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New York Yankees: Looking ahead to 2017

Coming into the 2016 season, the New York Yankees and their fans were optimistic about what was to come, despite being 1-and-done in the 2015 American League Wild Card game, after losing to the Houston Astros. Offseason moves, including trading RHP Adam Warren to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Starlin Castro, and picking up flamethrower Aroldis Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds for prospects, provided a sense of optimism that the team could indeed rebuild for the future while competing during the present. Unfortunately, following a disastrous 9-17 start to the season, the team was in catch-up mode for the remainder of the schedule.

While the Yankees are technically not out of contention as of Tuesday night, the writing’s on the wall, having gotten swept by the Red Sox in Boston, and narrowly avoiding the same fate in Toronto. Heading into Wednesday’s action, the magic number for the Yanks to be officially eliminated from the Wild Card is down to 2 – meaning that a Yankees loss, combined with an Orioles win, and it’s game over. With that in mind, it makes sense to start looking ahead to 2017, as the offseason will officially begin for the Bronx Bombers, after Sunday’s season finale. Although the team is on the verge of clinching its 24th consecutive winning season, success in the Bronx is measured by a MUCH higher standard – winning a World Series.

Let’s take a position by position look at what options the team is likely to consider as it heads back to Tampa, Florida, for Spring Training:

Catcher – The Yankees will likely have three realistic options competing for two spots in Brian McCann, Gary Sanchez, and Austin Romine unless they opt to trade either Romine or McCann during the winter. Sanchez, 23, has made a significant impression on the team since being called up on August 3rd, 2016, becoming just the 2nd player in history to hit 20 home runs in his first 51 career games, tying Wally Berger of the 1930 Boston Red Sox. He was the favorite to win the backup gig last spring, losing out to Austin Romine due to poor performance. The team may choose to keep McCann in the fold as a DH option for next year and to continue mentoring likely starter, Sanchez. This puts Romine in the position of being the possible backup once again, pending any offseason moves to bring in others to compete. Flashing a cannon for an arm, agility behind the plate, a keen ability for calling the game, and a potent bat, Sanchez promises to be a fixture at the two spot in the infield.

1st base – With the retirement of Mark Teixeira after 14 big league seasons, the job should be Greg Bird’s to lose. After missing all of 2016 due to a shoulder injury sustained in the spring this past year, the future 1st baseman will have his chance to win the starting job next year. In 2015, filling in for the injured Teixeira, Bird hit .261 with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs to go with an .872 OPS. His lefty swing is tailor made for Yankee Stadium, and his glove work is solid, if not at the same level of the man he’s replacing. Other options on the 40-man include Tyler Austin and Rob Refsnyder. Look for the team to focus on Austin as an outfielder, and potentially re-sign Butler as a backup option. Refsnyder could see himself in a trade situation, or may enter 2017 as a utility infielder/backup outfielder.

2nd base – With Starlin Castro under contract through 2020, I suspect that he will enter 2017 as the starting 2nd baseman once again. At just 26 years of age, he still hasn’t even entered the true prime of his career, yet in 2016 he’s hit more homers (21 to date) than any other season of his career. His .742 OPS rates over 70 points higher than last year, even though his strikeout propensity does tend to be problematic. Castro’s defense was ranked slightly above average for the season (4.39 range factor/9, league average is 4.34), as he proved to be a far more adequate option than what the team dealt with the previous couple of years. The chemistry he developed with Didi Gregorius has been very important, as they look to form a solid middle-infield defense for years to come.

Other than Ronald Torreyes and Refsnyder, Castro looks to be the only reliable option at this time, so he should have no trouble taking the field on Opening Day in 2017, yet again.

Shortstop – So, were you one of the people that got upset when Brian Cashman traded Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius? If so, I hope you’ve learned your lesson. Didi has not only more than DOUBLED his career high in home runs (20), and set a new career high in OPS (.752), he also has set new career highs in batting average so far (.276) and slugging (.447), yet he still has room for improvement, at the age of only 26. Shockingly enough, given his strong throwing arm and athletic plays in the six hole, for the year, he’s BELOW average in range (4.12 range factor compared with 4.26 league average.) While Didi will likely NEVER be Derek Jeter offensively, how many shortstops ARE? No doubt that he will be the shortstop next year.

Other options include Ronald Torreyes and Starlin Castro.

