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Previewing the AL East: New York Yankees

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The Yankees added quality talent to a roster that is already full of exciting young position players. They are set to compete in 2019.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The 2018 Yankees won 100 games and still finished eight games behind the Red Sox. As Tyler Young wrote yesterday, Boston had a quiet offseason. New York didn’t hand out any monster contracts, but they retained some important pieces and added some impressive players as well. They are a popular pick to win the American League East.

The Yankees beat the Orioles in 12 of their 19 meetings last season and that level of dominance could continue this season. 13 of the Yankees’ 50 games are against Baltimore, and the O’s aren’t exactly heading north with the most talented roster.

Additions and subtractions

The Yankees were able to re-sign their two big trading deadline acquisitions from last summer: Zach Britton and J.A. Happ. We know how dominant of a piece Britton is in the bullpen. Retaining Happ gives them a solid, veteran left-handed starter. Both were important moves.

New York’s biggest addition was LHP James Paxton, who was acquired from Seattle for a package that included prospect Justus Sheffield. The Yankees were also active in free agency without handing out huge contracts. Yesterday they signed Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal. They bolstered their bullpen to an almost unfair level by signing RHP Adam Ottavino to a 3 year/$27M deal. Their infield was remade with the acquisitions of 2B DJ LeMahieu and SS Troy Tulowitzki. Those two former Colorado teammates have an impressive amount of All Star Game appearances, Gold Gloves, and batting titles on their collective resume.

The Yankees’ biggest loss was RHP David Robertson, who signed in Philadelphia. Sonny Gray was traded to Cincinnati, but his stint in the Bronx was mostly a disaster. Andrew McCutchen, acquired late last summer, was allowed to leave as a free agent.

Starting rotation

If the Yankees have a weakness, it is in the their starting pitching. Injuries have already threatened their rotation. Luis Severino is an impressive young ace, but he is battling a shoulder injury that will cost him at least April. CC Sabathia, entering what will be his final season, has only recently gotten on the mound for a simulated game after offseason knee and heart surgery. He will miss part of the season. Gonzalez will pick up the slack if he can overcome an extremely shortened spring training.

The rest of the rotation is talented but comes with concerns regarding injuries and durability. Paxton is an incredible talent (11.7 K/9 last season) but pitched only 160.1 innings due to a back injury. Masahiro Tanaka has battled injuries throughout his career and threw only 156 frames last season. J.A. Happ made 31 starts last year but is now 36 years old. Gonzalez’s ERA rose to 4.21 last season and he pitched 171 innings.

The bullpen

If the starting rotation is a weakness, New York’s bullpen should be able to mask it. As mentioned earlier, the bullpen that Aaron Boone will deploy is almost not fair to opposing teams (especially a certain offensively challenged club in their division). Aroldis Chapman will close games. He will be set up by fellow lefty Britton, Dellin Betances, and Ottavino. That is incredible.

While not as widely known as the four pitchers above, Chad Green racked up 2.3 WAR last season despite not recording a save. The pen will be filled out by two of Jonathan Holder, Tommy Kahnle, Stephen Tarpley, Domingo Germán, and Jonathan Loaisiga.

Fangraphs projects the Yankees’ bullpen WAR to be 6.9. The next highest is the Astros at 4.7. Bullpen performance is notoriously difficult to project, but we could be looking at one of the better ones in recent memory.

The lineup

The Yankees are returning most players from a lineup that scored 851 (second best in baseball) last season. They did it with power, leading the majors in home runs with 267. Big power threats Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, and Miguel Andujar all return. The Bronx Bombers will continue bombing in 2019.

Gleyber Torres is an X-Factor for the Yankees. He has 24 home runs in his first 431 at bats of his MLB career. The Yankees could have a blossoming power hitter in the middle infield, as if they needed it.

The Yankees’ 2018 on-base percentage of .329 ranked eighth in the majors. The addition offseason signing of DJ LeMahieu gives the Yankees some diversity to all their power. He brings a career OBP of .350 to the table. They need that, as projected leadoff man Aaron Hicks will miss the beginning of the season with a back injury.

The defense

The Yankees’ defense is about league average. They ranked 17th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved in 2018 with 24 (for the sake of comparison, the Orioles had -94). Their 0.1 Ultimate Zone Rating also ranked them 17th. While not a major strength, the Yanks’ defense didn’t hurt them in 2018.

The Yankees will be without SS Didi Gregorius until June or July as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. He was an above average defender last season (5.2 UZR) and carries a reputation as good field general. Troy Tulowitzki will replace him at shortstop, which could be a detriment to the team defense. He has two Gold Gloves in his trophy case but missed last season due to ankle issues, is now 34 years old, and carried a negative UZR in 2017.

Two very promising infield bats are currently liabilities in the field. Miguel Andujar’s UZR was -16 and Baseball Reference rated his dWAR at -2.2. Gleyber Torres had a negative UZR at both middle infield positions. How those two develop defensively will be a storyline for the 2019 Yankees.

Projections

PECOTA: 96-66

Fangraphs: 96-66

Bovada O/U: 96.5

The Yankees have an incredible stable of young position players that are only getting better. With another year of experience under their collective belts, their offense could be scary. Combined with a nasty bullpen, the Yankees will make a run at a division title.

As is the case with many clubs, starting pitching is a potential concern. All their starters are talented and have had success in the past. But age, injuries, and durability issues limit the group’s ceiling. Their success this season, and especially the postseason should they make it, will come down to their rotation.