Playing Pepper 2023: New York Yankees

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

New York Yankees
99-63, first in the AL East, lost in the ALCS
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Nestor Cortes (3.6)
Top hitter by fWAR: Aaron Judge (11.4)

The only team with a longer streak of plus .500 seasons than St. Louis is the Bronx Bombers, but somehow we are closing in a decade and a half since the pinstripes took home the big trophy.  This gap, which challenges the span from ’78-’96, has been marked with plenty of October baseball but no ending celebration.  Will this season change that?  Let’s see what our New Yorkers say!

Contributor Site Twitter
Stacey Gotsulias Locked On Yankees StaceGots
Ed Botti Start Spreading the News NYY_Report
Jake Devin Pinstripe Alley JakePDevin
Andy Singer Start Spreading the News NYY_Report

C70: The Yankees took the AL East and won almost 100 games but the title drought continues. What are your thoughts about what they did this offseason to end that and how does this team look going into the new season?

Stacey: I was disappointed they didn’t do more but I loved the Carlos Rodon signing because it makes the rotation a lot better and that probably will take the pressure off the bullpen which is somewhat questionable at the moment. I would have liked for them to go out and get a left-fielder this offseason but the Pirates were asking way too much in exchange for Bryan Reynolds and I think the Yankees can deal with internal options until the trade deadline and maybe they can acquire a LFer then.

Ed: With the expanded playoff format and many teams that I would call “non-contenders” in MLB in 2022, the Yankees went 99-63 and made it to the ALCS. A great record, however the record, when examined more closely, shows a tale of 2 seasons. The April –June team stood at an incredible 56-21, a 72.7% winning percentage, and the July through October team went 43-42, a 50.6% winning percentage. Which half was the real Yankees in 2022? As it turned out in October, it was the latter. The culprit? Injuries certainly played a role in 2022, but let’s not forget they had a 62 home run player on the team who almost won the Triple Crown, and the team scored 804 runs, second in MLB to the Dodgers.

The real problem was the Yankee Management’s insistence on the “analytical” approach to playing baseball, including their intoxication with the 3 true outcome nonsense (walk, strikeout, home run) the ongoing teaching and preaching of launch angle hitting, not taking advantage of the ridiculous shift employed throughout the league, and a very poor trading deadline by GM Brian Cashman.

In the 2022 ALCS 4 game sweep at the hands of the Astros, the Yankees somehow managed to strike out 50 times in 4 games. You read that correctly! Why? Because nearly every post season swing was designed for the ball to land in 500 feet from home plate. You cannot play that way, especially against great playoff pitching. They have what I consider the worse post season approach to hitting I have seen. As a result, they never put up any real threat to win the series, and frankly speaking, they were fortunate to get past Cleveland in the division series.

I would have liked to see them address this issue in the winter, and bring in professional hitters for at least the 3 questionable positions– 3rd, SS and left field. They already had their left fielder in Andrew Benintendi, but decided he was not worth the money he eventually got from the White Sox, and let him leave. The money he eventually got ($15mm per season) amounts to a fraction of what they pay Stanton ($32mm in 2023), who works part time.

They go into 2023 without a left fielder, an aging third baseman whose best years are at least 3 years behind him, and a shortstop competition between rookies Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza and incumbent, Isiah Kiner – Falefa (who is actually a 3rd baseman!). They did not add major league talent offensively. They did add a starter, Carlos Rodon, who is already injured after 2 spring training innings, and we probably will not see him until May and some bullpen help (Tommy Kahnle) who is also hurt and will not break camp with the team. So, how does this team look going into the 2023 season? Hauntingly familiar to 2022.

Jake: In all, it was the most satisfactory offseason the Yankees have had since they reeled in Gerrit Cole three winters ago. The club faced a tall order, tasked with both bringing back Aaron Judge, other key pieces like Anthony Rizzo, all while finding ways to upgrade the team elsewhere. They did just that, re-signing both Judge and Rizzo, and adding to the pitching staff with the imports of Carlos Rodon and Tommy Kahnle.

It wasn’t a perfect offseason, as the team never addressed their shaky left-field situation. But on the whole, shelling out to keep Judge, as well as to bring in a second ace in Rodon, was enough to make it a successful winter on paper. The moves to sign Judge and Rodon required the Yankees to take their payroll to a place it’s never been, and also required them to admit that just re-signing Judge without making a major addition wouldn’t be seen as sufficient. That they acknowledged both of those facts left me satisfied as both a fan and analyst.

Andy: It was a disappointing end to the 2022 season, particularly after it began with such promise. I am the rare optimist in the room among hardcore Yankee fans/observers, and I mostly buy into the idea that injuries cost the Yankees in the 2nd half and in the playoffs. Given that belief, I am reasonably happy with the Yankees’ offseason.

