There are several players on the Yankees roster who had “lost” seasons last year due to injury or ineffectiveness. Jacoby Ellsbury, Jordan Montgomery, Didi Gregorius, Greg Bird, Troy Tulowitzki, and Gary Sanchez come to mind.
Among the above, Ellsbury, Bird, Tulowitzki, and Sanchez are scheduled to return at the beginning of the year, making them (at least in theory) Comeback Player of the Year candidates. Which one has the best chance to win the award? Here are their cases, ranked from least to most likely, in terms of their odds. Warning: the odds, expressed in percentages, may not exactly be scientific.
4.Jacoby Ellsbury - 0.001 percent
I don’t mean to pile on the man here, but there are just so many things working against Ellsbury. The outfielder will turn 35 this year and will be coming off an entire season on the sidelines. I’ll admit that he was not terrible when he did play in 2017, when his league-average batting line and still-effective baserunning were worth 1.6 fWAR in 112 games. However, expecting him to recreate that performance while recovering from hip surgery is a tall order, to say nothing of projecting him to do much more.
Playing time is another issue. Ellsbury will be competing with Brett Gardner and Clint Frazier for reps in 2019, and both Gardner (higher floor) and Frazier (higher upside) are more attractive options than Ellsbury at this point. The only scenarios in which Ellsbury will receive ample appearances to mount a comeback season are: 1) a catastrophic injury bug pandemic befalls the Yankees’ outfield, or 2) Ellsbury goes full 1989 Lonnie Smith and plays out of his gosh darned mind. Neither one is impossible, but just really, really improbable.
3.Troy Tulowitzki - 0.005 percent
Tulowitzki is only one year younger than Ellsbury, and he also missed the entirety of the 2018 season. However, Tulowitzki was the better player in their primes, consistently pumping out five-win campaigns despite struggling to play full seasons. That, and that alone, is why he’s ranked above Ellsbury.
As for the rest of his potential Comeback Player of the Year case, it’s pretty much nonexistent. Tulo hit much worse than Ellsbury in 2017, running a career-high groundball rate while struggling to generate strong contact. Meanwhile, injuries robbed him of his mobility on the field, reducing him to just a passable defender. Apparently the Yankees’ brass liked what they saw in Tulo’s workout this offseason, so maybe he’s moving well again. However, even if his glove is still salvageable, chances are the bat is too far gone to come back.
2.Greg Bird - 5.5 percent
Bird is younger than both Ellsbury and Tulowitzki, which matters. There’s plenty of precedent for slugging first basemen breaking out in their age-26 campaigns, which is what Bird is hoping to do this year. That being said, Bird’s injury history in recent years rivals those of Ellsbury’s and Tulo’s. His offensive production has arguably been even worse, a damning statement considering that Bird’s position has a much higher offensive bar.
Bird’s contributions in terms of baserunning and fielding are going to be zilch, so he’ll have to really hit. To this end, his peripherals aren’t really encouraging. Optimists might point out that his strikeout rates aren’t egregious for a power hitter, and that his fly ball rate remains high. However, his contact quality is slipping, as his 86.9 MPH average exit velocity placed him among names like Matt Wieters and Robbie Grossman last year. Bird’s going to have to reverse that trend if he wants to hit above .200 this year, much less win the first base job over Luke Voit. I suppose it could be done, but at this point I’m not holding my breath.
1.Gary Sanchez - 70 percent
I realize that Sanchez had a very bad 2018. His batting average fell well below the Mendoza line, balls seemed to skip by him with alarming regularity, and even his work ethic was called into question following some apparently low-effort play. The season left a bad taste in many a Sanchez fan’s mouth, myself included.
Yet, picking him as the Yankee most likely to win the Comeback Player of the Year award should be a no-brainer. Despite his low average, Sanchez’ contact profile (90.3 average exit velocity, 42.9 fly ball rate) remained strong; his power numbers (18 homers, 17 doubles, .220 ISO) were still impressive; and he actually ran a career-high walk rate (12.3%). The main culprit for the downturn in his batting line appears to be an abnormally low .197 BABIP. With better luck and improved health, Sanchez’s 2019 should look more like his 2017 than his 2018, cementing his place as the premier offensive catcher of his generation.