Playing Pepper 2021: New York Yankees

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

New York Yankees
32-27, second in the AL East, lost in the ALDS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere apparently.  However, the most recent ballplayers of this legendary franchise haven’t “made it” yet, as the club hasn’t been the final (or final American League) club standing since 2009.  Four straight playoff appearances isn’t nothing, though, and perhaps this is the year they’ll break through.  Let’s talk to some experts to see how likely that is!

Blogger Site Twitter
Tom Krosnowski Pinstripe Alley PinstripeAlley
Stacey Gotsulias Locked On Yankees StaceGots
Ed Botti Start Spreading the News NYY_Report

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Tom: Baseball in 2020 was both a breath of fresh air and an exercise in frustration. It was amazing having baseball back after such a difficult year, and we saw several great individual performances. But, Major League Baseball also left fans frustrated with its poor management and understanding of the COVID-19 virus, controversial new rules, and a lengthy lockout that preceded the return to play.

I loved the universal DH – the designated hitter is a staple of baseball at this point, having been around for almost 50 years, and I don’t think anyone missed watching pitchers hit. I disliked seven-inning games, but I understood why they were necessary in the shortened season. However, I was not a fan of the runner on second base to start extra innings. The urgency it causes when a runner gets on base in extras is a staple of why extra-inning games are so fun. Putting a token runner on base (and in scoring position, no less), cheapened those games for me. I was indifferent on the three-batter minimum; I like the idea of it but also respect managers who wish for their full freedom to make personnel decisions as they see fit.

I followed baseball mostly the same as in past years. As a Yankees fan, it can be expensive and difficult to get to games, so instead of my once-yearly trip to Yankee Stadium, I watched all the games on TV and followed online. I definitely watched the postseason more intently given the timing when it was the only game in town after the NHL and NBA Finals wrapped up.

At this point, everyone is looking forward to a more normal baseball experience in 2021, and hopefully beyond.

Stacey: 2020 was such an odd year for everyone in general so it seemed as if baseball changing the rules for that particular season was the most normal thing they could do to make it all make sense. And I enjoyed some of the rule changes. I thought the seven-inning doubleheaders were great. I just wish they’d bring back the universal DH. I don’t like the runner on second in extra innings—it feels too gimmicky to me even during a pandemic. And following baseball itself was definitely different because it was a truncated season that began in late July and only lasted 60 regular-season games. During a “normal” season, 60 games aren’t enough to gauge how a team is going to perform and it was kind of crazy to have everything come down to those games. I think that’s why a few teams and players surprised us with their performances—both good and bad.

Ed: Baseball 2020. Where do I begin? 2020 MLB kicked off on July 23, and 5 short days later 17 Miami Marlins players and coaching staff personnel came down with Covid. The very next day your Cardinals were faced with a similar situation. The commissioner threatened to shut it down, players countered that by stating that MLB was not being strict enough about rules and protocol, and consequently putting their health at risk. Somehow, they did have a 60 game season. Overall, I think the season provided what it was designed to do, and that is give the country back its national pastime at a time when it was badly needed. For that I was grateful.

Rule change wise, I liked that they finally eliminated the expanded 40 man roster on September 1st. A welcome and smart revision to a very bad policy. I did not like the 3 batter rule for pitchers. I feel it takes away an important late inning strategy. I do not like 7 inning double headers. Baseball is 9 innings. I am not a fan of the Universal Designated Hitter. I Like the DH, but also enjoy the National League style of play. The Wet Rag rule seemed to make a lot of sense. I like the new suspended game rule as well. The unsportsmanlike conduct rule was not enforced. Position players pitching rule was irrelevant. And probably the worst of all was putting a runner on second base to start an extra inning. That isn’t even fine for little league baseball!

Following the game during the pandemic was not much different than other seasons, with one major exception; we couldn’t go to games. The fans were missed. I missed going to the Stadium. The excitement level was down, and I found it a little weird to watch the players and coaches on the field with masks on. Media coverage was a little peculiar as well. TV and Radio broadcast booths were in many cases empty on road games. I definitely picked up on late or incorrect play by play calls due to broadcasters being home or in a studio watching video feed, and not at the stadium watching it live. I’d mention cardboard cutout fans, but they were not allowed at Yankee Stadium!

