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The Next Generation - A New York Yankees preview

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A look ahead at our first foe from outside the division

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Each of the last two years, I've discussed in this space the New York Yankees' dwindling ability to build a premier team simply by writing a bunch of fat checks. They no longer boast a payroll that dwarfs the rest of baseball. Extensions for young players have prevented much of baseball's elite talent from falling into the Yankees' lap. Those that do make it to free agency tend to spend significant portions of their deals on the wrong side of 30, and it's getting progressively harder to be a good baseball player on the wrong side of 30.

The Yankees may have been able to hide behind their cash for a long time, but they’re not stupid. They know all this and have been transitioning their focus to building a crop of young talent to rise back to the top. It's kind of fun watching the New York Yankees have to compete on a more level playing field. Part of the fun is watching a wealthy team known as the “Evil Empire” fail, struggle, and have to adapt like the rest of baseball. The rest of it comes from this new wave of Yankees players being, well, fun.

Leading the charge has been Gary Sanchez, a marketable budding star who blasted 20 home runs in just 229 plate appearances last season. That’s great enough on it’s own. Now, consider that Sanchez is also a catcher who’s proven adept at gunning down baserunners and you’ve got a guy bringing excitement on both sides of the ball from a premium position. Sanchez has an engaging personality and already looks like a franchise cornerstone. We will unfortunately not get to see him play in this series due to a biceps strain.

Right fielder Aaron Judge had plenty of issues with contact in his first go-round in the major leagues, but the giant man can hit a baseball a country mile and is off to a scorching hot start this year. First baseman Greg Bird also racked up his fair share of whiffs back in 2015, but he definitely hit enough balls hard to make the full package worth it. Bird had shoulder surgery that held him out for all of 2016, so we’ll see how much he resembles that promising rookie in this, his age-24 season. So far, he’s been an easy out.

We’re likely to see energetic two-way outfielder Clint Frazier at some point later this season and top prospect Gleyber Torres might be able to take over at short sometime next year. These guys combine to form a young core of position-player talent that could prove to be special and captivating. That’s good news for the Yankees, because many of the rest of their position players have become stagnant and uninteresting. Brett Gardner can still glove it in a corner and draw enough walks to be at least an average player, but at age 33, his lack of power won’t enable him to lose too many more steps. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury will also be 33 this year, and because the speed-first lefty’s bat should only continue to dwindle, his longevity will be determined by how long his glove holds up. For what it’s worth, Statcast still thinks he can still hack it, even if there’s little spectacular play ability here.

Elsewhere, Starlin Castro is settling in as a below-average regular at second base. He’s somehow only 26 years old, but it’s looking like his bad plate discipline and sub-par defense are going to prevent him from ever being anything more than that. Over at third base is Chase Headley, who’s only hit more than 15 home runs in a season one time. That’s not great, particularly for a switch-hitter in Yankee Stadium. Even without the typical corner man’s pop, Headley’s still worth starting for his defense. He’s also off to a torrid start to the year and looks to be Avisail Garcia’s chief competition in the race for the AL batting title. Buckle up folks, this one could go down to the wire.

On the whole, the Yankees should be fine with their position players because even if some options are unexciting, they don’t really look to have any replacement-level sinkholes that they can’t fix. The other strength of the team is the bullpen, as Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman should be as fearsome a one-two punch as any in baseball. Getting the ball to those two guys could prove to be difficult, however, because the Yankee rotation looks less-than-dominant.

Starting with the good, Masahiro Tanaka put together a full healthy season for the first time in 2016. He’s the ace of the staff, but he’s of the command-and-control variety and he’s not going to overpower you. Tanaka primarily throws a sinker, slider, and splitter. The splitter’s the out pitch, though it doesn’t generate whiffs as often as it used to. Tanaka’s backed by one of the most tantalizing and frustrating pitchers in baseball in Michael Pineda. Pineda’s cutter/slider repertoire actually led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings last year and he has respectable control of his pitches, but his strong peripherals haven’t translated to generating weak contact. When Pineda gets hit, he gets hit hard and often out of the park.

CC Sabathia is no longer a Cy Young candidate but still posted an ERA under 4.00 last year as a 35-year-old with a fastball that now only sits in the low-90s. Sabathia’s story of recovery from alcoholism was one of the most moving of last year. He’s not only still a good pitcher, but a very easy guy to root for as he plays out the end of his fantastic career.

At the back of the Yankees’ rotation are two interesting, but unproven arms in Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery. We saw Severino struggle tremendously last season, but the 23-year-old has swing-and-miss stuff and he’s going to look to prove that his hard fastball/slider combo belongs in the rotation and not the bullpen. Montgomery doesn’t have the pedigree of Severino, but the 6’6’’ 2014 fourth-round lefty has quietly ascended the Yankee ranks with an effective four-pitch mix and an unusually high release point.

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Despite some question marks among their young players and some aging guys left over from the last big spending binge, the Yankees have a roster that should be competitive in the near term even if the “all in” moves will be a year or two away. Many were critical of the Yankees for not making an immediate push to build a dominant 2017 team, but they resisted the urge to trade their exciting prospects and passed on an underwhelming free agent class. It may be a little gratifying to see the Yankees have to play the same game as everyone else, but here’s the frustrating truth: they’re good at it.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Monday, April 17 - Jordan Montgomery vs. Derek Holland

Tuesday, April 18 - Luis Severino vs. Miguel Gonzalez

Wednesday, April 19 - Masahiro Tanaka vs. Dylan Covey

Key Personnel

Probable Lineup Pitching
Probable Lineup Pitching
1. Brett Gardner - LF SP1. Masahiro Tanaka - RHP
2. Starlin Castro - 2B SP2. Michael Pineda - RHP
3. Matt Holliday - DH SP3. CC Sabathia - LHP
4. Jacoby Ellsbury - CF SP4. Luis Severino - RHP
5. Chase Headley - 3B SP5. Jordan Montgomery - LHP
6. Aaron Judge - RF CL. Aroldis Chapman - LHP
7. Greg Bird - 1B RP1. Dellin Betances - RHP
8. Austin Romine - C RP2. Tyler Clippard - RHP
9. Ronald Torreyes - SS RP3. Adam Warren - RHP