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Yanks enter season looking to reclaim top spot

New York eyes AL East title, 28th World Series crown
@BryanHoch
March 25, 2019

No American League team may have improved its roster more this past offseason than the Yankees, a club that was already talented enough to produce 100 regular-season victories before falling to the eventual World Series champions for a second consecutive season. For Aaron Judge, the sting of that early October

No American League team may have improved its roster more this past offseason than the Yankees, a club that was already talented enough to produce 100 regular-season victories before falling to the eventual World Series champions for a second consecutive season.

For Aaron Judge, the sting of that early October exit has transformed into spring motivation. After watching the Astros (2017) and Red Sox (2018) pop corks in opposing clubhouses on their way to titles, the slugger believes that it will soon be the Yankees' turn to celebrate.

"Our main goal is to go back there and win the division," Judge said. "We haven't done that in the past couple of years, so we've added quite a few arms, a couple of good position players. We'll see how it turns out this year, but our goal is still the same. We obviously want to bring a championship back; we've got to win our division."

In his second year at the helm, manager Aaron Boone will control a roster that features new faces in DJ LeMahieu, Adam Ottavino, James Paxton and Troy Tulowitzki, plus returning stars like Zack Britton, J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia, who intends to complete his terrific 19-year Major League career with a second World Series ring.

"I never really played the game for individual accomplishments," Sabathia said. "Right now, we're focused on trying to win a championship and have a parade at the end of the year. That would be a great way to top this thing off."

WHAT'S THE GOAL?
It has been a decade since the Yankees christened a $1.5 billion home by hoisting the championship trophy, and that drought is unacceptable to Brett Gardner, the team's longest-tenured player. Title No. 28 is the obvious goal, and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner challenged his team to focus on its first step of winning the American League East, skipping the win-or-winter AL Wild Card Game in which they have appeared three times in the last four years.

"It's been a disappointing 10 years, and I know for our fans it's been disappointing too," Gardner said. "As one of the guys who has been in this room the whole time, it has been just as disappointing -- if not more so -- for me. I've lost more sleep about it than just about anybody. We're trying to get back there [to the World Series] and anything short of that is not acceptable."

WHAT'S THE PLAN?
These Yankees are built upon their power, both in their intimidating lineup and in an elite bullpen that many believe is the best in the Majors. After setting a team record with 267 home runs last season, Judge has opined that they should "crush" that mark if healthy. They'll lean heavily on Judge and Giancarlo Stanton for that production, while looking to Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres for continued improvement after their impressive rookie campaigns. Luke Voit's offense was stellar after his late-July acquisition, and the club has "tripled down" on Gary Sánchez returning to his 2016-17 form.

Even before Luis Severino's right shoulder injury, the Yankees were counting on their bullpen to shorten games and get the ball to closer Aroldis Chapman. The trio of Britton, Dellin Betances (who will start the season on the IL) and Ottavino provides a lethal combination of swing-and-miss stuff, while Chad Green and Jonathan Holder were solid contributors last season. New York's bullpen set a record with an 11.4 K/9 IP ratio, fanning 753 batters in 594 2/3 innings. The Yankees' bullpen has led the Majors in K/9 IP over each of the past five seasons.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Injuries have already impacted the Opening Day roster, with Severino set to miss all of April and switch-hitting center fielder Aaron Hicks nursing a back injury -- coincidentally, both players received contract extensions totaling $110 million this spring. Betances will miss some time as well, but the Yankees do have an impressive amount of depth in the bullpen.

Scoring runs shouldn't be a problem, but health is of paramount importance. The Yankees learned that last summer when they lost Judge for 7 1/2 weeks, a period in which they played close to .500 ball. Tulowitzki remains a question mark after missing the last 1 1/2 seasons due to injury, and no one can be certain when Didi Gregorius will be able to return.

The greatest concerns are on the pitching side, where the Yankees have two question marks at the back of the rotation. Severino is not expected to pitch until May at the earliest, and Sabathia is coming off right knee surgery and an angioplasty, opening slots for relative neophytes Luis Cessa, Domingo Germán and Jonathan Loaisiga. Paxton has electric stuff -- he threw a no-hitter for Seattle last May -- but has also been on the injured list five times over the past three seasons. Happ was excellent after joining the Yankees last July, but he lost his only postseason start and was homer-prone this spring.

WHO MIGHT SURPRISE?
After missing the last 1 1/2 seasons due to injury, Tulowitzki hopes to reclaim the form that made him a five-time All-Star and two-time National League Gold Glove Award winner, filling in while Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery. Released in December by the Blue Jays, who assumed the balance of the $38 million owed to the 34-year-old, Tulowitzki impressed Yankees scouts in a pair of California showcases and has shown that athleticism to the public this spring.

One of the Yankees' most underrated signings could prove to be LeMahieu, whom they envision as a super-utility player of sorts, seeing time at second base, third base and occasionally at first base. The 2016 NL batting champion, LeMahieu is eager to prove that his swing translates outside of Colorado's thin air. The Yankees believe it will, pointing to his consistent exit velocity and a propensity to drive the ball to right-center field, which would be advantageous in the Bronx.

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