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Early returns on the Yankees’ offseason strategy

Did the focus on flexibility and defense work? Sort of.

Houston Astros v Texas Rangers Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

At time of writing, the Yankees have the best record in the American League, as well as the league’s best run differential. Yes, the pitching has been outstanding, fifth in baseball in fWAR and K-BB%, but the lineup, which carried a certain miasma of mediocrity not that long ago, has also been one of the five or so most productive in the game. It’s the last day of the season’s first month, and it’s been a good one.

Yet I still chose the lead image for this post carefully, since so much of the narrative ahead of the season was what the Yankees didn’t do right — they let the greatest free agent shortstop class in history waltz right by, and the additions the club did make prioritized defense and roster flexibility, rather than addressing a lineup coming off a down year.

There were four main pillars of the Yankee offseason, as best as I can tell. First, rely on the well-built internally developed pitching staff, running back a squad that was the best part of the 2021 team. Second, shore up the team’s defense, especially around the infield. Third, construct a high-floor lineup that will produce enough to support the pitching, and fourth, extend Aaron Judge.

That last one is still an outstanding item, but everything else...whether or not you agree with the strategy, and we’ll get to that in a moment, its hard to argue based on the first month that it’s not working, right?

I’m careful about anointing anyone as some sort of Baseball God. It’s very tempting to look at Luis Severino’s return, Nestor Cortes’ run and Michael King’s transformation and just say “hey Matt Blake is a miracle worker”. Similar things were said about Ray Searage, until they weren’t, but Blake’s certainly earned his pay since joining the club, and when it comes to Sevy’s recovery and Cortes’ improved conditioning, I think Eric Cressey deserves a lot of credit as well.

Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman and Robbie Ray were more known quantities than Severino or Cortes were over the winter, but the Yankees haven’t really needed either of them — like they say in Moneyball, the team’s been able to recreate them in the aggregate. There are, I think, legitimate concerns about how much mileage the Yankees can get out of either guy over the rest of the season, but for now, they’re 40 percent of one of MLB’s very best rotations.

To that second pillar, defense, while errors aren’t the best way to evaluate run suppression, if you commit the fewest in baseball, you probably have a fine defense. Again, the Yankees caught some attention for sacrificing any offense at all from the catcher’s slot and went with the best possible defensive combination. It’s unquestionably played a role in the pitching staff’s success, but the attention paid to defense has had other benefits as well.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa has more than held his own at shortstop, notching 2 OAA, 86th percentile, in the first month of the season. Anthony Rizzo is harder to evaluate from a pure numbers standpoint, but he plays much better at first than Luke Voit did, and better than DJ LeMahieu as well. DJ has been freed to play second and third, where he’s looked strong. The Yankees needed so much help rebuilding the infield, but were able to do it on the fly.

Offensively, the difference between a top heavy lineup and what the Yankees have run out in the last week is the play of guys like Josh Donaldson, Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks. The top third of the lineup has hit all month, and while Rizzo will probably not run an 1.100 OPS all season, we shouldn’t worry about that part of the lineup.

The complimentary pieces, those 5-8 slots in the order turning it on, has been the biggest difference in the improved hitting over the past two weeks. Donaldson isn’t pressing as much — 142 wRC+ over the last 14 days — and Joey Gallo finally had a breakout week, and we got to see what a long Yankee lineup might be able to produce.

So...the offseason plan worked, right? Or at least, has worked for a month?

Credit where its due, in April, we saw the fruits of this winter’s plan. They look like a team that will battle near the top of the division, a team that will be good enough to make playoffs, with the potential, should the lineup keep clicking, to be much more than that.

But (there’s always got to be a but), just because this plan has worked so far, doesn’t mean other plans were bad ones. Kevin Gausman has been pretty much the best pitcher in the game. Corey Seager hasn’t gotten off to a great start in Texas, but would the Yankees be any worse off having him at short than IKF?

It’s only a month into the season, but so far, the Yankees have threaded the needle, building an extremely competitive roster, winning games, and meeting those short-and-intermediate term financial commitments that are so important to the organization at large. It’s been a really fun couple of weeks for Yankee fans, but that doesn’t mean this was the only way to make a fun team.