General manager Brian Cashman, under a directive from Hal Steinbrenner, made a point of getting under the $210 million competitive-tax threshold for this season. The Yankees axed nearly $50 million from what their payroll was at this time a year ago, a 20% drop in spending.
And you know what? The Yankees still are the runaway favorite to represent the American League in the World Series, just as they were in 2020, despite paying considerably less for this year’s team.
Even so, this group looks remarkably similar. Cashman told everyone in November that his plan essentially was to run it back with the same Yankees team that was eliminated by the Rays by one run in Game 5 of the Division Series.
So Cashman went to $90 million for six years for DJ LeMahieu, the reigning MLB batting champion, and filled in the rotation gaps left by Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ with Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and the combination of Domingo German/Deivi Garcia.
Those are some big question marks, and the bullpen was stung in spring training by the loss of Zack Britton, who won’t be back until June after having a bone chip removed from his left elbow.
No matter. These Yankees have such an abundance of offensive firepower that any temporary pitching glitches can be covered up, especially if Gary Sanchez bounces back from last year’s nightmare season. Major League Baseball supposedly deadened the baseball to bring the number of home runs down to a less freakish level this season, but this is not a collection of hitters that tends to clear the fences by only a few feet.
"Powerful. Intimidating and really scary," said Luke Voit, who led MLB with 22 home runs last season. "I don't think anybody wants to pitch to our lineup any time of the year, especially with all the big boys in there. Top to bottom, it doesn't matter where anybody hits — it’s damage time."
What does matter? Keeping the Yankees on the field, particularly Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, whose "damage time" has been severely limited in recent years by a number of injuries.
Judge has pledged to remain aggressive but play smarter in rightfield in an effort to protect himself. After hitting six home runs in 26 at-bats during last October’s playoff run, Stanton had the Yankees dreaming of what a full season from him could mean. But it’s all just fantasy baseball for the Yankees without the health component.
"I hope we find out," manager Aaron Boone said. "We obviously feel like we can be a special offensive group. Certainly if those guys are able to post together a lot."
As always, that’s the key in the Bronx. And if it happens for the Yankees this season, expect their first trip back to the World Series since 2009.
2. CHICAGO WHITE SOX
It’s Back to the Future on the South Side, where Tony La Russa was hired by owner Jerry Reinsdorf to reprise his role as White Sox manager — 36 years and three teams after his previous stint (1976-86). Forget the DeLorean. La Russa is more like a Chevy Laguna that runs on leaded gasoline, and he’s being handed the keys to one of the youngest, most dynamic rosters in the AL. It didn’t help that he had to serve one day of house arrest for DUI shortly after the hire, so the Hall of Famer — despite winning three World Series rings with the A’s and Cardinals — has plenty to prove at age 76. He hasn’t managed since 2011, and only two managers in the history of the game have been older: Connie Mack (87) and Jack McKeon (80). Lucky for him the Sox are stacked, and the pitching staff got a big boost with the offseason acquisitions of Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks.
3. MINNESOTA TWINS
It’s 2051. LeBron James is starting his second term as President, global warming has turned Minneapolis into a tropical paradise and Nelson Cruz has just signed another one-year contract to DH for the Twins. The ageless Cruz — for the record, he’ll be 41 in July — is back for $13 million and has shown no signs of slowing down after hitting .303 with 16 homers and a .992 OPS in 53 games last season. This is Cruz’s 17th season, with his fifth team, and he’ll anchor a lineup that is hoping for a rebound from former MVP Josh Donaldson, who has battled chronic calf problems in three of the past four seasons. The Twins keep dreaming on speedy centerfielder Byron Buxton, who was sidelined by one of the most bizarre injuries of spring training: cracking a tooth while eating steak. After losing Jake Odorizzi, the Twins countered by adding a pair of (very) experienced arms in Rich Hill (40) and former Yankee J.A. Happ (38).
4. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Welcome to Ward Melville North — or South, until Canada lets the Jays back into the country again. The Toronto franchise now features two former Patriots stars — Anthony Kay, whom the Mets traded in the Marcus Stroman swap, and the more accomplished Steven Matz, previously a Flushing fixture before getting dealt for prospects during the offseason. Matz has tons of change-of-scenery upside for the Jays and even admitted that moving on from the Mets could be the best thing for him as far as easing some of that local pressure. Beyond the Long Island angle, the Jays showed they’re serious about challenging the favored Yankees within the AL East by outbidding the Mets for George Springer, who landed a six-year, $150 million contract, and also grabbing former A’s standout Marcus Semien, a defensive wizard with 30-homer potential who will move from shortstop to second base to accommodate Bo Bichette.
