The 2016 season Yankees season is in the books, and for the third time in the past four seasons, there will be no postseason baseball played in the Bronx.
At 84-78, the Yankees’ win total dropped from 87 wins in 2015 and finished fourth in the AL East, their worst division finish since 1992. So with all that in mind, it’s time to put 2016 in the rear view mirror and start focusing on the 2017 season with the top five questions surrounding next year’s team.
5. How should the Yankees handle Aaron Judge?
Aaron Judge’s Yankees career began with a bang, literally. In his first MLB at-bat, Judge hit a towering 446-foot blast off the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in dead center field, a truly mammoth home run. But it was all downhill from there. In 26 remaining games before his season was cut short due to injury, Judge hit three home runs, drove in nine runs, finished hitting .179 and struck out 42 times in 83 at-bats (over 50 percent of the time). From the time Judge made his debut, manager Joe Girardi was adamant about Judge being the everyday right fielder, but based on his less than impressive hitting numbers and atrocious strikeout rate, it will be curious to see if Girardi automatically hands Judge back the starting job, makes spring training an open competition or sends him back to the minors to start the season to build up his confidence. Despite his struggles, Judge showed flashes of the gaudy slugger he can one day become.
4. Which veteran with big contract gets moved?
The Yankees have four players on the roster with less than ideal contracts that Brian Cashman would love to get off his team’s hands. No. 1 is unquestionably Jacoby Ellsbury, but unless the Yankees are willing to eat a large portion of his contract, Ellsbury isn’t going anywhere. No. 2 is Chase Headley, No. 3 is Brian McCann and No. 4 is Brett Gardner. Like Ellsbury, Headley’s contract depreciates his value, the Yankees might want to keep McCann as a mentor to Gary Sanchez and Brett Gardner is one of the better leaders on the team. At the same time, not one of these players appears to be in the long-term picture for the next Yankees dynasty and if Cashman has the ability to unload one or several of these contracts, expect him to jump at the chance.
3. Who starts at first? (Not playing the Abbott and Costello games, sorry)
With Mark Teixeira out of the picture, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have a serious decision to make when it comes to who will be manning first base to open the 2017 season. When news first broke about Teixeira’s intentions to retire, everyone’s eyes turned toward Greg Bird who missed all of 2016 with a torn labrum in his shoulder. The soon-to-be 24-year old made a noteworthy impression after filling in for Teixeira after he suffered a broken leg in 2015 clubbing 11 home runs and driving in 31 runs in 46 games. But Girardi hasn’t come out and confirmed Bird will be the guy and with Tyler Austin overcoming some early struggles to his career, it could come down to a spring training competition, or Cashman might go the free agent route. (If it were up to me, I’d lean toward Bird but will want him to show up to spring training and earn it).
2. Starter or reliever for Luis Severino?
The Yankees always envisioned Luis Severino being a No. 1 caliber starter, and based on his 2015 performance, the Yankees looked right, but 2016 told a different story. In 11 2016 starts, Severino went 0-8 with an 8.50 ERA, but as a reliever, he was nearly unhittable going 3-0 with a 0.36 ERA. So, like Joba Chamberlain before him, the Yankees have a major dilemma on their hands. Should Cashman view 2016 as an aberration for Severino’s numbers as a starter and give him another shot in 2017, or view his egregious bullpen stats as evidence Severino could team up with Betances and possibly Aroldis Chapman to reform the best backend of the bullpen in the game? This is an extremely tough call Yankees brass will have to make. As a fan, you have to hold out hope Severino could still be a dominant starter, but at the same time, he made it abundantly clear how overpowering he could be coming out of the bullpen.
1. What are reasonable expectations for Gary Sanchez?
Gary Sanchez bursted onto the scene unlike any prior player in MLB history. There are no words to describe how mind-blowingly impressive Sanchez was since he took over as the primary catcher following the trade deadline. He nearly carried the Yankees all the way to the playoffs and if I had a vote, he’d be my Rookie of the Year. That said, as historically great as his 2016 season was, it would be unreasonable to assume he’ll continue right where he left off in 2017, and Joe Girardi has to figure out the best way to handle Sanchez. He has to decide if he wants to pencil him in to the No. 3 spot right away, or ease him in batting him lower in the order before putting him back near the top if he performs well. Either way, it appears the Yankees found their future centerpiece in 2016.