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Three Yankees entering make-or-break seasons

While 2017 will be an important season for many Yankees to prove they’re worth keeping through the youth wave, it’ll be pivotal for three players.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Proclaiming that player X is entering a ‘make-or-break’ season and player Y is simply a month away from a…normal season runs the risk of understating the impact a single year can have on a player’s value. However, there is still merit in saying certain 2017 performances can be more pivotal to a player’s future than others.

For example, save for an unbelievably disastrous season, Didi Gregorius will be the Yankees’ shortstop for at least the next few seasons, regardless of how he plays next year. Conversely, there are a few Bronx Bombers who could see their value and expected role with the club swing wildly based on how they perform next year.

These players will be ones to watch this Spring and early in 2017, as their leashes will be shorter and results more closely studied. With that in mind, let’s take a look at four Yankees entering make-or-break seasons.

Luis Severino

Severino is the obvious pick, as he’s teetering on the edge between starter and reliever and will likely get his final chance at starting this season. While I think the Yankees could still be giving up too quickly on the former top prospect should they convert him to the bullpen following 2017, there’s a good chance that a repeat of last year, or anything close to it, would result in a permanent shift to a relief role.

The Yankees aren’t quite certain of who Severino is after his electrifying (but, admittedly, lucky) debut in 2015, where he threw 62.1 innings of 2.89 ERA ball, and disastrous sophomore season in 2016, where he carried an 8.50 ERA in 47.2 innings as a starter. Considering the regression Severino’s changeup saw last season—making him largely a two-pitch pitcher—and a throwing delivery that screams reliever to some scouts, an audition in the bullpen makes sense. Toss in the absolute dominance Severino displayed as a reliever last season (0.39 ERA and 9.64 K/9), and there’s a perfectly valid reason to let Sevy work as an elite late-inning reliever rather than an inconsistent starter.

Still, a mid-rotation starter is more valuable than a top-end relief arm, so the Yankees will give Severino another shot out of the rotation next season. While struggles as a starter certainly wouldn’t signify the end of his value in pinstripes, like some other names later in this list, Severino’s overall upside would take a hit. By this time next year, Severino is likely to have a more defined role, though which spot he ends up in will largely depend on next year’s performance.

Aaron Hicks

Hicks is another confusing player who’s already spent a decent amount of time in the big leagues, as the skillset he flashed in 2015 is far different from last year’s. Hicks, also a former top prospect, showed possibly plus power and speed as a Twin two years ago, hitting .256/.323/.398 with excellent defense. Alas, in his first year in pinstripes, the speed eroded and so did the power, as he rarely made good contact and hit just .217/.281/.336 with merely average defense.

The most optimistic of evaluators can still squint and see a possible 15/15 player with great defense, but the more likely outcome is a toolsy fourth or fifth outfielder. Given the glut of outfielders quickly coming up through the Yankees’ pipeline, Hicks could quickly become unnecessary in a year’s time if he can’t quickly turn around his performance. His chance to audition as a starter may have already passed, but he’ll still get plenty of at bats next season and will need to have a substantial rebound to get future playing time. If Hicks can’t improve upon 2016, he may soon be out of the organization.

Starlin Castro

Castro is in a similar position to Hicks, though the outcome of a ‘break’ in his make-or-break season is far better than that of Hicks. Also faced with some impact prospects breathing down his neck, Castro’s time to remain a starter with the Yankees may be running out if he can’t regain the exciting tools that made him a potential superstar with the Cubs several years ago.

While Castro did hit a career-high 21 home runs last season with a solid .270 batting average, an anemic walk-rate and poor defense meant he only accrued 1.1 fWAR. The former plus speed looks to be gone, and 20 home runs isn’t anything special (even for a middle infielder) given the league-wide power uptick, so Castro will have to make serious leaps in his defense and plate discipline next season to make a strong case to receive playing time over prospects. While he may have another chance to do this in 2018, the leash will be far shorter by then, and next year will likely be the final full-season opportunity for Castro while with the Yankees. Should he fail to cross the 2 WAR threshold for the third time in four years, a demotion to a utility role may be in Starlin’s cards.