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What do the Steamer projections tell us about the 2019 Yankees?

It’s never too early to look ahead.

MLB: ALDS-Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

People ask me what I do during the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do: I stare at projections and wait for spring. Thankfully, Friday afternoon gave me the first opportunity to do that, as FanGraphs published their first of the 2019 projections, the Steamer set for all 30 teams.

It’s worth remembering what projections actually are. They’re not a bet or a prediction of what’s going to happen, but rather the midpoint of all possible outcomes given a player’s historical performance and age curve. There are error bars in every projection, but generally they’re actually fairly accurate. To sum up succinctly, a five win player has a 50% possible outcome of being better than five wins, and 50% possibility of being worse than five wins.

Let’s start with the hitters, ranked by how much they’re projected to play:

Unsurprisingly, Aaron Judge is projected to be the best player on the team. What is a little surprising is that Steamer seems to be a little conservative on his performance. A pair of successive five-win, 150+ wRC+ seasons puts Judge in the upper atmosphere of all MLB players in terms of actual performance, but he gets dinged hard by Steamer because 2019 will be just his third full MLB season. Steamer incorporates the previous five seasons, so it’s always going to be a little noodly for less experienced players

Giancarlo Stanton is projected to be the Yankees’ best hitter, mostly because of his longer track record. I personally think the best version of Judge is a hair better than the best version of Stanton - mostly due to superior on-base skills. While that’s a result to keep your eyes on, Steamer clearly believes last season was more of an outlier for Giancarlo than anything else, especially since the big man will be just 29 on Opening Day.

Miguel Andujar’s slightly better season also carries over into 2019, as he’s projected to be just a bit better than Gleyber Torres. This is a particularly fascinating projection, since Torres was always a higher ranked prospect and lauded for a more mature approach at the plate. In 2019, both youngsters will be facing pitchers who are much more informed of their abilities, so while it’s reasonable to see them both take a step back, an internal competition between the two would be an awful lot of fun.

On the pitching side, Steamer gives us this:

Pitching is kind of funky for the Yankees in 2019 because there are so many question marks on the team. Steamer only incorporates players that have contracts or are under team control for the 2019 season, free agents and trades will be added in as they’re acquired. For the Yankees in particular, that means their pitching projections will be a little more volatile, as right now Domingo German is projected to receive 23 starts and Luis Cessa 16. If those two combine for nearly a quarter of the 2019 season, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong for the Yankees.

The other factor to keep in mind that hits the Yankees harder than most teams is the age of the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances are both on the wrong side of 30, Tommy Kahnle will turn 30 in August, and if David Robertson is brought back, he’ll see his 34th birthday very early in the season. Aging curves affect us all, and that goes double for relief pitchers, already the most volatile of position groups. Steamer rightly is rather conservative about all of those older relievers being able to keep their performance levels so high.

The last useful element of projections is to use them to establish an offseason “floor.” By comparing the projected 2019 values against 2019 production, we can see where the Yankees need the most investment and addition in the offseason. For this, I split the projected WAR values by position group - for players that are projected to split time between the bullpen and rotation, I weighted their projection based on the allocated time. You can then compare each position group against what that same group accomplished last year:

The Yankees have a lot of work to do this offseason. The delta between last season’s performance and 2019’s projections for each group is right around four wins. Some of this will be covered by overly conservative projections - like Judge discussed above - but it does drive home the point that for Brian Cashman, there is no single mantra like “pitching, pitching, pitching.” If the Yankees want to be as good or better than they were in 2018, they need to plug holes just about everywhere.