run, especially against a team as talented as the Rays. The poor decision making by Boone didn’t stop there, as he chose to pinch hit Mike Ford for Kyle Higashioka late in a tied, winner-take-all Game 5. In a vacuum, the move wasn’t terrible, as the Rays bullpen was primarily right-handed and Ford has the ability to change the game with one swing. However, the move has two caveats. First, Mike Ford hadn’t had a hit since August, so he might not have been the best option to have pinch hit (Clint Frazier???). Second, and more importantly, Higashioka’s defense was stellar throughout the game. His still hand behind the plate was stealing strikes on the outside corner all game long and it helped the Yankees accumulate timely outs. With Higashioka out of the game, the Yankees turned to defensive wizard Gary Sánchez to catch in the 8th inning. And as fate would have it, Sánchez shakily caught a borderline 0-2 slider from Chapman that was ultimately called a ball. A few pitches later, Mike Brosseau would homer and put the Rays up for good. While it’s speculative, I think if Higashioka was still catching, the Yankees get that strike call and perhaps win the game, rather than lose in devastating fashion.

After the disappointing end to 2020, the Yankees realized that their window is closing with their current core, and the time to win is now. As a result, General Manager Brian Cashman chose to pull out all the stops during the 2020 offseason. For starters, the most urgent move in the mind of most Yankee fans was the re-signing of our best hitter from the last two seasons, DJ LeMahieu. Cashman even said on the record that re-signing “LeMachine” was the top priority for the Yankees. And after what felt like an eternity, LeMahieu re-signed for a contract worth $90 million over the next six years. From the Yankees’ perspective, the contract is a little long for a skill player, but it’s understandable for a player like DJ, as his skills are not likely to deteriorate over time like a power hitter’s would. 

As Yankee fans were content with the re-signing, Cashman had a few more tricks up his sleeve to bolster the Bombers’ rotation. Just days after the LeMahieu contract, the Yankees signed former Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to a one year, $11 million deal. Kluber, who was on the Indians and Rangers most recently, has struggled in the last two seasons and is looking to regain his once-dominant form. From the Yankees’ perspective, this is a “prove it” deal, as he is 34 and only pitched one inning in the shortened 2020 season. However, the ceiling is through the roof with him and the past few seasons have shown how important pitching depth is, especially in the playoffs. A low-risk signing like this gives the Yankees said depth and could turn a good staff into a great one if Kluber finds his mid-2010s form. A week after that, Cashman further surprised Yankee fans by making another splash, as he traded for Pirates SP Jameson Taillon in exchange for a slew of prospects, none of which are in the top 10 of the farm system. I will go into more detail about Taillon later, but he is another bounce back candidate, as he’s a player with a lot of injury history, but loads of raw talent. If both these guys can contribute positively to this season, the Yankees will finally have some consistent help in the rotation behind Cole. In terms of other supplements, veterans Darren O’Day, Justin Wilson, and Jay Bruce were brought in to improve the bullpen and add a lefty bat to the bench.

In terms of losses, the team didn’t lose any offensive starters from the year before. However, the entire pitching staff needed to be replenished, as evident by the highlighted moves above. High leverage relievers Tommy Kahnle and Adam Ottavino are no longer with the team, as Kahnle signed with the Dodgers on a two-year $5 million contract, while Ottavino was traded to the archrival Red Sox in exchange for some salary relief. Furthermore, the Yankees lost starting pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton, as they signed with the Tohoku Golden Eagles of Japan and the Seattle Mariners, respectively. Out of that group of pitchers, I will miss Tanaka and Kahnle the most, as they had been on the team the longest and provided the Yankees with many clutch moments on the slab, especially in the playoffs. They were both also great clubhouse guys that shared a lot of laughs with their teammates. And while all our losses will be missed, the group of 26 guys that end up playing on East 161st Street this year will warrant some of the highest expectations in recent memory. 

2021 Season Preview

Not much has changed from a seasonal perspective in the field from last year to this one. However, the injuries will not rest with this team, as the MLB home run leader from the year before, Luke Voit, will start the season on the IL with a partially torn meniscus and will miss at least the first month of the year. Also, Zack Britton, the team’s most consistent reliever from the year before, has a bone chip in his elbow in Spring Training and will be out until June. Anyone remember Luis Severino? Well, he’s still recovering from his Tommy John surgery and is expected to return in the late June-early July range. And for those keeping score at home, formerly relevant Miguel Andújar is dealing with a hand injury that might prevent him from playing anytime in the near future. It just doesn’t end with this team, as if the baseball gods are continuously trying to handicap one of the most prolific teams of the decade. And knowing how Judge, Stanton, Sánchez, etc. are made of glass, I fully expect at least one of them to be out for a while this year. I will set the Over/Under for Yankee starters being out for an extended period of time at 4.5, and I will happily take the over. 

As a result of the Voit injury, it appears based on recent roster moves that Jay Bruce will take over the first base job for the time being, as he was awarded a spot on the roster. Bruce, who repeatedly tried to break my heart while with Cleveland in the 2017 ALDS, provides a much-needed lefty bat in the middle of the Bomber lineup. While his first base skills are in question (he’s only played about 100 games there throughout his career), it’s not a gigantic drop off defensively from the other options in the organization, and Bruce’s bat is surely an improvement from those guys (I’m looking at you, Mike Ford). The Yankees haven’t had a natural, pull-first power lefty since Robinson Cano, so I’m excited to see how he blends in with a group dominated by righties. 

