By George A. King III
Gary Sanchez, Masahiro Tanaka and Greg Bird
To say the Yankees are in a total rebuilding situation is false.
They tapped into the Steinbrenner family vault for a combined $102.5 million to land free agents Aroldis Chapman, Matt Holliday and Chris Carter after not participating in a postseason series for the fourth consecutive year.
Yet, how Chapman, Holliday and Carter perform won’t decide whether the Yankees finish out of the money for a fifth straight season and possibly force Hal Steinbrenner to make changes in the front office and on the field, where general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi are in the final year of their respective contracts.
No, the deciding factor will be how a suspect rotation pitches and how Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge perform. Sanchez had a scintillating two months, but what will his bat look like catching a full season in the big leagues? Some believe Bird’s ceiling is very high and his left-handed swing is suited for Yankee Stadium. Still, he missed all of 2016 due to shoulder surgery. Judge, who won the right-field job in spring training over Aaron Hicks, remains a question as to whether he can consistently make contact at the plate.
Most important hitter
In terms of the position he plays and where he will hit in the order, Gary Sanchez fits the description. Nevertheless, the Yankees are paying Jacoby Ellsbury $21.1 million this year, the fourth of a seven-year deal worth $153 million.
So far, the Yankees haven’t gotten their money’s worth from the 33-year-old center fielder, who repeats in this category from a year ago.
A career .286 hitter with a .342 on-base percentage, Ellsbury has hit .264 with a .326 on-base percentage in three very pedestrian years in pinstripes. Late in spring training, Ellsbury was moved second to fifth in the order.
Ellsbury attempted just 28 steals last year and was successful 20 times. He was more active on the bases in spring training, but it remains to be seen if Ellsbury’s legs can still be a big part of his game.
Most important pitcher
Considering the question marks behind him in the rotation, Masahiro Tanaka is the choice for the second straight season.
The minor tear of the right ulnar collateral ligament in Tanaka’s elbow has been there since 2014, and though it could blow out, there is less attention paid to it than the questions that follow Tanaka in the rotation.
CC Sabathia is 36 and coming off knee surgery. Michael Pineda’s nickname is “Big Mike,’’ but “Big Tease’’ is more apt due his inconsistency and his inability to turn high-end stuff into success — as his 6-12 record and 4.82 ERA a year ago proved.
After Tanaka, Sabathia and Pineda, the Yankees held a five-man competition for the final two spots in the rotation, with Luis Severino copping the fourth spot. The fifth starter isn’t needed until April 16.
When you point to the Yankees’ Achilles heel, it’s the rotation.
Will have a bigger year than expected
The questions surrounding Greg Bird are legitimate. How will his surgically repaired right shoulder hold up across a six-month season? How will missing an entire year affect the 24-year-old left-handed-hitting first baseman from a competition standpoint?
If those questions are answered with positives, there is no reason Bird won’t have a solid season and blossom into an everyday player capable of hitting 25-30 homers and driving in 80-plus runs after a very strong spring training.
There were no signs in spring training his repaired shoulder affected Bird’s swing or throwing.
Most likely to disappoint
You watch Michael Pineda push the speed guns into the mid-90s with a fastball that has natural cut to it and see hitters flail at a filthy slider and wonder how he could go 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA in 32 starts a year ago, when he struck out 207 in 175 ²/₃ innings.
Yet, inconsistency has been Pineda’s calling card since he arrived from Seattle.
This is the 28-year-old right-hander’s final season before becoming a free agent, so a strong year would not only benefit the Yankees — who desperately need it from him — but Pineda’s chances of landing a lucrative long-term deal. Another awful season would not only doom the Yankees but hurt Pineda’s earning power.
When Didi Gregorius went down late in spring training with a right shoulder injury that could keep him out until May, Gleyber Torres was a popular name that surfaced as his potential replacement.
Yes, Torres is 20 and never played above Single-A, but the stud prospect stood out in exhibition games and seemingly has a solid head on his shoulders. Yet, general manager Brian Cashman never considered Torres and sent him to the minors March 21.
Torres will start the season at Double-A Trenton and could force the Yankees to elevate him to the majors at some point this season.
Biggest managerial decision
How will Joe Girardi handle the late-inning bullpen that had Andrew Miller working with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman a year ago?
Tyler Clippard isn’t Andrew Miller and neither is Tommy Layne. Adam Warren’s value is as a reliever who can provide distance.
Girardi shied away from using Chapman for more than three outs last year, but asked Betances to do that a dozen times. Will he ask more of Chapman and less of Betances? Or will the bigger issue be how does the manager fill the middle innings that a suspect rotation will leave vacant?
Don’t be surprised if …
Gary Sanchez doesn’t repeat his superhero power show he put on last August and September when he hit 20 homers in 52 games.
Sanchez is the No. 1 catcher, and working 120 or so games behind the plate is mentally and physically taxing.
If Sanchez hits 25 homers, drives in 80 runs and bats .275, he is an All-Star. Yet, for the uneducated, that will signify a dip from a year ago.
