Assisting to guide the Yankees to within nine innings of an improbable World Series appearance wasn’t enough for Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman to bring back Joe Girardi.
So, after 10 years, 910 wins and a World Series title in 2009, Girardi was replaced by Aaron Boone, who will manage his first game in the big leagues Thursday for a team that some predict will not only reach the World Series but win the franchise’s 28th title.
Getting rid of Girardi and hiring Boone was far from the largest offseason move. Presented with the chance to add NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton via trade with the Marlins, the Yankees pounced. In order to pair Stanton, who hit 59 homers and drove in 132 runs last year, with AL Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, the Yankees sent veteran second baseman Starlin Castro and prospects Jorge Guzman and Jose Devers to the Marlins.
If Stanton doesn’t opt out following the 2020 season, the Marlins would owe the Yankees $30 million, which would essentially make the Yankees’ financial commitment $265 million across 10 years.
Adding Stanton was easily the highest-profile move made by the Yankees, but it wasn’t the only one. Kevin Reese moved from heading the pro scouting department to replacing Gary Denbo as the minor league boss. Early in spring training they secured Brandon Drury from the Diamondbacks to play third and in the middle of March signed free-agent infielder Neil Walker. Those moves meant stud prospects Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres would begin the season in the minors for more seasoning.
While the bullpen is deep and stacked with aspirin-throwing arms, the rotation went untouched despite efforts to land another starter via trade or free agency.
Most important hitter: Those who believe the loss of Greg Bird for six to eight weeks isn’t a big blow couldn’t be more wrong. His left-handed bat made for Yankee Stadium was going to swing between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the No. 3 spot. Judge and Stanton are expected to combine for at least 90 homers and possibly more. However, Bird was going to get pitches to hit, and 30 homers with 85 to 95 RBIs wasn’t out of the question because pitchers had to pick their poison.
Who takes over Bird’s role in this category?
Stanton is the pick. He makes the most money. He won the NL MVP a year ago when he clubbed 59 homers and drove in 132 runs for the Marlins. Talk all you want about others needing to pick up the slack Bird took to the disabled list, but in the end Bird going down only adds pressure to Stanton.
Most important pitcher: Luis Severino gets the Opening Day gig, which is the latest indication the club believes the 22-year-old right-hander is a real No. 1 starter. However, the pick here is Masahiro Tanaka.
The right-hander’s fourth year in pinstripes was easily his worst, going 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA. Tanaka bounced back in the postseason, going 2-1 with a 0.90 ERA in three starts.
Smartly, Tanaka didn’t opt out and into a stagnant free-agency market. Now, he needs to bounce back to show the form that made him the staff ace from the time he showed up.
Will have a bigger year than expected: When the Yankees got Brandon Drury from Arizona, you heard the same description uttered around the deal that brought Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks: There is more talent to emerge. They were right about Gregorius, who has developed into an All Star-like shortstop with a slick glove, strong arm and home-run hitting ability.
Now, the 25-year-old right-handed hitting Drury will hit down in the lineup and is expected to provide power from the bottom third. Drury was fine defensively during spring training.
Most likely to disappoint: As always, there are a lot of different avenues to travel here.
If Judge and Stanton don’t duplicate their 2017 numbers, some will label them disappointments even if they have solid seasons. Severino was very good in 2015, terrible in 2016 and finished third in the AL Cy Young last year. What will 2018 bring?
Yet, Jacoby Ellsbury can’t outrun the $68.4 million and three years left on a contract. He played in four exhibition games at the start of spring training and missed the rest of the games with an oblique injury that landed him on the disabled list for the start of the season.
Key call-up: Gleyber Torres was the pick here a year ago if Gregorius got hurt. Gregorius opened the season on the DL with a right shoulder problem, and while the call for Torres was loud, he never made it to the big leagues.
Because the Yankees are set in the field, rotation and bullpen, it’s going to take an injury for someone to be summoned from the minor leagues. If there is a need for a bat, it will be Miguel Andujar, who everybody is convinced is going to be a solid major league hitter. If it’s an arm, look for Domingo German, who has minor league experience starting and relieving and appeared in seven big-league games for the Yankees last season.
Biggest managerial decision: With a stacked bullpen that features several power arms, big-game experience and Chad Green and Adam Warren to provide multiple innings, first-year manager Aaron Boone will have to be careful about not overloading one or two relievers.