I thought we had a great and exciting post season. Who can forget Randy Arozarena’s game ending slide at the plate! Although neither the Cardinals nor the Yankees ended up on top of the mountain, the post season was exciting. But, by far the worst thing from 2020 MLB was the fact that the Astros did not have to face the wrath of millions of fans across the country for their cheating, lying, and slap on the wrists from the commissioner. I was looking forward to that!

C70: What do you expect out of Corey Kluber this season?

Tom: I think that Kluber will be a solid pitcher for the Yankees when he’s on the mound, but I just don’t know how often he’ll be on that mound. When he was signed, it was easy to be excited about the prospect of a two-time Cy Young Award winner in the rotation behind Gerrit Cole. However, Kluber is 35 years old and has pitched just 36.2 innings the last two years. His pitching style should age well, but his durability will be a concern after so many years as Cleveland’s horse.

However, there was also trepidation that he’d be the Yankees’ only starting pitching acquisition, which was relieved when they traded for Jameson Taillon. He too has his injury concerns, but the two of them could definitely provide more than the departed group of Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ did last year. It will all come down to health, as it so often does with the Yankees.

Stacey: I won’t say expect because I feel as if that’s going to jinx him in a way. I will say I hope that he stays healthy and that he is a key contributor to the Yankees’ success in 2021. I think it’s great that the Yankees took a chance on him and if it works out, it could be huge for them. 

Ed: You can also include Jameson Taillon into that question as well. Kluber is coming off of not just one, but two serious injuries. Although he was able to avoid surgery for his torn muscle in his pitching shoulder, at 34 years old it is asking a lot for him to be a solid number 2 or even 3 in a rotation on a team looking to win a World Series. He essentially has not pitched in 2 seasons, and prior to 2019 he was trending downward, losing 3 – 4 MPH on his fastball since 2015. A sub 4.00 ERA with 10 or so wins and 130 strikeouts would be more than I expect. He is a big risk, with a high reward type of player. The Yankees have not had a lot of success over the years with these types of reclamation projects. Sorry to say, but I do not see him as being an exception. I hope I am wrong. I will say this, there are few pitchers in the league as driven as he is, so if anyone can come back to be anything close to what they were pre injury, he is one of them.

C70: Gary Sanchez was a popular topic this winter. Can he rebound or is he destined to be traded?

Tom: The way I see it, bringing back Sánchez made all the sense in the world. He’s cheap, under control for two more seasons, and it’s not like there was a better option readily available. If Sánchez bounces back fully, he’s the Yankees’ backstop of the future again. If he craters again, it’s time to move on. And if he’s somewhere in the middle, generally average? Then the team should just run with him as their starter until one of their many catching prospects is ready to take over, which might not happen for two or three years anyway.

Sánchez was brutal in 2020, but I just can’t imagine him being worse in 2021. This is a guy with a career .236/.320/.502 slash line and is just one year removed from a 34-home run, 77 RBI season. He may never cash in on that “best hitter on the Yankees” potential, but he can easily be an above-average catcher during a time where those are hard to come by.

Stacey: I think he can rebound and I hope he can rebound because the Yankees’ offense is so much better when Gary Sanchez is launching 400-foot home runs and hitting opposite-field, gap-splitting doubles.

Ed: First and foremost, I personally do not consider many 2020 stats too seriously. It was just an odd and peculiar year for all of the players. Some adjusted, and others did not. Having said that, his 2020 season was so bad, that I understand the questions most have about him. Yes, he can rebound, and I do expect it to happen. Here’s why.

Taking a deeper dive into his stats shows some encouraging details. For example, his 99 mph average exit velo on line drives and fly balls was fifth best in all of MLB in 2020. He also ranked in the 88th percentile in average exit velocity (91.8 mph) and in the 90th percentile in hard-hit rate (50%). Further, his 17.4 barrel percentage was in MLB’s top 3%. Those are not signs of a washed up player. But they are signs of a player with a terrible approach at the plate when you consider his overall stats. I believe a lot of what happened to him in 2020 was mental and due to poor preparation and approach. He needs to make adjustments at the plate, stay away from launch angles, and focus on contact. Put the ball in play! All of that is very doable for a player with his talents.

