‘Tis the season, isn’t it, folks? Whether you’re in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah or gearing up for Christmas or Kwanza, or the Winter Solstice, or whatever you celebrate, it’s the holiday season. In that spirit–and in the spirit of keeping safe and healthy in our celebrations this holiday season–here’s a list of my holiday wishes for some Yankees.
Gary Sanchez: For Gary, I wish a year of no tinkering and no tampering with his approach behind the plate. We’ve heard via Luke Voit that Gary is already working to correct his poor hitting in 2020 and that’s what he needs. What I think he doesn’t need–and I’ve expressed this before–is another round of fiddling with his catching. Sanchez will likely never be a great blocker, maybe not even a good one, but even without the tampering last year, he was a decent framer. He also calls a good game and has a rocket arm. Let him focus on what he’s good at behind the plate so that his struggles and adjustments there don’t carry over to the plate like they did in 2020.
Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Luke Voit: For these three, I wish for fully healthy and productive seasons. The former is asking a lot, especially so of Hicks and Judge, but I so badly want these three to play 140+ games in 2021 to show off what they can really do. Given their levels of talent and previous levels of production, all three could be MVP candidates with full seasons under their belts.
Finally, the Yankees’ front office got its man. The Yankees coveted Gerrit Cole for years: the team drafted him in the first round back in 2008 (but couldn’t sign him away from his commitment to UCLA) and tried to trade for him before the 2018 campaign. The third time, free agency, was the charm. Cole in pinstripes finally came to reality in 2020.
By the numbers, Cole’s debut season with the Yankees was a good one. He went 7-3 in 12 starts and posted a 2.84 ERA in the pandemic-shortened regular season. That was good enough for fourth-place in American League Cy Young voting. Cole also pitched very well in the postseason, as advertised. But when you break it all down, things weren’t smooth all season for the team’s prize acquisition. Let’s take a look.
A slow start
The newly minted ace didn’t necessarily get off to a poor start, but it also wasn’t the beginning that was expected. Cole wasn’t ferociously mowing down opponents like we saw him do over the last two seasons with the Astros in the early going. He struck out just 16 batters in his first three starts (17 2/3 innings), though the Yankees won all three of those games and Cole allowed just five runs (2.55 ERA).
His next start came in Tampa Bay and it sure looked like we were in for the first overpowering performance of Cole’s career in pinstripes. The Yanks gave him a 5-0 lead and Cole had eight strikeouts through four innings before the wheels came off. He was pulled after he gave up three runs and recorded just two outs in the fifth (both strikeouts). For a while, it felt like Cole was off to a 7 or 8 inning performance with 14 or 15 strikeouts. Instead, he couldn’t finish the fifth (though he did punch out 10).
If it feels incredibly early to start thinking about 2021 projections, that’s because it is. Last year, we started this series in January. This year, we get an early start merely as a result of the ZiPS projections for the Yankees last week. It just so happens that the Yankees were on the early end of FanGraphs’ release schedule this time around. Of course, the roster will change by spring training. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t peek at how things stand right now.
The graphic adds up to +49 WAR. That’s a 97 to 99 win team, keeping in mind that a replacement level club is said to win between 48 and 50 games. Adding up the WAR is incredibly dumb far more often than not, and I must say that calling the current Yankees club a near-100 win team seems like a stretch. That’s without DJ LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, and James Paxton, after all. I guess it speaks to this team’s high-end talent.
Similar to last year, I’m going to call out some notable projections. Ones that I think sell the player short, ones that are too aggressive for my taste, ones that feel just right, and some surprises. Let’s get to it:
Betting the over
Hitter: Gio Urshela has hit .310/.358/.523 (133 OPS+) with 27 homers in 650 plate appearances since joining the Yankees. ZiPS, however, doesn’t seem quite ready to fully buy in on the 29 year-old third baseman. The system projects a triple-slash of .283/.331/.459 (110 OPS+) and 18 homers in 508 plate appearances. A good offensive projection, but I presume that ZiPS is scarred by Urshela’s pre-Yankees offensive performance. Urshela might regress a little bit, but there’s nothing that indicates him taking as big of a step back as ZiPS estimates. Not only have Urshela’s results been good, but he’s made mechnical adjustments and is a Statcast darling. This is an easy over for me.
Even though the Yankees exited the playoffs way earlier than we expected or wanted, there were two silver linings: Giancarlo Stanton raking and Gerrit Cole dealing. The latter was highlighted all the more by the general non-dealing of the rest of the Yankee rotation. And as the Yankees stare into the void of the offseason, I find myself thinking a lot about their starting rotation and pitching staff in general.
Over the last little while, the Yankees’ pitching strength has been their bullpen. Year after year, they have a solid relief core and that’s true now. Hell, their set-up guy in Zach Britton would be the closer on just about every other team, and the same might be true of Chad Green. This pattern seems to work for them; they win lots of games and most always make the playoffs. But the problem is that once they get there, their super-bullpen is a little less super, having been used to the point of being gassed by October.
A solution to this is for the Yankees to go after another reliever in free agency or a trade to deepen the bullpen. It’s a solution the Yankees could easily and rightly pursue. However, I think they need to take a different course: strengthening the rotation.
Yes, there’s a hot take for you, folks: a baseball team needs to strengthen its starting pitching. The Yankees have attempted this, with varying degrees of success, over the last few years. They’ve traded for Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, JA Happ, and James Paxton. And, of course, they signed Gerrit Cole. But for the most part, these moves just filled out the rotation rather than adding necessary depth to it.
Going in to 2021, the only real sure thing in the rotation is Gerrit Cole. Happ, Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka are all free agents and I’d wager only one of them–likely Tanaka–will ever pitch for the Yankees again. Even if they bring Tanaka back (yes, please), they’ll still be left with questions in the rotation, given Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt’s youth and inexperience as well as Luis Severino’s Tommy John Surgery recovery. As such, the Yankees should sign Tanaka as well as at least one other starter, preferably two.
Signing multiple starters would have a threefold positive effect for the Yankees. First, it would add reliability and predictability to the rotation. We know what the Yankees will get out of Cole and what they would get out of Tanaka. Beyond that, we’re not sure. Second, and this is related to the first, it would give the Yankees a little insurance against the growing pains of Garcia and Schmidt. Sure, signing three starters might push one of them–or both–out of the five man rotation at times, but there will always be room, always be innings to go around. Third, and perhaps most important, is that signing more starters could help give the Yankee bullpen a break.
Given how much the Yankees rely on their bullpen and how vital a strong bullpen is to October success, keeping the relievers well-rested is of the utmost importance. Signing multiple starters can allow for this with more starter-pitched innings in the regular season. Additionally, any extra starters could be deployed out of the bullpen in the playoffs to give the high-leverage arms some rest in a time when rest is scarce.
I’m not saying the Yankees need to go wild and back the truck up for Trevor Bauer–frankly, I’m not convinced of him. But I would like them to bring back Tanaka and bring in some other starters–Marcus Stroman? Charlie Morton? For too long, the Yankees’ pitching success has been predicated upon their bullpen. I’m not sure they can reach the next level while continuing to do that.
Well, last night’s game sure was great. I know that these Yankees have a reputation with some fans for backing down when the going gets tough, but I don’t see it. They’ve consistently not gone away all season – even when they folded for a bit in September, they stormed back to win 10 in a row – and last night was no different. They needed to win, and they did. In dominating fashion, really.
This sets up a do-or-die, must-win Game 5 against Tampa Bay tonight. I am amped up and extremely ready. This is why we’re fans, right? For games like these. Anyway, here is what’s on my mind heading into this one.