5 Yankees Who Benefit Most from a Shortened Season
By Andy Singer July 7, 2020
Photo Courtesy of Julio Aguilar, Getty Images
I think that it is fair to say that whatever happens in the 2020 season, it will be a year unlike any other in baseball history. While the 2020 Yankees were built to prevail over a grueling 162-game season, the Yankees remain well-positioned as one of the best teams in the league, with star power and plenty of depth to absorb injuries and under-performance. Despite that reality, I think that a 60-game regular season changes the likely outlook for multiple players. With that in mind, below are 5 Yankees who appear poised to benefit the most from a shortened season:
Photo Courtesy of Mike Stobe, Getty Images
Yankee fans were thrilled to see Brett Gardner put together a renaissance season in 2019. While Gardy looked like he was beginning to show his age in 2018, Gardner showed that he could still be a highly effective contributor on one of the best rosters in baseball. Coming into 2019, the plan was for Gardy to play far less as he had a tendency to wear down in each of his most recent seasons. Injuries forced the Yankees to play Gardner everyday throughout the season, and Gardner responded far better than even the most bullish Yankee fan could have predicted. In the year of the juiced ball, Gardy may have swatted 28 homers that sounds less impressive in context, but he was such a good all-around performer that he was worth 4.1 bWAR in 550 Plate Appearances. In short, Gardy was a key cog in the Yankee machine on both sides of the ball.
However, the Yankees would be remiss to expect a performance like that again if Gardner were to get the same amount of playing time in 2020 as he did in the 2019 season. Gardner turns 37 this summer, and as much as I would love to see Gardner stay young forever, the odds are against that being the case. When looking at the body of Gardner’s career, 2019 looks like an outlier in terms of staying healthy and maintaining his performance throughout the year. Gardner’s career OPS is just .702 in the second half, compared to .774 in the first half. The numbers are even worse when looking at August through October, where Gardner has an OPS below .700 for his career. Last year however, Gardner kicked it into another gear in July, and rode the hot streak into the playoffs, putting up a .908 OPS from July 1st on last season.
The beauty of the 2020 season is that the Yankees don’t really need to worry about overworking a 37 year old Brett Gardner. Realistically, I think the most Plate Appearances we could expect Gardner to post in a 60 game stretch is 240, which would barely represent 1/3 of a standard set of Plate Appearances in a normal year. I think it is entirely likely that we will see a completely healthy Brett Gardner play with his hair on fire over a short stretch.
I admit, I’m cherry-picking here, but during a 60-game stretch from July 4th in 2019 through the second-to-last game of the season. Brett Gardner hit .275/.338/.596 with 16 HR. If Gardner puts up a really good defensive stretch that skews the numbers in a short season, it would not surprise me at all if Gardner put up 3-3.5 WAR with good defensive numbers and similar offensive numbers to the above stretch. Healthy Brett Gardner in a short season could be just shy of an MVP candidate under these circumstances if he plays enough.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Stobe, Getty Images
This one is probably pretty obvious to most of you. I also know that many of you are probably sick of listening to me predict a Gary Sanchez breakout, but sorry, you’re going to have to listen to it again. Let’s start with what even Sanchez’s greatest detractors would be hard-pressed to deny: Gary Sanchez is an immensely talented ballplayer. We talk a lot about the 20-80 scale when talking about prospects, but we typically discuss the hard statistics when talking about a player once they are MLB veterans. I’m not saying that that is the wrong way to evaluate players, but I do think that we lose perspective when a player is still relatively young. To my point, Sanchez has been a very good Major League player statistically throughout his young career. Few would even argue that he is a Top-8 catcher in the big leagues. Despite that success, his raw tools are so much louder. He would likely rate pretty close to 80 on the 20-80 scale in raw power, and somewhere between 60-70 in game power; his arm behind the plate is easily plus, in the 60+ range; and his hit tool is likely 45+ in a vacuum. Gary is one of the slowest players on the field, and his pure fielding rating would probably be volatile from scout to scout, but even so he has 2 better-than-plus tools, and another 1-2 that are more than adequate.
Ignoring his 2018 season as an outlier (or possibly even evidence of my next point), Sanchez has always been an excellent player when healthy, but good health has been a struggle for Gary Sanchez. Catcher is the most physically demanding position on the diamond, and as a larger catcher, Sanchez has been plagued by groin injuries over the last couple of seasons. Mechanically, legs are the base of a powerful swing, and Sanchez’s swing isn’t an exception. Over a long season, the wear and tear of catching on Sanchez’s lower body has clearly had an effect at the plate.
