Playing Pepper 2022: New York Yankees

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Yankees during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

New York Yankees
92-70, tied for second in the AL East, lost in the ALCS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Gerrit Cole (5.7)
Top hitter by bWAR: Aaron Judge (6.0)

In the past, all of the angst around the big spending teams causing a lack of parity has surrounded the American League entry in New York.  Now, the focus has shifted to the team that used to be in the Big Apple (the Dodgers) and the team that currently shares it (the Mets) in that regard.  That’s what happens when you go over a decade without a championship and exercise some fiscal restraint while doing it.  Hopefully these folks can tell us what to make of this new Yankee era!

Contributor Site Twitter
Ed Botti Start Spreading the News NYY_Report
Jack Jokinen George's Box JJFromTheBronx
Andy Singer Start Spreading the News NYY_Report
Stacey Gotsulias Locked On Yankees StaceGots
Jake Devin Pinstripe Alley JakePDevin

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about New York’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Ed: There were basically 2 very different “New York” off seasons. The Mets and the Yankees. The Mets were extremely active in the days leading up to the lockout landing Buck Showalter as their new Manager, Max Scherzer, Eduardo Escobar, Staling Marte and Mark Canha, and then trading for Chris Bassitt as soon as the lockout ended.

As far as the Yankees go…..

I did not like the fact that they did not make a change at the top, and kept General Manager Brian Cashman on for his 24th season as GM. I strongly feel his time has run out and that it was time for a change. Apparently, Hal Steinbrenner did not agree. They also retained and extended Manager Aaron Boone with a 3 year contract (a club option for a 4th year). I do not have as big of an issue with Boone as I do with Cashman, but I would have been perfectly fine if a change was made at the filed level manager position. We were all told that the Yankees initial off season inactivity was a direct result of not knowing what the competitive balance tax would be set at. I completely understood that strategy. However, once the lockout ended, they did the bare minimum to improve this team. So, I have to wonder if that was really the reason for the inactivity.

One move I would have liked to have happened was extending Aaron Judge’s contract and avoiding his pending free agency (2022 is his last year under contract). But again, I have to give them a pass on it, because everything came to a complete halt on December 1st. But now that we are 3 weeks into the new CBA, one would think they would have prioritized extending their best player and the face of their franchise. They also missed the boat on several available starting pitchers.

I view the offseason as a disappointing failure.

Jack: The Yankees had a decent offseason. Even with the new CBT thresholds we still have a lot of money under contract for 2021 with some relief coming over the next 2 years. Personally, I’m happy with the move the team made to get Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa because we became more athletic which is something we have missed in recent years. Donaldson also adds an attitude the clubhouse hasn’t had since CC Sabathia retired.

I wish we had gone out and gotten some more starting pitching and still hope we do because right now our whole strategy is “Cole and pray”. The bullpen looks great but you wonder if they’ll have a lead to hold 2-5 in the rotation.

The elephant in the room is that the Yankees didn’t get a free agent SS. I think a lot of fans are mad about it but the reality is, we have two top prospects at SS and you can’t pay $30mil on every position.

Andy: To add a little context, New York came into the offseason following a very disappointing 2021 regular season. While the team won 92 games and made the playoffs, the expectations were so much higher. Many people (this writer included) expected 98+ wins, an AL East title, and a good shot to contend for a World Series title, their first since 2009. That didn’t happen, as the offense was anemic for large stretches of the season as numerous players, including DJ LeMahieu, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, Gio Urshela, and Luke Voit, all severely underperformed relative to expectations. While bounce back is likely for some of that group, and injuries (yet again) certainly played a role, it was clear that the team needed to make some changes to a roster that’s been relatively static since 2019.

Going into the offseason, the Yankees had obvious decisions to make at catcher, shortstop, first base, and center field all while attempting to get a bit more left-handed. Many fans wanted the Yankees to spend on one of the available free agent shortstops, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the Yankees’ biggest move was sending Sanchez and Urshela to Minnesota for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Ben Rortvedt. The move was somewhat shocking, if not the seismic signing many hoped for. I was initially underwhelmed, but the reality is that Donaldson is a clear upgrade over Urshela at 3B, Kiner-Falefa should at least be a really good defender at shortstop while he keeps the seat warm for one of the Yankee uber-prospects in Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, and Rortvedt could combine with Kyle Higashioka in a platoon at catcher to produce more value than Gary Sanchez as the starter. All told, I think the Yankees are 3-5 wins better with this trade, got better defensively and on the basepaths, and helped enable manager Aaron Boone to deploy a far more flexible lineup.

