Following an offseason in which the New York Yankees have thus far avoided just about all of the big-name free agents available, expectations seem relatively low for the franchise with the most World Series victories in all of baseball. Despite the relative lack of offseason activity, the Yankees have an excellent chance at not just making the postseason in 2015, but also a making a deep run once there.
This is not just unfounded optimism. The Yankees, known for their penchant for pursuing the biggest-name free agents each and every offseason, have not made the big splash that the San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox or Chicago Cubs have, but Brian Cashman and the Yankees have quietly filled out their roster with players who will contribute in 2015 while also acquiring some players with tremendous upside. The fragility of the aging veterans on the roster remains a concern, but there is reason to believe that this Yankees team will be able to bounce back after a 2nd-place finish in the AL East a year ago.
While the Yankees have not yet pursued the available big-name free agents who remain, it is important to remember that the Yankees are always capable of going after a player they target regardless of the contract requirements. Max Scherzer’s current asking price may be too prohibitive at the moment, so perhaps the Yankees are just biding their time until the cost comes down. Or it may simply be the case that the Yankees have changed course in terms of their offseason strategy in order to develop the players that will help them contend in 2015 and beyond. Regardless of their strategy, there are at least 10 good reasons why we believe the Yankees can make the playoffs in 2015.
10 Yankees Were a First-Place Team Through 43 Games in 2014
It is easy to forget that the Yankees were leading the AL East through the first 45 games of the season before injuries began to decimate the roster. It is actually quite impressive that a team that lost most of its pitching rotation for the bulk of the season went on to win 84 games. That is probably not the output that most Yankees fans expected, but it is also only four/five wins short of the number that both the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals accumulated on the way to their respective trips to the World Series. In today’s MLB, a win total in the high-80s can mean a deep postseason run, and the Yankees proved a year ago that they have a core group of players who are capable of producing more than 85 wins.
9 AL East Is Up For Grabs
The Baltimore Orioles won the division a year ago, but they have not exactly kept their roster intact this offseason, as they have allowed Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis to walk in free agency and have a dearth of productive outfielders currently available to them. They do have Chris Davis and Manny Machado returning from injury, but the Orioles certainly have some important roles to fill before the season starts.
On the surface, the Red Sox seem vastly improved, but they spent most of their offseason adding two players who have major question marks in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Ramirez is a tremendous hitter when healthy, but he is injured frequently and is a nightmare defensively. Sandoval has a great postseason track record, but he has been wildly inconsistent otherwise, and the Giants hesitated to extend him before the 2014 season due to concerns over his weight. While the Red Sox have gone from worst to first before, the fact remains that the core of their team won 71 games a year ago, so a drastic improvement – especially given their rotation as it currently stands – seems unlikely.
The Blue Jays should be interesting, having added Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders via trade, but there are still questions remaining concerning their rotation, and the current plan appears to be to start Dalton Pompey in the outfield, a player entering his age-22 season with a total of 17 big-league games under his belt. Then there are the Tampa Bay Rays, who are always difficult to project, but without Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon at the helm, it seems that the AL East is wide open for the Yankees.
8 Masahiro Tanaka Returns for 2015
Tanaka was a dominant pitcher while healthy in 2014, going 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA and an impressive 2.58 xFIP. He struck out 9.31 batters per nine innings while only walking 1.39 per nine, an impressive ratio that demonstrates his impressive control. There are some obvious caveats here, and there is an argument to be made that Tanaka should have just shut it down and got the Tommy John surgery over with. However, there are a few examples of pitchers – Adam Wainwright is one -- who have successfully attempted to rehab the injury Tanaka suffered rather than going under the knife. The Tommy John surgery is likely an eventuality, but it still may be many years from now. If Tanaka can remain healthy throughout 2015, the Yankees have a shutdown ace on par with any pitcher in the majors.
7 Vast Defensive Improvements
There is no doubt that Derek Jeter will be missed at Yankee Stadium, but his defense at shortstop has left something to be desired for quite some time. He showed flashes of his former defensive prowess, but the fact remains that Jeter was something of a defensive liability at the most important defensive position on the diamond. With Jeter being replaced by a combo of Didi Gregorius and Brendan Ryan, the defense up the middle of the field should actually be quite good. Brian McCann, Stephen Drew, Gregorius, Ryan and Jacoby Ellsbury are all solid defenders and should bring a lot of positive value to the Yankees in 2015.
