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Boom or Bust: With a fistful of lottery tickets, the Yankees are all-in on 2021

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By betting big on a handful of inconsistent performers with sky-high potential, the Yankees have positioned themselves for a season with an enormous range of outcomes.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After acquiring two more studs coming off of major injuries, the Yankees are now loaded with personnel who could either be among the game’s best at their respective positions, or who could fail to contribute anything at all for a variety of reasons. By my count, the Yankees have eight such players, capable of MVP heights or replacement level lows. Altogether, they combine for a team capable of steamrolling their competition on the way to a championship, or a lost season that ends on the outside of the playoff picture.

Corey Kluber: Steamer projection 2.7 WAR

WAR Range: 0.5-5.5

In 2018, Kluber’s last full, healthy season, he completed 215 innings on his way to 5.5 WAR, tied for the seventh best mark in the majors. In the following two seasons, during which he combined for just 36.2 innings, he cleared 0.6 WAR. STEAMER’s projections effectively split the difference, suggesting he’ll clear 156 innings, but post the worst the worst rate stats of his career over a full season, including ERA, K/9, BB/9, and HR/9. In reality, only health will slow Kluber down, as he’s likely to be stellar so long as he can stay on the mound. If he pitches a whole season, he has a chance to challenge Gerrit Cole as the best starter on the Yankees, but that’s a massive “if.”

Luis Severino: Steamer projection 2.1 WAR

WAR range: 0.0-2.0

Similarly, Luis Severino is still in the midst of recovering from the biggest injury setback of his career, Tommy John Surgery to repair his UCL. Given a hiccup-free continuation of his rehabilitation, Severino should be ready by this summer, before a potential postseason bid. Though it often takes another full season of play to regain a pitcher’s edge, following a full recovery, a rusty Severino is better than no Severino at all. His recovery timeline precludes him from making a huge dent in the Yankees’ regular season win/loss columns, he could serve as the Yankees’ vastly overqualified third or fourth starter come playoff time. If the latter scenario comes to fruition, the Yankees could have baseball’s best postseason rotation, after years of starting pitching being the team’s primary weakness at season’s end.

Jameson Taillon: Steamer projection 1.8 WAR

WAR range: 0.5-4.0

Much like the previous two pitchers, Taillon is coming off of the worst couple seasons of his career, each marred by or lost entirely to injury. He’s just recovered from his second Tommy John surgery, and after overhauling his mechanics, hopes to have achieved a more sustainable but equally successful delivery. According to Taillon, he’s generating more spin on his offspeed pitches than ever, and all signs point to a six-million-dollar man-like recovery. However, Tommy John revisions are typically less successful than the first time around, and at 29, it’s now or never for Taillon. Still, if he’s as good as he was, or even as he openly hopes to be, he could compete with the aforementioned duo to be the Yankees’ second-best starting pitcher in 2021.

Aaron Judge: Steamer projection 4.4 WAR

WAR range: 0.5-8.0

Projections systems favor Aaron Judge more than any other Yankee on this list, despite anticipating some regression in his per-game production. He’s continued to hit the ball as hard as ever, and shouldn’t experience the near 40-point drop-off in BABIP from his career mark that Steamer projects. If he’s healthy all year, Aaron Judge is as capable as anyone of winning the American League’s MVP. Though he averaged 108 games per season across 2018 and ’19, he’s suited up in a lesser percentage of his team’s games each successive year of his career as the Yankees have played it safe with Judge’s garden variety of physical maladies. Judge is likely to outperform Steamer’s rate stats, but seems unlikely to approach the 136-game total they’ve pegged him at.

Giancarlo Stanton: Steamer projection 2.5 WAR

WAR range: 0.5-6.0

Apparently sculpted from the same block of marble as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton has been as good when healthy, but even more fragile. After playing in 317 games between 2017 and 2018, Stanton played in just 41 over the past two years. As someone capable of striking a baseball harder than any other human being in the history of the sport, for a healthy G, “The ceiling is the roof.” That being said, he’s going to have be able to stay in the lineup to get there.