The Yankees also re-signed left-handed first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who doesn’t strike out a lot and plays great defense. While the moves weren’t of the flashy variety many Yankees’ fans hoped for, I think this is a better-balanced roster that is set to challenge for an AL East title. I was hoping for an upgrade at centerfield that would push Aaron Hicks to a fourth outfielder role, but the Yankees have flexibility in the outfield depending on lineup choices with Hicks, Judge, Gallo, and Locastro all capable of playing in centerfield.

Stacey: I didn’t like much about it, honestly. I was hoping against hope for a big splash in free agency and they didn’t do that. I wanted Carlos Correa (I don’t care about the cheating anymore) and they got Isiah Kiner-Felafa. He’s fine and he will help the infield defense. I was also not too happy with the acquisition of Josh Donaldson knowing that it took money off the books for the Twins and helped them get Correa. But I’ll feel better about it if Donaldson stays healthy and hits 25 home runs. I think trading Gary Sanchez is a good thing for him and the Yankees and it needed to be done. 

Jake: Well, we can start with the obvious. The Yankees entered the offseason making noise about how they were determined to upgrade at shortstop, and how GM Brian Cashman had the OK from ownership to add payroll. Most fans put 2 and 2 together and started envisioning one of Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, or Corey Seager in pinstripes. Instead, we got Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

Of course, IKF came along with Josh Donaldson and Ben Rortvedt, the former of which provides a big upgrade at third and should help propel the Yankees’ lineup back toward the top of the league. That, combined with the re-signing of Anthony Rizzo, makes the Yankees a better team on paper today than they were a year ago, in my opinion. But it just seemed like there were better, simpler ways to improve this team, which had a glaring need at short and multiple star free agents to fill it. Rather than simply signing a five-WAR player to play short, Cashman decided to basically put a Yankees’ spin on an iconic Craig Goldstein tweet, by making a series of small, complicated moves to make the roster slightly better and slightly more expensive, while ignoring the straightforward, slam dunk way to make the team better.

C70: Aaron Judge will be a free agent after the season. Will the club be able to extend him before then?

Ed: They can absolutely extend him whenever they want to, but it has been their (Cashman) practice not to extend their own players, and to let them reach free agency. In the case of Aaron Judge, that is a very risky game to play. We have seen this played out over the years. As an example the Red Sox almost signed Bernie Williams to a Free Agent contract, only to have George Steinbrenner step in and proffer a new deal at the 11th hour.

The hard part to understand is that they have recently changed this pattern, and extended Aaron Hicks for 7 seasons. A terrible deal that should never have been done. In the case of Judge, they should have already done so. Judge is not only an excellent player and teammate, he is also a marketing dream for any team. If they let him go to free agency, he will receive multiple offers to leave, and I believe he may just do so. It will be a season long distraction for him and his teammates.

Jack: It certainly seems like they’ll try, but I hope they don’t I have wanted to trade Judge for years because all signs point to his body breaking down. No one at his size has had a long career while being a position player and factoring age and injury history, I just don’t see an extension not being a disaster.

Andy: This was always going to be a tough call. There are almost no comparisons for how a player with Judge’s skillset and size age over time, so trying to find a contract length and number that’s fair to both sides is a challenge. That said, both the team and Judge seem outwardly motivated to make an extension happen, so I put the chances at 50/50 that the Yankees can extend him before the start of the season. It will certainly be one of the more interesting storylines to follow over the next week, and as much as I follow the team, I really don’t have a good beat on what will happen there.

Stacey: I believe they will but I’m afraid they’ll sign him for too long, it will become an albatross of a contract that the Yankees are known for and 39-year-old Aaron Judge will be getting paid $30M to barely play. 

Jake: There’s been growing momentum towards a deal with Judge, but he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to negotiate through the season, so there’s only a few days left for things to come together. From the sound of it, it seemed like the Yankees were serious about making a legitimate offer, but there’s not much we can add here until numbers get exchanged and the sides decide whether they can make a deal. From a Yankee fan’s perspective, hopefully things get resolved in the next 72 hours.

C70: Joey Gallo struggled after being traded to New York. Can he rebound?

Ed: Joey Gallo is your prototypical “three true outcome” player – home run, walk or strikeout. The type of Baseball that I cannot stand. I was totally against the trade last July. He is not the type of player this team needs.

To answer your question; No. He doesn’t want to play another way. He has been obstinate and vocal about his approach to hitting. What you saw in his first 6 seasons, is what you will see in 2022. 35 + home runs, .200 batting average, 220 + strike outs, & 90 + walks. A dream season for the analytics driven evaluators, a nightmare for the baseball fundamentalist. It’s not a winning formula, regardless of what the analytics department continues to promote.

Jack: I think he can, but his big rebound will be after the shift is banned. When they settled on a pre-arbitration contract, I would’ve liked to see the Yankees try to buy out the first free agency year. As a Boras guy, Scott isn’t going to let him take a bad long term contract so unless Gallo has a huge year, he could be looking at a cheaper Correa contract. You have to hope that with an offseason to adjust, Gallo has figured out New York.

