Prior to last season, I drew a line between the 2017 Yankees and the 2015 Cubs and Astros. There was a lot in common between those groups. All were teams coming off rebuilds (though, to the Yankees’ credit, they never tanked as Chicago and Houston did), were stocked with youth, but were generally considered to be a year away.
Those 2015 Cubs and Astros teams surprised everyone in making the playoffs ahead of schedule, so I asked what the Yankees had to do to emulate that early arrival. The blueprint was as follows: have the young core perform immediately, have the veterans hold off their declines and continue to contribute, and unearth an unexpected pitching star.
I discounted the Yankees’ ability to accomplish the final piece of that puzzle, but with Luis Severino’s emergence as an ace, they actually checked every box laid out for them. The Yankees, just like the young Cubs and Astros before them, arrived before the rest of baseball truly expected (or hoped) they would.
Where do they go from here? The Cubs and Astros again, I believe, provide a useful template, or in this case, templates. That is because after crashing the postseason party ahead of schedule, those Chicago and Houston teams took divergent paths the following season. The Cubs pushed forward and put together one of the best overall seasons in recent memory, while the Astros regressed and missed the playoffs.
What would have to happen for the Yankees to emulate either Houston or Chicago this time? Which path are they more likely to go down? Let’s take a look.
The Houston Path
The 2015 Astros and 2017 Yankees had plenty in common. Like the Yankees, the Astros were powered by a young core (Carlos Correa, George Springer, Jose Altuve) that coalesced immediately, and were put over the top when Dallas Keuchel unexpectedly won the Cy Young. Like the 2017 Yankees, those Astros ended up losing in heartbreaking fashion in the playoffs to the eventual champions.
The 2016 Astros, however, were exhibit A of what Bill James called the “Plexiglas Principal.” Essentially a fancy way of stating regression to the mean, the Plexiglas Principal asserted that a team or player that took a massive leap (or fall) was almost certain to fall back. On cue, a year after surprisingly making the playoffs, winning 86 games and outscoring their opponents by over 100 runs, the Astros missed the playoffs, won only 83 games, and outscored their opponents by a mere 23 runs.
What went wrong? Well, it certainly wasn’t the young core. Correa, Springer, and Altuve were all stellar and combined for over 18 WAR. The offense in general wasn’t much worse than in 2015, posting an overall solid 103 OPS+. So, coming back to the Yankees, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Co. very well could sustain their performances and still see the team fall back.
No, where the Astros fell off was on the pitching side. Keuchel fell all the way to an 86 ERA+, and the staff overall saw its ERA+ plummet from 110, 3rd in the AL in 2015, to 97, 11th in the AL in 2016.
On paper, what torpedoed the Astros wasn’t their young hitting stars falling off, but a pitching staff regressing heavily. What really might have hurt the Astros, though, was complacency.
The 2015 Astros got surprise contributions from Keuchel, a 21-year-old Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh, and Scott Feldman. That group, outside of Keuchel, did not look particularly strong entering 2016, and their only move to bolster the rotation was to sign a washed-up Doug Fister. In fact, the team’s only impact addition all offseason was Ken Giles. Giles is a great reliever, but one closer can only make so much of a difference.
Instead of investing heavily to bolster a team that shockingly arrived early, the Astros mostly just ran it back, and found much worse results. Which is why, at the risk of raising expectations too high, the Yankees might be a better fit for...
The Chicago Path
Unlike the Astros, the Cubs most certainly did not sit on their hands after reaching the NLCS in 2015 before anyone expected them to. Theo Epstein and his front office saw a team that immediately came together around Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Jon Lester and saw a chance to create something special.
The 2016 Cubs, like the 2016 Astros, did not see their young stars regress. Bryant won an MVP. Rizzo and Addison Russell were All Stars. Unlike the Astros, though, those young Cubs had even more reinforcements as they moved forward.
After 2015, the Cubs signed Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, and John Lackey to free agent contracts. Heyward struggled mightily at the plate in 2016, but was still excellent enough in the field to give Chicago another average starter. The Cubs hit on Lackey and Zobrist, both of whom gave the Cubs well above average seasons. The Cubs continued to add during the season as well, bolstering their bullpen by bringing in Mike Montgomery and, of course, Aroldis Chapman.
The Yankees, coming off a surprising year, haven’t made quite the number of moves the Cubs did. In fact, they made only one real impact addition. That addition, however, was NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton. In this way, the 2017 Yankees are much more like the 2016 Cubs, in that they did not sit on their hands. They saw an opening to add one of best and most exciting players on the planet to an already exciting team, and they struck.
Without Stanton's addition, the Yankees' offseason would look more like the one the Astros had two years ago. The Yankees have otherwise been holding steady, replacing Chase Headley with Brandon Drury, and re-signing CC Sabathia.
But the Yankees did add Stanton, and in doing so, set themselves up to take the next step, like the Cubs in 2016, rather than regress, like the Astros did. In truth, there is of course a middle path between those two teams, one where the Yankees neither take a step forward nor backward. In bringing in an MVP, though, the Yankees have done their best to emulate the Cubs and go beyond even their shocking 2017 season.