3rd base – Okay, I’ll admit it – Chase Headley is NOT that great of an option. He’s just not. Even though he’s managed to hit around .270 since the end of April, he’s still only hitting .254 with meager production (14 homers and 50 RBIs), and April still does count. If you’re not getting power from your outfield, you NEED it from your infield, and despite career highs from Gregorius and Castro, and the incredible power from Sanchez, it still wasn’t enough. Headley has two more years remaining on his current contract, which still has $26M remaining on it. It won’t be easy to move Headley, who’s entering his age 33 seasons, and has once again been bothered by a bad back. On the plus side, he has cut down on his errors significantly this year, by more than half (10 compared to 23 in 2015.)

If Headley cannot be moved, the only backup options at this time are Ronald Torreyes and Donovan Solano.

Other infielders to watch for next spring – Gleyber Torrez, Julio Mateo, Tyler Wade.

Right Field – This is where things start to get much more complicated. Aaron Judge finally got the call to the Bronx this year, and while it began with a bang (literally, hitting a bomb above the restaurant in center field), he ended with a whimper. Over his final 80 ABs, he hit just .163 with 41 strikeouts. Pitchers figured out how to exploit his weakness on breaking pitches, as he flailed away countless times on the offspeed offerings. He showed athleticism and a solid arm in the field and will be competing for the starting job next year.

Aaron Hicks, who had a less than stellar season with the bat, will also be in line as competition with Judge. He, too, displays a rocket arm, although at times he takes odd angles on fly balls, and lets too many drops in for hits. Hicks doesn’t have NEAR the power potential that Judge has, but he IS a switch-hitter, which provides greater versatility in the lineup.

Tyler Austin received playing time at the position as well and has struggled nearly equally to make contact as Judge did (31 strikeouts in 71 ABs, an average of 2.3 ABs/strikeout.)

Center Field – To say that Jacoby Ellsbury has been a disappointment with the Yankees, would be an understatement. Ellsbury has hit just .263 with an average of 11 homers and 52 RBIs, along with 26 stolen bases, as a Yankee. Compare this with his yearly marks with the Red Sox (.297, nine homers, 45 RBIs, 34 stolen bases), and you can see that despite little differences in overall run production, his average and speed have dramatically slowed down. Unfortunately, with five years remaining on his contract, at close to $110M, the chances of moving him in a trade are pretty remote. Given that the team ate the remainder of ARod’s contract already, the chances are they AREN’T going to do the same here.

Expect Ellsbury to be the starting Center Fielder in 2017.

Left Field – Another guy who had a disappointing season, is Brett Gardner. True, he’s done about the same hitting this year as last year, but the difference is, LAST year, his average dropped like a rock after an All-Star 1st half. This year, he never really got hot for very long, and the spark that he and Ellsbury provided last year, simply wasn’t there this year. In only, ONE month this year (June), did he hit above .269 (.323), compared to last year, when he hit better than .300 TWICE (.311 in April, .351 in June.) His 16 stolen bases this year are a career low for a full season, as are his 20 attempts. When your game is speed, and you simply aren’t running, you’re not getting the job done.

Gardner has two more years left on his contract, at the same AAV (average annual value) as Headley. But something tells me that trading him will be easier than Headley, based on the speed factor, and significantly greater outfield depth in the minors. I’m not predicting he’ll be traded, but I’d say it’s more likely.

Other outfielders to watch for next spring – Clint Frazier, Michael O’Neill, Mason Williams, Dustin Fowler, Billy McKinney, Jake Cave.

DH – As previously stated, this should be a good spot for Brian McCann to occupy, potentially in a platoon situation with Butler. Butler could see time against lefties, with McCann facing righties.

Starting Rotation – 2017 will likely mark the end of CC Sabathia’s career in pinstripes, as the lefty enters the final season of his contract. Though he showed flashes of excellence in 2016, bouncing back nicely from knee issues and troubles with substance abuse, the fact is that there’s much less tread left on the ole tires. Masahiro Tanaka appears to be past his elbow troubles, and has put together arguably a Cy Young caliber season, and should be firmly entrenched as the ace. Beyond these 2, however, the water becomes quite a bit murkier.

2016 presented the debuts of Luis Cessa and Chad Green; the two pieces brought to New York’s system in the trade that sent reliever Justin Wilson packing to the Motor City. Both had some solid outings, and equally ugly ones. Of Cessa’s seven starts to date, 3 of them were Quality Starts (QS), which is to say at least six innings completed, with no more than 3 Earned Runs allowed. For Green, in 8 starts, just TWO were of the quality variety. However, both are very young (Cessa will be 25 entering the 2017 season and Green will be26) and have a ton of upside. Both should be in competition for starting roles.

