Don’t Sleep on the Yankees

The New York Yankees are supposedly rebuilding — and, in a sense, it’s true. They didn’t make the playoffs last season, and they haven’t seen the American League Division Series since 2012. They started the winter by trading the guy who had been their starting catcher for the past three seasons. Those are all some traits that might be representative of a team in transition.

On the other hand, they haven’t dropped below .500 in forever. You have to go back to 1992 to find the last time the Yankees failed to break even. They’ve never been the bad team that one now commonly associates with a tear-down effort. Also, they’ve spent some money in free agency this offseason, on Aroldis Chapman and Matt Holliday. These aren’t the types of players/deals — closers, short-term deals for aging superstar — that teams who are far from contention typically sign/make.

So who are the Yankees? If you had to pick between pretender and contender, you’d have to land on the latter. Let’s take a look at the potential starting lineup. As always, the venerable Mike Axisa has done much of the legwork for us. In his recent piece on how the Yankees may split Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup, here was his best guess as to how the Yankees’ lineup will shake out this season.

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  7. 1B Gregory Bird
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. 3B Chase Headley

Not bad, right? Let’s take a look at the projected wOBAs for all of the AL teams, according to our current depth charts.

2017 AL Projected Team wOBA
Team wOBA
Red Sox 0.333
Astros 0.329
Indians 0.328
Rangers 0.327
Tigers 0.325
Orioles 0.324
Yankees 0.322
Blue Jays 0.320
Twins 0.319
Angels 0.318
Mariners 0.317
Athletics 0.313
Royals 0.312
Rays 0.310
White Sox 0.309
SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts

The Yankees are in the middle of the pack, but there are a few caveats here. First, the projections may be conservative on Bird and Sanchez, which is understandable in both cases. Certainly, we shouldn’t expect Sanchez to repeat his blistering .425 wOBA from last season, but the .348 wOBA for which he’s pegged for seems like it could be a little conservative. The early returns from our FANS projections seem to agree, pegging him for a .355 wOBA.

Bird’s projection might be even more conservative. Given that he just missed a full season, we have him pegged for just 350 plate appearances. If he’s right, though, he’ll garner far more playing time than that. In addition, if he can round back to his previous form, he should top his .354 wOBA projection, as it would easily be his lowest wOBA at any level as a professional. For context, here are Bird’s wOBA figures from every regular-season stop at which he posted at least 100 plate appearances: .429, .373, .411, .367, .387 and .372. The last, the .372, was his production in 2015 as a member of the Yankees, when he hit 11 homers in 46 games, with a .261/.343/.529 slash line.

There’s also the matter of what isn’t showing up in that Yankees’ projected wOBA. Whether it’s Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres potentially forcing their way onto the 25-man roster or a midseason trade involving one of the club’s prospects to acquire an elite major leaguer, there’s a decent chance that there’s at least one good hitter who’ll contribute to the Yankees in 2017 but isn’t currently listed on the depth chart. The Yankees have resources, in one way or another, that other teams don’t.

On the pitching side, things look similarly appealing.

2017 AL Projected Team FIP
Team FIP
Indians 3.71
Red Sox 3.76
Astros 3.86
Mariners 3.99
Angels 4.02
Rays 4.04
Yankees 4.06
Athletics 4.07
Blue Jays 4.14
Tigers 4.15
Royals 4.17
Rangers 4.18
Twins 4.36
White Sox 4.37
Orioles 4.39
SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts

Not bad. But again, this may be underrating the Yankees a little bit. Let’s add in three more columns.

2017 AL Projected Team FIP, WAR
Team FIP WAR 3+ WAR SP 1.5+ WAR RP
Indians 3.71 22.6 3 1
Red Sox 3.76 21.8 3 1
Yankees 4.06 20.0 2 2
Astros 3.86 19.4 2 0
Mariners 3.99 17.0 1 1
Tigers 4.15 16.6 1 0
Blue Jays 4.14 16.4 1 0
Rangers 4.18 15.4 2 0
Rays 4.04 15.1 1 0
Angels 4.02 14.7 1 0
Royals 4.17 14.7 1 0
Athletics 4.07 14.5 1 0
White Sox 4.37 14.5 1 0
Orioles 4.39 14.2 1 1
Twins 4.36 11.9 0 0
SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts

The disparity between New York’s FIP and WAR ranking tells me that the Yankees’ best pitchers are the ones slated to pitch the most innings. And we can see that the top of the Yankees’ pitching staff matches up favorably to the rest of the American League in at least one respect — the number of good pitchers. Setting the bar at 3.0 WAR and 1.5 WAR, respectively, we find that the Yankees are the only team who feature multiple starters and relievers who clear both thresholds. Now, there’s obviously something a bit arbitrary about considering the pitching this way — and it doesn’t account for depth, either. Nevertheless, looking at the staff in this manner reveals how dangerous the Yankees could be in a short series.

And similar to the position-player section of their depth chart, the team has prospects omitted from the club’s “first team” who could force a promotion in the near future. Chief among them is Justus Sheffield, who graduated to Double-A in September. And one pitcher who is on the depth chart — Ben Heller — could really be a sleeper. Last year, the righty struck out 25% of the hitters he faced at Triple-A and is capable of producing 100-mph heat. Certainly, 100-mph fastballs are more ubiquitous than they used to be, but having three guys who can fire them in one bullpen is a tantalizing proposition.

Obviously, the future isn’t yet written. Gary Sanchez could experience a Brett Lawrie-like sophomore slump. Veterans Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley and CC Sabathia could see their performance degrade even further. The back of the rotation could be unsettled all season. But these are the kinds of problems teams want to have, and given the Yankees’ prospect cache and still considerable financial resources, they’ll be in position to cure any of their ills come midseason. Don’t sleep on the Yankees.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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5 years ago

compelling case, but zzzzzzz