5. TAMPA BAY RAYS
Not only did the Rays pull Blake Snell too early from Game 6 of the World Series, they removed him altogether during the offseason, trading him to the Padres in one of their signature salary dumps that brought back four prospects. While it’s easy to criticize tiny-market Tampa Bay for its data-driven approach to managing and feeling compelled to trim Snell’s rather modest money — just $39 million over the next three years for the 2018 Cy Young Award winner — how’s it worked out for them so far? The Rays are brilliant at flipping players at the right time and doing less with more, but they always find talent before it gets too expensive. Tyler Glasnow, acquired in the Chris Archer trade, remains the ace, and it will be interesting to see what Randy Arozarena — the 2020 vintage Mr. October — can do for an encore. As for what’s next in the pipeline, early Rookie of the Year favorite Wander Franco should be doing damage soon.
6. HOUSTON ASTROS
Everyone was spared a stomach-turning conclusion to the Astros’ Revenge Tour when the Rays mercifully bumped them off in the ALCS. But Houston actually caught a break of its own all of last season when the pandemic kept the ballparks empty for the shortened 60-game schedule, allowing the Astros to operate free of harassment from opposing fans. That won’t be the case this year, as stadiums already are prepping to open the gates at varying capacities, and we’ll see how well the Astros play the villain (Dusty Baker, one of the most-liked people in the sport, is back at the helm). With Justin Verlander lost for most of this season because of Tommy John surgery — a September/October return is possible — the Astros swooped in late to grab Jake Odorizzi on a two-year, $23.5 million deal with spring training already underway. Speedy Myles Straw is poised to take over for the departed George Springer both in centerfield and the leadoff spot.
7. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
The A’s are coming off three straight postseason appearances, but this was another typically cruel offseason for fans of the penny-pinching franchise, which let MVP-quality shortstop Marcus Semien and shutdown closer Liam Hendriks walk away from the Bay to sign with the Blue Jays and White Sox, respectively. There’s still quality left in Oakland, however, and it’s not as if the AL West is a powerhouse division by any means. Matt Olson played all 60 games last season, but otherwise the numbers didn’t look so great for the slugging first baseman, who hit .195 with a .734 OPS, a big regression from the previous year. Matt Chapman also had a rough time after a pair of top 10 MVP finishes, sliding to a .276 OBP in 37 games. This core should have another playoff push in them, and there’s a reason to feel good about the rotation with the return of prized prospect A.J. Puk, who’s coming back from shoulder surgery, and another year for 22-year-old Jesus Luzardo to mature.
General manager Chris Antonelli said he was in tears when he told homegrown stars Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco they had been traded to the Mets. But it would get even worse for Antonelli & Co. as the whole franchise came under fire for reportedly covering up the harassing behavior of its former manager, Mickey Callaway. What was left? Well, manager Terry Francona finally seems on the mend after another health scare, but the contending window might be closing by Lake Erie after four playoff appearances in five years and three straight AL Central titles. Other than Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber and Jose Ramirez, who finished second in the MVP voting, Cleveland’s decision to go cheap for 2021 to cover for pandemic-related losses is painfully apparent. Antonelli’s crew is expected to have the lowest payroll in the sport, roughly $40 million, so a return to October doesn’t seem feasible this time around.
9. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Has it really been 10 years since Albert Pujols left St. Louis for Anaheim? Shame, really, that Pujols didn’t stay with the Cardinals to be immortalized with a statue alongside Stan Musial outside the front gate of Busch Stadium. And what did he get for his $240 million? One playoff appearance, which was a first-round sweep by the Royals in 2014. We’ll never know what Pujols and the Cardinals could have accomplished together during the past decade, but the Angels have developed a real knack for obscurity despite employing Mike Trout, annually referred to as the planet’s best player. Trout already has signed his lifetime contract with the Angels, at a whopping $426 million, and there’s no assurances he’ll get to the playoffs anytime soon either. General manager Perry Minasian takes over for the fired Billy Eppler, but the Halos now find themselves completely overshadowed at both ends of the 405, by the world champion Dodgers up north and Slam Diego below.
10. BOSTON RED SOX
After a season in sign-stealing exile, Alex Cora is back as manager, as many people suggested might be the case when the Red Sox cut him loose even before he received the 2020 Astros-related suspension. It was a stunning fall for Cora — who guided the Sox to the 2018 World Series title — but you could tell by ownership’s reluctant disciplinary action that a reunion was likely. And what is Cora returning to? A Sox team that should be able to hit with pretty much the same core that led the AL with a .265 batting average a year ago (short sample size, we know) and was third with a .775 OPS. In November, J.D. Martinez chose not to opt out of the remaining three years and $62.5 million left on his deal — hardly a surprise in this economic climate — and his bat will be key to any success. One thing to keep an eye on: Chris Sale’s projected return from Tommy John surgery in August/September.
11. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
It’s been five years now since the Royals’ budding dynasty peaked (and abruptly ended) with that World Series win over the Mets, capping back-to-back trips to the Fall Classic. But the rebuild is in full swing — under the stewardship of second-year manager Mike Matheny — and there are some promising young players on the horizon. Catcher Salvador Perez, a six-time All-Star, remains the connection to those glory seasons, but at age 30, he’s entering the final season of his six-year, $52.5 million deal. If Perez puts up some big numbers in his walk year, he'll get too expensive for KC, and the Royals already are grooming his replacements. One of the interesting trades of the offseason was the three-team deal that netted outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who went from being the next Fred Lynn in Boston to a distressed asset with something to prove in the Midwest.