Another candidate for the rotation will be 22-year-old righty, Luis Severino. Severino began the 2016 campaign in the rotation, where he got lit up – after a stellar debut in 2015, he began 2016 0-6 with an inflated 7.46 ERA as a starter. Soon after, he received a demotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Upon his September call-up, pitching solely out of the bullpen, he has gone 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA. Is he best suited in a relief role, or as a starter? The front office views him as a starter, but I think he may be best suited in the bullpen, as a flame-throwing setup man, or long reliever.

Then there’s Bryan Mitchell, who likely had a spot locked up after Spring Training 2016, until he injured himself right at the end of the exhibition season. The injury cost him almost the entire season, as he didn’t make his 1st start until September 7th in a win against Toronto. Only 1 of his four starts thus far has been of the quality variety, though his 1st start fell just shy. Entering his age 26 season, Mitchell could be primed for a breakout campaign. I had always felt that he translates better as a starter than as a reliever, favoring him over Chase Whitley when the two were in direct competition.

Finally, we have Michael Pineda, who agitates many Yankees fans just by hearing his name. Traded for in the deal that sent Jesus Montero to Seattle, Pineda has yet to “figure it out” at the big league level. Aside from his rookie season of 2011, Pineda has yet to maintain an ERA below 4.37 in a full season and will fail to approach 180 innings pitched. Despite sporting a mid-90s fastball, and a devastating slider, the bulk of runs scored off Pineda, come with two outs, and often with two strikes. It’s become mind-numbingly frustrating to watch. With just 1 more year left on his current contract, I would look for the Yankees to try to find a suitor for Pineda’s services, one which may be able to locate the key to his success that Larry Rothschild hasn’t.

Assuming Pineda isn’t in the fold anymore, look for Sabathia and Tanaka to anchor the rotation, with Cessa, Green, Severino and Mitchell fighting for the final 3 spots.

Bullpen – Now we have landed on the final piece of the 2017 puzzle, which could be considered the most fluid one of all. I’m NOT convinced that Dellin Betances is the long-term answer as closer, as he has pitched to a 4.57 ERA since assuming the job in the wake of the trades of Chapman to Chicago, and Andrew Miller to Cleveland. I believe it’s conceivable that the Yankees could have their 5th closer in 5 seasons next year (Rivera in 2013, Robertson in 2014, Miller in 2015, Chapman in 2016 upon his return), a concept that was unheard of before Mariano’s retirement.

Speculation was abound after Chapman was dealt, that he may be brought back in 2017 as a free agent. A message he had posted online when he departed insinuated such, as it appeared it was goodbye “for now.” It’s unclear the Yankees will be willing to give him the money he would want as a closer, but it would not shock me in the slightest to see him return.

Tyler Clippard is only under contract for one more season, and though he got off to a ridiculous start upon arriving from Arizona at the trade deadline (0.47 ERA in his first 19 innings), he has since gone 4 2/3 innings and allowed six earned runs (11.57 ERA.) While these are both very small sample sizes, it may be time to pump the brakes on assuming he’ll be back. But, as someone that helped to bring stability to a transformed bullpen, and a late inning reliever with a proven pedigree, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

With two years left on contract, I fully expect Adam Warren to return to the Bronx. His absence was missed during the season, and he slid back in with a smooth transition from ChiTown. Sporting a 3.46 ERA in pinstripes for the season to date, the righty is a great piece to have, varying from setup status to middle-relief, to long relief, and even a spot starter.

Other pitchers to watch in spring training – Chasen Shreve, Tommy Layne, Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, James Kaprielian, Connor Mulee, Blake Parker, Johnny Barbato.

Potential projected 2017 roster (as of Wednesday, September 28):

C- Sanchez, McCann, Romine

1B – Bird, Butler

2B – Castro, Torreyes

3B – Headley, Torreyes

SS – Gregorius, Torreyes, Castro

OF – Judge, Ellsbury

DH – McCann, Butler

Rotation – Tanaka, Sabathia

Bullpen – Betances, Clippard, Warren

Who will fill out the rotation? The bullpen? Will Betances close, or will someone like Chapman be brought in? Does Gardner survive another offseason? Lots of questions to be answered in the coming months, and I will provide updates as needed.

I hope this helps you get a sense for what to expect going into next year, and what to watch for. The 2016 season is just about over, but the next chapter has not even begun. Stay tuned!

Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com