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The most important Yankees for 2024

Despite some big adds, the needle movers are guys we’ve seen before.

New York Yankees v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

So, it’s been an active winter for the Yankees. A trio of outfielders have been added and the floor of the rotation has been raised with the signing of Marcus Stroman, and there may be another arm coming. Adding Juan Soto is never going to be a bad idea and the team’s better than it was on the last day of the 2023 season, but it doesn’t feel like they’re division favorites, or even a lock for a postseason slot.

Aaron Judge and Juan Soto are as good a one-two punch the game has, but the lineup still looks a little thin. Stroman should be solid enough, but the rotation is a very high-floor one, without much explosive potential outside of Gerrit Cole. While the Yankees could make moves on the trade or free agent market, I tend to think the guys that can make the biggest difference are already on the roster.

Gleyber Torres and his 115-120 wRC+ are valuable, but the really big piece for the lineup is Anthony Rizzo, and how much his bat rebounds after his concussion issues in 2023. At the time of his collision with Fernando Tatís Jr., Rizzo was the 13th-best hitter in all of baseball by wRC+. Taking advantage of the shift ban, had Rizzo’s numbers held up over the entire season he would have set a new career high in average and his highest OBP and SLG since 2019. Even if what we consider “normal” regression had kicked in, he had just had a 135 wRC+ season in 2022.

That strong 2022, plus how good he was before a traumatic brain injury, make me optimistic he can return to being a force in 2024. Over the last five years Rizzo has been a better hitter than Gleyber — no slouch himself — and by adding a second high-OBP lefty with some power, the Yankee lineup gets harder to navigate especially late in games when managers try to set relief lanes. Perhaps equally as important, a 130 wRC+ Rizzo hedges against some of the risk of DJ LeMahieu or Giancarlo Stanton’s continual decline.

Anthony Rizzo isn’t going to be the best hitter on the Yankees, but the length he adds to the lineup might make him the team’s most important hitter. We’ve seen gruesome twosomes — Ohtani and Trout, Judge himself and Stanton — be paired atop a lineup but a lack of any support render the offense somewhat impotent. I’m high on Rizzo helping to prevent that.

In a similar vein, we have Carlos Rodón. Fresh off about as bad a season as an MLB pitcher can have, Rodón has a golden opportunity to both prove himself to the Yankee faithful and elevate the Yankees’ pitching rotation to the upper tier of the game. Right now the Yankees are projected for the tenth-best rotation by fWAR, certainly above average but not what you’d consider elite. Gerrit Cole is as good as it gets in baseball, but the guys behind him bring big question marks around usage like Clarke Schmidt, or raise the floor without much upside.

Rodón himself is projected by FanGraphs to be worth three wins, a pretty gnarly discount after a -0.2 fWAR season in 2023. This is the same guy that averaged five and a half wins between 2021 and 2022 — hitting that mark again would take that projected rotation from tenth in the game to fourth, tied with the Dodgers. I tend to think one of the reasons the Yankees have been content to deal away Michael King and sign Stroman, rather than a higher priced acquisition like Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery is because they believe Rodón’s among the best candidates to exceed projections; and all of a sudden the Yankees have a pair of Cy Young candidates like they always planned.

There’s a lot of “if”s in this post. It’s mid-January, all we really have are ifs. The Yankees as they stand look to be right around 88 wins, which isn’t going to be enough for a division title, and would put them in a Wild Card dogfight. I don’t think there’s enough wins on free agency left to make a difference, so they’ve gotta come from in-house. Rizzo and Rodón are the two guys that I think can best provide them, even if they won’t have the eye-popping numbers we’d expect from the captain and the ace. Sam Miller wrote about baseball being a game of who has the best “next guy”, and R&R can be the best “next guys” for the 2024 Yankees.