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5 offseason questions Yankees must answer

@BryanHoch
October 31, 2020

When Aaron Boone first spoke to his full roster in February, the Yankees manager circled the spring clubhouse in Tampa, Fla., and outlined a mission for the season ahead -- win it all, full stop. That message was repeated when the team reassembled at Yankee Stadium in July for Summer

When Aaron Boone first spoke to his full roster in February, the Yankees manager circled the spring clubhouse in Tampa, Fla., and outlined a mission for the season ahead -- win it all, full stop. That message was repeated when the team reassembled at Yankee Stadium in July for Summer Camp.

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Though Boone believed that the Yankees had a championship-caliber roster on his lineup card, a club that experienced dizzying highs and crushing lows in a condensed 60-game season was unable to fulfill its main objective between the white lines. The Yanks’ 33 victories were second in the American League East to the Rays (40), who ended the Bombers’ season in a five-game AL Division Series.

Yankees believe 'sweeter' times are ahead

“Our goal is to win a world championship,” Boone said. “That’s what we feel like we’re capable of. We haven’t gotten there yet. I believe in my heart that we will. We’ve just got to keep grinding away at it.”

Here are five important questions that the Yankees will face this offseason:

1. Which free agents will be re-signed?
Addressing DJ LeMahieu's situation will almost certainly be the top priority discussed when the Yankees outline their end-of-season meeting plan. LeMahieu has been an MVP-caliber performer on both sides of the ball since signing with New York prior to the 2019 season, providing incredible value on a two-year, $24 million pact that ranks among general manager Brian Cashman’s finest moves in recent memory.

Coming off a season in which LeMahieu paced the Majors with a .364 batting average, the 32-year-old infielder projects to receive a significant raise; potentially in the ballpark of $20 million per year for four or five years. LeMahieu’s stellar bat-to-ball ability atop the lineup and Gold Glove-caliber defense at a variety of infield positions figure to make that a prudent investment.

The Yankees’ projected free agents also include right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, left-hander James Paxton and left-hander J.A. Happ. Coming off a season in which there was no fan attendance, the club has offered to indication of how that could affect its projected payroll, which ranked as the Majors’ highest entering the 2020 season.

2. Is Gary Sánchez still the Yankees’ starting catcher?
In late August, Cashman was adamant that the Yankees believed in Sánchez as their catcher of the present and future, calling him “by far our best option on both sides of the ball.” That stance wavered by the postseason, when Kyle Higashioka started five of the team’s seven games against the Indians and Rays. Boone put it bluntly: “Performance matters.”

A two-time All-Star who was the fastest AL player to slug 100 homers in terms of games played, Sánchez will turn 28 in December, coming off a season in which his batting average (.147) was the lowest of any big leaguer ever to hit 10 homers in a season. There were flashes of the old Sánchez, like a pinch-hit grand slam to sink the Mets, but they came too sporadically for the Yanks to count on him in their most important games of the year. With J.T. Realmuto able to hit the free-agent market, Sánchez’s future will be a hot topic.

3. What will the rotation look like behind Gerrit Cole?
Coming off three strong postseason starts, Cole will be entering his second year as the Yanks’ ace, though the arms behind him remain undecided. Tanaka’s seven-year contract is expiring, while Happ and Paxton are set to become free agents. Tanaka turned down an opportunity to test free agency after the 2017 season, following “what my heart was saying” to remain in The Bronx. He has made some melancholy statements about the chances of pitching his last games as a Yankee.

Shortly after the Yankees lost Game 5 of the ALDS, Boone mentioned the impact of not having Paxton, Domingo Germán and Luis Severino. Germán should be ready to rejoin the staff for the beginning of Spring Training and Severino will return at some point during the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in February. Jordan Montgomery seems to be a lock, while Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt should be legitimate contributors after having their timetables accelerated.

As the Yankees lost Game 3 to Tampa Bay, Trevor Bauer slyly inserted his name into the discussion, tweeting: “Kinda looks like the @yankees could use some more starting pitching. Interesting.” Bauer, a former college teammate of Cole’s at UCLA, is eligible for free agency after a Cy Young-worthy season with the Reds.

4. Is Clint Frazier ready to take over in left field?
Frazier questioned his future in the organization during the season’s first week, asking Boone and Cashman point-blank what they saw ahead for him. Frazier reported to the alternate site and crushed pitching there, then took advantage of his opportunities for playing time when the Yankees needed him in early August. Frazier batted .306/.422/.595 with six doubles, one triple, eight homers and 26 RBIs in 33 games before finishing the year in a 1-for-20 skid.

Brett Gardner rode a hot streak into five postseason starts, but the longest-tenured Yankee is a potential free agent; Gardner, who has a $10 million option for next year with a $2.5 million buyout, has said that he is planning on returning but understands that it isn’t assured. The 26-year-old Frazier showcased bat speed that Cashman once described as “legendary” with his homer in the Game 1 ALDS win over Tampa Bay, and his defense was much improved over 2019. He's a finalist for a Gold Glove Award.

5. How will Aroldis Chapman bounce back this time?
Chapman has permitted two homers within a 12-month span that effectively ended the Yankees’ season -- Jose Altuve’s walk-off to end the 2019 ALCS in Houston and Mike Brosseau’s go-ahead homer in the '20 ALDS. He also allowed a game-tying blast to Rajai Davis in the '16 World Series that threatened the Cubs’ magical season.

Brosseau’s at-bat was a terrific 10-pitch battle, and great closers have been on the wrong side of history -- Dennis Eckersley gave up Kirk Gibson’s memorable homer in the 1988 World Series and another to Roberto Alomar in the '92 ALCS, and even Mariano Rivera threw pitches he would have liked to try again (see Sandy Alomar Jr. in the '97 ALDS, Luis Gonzalez in the 2001 World Series).

To use one of Cashman’s favorite phrases, Chapman should be “plug and play” as the Yankees’ closer. He’s signed through 2022, and it would be an easy call to plug him in ahead of Zack Britton, Chad Green and Adam Ottavino in what they believe should be one of the Majors’ best bullpens. But will there be any hangover effect after another high-profile misstep?

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.