Rankings are out, and the Yankees will finish .500 with the 17th best record in baseball! At least that’s what ESPN would like you to think with its newest release of preseason MLB rankings. The summary includes the trade acquisitions this winter of: Aroldis Chapman, Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks, but fails to credit the Yankees with historically outperforming critics, just as it did last season when it had the Yankees going 78-84.
The main criticisms are also the common ones; Masahiro Tanaka may not stay healthy, the team is old, other teams are young, the Yankees may not stay healthy, other teams may stay healthy.
It’s literally the same criticisms with different names New York fans have been hearing since 2006 when Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were due to age at any time.
Some of the worries have legitimate claims behind them. Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez are all in the twilight of their careers and make up the three most dangerous hitters in the lineup. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off of minor surgery and still has a tear in his elbow. But let’s review what makes this team different even if the worst realistic scenario played out. Let’s also keep in mind, the Yankees haven’t been .500 or worse since 1991.
At a certain point, you would think “experts” would actually wait for the team to implode before declaring it year after year.
Teixeira, Beltran and A-Rod are old
As mentioned, this is valid, they combine in age to fall short by just three years of the Yankees as a franchise. Nobody would say they expect any of these three guys to hit like they did in their primes and it may even be fair to think Tex and A-Rod won’t hit as well as they did as recently as last season. But the Yankees do have safeguards with these players.
Texeira stayed healthy last season except for breaking his leg on a foul ball, and while his insurance policy in Greg Bird is out for the year, it still should be noted, Tex didn’t miss the end of the season due to any sort of lingering or nagging injury. It was a fluke incident.
Rodriguez, while old, and no longer a 40-50 HR threat, is also a full-time DH. In 2015, the Yankees moved him into this role for the first time and it seemed to do a good job keeping him fresh and healthy. Joe Girardi has been adamant Rodriguez not play in the field, which means his risk of injury or lack of endurance is really marginalized despite being 40 years old.
Beltran still plays right field, albeit one of the easiest fielding positions in baseball at home in Yankees’ Stadium, and he also spends some time at DH. While it’s possible all three of these guys get hurt, the Yankees have Aaron Hicks who is projected to have every day talent, as the fourth outfielder and potentially, Aaron Judge, its top prospect, lingering in AAA. They can afford to be very cautious with Beltran’s playing time because the bench is deeper.
And speaking of depth, the Yankees may have had bigger than expected success with their aging bats, but they should expect more of a second half Didi Gregorius, who really put it together at the plate after his first couple of months in pinstripes. Brian McCann, now in his third year in pinstripes, is probably going to continue to be more like the 2015 version, so don’t expect much regression there. The backup catcher role, if seized by Gary Sanchez, could exceed the backup bat of JR. Murphy (who was traded for Hicks). Dustin Ackley will be there to spell everyone more often, something the Yankees didn’t have with Brendan Ryan in the beginning of last year.
And in addition, New York received almost no support from second base at the plate with Stephen Drew batting a near historically unimpressive .201/.271 with a .652 OPS. The Yankees acquired Castro, who actually wasn’t much better until he moved to second base, but finished the year hitting well and only now heading into his prime. He is moving to a friendlier hitting ballpark and put up an OPS higher than Drew’s last year in four of his six seasons so far.
And all of this doesn’t pay attention to the fact while Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both injury prone and by no means young players, they were also both hurt last year, which means there can only be upside with both hitter’s production at the top of the lineup. The same kind of tag team production which catapulted the Yankees to scoring the second most runs in the AL for most of last season.
Tanaka’s health is a concern
While Tanaka may have injury concerns and could even miss some or all of the season only if his elbow does have further problems (which it didn’t in 2015), the Yankees have six major league starters. They have a healthy Ivan Nova in a walk year and a full season of Luis Severino, not to mention a Nathan Eovaldi who demonstrated he can pitch in the AL East in his final 13 starts last season and Michael Pineda, who was extremely unlucky despite excellent peripherals in 2015.
Keep in mind, while Severino was there to fill in for Eovaldi and Tanaka’s injuries towards the end of the season, the Yankees have another fast track candidate in James Kaprielian who can do the same in 2016, regardless of what a full season of Severino, an adjusted Eovaldi and a healthy Nova can do.
Health in general
And then on top of that, the Yankees added arguably the top closer in baseball in Aroldis Chapman to join two of the other top five relievers in the game.
So let’s recap. None of the concerns listed in this article are different from the concerns which plagued the Yankees to 87 wins last season. They have indisputably improved at second base, in the bullpen and are better set up offensively and in the rotation as far as depth and the team, if still in it by the All Star Break, will have a lot of payroll flexibility with expiring contracts if it needs to make a move.
But for ESPN? That means six less wins.
If you’re a betting fan, take the over.