However, we have evidence as recently as last season that Sanchez can still be among the best hitters in baseball when he is both healthy and locked in at the plate. In a compressed, short season, I don’t think that we can expect Sanchez to catch much more than 45 games. Through his first 42 games in 2019, Sanchez hit 19 homers, and triple-slashed .270/.345/.660. If Sanchez even plays slightly below-average defense at catcher, he would be an easy MVP candidate in 2020 with numbers like that. Given all of the work that Sanchez has done to change the way he catches without runners on base, I think we can expect improved defense if he stays healthy. With fewer chances to get banged up, Sanchez could be the most valuable player on the roster, if not in baseball, in 2020.
Photo Courtesy of Andy Marlin, USA TODAY Sports
The delay to the 2020 season has already paid dividends for Aaron Hicks. Following Tommy John Surgery that was not performed until the off-season between 2019 and 2020, Aaron Hicks was almost certain to miss the first half of the 2020 season had it begun in April. With Opening Day delayed until July 23rd, it is likely that Aaron Hicks will begin the season on the Yankees’ active roster.
This is huge from a performance perspective. Yankee fans were pleasantly surprised last season when Didi Gregorius made it back in advance of the All-Star break. As much as seeing Didi take the helm at SS was a breath of fresh air for many of us who had grown weary of counting the injuries as they occurred in 2019, the truth in hindsight is that Didi was never really himself when he came back. Didi has even recently admitted as much, noting that the elbow held him back at the plate in particular in 2019. While most people focus on the implications of Tommy John Surgery when it is performed on pitchers, position players are rushed back to the field in far too many situations. In fact, many position players never quite make it all the way back when they truncate their recovery period.
Whether or not the Yankees learned their lesson last season with Didi (or more than a decade ago when Xavier Nady was rushed back), the delayed, shortened 2020 season means that Aaron Hicks was given significantly more time to recover. Hicks is a powerful bat, plays a fine CF, and is known for having one of the strongest outfield arms in baseball. Not only was he given additional time to recover, but Hicks will also be able to avoid being over-used in his first season back from Tommy John Surgery. Each of these factors bode well for Hicks, and increase the likelihood that he will return to the player that he was in 2017 and 2018.
Photo Courtesy of Robert M. Pimpsner, Pinstriped Prospects
This is the first name that will likely surprise you. While Deivi Garcia entered 2020 knocking on the door of the Major Leagues, he still had something to prove at AAA after some late-season struggles in 2019. Whether the struggles were due to fatigue or the jump in level from AA, Garcia was slated to pitch a significant number of innings in the minor leagues in 2020, while hopefully finishing off his development so that he could be a permanent big league option sometime this year. Through that lens, Garcia would appear to be one of the players who has been negatively impacted by the shortened 2020 season, and by extension the cancellation of the affiliated minor league seasons.
However, Garcia now has an opportunity that he may not have had otherwise. For the first couple of weeks of the season, rosters will be expanded. Extra pitchers will likely be carried during that time as the starters in the rotation will still be building their pitch counts. Garcia is in line as one of the depth pitchers who would likely be called on to piggyback off of a starter early in the year.
Even beyond that scenario, Garcia may have value in a non-starting role once rosters contract to 26 players. Garcia has big stuff despite the questions that surround his durability and future as a starter. If Garcia can make the most of a likely MLB debut early in the year, the Yankees could choose to keep him in the MLB bullpen as a multi-inning weapon who can learn to get big league hitters out while helping out Yankees on their quest for a championship. I think Garcia has a far greater chance of pitching in the Majors this year than he would have otherwise.
Photo Courtesy of Charles Wenzelberg, NY Post
The same roster dynamics that applied to Deivi Garcia apply to Clarke Schmidt. Schmidt’s situation is interesting, because he is not currently on the 40-man roster, but he is on the 60-man extended roster. Schmidt had impressed throughout Spring Training I this year, so much so that many people were clamoring for Schmidt to win the 5th starter competition.
While Schmidt has not yet pitched above AA, he looked like a prospect who doesn’t need much more baking time prior to being ready for prime time. Had the 2020 season gone forward normally, I would have expected Schmidt to be on the big league roster in some capacity by August. Given that he has the pure stuff to help the Major League team now, and he stands to lose an entire season of real game development, I think that he will be part of the roster for a significant portion of the 2020 season. I think that it is likely that Schmidt appears in more MLB games this year than he would have in a normal year.
Multiple Yankees stand to benefit significantly from the altered landscape we can see for the 2020 season. So much can still change, but assuming games are played as scheduled, I think that Gardner and Sanchez could surprise with eye-popping performances; Hicks will play closer to the way one would expect when looking at the back of his baseball card coming off of a serious injury; and Garcia and Schmidt will likely get faster starts to their MLB careers than they would have otherwise.
Tune in tomorrow when I’ll discuss 5 players who stand to lose the most from a shortened season.