Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole at spring training in Tampa on...

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole at spring training in Tampa on Feb. 16, 2023. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. — The question on Day 1 of spring training was this:

How much have the Yankees closed the gap on the Astros? That’s the team that has ushered the Yankees out of the playoffs four times since 2015, including last year in a four-game sweep in the American League Championship Series.

It was unanswerable then. It is unanswerable now.

“How much we’ve closed the gap, I don’t know,” Aaron Boone said Feb. 15 in his spring training kickoff news conference. “We’ll see. We’re in February. We’ve got a long way to go to even get that opportunity to find out if we get to play in the playoffs and have that crack [at it] again. I feel like that’s our expectation.”

Reaching the playoffs, of course, is the minimum expectation from a fan base that has grown frustrated at their favorite team’s annual flameouts in October.

After missing the postseason in 2016, the Yankees have made it each year since. But for different reasons, they’ve fallen short of qualifying for their first World Series since 2009, also the year of their last title, the 27th in franchise history.

“It bothers me, and I think it bothers the group as well,” Aaron Judge said of the October exits. “Every year we don’t finish what we started, it wears on us in different ways. I think every failure pushes you toward that ultimate goal.”

Judge, coming off an American League MVP season that included an AL-record 62 homers, has been around for every one of the last six playoff disappointments.

There was the seven-game ALCS loss to the Astros in 2017 — Joe Girardi’s last year as manager — and the four-game Division Series loss to the Red Sox in 2018, Boone’s first in the dugout. A six-game ALCS loss to Houston followed in 2019 and a crushing five-game loss to the Rays in the Division Series came next. October 2021 brought the wild-card game loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park and last year it was the Astros again.

“They’ve set the standard right now, certainly in the American League,” Boone said of the Astros. “But that said, we’ve got a bear of a division we’ve got to go through. In a lot of ways, a number of teams in the American League are better.”

The latter two points are indisputably true. The Yankees reside in the AL East, which they won in 2022 at 99-63. The division was loaded as four of the five teams finished above .500, and there’s no reason to expect a decline this year. As for the rest of the league, the Astros still rule the AL West until it’s proved otherwise.

Maybe the team from that division that features two of the best players in the sport — the Angels with Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout — will become an upper-tier club. The Mariners made a leap last season and did not appear to get worse over the winter.

The AL Central typically is a patsy for the Yankees come October, but Cleveland, which had 17 players make their big-league debut in 2022, scared the pinstripes off the Yankees in the ALDS in a tense five-game series.

Still, even in an American League that could be stronger than it was a year ago, the Yankees have the talent to separate themselves and, come the trade deadline, the resources to add reinforcements.

Once Carlos Rodon returns from the injured list — the lefthander will start the season there with a forearm strain, but the Yankees don’t believe he’ll miss more than April at the most — they should have an elite top-of-the-rotation punch-counterpunch with Gerrit Cole leading the way. The arms behind the pair are solid, starting with Luis Severino (currently sidelined with a lat strain) and continuing with Nestor Cortes and Domingo German. Clarke Schmidt, whose cutter impressed talent evaluators inside and outside the Yankees’ organization, will start the year in the rotation because of Rodon’s injury and could stick if his performance warrants it.

The bullpen has the potential to be historically good, even with Tommy Kahnle and Lou Trivino starting the season on the injured list. Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta, Ron Marinaccio, Michael King and Jonathan Loaisiga would be considered stud arms in most other teams’ bullpens.

The lineup, with a finally healthy DJ LeMahieu at the top and Judge right behind him, again should be among the highest-scoring in the game. It is righty-heavy, as has been the case in recent years, which is a concern come October. The Yankees hope young, energetic talents such as Oswaldo Cabrera, Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza — to name a few — continue to develop, adding another dimension to the group. Volpe beat out Peraza for the starting job at shortstop.

“I think you start at the top when you’ve got a guy like Carlos Rodon added to the mix and into our rotation, that plays a big part of it,” Judge said of his expectations. “Pitching and defense win you ballgames down the stretch, and having a balanced lineup. And I think with a lot of the young guys we have coming up . . . there’s quite a few opportunities with [those players’] bat-to-ball skills, great defensive skills. And when you add in the rotation we have, we’re going to be in a good position.

“But we haven’t played any games yet, so we’ll see what we’ve got down the road.”


Record: 96-66

Place: First in the AL East

The question of whether the Yankees, 99-63 in 2022, have done enough to catch up to their October nemesis of the last decade, the Astros, cannot be answered until the trade deadline and, ultimately, not until the postseason — if both teams get to that point. That seems highly probable. At least when it comes to the Yankees in the regular season, their lineup, rotation and bullpen should allow them to repeat as division champions in what again should be a stacked American League East.

Erik Boland has covered the Yankees for Newsday since 2009.

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