The rest of the starting infield remains the same, as LeMahieu will play 2nd, Torres will be at short, and Urshela will man the hot corner. Out of the 3, the one player I’m the most nervous about going into this season is surprisingly Torres. The reasoning for this is that he’s been the most volatile player out of the bunch, as DJ and Gio have been about as steady as can be. Specifically, the inconsistency came on defense last year. Gleyber was one the worst defensive shortstops in the shortened season, finishing with 9 errors and lots of shaky throws that were thankfully picked by Voit. Most people thought the move from 2nd to short would improve Gleyber’s defense, as it’s his natural position, but he was having a tough time readjusting his range and making simple throws. Hopefully it was just the byproduct of a fluky 60 game year, but it’s definitely a cause for concern going into the season. 

The outfield/DH spots will continue to be strong, as long as the boys can avoid the injury bug. As much as I hate Aaron Hicks hitting in the 3 spot and Stanton striking out far too often, they are still one of the strongest cores in the league with a lot of depth. However, the catcher position is a completely different story. I’m currently up to my wits’ end with Sánchez and in my opinion, he should’ve already been replaced. The last few years with him have been terrible and underwhelming and I think Higashioka deserves a chance to compete for the job. The defensive difference between the two is night and day, and while you can argue the offense dips with him in, the Yankees are a deep enough lineup to be able to make that trade off. It appears that Sanchez will start for the near future, so hopefully he can prove me wrong.

As previewed in the offseason moves, the real changes this season are coming on the mound. Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Darren O’Day, and Justin Wilson will all be immediately thrust into key roles within the staff. O’Day excites me as an Ottavino replacement, as his numbers dictate that he’s a more efficient version of the former #0. Wilson is a former Yankee that has been somewhat of a journeyman since leaving the team. Having another quality reliever on the staff who already knows how to pitch in the big market hopefully will be vital down the stretch. We already know what we are getting from star Gerrit Cole (current AL Cy Young favorite), Swiss Army knife Chad Green, and flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, so we just need to hope the supporting cast of the new guys, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, and hopefully Luis Severino can be enough to take this team back to the promised land.

2021 Record Prediction: 98-64, 1st in the AL East, #2 overall seed

Player to Watch #1: DJ LeMahieu, 2B

Most of the offseason, there was a chess match between LeMahieu and the Yankees’ front office. While I was never really afraid he’d sign somewhere else, I knew in the back of my head that someone else would pay DJ what he’s worth if the Yankees decided the price was too high. But thankfully, we came to our senses and he’s back. LeMahieu said in the press conference after signing that he always wanted to end up back in New York, so it makes sense for him to stay under contract until he’s 38. And boy, am I happy that he’s here to stay. What he has done on the field the last two seasons has been nothing short of magic. Consistent hitting, sparkling defense, clutch at-bats, durability, and a no-nonsense attitude that the fans love; he’s been the total package. He’s the player I’d choose 10 times out of 10 to be hitting in a key situation for my team. Keep doing your thing this season, and I’ll have no choice but to continue to praise you.

Player to Watch #2: Jameson Taillon, SP

One of my personal favorite MLB The Show pitchers, I couldn’t help but smile when I got the notification that the Yankees acquired Taillon from the Pirates. The guy’s curveball is legit, as it has one of the hardest breaking 12-6’s in the league. Of course, the past injuries are a concern, as they would be with anyone who has had two Tommy John surgeries. However, I have high hopes for Jamo. I think his long-lasting friendship with Gerrit Cole will largely benefit him. It will provide Taillon with an immediate friendly face in a clubhouse full of strangers, as they have been buddies since their tenure in Pittsburgh. Also, the Pirates have an uncanny ability for their talent to blossom once leaving their organization (e.g.: Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, Gerrit Cole lol), so there’s a chance Taillon becomes a bonafide superstar simply because he’s left Pittsburgh. Overall, he’s the largest wild card in the rotation, and his performance has the ability to dictate how far the Yankees go this year.

Player to Watch #3: Clint Frazier, OF

Is it finally time the Yankees let their fastest bat get regular playing time? I want to call Frazier a prospect, but I’m not sure I can at this point. He’s been up and down from the minor leagues for 4 seasons now and the only things that have stopped him from playing are injuries and Brett Gardner. The Yankees have decided to bring Gardner back again for this season, but Aaron Boone has made it abundantly clear that Frazier will be starting in left field. A knock on Frazier’s game in the past was his defense, but he showed off a strong throwing arm and improved route efficiency this past season. His approach at the plate was also much improved, as he sported a .394 OBP last year along with an above-average .511 SLG. I really hope the kid takes advantage of his shot this year, as it’s painful to see him play in short spurts with trade rumors always floating over his head. If he can show the Yankees how valuable he actually is this season, don’t be surprised if he’s manning the 7 spot for the next decade.

Categories: 2021 Season Preview, Articles

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