After the Yankees saw their 2018 season end in an ALDS loss to the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox, the front office laid out their plans for the offseason. Upgrading the rotation was the number-one priority, which included trading beleaguered starter Sonny Gray. Maintaining a dominant bullpen was also a stated goal, as was finding a replacement for injured shortstop Didi Gregorius.
Nowhere on General Manager Brian Cashman’s list was there anything about adding a potent bat (or two) to the lineup. This was somewhat surprising, considering that the Yankees were comically bad at hitting with runners in scoring position all year, and this was a major contributing factor to their Division Series elimination.
At the time, some us thought the omission could merely be a stratagem. After all, with generational talents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper leading a rich free agent class, it wouldn’t be prudent for Cashman to signal his desire to sign them, and thus give their agents an excuse to talk up their perceived value.
In the end, though, Cashman did not seriously pursue either superstar. Instead, he re-signed Brett Gardner, picked up Troy Tulowitzki on a league-minimum contract, and inked glove-first infielder DJ LeMahieu. None of these players are likely to replace Didi’s considerable offensive contribution, let alone improve the offense as a whole. Add other factors to the mix, and the Yankees have a number of serious questions surrounding their lineup as they head toward Opening Day.
The first base battle between Luke Voit and Greg Bird
The first base competition between Voit and Bird has been the most compelling of the spring. It’s widely assumed that the winner will get the starting nod, while the loser will head to Triple-A. Boone is not expected to utilize a platoon and the Yankees are not likely to carry two first basemen on the active roster. The most pertinent question isn’t who will win the job, but whether that person will perform above replacement level.
Over the last three seasons, Yankees first basemen were 26th in the league with a .733 OPS. Only the Rangers, Orioles, Mariners, and Angels fared worse. Meanwhile, the Yankees lagged well behind the Reds (.943 OPS), Braves (.936), and Diamondbacks (.924), who paced the league at what is traditionally a key offensive position.
The Yankees crept up to 15th on that list last year with a .762 OPS, owing primarily to Voit’s explosive .333/.405/.689 slash line over 39 games after arriving in the Bronx via trade. Therein lies the question, though. Despite Voit’s memorable start to his Yankees career, the sample size is really too small to predict whether it’s sustainable, or merely a flash in the pan. Let’s also not forget, Voit was handed the first base job because Bird struggled mightily.
Who will replace Didi Gregorius?
A better question might be: Can anyone on the Yankees roster really replace Didi? Cashman signed Tulowitzki after the former superstar was cut by the Blue Jays. But remember, before missing the entire 2018 campaign due to injury, Tulo’s production had already fallen to near-league average. Over 325 games from 2015-17, Tulowitzki compiled only 6.3 WAR, which is just 1.7 Wins Above Average.
If Tulowitzki turns out to be another incarnation of Brian Roberts, Stephen Drew, or Kevin Youkilis in pinstripes, then Boone could opt to slide Gleyber Torres over to shortstop and install LeMahieu as the starting second baseman. Of course, this “Plan B” carries its own set of questions. Although LeMahieu won the National League batting title with a .348 average in 2016, he owns a .673 lifetime OPS away from Coors Field.
Will Brett Gardner or Clint Frazier produce in left field?
Many fans were shocked when Cashman’s first offseason move was to re-sign veteran outfielder Gardner. Although Gardy is the longest tenured Yankee and a widely respected team leader, his production had fallen off in recent years. So much so, that Boone opted to start Andrew McCutchen over him in September as the Yankees battled the Athletics for home field advantage in the AL Wild Card Game.
All totaled, Gardner slashed a woeful .236/.322/.368 over 609 plate appearances last season. His .690 OPS was dead-last in MLB among left fielders who logged 500 at least plate appearances.
Frazier’s .724 career OPS isn’t much better, as Gardner was among only three primary left fielders who performed worse last season. Frazier’s sample size is much smaller, though, considering he has only logged 183 career plate appearances. The Yankees have resisted offers to trade him, but it’s yet to be determined whether Frazier can become more than a fourth or fifth outfielder.
Other questions in the lineup
The Yankees could very well have a black hole occupying one-third of their lineup, depending on what happens at first base, shortstop, and in left field. That would be bad even if those were the only concerns. But unfortunately, they aren’t.
Gary Sanchez slashed a dreadful (and well-documented) .186/.291/.406 in 2018. His .697 OPS was nearly as bad as Gardner’s. Will The Kraken bounce back? This may be the biggest question on the minds of Yankees fans.
Can Rookie of the Year finalists Miguel Andujar and Torres build on their successful 2018 seasons? It’s a relevant question, since not every outstanding rookie does. Plus, Gleyber’s .733 second-half OPS was a sharp decline from his first-half (.905). Was there anything to that? Also, both Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks suffered through injuries each of the last two years. Will they be able to remain healthy in 2019?
The Yankees have legitimate questions in eight of nine spots in their batting order. Ever the optimist, I can easily envision each and every one of these questions getting answered in the affirmative, and the Yankees enjoying record-setting offensive output in the coming season. If it goes the other way, though, it could be a long and frustrating year for Yankees fans.