The Yankees stayed quiet in advance of the MLB lockout, even as other teams spent like drunken sailors on elite, top-of-the-market talent. As a result, the club that emerges from the work stoppage will look remarkably similar to the one that stumbled its way to a 92-win season and an early postseason exit at the hands of the hated Red Sox.
There are reasons to be optimistic that the pieces already in place can perform at a level that enables the Yankees to return to the top of the American League. Unfortunately, there are equally strong reasons to be pessimistic that New York will do any better than last season.
1. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton do not an offense make
As I mentioned a few days ago, the two gargantuan Yankee sluggers stayed healthy throughout 2021 and showed how productive they can be. For example, their combined home run total accounted for exactly one-third of the Yankees round trippers (74 of 222).
Despite Judge and Stanton’s prodigious destruction of baseballs, the Yankees’ 2021 offense was mediocre. There are 15 teams in the American League. In 2021, the Yankees finished: 10th in runs scored, 13th in base hits, and 13th in batting average. They managed to climb to 7th in slugging percentage and OPS, and 3rd in on-base percentage. And the 222 home runs ranked 3rd. But at the end of the day, the club’s 100 OPS+ is the literal definition of average.
Perhaps the 2022 club sees a bounce back from DJ LeMahieu or Gio Urshela or Luke Voit or (as I optimistically pondered) Gleyber Torres. Maybe Aaron Hicks returns from missing an entire season and produces. But he’s entering his age-32 season in 2022 and it would probably be a mistake to bet the farm on Hicks catalyzing an offensive resurgence. Ultimately, even if the Yankees can get a second consecutive season wherein Judge and Stanton are both healthy and raking, that is unlikely to be enough to lift the New York offense much past middling unless others pick up some slack.
2. Regression. With a capital R
Too many Bronx Bombers have taken major steps backwards at the plate over the past couple of seasons. In 2018, for example, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andújar, and Gleyber Torres posted wRC+ marks of 129, 129, and 121, respectively. Gary Sánchez, admittedly awful in 2018, compiled 2017 and 2019 campaigns that made 2018 look like it might have been an aberration.
Now, with the 2020 and 2021 seasons in the rear-view mirror, it increasingly looks like those days of past glory are lost. Injury, and ineffectiveness when healthy, have stopped Hicks and Miggy in their tracks. I’m not sure how much any Yankees fan is comfortable relying on either of them to spark the offense.
For Gary and Gleyber, what looked like superstar trajectories early in their careers have morphed into unease about whether either of them can hit enough to provide value. It took a comparatively torrid second half for Torres to get within shouting distance of respectable offensive numbers in 2021. As for Sánchez, owner of a 99 OPS+ in 2021, I shudder to imagine the back of his baseball card without his incandescent June (1.035 OPS, including a .289 BA).
It gives me no pleasure to be this down on either Torres or Sánchez. I’m not sure I have ever rooted harder for a player than I do for The Kraken. But, it increasingly seems like neither of them will approach the stardom it once looked like they were destined for. Perhaps the Yankees’ offseason changes to their coaching staff can help stem the tide of regression at the plate.
3. Cole and… Monty? Nestor? And pray for rain
The 2021 Yankees had 15 different pitchers “start” games for the club (a few were of the opener variety). Of those, Corey Kluber and Andrew Heaney have departed, and Luis Severino seems poised to pick up some slack. But he’s returning from missing almost three seasons to injury. And other than ace Gerrit Cole, I have to admit I am still nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs about the rest of the club’s arms.
I’ll be the first to admit that Jordan Montgomery had a heck of a 2021 season, finishing up with 30 starts, a 112 ERA+, and 3.4 bWAR for the Yankees. Despite that, I have concerns. He averaged just over five innings per start (157 IP), meaning the bullpen is on the hook for anywhere between nine and 12 outs most nights he is on the hill. For a rotation that lacks an innings eater other than Cole, that is not encouraging.
In the spirit of giving credit where it is due, Nasty Nestor Cortés Jr. was a revelation for the 2021 Yankees. Without him, they don’t even have to worry about losing the Wild Card game. The back of his baseball card, however, fills me with unease. In 79 big league innings pitched prior to 2021, Nestor provided -1.1 bWAR to his clubs. And even after his breakout 2021 season, Cortés has a career 5.12 FIP. If 2021 Nestor is here to stay, awesome. But I think I need to see that before I bank on it.
Jameson Taillon? Unlikely to be back until the season is underway. Domingo Germán? Over 340 career innings pitched with a sub-100 ERA+. Luis Gil? Looked meteoric in his first starts but ended the season with 19 walks in 29.1 IP in the bigs. Deivi García? Let’s all pour one out for his lost 2021 season and hope he can just get back on the rails in 2022. Expecting a big-league contribution is probably greedy. Clarke Schmidt? Returning from injury.
The Yankees will need 162 regular season starts (God willing) and then reliable innings in the playoffs in pursuit of a championship. I wish I was more certain of where those are all coming from.
The final reason I am pessimistic relates to why I wrote the optimism piece in the first place. I’m not sure we’ll see any major changes to this roster. They may have to win or lose as currently constituted. I briefly entertained the idea that ownership would jump into the free agent and trade markets with both feet after the disappointing finishes to 2020 and 2021.
But after the Yankees stood idle while elite major league talents signed for big bucks elsewhere… suffice it to say I have resigned myself to the Yankees making improvements at the margins rather than leveraging their single greatest organizational strengths – giant revenue streams and wads of cash – to bring game-changing talent to the Bronx. It’s disturbingly possible that Aaron Boone will be the club’s biggest signing of the 2021 off-season.
Maybe I am wrong. Perhaps Brian Cashman lures Freddie Freeman to the Bronx or spends $300 million on Carlos Correa to play shortstop. Or swings a deal with Oakland to bring one of the Matts and/or some pitching to New York. But there could be dark days ahead in 2022.
I have no doubt that there is enough raw talent for the club to win. The past two years, however, have clouded my hope that the Yankees will reach what seemed like the limitless potential the club displayed between 2017 and 2019. More so than at almost any other time as a sports fan, I’ll be happy to be wrong. “Hope springs eternal” is a time-worn baseball adage. Let’s get baseball back, and then see what happens with the 2022 Yankees.