It was an underwhelming offseason for the New York Yankees. The expedited transaction frenzy once the lockout ended led to a lot of moves in a short period of time, but one team was noticeably quiet despite being locked in a very strong division. Teams that are considered offseason winners often get a big bump in terms of win totals and futures prices. Teams that are labeled offseason losers are chastised for a lack of activity. It says a lot that the Yankees didn’t do a ton but have one of the AL’s highest win totals and shortest prices to win the World Series.
For the Yankees, it always comes down to health. Will Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton stay healthy in the middle of the order? Will recent Tommy John guys such as Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino and Jameson Taillon make it through the season relatively unscathed? Playing time is the Yankees’ biggest issue, which makes them a hard team to bet on or against. The ceiling is so high, but the floor is a moving target.
The 2021 season was a perplexing one for the Yankees. A really talented offense managed only 4.39 runs per game, which led to a run differential of + 42. On the other hand, the Yankees didn’t score a lot of runs, navigated the ups and downs of Gerrit Cole’s season after the MLB ban on foreign substances and still won 92 games. Sometimes a team just doesn’t need to add a lot to be a legitimate contender.
One could do an entire case study on the Yankees’ offense in 2021. The group led the league in BB%, hit 222 home runs and still ranked 19th in runs scored. How is that possible? A 24.5% K% was a major contributing factor, but that wasn’t all.
For the season, the Yankees were 12th in wOBA at .317. If you put a runner in scoring position, the Yankees were 27th in wOBA at .303. Only the Royals, Orioles and Pirates were worse in that department. The Yankees’ offensive profile came down to an inability to hit at the most important times of the game, but they also had the second-fewest plate appearances with a runner in scoring position. They were a station-to-station offense, meaning they didn’t take a whole lot of extra bases or advance runners. They also hit into the second-most double plays.
The low output is also crazy to think about when you consider that Judge and Stanton combined for 74 home runs and more than 1,200 plate appearances. Stanton only played 18 games in 2019 and 23 in 2020 but managed to play 139 last season. He was about as productive as he usually is with a .370 wOBA and a .273/.354/.516 slash line. Judge had his best season since 2018 with a .387 wOBA and a .287/.373/.544 slash.
The two most important cogs in the middle of the lineup did their part but the table setters didn’t, as Judge and Stanton both exceeded 30 homers but fell short of 100 RBI. DJ LeMahieu was merely an average hitter. Gleyber Torres was below average with a 94 wRC+ . The Yankees got a lot of empty power from guys such as Gary Sanchez, Gio Urshela, Rougned Odor and Kyle Higashioka. All hit double-digit home runs but graded as a below-average hitter by wRC+ .
Fans and pundits are miffed as to why the Yankees haven’t made many upgrades. They retained Anthony Rizzo, who should enjoy the short porch in right field for a full season. They also picked up Josh Donaldson, who slashed .247/.352/.475 for the Twins in 543 plate appearances last season. He’s still a productive hitter and goes to a better offensive environment, though he’s in his age-36 season. Joey Gallo seemed to have a hard time adjusting to life with the Yankees in 58 games, but he’s a much more productive hitter than he showed, especially with the small dimensions in right field.
The offense has a lot of upside, but the Yankees are also looking to thread the needle with a lot of these guys. The lineup has a lot of power and several guys that walk a lot, but only a few of them are capable of posting a high batting average or adding baserunning value. There are several major injury risks, and it’s concerning that Judge and Stanton were healthy and extremely productive and the Yankees were still a below-average offense.
The offense doesn’t need to be great because the pitching staff is very good, which is why the Yankees made the playoffs in 2021. An ace such as Cole shoulders a lot of that burden, and it wasn’t an easy season for him with the crackdown on sticky substances.
He posted an ERA above 3.00 for the first time since 2017 with the Pirates but posted a sub-3.00 FIP for the third straight full season. The foreign substance crackdown impacted his performance in a big way. In his first 11 starts, Cole posted a 1.78 ERA with a 1.77 FIP over 70.2 innings. He struck out 97 and walked nine with only five home runs allowed. Over his final 19 starts (beginning June 3), he had a 4.15 ERA with a 3.66 FIP. He struck out 146, walked 32 and allowed 19 home runs in 110.2 innings. Surely pitchers have found ways to adjust with new substances or more discretion, but Cole’s days of complete dominance are in question.
The rotation gets back Severino after he missed basically three full seasons. When we last saw the 28-year-old, he was coming off of back-to-back dominant seasons with a combined 11 fWAR. Obviously, there is risk in betting on his profile off of two significant injuries, and he missed a start in spring training during the last week of March.
Health is also a question for Jameson Taillon. It could be for Nestor Cortes with an increased role as a full-time starter. This could all come together nicely or it could really fall apart, making the rotation an area of concern. Depth can go from a strength to a weakness very quickly if the worst fears are realized for this group.
The Yankees bullpen was among the best in baseball last season, trailing only the Rays and White Sox in fWAR and ERA and ranking fifth in FIP. Jonathan Loaisiga was one of the best relievers in the league with a 2.17 ERA and a 2.58 FIP in 70.2 innings. Chad Green was also dominant as a multi-inning weapon, and Lucas Luetge resurrected his career by staying healthy and posting a 2.69 ERA with a 2.86 FIP.
Even with a down year from Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees really shined in the relief department, and that won’t change in 2022. All of the relievers from last season are back, including trade-deadline acquisition Clay Holmes, who posted a 1.61 ERA and a 2.10 FIP in 28 innings. Bullpens and bullpen depth will be two main handicapping factors for me, for both futures and daily picks, and the Yankees have an exceptional relief staff.
Player to Watch
SP Jordan Montgomery: I’ve always liked Montgomery because he does a great job of limiting hard contact. Pitchers with command good enough to stay out of the danger zones can have a lot of success. Montgomery was in the 87th percentile in Chase Rate last season, which means hitters expanded the zone a lot against his pitches. When that happens, you generally induce weak contact or swings and misses. His swinging strike rate was a career-best 13.7% last season, so not only do I think his 3.83 ERA and 3.69 FIP over a career-high 157.1 innings are legit, I also think there’s more room for him to get better.
Health will be the big key. It is for every team, but especially one with so many red flags. It will be tough for the Yankees to have a repeat performance if Cole doesn’t morph back into an ace. If he’s merely like a No. 2 starter, the Yankees could be the odd team out in the crowded AL East race. My guess is what we saw last season is similar to what we’ll see this season from the Yankees. The offense is the weak spot but should be better, especially with runners in scoring position. The rotation has a ton of upside and the bullpen will be one of the best in baseball again. That seems good enough to put the Yankees up into the 90 range in wins and may get them into the expanded playoffs, with the Yankees and Red Sox likely fighting for the last spots.
Win Total Lean: Under 91.5