Defensively, he has gone through multiple coaches, all switching his defensive positioning the last 3 or 4 seasons, and ironically the only one he should have listened to was Joe Girardi. Yes, I look for Sanchez to rebound, but only if he makes the adjustments at the plate.

C70: Is there a part of this club that still needs some shoring up?

Tom: The Yankees’ offensive handedness has been a popular topic this winter, and although I don’t think it matters quite as much as others have made it out to be, the team is overwhelmingly right-handed in the box. Of course, the Yankees have long been known for left-handed power, which plays well at Yankee Stadium.

Now, when the righties in the lineup include Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit, among others, they can hit the ball out of any ballpark. But, there is some truth in observing that the Yankees won’t often have the platoon advantage when at the dish. They signed Jay Bruce to a minor league deal to possibly alleviate that and catch lightning in a bottle, and he’s had an impressive spring. But, Brian Cashman has mentioned that getting more lefty-heavy is on his mind. It’s not a huge concern, but it’d be nice to have some more offensive balance as long as it doesn’t make the team a worse overall hitting team.

Stacey: Every club needs shoring up, even the Padres. I’m a little fearful of the starting rotation right now but I think every Yankee fan is because we just don’t know how Jameson Taillon and Kluber will do or if they’ll stay healthy but I guess you can say that about everyone on the Yankees because they’re the Yankees and they always seem to have injury problems. 

Ed: As with all or most teams, there are many parts that need shoring up. As I touched on above, I do not like the starting rotation after Gerrit Cole. Too many question marks and reclamation projects. Offensively this team is unbalanced. With the exception of Aaron Hicks, a switch hitter, all of the other projected starting position players are right handed. They needed to not only add some left-handed bats to the regular lineup, they needed to add players with different approaches at the plate. I was advocating Tommy La Stella or a similar player being added, they missed out on him, and added Jay Bruce, and signed Derek Dietrich. That was not the answer. They need to shore up the lineup by adding more players that make contact. In the regular season against second tier pitchers, they can get away with the one sided approach, but in the post season, it does not work. And this team is supposedly built to win in October.

Defensively, Gleyber Torres is an above average second baseman. The problem with that is he is now the shortstop. As much as I like Luke Voit, the obvious answer was to add a lefty shortstop, move Torres back to second base, put LeMahieu at first base, and trade Voit for a left handed bat. The shortstop should have been Didi Gregorius, who was basically begging to come back, and just signed a reasonable 2 year contract with Philadelphia after the Yankees wouldn’t even talk to him.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Tom: The Yankees always mention their “championship or bust” mentality, and that’s very much the vibe this season. The Yankees are entering their fifth year of their contention window and have nothing to show for it. There’s been some bad luck (and Houston cheating) along the way that has robbed them of opportunities, but at the end of the day, the Yankees’ current core has disappointed in the playoffs.

With the Rays getting slightly weaker and the Blue Jays perhaps a little too green for a division crown, the Yankees should win the division. Of course, they have to finally take that next step and make (and win) a World Series. It feels like the Yankees are due for some good injury luck, and if that happens, they should be the best team in the American League. There’s no reason not to go into the season expecting a championship for the Yankees this year.

Stacey: Again, I don’t want to say I expect anything. I’d say I am hopeful that they will do well this season. I am hopeful that players who had iffy 2020s will come back strong in 2021. I am hopeful that the Yankees will put it all together and win the division and perhaps be able to exact some revenge on teams who have recently ousted them from the playoffs.

Ed: This coming Yankee season will be underscored by a lot of uncertainty. I project them as a 92-94 win team. I have seen projections as high as 97, which to me means everything falls perfectly into place, and everyone stays healthy. That doesn’t happen too often. Unless Kluber, Taillon and Luis Severino collectively recapture their pre injury abilities and durability (a long shot) my expectations are that they will have problems with the starting rotation. They lost starters J.A. Haap, Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton in the off season. All veteran starters that know how to pitch. I am not as sold on Deivi Garcia as others seem to be. Jordon Montgomery will be a fine back of the rotation starter and may even be more than that when this season unfolds. Domingo German (18 game winner in 2019) may not even be on the team due to off field issues, although he is putting up solid spring training numbers, so that may change.

