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Previewing the AL East: New York Yankees

The Yankees were pretty good last year. They lost no one. They added Giancarlo Stanton into the mix, AND they have good prospects waiting. The Orioles have tough competition.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees
Jeremy Hellickson isn’t around any more, but Orioles pitchers will probably still give up some dingers to Yankees hitters.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Jeffrey Maier play seared an enduring sports hatred on the Yankees. More than two decades later it still pains me a little to acknowledge the following: The Yankees were good last year, will probably be good again, and will likely be good for some time to come. The wish of a 12-year-old Orioles fan in the mid-1990s that none of these things would ever be true cannot overcome this reality.

Here is another thing that hurts: The Yankees, who finished 91-71 and just two games out of first in the AL East, probably were unlucky last year. They finished the season with a run differential of a whopping +198 runs, meaning that the record they “should” have had was actually 100-62. Sheesh. Unlike the 2012 Orioles of legend, the Yankees were just 18-26 in one-run games. If that luck is due to even out, that’s bad for the rest of the division.

Additions and subtractions

The only significant thing that the Yankees have subtracted is dollars from the payroll. They opened up last season with a payroll of about $196 million, luxury tax payers for the 15th straight year. They are currently looking at a MLB payroll for 2018 of about $165 million.They did not lose anyone whose absence figures to hurt them this year.

The eyebrow-raising thing about this is that the Yankees were able to drop that payroll even though they also made the big acquisition of former Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. They traded Starlin Castro. They traded Chase Headley. They moved on from Matt Holliday, they got CC Sabathia for cheaper, and they’re finally over the dead weight of money paid to Alex Rodriguez. The result is that they will reset paying the luxury tax just in time for the free agent bonanza to come at season’s end.

Along with the big Stanton acquisition, the Yankees added versatile switch-hitting infielder Neil Walker on a modest contract - now seeming more important with the news that first baseman Greg Bird will miss 6-8 weeks due to ankle surgery. They also now have super-sub Brandon Drury in the mix, and that’s not even getting into the fact that top 10 prospect Gleyber Torres is waiting to push someone aside.

Starting rotation

Last year’s Yankees rotation was second in the AL to only the Indians, with a 3.98 ERA overall, nearly two full runs lower than that posted by the Orioles. From that group, the four players who started 27 games or more are back, as is their July acquisition Sonny Gray. Four of their starters posted an ERA under 4 last year. No Orioles starter did so.

Luis Severino, just 24 now, took the kind of big leap forward last year that O’s fans are always hoping Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy will do. Masahiro Tanaka will be hoping for better in 2018 after his home run rate spiked significantly, leading to a 4.74 ERA at season’s end. Lefty Jordan Montgomery went from fourth round pick in 2014 to sub-4.00 ERA over 155.1 innings in 2017. Gray did what the Yankees hoped he would when they traded for him, and they get him for the next two seasons besides.

That leaves the ageless wonder Sabathia, back for one year and $10 million after his big money contract finally expired. Sabathia is 37 now, more at the back of the Yankees rotation than the front, and he only threw 148.2 innings last year, but that’s all the Yankees need now. Fangraphs projects a 4.11 ERA from this group.

The bullpen

Though the Yankees bullpen ERA was a third-best-in-MLB 3.34 last year, they had their share of problems in the late innings, with Dellin Betances taking six losses and closer Aroldis Chapman taking another three. If that was bad luck and these guys go back to being lights out, it’s another situation where it doesn’t really matter how much the Orioles get better themselves - passing the Yankees will be a problem.

The Yankees will also be deploying a bullpen with six different pitchers who posted a K/9 rate of 11.5 or higher last year. This makes the number of blown games out of this bullpen even more of a surprise. Often, batters can’t even make contact against them. It’ll be interesting to see what they accomplish now that they’re finally free of the tyranny of Joe Girardi’s bullpen decisions.

The lineup

This team racked up their 858 runs last year despite having an offense that saw only two full-time players - Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge - post an OPS above .800. That’s a bit of an arbitrary observation, though: Castro and shortstop Didi Gregorius were both above .790.

The Yankees had a second-best-in-the-AL .339 OBP and they led everybody with 241 homers. Get on base and then hit dingers. It’s a good plan as long as you can actually get on base, which can be where it all falls down for the Orioles, of course.

Can Judge do the 50+ home run thing again? Can Stanton, who is still just 28 years old, do the 50+ home run thing again? If the answer to these things is yes, I mean, geez, look out. I know I’m not telling you anything that you didn’t already know here, but there’s no previewing the Yankees without stating the obvious. Barring a disaster, these guys are going to hit a lot of baseballs a long way.

The defense

With Castro and Headley being shuffled off the team and Jacoby Ellsbury being shuffled out of regular playing time - whether or not he’s healthy - the Yankees have neatly moved on from some of their worst defenders from last year’s squad.

Whether the replacements like Drury or Walker can do better is something of a question. Drury, still young, had poor defensive numbers two years ago, but that’s because the Diamondbacks tried the “put the infielder in the outfield” experiment. He was capable at second base and can play third as well, though he hasn’t done so much at the MLB level. Walker either has or hasn’t lost a step, depending on whether you believe 2016 data (good) or 2017 data (not good for Walker).

Elsewhere around the diamond, Sanchez doesn’t rate well on catcher framing metrics, but he threw out 38% of would-be base-stealers last year and his game-calling doesn’t seem to have hurt the Yankees rotation any. Aaron Hicks getting Ellsbury’s playing time in center is a big plus. Judge, perhaps surprisingly for a big guy, rated at +9 runs on Defensive Runs Saved last year. Defense probably won’t be this team’s downfall. Too bad for us.

The projections

  • PECOTA: 97-65
  • Fangraphs: 93-69
  • Bovada O/U: 94.5

Trendy preseason picks can and do fail hilariously every year. Maybe that Bird injury is the beginning of a cascading failure that plunges the Yankees into the years-long oblivion that I’ve been wanting to see them in for multiple decades. I can always dream of it, but I never expect it, because down that road would only lie disappointment.

Most of the time, the obvious is what happens because it’s obvious for a reason. The Yankees obviously look good, so they’re probably going to be good and there’s not much the Orioles can do about it, except to somehow win more games than the Yankees.