Don’t be surprised if … Sanchez is a serious MVP candidate. He is the Yankees’ best overall hitter with power. Though catching every day saps energy, which may have been at the root of his defensive problems a year ago, Sanchez appeared better at blocking balls in the dirt during spring training. His arm remains among the best.
Sure to make fans grumble … Michael Pineda never lived up to his enormous potential, blew his elbow out and signed a two-year deal for $10 million with the Twins. The fans are never shy about moaning about Ellsbury, but barring an injury he is a very expensive fourth outfielder and pinch runner. The call here is Stanton. Should he start slow, Stanton will hear it from a fan base that believes the Yankees should go 162-0.
Will make the playoffs if … The starting rotation doesn’t need to be the Five Aces but it does have to give the Yankees a chance of winning consistently. If it doesn’t, or suffers injuries, GM Brian Cashman will need to find somebody better. Solid starting pitching combined with a terrific bullpen and a muscle-bound lineup will punch an October ticket.
Will miss the playoffs if … The Red Sox run away with the AL East, which isn’t likely, and the lineup craters, which won’t happen.
Playing the field
First base: Greg Bird isn’t a Gold Glove candidate, but he is solid and has experience. That is not the case with Tyler Austin and Neil Walker. Austin has played 31 big-league games at first; Walker 17. Austin has extensive time at the position in the minors; Walker doesn’t. Bird could return in two months, so the Yankees might be hesitant to immediately look outside for help. Nevertheless, if Austin and Walker don’t produce, they will look elsewhere because banking on Bird remaining healthy when he does return isn’t the safe play.
Second base: Walker was signed to play second base and provide insurance at first and third if needed. He will play some first with Bird sidelined. However, he is still viewed as a second baseman, and with a productive switch-hitting bat, the Yankees will play him there often, too. Tyler Wade’s athleticism, solid hands, above-average range and accurate arm are all pluses in the field, and the left-handed speedster handled the bat very well in spring training.
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius is an All-Star in every way besides actually making the AL team in July. That has more to do with how talented the position is than with Gregorius’ skills. He provides Gold Glove-caliber defense, and the power the Yankees believed was locked inside surfaced last season.
Third base: Chase Headley was here this time last year and moved aside for Todd Frazier in July. Headley is a Padre and Frazier a Met. Say hello to Brandon Drury. Acquired from the Diamondbacks in February, the Yankees believe there is more in his bat than he has shown in the big leagues.
Left field: Brett Gardner, the longest tenured Yankee, is in the final year of a contract and will bat leadoff in a lineup that can’t help but damage pitching. He might get rested against lefties in small ballparks such as Fenway Park and Camden Yards so Giancarlo Stanton can play here.
Center field: Aaron Hicks was anointed the starter during the winter with Ellsbury given a chance to move him out. That never happened due to an oblique problem. Hicks would have to struggle mightily or get hurt for Ellsbury to get regular work in the middle of the outfield.
Right field: With a year of experience getting to know AL ballparks and the base runners, Aaron Judge should be an above-average fielder. The bat might not match last year’s magical season, but it’s hard to see Judge bottoming out. Stanton will also play here when Judge sits or is the DH.
Catcher: Sanchez finished 22nd in the AL MVP voting last year and the lock bet of the season is — if he avoids injury — Sanchez moving into the top 10 and possibly the top three. He is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter and offensive catchers are hard to find.
Designated hitter: The plan before spring training started was that Judge and Stanton would split right field and DH. However, the safe play is that Stanton will DH more than Judge, who is the better defender in right.
Rotation: If Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Sonny Gray and Jordan Montgomery make a combined 130 starts, all questions about the rotation being the Yankees’ biggest question mark will be muted. However, GM Brian Cashman attempted to upgrade the unit during the offseason and has never been shy about adding during the season.
Bullpen: Believed by many to be best in baseball thanks to experienced power arms, Chad Green’s filthy stuff and the ability to throw multiple innings, the Yankees have the depth to make up for ineffectiveness and injury should they surface. Aroldis Chapman is an elite closer and has Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Warren and Green to work in front of him.
Bench: If Wade is on the team, he provides Aaron Boone with a player who can play three infield positions, two outfield spots, a left-handed bat and an above average base runner. Ronald Torreyes is the perfect backup infielder who can play second, short and third. Austin Romine is a solid backup catcher. What role Ellsbury plays remains to be seen.
Prediction: 93-69. That may seem light considering the Yankees won 91 a year ago, but a good dose of overachieving played a big part. And reaching Game 7 of the ALCS and adding Giancarlo Stanton helped fuel monster expectations for this coming season.