Can you feel the heat? No, it’s not coming from under manager Joe Girardi’s seat, or even the insatiable Big Apple media junket. Instead, it’s the Hot Stove warming up in the Bronx. What are the New York Yankees going to do this offseason?
We are just three days removed from the Bombers’ cross-town rivals, the New York Mets, falling in five games in the World Series. The Yankees lasted just one game in the postseason, failing to score a run in a 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros in the Wild Card game. After an 87-75 season, one in which they ended an eternal playoff drought (okay, it was only two years), the Yanks went down without even a whimper in the playoffs. So where to go from here?
There are, and have been since the days leading up to the trade deadline in late July, murmurs that the Yankees should add one more big-name, power arm to their relief corps to create a “super bullpen” to follow in the footprints of the newly-crowned World Series champion Kansas City Royals. Rumors swirled that Craig Kimbrel was headed to New York, but a deal was never struck between the Yankees and San Diego Padres.
I for one would not close the door on that pairing. The Yankees, popular to contrary belief, have a bit of a surplus when it comes to starting pitching. The problem is that so many things still need to fall into place for that to stay true, but a name to keep an eye on over the coming months is Ivan Nova. San Diego has several solid, controllable starters like Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner, but Nova would be an intriguing addition to the mix. He isn’t alone enough to warrant a return like Kimbrel, but the power-starved Friars might be more inclined if the Yankees added in a player like Stephen Drew, an infielder with 20-home run potential that has been a star in the National League West before.
But even if New York doesn’t add to its budding “super pen,” with the impenetrable 8-9 combo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, it has a plethora of options to bolster both units of the pitching staff. Adam Warren is the guy that needs to have a role cemented, because the Yankees are in danger of damaging the 28-year-old’s confidence if they can’t find a steady role for him. He was very dependable as a starter (6-6, 3.66, 17 starts) in 2015, but stellar as a reliever (1-1, 2.29 in 26 appearances). If the Yankees don’t trust Justin Wilson as their regular seventh-inning guy – and it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t since Wilson was 5-0 with a 3.10 ERA in 74 games spanning 61 innings – then Warren could handle the role. Add to the fact Warren’s ability to pitch multiple innings, and that is a sensical spot if there isn’t room in the rotation.
And about that rotation. So are there any givens in a pool filled with uncertainty? The short answer is yes, there are. While many feel Tommy John surgery is inevitable for Masahiro Tanaka, he held up just fine after returning from forearm issues in early June. Overall he was 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA over 24 starts, striking out 139 batters in 154 innings. A healthy Tanaka is a legitimate ace. Meanwhile, the “supporting cast” has plenty of upside, too. Again, it all comes down to health.
Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi both had injury problems in 2015, so concern is warranted. For Pineda it was his second half (3-5, 5.80 over his final 10 starts) that has Yanks fans concerned. Eovaldi, on the other hand, surged in the second half until elbow inflammation shut him down in September. Eovaldi went 14-3 with a 4.20 ERA, but his second-half earned run average was nearly a full run better than the first half.
With Nova and C.C. Sabathia raising red flags – particularly Sabathia, whose disappointed season ended with him entering rehab just before the playoffs – the Yankees know they have a star-in-the-making in Luis Severino. Not only was Severino outstanding upon his arrival, his 5-3 record and 2.89 ERA are more impressive given the fact that he performed like a star in a number of key, pressure-packed moments for a team fighting for a postseason berth. That will serve the 20-year-old (21 in February) well going forward.
For all the consternation over how the pitching staff will shake out, the lineup is an even bigger boom-or-bust proposition in 2015. You can understand why the Yankees were adamant about not parting with their top prospects at the trade deadline, because two of those players turned out to be instant contributors. While Severino was mowing down hitters, Greg Bird was not only making his presence felt at first base, he became something of a savior after the season-ending leg injury to Mark Teixeira.
Bird’s emergence leaves some questions, but many more answers. The Yankees will ultimately need to figure out how to solve this “good problem” of deciding whether it’s Bird or Teixera who starts at first. The odd man out would figure to be DH, but then what about Alex Rodriguez? Sure, it’s fair to wonder whether at 40 years old Rodriguez can have another 33-homer season, or play in another 151 games, but he needs to be in the lineup. He can’t play third, and even if he could, Chase Headley is not going anywhere. It’s a problem, but at least it’s a good problem.
The outfield is set, but it’s also kind of a mess. Carlos Beltran is in the final year of his contract, a rather hefty, $45 million deal. Beltran could be an ideal midseason trade candidate, but his value at this point is quite low. That, in turn, means that he is hardly a candidate to ride the bench, even if he could become the position player version of Sabathia where the club does not want to relegate a long-time veteran leader to a reduced role out of pity.
Fortunately, the speed combination of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner has such tantalizing potential for a positive ripple effect through the rest of the lineup. But Ellsbury played in only 111 games last year and is batting just .265 over two seasons in pinstripes. Chris Young, who was not penciled in as a starter but found his way into 140 games last year and hit 14 home runs, will be a free agent.
And lastly, the middle infield. I’ll include Brian McCann in here, if only because I’ve yet to drop his name. McCann would appear to be one of the few guarantees heading into 2016 coming off a 26-homer campaign. Drew finished with 17 long balls, and Didi Gregorius picked things up in a big way after the All-Star break. But one name to keep an eye on is Dustin Ackley, whose left-handed power bat is ideally suited for Yankee Stadium and who can play both second base and the outfield.
Through all of this, I realize I’ve neglected to mention one of the more obvious things: the Yankees will not go quietly into the night in free agency. They may not be the free-spenders of the George Steinbrenner days, but the pockets are still deep, so even if the roster has options, there are holes to fill. These are still the Yankees, and there are plenty of big names to help stabilize some of the shaky areas. No matter what, times haven’t changed as much as it seems: the Yankees will be one of the most interesting teams to watch this offseason.