In many ways, 2015 was a wonderful season for the Yankees. Fans were understandably dissatisfied with merely hosting a wild card game, but the team did win its most games since 2012. Not only that, but New York also posted better underlying numbers in the form of their best Pythagorean and BaseRuns records of the past three years. The team managed a notable improvement despite uncharacteristic financial restraint (or perhaps frugality) from management. The improvement was propelled by resurgent seasons from a number of players well past their primes, namely Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and Alex Rodriguez.
Unfortunately, one good season from a bunch of veterans is just that--one good season. The Yankees cannot expect such strong seasons again from players in their upper thirties. Regression to the mean is likely coming for all of them. Given how difficult it will be to rely on more excellent production from the elder statesmen, it is fair to ask: Can the 2016 Yankees fight off regression?
New York has a roster consisting of players that theoretically are heading in distinctly opposite directions. They have the previously noted quite old players, as well as several somewhat younger players like Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Chase Headley that are still on the wrong side of 30. Then, there are of course the cavalry of young players the front office has so hoarded. Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Masahiro Tanaka, and Didi Gregorius are all productive players at the beginning of their primes, as are newcomers Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks. Even younger prospects like Greg Bird and Luis Severino have already had an impact in the majors, and others, like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, may soon have the opportunity to do so as well.
Whether the Yankees can match, or even surpass, the success of 2015 seems likely to come down to if the progression of the young guns can offset the regression of the aging veterans. To get an idea of how likely the young players are to succeed in such an endeavor, let's turn to the trusty projection systems.
For this exercise, as a baseline we'll use the Steamer depth chart projections from the friendly folks over at FanGraphs. Let's start with the eldest Yankees. In 2015, the resurgent trio of Beltran, Rodriguez and Teixeira combined to provide 7.5 fWAR in 1613 plate appearances. Next year, that group is projected for 3.5 fWAR in 1708 plate appearances. Not a great start.
However, one might respond, some of the Yankees younger veterans had surprisingly poor seasons in 2015, and thus are due for some positive regression to the mean! If you were to make such an assertion, you would appear to do so with some merit. Headley and Ellsbury both suffered through subpar campaigns, perhaps due to some bad luck, and both should reasonably be expected to perform better in 2016. The two project for a total of 5.0 fWAR, after combining for a paltry 2.4 in 2015. Other holdovers like McCann, Gardner and Gregorius project to have seasons very similar to 2015.
Turning our attention to the youthful contributors, the starting rotation, while riddled with injury risk, looks to also be a source of legitimate optimism. Injuries were an issue with the rotation last year, as CC Sabathia was the staff's leader in innings pitched at 167.1, but Tanaka, Eovaldi, Pineda, and the rookie Severino still managed to produce a total of 9.6 fWAR. As for 2016? That young quartet is projected for a solid 11.9 fWAR, despite reservations about the group's overall ability to stay healthy. Things seem to be looking brighter.
There is still the matter of the new arrivals. Castro, who will be replacing the dismal production of Stephen Drew, is not projected for greatness, coming of a season in which his slash line was just .265/.296/.375. Greatness is not required from Castro for him to be an improvement, however, and his projected 1.5 fWAR in 630 plate appearances easily outpaces Drew's 0.2 fWAR in 428 plate appearances. Hicks, on the other hand, may require an injury to one of the starting outfielders in order to find consistent time on the field. He is forecast for just half a win in under 200 plate appearances, though perhaps he will be called on for more playing time in order to spell the veteran outfield.
While the bullpen will be expected to be dominant, it might not actually be that much better than it was in 2015. The entire unit is forecast for 6.2 fWAR, compared to the 5.3 wins it produced last year, but those projections incorporate a full season from newly acquired Aroldis Chapman. The closer won't be charged for any crimes, but it is still very possible he will be suspended. Thus, the bullpen might not perform at a particularly higher level compared to last year.
As a whole, the positive progression of many of the Yankees' younger contributors looks like it may just outstrip the regression to the mean that is likely to strike the Yankees' oldest players. Of course, projections are just a baseline, and there are plenty of things that they miss. Steamer isn't aware that Eovaldi looked like a different pitcher last season when he started throwing his splitter harder, but it also doesn't know that Tanaka's elbow may be a ticking time-bomb. Plus, for all we know, players like A-Rod may simply be timeless, and hold value into their forties. The projections are, however, better on average than us mere humans at predicting the futures of players, and if that holds true in this case, the Yankees should be able to survive their old stars coming down to Earth.