Re-signing Aaron Judge was absolutely essential – without him, I honestly believe the Yankees would have needed to blow up the core of the roster, which would have been easier said than done. Carlos Rodon was the best pitcher on the market by a mile, and I advocated strongly for the Yankees to acquire him at the trade deadline in 2022 (something that Yankee GM, Brian Cashman, apparently tried to do), so any time you can acquire a player for money as opposed to player-based assets is a win. Judge is now set to be the centerpiece of the roster for at least the next 4-5 years until his inevitable decline phase, and with Rodon in the fold, it’s not hard to imagine the Yankees assembling the scariest rotation in the Majors come playoff time. Add in the low-cost move to bring Tommy Kahnle back to add some stability to the back of the bullpen, and I liked the Yankee offseason quite a bit. I would have loved a lefty hitting outfielder via trade, but there’s time for that.

I’d give the Yankee offseason a B+/A-.

C70: Harrison Bader didn’t get to play many games for the Yankees but it seems like he made them count. What do you expect from the center fielder this season and will New York try to extend him before he reaches free agency?

Stacey: I am really looking forward to watching a full season (knock on wood) of Harrison Bader. The small glimpse we saw in 2022 was electric and what he did in the playoffs was amazing. He was one of the only guys doing anything offensively. I also love watching him play centerfield because I don’t cringe when he sets his feet to make a catch, and I like the energy he brings to the team. If Bader stays healthy and contributes, I can see the Yankees extending him for sure.

Ed: I was not a fan of this trade, and would not have made it. Having said that, when he is finally healthy (he is hurt again with an oblique strain, and will not break camp with the team) I expect to see something very close to the back of his baseball card. A prorated 162 game average of .245- .255 with 12-15 home runs, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 or so stolen bases, along with superior defense in centerfield.

I do not believe he will be retained after 2023, as top centerfield prospect Jasson Dominguez will be ready to take over in centerfield, and the Yankees will usher in the next Yankee centerfield star.

Jake: Expectations were pretty high for Bader, at least until he went down with an oblique injury in camp. That said, it sounds like Bader may not miss much time and could be back by mid-April, so I think it’s safe to say that the team and fan base’s hopes for him remain robust. Part of that stems from his incredible postseason, for sure, one in which he ran an OPS over 1.200 and hit five homers.

Yet I think the high expectations are also grounded in reality. Projection systems love Bader; all of ZiPS, Steamer, and PECOTA forecast him to be an above average hitter and 3-plus WAR player overall. The algorithms see a player that may not drive the ball a ton, but makes a lot of contact in the zone and has the speed to do damage once the ball is in play, not to mention his dynamite center field defense. The eye test backs up what the computers see. Even if Bader doesn’t hit for the power he showed in October, he’ll still be a valuable player when healthy, and if he does tap into that power, then the sky’s the limit.

Andy: Cardinals fans know better than I what Bader brings to the table as a player. It’s interesting; for years, I was clearly the high man on Jordan Montgomery, believing that he was a true #3 starter while most Yankee fans treated him as an expendable part. When he was traded for Harrison Bader, Yankee fans acted like the team traded an ace for an injured centerfielder…which I truthfully found hilarious, if a bit intellectually dishonest. I love the Bader deal, and I even predicted his playoff performance, largely due to his elite performance against fastballs over 95 MPH, something that is in greater supply come playoff time.

I love Bader for the Yankees, even if he only plays 120-135 games due to injury. He’s the best defensive centerfielder in the game and I think there’s more potential in his bat than he showed with the Cardinals. Yankee Stadium is uniquely set-up to help Bader, as he lost out on some homers to the alleys in St. Louis, and I think there is more to come from his bat with a healthy lower half and some work to help him launch the baseball more consistently. I think he’ll be a 4+ WAR player who hits .260/.350/.460 with 20 homers in 2023. I also think the new rules will help Bader to steal 25+ bags.

Whether the Yankees extend Bader really depends on how their uber prospect, Jasson Dominguez, performs in 2023. If the Yankees believe that Dominguez is the future in CF, then I think that the Yankees let Bader walk. If Dominguez appears better suited to an outfield corner, then the Yankees might just look to see if Bader would take a 4-5 year extension.

C70: With Carlos Rondon and Frankie Montas in varying degrees of injury, what sort of confidence do you have in this starting rotation?

Stacey: I still have confidence in the rotation with Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes at the top. Rodon is already on his way back and barring any setbacks, he should be back before the end of April. I’m a little worried about Luis Severino mainly because he’s been hurt a lot recently and hasn’t had a full season in a long time (2018). As for the fourth and fifth spots, I have more confidence in Clarke Schmidt than in Domingo Germán but if this is how it’s going to look for only the first month, I’m okay with it.

