The 2015 Yankee campaign can best be described as a step in the right direction. They played quality baseball for most of the season, young players made significant contributions for the first time in a long time, and they returned to the playoffs after a two year drought. Still, fans were left wanting a little more at season's end. An early exit in the playoffs was the culmination of team-wide struggles that had them fading through the final weeks of the season. A few core Yankees in particular, each with a hefty price tag, simply did not live up to expectations. At least one of these players will need to bounce back to form if the Yankees are to return to October baseball next year.
The Yankees committed more than $50 million to Headley last offseason with two main objectives: to get a sure handed glove at third base and to add some pop to the lineup. On both accounts Headley came up short. Playing half his games at the homer friendly Yankee Stadium, it was expected that he would approach the 30 home run mark as he did in San Diego just three years ago. However, he went deep just 11 times all season. Normally a sure handed fielder, Headley battled throwing woes for much of the season. According to advanced defensive metrics, he was rated as a below average third baseman for the first time since 2011 when a broken finger interrupted his season. The Yankees will need a better return on their investment in 2016.
The injury prone Ellsbury did miss six weeks in the middle of the season due to a knee sprain but that was the least of the Yankees' worries. When he was healthy enough to play he was far from the offensive spark plug that they expected him to be. The truth is, the Yankee offense was effective in spite of Ellsbury rather than because of him. He put up an anemic .257/.318/.345 slash line, all career lows, contributing to an ugly OPS+ that was 15 points below average. Of Yankee regulars, only Stephen Drew was worse. The Yankee lineup is unlikely to remain elite without significant improvement from their leadoff hitter.
Sabathia struggling was not a new phenomenon in 2015, but his struggles may have come to a head. As part of the starting rotation he was about as effective as he was during his abysmal 2013 and 2014 seasons. His strikeout rate was down, his walk rate was up, and he surrendered 28 home runs which matched a career high. A big reason for this was the lingering knee condition that he's dealt with over the last few years and landed him on the disabled list in August. After returning to pitch for the balance of the season in September, including the game that clinched the Yankees' playoff birth, he revealed some unfortunate news just prior to their showdown with the Astros. He's currently checked into an alcohol treatment center with the hopes that he will return with sounder body and mind for next season. Let's hope first that this gets his life back on track, and second that it means the Yankees may get some value from their high priced work horse next summer.
This season wasn't necessarily a bad one for Tanaka. Considered a high injury risk, he managed to miss only a handful of starts due to arm soreness. When he did pitch he was effective enough to win 12 games with a respectable 3.51 ERA. The trouble is, the way the Yankees are currently designed they need Tanaka to be more than merely respectable. He was lured to the Bronx to be their number one starter, they guy who gets the ball when a losing streak needs to end or when their playoff lives are on the line. Tanaka just wasn't that guy in 2015. His kryptonite all season long was the long ball as he was homered on 25 times in just 154 innings. This extended to the wild card playoff game when Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez each took Tanaka deep, giving the Astros a lead they would never relinquish. Keeping the ball in the park will be the key to Tanaka being the ace the Yankees need.