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Breaking down the Yankees’ 2020 ZiPS projections

If you’re of the belief that the Yankees are baseball’s best team on paper, well, you just might be right.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Pitchers and catchers report in less than a month, and we’re about to enter projection season. Over the next several weeks, expect various public-facing projection systems to spit out their forecasts for the coming season. As always, take them with however many grains of salt as you’d like; projections are a good guide, as they take a cold, principled approach to evaluating players, but they are of course imperfect.

Today, we’ll take a look at the Yankees’ ZiPS projections, courtesy of Dan Szymborksi and FanGraphs. Here’s a glimpse at the depth chart with projected WAR totals:

You can find Szymborksi’s writeup here, and I’d encourage you to read through it.

First, let’s dispense with the more obvious takeaways. There are some projections that aren’t particularly interesting because they don’t tell us much we didn’t already know. Aaron Judge is awesome, as is Gerrit Cole. The bullpen is among the best in the game. James Paxton and Masahrio Tanka are good pitchers, if ones with injury questions. Aaron Hicks, when healthy, and Brett Gardner make for useful starting outfielders.

Where I want to focus is in the grayer areas, the places on the roster where ZiPS could shed just a bit of light. There might be no better place to start than with the faces of 2019’s Next Man Up brigade, namely Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela. Perhaps no question looms as large as how the Yankees’ stunning replacements will do after their breakout seasons.

On this topic, ZiPS provides only good news. It renders a .263/.335/.437 projection for Tauchman, good for a 105 OPS+, to go along with a glowing assessment of his defense. In all, he projects to be worth 2.5 WAR in just 466 plate appearances, flitting between outfield positions as needed. Urshela receives an eerily similar projection, with a .282/.319/.461 slash line, a 105 OPS+ figure, and quality defensive forecasts. He projects for 2.2 WAR in 502 plate appearances.

This would be a tremendous development. Those are forecasts befitting legitimate, first-division starters, players that every team would happily slot into their lineups 150 times a year. ZiPS does project some regression from Tauchman and Urshela, but not so much that they aren’t still miscast as overqualified ninth and tenth men in the lineup. If this pair could consolidate their gains and solidify themselves as the kind of contributors ZiPS expects, the Yankees should be thrilled.

Elsewhere on the diamond, the Yankees’ middle-infield duo deserves some attention. The prevailing sentiment around these parts is that Gleyber Torres is a budding superstar, and ZiPS provides no reason to believe otherwise. Torres projects for an eye-popping 41 homers and a 136 OPS+. ZiPS takes a negative view of Torres’ defense, yet still projects the 23-year-old to be worth nearly 5 WAR in 622 plate appearances.

DJ LeMahieu’s projection, however, could cause a bit of consternation among Yankee fans. Those expecting another down-ballot MVP campaign from LeMahieu might find his forecast underwhelming; a .293/.345/.440 line, a 108 OPS+, and 3.6 WAR. That’s still a strong projection, but it represents a significant dropoff from the career-high marks LeMahieu set across the board in 2019.

On the pitching side, Luis Severino’s projection stands out. ZiPS keeps his innings total down somewhat at 166 innings, and reasonably so after Severino’s injury-marred season. Otherwise, the system calls for a near-full bounceback for New York’s erstwhile ace. Severino projects for a 3.52 ERA and nearly 11 strikeouts per nine, figures that would put him right on level with his excellent 2018 season. The Yankees would be pleased with that performance from their now number-two starter.

Elsewhere, I’m most interested in pitching depth. Cole, Severino, Paxton, Tanaka, and J.A. Happ all project as average or better starters, but every team needs more than five starters to navigate a long season. ZiPS is fairly optimistic the Yankees have the arms for the task. Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia, and Michael King all project for ERA+ marks just a bit below average, indicating they all could be ready as at least back-end starting options right now. Domingo German will miss the beginning of the season as he serves his suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy, but he too receives a slightly below-average projection.

Garcia’s projection requires more scrutiny. As the Yankees’ best prospect, expectations are high for the 21-year-old right-hander as he nears the big leagues. ZiPS appears to deem Garcia worthy of the hype. Garcia still has time to marinate at the Triple-A level, but ZiPS already pegs him for a 10.8 K/9 rate, albeit with middling run prevention numbers. That ZiPS likes Garcia’s chances of striking out buckets full of major-league hitters right now bodes well for his future.

A few last tid-bits: Miguel Andujar receives a 95 OPS+ projection with bad defense, which would render him a bench-caliber player. ZiPS buys Mike Ford, giving him a 116 OPS+ forecast. Finally, check out these fun same-age comparables ZiPS throws at the Yankees’ top-three starters:

When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, I wrote that the move gave them the best team in baseball on paper. As 2020 projections trickle in, I see no reason to alter that belief. This team is stacked, and in truth, we don’t need a fancy set of algorithms to tell us that. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to see that the computers agree that this team is set to dominate in 2020.