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Rate stats may favor the Yankees, but playing time does not

Even though the Yankees may seem to be competent on paper, the more important aspect is health.

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a pretty optimistic fan as far as Yankees fans go. And honestly, how could I not be? The team has yet to perform below .500 since 1992, two years before I was even born. Even though we have seen a post-dynasty nadir from 2013 to the present, this only proves another point—that the Yankees can keep their heads above water even in what seems like their worst years in a generation. If that’s the case, then what does a turnaround look like?

Paul Swydan of FanGraphs took a look at what this year could be, and it’s about what we would expect. By his estimations, the Yankees are a .322 wOBA team offensively, and a 4.06 FIP team by pitching. It’s not like he gets overly optimistic, stating, “Obviously, the future isn’t yet written. Gary Sanchez could experience a Brett Lawrie-like sophomore slump. Veterans Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley and CC Sabathia could see their performance degrade even further. The back of the rotation could be unsettled all season.”

It’s always funny seeing an outside perspective on the Yankees, a more objective and non-invested look at the team. There are a few things that are obvious to any writer, even if they don’t focus specifically on the Yankees: their farm system is excellent, and the team has financial resources. Now, on those two things.

On prospects, there’s variance to be expected. Of Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, and Justus Sheffield, at least one of them needs to hit the big leagues and become a factor for this team to beat its expectations. They also need some of their recent products to produce, namely Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, and Luis Severino. None of that is a given, of course. I like them, I’m rooting for them, and I hope for the best. But if we’re being frank, this is a rebuilding year, and I don’t rely on those guys to be stellar. No one can expect or predict a Gary Sanchez.

On money, that’s another story. The Yankees may have a seemingly endless supply of cash, but they’re sure as hell not going to use it. Hal Steinbrenner has made it abundantly clear that Aroldis Chapman and Matt Holliday would be all the spending they would do, further showing that they do not ever want to spend above the luxury tax after this season when even more money comes off the books. They may have a ton of money, but it’s only spent in a more long-term manner, like international amateurs and minor league signings. As long as they follow these rules, they’re essentially bound to the same financial constraints as the Boston Red Sox, for one.

However, the biggest issue with this team isn’t the money, or the prospects, or even the rate stats. If we look at that at face value, that the Yankees have a lot of good prospects and a true talent around .500, that’s a good thing. It’s just that we don’t know what kind of playing time we can expect from the players slated as everyday players. Here are the Yankees’ starters and the batting order (as they appeared in the Swydan piece), next to their three-year averages for plate appearances and innings pitched:

There is not a single pitcher who has averaged more than 175 innings per year over the last three years (minor league time included), and only Gardner has averaged more than 600 plate appearances a year.

So if the argument is that the Yankees by a rate basis are good, that is probably true. This isn’t a bad thing when everyone is in their proper place. But considering the fact we can’t rely upon the regulars to play a full year, and most of these players (at least in the position player column) are sliding inevitably down the aging curve, it likely doesn’t get better.

I am a Yankees optimist, as I have said. I just think we should be cautiously optimistic heading into 2017. To be successful, the Yankees will need to be healthy and play to the back of their baseball cards, as the saying goes. And to be truly great, we’ll have to hope for an unexpected breakout or prospect arrival, something unforeseen and unpredictable. In a way, that’s what makes baseball the best.