Just like every other team, health will be a key contributor to any success they have in 2021. They have to find a way to keep Stanton and Judge on the field. It will be interesting to see how Clint Frazier does, now that he has been awarded an everyday job in left field for the first time in his young career. Luke Voit now has put together 2 solid seasons (he led the AL in home runs in 2020).
As a team, they will hit a ton of home runs, give up a ton of home runs, score more than 800 runs, and strike out a lot. The Bullpen, a strength in the past, will take a step back as they have lost Tommy Kahnle and Adam Ottavino, and replaced them with Darren O’Day and a to be determined pitcher on the current roster.

Every year it seems an unknown emerges, this spring so far that has been left Lucas Luetge. Also on my radar this year in Nick Nelson. Right hander Jonathan Loáisiga seems poised to take the next step in 2021. He has electric stuff, and is healthy. He just may be the missing piece in the bull pen.

Tampa Bay may have taken a step backwards while Toronto has taken a step forward so the division has become more balanced. 92 -93 wins should win the division or at the very least win a wild card. I expect that from the Yankees. Unfortunately, unless they upgrade the rotation and make adjustments in the lineup, October will be a very difficult month for them.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Tom: This question will be more interesting to answer after this season. If the Yankees are five years into the Judge-Sánchez-Stanton-Torres core and have nothing to show for it, maybe they need to rethink some things. But, the Yankees have always believed that their process will pay off eventually. They hamstrung themselves this offseason by refusing to go over the luxury tax limit of $210 million, but they did the best they could under those self-imposed limits. Of course, there’s no reason a team with as much money as the Yankees should stop short of the luxury tax just to save a few bucks. But, they did have a smart, if uncharacteristic, offseason. The Yankees as an organization are an A- right now. They’re one of the best teams in the league, but just can’t take the final step. Here’s to hoping this will be the year.

Stacey: I’ll give them a B+ because there are still some areas in which they need to improve but I like the team they have in 2021 and again, if things go well, they might be able to do huge things. 

Ed: I give the organization a B-. They are valued at $5 Billion, and are in a budget cutting mode. Ownership is very different under Hal Steinbrenner verses George Steinbrenner. Player development wise, they have not developed many quality starting pitchers during the Brian Cashman era. They are very active and spend a lot of resources on international free agents. They seem to have a very solid approach, and are not afraid to invest in international players. Domestically, they do not seem to cash in on the amateur draft often enough. For every Aaron Judge there seem to be several Dante Bichette, Jr. (s) and James Kaprielian (s). Too many 1st round picks become nothing more than bench players or middle relievers at the MLB level. But they have made some very shrewd moves over the last 5 years or so. Getting Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier in 2016 was fantastic. Gio Urshela in 2019 was a steal, and obviously Luke Voit has worked out great. But they are also saddled with Giancarlo Stanton’s contract for 8 more years, and that cannot be over looked. They extended Aaron Hicks for 7 years, and he simply was not worth it. Those two contracts inhibit their abilities in the free agent marketplace. I do not think the field manager is particularly innovative, and he plays the analytics game much too much.

The minor league system coming into 2021 is ranked 23rd in the league (down from 21st in 2020). To be in the bottom third of anything is never a good sign. They have high ceiling players in the system, but most are more suspects than prospects. In other words, they haven’t done anything yet. The cream of the crop is the intriguing 18 year old Jasson Dominguez, who is yet to have a professional at bat (due to Covid cancelation of the 2020 minor league season). He has garnered all sorts of crazy comparisons from Mike Trout to Mickey Mantle. We’ll see about that. It is a lot to put on any 18 year old. But it seems all the tools are there. Of note, Dominguez hit a ball 117 mph this spring in a sim game. Only four players in the major leagues did that in 2020. Just 11 did it in 2019. So obviously the bat speed and power is for real. They also say he is a very well-grounded kid that works incredibly hard. So, he may just be the next to make a splash at the MLB level. Time will tell.

Overall, they compete each year and are in the mix for a title. They “rebuilt” in 2016, and went to game 7 of the ALCS a year later, only to fall to the cheating Astros. From a fan’s perspective the organization gives us a lot to be optimistic about each season. 2021, in my opinion, seems to be a little atypical. But who knows, maybe this October we’ll see a critical Gerrit Cole – Nolan Arenado at bat!!

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