Ed: I can see solid seasons (not great seasons) from Cole, Severino and Cortes. I do not see Cole as a true ace. He does make every start, and seems to battle on the mound. But, he is not a losing streak stopper, as an ace should be. I never did and never will have serious confidence in Frankie Montas. He was damaged goods when they got him and he is still damaged goods. I doubt he will throw a single pitch until September, if then. Rodon is a good pitcher, but he has had his share of injuries throughout his career, and has not proven that he can perform on the big stage in New York.

Luis Severino is in his walk year, so I expect him to perform well, if healthy. Nestor Cortes I believe will pitch along the lines as he did in 2nd half 2021 and all of 2022, which was excellent.

To fill the voids left by the Montas and Rodon injuries, and the loss of Jamison Taillon to free agency, the Yankees are looking to familiar candidates Domingo German, Clarke Schmidt, and maybe even Deivi Garcia. All are right handed, none of them instill much confidence in me. Jordan Montgomery would sure look good in the rotation!

Jake: Just as I sit down to write this, Luis Severino has gone down with a lat ailment, making that three starters, along with Rodon and Frankie Montas, hurt for the Yankees at the moment. The rotation looked outstanding just a couple months ago, and was the primary reason fans were feeling optimism coming out of the offseason.

With Severino out for at least the start of the season, it’s officially time to worry about the staff. The Yankees have some pitching depth to weather the storm, crucially in the form of Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt, both of whom will be expected to fill in capably to start the year. But the team doesn’t really have the depth to withstand much more. The Yankees have dealt liberally from their upper-minors pitching cache in recent years in an effort to bring in veterans and bolster the big league club. The moves made sense at the time, but the exports of Hayden Wesneski, Ken Waldichuk, Roansy Contreras, JP Sears, Luis Medina, and many others has left the club with few options to fill in if more injuries hit.

It’s all left the rotation in a precarious spot. If Rodon and/or Severino can get back to game shape relatively quickly, the Yankees will be fine. But the margin for error is a whole lot thinner now.

Andy: I’m not concerned about the Yankee rotation…yet. I have high hopes for the collection of Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes Jr., and Luis Severino (even if the latter now misses a few starts). Additionally, it sounds as though Rodon will be back sometime in early May. While no Yankee fans wants to admit it, there’s more depth to weather some early injuries than most baseball fans realize. Jhony Brito, Clarke Schmidt, and Domingo German are better than most team’s 3-5 starters, and they will provide important innings for the Yankees in a variety of roles this year.

In truth, I think by the end of the year, baseball fans will recognize the Yankee rotation as the best in baseball.

C70: There are a lot of big names on this team but there are some up and comers as well. What rookie (or someone with limited MLB experience) will make an impact this season?

Stacey: I am hoping Oswald Peraza makes a splash this year. We saw the kind of player he was in limited action at the end of the season last year and in the playoffs. The kid is as cool as a cucumber and I’m looking forward to watching him play full-time. (I am putting this out into the universe so maybe it will actually happen.) I also think this could be the season we see Anthony Volpe. The Yankees held onto them both for a reason and I think this could be the season we see why.

Ed: The answer to that is pretty easy. Anthony Volpe. He has all the tools, and even stole 51 bases at AA and AAA levels last season. What makes him even more compelling are his intangibles and strong desire to win. He is however very young (21). He is somewhat of a throwback when you take in the full picture (respectful of his elders, the history of the game, his opponents, teammates, and himself). He should break camp as the everyday shortstop, but I think roster management will put that on hold for a month or two. However, it is possible he forces their hands, especially since new team Captain Aaron Judge has made it clear that the best players should break camp.

It also would not surprise me one bit if righties Jimmy Cordero and/or Ian Hamilton made this team, and had a strong 2023 out of the bullpen.

Jake: Each of the young trio of Oswald Peraza, Anthony Volpe, and Oswaldo Cabrera has honestly left the fan base with reason to believe they’ll make positive impacts this season. Volpe has absolutely stolen the show in spring, looking like one of the best players in camp. He may not make the Opening Day roster, a reasonable enough decision when you consider his spring excellence has come against roughly Double-A level pitching per Baseball Reference, but Volpe has impressed with both his skills and his demeanor in big league camp. Whenever he comes up, the expectation will be that he’ll find a way to succeed.

