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With 'great white whale' aboard, Yanks eye title

@BryanHoch
March 3, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole’s spring workload in a Yankees uniform has thus far consisted of 3 2/3 scoreless innings: 11 of the most celebrated Grapefruit League outs in recent memory, considering the attention and significance placed upon every pitch that travels from the ace’s right hand. After falling to

TAMPA, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole’s spring workload in a Yankees uniform has thus far consisted of 3 2/3 scoreless innings: 11 of the most celebrated Grapefruit League outs in recent memory, considering the attention and significance placed upon every pitch that travels from the ace’s right hand.

After falling to Cole’s Astros in a six-game American League Championship Series last October, the Yankees identified the 29-year-old as their top offseason priority, and general manager Brian Cashman finally landed what he called his “great white whale” by extending a record-shattering nine-year, $324 million contract during the Winter Meetings in December.

Judge, Stanton likely to miss Opening Day

The objective, as laid out by managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, is clear: Cole was brought to the Yankees as a finishing piece in order to secure not only a 28th World Series championship, but also a few more rings in the years to follow.

“I love it. From a player's perspective, it really doesn't get much more simple than that,” Cole said. “It's the dream to go out there every day and try to win every single time. It sounds very simple, but there are a lot of moving parts and there are a lot of people that pour a lot of time into simplifying that one theme -- we need to win a world championship.”

What's the goal?

Indeed, manager Aaron Boone expects 2020 to be the season when the Yankees are the final team standing, coming off a few close calls in recent years. Twice in the last three campaigns, New York’s charge toward the Fall Classic has ended in Houston, eliminated in the 2017 and '19 ALCS by the Astros.

Deleting Cole from Houston’s rotation would have been a plus even if he’d accepted the lesser contract offers presented by the Angels or Dodgers, but the fact that Cole is fitted for pinstripes makes it even more of a positive for the Bombers.

How do they get there?

We’ll have to wait until at least 2021 to see a Cole-Luis Severino tandem in the rotation, so other contributors will need to step up and solidify a starting five that projects to also include Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and likely Jordan Montgomery. The Yanks’ strengths figure to again include their high-octane lineup, one that combined to slug 306 home runs last season even with extended absences for Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, and a strong back end of the bullpen.

Better health for Judge and Stanton would be a plus, but the Yankees figure to feature thunder in their early-season lineup from the double-play combination of shortstop Gleyber Torres and second baseman DJ LeMahieu. Catcher Gary Sánchez, third baseman Gio Urshela and outfielder Brett Gardner are among those expected to bash the ball with authority. The Yanks also believe James Paxton and Domingo Germán will rejoin the rotation during the first half.

What could go wrong?

A repeat of the 2019 “Next Man Up” Yankees would hurt their chances, though it’s worth noting that Boone’s diminished squad still managed to win 103 regular-season games. The Yanks revamped their strength and conditioning staff over the winter, including the addition of Eric Cressey, a celebrity of sorts in the field. Thus far, there has seemed to be a hangover from last season, as Paxton and Severino experienced setbacks related to that campaign, while Judge and Stanton could be unavailable for Opening Day.

How frequently will the Yankees be able to field an outfield alignment of Stanton, Gardner and Judge -- or will it look more like Mike Tauchman, Gardner and Clint Frazier? Luke Voit was a completely different player after sustaining a groin injury during the London Series in June, and though the Yanks are banking that his power will return, they’re still waiting on his first full big league season. And Cole has pitched at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons -- they desperately need that streak to continue.

Who might surprise?

While planning on taking a 13-man pitching staff north, Boone has been impressed by the quality of some of the unheralded candidates in camp this spring, a group that includes prospect right-handers Deivi Garcia, Michael King and Clarke Schmidt -- all of whom could make big league impacts at some point this year. Schmidt in particular has impressed with a confident demeanor and an early diet of filthy breaking pitches that could accelerate his path to The Show.

Many believed that Frazier’s time in pinstripes was running short when he was left off postseason rosters for both the AL Division Series and the ALCS in 2019, but the 25-year-old is changing the narrative by continuing to stroke the ball with authority and working hard in the outfield. Teams passed on Frazier in trade talks this winter; they may regret that. The Yankees have also been encouraged by Miguel Andújar, who is one year removed from finishing second to the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani in the AL Rookie of the Year Award chase and could see time at first base, third base and left field.

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