A difference of eight games decided the American League East in 2018, though as manager Aaron Boone evaluates the 100-win regular season performance that represented the Yankees' best showing since 2009, he did not see the gap between his club and the Red Sox as being that large.
"They were an unbelievable team [last] year, a monster," Boone said. "But we also understand that we feel like we're very much on level ground with them. We've obviously got areas that we need to improve to close that gap, but we feel like when we're at our best, we're as good as any team in the world."
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As 2019 dawns, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has said that he wants the Yankees to avoid appearing in a third straight Wild Card Game, so overtaking the defending World Series champions for the division crown is now viewed as a must.
Here are five things that the Yankees need to do before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training on Feb. 13:
1. Address the middle infield
Manny Machado has played 45 games at Yankee Stadium, but he never had a visit like the one on Dec. 19, when the superstar free agent huddled with the decision-makers to explore the possibility of playing the next chapters of his career in The Bronx. The Yanks' interest in Machado is serious, but can agent Dan Lozano entice Steinbrenner to make a decade-long commitment?
With the Phillies and White Sox also in play, Machado has said that he is "enjoying the ride," but his ongoing sweepstakes is creating anxiety among the three fan bases. If Machado signs elsewhere, the Yankees could answer Didi Gregorius' early-season absence by sliding Gleyber Torres from second base to shortstop, or pursuing a free agent like versatile switch-hitter Freddy Galvis.
Another choice could be Troy Tulowitzki, who is attempting to bounce back after the Blue Jays cut ties with him in December. Though his lateral movement and bat have declined, Tulowitzki's admiration for Derek Jeter is well-documented. He'd surely love the idea of playing shortstop for the Yankees, even if it was on a short-term basis.
2. Bolster the bullpen
Starting pitching was atop the wish list when the offseason began, but with J.A. Happ and James Paxton in the fold, the Yankees need to respond to the potential free-agent departures of Zach Britton and Player Page for David Robertson. One intriguing option is right-hander Adam Ottavino, a flame-throwing Brooklyn product who recently boasted on MLB.com's Statcast™ podcast that he would "strike out Babe Ruth every time."
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Otherwise, the Yanks could fill from within as they build a bridge to Dellin Betances and Albertin Chapman in the late innings. Chad Green, Jonathan Holder and Tommy Kahnle could all play prominent roles, with Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Chance Adams, Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga and Stephen Tarpley set for spring innings.
3. Trade Sonny Gray
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has made it clear that he intends to move Gray, believing that their marriage will not work after 1 1/2 seasons in pinstripes. Gray was 7-5 with a 3.17 ERA in 15 road games (12 starts), and his peripherals suggest that he will be a solid bounce-back candidate once he leaves Yankee Stadium behind.
Cashman and the Yankees believe that as well, which is why they are insisting on a decent package of big leaguers or prospects in exchange for the 29-year-old, who will be a free agent after 2019. As of the Winter Meetings, 11 teams had shown interest in Gray, with several deemed to be serious. The Yanks will want to move Gray before camp to avoid a potentially awkward situation.
4. Health checks
After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder, Gary Sanchez is expected to be ready to serve as the Opening Day catcher, though the Yankees will bring him along slowly. Sanchez's return to action will be closely monitored, as the hidden injury could have been responsible for his .186 batting average in a frustrating 2018 campaign. Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka would be the catching tandem if Sanchez isn't ready.
Carsten Sabathia also required surgery on his problematic right knee for a third consecutive year, though the Yankees are accustomed to managing the big lefty's health issues at this point. They'll be more curious to see how Aaron Judge's right wrist responds after being rushed back to the lineup; Judge said late in the season that it wouldn't fully heal until the winter, and Boone believes that Judge will benefit from having a normal offseason.
5. Purchase baseballs
Remember when Giancarlo Stanton said that he would "feel sorry for the baseballs" in 2018? No team in Major League history has hit more home runs, with the Yankees' 267 blasts surpassing a record of 264 set by the 1997 Mariners. If Kansas City's Jakob Junis hadn't fractured Judge's right wrist with a pitch on July 26, they would have breezed past that mark.
This group could have a remarkable encore, particularly if they wind up adding a slugger like Machado (or, in an even longer shot, Bryce Harper). As they were last spring, the first batting practice sessions of the year will become must-see events, as Judge, Stanton and company take aim at Dale Mabry Highway beyond the outfield walls of George M. Steinbrenner Field.