12. SEATTLE MARINERS
From a purely New York-centric viewpoint, anything that happens with the Mariners is seen through the prism of Jarred Kelenic, the former Mets top prospect shipped to Seattle in what now is safe to say the controversial deal for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. Aside from seeing the occasional video of Kelenic’s tape-measure blasts, the outfielder made headlines this offseason for complaints about being held back from the Opening Day roster for service-time restrictions. Those concerns are likely to be moot after Kelenic missed time with an adductor strain, but if you’re looking for another ex-Met in the Pacific Northwest, how about Chris Flexen? Coming off a strong KBO campaign, with a 3.01 ERA for the Doosan Bears, Flexen is penciled in to the Mariners’ expected six-man rotation. Outfielder Kyle Lewis, the unanimous AL Rookie of the Year, leads the youth brigade on the rise.
13. TEXAS RANGERS
As bad omens go, the Rangers are riding a three-ballpark losing streak, as Globe Life Field became their third new stadium to be derailed by its debut year. The Rangers have had three ballparks in their 49-year history, and all three had their first year cut short by unexpected events. The opening of the club's inaugural 1972 season at Arlington Stadium was delayed by a 13-day players' strike. The Ballpark in Arlington opened in 1994, and that season came to an end on Aug. 12 because of a players' strike.After a shortened season without fans, the new building (think gas-grill chic) finally hosted a crowd for last October’s NLCS and is taking the ambitious step of going with a full house (40,518) for Opening Day this April 5. That could create a much worse problem than merely losing to the Blue Jays that afternoon, and this time around, given the Rangers’ forecast, I’d expect Globe Life Field to be empty this October. The Rangers traded their best pitcher, Lance Lynn, to the White Sox for two pitching prospects — not a promising sign for 2021 — and their big offseason move was trading Elvis Andrus to the A’s for slugger Khris Davis in an effort to improve a 2020 offense that ranked dead last in the AL with a .648 OPS.
14. DETROIT TIGERS
Depending on whom you believe, AJ Hinch was either a co-conspirator in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal or an innocent bystander — but probably something in-between, as a manager never deserves a pass for the behavior of his team. Either way, Hinch’s resume was plenty solid to get another chance as soon as his 2020 suspension was up. He’s landed with the Tigers, a club that could use every ounce of his managing skills to get a sniff of contention. Detroit is coming off its third last-place finish in the past four years, and there’s not much reason to think more optimistically in 2021. The Tigers are basically trying to run out the clock on Miguel Cabrera’s bloated eight-year, $248 million contract, which incredibly pays him through 2025, and his $30 million salary for this season currently is taking up nearly half of their total payroll.
15. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
The Orioles have distinguished themselves in one respect: In a division in which everyone else is trying to contend and at least has a puncher’s chance at the playoffs (looking at you, Red Sox), Baltimore remains consistently without any hope whatsoever. FanGraphs is one of three projection models that put the Orioles’ chances of winning the AL East at 0.0%. For all the criticism MLB gets for teams tanking, the O’s are Exhibit A, and as far as money problems go, they did this to themselves with the Chris Davis deal (seven years, $161 million). Since signing that contract — the largest in O’s history — before the 2016 season, Davis has batted .196 with a .670 OPS and averaged 18 homers and 152 strikeouts a year.
The Best of the Best in the American League for 2021
BEST PLAYER: Mike Trout, Angels
This feels repetitive, but there’s a reason for it. Trout has won three of the last seven MVP trophies — the last in 2019 — and is the sport’s only multiple winner of the past decade since Miguel Cabrera went back-to-back for the 2012-13 seasons. He’s still searching for a World Series ring, but the Angels’ shortcomings aren’t his fault, and if you’re into such things, Trout annually compiles more WAR than any player his age in history (a streak that was cut short, however, by the pandemic-trimmed 2021).
2. Jose Abreu, White Sox
3. Anthony Rendon, Angels
4. Matt Chapman, A’s
5. Jose Ramirez, Cleveland
BEST MANAGER: Bob Melvin, A’s
BEST GM: Erik Neander, Rays
BEST HITTER: DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
BEST POWER: Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees
BEST CLUTCH: Nelson Cruz, Twins
BEST BASERUNNER: Whit Merrifield, Royals
MOST EXCITING TO WATCH: Luis Robert, White Sox
BEST INFIELDER: Andres Gimenez, Cleveland
BEST OUTFIELDER: Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
BEST CATCHER: Yasmani Grandal, White Sox
BEST STARTING PITCHER: Gerrit Cole, Yankees
BEST SETUP MAN: Pete Fairbanks, Rays
BEST CLOSER: Aroldis Chapman, Yankees
BEST UNDER AGE 25: Gleyber Torres, Yankees
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Randy Arozarena, Rays
BEST HOME UNIFORM: Athletics
BEST BALLPARK: Fenway Park