The first days of spring training are usually a time of great optimism even for fans of teams whose chances of making the postseason are not good. This year, optimism is running very high among Yankee fans as the team missed the World Series by one game last year and has since then added the game’s best slugger to an already powerful lineup. The rebuilding timetable has been sped up accordingly and the Yankees are well-positioned to make a real run for their 28th World Series Championship.
It is also the case that the season could end differently and bring disappointment to Yankee fans. In addition to the questions marks at second, third and the back of the starting rotation, there are many other possible ways 2018 could go wrong for the Yankees. This is true of every team and is pretty much part of the game, but it is useful to think of what those stumbling blocks might be. Luis Severino or Aaron Judge might regress from their breakthrough years in 2017. Gary Sanchez might prove unable to field well enough to hold down the catching job full time. Greg Bird and Giancarlo Stanton, who both have struggled to stay healthy throughout their career could lose significant time to injuries. Additionally, other key contributors like Didi Gregorius or Masahiro Tanaka could suffer serious injuries.
If one of the above happens, with the exception of an injury to Tanaka, the Yankees would struggle to win their division and would have a hard time securing home field adventage through the playoffs. If two of the above happens, the Yankees would have to fight for a wild card spot. If three of the above happen, the Yankees would likely miss the playoffs altogether. Similar lists could be made for the Astros, Indians or any other team who currently has a decent shot at winning it all in 2018. This is the nature of baseball. When teams do well, it is easy to overlook the breaks they got and just to assume that will continue next year, but any baseball season is a combination of good and bad breaks. Fans just have to hope the former outnumber the latter.
Expectations are so high for 2018 that if things begin to go in a different direction, the temptation to make a big move or to panic will be very strong. This is where the real danger lies. If the team’s young core is kept together but has an off year, or loses ground due to injuries to veterans, that is unfortunate, but not a big problem. However, if the front office panics and begins to package prospects for half a year of a veteran approaching free agency, that would be a mistake that could impact the team for years to come.
In the last few years, beginning most notably with the trades of veterans like Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Brian McCann at the 2016 trading deadline, the Yankees have avoided those kinds of panic induced moves, but they have had the luxury of limited expectations. One of the toughest tests for team management is what to do when high expectations are not being met. During the Steinbrenner regime, the approach was almost always to panic, spend money and bring in more veterans. Brian Cashman does not seem stuck in that way of thinking, but there is no guarantee that won’t return, particularly if he faces pressure from the team ownership.
The Yankees are trying to build a team that can contend and have a meaningful chance of winning it all in a window that began last year and could last into the early 2020s. The good news is that they are already of that schedule, but they cannot allow that to lead them to make mistake that will shorten that window or weaken their core. This means that trading away prospects or committing too much money to less than absolutely elite free agents would be big mistakes.
This Severino-Judge-Sanchez-Gregorious core is built for the medium term while other pieces like Justus Sheffield, Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres are ready to be slotted in as significant contributors either this year or next. Trading one of the latter out of frustration because of a couple of bad breaks this year, would hurt the team well into the future. The Yankees danced up to that line last year, particularly with the Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia trades, but ultimately did not cross it. It is essential that they demonstrate the same wisdom and restraint this year. The Yankees have a new manager and a fan base that, by Yankee standards, has gone a long time without a pennant. With that in mind, the slogan for both in 2018 should be “Don’t Panic.”
Photo: cc/Keith Allison