5 questions Yanks must answer for '21
Like many, the Yankees are eager to flip the calendar to a new year. They imagine a joyous season in which fans will eventually be welcomed back to Yankee Stadium, cheering on a roster that the front office believes will be a formidable World Series contender.
There is still work to do on both of those fronts, and as general manager Brian Cashman plugs away at the aspects that are within his control, here are five questions that the Yankees still must answer before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training:
1. Will DJ LeMahieu be at second base?
LeMahieu has said that his preference is to remain in New York, coming off consecutive years in which he was the team’s most valuable player. The Yankees want to keep the 32-year-old infielder. It sounds like an easy match, right? Though Cashman has identified re-signing LeMahieu as his top winter priority, those discussions are poised to stretch into the new year.
Cashman and LeMahieu’s agent Joel Wolfe are continuing their dialogue, but the sticking point appears to be the length of a new deal. The reigning American League batting champ is reportedly seeking a five-year deal in the $125 million range and, not surprisingly, has received interest from several other clubs. Cashman has said that he intends to have LeMahieu playing second base on Opening Day.
“We’ve been public with our strong interest in retaining DJ LeMahieu, who has been a great Yankee,” Cashman said. “He’s done everything, above and beyond, both on the field and in that clubhouse. Our fan base loves key players who produce in a very humble way, and that describes ‘The Machine.’”
2. Who is in the starting rotation?
The Yankees love having Gerrit Cole in the top spot, eyeing a full season for their new ace right-hander. Behind Cole, the picture grows fuzzy. Cashman has mentioned Domingo Germán, Jordan Montgomery, Deivi García, Michael King, Clarke Schmidt and Miguel Yajure among the early contenders for rotation slots. Luis Severino is expected to return from surgery during the summer.
They would like to add to that group and will remain engaged with the free agent and trade markets. Free agent Trevor Bauer was recently photographed wearing a Yankees cap, but a reunion of Cole and Bauer -- former teammates at UCLA -- appears to be a long shot. Cashman has said that he believes the rotation as currently comprised “has a chance to be really good.”
“I’d like to reinforce if we can, but the fallback is if we don’t, that’s what we’re going to go with,” Cashman said.
3. Can they upgrade the bullpen?
One of the Yanks’ early moves was to trigger an option that will keep Zack Britton in the late innings, creating a strong tandem with closer Aroldis Chapman. They viewed that transaction as vital, and now will look to fill out the middle parts of the bridge from their starting pitchers to the late innings.
Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Luis Cessa are in line as the key parts of that equation, with others like Jonathan Loaisiga, Nick Nelson and Albert Abreu in the mix for roster spots. The Yankees have shown interest in the relief market. They are one of several teams connected to right-hander Ryne Stanek, for example, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them chase lefty Brad Hand -- but Cashman has said that LeMahieu’s free agency is “driving the bus” to some extent.
4. Can Gary Sánchez return to form?
The Yankees believe that Sánchez’s woeful 2020 season was an outlier and that he can return to his All-Star form in 2021. Sánchez has shown signs of that in the Dominican Winter League, where he volunteered to log at-bats and played more like the catcher who belted 105 home runs in 370 big league games from 2016-19.
Sánchez hopes that performance can wash away the bad habits accrued in a regular season when he batted .147 with 10 homers in 49 games, striking out 64 times in 156 at-bats. Behind the plate, Sánchez plans to continue working on his one-knee-down approach, which the Yankees believe helped his pitch framing.
“The back of his baseball card looks the way it does, but he’s certainly a better player than that,” Cashman said. “I think the industry has recognized that 2021 will be a better year for him.”
5. Will 2021 be a healthier year?
They sure hope so. When the pandemic shut down baseball in March, the Yankees were in the early stages of instituting a new strength and conditioning program under celebrated coach Eric Cressey, while dealing with the hangover of injury issues from their record-setting 2019 (Aaron Judge, James Paxton, Severino, et al.). Outside of Gio Urshela’s recent surgery to address a right elbow bone spur, the Yanks have a clean injury slate -- and Urshela should be ready in three months.
That will provide a better opportunity to gauge the improvements Cressey has made. Players like Clint Frazier have said that more time is devoted to warmups. Cashman has said that teams that have instituted similar changes, like the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, saw considerable improvements in Year 2.