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An early look at the Yankees 2021 ZiPS Projections

What do the ZiPS projections have to say about the Yankees?

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The MLB offseason is upon us! As the MLB hot stove begins to heat up at the rapid speed of a tortoise on his way to a colonoscopy, it’s never too early to see how the various projection systems project the Yankees to look at the start of the offseason. Fortunately for us, last week, the Yankees’ 2021 ZiPS Projection was released.

Before we start diving into the numbers, I just want to reiterate what these projections are, since the last time most of us thought about these were back in July, before the season. Created by Dan Szymborski and published on FanGraphs, the ZiPS projections maps statistics from the last 3-4 seasons — how many are used depends on age — along with injury history, play-by-play data, and velocity onto aging curves based on player type to project future performance over the next few seasons.

With that in mind, let’s get started. Here’s the projected depth chart Szymborski provides, with projected WAR totals for each position:

How does this graphic compare to the preseason projections back in January? For starters, it really makes apparent how devastating the potential loss of DJ LeMahieu would be to this lineup; for context, FanGraphs projected him to earn 4.2 WAR next season. Beyond that, Aaron Judge (5.8 projected WAR last season) and the Gary Sánchez/Kyle Higashioka tandem (2.7) expect to see some decline, while both Gio Urshela (2.6) and Luke Voit (2.4) look to continue producing. Obviously, the losses of James Paxton (3.7) and Masahiro Tanaka (2.4), as well as the injury to Luis Severino (3.6), severely decrease the value in the rotation; the remaining starters do not quite inspire the same confidence.

Interestingly, the loss of Tommy Kahnle does not shift the bullpen’s projection all that much, dropping from a 6.8 projection last season.

Looking at the individual stats the projections provide, and we can see some interesting things:

*Please be advised that unsigned and retired players who receive projections are listed with their most recent team, which is why the Yankees’ free agents are listed here. Additionally, due to spatial concerns, not every player with a projection is listed here; for the full list, view the original article on FanGraphs here.

Even with Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada creating an offensive black hole at second base, the projection system still largely likes the Yankees offense. Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Luke Voit all project to post at least a 130 OPS+. The system believes that Mike Tauchman will hit better than his 83 OPS+ this past season as well, and expects at least league-average performance at the plate from Sánchez. Miguel Andújar, on the other hand, has seen his stock fall considerably — with his below-average defense, it’s hard to see him gaining much playing time.

It should be noted that, since these projections are based on multiple years of production, it remains very conservative with players who do not have lengthy track records. Clint Frazier and Gio Urshela — who are projected to have 109 and 110 OPS+, respectively, despite hitting much better than that in 2020 — are the most significant indicators of this.

As for the pitching staff, things are a bit more complicated.

Szymborski really hits the nail on the head in the beginning of his discussion, so I’m going to quote part of it for you all here:

I’ll be extremely worried about the Yankee rotation if this is who they start the 2021 season with. At least, the non-Gerrit Cole part. The projections themselves aren’t actually lousy or anything, but there’s a great deal of risk, for varying reasons, with Deivi García, Jordan Montgomery, and Luis Severino. ZiPS is really down on Masahiro Tanaka going forward, but he ate innings at the very least, and James Paxton is occasionally healthy...If healthy, it’s not a bad group at all...they’re still likely a mid-90s win team even without the additions, but I’d be uneasy about the starting pitching depth.

Every starter the Yankees currently have outside of Gerrit Cole has major question marks. Luis Severino can be an ace when healthy, but he will be back from Tommy John surgery mid-summer at the earliest and only has three regular-season starts over the last two years. Domingo German did not pitch at all last season, will be clouded with distractions, and was not quite as good as many thought: he may have won 18 games in 2019, but he posted a FIP of 4.72, and his 30 home runs allowed was among the worst in baseball. Jordan Montgomery was remarkably inconsistent last year, and Deivi García has six career starts under his belt.

I would feel much more comfortable if the Yankees added a free agent starter like Charlie Morton to their rotation. Interestingly enough, out of the three Yankees’ free agent pitchers, ZiPS only likes James Paxton going forward, despite his half-lost, half-disastrous 2020 season. Masahiro Tanaka is projected as a back-end starter, which is not what he will be paid for, while J.A. Happ is merely an innings-eater at this point.

The bullpen, headed by Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Chad Green, is expected to continue to be a strength, thanks in large part due to expections of a bounceback year from Adam Ottavino. That said, the algorithms seem to be very high on a number of random relief pitchers in the Yankees’ farm system, including Addison Russ, acquired in the trade that sent David Hale to Philadelphia. Russ’s 3.79 ERA and 3.74 FIP are virtually identical to Zack Britton’s 3.72 ERA and 3.79 FIP, and his 11.1 K/BB is beyond only Green, Chapman, Ottavino, and (checks notes) Kaleb Ort.

Clearly, Brian Cashman’s work is far from done, with the team needing at least one reliable starter and a middle infielder at the minimum, and ideally another reliever and a backup outfielder to compete with Mike Tauchman. Nonetheless, as far as starting points this winter, only a few teams are in a better spot than the Yankees.