During the offseason, the Yankees' overall depth was among the most frequently mentioned reasons opposing scouts and talent evaluators considered them a World Series favorite.
And that depth remains among the top reasons the Yankees remain heavy favorites this season, even in its significantly shortened form (60 games spread over 66 days, a schedule expected to be officially released in the next day or two).
“I would think a team with quality at the upper levels of their minor league system will benefit,” one American League talent evaluator said. “I think that having quality players to fill in when the inevitable injuries or positive COVID cases happen due to this crazy schedule, which puts everyone off their normal routines, is going to be huge. The Yankees have that [depth].”
No one, of course, has any clue how this season will play out, or even if it will be able to play out, given the uncertainty and unpredictability of the coronavirus. But one aspect of the season just about everyone in the sport agrees on is that injuries will be a major part of it.
“If you think the injury rate was high [in previous seasons], wait until this year,” one American League executive said.
Because players, slated to begin Spring Training II on Friday, will be quickly reintroducing their bodies to the kind of high-intensity baseball activities that for the most part were not possible the last 3 1/2 months, with the COVID-19 pandemic closing down so many gyms and parks.
“I have been performing Tommy John surgery for 20 years, and over the past few weeks, I have found myself asking the question: Will the return to baseball following coronavirus be associated with a surge of Tommy John injuries?” Yankees team physician Christopher Ahmad wrote in May on Medium. “Answer — possibly yes . . . The coronavirus pandemic may greatly compound and exaggerate the risk factors associated with the spring Tommy John surgery spike. The enthusiasm to get back to baseball right now is simply enormous. Players and their families have been understandably craving baseball for months at this point and are growing impatient . . . That translates to maximum effort throwing.”
And injuries. But the Yankees seem equipped to deal with them as well as any team and better than most.
They already have a slew of quality arms that should be set for the July 23 (or July 24) season opener. Even though Luis Severino was lost for the year because of Tommy John surgery, the rotation of Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, Jordan Montgomery, J.A. Happ and James Paxton still shapes up as formidable (by all accounts, Paxton is just about fully recovered from the lower-back procedure he underwent in early February).
The bullpen includes strikeout pitchers such as Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green. Jonathan Loiasiga and Luis Cessa, whose fastballs both routinely push 100 mph, can start or relieve, and prospects Clarke Schmidt, Mike King, Nick Nelson and Deivi Garcia will be options for either role, depending on need.
“All you see [top to bottom] in their system is quality arms,” one National League scout said. “This year [especially], you’re going to need it.”
Clubs can invite up to 60 players to Spring Training II and can have an active roster of 30 players for the season opener (that number will dip to 28 on the 15th day of the season and to 26 on the 29th day of the season).
Among the players all but guaranteed bench spots are lefthanded-hitting first baseman Mike Ford, an adequate option in the field who showed surprising pop last season; Tyler Wade, a speedster who not only has shown his value as a pinch runner but who has demonstrated an ability to play six positions in the field, and righthanded-hitting Clint Frazier, whose fielding hiccups have at times overshadowed a potent bat that scouts have raved about for years.
Thairo Estrada, who debuted in 2019, is another smart, flexible young player whom the Yankees want to see more of. In 2020, they probably will.
“We feel like we have a team capable of being a world champion,” Aaron Boone said recently. "That’s the focus. That’s the drive. We have a hungry group that is eager to climb to the top of the mountain.”