Andy: 100% Gallo can rebound. I think the human element of getting dealt from the only team he’d ever played for and pressing in front of the home crowd really got to him. With an offseason to get comfortable, and a full season in front of the short porch, I really think Gallo can hit 40+ high impact homers while playing great outfield defense. He will always strikeout and make less contact than traditionalists prefer, but his skillset is premium and he fits this roster beautifully as a left-handed power bat between Judge and Stanton.

Stacey: Joey Gallo is a strikeout machine but he also hits a lot of home runs and Yankee fans need to realize that. I think he’ll be fine and I believe he’ll do a lot better in a full season at Yankee Stadium. He’ll be more comfortable and it will be fun to watch the Big Boy Outfield of Judge, Gallo, and Giancarlo Stanton play together. 

Jake: He almost has to by default; other than 2020, Gallo’s never run a full-season batting line worse than what he put up during his stint with the Yankees last year. He should benefit from having a full season to aim at the short Yankee Stadium porch, and from having more time to settle in with a new team, having leapt from a moribund Rangers team to a playoff race last July. In all, a bounce back to what his overall 2021 numbers ended up at seems like a reasonable expectation for Gallo: a 123 wRC+, good outfield defense, and a borderline league-leading total of strikeouts and homers.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Ed: The Yankees have a few interesting prospects, such as Ken Waldichuk, Hayden Wesneski, Trey Sweeney, Oswald Peraza, Jasson Dominguez and Austin Wells. Like many other Yankee fans, I am very interested in seeing how shortstop Anthony Volpe develops and plays at the upper levels of the minor leagues. He is currently ranked as the #8 overall MLB prospect by MLB, and even higher by other outlets.

He is essentially a local kid that plays a critical position (SS), some may even say hallowed ground. As a result, much anticipation exists. Luckily for him, I do not hear the Derek Jeter comparisons (that would be unfair to do to anyone), but an interesting comp I recently read from a west coast scout was Alex Bregman. He put up very strong numbers in 2021 at the lower levels (A and A+) hitting .290 with 27 home runs and 86 RBI in 412 at bats, and playing very well in the field, especially for a kid in only his 2nd year of pro ball. His ETA is probably 2023 at the earliest, I am thinking more realistically 2024.

He doesn’t turn 21 until April 28th. One thing I learned (and like) is that during the 2020 pandemic (no minor league baseball) he drove almost 2 hours each way to train and work on his skills with an advanced baseball trainer. He could have just as easily took the easy way out like many other minor leaguers, and trained locally.

Jack: The biggest hype is around Volpe but recent history makes it hard to have much hope. We haven’t developed a 100 start, starting pitcher, since Andy but have had at least 5 top pitching prospects in recent years. Oswald Peraza will see time in the big leagues with injuries up the middle, after playing at 3 levels last season to much success.

Andy: The easy answers would be Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza, two premium shortstop prospects who have a shot to debut as soon as this year, but I’m going to go in a slightly different direction. In terms of pure stuff, Luis Medina is the cream of the crop. Most scouts agree that there are few professional baseball players in the US that have 3 pitches that grade as highly as Medina’s, though control and fastball command have always lagged behind the stuff that can make a grown man drool. However, there is evidence over the last two years that Medina’s athleticism is allowing him to overcome some of his struggles in the control/command department, and he is now in the upper minors where the next big skill jump could bring him to the Bronx.

Medina is a high-risk pitcher who may very well end up getting moved to the bullpen after the first half of the season if the control doesn’t come around a bit more, as this is his final option year. However, his stuff is so good that his floor is as an impact multi-inning reliever that will dazzle more often than not (think Dellin Betances in his prime), while there’s a decent chance it all comes together and he becomes an electric starting pitcher in the next year. Either way, I don’t think the Yankees have a pitching prospect who is more exciting than Medina, and I expect him to surprise people this year. I’ve been on the Medina train since before he even appeared in Low-A, and I’m not getting off now.

Stacey: I’m excited for Anthony Volpe because he’s obviously the next Derek Jeter with the way the Yankees have protected him and not traded him away. The Yankees will say it was a money thing but they really want to see what Volpe can do in a couple of years and that’s why they didn’t want to sign Correa or Trevor Story long-term. Volpe shouldn’t make his Major League debut for a while unless something calamitous happens to the infield. (Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.) 

Jake: I wish I could say Anthony Volpe, but he’s never played even in Double-A, and is much more likely to make an impact on future Yankees teams than this one. A few weeks ago, I’d probably have written in shortstop Oswald Peraza, who the team could turn to if IKF fails as a stopgap at short, or right-hander Luis Medina, who can sit in the upper-90s and should start in Triple-A this year.

