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2021 is a make-or-break year for these Yankees in arbitration

Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Gleyber Torres are the nucleus around which this Yankees team is built. How they perform in 2021 will determine whether that core remains intact.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Yankees’ current championship window was opened on the backs of the Baby Bombers. The fact they received incredible production out of such young, cost-controlled stars developed through the farm system allowed them to invest in other areas of the roster. Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Gleyber Torres represent the offensive core of this team, and it was hoped such a talented trio could deliver multiple pennants while still remaining under team control. Fast forward to today and the Yankees have yet to reach the Fall Classic since their last title in 2009, all while Judge’s and Sánchez’s free agencies rapidly approach. That is why the upcoming season will determine the look of this franchise for years to come.

Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge, when healthy, is one of the five best players in MLB. But that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? When healthy. A player’s greatest asset to his team is availability, and the fact that Judge has missed 37% of regular season games in the last three seasons means he is failing his team in that regard.

With his arbitration costs rising, the Yankees have a massive decision in the next few years. Judge will enter free agency heading into his age-31 season, and health generally declines with age. If Judge turns in a fourth straight injury-shortened campaign, the Yankees will have to think long and hard about his future in pinstripes. Handing a hefty extension to an oft-injured player on the wrong side of 30 is risky to say the least.

If Judge wants to remain the face of the franchise, he has to find a way to stay on the field. It may seem sacrilegious to ask, but could the Yankees go the same route with Aaron Judge as the Red Sox did with Mookie Betts? If the Yankee do not feel safe extending Judge, it makes sense to try and maximize his value to the team via the trade market. If he misses significant time next year, I think it is likely they at least listen to offers in the next offseason.

Gary Sánchez

Since bursting onto the scene in 2016, Gary Sánchez has been the second-best offensive catcher (117 wRC+) and fifth-most valuable overall (11.4 fWAR) in MLB. And that is including his dismal 2018 and outright putrid 2020. Talent like that, especially at the catcher position, does not just grow on trees.

However, should he exhibit continued decline, that paired with escalating costs puts the Yankees into an unenviable situation. Do they try to move him and risk the embarrassment that he rediscovers the ability that made him so valuable (à la Sonny Gray)? Or do they hang onto Sánchez, only for him to proceed along his downward spiral?

That is why the upcoming season will determine if Gary is the long-term catcher. If he turns in a season like his 2019 campaign, the Yankees’ decision will be made easy. When Sánchez is leading all catchers in home runs, the Yankees won’t be terribly bothered if he boots the occasional passed ball. If he delivers another dud offensively, the Yankees are left without any particularly appetizing choices.

Some are ready to pencil Kyle Higashioka in as starting catcher, but his career track record as a 55 wRC+ hitter speaks much louder than the near-meaningless dozen game sample at the end of 2020. The Yankees could attempt to fast track their catching prospects through the minor league pipeline. Opting for such a direction does not inspire much confidence, as each of those prospects comes with more question marks than answers. No, the best solution is for Sánchez to rediscover his form, and that is something we as fans should all be rooting for.

Gleyber Torres

There is no putting this lightly: Torres’ defense hurts his team. He’s not even being asked to make five-star, highlight reel plays. He’s just being asked to do the routine parts of the job, something Torres reiterates in many of his interviews, yet thus far has not happened with enough consistency.

Aaron Boone’s recent comments are particularly revealing:

“For Gleyber, it’s about becoming excellent at the routine. That’s what separates really good shortstops from average to below-average. For Gleyber, it’s about making the routine play, day in and day out. That’s what’s gonna allow him to become a really good shortstop.”

This all boils down to focus. Gleyber must singularly commit to improving the weakest part of his game. Boone’s comments, and the observed lack of improvement on the field, suggest Torres has a long way to go in that regard.

Torres clearly has the tools, now he has to put in the work and find the improvement. It’s not an unreasonable ask, nor is it an impossible task. One need look no further than other young stars, such as Fernando Tatís Jr. or Rafael Devers. Tatís transformed himself from one of the worst fielding infielders to the best in one year. Devers improved from a butcher at third in his first two seasons to an above-average fielder across the subsequent two seasons.

Torres’ improvement (or lack thereof) in the fielding department will shape the Yankees’ offseason strategy this year and next. Brian Cashman recently would not commit to naming him as the long-term shortstop.

If they feel Torres is incapable of making that leap, it could mean the end of DJ LeMahieu’s tenure in pinstripes, as Torres may have to be moved back to second. If that were the case, one has to think the Yankees would be active players in the free agent market after next season. Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Báez, and Carlos Correa are all significant upgrades defensively at short. Each would require a substantial investment that may limit the Yankees’ ability to address other areas of need.

The 2021 season is an inflection point for the Yankees. Their core is growing older and more expensive. There is no guarantee of a season in 2022, as the looming CBA expiration brings the threat of a work stoppage. If the Yankees are going to make a single World Series appearance with the current nucleus, it’s gotta be next year. And the chance of that group remaining intact depends upon the performances of its three most important members.