Many had 2017 tabbed as a rebuilding year for the New York Yankees. A year ago around this time, the team’s brass evidently decided to jump ship and kick-start a rebuild. With Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira on the verge of retirement, the Yankees decided to sell a number of key veterans at the trade deadline in an attempt to restock the farm system. Aroldis Chapman, Ivan Nova, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran were each shipped out of the Big Apple in exchange for formidable hauls of prospects.
Fast forward to exactly a year later, and the Yankees find themselves in the exact opposite spot. Now that they’re armed with a loaded farm system and a competitive-but-flawed big league roster, the Yanks are firmly in position to be buyers at the deadline. And buying is exactly what they’ve done. The team surprisingly acquired lefty Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, and then on Monday, just about an hour before the deadline, the team made a splashy move in snagging right-hander Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics.
With reinforcements coming to the starting rotation, New York is primed to make a run at the World Series this season.
Even after the flurry of activity, the Yankees are still longshots to win it all this season. They’re not even favored in their own division. Per Bovada, the Yanks are at +900 to win the 2017 World Series, and +125 to win the AL East. The Red Sox, by comparison, are +750 to win it all and -140 in the division. That seems a bit fishy.
For one, the Yankees are currently in first place in the East. Heading into August, New York is at 57-47, a half-game up on Boston in the division. They own the second-best record in the entire American League, though they’re still quite a ways behind the running-away-with-everything Houston Astros.
The Yanks being afterthoughts in their own division goes to show how loaded the Red Sox look on paper. When they traded for Chris Sale last winter, they had what appeared to be baseball’s most loaded starting rotation. Unfortunately for Boston, things haven’t panned out they way they had hoped. Sure, Sale has been a monster, but David Price has battled injuries. Rick Porcello’s Cy Young season looks like a flash-in-the-pan with each passing outing. The other two rotation spots are currently being held by oft-injured Eduardo Rodriguez and journeyman gas can Doug Fister. They are less than formidable at this stage.
We also can’t ignore the fact that the Boston offense has sorely missed David Ortiz this season. Papi was still one of the game’s elite hitters during his swan song retirement year last season, and, as it turns out, he was really the catalyst of the entire offense. This season, the Red Sox are seriously lacking middle-of-the-order thunder.
Boston has a run differential of +64 this season. While that’s a fine number, it’s nowhere close to the game’s elite. The Dodgers are at a ridiculous +185. Houston isn’t far behind at +168. The Diamondbacks and Nationals are well over +100, as well. We also have the Yankees sitting there at +119 to this point. That is an elite mark.
While New York may have been overperforming at the beginning of the season, there’s still plenty of reason to believe they’re a viable contender instead of a mirage.
Coming into the season, the primary question regarding the Yankees was: How will the pitching staff hold up? CC Sabathia is a year older, Michael Pineda has always been an enigma, and Masahiro Tanaka was entering a contract year. Tanaka, in particular, got off to a miserable start, but he has since rebounded in a big way. He struck out a career-high 14 in his most recent outing against the Tampa Bay Rays.
New York wound up losing Pineda for the season thanks to Tommy John surgery, but others have stepped up in his place. Youngster Luis Severino, who throws the hardest fastball on average of any starter in the league, has come on strong and looks like a bona fide ace. Can New York lean on a 23-year-old to anchor a playoff rotation? We’ll see, but a 2.98 ERA and a strikeout rate north of 28% has us believing that Severino is the ace this staff has been looking for for the last several seasons.
When you add the new additions, Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia, to the rotation, the Yankees’ starting staff suddenly looks scarily deep and scarily talented. Gray was awful last season, but he’s rebounded and once again looks like a top-of-the-rotation arm. Walks are still something of an issue for him, but the strikeouts are there and he’s been inducing ground balls like a madman. Gray’s ground ball rate of 56.7% is one of the most outstanding marks among starters in the game.
Garcia surely isn’t a name that really jumps off the page, but you can do far worse than Garcia if he’s your No. 4 starter entering the postseason. He’s not the strikeout arm that Tanaka, Severino or Gray is, but he’s another pitcher elite at inducing weak contact and ground balls.
We haven’t even gotten to the bullpen yet. The low-key move that may wind up paying off the most for the Yankees, in the long run, was the trade earlier in July with the White Sox. Third baseman Todd Frazier was the deal’s headliner, but New York also added a pair of very solid relievers in Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson. Kahnle has an absolutely absurd K-rate over 42% this season, while Robertson has been one of baseball’s more reliable bullpen arms for the last half-decade.
Add those two to a bullpen that already includes Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman at the back end and the Yankees can shorten the game considerably come postseason. If the starters can get through five innings without giving up too much damage, those four relievers can carry them home over the game’s latter half. There might not be another team in baseball with such a deep group of relievers.
Like we saw last year with the Indians, a deep ‘pen can get you deep into the playoffs.
Interestingly, the real question with the Yankees may now be whether they can hit enough to get over the hump. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez will keep mashing, but the rest of the lineup isn’t overly formidable. At this stage of his career, Jacoby Ellsbury is essentially a $158 million pinch-runner. Chase Headley is currently the team’s starting first baseman most nights.
The Yankees do have some injuries, though, and those players returning should help fill out the lineup. Starlin Castro was playing at an All-Star level before going down, as was Aaron Hicks. Fortunately, they have gotten boosts from call-up Clint Frazier and new addition Todd Frazier. Both Fraziers have been swinging hot sticks of late, which has helped push the Yankees back into first place in the East.
At full strength, this lineup is deep and talented. When there’s not even a spot for Ellsbury, you know they’re in good shape. It also doesn’t really hurt that they play in the bandbox also known as Yankee Stadium. 1-9 in the New York lineup is capable of hitting the ball over the fence. While they’re doing that, they’ve assembled a pitching staff that has been extremely effective in getting opponents to hit ground balls. That’s a formula for success in this ballpark.
The Dodgers and the Astros are still going to be World Series front runners, especially if both teams enter the postseason at or near full health. After the aforementioned trades, though, it would be unwise to sleep on the Bronx Bombers. Brian Cashman has gone out and been aggressive in trying to patch the holes that previously existed on the Yanks’ roster.
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