TAMPA, Fla. — An opposing team talent evaluator cut himself off a couple of times recently in evaluating the 2019 Yankees and eventually settled on this:
“Here’s how loaded they are,” he said. “They have an NL batting champion, [who’s also] a Gold Glover, on the bench. That’s loaded.”
That batting champion is DJ LeMahieu, a three-time Gold Glove winner who led the National League in hitting in 2016 and whom the Yankees signed to a two-year, $24 million free- agent deal.
LeMahieu was one of a handful of offseason moves made by general manager Brian Cashman with the idea of tracking down and ultimately passing the Red Sox, who finished eight games ahead of the 100-win Yankees to capture the 2018 AL East title and went on to win the World Series.
And though many Yankees fans remain irritated with Cashman for not pursuing one of the marquee free agents available — Manny Machado or Bryce Harper — he had plenty going on.
Early in the offseason, Cashman traded for lefthander James Paxton to help shore up the starting pitching. That rotation’s depth will be tested right off the bat because ace Luis Severino and CC Sabathia will start the season on the injured list.
Cashman re-signed two longtime Yankees in Sabathia and outfielder Brett Gardner and also re-signed starting pitcher J.A. Happ and reliever Zack Britton, a pair of free-agent lefties who had been trade-deadline acquisitions. After not making a bid to retain David Robertson, who signed with the Phillies, the Yankees brought aboard righthander Adam Ottavino, whose 112 strikeouts last season ranked him second in the National League and fourth in the majors among relievers.
“I really love the depth that we’ve been able to add, and we feel like in a lot of ways we’re a complete team right now and we have a chance to go out and do something special,” second-year manager Aaron Boone said.
Boone used the word “special” at times during 2018, and the Yankees lived up to that more times than not in going 100-62. But that success paled compared to Boston’s, and the Yankees fell to their rival in four games in the Division Series.
The Yankees believe that on paper, they’ve improved from last season, beginning with their rotation. They added Paxton to go with Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Happ and Sabathia. Sabathia isn’t expected back until about mid-April and Cashman has said that Severino — sidelined early in spring training with rotator cuff inflammation — probably won’t return until May. At the moment, they will be replaced by two of these three pitchers — Domingo German, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga.
“I think we’ve definitely got a better club Opening Day than we did Opening Day last year, particularly in pitching, which was my biggest area of concern,” managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said in early February during the owners’ meetings in Orlando.
A powerful and deep bullpen should be even more powerful, and deeper, with the retention of Britton and the addition of Ottavino.
There should be better position player depth, too. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki made it through spring training healthy and the Yankees hope he can at least tread water until the return of Didi Gregorius, out until at least June after Tommy John surgery. If Tulowitzki is not the answer, Gleyber Torres will shift to short and LeMahieu will go to second. LeMahieu also will get some time at third and serve as the backup first baseman.
Speaking of first base, the most interesting spring training battle involved who would win the starting job, and with both players performing well, it went down to the wire. Luke Voit, who entered as the favorite, and Greg Bird showed up motivated and took turns excelling.
“We like what we have,” Cashman said, speaking generally of his club. “It’s time to cultivate it now and bring it together and protect it and keep it healthy and then stay out of the way and let it play.”
As 2019 officially gets started Thursday against the Orioles at the Stadium, the expectations that soared in 2018 are even higher now.
“There’s no question we’ll embrace those expectations,” Boone said. “I think everyone that’s been here a while, and certainly the new guys coming in, I think understand what goes along with having the kind of club we potentially have, that the expectations are great. We welcome that. Hopefully this year we can get to the top of the mountain.”
101-61, 1st in the AL East and World Series bound
It’s difficult to win 100 games in one season let alone in back-to-back ones, but the Yankees look primed to do so. First, the roster is better than the edition that won 100 last year. That, along with the large number of, frankly, bad teams spread across the landscape, barring a slew of unforeseen injuries there’s no reason to think they won’t reach that plateau again.
Erik Boland has covered the Yankees for Newsday since 2009.