Sure to make fans grumble
Alex Rodriguez is gone and so is Mark Teixeira, targets of the fans’ anger seemingly since each arrived in The Bronx.
Now it’s Ellsbury who will hear the catcalls if he doesn’t perform better than he has in the first three years of that seven-year deal worth $153 million.
And he won’t be alone. Expect Pineda to be booed off the mound after another of his hard-to-look-at outings that never seem to compensate for the games when he looks like a world-beater.
Will make the playoffs if …
It would take the Red Sox suffering so many injuries they finish up the track. The Blue Jays are better than the Yankees and the Orioles might have the pitching shorts like the Yankees, but could get by them in the AL East standings.
Will miss the playoffs if …
Think about what the rotation was when the Yankees won the 2009 World Series: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.
Now look at this year’s model beyond Masahiro Tanaka: Sabathia isn’t what he was then. Pineda isn’t close to Burnett. Severino won’t be Pettitte, and the fifth hurler won’t be near Hughes and Chamberlain of that season.
The 2017 Yankees headstone will read “Starting Pitching.’’
Playing the field
First base: Yankees hedged that Greg Bird might struggle against left-handed pitchers and signed Chris Carter to a one-year deal for $3.5 million. Carter might get a chance to hack against lefties, but Bird, after missing a year due to shoulder surgery, is too good to be used in a full-time platoon.
Second base: The free-swinging Starlin Castro hit a career-high 21 homers and had 78 RBIs in his first season with the Yankees, who will take a repeat of that as long as he avoids the long dry stretches at the plate.
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius suffered a right shoulder injury playing second base for the Netherlands in the WBC and isn’t expected back until the beginning of May. And it could be later depending on the rehab program. The Yankees didn’t go outside for a replacement because they believed there was enough coverage in the organization and what was available was too expensive. Ronald Torreyes will handle the bulk of the playing time with Pete Kozma to back him up.
Third base: Chase Headley cut his errors from 23 in 2015 to 10 last year. And after a brutal April, when he batted .150 (9-for-60) without a homer, two RBIs and a .418 OPS, the switch hitter finished at .253 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs. Those numbers were roughly what Headley did in 2015. Has two more years and $26 million remaining on a four-year deal worth $52 million.
Left field: Brett Gardner, the longest tenured Yankee, admits the lineup — and especially him — needs to be better than it was a year ago. He replaced Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot with Ellsbury moving to second in July. Gardner, who batted .261 (a career .264 hitter) with a .351 on-base average, will bat first again. It would help if he attempted more than 20 stolen bases.
Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t honored the contract the Yankees gave him when Robinson Cano split for the Mariners following the 2013 season. Ellsbury is coming off a season in which he batted .263 (one point lower than his average as a Yankee). Dropped to fifth in the lineup, Ellsbury will need to drive in runs
Right field: When camp commenced, this was Aaron Judge’s job to lose because Hal Steinbrenner anointed the 6-foot-7, 282-pound masher the right fielder during the winter. However, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi said it was a competition that included Aaron Hicks and the decision went to Judge late in camp.
Catcher: Gary Sanchez was Johnny Bench for the final two months of last season and the expectations are through the clouds. However, keep in mind he has played in just 55 major league games and has 203 at-bats. Nobody knows what type of player he will become based on those limited numbers, and usually a hitter doesn’t show what he is until he has gotten 1,500 big league at-bats.
Designated hitter: If the Yankees had released Alex Rodriguez a month earlier, they may have snuck into the wild card because Rodriguez killed the Yankees’ lineup. Now, Matt Holliday will replace Rodriguez in the middle of the lineup and he would have to fail miserably to be worse than Rodriguez, who batted .200 with nine homers. Because Holliday isn’t expected to play the field much, if at all, he will get most of the DH at-bats and should thrive.
Rotation: By now it’s clear what the Yankees’ biggest problem is. Masahiro Tanaka is an ace, and after that there are major question marks. CC Sabathia figured out how to pitch effectively without an overpowering fastball last year, and his surgically cleaned out right knee wasn’t a problem in spring training. Michael Pineda is what he is: inconsistent. Luis Severino earned the No. 4 spot, and the fifth spot is still up for grabs.
Bullpen: From the middle of May until late July, the Yankees’ late-game trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman was easily the best in baseball. Betances and Chapman are still in pinstripes, but Miller is in Cleveland. Tyler Clippard moves into a seventh-inning role. Tommy Layne and Chasen Shreve are the lefties. Adam Warren will work multiple innings and Jonathan Holder is a middle-inning option.
Bench: With Judge starting in right, Hicks will be on the bench in a role he didn’t handle well a year ago. Hicks was better at the plate after Carlos Beltran was dealt in July because he got regular playing time in right. Torreyes, when he moves back to the bench, is a better-than-average backup infielder who can play second, short and third. Austin Romine is a solid backup catcher.
Prediction: 81-81. Before Didi Gregorius went down, this looked like an 84-win team. Now, with Gregorius out at least until the end of April — and possibly longer — the Yankees will be a .500 club and sellers for the second straight year at the trade deadline.