But after seeing some spring training action, the answer might be Deivi Garcia, who is somehow still prospect eligible despite appearing in each of the last two major league seasons. The diminutive righty has flashed a huge spike in velocity this spring, jumping from a 92 mph average in 2021 to something like 95 mph in camp. Garcia had a miserable year last year, running an ERA near 7 in the minors and just looking broken in the process. If he’s smoothed things out and returned with a revamped heater, he suddenly becomes a super interesting rotation depth piece for the Yankees.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Ed: They are going into the season with Aaron Hicks and Joey Gallo penciled in as 2/3 of the starting outfield. I can stop right there, unfortunately there are more problems. They have no starting catcher. They are still too heavily right handed. They have the same starting rotation (less Corey Kluber and Domingo Germán) as they did when 2021 ended. They do not have a true leadoff hitter. The bull pen was not improved and no replacement for All-Star Zack Britton was acquired. They are in a tough division with Tampa, Boston and Toronto all set to have good seasons.

I am not bullish on the 2022 Yankees.

Jack: I expect the Yankees to win their division. I think the veteran presence on our team outlasts the young Blue Jays, but we also have to avoid the injury bug. A lot of things need to break right but with so many guys playing so bad last year, you have to believe they’re due.

Andy: A lot of Yankee fans are fatigued by the underperformance they’ve witnessed the last two seasons and have finally reached the point where they underrate the team, relatively uncharted waters for New York fans. Everything that could go wrong went wrong in 2021 and this was still a 92-win team. Even if you only project modest bounce back for some of the key cogs in the lineup and credit the team for improving lineup flexibility, defense, and baserunning, it’s not hard to see a 98-win team in 2022, if the pitching staff holds up (which you could say about every team, since the word pitcher is Greek for “breaks often”). I know that people love the Jays and the Rays this season, but I think the Yankees are every bit as good and have a higher floor than those rosters, even if the Jays’ ceiling may be a bit higher. I fully expect the AL East to be an old school dogfight right through September and I expect the Yanks and Jays to be neck-and-neck. My expectation is that the AL East will be good enough that both of the top two teams will have records that give them byes in the first round of the playoffs, with the Yankees being one of those two teams. 

Stacey: The AL East is going to be a dogfight again. You have four legitimately good teams who will be battling for the division. I don’t see the Yankees winning the division unless something catastrophic happens to both the Rays and the Jays. But stranger things have happened and you never know how things will shake out. 

Jake: The Yankees are a hard team to project this year, for a couple of reasons. For one, they simply have a few high-variance players on this roster; Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are always going to have some injury concern attached to them, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres have both looked between All-Star caliber and lost in recent seasons, pitchers like Luis Severino and Jameson Taillon could be great, or done for the year by May.

Complicating things even more is the hellscape that is the AL East. No disrespect towards the NL Central, but the chunk of rebuilding teams in that division makes it easier to project the top: it’s likely the Brewers finish first, and the Cardinals look good for second. In the AL East, any of the top four teams could realistically win the division. It’s certainly possible the Yankees could have a very good season, win about 95 games, and finish as low as third.

So there are massive error bars around how the Yankees players themselves will play, and there’s tons of variance regarding how those performances will stack up in a loaded division. Gun to my head, and I’d guess 94 wins and a narrow second-place finish to the Blue Jays. But if you told me they finished anywhere from first in the entire AL to fourth in the division, I wouldn’t be shocked.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Yankees Twitter accounts to follow.

Ed: I do not use social media. But I do see some interesting posts on other platforms. Jomboy Media – @Jomboy_, Katie Sharp – @ktsharp, David Cone – @dcone36.

Jack: @NKirbyNYY @BronxPinstripes @Andrew_Rotondi

Andy: Other than @NYY_Report, the official Twitter account for Start Spreading the News, people interested in the Yankees and baseball in general should follow:

@bronxbeatBP – the official Twitter account of the Bronx Beat Podcast. EJ Fagan is one of the smartest guys out there talking weekly about Yankees baseball, and I don’t just say that because he’s crazy enough to allow me to appear with some frequency.
@mikeaxisa – Mike Axisa used to run the iconic Yankees’ blog, River Ave Blues, and he still tweets about baseball and the Yankees in addition to his role at CBS. He’s simply one of the best, and all baseball fans on Twitter should give him a follow.
@lindseyadler – Lindsey Adler covers the Yankees over at The Athletic, and she’s my favorite writer covering the team on a daily basis. She’s a must-follow.

Stacey: You can’t go wrong with the Yankees’ beat writers: Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler), Bryan Hoch (@bryanhoch), and Erik Boland (@eboland11) are three of my favorites. 

Jake: Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) does invaluable work covering the Yankees for The Athletic, as does Bryan Hoch (@bryanhoch) for MLB. And Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) always brings the heat on Yankees statistics. 

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