Brian Cashman is keeping no secrets when it comes to the Yankees’ offseason priorities. First, he wants to upgrade the starting rotation. He also hopes to keep the bullpen dominant, find a replacement for the injured Didi Gregorius, and trade Sonny Gray.
Ownership echoed these goals, and most observers agree that the Yankees should indeed prioritize these objectives. That plan certainly covers changes needed to the roster, but what about the myriad other issues that require attention?
In my roster report card last week, I described how Gary Sanchez had a very disappointing 2018 campaign. He not only regressed defensively, but also posted some of the worst offensive numbers in MLB.
The Yankees boast some legendary catchers in their history. Two are enshrined in Cooperstown, while three others were near misses. We thought that Sanchez had the potential to join their ranks, based on the historic numbers he put up as a 23-year-old late-season call-up in 2016, and an equally impressive sophomore effort. Sanchez still has the talent to become one of the all-time greats. However, it is clear that he will need some help to get back on track.
In the late 1940s, Bill Dickey was called out of retirement to mentor a young Yogi Berra, because the Yankees front office was concerned about the prospect’s sub-par catching skills. Thanks in part to Dickey’s help, Berra went on to become a better-than-average backstop. He produced a positive defensive rating every year from 1949 through his age 35 season in ‘60.
Yogi slugged 20-plus home runs for 10 straight years, won three MVP Awards, and rarely struck out. When he set the single-season franchise mark by swatting 30 home runs as a catcher in 1952, Berra fanned only 66 times in 603 plate appearances. Berra might not have stuck around long enough to assemble a Hall of Fame resume had the Yankees not gotten him the extra help he needed early on.
Unfortunately, Berra isn’t around to mentor Sanchez, but others are available. Alex Rodriguez, who once called Sanchez the best overall hitter on the Yankees, might be a good candidate to help him with hitting. Since catchers are almost always defense-first guys, there’s no shortage of former major-league backstops with exceptional blocking skills who could be called on to instruct Sanchez.
Luis Severino finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting following his breakout 2017 campaign. For the first half of last season, he appeared to pick up right where he left off. Then, after the All-Star break, everything unraveled. Although there was speculation that he was suffering from fatigue, another issue came to light during the playoffs.
Everyone seemed to know that Severino was tipping his pitches, with Red Sox players openly discussing it during his ALDS start. Cashman later revealed that the organization had been aware of the issue for some time. Despite this knowledge, Aaron Boone and his coaching staff failed to solve the problem.
Severino’s breakout season was preceded by a winter mentor-ship with Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. Martinez took Sevy under his wing in their native Dominican Republic and worked with him throughout the offseason. Perhaps Pedro can be tapped this winter to help Sevy get back on track?
Miguel Andujar finished second in the Rookie of the Year Award balloting in 2018, even though he was one of the worst defensive players in all of baseball. His skills with a bat speak for themselves, but he is a liability in the field.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Andujar possesses an above average arm, and seems to have good enough range. His problem lies with footwork, which is something that can be taught.
Footwork around third base can be memorized, practiced, and perfected, much like learning dance steps. We don’t know precisely what Andujar’s defensive ceiling might be, but any improvement over his -25 DRS is a step in the right direction. Andujar already carries a mighty bat, so just think of what it will mean to the team if he can improve his defense to merely league average.
The Yankees already have a pair of in-house options to work with Andujar in Graig Nettles and A-Rod. But again, there’s no shortage of additional talent available to step in and tutor the 23-year-old.
The Yankees were historically bad at situational hitting in 2018, and the ineptitude continued into the Division Series. Sure, the Red Sox had better starting pitching overall, but the Yankees were literally a couple of base hits away from winning that series. They had multiple opportunities to get those hits, but kept coming up short.
Before you scream: “No Bronx Bunters!” Relax. Getting better at situational hitting doesn’t mean bunting. In fact, it doesn’t even mean fewer home runs. It simply involves teaching hitters additional skills that will help guide their at-bats in certain situations. Think of it as adding tools to the toolbox.
Reggie Jackson retired sixth on the all-time home-run list with 563, but he was also known as an exceptional situational hitter. Mr. October wrote a post-career article in The Players Tribune where he discussed the six greatest postseason clutch hitters during his lifetime. Derek Jeter made the list, as did Reggie’s former teammate, Thurman Munson.
Jackson described how he and Munson conferred in the on-deck circle about how to approach certain pitchers given the situation. Give it a read. This is the kind of philosophy I’m suggesting that the Yankees teach their players.
All of the problems mentioned persisted throughout the 2018 season, went unsolved, and festered during the playoffs. Addressing these issues now, during the offseason, rather than waiting until spring training is the right move. This should be an organizational priority over the winter. Given the Yankees’ resources and aspirations, accepting the status quo should not be an option.
The team is already a legitimate World Series contender, and will undoubtedly kick it up a notch following the expected Hot Stove moves. Getting the most out of the talent on the roster should be a high priority as well. Considering the wealth of young, impressionable, high-ceiling players that the Yankees have, management must do everything in their power to ensure that their potential is maximized.