6 CC Sabathia Was Deceptively Good Before His Injury
CC Sabathia was not nearly as bad as he appeared before he was injured in 2014. In 46 innings, Sabathia went 3-4 with a 5.28 ERA, which certainly appears to qualify as awful by traditional standards. A closer examination reveals that Sabathia was actually quite good before his injury, as his xFIP, which measures the expected fielder-independent pitching on an ERA scale, was 3.11, a far cry from the 5.28 ERA he posted. He also frequently made batters swing and miss, striking out 9.39 per nine innings while only walking 1.96 per nine, which was the best K/BB ratio Sabathia has posted since he won the Cy Young in 2007. Of course, Sabathia is coming off of a season-ending injury, but entering his age-34 season there is still hope that he can be a top-of-the-rotation starter again.
5 The Porch in Right Field Is Still Short
In constructing the 2015 roster, it is clear that the Yankees front office has looked to gain a home-field advantage. The fence in right field is famously short and plays well to left-handed hitters, and the Yankees have assembled a group of hitters who can take advantage of the short porch in right field. Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, Garret Jones, Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius, whether as a left-handed hitter or a switch-hitter, all hit from the left side of the plate on a regular basis. With 81 games slated to be played at Yankee Stadium, the team seems to have created a nice home-field edge for 2015.
4 A Potential Breakout Starter in Nathan Eovaldi
Of all of the Yankees moves this offseason, the acquisition of Nathan Eovaldi is the most intriguing. Acquired via trade from the Miami Marlins, Eovaldi is a high-upside right-hander who, at 25, has not yet reached his full potential. He throws hard – his average fastball velocity was among the best in the majors – and his peripherals indicate that he performed better than the 4.37 ERA he posted in 2014. With an xFIP of 3.78 and the ability to miss bats on a regular basis, Eovaldi could come in to Yankee Stadium and help solidify a rotation that may ultimately be very good if Sabathia, Tanaka, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova (expected back in April from Tommy John surgery) can all return to the mound with their health intact. That’s a big “if,” but the Yankees do have a very talented group at their disposal, something many other teams are unable to claim.
3 Bounce-Back Seasons From McCann, Teixeira and Beltran
McCann was one of several big free-agent signings from an offseason ago, but he was not nearly as productive as many had hoped. He slashed .232/.286/.406 in 2014, though he did show a bit of power in hitting 23 homers. He also appeared to suffer from a bit of bad batted-ball luck, as his .231 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was about 50 points below his career average. There should be at least some regression to the mean there, so a bounce-back year for McCann seems very possible.
As for Beltran and Teixeira, both of whom are coming off of injury-plagued seasons, the expectation is that they will be fully healed to start the season in 2015. While they did not live up to expectations last season, they are both potential bounce-back candidates, despite the fact that both are getting up in years. Teixeira was limited by his surgically repaired right wrist, but he is now far removed from the surgery and may very well be able to at least show flashes of the player he was in 2011. At 37, Beltran is a less likely candidate, but his bat is still valuable if he can return to full health.
2 Depth and Roster Flexibility
One of the best things that the Yankees have done this offseason is creating the depth necessary to field productive platoons all over the field. Gregorius and Ryan make for a nice shortstop platoon, and though neither are exactly offensive standouts, they complement each other nicely in terms of their respective splits against righties and lefties. The same goes for the DH spot, as both Garrett Jones and Alex Rodriguez can split time there to maximize their respective offensive output (despite A-Rod’s reverse platoon split), especially given the fact that Jones hit all 15 of his home runs against righties a year ago. There are other solid platoon and bench options throughout the roster, and with all the switch hitters in their lineup, the Yankees can match up exceptionally well against bullpens that are filled with righty and lefty specialists.
1 A Lights-Out Bullpen
If anything can be learned from Kansas City’s run to the World Series a year ago, it is that the game can be significantly shortened with a lights-out bullpen. The Yankees did sign one free agent to a sizable contract, and that one free agent was Andrew Miller, a lefty reliever who posted a 2.02 ERA and 1.58 xFIP with two different teams a season ago. In addition to his outstanding run-preventon skills, Miller averaged 14.87 K/9, the second-best rate in baseball among pitchers who compiled at least 50 innings. With Miller, Dellin Betances, David Carpenter, Justin Wilson and the intriguing recent addition of Chris Martin, the Yankees could have one of the very best bullpens in baseball, an area of strength that is becoming increasingly important to a team's potential for postseason success.