Saying that the Yankees are entering this season with some uncertainty would be an understatement. All teams have question marks, but the Yankees seem to have more than most given their age and injury histories. The obvious keys to this season are the starting rotation staying healthy and consistent, and offensively, veterans like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran staying off the DL, and coming close to last season's production.
However, other important facets of the team are flying under the radar, including middle relief and the bench. All teams, even the better ones, are in constant search for solid middle relief and bench options. Since the Yankees are also filled with uncertainty in their lineup and starting rotation, though, these areas are receiving less attention, but are still vital pieces to the Yankees season.
So, here are a few overlooked keys to success for the Yankees in 2016.
Reliable middle relievers
The Yankees have one of the best backends of the bullpen in baseball history, but they'll need help from elsewhere if it's going to be one of the best overall bullpens. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances are phenomenal; when the Yankees have a lead late, it's rarely going to be blown. It's also important to get the ball to them with a lead in tact, though.
If the starter can't do it himself, the middle relievers need to hand over a lead to the three superstars. Also important, they need to keep deficits where they are so the games stay close, something they struggled with in 2015. Outside of last year's "Big Three" (Miller, Betances, Justin Wilson), the bullpen had a paltry 4.72 ERA.
Adam Warren, one of last year's best middle relievers, is now in the Windy City, making this an even bigger problem. Chasen Shreve was reliable all year, but struggled mightily in September. Bryan Mitchell has command issues and is yet to have major league success, and the rest of the relief candidates have limited big league experience, outside of Ivan Nova, if he lands a long man role.
We know that the Yankees bullpen will be great when they have a late lead, but how they perform in all other situations is also important.
Aaron Hicks replacing Chris Young
The Yankees decided to let Chris Young walk, and instead trade catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Hicks. It's a move many, myself included, applauded. The Yankees are deep at catcher, and Hicks is basically just a younger, cheaper Chris Young with more upside.
However, it shouldn't be just assumed that Hicks can fill in for Young and be just as good or better. Chris Young was superb against lefties last season. He raked to a slash of .327/.397/.575. Those numbers are really good.
Hicks, once a top prospect, was largely disappointing in Minnesota, but he showed serious signs of improvement in 2015, particularly against lefties. His slash against southpaws was almost as impressive as Young's; he mashed to a tune of .307/.375/.495. He also found a power stroke in the second half, smashing eight homers in 58 games. Just 26, Hicks is entering his prime and has the potential to be even better. Paul Sporer of FanGraphs speculated if he could even be the next Carlos Gomez.
For all the potential Hicks has though, it still needs to translate into results. His numbers against lefties last season, while impressive, came over the small sample size of 112 plate appearances, and he's still just a .225 career hitter. So, while Young has made a career of hitting lefties, Hicks is far from a sure thing, but will be relied on to fill the same role, and it's an important one.
The Yanks have eight outfielders on the 40-man roster, but only Hicks and Beltran are capable of hitting right-handed. Hicks will likely start against every lefty, and with the injury proneness of the three starting outfielders, it's very possible that Hicks will be pushed into a starting role against all pitchers, even with Dustin Ackley around. Hicks won't make or break the Yankees season, but he'll certainly play an important role.
Another bench player, Ackley doesn't have the same impact of A-Rod, say, but he's still a vital piece of the team. In his first full season in pinstripes, the former Mariner will be relied on to play a super-utility role off the bench. Ackley provides defensive versatility, and the Yankees are likely going to rely on Ackley to backup second base, the corner outfield, and first base.
Mark Teixeira has spent time on the DL in four straight seasons, so he's far from a lock to stay healthy. With Greg Bird out for the season, Ackley is likely first in line behind Teixeira. Whether it's as a utility man or a starting first baseman, Ackley will need to make good on the promise the Yankees saw in him. He looked good in the Bronx last season, posting a .987 OPS in pinstripes.
There are more important things for the Yankees in 2016, but these parts of the team should not be overlooked and will help decide if this season is an enjoyable one for Yankee fans.