The Yankees had their hearts broken the other night by the Astros. They dropped Game 7 of the ALCS and blew a 3-2 lead in the series. Considering they won 91 games, lost to the better team in the ALDS, and nearly eliminated another better team in the ALCS, they had a terrific season by any measure. Perhaps that is of little consolation to Yankees’ fans at the moment — losing hurts no matter how used to winning you are — but there is a lot to be proud of and a lot to be excited about heading into 2018.
Going into the 2017 season, you would have been hard press to find an analyst who favored the Yankees for even a Wild Card slot. I believed that they would have needed a few things to break right to maybe grab the second Wild Card slot. The fact of the matter was that they won only 84 games in 2016, and they were fortunate to win even that many. By BaseRuns, they were a 78-win team. There was little to indicate that they would be much better. FanGraphs projected their 2017 true talent as a 79-win team.
The Yankees were sellers at the 2016 trade deadline, too, and for some nice pieces headlined by Gleyber Torres. The team was, and perhaps still is, in a ‘soft rebuild’. Usually rebuilding teams do not win 91 games. What’s crazy is that by BaseRuns this year’s team performed like a 102-win team. The biggest reason for that was their 18-26 record in one-run games, which is especially surprising given the quality of their bullpen. It is important to note that neither Pythagorean win-loss nor the more advanced BaseRuns win-loss are a measure of a team’s true talent. However, it can indicate that the Yankees are in store for some positive improvement in luck in 2018. This of course, is bad news for the Red Sox, who won the division this year by only two games and suffered another quick first-round exit.
Despite numerous contracts ending this year, the good news is that the Yankees will not be losing any major player to free agency (there is one caveat we will address shortly). Their rentals, Todd Frazier and Jaime García, are now free agents. Frazier is going into his age-32 season, while he is still a solid player, he is no longer an all-star talent. Even so, with Chase Headley under contract for only one more year, it might be worthwhile to bring Frazier back. He should not cost too much and Headley could provide insurance for the injury prone Greg Bird.
The starting rotation is definitely going to have some holes in it, so it could be worth taking a chance on García. He is a fine back-end starter when healthy, and that injury history could make him available on a cheap one-year deal.
Sticking with the pitching, C.C. Sabathia and the inscrutable Michael Pineda are also free agents. After a disappointing 2015, Sabathia has been quite effective the past couple of seasons. Since 2016, he has had a 4.03 RA9 and 5.9 bWAR. But he is 37 years old and had a subpar strikeout rate in a very hitter-friendly stadium. If he is willing to take a reasonable one or two-year deal, I’d take a chance on him.
Pineda had Tommy John surgery in July, so he might not even be available at all next year. Even if that were not the case, I have found Pineda to be one of the most frustratingly confusing pitchers to evaluate.
Matt Holliday will be entering free agency, too, but it is hard to imagine that the Yankees will or should bring him back. He only played 105 games, and he was just a league-average hitter as a DH. He is also going into his age-38 season.
The big question mark foreshadowed above, is Masahiro Tanaka. He can now opt out of the three years, $67 million left on his deal. Whether or not he should opt out is a topic for another day. If he does choose to opt out, the Yankees’ starting rotation will be in bad shape. They will be forced to either break the bank to bring back Tanaka or sign Yu Darvish, or they might have to overpay Sabathia to return.
Worst case scenario, the Yankees might be forced to get starting pitching help from the farm system in 2018, which may be a stretch. Albert Abreu is probably a ways off, though Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield could see major league playing time next year. There are questions as to whether or not Adams’s body will allow him to start, but he had a great 2017, turning in a 2.69 RA9 over 150 IP. ESPN’s Keith Law was especially excited about Sheffield in the AFL.
Speaking of the farm system, it is still in really good shape. Remember, the Yanks are supposed to be rebuilding, and they did a great job of restocking the farm system last year. Law rated the farm system as the second-best going into he season. They did weaken it a bit in trades for Sonny Gray and David Robertson. Law dropped the farm system only a few spots to fifth-best in his midseason ranking.
How the starting rotation plays out during the offseason might make Yankees’ fans nervous, but the good news is that nothing else should add to that. Bullpens generally can see substantial turnover from year to year, but the Yankees will be able to bring back everybody from their excellent 2017 bullpen.
As for the position players, with the exception of Frazier, pretty much everybody is coming back. It will be interesting to see if Aaron Hicks can continue hitting anything close to his line of .266/.372/.475 in 2018. If not, Jacoby Ellsbury could fill in. If Clint Frazier is on the roster, they could try moving Brett Gardner to center field and put Frazier in left field. That certainly would not be ideal defensively, but it could work.
The biggest question mark on the field comes from first base. Greg Bird has trouble staying on the field, and his defense is not great. If they want more security at first base, they could consider signing Carlos Santana in free agency. He is on the wrong-side-of-third, though, turning 32 in April. Eric Hosmer will also be a free agent and is only 28, but it is hard to see how he would be much of an improvement over Bird. His only real advantage is health. He has played less than 152 games only twice in his seven-year career. It is important to note that Bird is making the league minimum, so the Yankees would be paying a $15-20 million premium per year on a free agent.
All the other positions should provide at least average value, and even average value is good. I expect Aaron Judge to regress in 2018, but I would be surprised if he stopped being one of the best hitters in baseball.
Ultimately, the Yankees really are in tremendous shape. The team should be very competitive for years to come. The starting rotation might have some issues if Tanaka and Sabathia do not return, but the organization’s strong farm system can help with that through trade or direct impact from rookies. The Yankees are going to be contenders for years to come, making the rest of the division, and a good number of baseball fans, groan.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.