Friends, a new season is upon us. The offseason is over and the Yankees are hosting a true workout today. It is pretty exciting. The last year has been pretty damn miserable for everyone, so I am really hoping to see a full, safe baseball season. I know I could use it, and I bet you can too.
With much more to come in the next few days, here are some preliminary thoughts as the Yankees break camp and get the 2021 season underway.
1. Expectations, Expectations, Expectations: The beauty of Spring Training is that it is a time for optimism. Squint hard enough and fans of nearly any team, with my apologies to Orioles and Pirates fans, can see a path forward. The good news about rooting for the 2021 Yankees is that absolutely no squinting is necessary: they are comfortably the best team in the American League. It’s not just me saying that. The major projection systems agree:
- PECOTA: 98-64, 81.5% chance of winning the AL East
- FanGraphs: 96-66, 71.4% chance of winning the AL East
In both cases, that’s the highest in the American League – PECOTA has Houston winning 93 games and FanGraphs also has Houston second with 88 wins –and second only behind the reigning champion Dodgers in the league overall. FanGraphs also calculates World Series odds. The Yanks rank second (18%) behind the Dodgers there, too. It’s good company and it passes the sniff test. The Yankees are definitely that good.
All of this is to say that I am cannot wait for the season to start. One obvious reason is because of how good they are: this is a complete roster and the team had a very strong offseason, Ottavino salary dump aside. Another reason is that last season was extremely frustrating for many reasons, one of them being that it was really short – over a full 162 games, I think things would have straightened out. Alas, it was not to be.
But the past is the past. It is a new season, and all indications are that it is going to be a good one. Hopefully, it will be the best one since 2009. As Aaron Boone said in his introductory press conference yesterday afternoon, “talk is cheap at this point.” Can’t say it any better than that.
2. Reacting to Aaron Boone: So, about that Aaron Boone presser. I did like to hear him say that talk is cheap. It’s true. For as legitimate as the above section was, there’s no getting around it. It could have been written basically every season since 2018, but the Yanks have gone home early each year. It’s time to put up or shut up. Glad to hear the manager come out swinging like that even before the whole team arrives. Hopefully, it sets the tone for everyone.
That aside, there wasn’t a ton of new information in there. That’s to be expected, of course, though there were a few nuggets worth pulling out:
- Clint Frazier will be the starting left fielder (more on that below).
- Boone is optimistic about Gary Sánchez.
- Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber are both healthy.
- The team may carry 14 pitchers during the season, leaving a three-man bench.
- Kyle Higashioka will not be Gerrit Cole’s “personal catcher”, at least right now.
Again, no real surprises there. And besides, what else do we expect Boone to say on any of these topics? I do hate the three-man bench but there’s not a lot that can be done about it. The Yankees are going to really monitor pitcher workloads after a season as abnormal as last, even leaving aside the obvious injury concerns for several of their key rotation pieces. That naturally lends itself to more arms, not fewer, and that’s without considering the lack of player options that exist out in the bullpen. This is to be expected.
More interesting will be to see how things actually shake out in practice over the next few weeks. Still, worth noting.
3. Clint Frazier’s Time to Shine: This really shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it’s Clint Frazier’s left field now. Based on my Twitter timeline, many people were elated to see this and even a bit surprised. I know that Frazier hasn’t had the easiest go of it in his career, but it was pretty obvious that he was going to start in left. Still, I’m happy for him. He’s earned it.
The 26-year-old outfielder put up an impressive 267/.394/.511 (149 wRC+) line in 2020, generally looking great from the jump. The good news is that this success seems to be fairly sustainable, too. He was hammering the ball based on nearly all of his underlying offensive metrics, but most impressive of all was his plate discipline. He cut down on his chase rate, which really helped him walk more. I’d imagine it also helped him drive the ball better, too, even though he didn’t attack the middle of the plate as much as he should or could have. Point is that he really lived up to his offensive billing last year. We should keep an eye out on his discipline in 2021, as it was something of an aberration, but could be key for his success moving forward.
Most significantly, though, he was much improved in the outfield. Not just serviceable, either. Legit good. His Outs Above Average (82nd percentile) and Outfield Jump (58th percentile) help quantify this, but we all saw it with our own eyes. He looked comfortable out there. Nothing like he did in 2019.
