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2017 Season, here we come

It wasn’t that long ago that the 2017 New York Yankees’ season looked bleak. For much of the current season, the Yankees were boring to watch. Starting pitching was shaky, and the team couldn’t score any runs. The lineup had too many station-to-station players, and too many hitters that needed time at DH to stay fresh. The only bright spots were starter Masahiro Tanaka, the bullpen, with the powerful trio of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betancesand a couple of hitters.

Flash forward past the August 1 trade deadline, and the team suddenly became very watchable. The turnaround was primarily due to an infusion of prospects that has moved things in a positive direction towards 2017. Yes, the 2017 season is something to look forward to.

Some of the unexpected success in August came at a cost. Chapman, Miller, and the team’s best hitter this year, Carlos Beltran, were dealt away at the deadline. The bullpen became weaker, but all the other parts of the Yankees’ game had new life breathed into it. While it was unprecedented for the Yankees to be sellers at the deadline, the infusion of minor league prospects in August had previously been unthinkable in the Steinbrenner era.

With that in mind, there’s not a better time to look at the 2017 Yankees.

The 2017 Starting Rotation

The Yankees’ rotation was one of the biggest disappointments of this season to date. Coming into Spring Training, there were already a number of concerns that surrounded the starting staff. Tanaka, the Yankees’ ace, has had a tender elbow/forearm since shortly after he arrived in 2014. It’s caused the prospect of Tommy John surgery to loom over his head. Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi had been consistently inconsistent.  Veteran starter CC Sabathia ended last season in rehab for alcoholism. He hadn’t adapted as of yet to being a non-power pitcher. And, of course, there was always the concern over his physical well being – elbow, knee, shoulder…you name it.

Ivan Nova was returning from Tommy John surgery to battle Sabathia for the final spot in the rotation. He then had to adjust to a move to the bullpen when Sabathia was named the fifth starter. There was pressure on rookie Luis Severino to pitch like he had in the minor leagues, and during his September, 2015 call up.

As it turned out, Tanaka, for the most part, has put together a very good 2016 season. The home run ball is still his bugaboo, especially at Yankee Stadium, but, the third-year Yankee has pitched like a top-of-the- rotation starter. He’s the only sure thing for the 2017 rotation.

There’s one other certainty about the current staff. CC Sabathia will, barring an odd September, collect $25MM from the Yankees in 2017. He will vest that amount in the final year of his contract.  But, will he pitch for the Yankees next year? For another team? Will he retire? Bringing him back is something that the Yankees brass are going to have to think long and hard about. Sabathia is a great guy, but loyalty and sentimentality can’t be part  decision. Money isn’t a factor since Sabathia will get paid either way.

Sabathia had a stretch of 10 starts from late April to mid-June that made everyone believe he had figured out how to pitch with his current arsenal. His ERA dipped from 5.28 to 2.20 during that period and he won four of seven decisions. However, he struggled through the rest of June and most of July. He entered September coming off of two positive starts, but the remainder of the season may dictate his future. The guess here is that he’ll open next season as the number five guy in the rotation. The Yankees surely don’t want to pay about $50MM for two players, (Alex Rodriguez, of course, being the other), who either aren’t Yankees or are sitting home.

Pineda, Eovaldi, and Nova were as inconsistent as ever this season. Severino was just plain horrible. With Severino struggling, Nova moved into the rotation, but he wasn’t much of an improvement. With free agency pending, he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the deadline. Eovaldi hit triple digits on the radar gun in his dominating starts, but then he watched as hitter after hitter’s exit velocity cranked past 99-mph in his poor starts. The right-hander’s season came to a screeching halt when he underwent Tommy John surgery in August, and had to kiss the 2017 season goodbye. It’s the second such surgery for Eovaldi, who tore up his elbow in high school.

