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April 25, 2019

Yankees Spring Training Preview: Biggest questions as Bombers try to chase down Red Sox

February 8, 2019

The Yankees won 100 games last year. They won the American League wild-card game. The Bombers also had the misfortune of being in the division with the best team in baseball in 2018. And that team – the hated Red Sox – booted them out of the playoffs in the AL Division Series.

There were no huge offseason signings. As of Wednesday, neither Manny Machado or Bryce Harper had tempted the Bombers to stray from their strict fiscal plans. With some upgrades in the bullpen, the rotation and the bench, the Yankees are hoping that will be enough to close the gap with the Red Sox.

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So, the biggest question everyone has as players head to Florida for the start of spring training is: Did the Yankees do enough this winter to contend with the defending World Series champions?

That is not going to be answered over the next six weeks, but the Yankees will be looking for some other answers while in Tampa.

WHAT TO DO WITH JACOBY ELLSBURY?

The 35-year-old missed all of 2018 with injuries, including being shut down for hip surgery in August. The Yankees say he is healthy and they expect him to compete this spring. They are paying him $21 million this season — and next.

The outfield already has Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, plus the Yankees went out and re-signed Brett Gardner. They have top prospect Clint Frazier, who they say is ready to play after missing most of 2018 with post concussion syndrome, back in the mix.

Jacoby Ellsbury (Kathy Willens / AP)

The Yankees have reportedly reached out to teams proposing a trade for Ellsbury, including the Giants. If they can make a “bad contract for bad contract” trade to move Ellsbury, it might be for the best.

Otherwise, the Yankees are going to have to find room for Ellsbury and keep Frazier’s progression in limbo. Ellsbury would have to consent to any assignment in the minor leagues and he has a track record to argue he can contribute when healthy.

In seven years in Boston, he slashed .297/.350/.439. In four years with the Yankees, there has been a dramatic drop off – .264/.330/.386 – but that is still an attractive on-base percentage.

IS AARON BOONE THE MAN TO MANAGE THIS TEAM?

It’s a little harsh to ask this of a manager whose team is coming off 100-win season, but it is something that most Yankees fans are still left wondering about.

Boone, having grown up around the game and been a successful major leaguer, was accomplished where his predecessor failed. Boone managed the players in the clubhouse well, a direct contrast to what the complaints had been about Joe Girardi, who was let go after the 2017 season.

Luis Severino (r.) and Aaron Boone
Luis Severino (r.) and Aaron Boone (Frank Franklin II / AP)

On the field, Boone made plenty of rookie mistakes. Without the benefit of a veteran bench coach, Boone’s inexperience showed particularly in his bullpen usage. That blew up in the Yankees’ collective faces in Game 3 of the ALDS. Perhaps because of a pregame plan handed down from the baseball operations department, or a miscommunication with Luis Severino, of his own hesitancy to pull a star pitcher, Boone inexplicably sent the righty back out for a fourth inning. It was a cringe-worthy moment, considering Severino had already started to struggle, and it led to the most lopsided loss in the Yankees’ storied playoff history.

Heading into his second season, Boone needs to show growth as a manager.

WILL THIS ROTATION BE ABLE TO KEEP UP?

Lefty Patrick Corbin spurned the Yankees for a big contract with the Nationals. Cashman pivoted quickly and landed James Paxton, another talented lefty — but one who has struggled with injuries. J.A. Happ, who despite a surprisingly ineffective and short start against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS, is also back and is tested and proven in the tough AL East. Getting Sonny Gray out of the Bronx also has to be considered an addition by subtraction.

With CC Sabathia back, presumably as a fifth starter, to go with Masahiro Tanaka and Severino, that makes a solid rotation … on paper.

James Paxton
James Paxton (Ben Margot / AP)

But Paxton’s injuries are well-documented and Sabathia will be 39, has an arthritic right knee and underwent a heart procedure in December. Tanaka was inconsistent last season and Severino had a dramatic Jekyll and Hyde campaign with an All-Star first half and a dismal second.

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The Red Sox rotation is loaded, can this starting pitching hold its own?

Or will the Yankees even try to push them with such a loaded bullpen of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zack (not Zach) Britton and Adam Ottavino at the back end?

WHO PLAYS AROUND THE HORN?

You really couldn’t ask for more from Miguel Andujar, who was a finalist for the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year. Andujar, who began the season in Triple-A, clubbed 27 homers. He had 92 RBIs, a .297 batting average and an .855 OPS. But his defense at third was shaky enough that his spot seems tenuous.

The Yankees did not sign Machado to fill the holes, but they brought in insurance.

With Didi Gregorius out after October Tommy John surgery, the Yankees gambled on Troy Tulowitzki. The former All-Star did not play last season and played just 66 games in 2017 before being shut down with various injuries, so the Yankees got him cheap. He will get a chance to be the starting shortstop if he stays healthy and can still hit.

The Yankees also brought in super utility player DJ LeMahieu. If Tulowitzki doesn’t work out, they can slide Gleyber Torres to shortstop and play LeMahieu at second.

Maybe even more important is having LeMahieu as a late-inning defensive replacement for Andujar at third.

The Yankees finally seemed to lose faith in Greg Bird in the second half of last season and then caught lightning in a bottle with Luke Voit. The slugger, who is rough around the bag to say the least, hit 14 homers with a .333/.405/.689 slash line in 39 games after the Yankees acquired him in a July deadline deal with the Cardinals.

But, that’s not a big enough sample size for the Yankees to rely on, and Bird will be back battling for the job.

This will be a lot of moving parts for Boone to juggle, it will be interesting to see how he sorts it out.

WHICH GARY SANCHEZ WILL WE SEE?

Nicknamed “The Kraken” in 2017 when his power was unleashed on the AL East, Sanchez was a frustrating disappointment in 2018. It’s one thing to overlook his defensive lapses (a major-league leading 18 passed balls and 45 wild pitches with him behind the plate) when he is crushing home runs. It’s another when he is hitting .186 with a .406 slugging percentage. Sanchez hit just 18 homers with 94 strikeouts in 323 at-bats.

The 26-year-old missed 57 games with groin injuries last season. He spent some of his rehab time getting in better shape.

Gary Sanchez
Gary Sanchez (Frank Franklin II / AP)

Boone and Cashman have publicly been very supportive of Sanchez and they will show patience as he works his way back. The bottom line is that there are just not that many good defensive catchers out there who can hit. There was no realistic move that could have significantly upgraded the position for the Yankees this winter, so he will get plenty of chances to prove himself again.

But Sanchez has to be better at the plate than he was last season to justify their support.

WHO’S AT FIRST?

While the Yankees traded for Voit because they saw indications of how his power could translate for them, there are still some wary of the small sample size. So, Bird, whose potential has been touted by the Yankees for several years, will likely get another chance this spring.

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The Yankees upgraded their depth on the left-side of the infield (LeMahieu) this season, but Neil Walker has more recent first-base experience. Will Voit prove to be the real deal or will the Yankees pay for a lack of depth at first?

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