On a roster without Brett Gardner, I don’t think there should have been any doubt about yesterday’s news. Clint Frazier was the obvious candidate to start in left field, and it’s nice to see Aaron Boone and the Yankees say as much right away. Quite a difference twelve months makes, huh?
4. The Battle for the Fifth Spot: Boone’s Frazier announcement took the “fun” out of one potential camp competition, leaving just the fifth starter up in the air. Jay Bruce or Derek Dietrich aside, the rest of the regular roster usage should be pretty obvious to us by now. We also now know that Kluber and Taillon are fully healthy. This is also not a surprise, but it helps to hear the manager say it in so many words. Anyway, here is how the rotation shakes out right now:
- Gerrit Cole
- Corey Kluber/Jameson Taillon
- Corey Kluber/Jameson Taillon
- Jordan Montgomery
There are three serious candidates for the fifth slot in the rotation, listed here by order of likelihood they get the job (in my opinion):
- Domingo Germán
- Clarke Schmidt
- Deivi García
I personally think Domingo Germán should delete his Instagram and shut up on social media – don’t even get me started about his ridiculous Instagram stories, which accomplish nothing aside from ginning up controversies and speculation –even leaving aside the grotesque accusations levied against him at the end of the 2019 season. But the dude is still around despite this. There is a reason for that.
The Yankees clearly like his repertoire and believe he can be an effective piece for them. No chance they put up with the headache otherwise. In other words, it doesn’t take much reading of the tea leaves to consider him the favorite, even if he hasn’t pitched since September 2019. (And, let’s not forget, he was quite, quite good in 2019.)
Schmidt is probably the second most likely option. This seems to be somewhat more controversial, but I don’t see why it should be. He’s older than García and seemed poised to win the job out of camp last season before the pandemic. I don’t think we should discount the possibility again. As for my son Deivi, I’d love to see him get the job, but he likely won’t unless he is absolutely marvelous. There are service-time considerations for both of these last two to keep in mind, as well. The Yankees are likely to ship both down to Scranton for a few weeks or months, even if both plan to figure significantly in the Yankees 2021 season.
There are other options, I guess – maybe Nick Nelson? – but none feel especially likely. Seems like we have a three-man race for the fifth spot, with Germán in the early lead. This is the competition I’m most excited about following this year. I love watching pitchers in camp and seeing their adjustments and offseason progress. Hopefully, all three guys show up looking nasty and we have a real competition to follow. Until then, though, we get to do dumb fan things like monitor who is throwing bullpens and when and projecting how the Grapefruit League starts match up to the start of the regular season. Unironic can’t wait.
5. What to do about Miguel Andújar: Can you believe we’ve made it this far into a post without yet mentioning Miguel Andújar? My man was the absolute talk of the town in 2018 before injuries derailed his 2019 and 2020 campaigns. I really don’t know what to make of him or what his future is with the team. I really don’t.
He was awful in 2020 – slashing .242/.277/.355 (71 wRC+) and looking lost overall – but also did not seriously get a chance to play. It was just 65 plate appearances, for crying out loud, but he didn’t earn more. Worse, there was no real MiLB structure for him to get regular play and get back on his feet. It was, as they say, not what you want. So, what to do about him in 2021? Beats me.
A part of me wants to see him start the season with Triple-A Scranton, where he can get the regular at-bats against high-quality live pitching that he clearly needed last year. At the same time, I’m not quite sure that that is what Andújar needs this year. He feels like a player whose bat is fairly obviously already MLB-level and therefore needs to regular at-bats against MLB-caliber pitching in order to get back on track and take his career to the next level. But I don’t know if he can get that regular playing time in the Bronx right now.
And this does not account for his status as a defensive nomad. It is a complicated situation, and it’s tough to see how its resolution will make everyone happy. (I can’t imagine he is pleased with his service time situation in 2020, either.) Let’s just hope that he has a great camp, looks confident in the outfield, and looks like the player we all remember from 2018. That would make all of this a whole hell of lot easier.
This just covers the MLB team, obviously. There’s a lot more we can say about the prospect situation and who we should all be keeping a close eye on this spring and into the season. That will follow, though. For now, let’s just enjoy the fact that the New York Yankees are back.