Yankees’ optimism relies on offense and the law of averages

By Tyler Kepner

Aaron Boone couldn’t help himself. As much as it hurt to lose again in the American League playoffs last October, Boone needed to watch the World Series. Blame it on his lifetime spent in the game, the generations of baseball in his blood.

“Usually I go a day or two and I don’t watch, but then it pulls me back,” Boone said Wednesday, when the New York Yankees’ pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Tampa, Florida. “This game pulls me in. Ultimately, I love it so much that I’ve got to see it unfold.”

This has become routine by now for Boone, which says a lot about the state of the Yankees. He took over as manager in December 2017, just two months after the team had lost the AL Championship Series to Houston in seven games. Since then, the Yankees have fallen to the Boston Red Sox in a division series, the Astros in another ALCS, and the Tampa Bay Rays in another divisional round.

All three opponents went on to the World Series, which has not featured the Yankees since 2009. The Yankees have the most wins in the American League since then, but no pennants.

“I do feel like it’s that close, and I felt that way in ’18 and ’19 and last year — we’re late in the game against a team that goes on to the World Series again,” Boone said. “We’ve got to find a way to get over that last hump and beat that team that’s going on to the World Series.”

Boone added a qualifier that today’s Yankee fans know all too well: October is capricious, the difference between also-rans and champions is thin. One of these years, the Yankees’ luck is bound to turn, as it did for the Los Angeles Dodgers last fall and the Washington Nationals the fall before that. Both teams had also been strong for a while, without a title to show for it.

As the Yankees start again after a conservative offseason, their chances seem about the same as they always are. Boone was optimistic as usual, speaking often of the need for players to be the best version of themselves. Every team has that same dream, but the Yankees believe their best case is better than most.

For what it’s worth, so does the algorithm at Baseball Prospectus. Their analysts’ mysterious PECOTA projection system forecasts the Yankees for 97 victories, the most in the AL and second in Major League Baseball only to the Dodgers, with 103. (The New York Mets are third, at 96.)

The Dodgers have brought back third baseman Justin Turner since those figures came out, so they actually should be even better. Barring a trade, Los Angeles will spend more than $250 million on its payroll, putting the team into the highest luxury-tax bracket and buying it the kind of depth the rest of the league cannot fathom.

Consider the Yankees’ starters behind Gerrit Cole: Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery, Deivi García, Domingo Germán, Michael King, Clarke Schmidt and Luis Severino. Would you be as confident as Boone was Wednesday?

“The amount of depth you see on our roster from a pitching standpoint gets me excited, because you know at their best they’re capable of being top-flight starters, and that’s across the board,” he said. “Even when you consider our young guys that have gotten their feet wet, you can kind of dream on them being really good pitchers in this league.”

The Dodgers don’t have to dream — with Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler, David Price, Julio Urías, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, they are at least seven deep in healthy, proven performers. The Yankees essentially have Cole, Montgomery (ERA last season: 5.11) and a whole lot of questions.

Kluber hurt his shoulder last season and pitched one inning for the Texas Rangers. Taillon, whom the Yankees acquired last month in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, spent the year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Boone called them “potential high-end pitchers,” and they are — but it’s been a while. Both were also hurt in 2019, when they made seven starts apiece.

Severino had Tommy John surgery last spring. Germán missed the season while serving a domestic-violence suspension. García, King and Schmidt combined for a 6.28 ERA as rookies.

Could the Yankees shake out enough quality innings from that group to have a respectable rotation? Sure. But until proven otherwise, it’s fair to be skeptical. For the Yankees to win, they’ll really have to hit — and that is where they separate themselves.

They led the AL in runs last season, despite lengthy absences of outfielders Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and the troubles of catcher Gary Sánchez, whose .147 average was the lowest in the majors for players with at least 175 plate appearances. Even with J.T. Realmuto and James McCann available in free agency, the Yankees signed up for another year with Sánchez.

“We believe in him,” Boone said. “We feel like he can be a game-changer-type player when he’s right. We’re going to continue to support him and try to get him to be the best version of himself that he can be. Hopefully this is the year when he can kind of put it all together. We certainly have a lot of confidence in that, but we’ve got to get it out of him, too.”

Patience has paid off with the ever-improving Clint Frazier, whose .905 on-base plus slugging percentage last season has finally earned him the everyday job in left field. (“He’s certainly earned that,” Boone said.)

As for Judge and Stanton, the Yankees trust Eric Cressey, the celebrated trainer they hired last year as director of player health and performance, to keep them on the field. Cressey told the YES Network this month that both players had taken a “dramatically different approach” to winter workouts, with less weight lifting and, especially in Judge’s case, more yoga.

Boone said the team expects Cressey’s influence to grow this season, after a year of scrambling because of the pandemic.

“I feel like our guys are certainly, across the board, in a better position to get the most out of themselves,” Boone said, and that is really what matters most. The Yankees’ talent is obvious; bringing it out, consistently, is the trick.

The feeling here is they’ll find a way to do it. Only one division rival, the Toronto Blue Jays, spent aggressively this winter, and Baltimore and Boston are rebuilding. The Rays need their special brand of sorcery to hold up for 162 games. The Yankees are the safe pick.

Then they’ll just need to get lucky in October. If nothing else, they are due.

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