Pineda remains a confounding conundrum. His stuff is dynamic. He strikes out more than 10 batters/9 IP. But, he continues to give up more hits than innings pitched. He’s already given up more home runs this season (22) than he did last year (21), and there’s still a month left to go. In the month of June, he looked like he had turned the corner (11 ER allowed in 36 IP), but then he got back on the wrong road. The Yankees will talk to teams during the off-season, but what value could they get back for him?

Arbitration eligible for the first time in 2017, Pineda will probably get a slight bump in pay from the $4.3MM he made this season, and will most likely still don the pinstripes. So, who makes up the final two spots in next year’s rotation?

Looking forward, Severino will get another shot at the rotation. To earn a spot and keep it, he’s going to need to get his changeup straightened out. The Yankees are banking on either Luis Cessa or Chad Green making the rotation next year. Both pitchers were acquired from Detroit in the off-season for reliever Justin Wilson. The duo have produced some excellent results, but it’s too early to tell if they are Major League material. It would be a blessing if both made the rotation. Right now though, Green’s health is a question mark after he left his 9/2 start with elbow pain. For now, he’s been diagnosed with a strained flexor tendon and a recommendation of rehab. (Green’s UCL is intact.)

Another pitcher who could play a factor in piecing together next year’s staff is Bryan Mitchell. The right-hander opened some eyes in 2015 and during this past Spring Training, before surgery on his foot sidelined him into August. He recently completed a rehab assignment and joined the Yankees for a start on 9/7. Mitchell could be used as a swing man between the bullpen and the rotation next year, much like Adam Warren was in 2015.

Warren, who was traded and then reacquired by the Yankees this year, may get a shot at a rotation spot as well. With a very thin free agent market for starting pitching, barring a trade, the Yankees will build their staff from within.  Justus Sheffield, acquired in the Andrew Miller deal, could join the rotation or bullpen in the second half of 2017.

There is also the less likely possibility of a trade for a top notch pitcher like Chris Sale or Jose Fernandez. (Be sure to heck out Matthew Stalker’s column on a Fernandez trade rumor.)

The 2017 Bullpen

Remaking the bullpen is a top priority for next season. Betances is the closer for 2017. The Yankees will not throw a ton of money (3-4 yrs, $45MM-$50MM) at free agent Aroldis Chapman or any other reliever. Joining Betances will be some combo of left-handers Chasen Shreve and Tommy Layne, right-handers Tyler Clippard, Cessa, Green, Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, Severino, Nick Goody, and anyone else you can think of. The Yankees need to look for another left-hander before Spring Training as well.

Holder is one of the most intriguing cases to watch in September. He pitched at three levels this season – Tampa (‘A’), Trenton (‘AA’), and Scranton (‘AAA’) – and struck out 107 batters while walking just seven. He was a sixth round draft pick out of Mississippi State University two years ago.

The 2017 Lineup – the infield

The lineup will be minus Beltran, Mark Teixeira, A-Rod, Brian McCann, and possibly one or two others when the Yankees report to Tampa next February. The Yankees and Atlanta Braves have reportedly continued talking about a McCann deal for the last month, but have tabled it to the off-season. With Gary Sanchez ensconced as the starting catcher, McCann is much too expensive as a backup. For the moment, that job will remain Austin Romine’s. Eventually, Kyle Higashioka could push Romine, and even Sanchez, for playing time.

Greg Bird, coming off shoulder surgery that kept him out for all of 2016, has the inside track on the first base job for next season. He won’t be handed it, however. Tyler Austin will get a chance to compete for the job. With Austin’s outfield experience, he could certainly end up on the 25-man roster, even if Bird wins the job. The Yankees have been big on Rob Refsnyder’s bat, and he will get a chance to beat out Austin as a backup first baseman/utility man.

Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius are your middle infielders. The duo has given Girardi just what he needed: solid, dependable defenders who can handle a bat. Castro has already surpassed his career high in home runs and could also top his previous high in RBI. (He’s also the fourth second baseman in Yankees’ history with 20 or more HR in a season.)

