The Yankees were bounced early from the 2020 playoffs when the Tampa Bay Rays KO’d New York in five games in the ALDS.
Tampa had New York’s number the entire COVID-shortened season, posting an 8-2 record against the Yanks during the regular season, and winning the ALDS 3-2.
It was an all-too-familiar storyline for the Yankees, as it’s been 11 long seasons since they participated in, and won, the Fall Classic. New York is inching closer and closer to the longest World Series drought in franchise history, which occurred between 1981 and 1996. The difference, of course, is that this version of the Yankees are contenders nearly every season, not the middling Yankees of the 80s and early-90s. This iteration however has simply not been able to break-through a postseason that is longer, with stiffer competition, and an ever-increasing success-rate based on luck.
Entering 2021, the Yankees again are one of the strongest teams on-paper. FanGraphs’ projects New York with a 90 percent chance to make the playoffs (the next-best team, Toronto, is a little better than 50/50). They are heavy-favorites to win the division (68 percent chance), and are projected to be six wins better than the next-best American League team, with about 95 wins.
New York is largely bringing back the same starting lineup, headlined by Aaron Judge and D.J. LeMahieu, the team’s annual WAR leaders every year since 2017. Luke Voit remains the team’s starting first basemen, completing the compellingly valuable right side of the field. Voit will start the season on the injured list, and New York will have to rely on veteran Jay Bruce to fill in while Voit recovers from a meniscus tear.
Judge remains the best all-around player on the team, but he has not played a full season since 2017 (he missed a lot of time last year due to injuries as well). Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier round-out the outfield, with Brett Gardner a serviceable fourth outfielder.
The left side of the infield is a delight for the Yankees, as Gio Urshela and Gleybar Torres have come into their own as stars. Torres’ first two seasons in New York he posted wRC+ of 121 and 124, before coming down to earth last year. While we shouldn’t totally ignore 2020 stats, the entire situation was strange and outside of anyone’s routine, so we can’t put a ton of stock in it either. Urshela meanwhile has been excellent in pinstripes, posting a wRC+ in the 130 range both seasons in New York.
Gary Sanchez returns as the starting catcher. The boom-or-bust backstop had a forgettable 2020, where he struck out twice as much as he got a hit, and posted a negative fWAR. A return to 2019 form would be a welcome return for Sanchez.
There’s huge upside in the Yankees starting lineup. If Sanchez can manage to put wood on the ball, and if he hits 25 home runs, that’d be a success. If Judge plays 150 games, that’d be even more impactful, and getting Voit back on the field as quickly as possible will help the Yankees tally-up the wins, and ideally take the division with ease. It’s not infeasible all these things happen, but that’s just half the story....
In a strange decision, the Yankees decided not to pursue Masahiro Tanaka (per Tanaka himself) after his initial contract expired, instead they opted for high-risk/high-reward mid-rotation of formerly injured all stars.
Gerrit Cole still headlines the rotation, and Cole is nothing short of spectacular — a workhorse innings-eater who can curb losing streaks and shutdown even the most potent of lineups.
Behind Cole, New York has penciled in Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, and domestic abuser who is back following a suspension served, Domingo German.
That’s a lot of question marks for one rotation.
Kluber is coming off a shoulder injury, and Taillon is returning from his second Tommy John surgery. German was suspended all of 2020, so between the three of them, a total of one inning was pitched in 2020, making a 180-inning season from any of the trio rather unlikely.
Additionally, Luis Severino is recovering from TJS as well, so while he can provide depth, there are questions as to how effective he will be and how much his arm will hold-up post surgery.
The Yanks pen looks fairly strong, with Aroldis Chapman (another domestic abuser), Zack Britton, Chad Green, and Darren O’Day highlighting the relief corps. The question is going to be how many innings these players need to eat-up thanks to a starting rotation that hasn’t really thrown much recently.
Timing-wise the Yankees are in decent shape. Boston is still a shadow of its former self, trying to figure out what the post-Mookie Betts era looks like, and the Blue Jays are probably still at least a year away from being true contenders in the division.
The Rays remain good, and will likely be nipping at the Yankees’ heel most of the season. If injuries strike one team more than the other, this division may be a runaway.
This 2021 Yankees’ roster may win 100+ games, or they may top-out in the high 80s, but that’s still a really high floor, especially considering the rest of the American League competition. New York is in an enviable position, with an ace-in-the-hole, of being able to go out and add what they need at the deadline if needed. This is a team that can and will spend money.
In today’s game and brand of baseball, particularly postseason baseball, it’s always naïve to take one team over the field to win the pennant, but if any team is positioned to be that pick, it’s the Yankees.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano