Playing Pepper 2020: New York Yankees

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed.  Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Yankees, even if some specific items may be affected.

New York Yankees
103-59, first in AL East, lost in ALCS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

There are children in the fourth grade that have never seen a World Series parade in New York.  The most recent World Series experience in the Big Apple was provided by the Mets, amazingly enough.  While some organizations would kill for this to be their biggest problem, the Yankees have a higher standard.  Is this the year the pinstripes add to their record number of championships, or do those kids get another year older without that parade experience?  We’ve got some folks here to tell us all about it!

C70: The Yankees did what the Yankees do, outlaying a lot of money for the top talent on the market. How will Gerrit Cole adjust to New York and can he be worth the contract, at least this season?

Tom: The Yankees hadn’t struck big in free agency in a while, and they landed arguably the best pitcher in the American League in Gerrit Cole. Not only did they bolster their rotation, the one weak spot of the team, with Cole, but they also swiped him from their biggest competitor, the Houston Astros. It’s the quintessential win-now move. Of course, Cole didn’t come cheap. His nine-year, $324 million contract will undoubtedly be an albatross by the end of the term, but Yankees fans will not care if they win a championship or two in the front half of the term. After going a decade without a World Series appearance, Cole will be worth his inflated salary if he can be the ace of a team that reaches that pinnacle.

I wouldn’t expect any issues with Cole adjusting to New York. Big-name pitchers before him have gotten off to slow Aprils in chilly New York (Roger Clemens, CC Sabathia) before warming up with the weather. The media scrutiny will be heavy because of Cole’s massive expectations, but he should be able to handle it.

Ed: It is always hard to predict how a player will perform under the bright lights here in New York. The pressure is ramped up and some players just can’t handle it. Gerrit Cole seems to have the mentality to handle New York, so I anticipate him not being overwhelmed by having 30 or 40 reporters surround him after each start, but that is still an unknown at this point. Personally, I do not see any player being worth the kind of money handed out to free agents, but I do think Cole will continue to pitch the way he has in the past.

In New York it all comes down to one thing for a baseball player, especially a Yankee, and that is October. If he pitches well in the season, and falters in October, he is going to have a tough time with the fans and the media until he proves he can perform in October. That is one reason why the players from the 90’s Yankee dynasty are so revered in NY. They performed in October. This current group has not done so yet, and Cole will be under a lot of pressure to get them over the hump.

The question you asked was one I thought a lot about over the winter, as it is a valid issue. However, once camp opened, a new concern came to mind.

Let me explain, Cole was interviewed on his first day in camp and was asked about the Astro cheating. Since he was not there in 2017, he could only speak to 2018 and 2019. His answer was essentially the standard Sergeant Schultz answer of “I see nothing! I hear nothing! I know nothing!” Later that week his new teammates were asked about the 2019 Astros and if they thought they cheated. Most expressed frustration and would not discard that notion. Gleyber Torres, the future of this team, left nothing to the imagination and stated that he did believe they cheated. Muddying the waters even more is that the New York media was gushing about Cole’s attention to detail. He sees everything going on, he has meetings after each throwing session, each start, and speaks to all the players about pitch selection, etc. How is it possible that he sees everything going on now, but saw nothing when he was an Astro?

My question then went from how he will adjust to New York, and became more of questions such as, how will his new teammates receive him? Do they believe him? Do they have respect for him? Are they angry with him? Can they trust him?

Andy: To this point in Spring Training, I have been impressed with Gerrit Cole’s ability to handle the media spotlight. He has embraced the fact that the volume of media jockeying for his attention was going to increase in New York, and his public comments have been at a minimum appropriate, and at his best Cole has been an engaging interview. Some guys come to New York and either wilt in the spotlight, provide form responses to questions, or display “Foot-In-Mouth Disease,” but Cole has been able to be respectful of the media while also showing fans his personality. On the field, I have no concerns – Cole is one of the best pitchers in baseball, in his prime. Spring performance notwithstanding, his pure stuff looks like it’s exactly where it needs to be: his high 90s, high spin heat and knee-buckling breaking ball combination looks just as devastating as it did for Houston. I expect Cole to live up to his deal for this season and beyond.

Lisa: Cole has been the most likeable Yankee acquisition since CC Sabathia. And him being a lifelong Yankee fan with evidence of it (that famous 2001 World Series picture of him with the sign!) went a long way with Yankeeland. I have no worries whatsoever as to how he will adjust, or whether he is worth the money.

C70: Giancarlo Stanton missed much of 2019 with injuries. Is he healthy now and what are the expectations for him this year?

Tom: Before Cole, Stanton was the last big Yankees offseason addition, coming over in a trade before the 2018 season. After a good-but-not-great 2018 campaign that ended on a sour note in the postseason, Stanton didn’t help his status with Yankees fans by missing most of the 2019 season with various injuries. The good news is that Stanton is fully healthy now, and expectations are high. He will split time between corner outfield and designated hitter, and with the juiced ball, playing half his games at Yankee Stadium and a clean bill of health, there’s no reason to expect Stanton to hit less than 40 home runs for New York. He needs it too, as some in the fanbase are growing restless with Stanton’s relatively disappointing performance as a Yankee through his first two years.

Ed: As most know, he had a calf injury this spring that seems to be getting better. Prior to the Coronavirus shutdown, he looked like he just might make it to opening day, or shortly thereafter. The expectations are high. Like Cole, he has to prove himself to the fans. Even though in his first Yankee season of 2018 he played in 158 games and performed very well, hitting .266 with 38 home runs and 100 RBI, because of his contract and missing most of 2019, he is yet to be fully embraced by many Yankee fans.

His average season over his 10 year career is .268 with 43 home runs and 109 RBI. In his age 31 season of 2020, he is expected to deliver similar production.

Andy: Stanton came to camp healthy…and promptly strained his calf, putting the beginning of his season in doubt prior to the postponement of the beginning of the season. However, reports are that Stanton began running last week, so he is close to returning to full health. I think that the Yanks are going to find a way to give Stanton more time at DH to ensure that they get his impactful bat in the lineup more often. While Stanton struggled initially with a shoulder injury last year, it has been lower body injuries that have plagued him since, so less time in the outfield makes sense. I really wonder what a healthy Stanton would have done with the juiced ball last season, as I believe his ability to change a game with his power is intact. If healthy, I expect Stanton to produce near-All Star numbers at the plate and be a cog in the middle of the Yankee lineup.

Lisa: I am a recreational runner, and I see much better runners than me, but they simply can’t stay healthy. It’s just the way they’re built. I view Stanton the same way (and, come to think of it, Aaron Judge falls into that category a little). And I mostly don’t hold it personally against Stanton the way other fans do. The one thing I can do without are stunts like him bench pressing Adriana Lima. Anyhow, the only good thing about the coronavirus delaying the start of the season is that he (and Judge) both have time to get healthy.

C70: There was quite a bit of angst among Cardinals fans with the season Luke Voit had last year. Can he repeat it?

Tom: To be fair, there was some angst among Yankees fans with the season that Gio Gallegos had for the Cardinals out of the bullpen! However, it seems like both teams made out well in the trade. Voit absolutely seems like a keeper. He has good plate discipline, raw power, and an ability to hit all over the field. Voit struggled a bit with injuries in the second half, but he will likely be a fixture for the Yankees for years to come, and it all started with a seemingly minor trade in July 2018 with the Cardinals.

Ed: Cardinal fans shouldn’t have any angst. Remember, they get to pencil in Paul Goldschmidt most nights at first base, and I for one would love for “Goldy” to be in the Bronx, his pedestrian season of 2019, notwithstanding. What might be a little frustrating for them is that they only got Chasen Shreve, who signed a minor league deal with the Mets this winter, and Giovanny Gallegos in return for Luke Voit. Gallegos had a pretty good 2019 season, but the question is, can he repeat that in 2020?

As far as Voit goes, having now had nearly 800 major league plate appearances under his belt, and hitting .273 overall, at 28 years old, there is no reason why he cannot continue to produce at his 2018 and 2019 levels.  Sorry Cardinal fans, but Yankees won that trade.

Andy: Cards fans, I think, should still feel pretty good about having one of the best all-around first basemen in baseball with Paul Goldschmidt manning the bag again this year. That said, Luke Voit has certainly been a revelation for the Yankees since his arrival. Interestingly enough, he has flown under the radar at Yankee camp this year, probably due to the fact that his final numbers didn’t jump off the page after a second half slump. However, Voit required surgery after the season on a serious core injury suffered during the London series in June, and his stats were almost certainly impacted by playing through such a painful injury. While Voit’s final numbers were solid, they look elite if you just look at the games prior to his injury: .280/.393/.509 through June 29th. That’s elite production at any position on the diamond. Even including games played while hurt, Voit’s underlying batted ball stats look impressive. His 13.2% Barrel % was in the top 9% of MLB, his exit velocity, hard hit rate, and launch angle were well above-average, and his expected statistics based on those launch conditions were all elite, according to Statcast. Voit is not a great defender, though he is working to improve in that department, but I think his bat is for real.

Lisa: Getting him for Chasen Shreve was quite the steal! Let’s hope so! If he can stay healthy, I think he should have another good year.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Tom: Before acquiring Cole and while enduring a season of historically poor injury luck, the Yankees won 103 games, cruised to the division title, and were two wins away from a World Series berth. Now that they have Cole and will hopefully have better health, there’s no reason not to expect a division win and a World Series appearance in 2020. Losing Luis Severino will undoubtedly hurt, but the team still has Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, Jordan Montgomery and J.A. Happ around as depth to go with Cole. Factor in that the team has one of the best lineups and bullpens in baseball, and the Yankees can still withstand the loss of Severino en route to a successful season.

Ed: The Yankees won 100 games in 2019 without Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton (for the most part), Aaron Judge missed 60 games, and Luis Severino made only 3 starts (and is now out for the entire 2020 season), as well as many other key players missing significant time. They also enjoyed great play by what we coined “the next man up” crew. I do not know if players such as Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman will perform as they did in 2019. Losing Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances are huge hits, in my opinion.

Having said that, the Red Sox are in turmoil, The Orioles are rebuilding, and the Blue Jays are a year into their own re- build and look to be on track, but not there yet. The Tampa Bay Rays are a solid team that won 96 games in 2019 with excellent pitching and a very innovative manager. Nonetheless, the Rays will not beat the Yankees in the AL East in 2020. The Yankees have a significant advantage with respect to talent level and overall depth.

My expectation is the Yankees will win the AL East and get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Andy: This is a terrible thing to say, but the delayed start to the season works in the Yankees’ favor, as they have multiple guys, namely Judge, Stanton, Paxton, and Sanchez, who needed additional time to recover from injuries or illness to be ready for the season. All of those guys should be healthy, or closer to full health by the time the season starts. With a healthy roster, I think that the Yankees are the cream of the AL crop, and I expect them to finish at the top of the AL East, despite a challenge from the well-rounded Rays.

Lisa: I hope this is the year they win it all. I’m glad Hal Steinbrenner finally opened up his wallet again for Cole; he knew that the fanbase was getting restless. This team should have beaten the Astros in 2017 and 2019, and they were literally cheated out of it. Anyhow, between getting Cole, and the Red Sox losing Mookie Betts, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be the best team in the division – and in baseball – this year.

I can’t predict their record, though, as we have no idea how many games they will get to play. But even if the Yankees don’t win it all this year, it’s okay. I just want to see baseball again!

C70: What’s the main topic Yankees fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Tom: The Yankees have an interesting conundrum with Miguel Andujar. You may remember Andujar as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate in 2018, but missed most of 2019 with a labrum injury. Although the kid can undoubtedly rake at bat, he is very shoddy in the field at third base. While Andujar was injured, unheralded Gio Urshela came in and stole the job with an amazing two-way performance. Now, Andujar doesn’t really have a spot in the lineup, and the Yankees are trying to find one for him. He will still play third on occasion and DH some, but the team is trying him at left field and first base as well. Seeing how Andujar can adapt to more of a utility role will be an interesting challenge for Aaron Boone and the Yankees.

Ed: It has been a strange and unique off season. Obviously, the Astro cheating scandal is a highly discussed topic all over the city and region, and now we have the Coronavirus matter. But it may surprise you guys in St. Louis that a lot of what I have heard many Yankee fans discussing is actually off the field.  Health is a main issue. Many believe the only thing that can stop the Yankees is the injury bug.

Also, personnel changes has grabbed a lot of headlines this offseason. Such as the new Pitching Coach and Director of strength and conditioning. Both bring badly needed & completely different approaches to the team and players. Having had many key players come up with soft tissue injuries the last couple of years necessitated a change in approach from a conditioning perspective. The addition of Matt Blake as pitching coach will bring a completely different level of understanding and utilizing analytics and body mechanics –verses the application of the same under Larry Rothschild.