Gleyber Torres: Steamer projection 3.8 WAR

WAR range: 2.0-6.0

At just 24-years-old, the Yankees have to be hopeful that Gleyber Torres can shore up his history of defensive ineptitude if he wants to reach his full potential. In 2019, Gleyber posted 3.6 WAR with 38 homers in 144 games. He’s capable of hitting well enough to be one of the game’s better shortstops even as a sieve on defense. Last year, the defensive lapses continued while the offense dried up until the postseason, posting just 0.2 WAR in 42 contests. If Gleyber can learn how to field a backhand, he has a chance at making a half dozen or more All-Star Games. If he can’t, a cold streak renders him almost unplayable.

Gary Sanchez: Steamer projection 1.7 WAR

WAR range: 0.0-5.0

After excellent 2016 and ’17 campaigns, Gary Sánchez was widely regarded as one of the best catchers in baseball. With a strong arm and even stronger bat, El Gary was an essential member of the Baby Bombers, seeming poised to be the Yankees’ backstop for the foreseeable future. As he proved by posting 3.1 WAR in just 55 games of the 2016 season, he’s got enough pop to be one of the game’s premier sluggers at a position where power is particularly sparse.

After a couple rocky seasons in the Bronx, due to injuries and slumps on both sides of the ball, Sánchez’s future looks as murky as ever. On multiple occasions in the 2020 playoffs, Gary got DNP’ed by Aaron Boone in favor of the less volatile Kyle Higashioka. As long as he continues to prove capable of hitting baseballs harder than anyone not on the Yankees, he’ll simply have to start making more contact to regain at least some of his past prowess.

Luke Voit: Steamer projection 1.9

WAR range: 1.0-5.0

Luke Voit is entering the 2021 season as the only Yankee on this list looking to maintain his success rather than bounce back from an absence of it. Following a sizzling performance through the second half of 2018, Voit let the baseball world know he was here to stay in 2019 with starter quality play over 118 games. In fewer than half as many contests in 2020, Voit approached the uber-elite offensive numbers he posted in 2018, posting even more WAR, slugging over .600, and winning the American League’s home run crown.

Plagued by chronic plantar fasciitis, Voit has proven tough enough to hang in the lineup despite discomfort, but is no ironman when it comes to his health. Further, as one of the poorest defensive first basemen in all of baseball, his lumbering lateral agility eats into his offensive firepower. With some home run luck in 2020, it’s unlikely he’s quite as good as his rate stats suggest, but he is capable of reaching All-Star quality slugging if he can stay healthy, hot, and handsy over at first.

Even though these eight are the most prone to boom or bust campaigns, they’re not the only ones with a relatively wide range of outcomes. Even Jordan Montgomery’s shown extreme sides of himself, including a dominant playoff performance which followed up an uneven 5.11 regular season ERA. On the offensive end, Clint Frazier’s finally got the burn to prove he’s a full-time starting caliber outfielder, coming off of the strongest season of his career in terms of plate discipline, power, and defense. Their recent acquisition of Darren O’Day, who hasn’t thrown more than 20 innings since 2017, marks a further commitment to the lottery ticket team-building approach GM Brian Cashman’s taken to this version of the club.

Altogether, Steamer projects those eight Yanks to account for a combined 20.9 wins above replacement. By my estimate, that number could be as low as five or six wins, or higher than 40 wins. For the Yankees, that range represents the difference between an all-time great team, and missing the playoffs entirely. If the Yankees win the World Series, of course, Cashman will look like a genius for scrapping together a superteam without having to pay the luxury tax. If few of these players elude their worst-case scenarios, the club will get a chance to reload next year with a stronger class of free agents. Though neither of these explicit outcomes is 2021’s most likely scenario, the vast range between them demonstrates just how unusually volatile this Yankees team could be.