Let’s be honest – championship windows in sports often end up shorter than fans and teams anticipate. For the Yankees, they were positively ahead of schedule following the 2017 season, coming off of an impressive postseason run and with likely future growth after trading for one of baseball’s top sluggers, Giancarlo Stanton.
While the team won 100 games in 2018, the Yankees only earned a wild card spot and quickly exited the playoffs at the hands of the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. The Red Sox, like the Astros before them, went on to win the World Series after sending the Yankees home. The Yankees have turned things around very quickly and have a superb young core, but they still seem to be a step behind their two main competitors, or at the very least haven’t surpassed them.
Why is that? Well, the Yankees seem comfortable to sit on their hands this offseason and bank on internal improvement and buy-low additions to make up the gap between them and the likes of Boston and Houston. Some of these gambles seem like safe bets. Others, though, could stand as huge missed opportunities or oversights that keep the Yankees stuck with the same result as last year’s team – talented, but coming up behind Boston and Houston once again.
First off, the Yankees have not a reliable first baseman since Mark Teixeira retired. Luke Voit was a real shot in the arm for the Yankees during September and October, but outright giving him the job while adding no form of outside competition seems hasty. Greg Bird may not ever be what the team thought he could be, and saying that DJ LeMahieu will play some first base is fine here or there, but he’s only played the position for 13 big league innings over eight years. The Yankees are betting on Voit to be the real deal. If he does not pan out, the team will regret not adding a more reliable safety net.
The team is also ready to give Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar larger roles in 2019. While this seems like a good idea, the Yankees are taking a gamble that the two can shore up their defense and will continue to improve with the bat as sophomores, all without the presence of the injured Didi Gregorius, the club’s best all-around infielder. While I am not at all concerned about Torres or Andujar offensively, recent history shows that Andujar’s defense may not ever improve to an average level.
Andujar’s poor defense, along with Gregorius’ injury, makes not offering a contract to Manny Machado even more puzzling. Betting on improvement from 22- and 23-year-old top prospects is reasonable enough, but the team needed to replace Gregorius for a few months and chose to troll the bargain bin for LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki instead of one of the top 10 players in baseball.
Finally, the biggest gamble the Yankees are taking is probably their most frustrating. The Yankees’ primary issue in 2018 was their lack of consistent, durable pitching. They looked to be on the right track by adding James Paxton, a valuable lefty starter. However, the Yankees don’t have any kind of insurance for the back end of the rotation, which is rife with aging veterans. CC Sabathia is the club’s fifth starter, but he is already dealing with unfortunate health issues. The Yankees also re-signed J.A. Happ, but only after not making an offer to Patrick Corbin. While Happ is a good mid-rotation arm, there’s no doubt that adding Corbin was a realistic move that would have symbolized a clear and concerted effort to improve the team and its ceiling, rather than just standing pat.
Paxton effectively replaces Sonny Gray, which is an obvious net gain, but we should probably expect a bit of age-related decline from Happ and Sabathia that could wash out some of that improvement. Just trading for Paxton is probably not enough to fix a rotation to boost the Yankees’ rotation among the league’s elite. Complicating things, there really isn’t any depth behind the Yankees’ starting five, a group that looks quite similar to the one that finished behind Boston and Houston last year.
The 2019 Yankees are walking a fine line. The 2018 team fell short, but instead of responding by acquiring more high-end talent, the Yankees think that a clean bill of health and betting on internal growth can help the team catch up to the Red Sox and the Astros. Those teams have mostly stayed the same this offseason, with slight tweaks along the way. The difference is, they can afford to do that as established championship winners. The Yankees aren’t there yet, which only makes not continuing to add to the already strong core even more baffling. Instead, the 2019 Yankees Opening Day roster will look a lot like the one that finished the 2018 season. To me, that sounds like stagnation, not improvement.