Andy: Much attention has been paid to the Yankees’ addition at the top of the rotation, but much less public attention has been paid to what the Yankees are doing at the back of their rotation now that Severino is out for the year and Paxton is on the shelf until at least May. One of the biggest, yet quietest stories at Yankee camp was the re-emergence of Jordan Montgomery. Monty put together a very solid rookie campaign in 2017 before an elbow injury led to Tommy John Surgery in 2018, derailing both that season and last season. Montgomery, as I’ve written about over at Start Spreading the News, has arrived at camp with extra velocity on his fastball. He’s not someone who depended on velocity for success in the past, preferring to mix multiple pitches with command in and out of the zone to induce soft contact and above-average strikeout rates, but added velocity with those traits could take Monty from a back-of-the rotation part to a mid-rotation cog. Yankee fans are interested to see just how much the fastball plays up once the season begins and we can quantify Montgomery’s gains more accurately.

Lisa: How much Jomboy drives the talk among the Yankee fanbase. He is the superfan who makes videos that go viral, like the infamous clip of Aaron Boone’s “savages” rant, words ended up becoming a Yankee rallying cry. His compilation of the trash can banging even helped prove the cheating case against the Houston Astros. Jomboy’s buzzer theory hasn’t been proven definitively, but I definitely believe it. I think it’s why Aroldis Chapman had that enigmatic smile after Jose Altuve went deep on him in the 2019 ALCS. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but that is one I definitely believe!

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Tom: Yankees fans are most looking forward to a healthy season to be the culmination of their championship window. Not only do the Yankees look as stacked as ever across the board, but the Astros have gotten a little weaker and the Red Sox and Indians have gotten much weaker, which has left the American League wide open. Most of the team’s core is between 25-28. This is the Yankees’ prime window to strike. There isn’t much room for excuses this season – it’s World Series or bust for the Yankees in 2020.

Ed: Simply put, getting back to Baseball. Baseball is one of the ties that bind generations to each other, and is personally missed during the winter months. New York is a baseball town, much like St. Louis, and watching what I believe will be a very successful season unfold is very exciting, from a Yankee perspective.

Specifically interesting to me is getting answers to questions such as, how will Gleyber Torres do as the everyday shortstop? How will Giancarlo Stanton bounce back? Can Gary Sanchez maximize his talents? What will D.J. Le Mahieu’s second season in pinstripes be like?

Outside of Yankee baseball, I am looking forward to quite a few other Baseball matters, such as:

  • How the league responds to the Astro hitters, now that we know they cheated by using technology to steal signs. They are very lucky Bob Gibson is retired!
  • How the new look Cincinnati Reds play in 2020. They made some interesting moves this offseason, and could be a sleeper team to watch in 2020.
  • Will Joe Maddon continue his magical touch now that he is in Anaheim, and how will the Cubs do without him at the helm in Chicago?
  • Watching the National League East should be exciting this year as well. The Phillies made some great moves, most notably Joe Girardi, Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius.
  • Seeing how the new 26 man roster will impact teams.
  • Seeing how the (bad) new rule of pitchers having to face a minimum of 3 batters impacts games.
  • And of course, seeing how the St. Louis Cardinals do in the NL Central.

Maybe we get what we want: a Yankee — Cardinal World Series in 2020!!

Andy: My answer to this question has changed over the last few weeks, so I’m going to cheat and give two answers. Given the indefinite delay to the start of the season, I am just looking forward to a return to normalcy – I spend the entire off-season waiting impatiently for the return of baseball, so I cannot wait to see players on the field again. As it relates to the Yankees, I am most looking forward to watching the team finally get over the hump, and get back to the World Series after near-misses in 2017 and 2019. To Ed’s point, I think a Yankee-Cardinal World Series would be pretty great!

Lisa: Just playing at all! Whether it was in the aftermath of 9/11, or the financial crisis, or Hurricane Sandy, or the Boston Marathon bombing, we always had sports as a respite. Now we are cooped up at home and have no baseball and no sports whatsoever for the foreseeable future, thanks to the coronavirus. It reminds me how much I treasure baseball, and treasure the Yankees!

In recent years, I haven’t gone to that many games in person, but I look forward to going to Yankee Stadium again and seeing the Yankees in person, not to mention getting to watch new games on TV again. I think the roar of the crowd at the first game back will be absolutely deafening.

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