As far as how the season finished, the New York Yankees can’t be happy about where they finished. While they ended with a better record than many expected, New York missed the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons — and just the fourth time since 1993. But they committed to rebuilding the roster around young players, through trades and internal improvements from the farm system. Fear not, Yankees fans, we have nine reasons why they’ll turn things around in 2017.
9. They were close in 2016
Most thought the Yankees would be awful in 2016 as they slowly turned their roster over and moved away from high-paid, underperforming, aging players. However, New York still fought for a playoff spot for much of the season. They ended with 84 wins, nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East and five games behind the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles in the wild card.
As late into the season as September 10, the Yankees were within one game of a wild-card spot and just three games behind the division lead. They ran out of steam, finishing 8-13, but there are a lot of reasons for optimism for a team that traded away a handful of high performers — including their two best relievers — at the trade deadline. Just like they outperformed expectations in 2016, they’ll do it again in 2017.
8. Old players have been purged
To start the 2016 season, the Yankees’ starting lineup had an average age of 32.7 years old. Either through trade or retirement, the Yanks replaced Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran over the course of the year. While Beltran performed well before New York dealt him to the Texas Rangers, Rodriguez had a .598 OPS in 243 plate appearances and Teixeira had a .654 OPS in 438 plate appearances.
In the offseason, New York continued the purge, dealing 33-year-old catcher Brian McCann to the Houston Astros. Getting those players off the roster not only opens up opportunities for others to get more plate appearances (more on that soon), but closes the chapter on the last great Yankees team. Teixeira and A-Rod were big parts of the last championship team in the Bronx. However, they needed to go for the franchise to move into the future.
7. Gary Sanchez and the kids
After the Yankees discarded the older players, the team shifted their focus to some of the younger players, specifically Gary Sanchez. Sanchez had an historic rookie campaign, only playing in 53 games in the big leagues but absolutely crushing the ball. He hit 20 home runs with a slash line of .299/.376/.657. With McCann now in Houston, Sanchez will take the everyday catcher job without anyone standing in his way.
Going forward, the Yankees have a solid core of players on the younger side of their prime with Sanchez, Aaron Judge (more on him later), first baseman Tyler Austin, and pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino. With a solid manager in Joe Girardi steering the youth in the right direction, there’s hope that New York can build up a fun, winning team out of their young core.
6. Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances
A hard-throwing left-handed reliever, Aroldis Chapman was one of the players who the Yankees dealt away during the season last year. They sent him to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for several different players, including the Cubs’ top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres. Chapman was excellent in helping Chicago win the World Series, putting together a 1.01 ERA in 26 2/3 innings with 46 strikeouts and 16 saves.
On the year, Chapman with a 1.55 ERA in 58 innings with 90 strikeouts and 38 saves for both the Yankees and Cubs. He headed to free agency in the offseason, where the Yankees scooped up the 29-year-old on a five-year, $86 million contract.
Swiping the Cubs’ best prospect simply to rent out Chapman for a few months was a coup, and now they get to pair him once again with one of the other great relievers in the game: Dellin Betances. The big right-hander has a 1.93 ERA with 392 strikeouts in 247 innings over the last three seasons. If the Yankees have the lead after seven innings in 2017, the game will be effectively over.
5. Starlin Castro is going to have a big year
Just looking at second baseman Starlin Castro’s batting line over the last two years won’t tell the full story. He’s been a good hitter for a large portion of his career, hitting .292/.339/.438 with 14 home runs in 569 plate appearances as recently as 2014. But he struggled early in 2015, then wasn’t able to get consistent playing time with the emergence of Addison Russell with the Cubs. Chicago dealt Castro to the Yankees in the offseason that year and he became New York’s starter at second.
Castro got into a deep slump early with his new team in 2016, but he figured it all out in the second half. From July 4 through the end of the season, Castro hit .297/.320/.482 with 11 home runs — giving him a total of 21 on the year, which represents a career-high. Despite being in the big leagues since 2010, Castro is still only 27 years old and has the talent to be a very, very good hitter. He could break out in a big way for the Yankees in 2017.
4. Aaron Judge is the Rookie of the Year
Outfielder Aaron Judge, like Sanchez, is one of the young talents who showed up in New York late in the season last year. But unlike Sanchez, Judge had limited success. He only saw 95 plate appearances in the big leagues, leaving his rookie status intact for the 2017 season — and putting him on a short list of favorites to win the award in the American League.
Judge is a monster of a human being, standing at 6-foot-7 and 275 lbs. He absolutely crushes baseballs, which is great if you can ignore the fact that he also strikes out a ton — 42 times in those 95 plate appearances, if you’re counting. Judge looks ready to take the world by storm so far this year, if this mammoth blast during Spring Training is any indication.
3. Luis Severino will break out
Prior to the 2015 season, starting pitching prospect Luis Severino was ranked No. 23 in all of baseball according to Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com. The Yankees called the 21-year-old up to the big leagues that year and he performed well, starting 11 games with a 2.89 ERA in 62 1/3 innings. That was good enough for Severino to make the big-league roster out of Spring Training and take a rotation spot, but seven starts into the season and he had to be demoted back to Triple-A with a 7.46 ERA.
Severino returned to the Yankees later in the year and pitched primarily out of the bullpen, getting into 15 games (four starts) and posting a 4.25 ERA. Severino has great stuff and is just 23 years old. If he puts things together with Tanaka and CC Sabathia this season, the Yankees can forge a solid one-through-three in their starting rotation
2. They can add at the trade deadline
Don’t forget, these are still the New York Yankees. Part of what’s so great about the young core of minor-league talent that New York has accrued is that they have a strength to deal from, if necessary. If the Yankees find themselves contending for the AL East in the middle of the season, nothing is stopping them from taking a prospect or two and dealing for a frontline starting pitcher.
It’s unclear, at least to this point, who the best available starters will be on the trade market. But the Yankees have the ability to absorb salary and be buyers on the trade market, as well as the prospect cache to get a deal done for just about any pitcher in Major League Baseball. So if they’re close, expect that they can improve their roster to make a big run late in the season.
1. Young talent still to come
The fact that New York has a great young core of players is a huge help to their rebuild on the field. However, just as important is the core of players who haven’t even arrived in the big leagues yet. After the trade deadline, the Yankees built up one of the best farm systems in all of baseball. Shortstop Gleyber Torres, pitchers Dillon Tate and Justus Sheffield, and outfielder Clint Frazier are all highly regarded prospects who will be a big part of the next contender in New York.
Frazier, the best among them, made it to Triple-A at the age of 21 in 2016 and could be in the big leagues as early as next season. Torres is a bit further off; he’s 19 years old and has only reached High-A — but he has a high ceiling as a hitter. Before leaving the Cubs, he had a .791 OPS as one of the younger hitters in one of the best pitching leagues in the minors. While he might not play a role on the Yankees next year, there’s a chance that Frazier — and a few others in the minors — will.