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Major Storylines for 2021

Major Storylines for 2021

By Chris O’Connor

February 16, 2021

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With Yankees pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training on February 17, the start of baseball season is right around the corner. Here are some major storylines to watch for in 2021:

Fan frustration with spending: Will it come back to bite the Yankees yet again?

Per Spotrac, the Yankees are second in the majors in payroll for 2021 at just under $190 million, roughly $50-60 million less than what would have been their 162-game payroll for 2020. Their 2021 payroll is well behind the Dodgers’ $234 million and ahead of the next tier of clubs like the Angels, Astros, Mets, and Red Sox, all of whom are at around $170 million. The luxury tax threshold is set for $210 million but because a team’s luxury tax payroll is calculated by the average annual value of contracts as opposed to what players are paid in that year, the Yankees are about $10 million under the threshold. (Note, that was before they signed Justin Wilson late yesterday.) Knowing that the team wants to stay under that threshold and budgeting for possible additions at the trade deadline, the Yankees look to be mostly done adding significant pieces to the team. They may bring back Brett Gardner or low-end starter, but all of the big-name free agents are signed and their big-game shopping looks to be complete.

Having not won a World Series, much less a pennant, since 2009, it is clear that Yankees fans are frustrated with the team’s lack of spending in recent years. To be fair to the team, they did have the highest payroll in the majors in 2020 and would have exceeded the luxury tax threshold by over $50 million if it had been a normal year. But they should be using financial advantage every year: these are the New York Yankees. Prior to 2020, Forbes estimated that the team is worth $5 billion and brings in $683 million in yearly revenue, well ahead of the second-place Dodgers at $3.4 billion and $556 million. I think that the worst part in seeing the Dodgers sign Trevor Bauer is how unsurprising it was to see the Yankees pass on him. The Yankees have been a World Series contender in recent years but have allowed money to stand in the way of either signing difference-making starting pitchers like Bauer and Patrick Corbin or trading for guys like Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish. The Yankees did, of course, sign Gerrit Cole and trade for Giancarlo Stanton, but the team is still under the threshold and can certainly use more pieces to further cement their status as a contender. With their window open, but core guys starting to age, it’s fair to ask: if not now, when?

Will the team finally stay healthy?

After the team’s record-setting number of injuries in 2019, the Yankees overhauled their training staff and hired Eric Cressey to be the new director of player health and performance in January 2020. Cressey founded Cressey Sports Performance, a company that uses modern recovery methods of rehabilitation and recovery and was at the forefront of using video to analytically break down performance. Though injuries continued to be an issue for the team in 2020, perhaps a full offseason with the new training staff will do wonders for the players. Specifically, recent reports have indicated that Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have scaled back on heavy lifting in favor of focusing on yoga and flexibility to prevent injuries. Buster Olney has reported that Jameson Taillon is said to be looking “exceptional” and fully expected to be ready for spring training 18 months after Tommy John surgery. Corey Kluber, who is a client of Cressey Sports Performance, looked good enough in his tryout that the Yankees gave him $11 million and other teams like the Rays were reported to have significant interest as well. Luis Severino is slated to return from his TJS by mid-to-late summer, though the team is expected to be cautious with his recovery. Gio Urshela is not expected to be ready for the start of spring training but should be good to go for Opening Day following elbow surgery, and Luke Voit is said to be fully recovered from his bout with plantar fasciitis. If the core guys can stay healthy, this is a World Series-caliber team, especially with other AL contenders like the Rays, Astros, and A’s losing key pieces. If they can’t, depth becomes even more paramount in what projects to be another abnormal season.

Can Gary Sanchez resurrect his career?

Gary Sanchez is entering a make-or-break year. Brian Cashman recently ripped Sanchez for his lack of self-awareness as Sanchez still appears disheartened and confused as to why he was benched in the playoffs last year. Presumably entering his prime at the age of 28, Sanchez has to bounce back from yet another nightmare season in 2020. It was interesting that the Yankees never appeared to have any interest in top free agent J.T. Realmuto. While that was most likely because they wanted to stay under the luxury tax threshold, it signified that they are content to head into the season with Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka as their backstops. Sanchez is clearly talented: he has the most home runs of any catcher since 2017 and his 109 WRC+ is tied for fifth among catchers in that span. His maddening inconstancy and subpar defense, however, has led to the point of where we are today. If he can bounce back, the Yankees potentially add a huge impact bat to their lineup. If Sanchez flounders, free agents in next year’s class include Wilson Contreras, Salvador Perez, Christian Vasquez, and possibly Buster Posey and Travis d’Arnaud.

Will Gleyber Torres prove to be the long-term solution at shortstop?

It is no secret that Torres struggled in 2020. Brian Cashman recently spoke candidly about this, saying that he came into the second spring training out of shape and it took him time to settle in. Though he is still just 24 years old and under team control through 2023, Cashman notably refused to commit to him as shortstop of the future. There are, however, reasons to be optimistic about his future with the team and these comments may have more to do with the vaunted free agent shortstop class next year that may include Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, and Javier Baez. 2020 was a weird year. A significant number of high-performers like Baez, Christian Yelich, and J.D. Martinez saw their performances suffer tremendously in 2020 and though Torres’ struggles cannot be completely excused, I am willing to bet he bounces back in a (more) normal year. While his power cratered to 3 homers in 42 games, his walk rate increased from 7.9% to 13.8% and his strikeout rate decreased from 21.4% to 17.5%. These improvements show much better plate discipline and tend to be more sustainable than other fluky gains. He also came on strong late in the year: in 7 playoff games, he hit 2 homers and slashed .435/.567/.696. Notable projection systems like ZIPS and Steamer anticipate a major rebound in 2021 with 3.7 and 4.4 WAR, respectively, and 30+ home runs. His defense, however, is the major question. If he can show enough improvement on that side, that might convince Cashman and the Yankees that he can be the long-term solution and to spend money allocated for one of the shortstops somewhere else.

Do they have enough pitching behind Gerrit Cole?

In a short series in the playoffs, it can not be overstated how big it is to be able to throw a guy like Cole out there in Game 1. The Yankees, however, saw last year that that may not be enough. Kluber and Taillon are capable of being the #2 and #3 starters for the team, but both come with injury concerns and I expect the club to be cautious with them. The same goes for Luis Severino and his recovery. In allowing Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and JA Happ to leave in free agency, the club is betting big that either their new additions will stay healthy and productive and/or that young guys like Domingo German, Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia, and Clarke Schmidt are ready to make a big impact. While the Yankees rotation has what might be the highest upside in the big leagues, and I would love to see what some of the young guns can do with an extended opportunity, there is considerable risk as well. Though there should be starting pitching options available at the trade deadline, Cashman and the front office have shown that they will not act desperately in adding reinforcements.

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