Happy New Year, dear reader. There are a lot of reasons to be relieved that 2021 is over, not the least of which being that we can finally close the book on what’s been a pretty disappointing calendar year for the Yankees, Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, and Jonathan Loáisiga notwithstanding. We can only hope for the best out of 2022, but here’s how I actually think the season will break down, both from the Yankees perspective and the game as a whole.
Please note that every prediction that comes true will be relentlessly trumpeted as a sign of my own genius, while every incorrect prediction will be blamed on editorial oversight.
The Yankees will acquire a better first baseman than a shortstop.
There doesn’t seem to be much momentum towards the Yankees landing Carlos Correa, and obviously Corey Seager is spoken for. There are two real first base options who could both be better than incumbent Luke Voit, almost certainly have a better reasonable expectation of health, and are both left-handed hitters — Matt Olson on the trade market and Freddie Freeman in free agency.
I think we know, deep down, the Yankees are going to opt for the stopgap route when it comes to shortstop, but Olson in particular makes so much sense for the club’s needs and competitive window. Buster Olney has speculated more than once that, once this lockout is dealt with, there’s a trade to be made between New York and Oakland, and hopefully it leads to the Yankees landing a slugger at the cold corner.
Gerrit Cole will be a Cy Young finalist, but not win the award.
Cole’s been everything the Yankees wanted in his first two seasons, but he’s come up just shy of real end-of-season hardware. He’s spent four years in the American League, finishing fifth, second, fourth, and second once again in the Cy Young race, proving himself to be both an ace and a workhorse (by modern innings standards, anyway).
But he does seem to lose out to a guy having a career year. Robbie Ray beat him out this year, and his ex-Astros teammate Justin Verlander won one of the closer ballots in recent memory in 2019. Cole balances an incredibly high floor — he was really good in 2021, but we were all a little let down by how his year ended, and he was still the second-best pitcher in the league — with a sky-high ceiling, but will stay the runner-up in 2022 when like, Lance McCullers Jr goes off or something.
DJ LeMahieu will rebound more than Gleyber Torres will.
Oh, Gleyber. It’s no secret that significant regression from what was supposed to be the middle of the Yankees’ infield was a big part of why the 2021 lineup was just so underwhelming. Steamer projects both players to be roughly equally valuable at three and a half wins next year, and while you can squint and be optimistic in Gleyber’s case — he did underperform xwOBA and xSLG — one of the things that can drive perpetual underperformance (the kind we’ve seen out of Torres since the beginning of 2020) is bad or inconsistent hitting mechanics, which we’ve written about extensively at this site.
DJ also of course underperformed his underlying metrics in 2021, and his ludicrously bad barrel rate this past season should make us all a little concerned. Still, his wOBA, xwOBA, and hard-hit rate were all better than Gleyber’s, and while LeMahieu also went through his own mechanical struggles in 2021, I’m more inclined to believe those were at least partially due to a nagging hernia. With offseason surgery in the books, I don’t think we’re ever getting 160 wRC+ DJ again, but I think he’ll be better than his wayward, one-time double play partner.
We will see the return of the 154-game season.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about how MLB should return to a 154-game schedule. It seems the monkey’s paw curled when I hit “publish” on that post, as a deep, deep December freeze in labor negotiations has me, and others in the baseball world, wondering whether we’ll actually see the loss of a regular season game.
I still maintain that neither the players nor ownership, after two chaotic years and staring down a changing content model, can afford serious losses in-season, but the way the union seems prepared to wait for a real offer from owners has me thinking we likely won’t see serious negotiations until late January. Players will hold the line on a full spring training, given how many wonky usage issues sprang up going from a shortened 2020 to a full 2021, and I think we’ll probably see exhibition ball cut into the first week of April.
Mike Trout will play 150 games...but not be the game’s best player.
I bet you didn’t know that Trout hasn’t eclipsed 150 games since 2016. Of course, he’s Mike Trout, so he still posted a 9.6 and 8.4 fWAR season in two of the succeeding campaigns, but for all the concern around certain Yankee cornerstones being injury-prone, Aaron Judge has played 98 more games since the start of 2017 than the future Hall of Famer.
I actually think Judge is a decent case study for Trout, since one of the things that seemed obvious to me this season was Judge toning it down, just a little bit, game-to-game, as an injury prevention technique. He didn’t run quite as hard trying to score from first, he didn’t dive as often in the outfield, and he was perhaps less impactful in any one game than the 2017 or 2018 versions of himself. But by taking a little bit off, he was able to stay on the field and have an incredible season.
Bryce Harper has also famously done this from year to year, and I think we’ll start to see Trout do it as well. He won’t be the 10-win player who we first saw almost a decade ago, but like Judge and Harper, will still be a pretty, pretty good ballplayer. We want guys to go 100 mph every play, but the tradeoff between 100 games of superhuman performance against 150 games of “merely” MVP candidate performance is worth it every time.
Expanded playoffs will lead to some kind of nonsense.
One thing we can be reasonably sure will come out of this lockout is more teams making the playoffs — it’s the thing ownership values above all else, and the biggest bargaining chip players have to get their own concessions. I actually don’t mind the idea of a 12-team playoff; I don’t love it, but I can live with it. However, I think we’re going to see some kind of 84 win playoff team ridiculousness.
It won’t be quite as bad as 2020, where half the league ended up playing in October, and the 29-31 Houston Astros ended up not only in the ALCS, but a win away from the World Series. Still, a mediocre team without much punch is going to end up playing meaningful postseason games, and I’m going to dislike it, and the only thing that makes me feel slightly better about it is knowing that, if 2021 is any indication, the Yankees could end up a mediocre team without much punch.