Despite being moderately improved on paper, the Yankees will not be given the credit they deserve as Opening Day 2017 approaches.
No matter what everyone tells you about how the Yankees are “not ready to contend,” this team just feels like it’s not receiving enough love.
I know, I know there are tons of “ifs” that encircle them but there was a distinctive vibe in Yankee-land after the Baby Bombers made their 2016 season seem like a dawn of a new era rather than an immense failure.
After the deadline, New York went 32-26 including a near-perfect August that brought them from mediocrity into relevancy.
And yes, that was a team that shopped Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova while lacking consistency in their rotation, an effective first baseman and a slow start from their powerful young right fielder.
There are still question marks cluttering the rotation, but a full season of Gary Sanchez (most HR to start a player’s career), Greg Bird (on pace for 38 home runs in 2015) and Aaron Judge (exit velocity of 96.82 m.p.h.) should do wonders for an offense that ranked 29th in batting average with runners in scoring position in 2016.
Those are the big names in the lineup and the ones most will be watching, but from top to bottom the offensive unit will be much more competent and capable of scoring runs.
Besides, why didn’t the 2016 Yankees score?
They didn’t have Bird to turn to while trying to replace 31 homers — thanks to the fall-off by Mark Teixeira — with Dustin Ackley, Chris Parmelee, Rob Refsnyder, Ike Davis and eventually Billy Butler.
Then there was Alex Rodriguez, who ended up proving his surge towards the back-end of his career was an unpropitious fluke in which he owned the fourth-highest strikeout percentage among designated hitters.
That’s more than 60 home runs that no journeyman or utility player on the roster could make up — and it cost them big time.
Now, with a middle-of-the-order that features young, athletic talent with immense potential accompanied by Matt Holliday and the magnificent double play combination of Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorious, this lineup has the potential to trump the output of last season’s offense.
Let’s get back to the rotation, though. Which is arguably, yet apparently, the weak link at this moment in time.
Last season the unit finished sixth in the American League in strikeouts, eighth in opponent’s batting average, tenth in ERA, and walked the fewest batters.
While that sits in the middle of the crowd, those ranking deserve a greater density when you realize that manager Joe Girardi had 22 starts made by hurlers (Luis Cessa (9), Chad Green (8), Bryan Mitchell (5)) that weren’t even part of the rotation to commence the season.
Entering this season, however, Masahiro Tanaka, who maintained the third best ERA in the AL, CC Sabathia, who’s coming off his best season since 2012, and Michael Pineda who was the AL Leader in K/9, lead the charge.
Following those ostensible locks, the Yankees have either unproven or questionable arms competing with each other for the latter two spots.
Those unproven arms feature Luis Severino, who has to earn his way back after posting an 8.50 ERA in his sophomore year as a starter, Cessa, who allowed 11 home runs in nine starts, Green, who was shut down due to an elbow issue, and Mitchell, who has only made five major league starts.
Enough to concern? Sure. Enough to count the Yankees out of the race before Opening Day? Unjustified.
That’s because the bullpen has actually improved to the point where it shortens the game more than “No Runs DMC” could ever do.
Throughout the second half of 2016, after breaking up arguably the best bullpen trio the sport has ever seen, the bullpen’s ERA was actually 22 points lower than it was with the three-headed monster.
Additionally, opponent’s home run rate and batting average on balls in play against the Yankees’ bullpen decreased.
This unbelievable improvement without the two of the best relievers the game has to offer wasn’t because of their absenteeism, but provoked by the adjusted middle relief assembly.
The starting rotation’s average distance traveled in a game was 5.6 innings per start meaning there an average of over an inning per game dedicated to a middle reliever to attempt to bridge the game to Betances in the seventh.
Problem was that — throughout the first half — guys like Kirby Yates (5.72 ERA), Chasen Shreve (4.64 ERA), Nick Goody (4.91 ERA) Johnny Barbato (5.54 ERA) and Anthony Swarzak (5.68 ERA) led the team in middle relief appearances.
These five relievers, who’s foremost purpose was to transfer the lead from the starters into the firm grasp of the three-headed monster, combined for a 5.28 ERA while surrendering 21 home runs in 97.1 innings of work resulting in just 39 holds.
That, not Miller or Chapman, was the foundation of why they were helpless in influencing the win column in a positive direction for the Yankees.
One thing that changed after the fire sale was the acquisition of a middle relief pieces that were evidently more capable of getting the ball from the starters to the back-end of the bullpen.
These five combined for a 2.76 ERA while surrendering just 11 home runs in 117.2 innings and 41 holds of work ahead of their latest closer, Dellin Betances.
This arrangement of middle relievers was undoubtedly more efficient in nailing down the middle innings, which proved (in the win column) to truly be more marketable than the trio of Betances, Miller and Chapman were for the months they were together.
It’s admittedly is fun to have a lights-out closer, a setup man with a nightmare-inducing slider and a nasty seventh inning guy, but they weren’t beneficial when other relievers — along with the unreliable rotation and inconsistent offense — can’t get the job done.
Momentarily, with the rotation making no additions nor improvements, the bullpen has added Chapman back into the mix while the same squad of middle relievers will likely find their way back into that role for 2017.
With that, Girardi would only need to demand a stellar four or five innings pitched to “shorten” each game before getting the ball into the hands of a more reliable bridge.
So, yes, the rotation is questionable. Why don’t we just stop sounding like broken records and realize that the Yankees are prepared now, more than ever, to answer those questions after building the relief unit that can handle shorter outings?
Not to mention the lineup which, if their potential is reached, has the ability to make up for all the missed production that would have turned last year’s squad into contenders.
Above all, the fact that Cashman has put together a team that’s rebuilding but has the potential to succeed will send a confident message to the younger kids — similar to that of 2016’s second half.
“Why not us?” will be the appropriate mood within Yankee Stadium’s clubhouse.
A lot of people, like admittedly myself, are counting these kids out but if Gary Sanchez proved anything from his historic surge it’s that these Baby Bombers may be too naive to know any better.
If the rotation holds its own and the immense potential of the offense is showcased, there’s no reason to believe this Yankees’ squad can’t do what others are saying they won’t: fight for a postseason spot in 2017.