Peraza flashed an excellent glove at short in a late-season cameo in 2022, and is likely the Opening Day starter at shortstop. Defense at a premium position will be his calling card. Cabrera could be a multi-positional dynamo, able to play five or six different positions, and looking like a potentially top-end defender in an outfield corner. He’s also flashed real power and a swing that could produce results at Yankee Stadium. At this point, I think the Yankees expect all three of Pereza, Volpe, and Cabrera to factor in the majors in 2023 and into the future.

Andy: The youth movement is arriving fast for the Yankees. Anthony Volpe is the easiest answer here. Again, I predicted that Volpe would go out and win the starting SS job despite limited time in AAA, and he did just that, beating out an established big leaguer, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and another good prospect with some MLB experience, Oswald Peraza, for the job this Spring. Volpe is a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball, and I think he’ll contend for an All-Star game appearance this year.

Another name to watch is Oswaldo Cabrera, a player who is likely flying under the radar to the average baseball fan. Cabrera was primarily an infielder during his minor league years, but he stunned the league by turning in an elite defensive performance in the outfield in 2022, and he’s poised to play a super utility role in 2023. Cabrera will likely get time at 7/9 positions on the diamond, playing all with great hands, an above-average arm, a surprisingly powerful bat from both sides, and an infectious attitude towards the game that will make him a fan favorite.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Stacey: Best case: Winning the World Series
Worst case: Missing the playoffs
Most likely: They make the playoffs, make it to the ALCS and Aaron Boone makes questionable decisions again and plays a part in another embarrassing playoff exit.

Ed: One of the unforeseen consequences of becoming a Yankee writer after decades of being a die-hard fan is that you see things from a different perspective. Instead of being the ultimate optimist (fan), you have to be honest with yourself and your readers (writer).

2023 will bring with it a few changes that should help many Yankee hitters (as well as many hitters in general) when you factor in the banning of the ridiculous shift. I can see Anthony Rizzo hitting in the .270+ range and a fully recovered DJ LeMahieu bouncing back very productively. However, they still have holes that were inexplicably not filled this offseason. They have a question mark in their closer (Clay Holmes), rotation, 2nd baseman (Gleyber Torres) shortstop (?), third base (Donaldson) and left field (?), which are too many holes to go into a season with if you are serious about winning it all. The new balanced schedule (I do not like it) removes 6 inner division games from each division opponent, which is a big deal when you play in the AL East, and it should help the winning % during the regular season.

Best Case Scenario, the Yankees win the AL East and have to prove to us all that they can beat the Astros in a 7 game series.

Worst Case Scenario is the injury bug becomes too much of a burden, the rotation is not strong enough to make up the difference, age sets in, and they become a one and done wild card team.

The most likely scenario to unfold is a 92+ win season, a ticket to the playoffs, and an early ticket home just in time to see the New York Rangers kick off the 2023/2024 season. Of course, if/when that happens you can mark it down right now, we will see the Manager and GM make every excuse possible without addressing their own shortcomings.

What can change this narrative is if this team decides to play baseball the way the game was intended to be played, and uses their substantial resources to secure mid-season reinforcements that play the same style. In the past, people called it “Billy Ball” after noted former Yankee Manager Billy Martin’s aggressive, fundamentally sound, peddle to the metal style of play. However as Billy once stated there is no such thing as Billy Ball, “It is Yankee baseball taught to me by Casey Stengel”.I am hoping that the rule changes and influx of youth brings Yankee baseball back to the Bronx in 2023.

Jake: This team won 99 games last year with the run differential befitting a 107-win team, retained all the core components, and added one of the six or so best pitchers in the league over the last two years in Rodon. The best case scenario is that Rodon returns healthy and that the best rotation in the league, backed by a top-heavy but still strong lineup, leads the team to the best record in baseball and the World Series.

The worst case is that injuries really fell this team and leave them scrapping for a Wild Card spot in a brutal AL East. For me, the median scenario involves them weathering the storm and taking the division title, but not nearly as comfortably as they would’ve hoped if this roster stayed reasonably healthy. I’m still optimistic about this team overall, just because their top-line talent is as good as any team in the league, but there’s obvious downside here as the club already has taken on water injury wise. I’m fascinated to see how it all plays out.

Andy: The goal for the Yankees is always a World Series Championship, and I genuinely believe that’s the best case scenario for 2023. It would not shock me if this team wins 100-ish games and finally gets over the hump in the playoffs if everyone is healthy.

The worst case scenario is that the injury bug isn’t cured, the Yanks limp through the regular season, and are ousted in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

The most likely outcome? I think the Yanks will win the AL East. I also think that the Astros are a diminished roster, so this is the Yankees’ best chance to finally get over the hump in the playoffs and reach the World Series. From there, I think the team is competitive, so it should be an exciting World Series – sorry Cards fans, but I think a Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees is a real possibility this year…and of course the Yanks will win!

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