Gregorius has a 1000-watt smile and personality, and added power to the lineup this year. He entered September with a career-best 17 home runs and 61 RBI. He’s got a bright future with the Yankees. (He and Castro make great commercials, too!)

The Chase Headley experiment has to end. The Yankees made a major mistake in giving the third baseman a four-year, $52MM deal. Two years in, it’s time to go. While Headley rebounded from his struggles on defense last year, he’s still not a good enough hitter for a corner infielder. The Yankees should be able to find a taker for Headley (and cash thrown in).

The Wild Card

The Yankees don’t currently have anyone to fill a vacancy at third base. Ronald Torreyes has a ton of heart and enthusiasm, but he’s your prototypical utility infielder. He should fill that role next year as well. There’s no standout in the free agent market, but there is one player that becomes a free agent in 2018. The Chicago White Sox’ Todd Frazier homered on the first day of September to give him 34 HR and 84 RBI in 129 games.

Frazier could put fans in the seats. He’s a New Jersey native who was a star on the Toms River team that won the 1998 Little League World Series. He went on to star on teams at Toms River South High School and Rutgers University. After three years in Cincinnati, the Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the White Sox pulled off a three-team, seven-player deal. Frazier made $8.25MM this season, and will be arbitration eligible going into the 2017 season.

The White Sox are looking to rebuild and could get a nice package of players back for Frazier. The Yankees have an excess of prospects at some positions and could pay Frazier’s full salary next year. Now, there is some downside to Frazier. He’ll be 31 in February. His batting average and on-base percentage have dipped over the last two years, (as of this writing he had a slash line of .215/.296/.456). As of this writing he wass within six strikeouts of his career-high of 139 with a month left in the season. Only three of his 34 home runs have been hit in the area from dead center field to right field. Yankee Stadium isn’t a great place for a right-handed dead pull hitter. While he has remained healthy, his bat is starting to look like the latter stages of Mark Teixeira’s career. Negatives aside, the Yankees could use his bat in the lineup.

The 2017 Lineup – the outfield

The outfield. Eeny-meeny-miney-Aaron Judge? The Yankees, at this moment, have a 50/50 chance of having 2/3 of this year’s outfield in next year’s outfield. Which two? That remains to be seen. While Brett Gardner’s OBP is pretty good due to the amount of walks he racks up, his batting average has been mediocre for three straight years. He hit .256 and .259 in 2014-2015, and was at .260 in the first game in September. Whether it’s injuries and/or lack of aggressiveness, his running game has disappeared. He topped 45 SB’s in 2010-2011. He hasn’t topped 24 since, and sat on 13 as of Sept. 2. He also entered September with only 34 RBI.

The Yankees made a poor decision when they signed Gardner to a four-year, $52MM extension prior to the 2014 season. It seemed like they were throwing Gardner a very expensive bone after they signed outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year $153MM contract the same year. That contract was even worse than Gardner’s. I’m sure they would love to move both contracts this Winter, but realistically only one player will go. Odds are it will be Gardner, since he’s guaranteed $26MM (including a $5MM buyout for 2019) and two more years, compared to the nearly $90MM (including $5MM buyout in 2021) owed Ellsbury through 2020. Both outfielders will be 33-years old at the start of next season.

After getting off to hot start, Aaron Judge went into a tailspin. There’s no guarantee he’ll be the starting right fielder next season. The Yankees could use his power in the lineup, and he’ll get a chance to rebound in September.  Mason Williams (recently returned from Aug ’15 shoulder surgery) and Clint Frazier (acquired in the Miller deal) are two other outfielders that could have an impact next season. Williams would be the favorite to move into a starting role should either Gardner or Ellsbury be traded.

Among the possible free agents that are interesting are: OF/1B Mark Trumbo (40 HR to date), IF/OF Ian Desmond, DH Edwin Encarnacion (probably too pricey for NYY), and OF Michael Saunders.

It would appear that 2017 has just about as many question marks as the 2016 season did!