By Matt Straub
The New York Yankees are widely considered by most baseball experts to be a lock to win the American League East, if not the pennant or World Series itself. The conventional wisdom says the Yankees have a juggernaut offense and more than enough pitching to dominate the competition, and 100 wins could be in the cards.
There are, however, potential road blocks to the team’s success in 2018. There’s not a scenario where the Bronx Bombers will be bad this year, but what can keep them from being the great team many think they will be? Let’s look at the keys to the season for the Yankees, whose quest to dethrone their bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox, as AL East champions begins this week.
Is the offense for real?
If games were played on paper, the 2018 Yankees would be locks to be the second coming of the 1927 Yankees. Games, however, are played on beautiful green fields, which means this group will have to answer some questions. Was Aaron Judge’s second-half swoon a product of a rookie wall, the Home Run Derby curse, or teams getting a better book on how to work him? Will Giancarlo Stanton need time to get adjusted to the American League, and will playing in front of fans for the first time spook him at all? More importantly, can he stay healthy? If Stanton is the same guy he’s been in Miami and Judge doesn’t have a setback, the Yankees could have an historic offense. Even if both guys come back to Earth a bit and hit around 40 homers, they’re still a great base for the younger players to build around. The key will be health, as Greg Bird’s injury shows.
Where are the kids?
The “Baby Bombers,” moniker was fun for fans last year, but it really only applied to Judge and Gary Sanchez. Bird, shockingly, was hurt, and many of the team’s big prospects were considered a year away. Well, next year starts Thursday, and the Yankees have delayed the real youth movement again, opting to fill some infield spots with veterans. Brandon Drury is a great pickup because he’s only 25, but he doesn’t count because he wasn’t one of the Yankees farmhands, and he’s been around for a while. Neil Walker’s value just skyrocketed with Bird’s injury, and Ronald Torreyes, another player who is still just 25, should see more time with the hole to fill at second when Walker moves to first to make up for Bird’s void. Still, the interesting thing to watch this year will be when, or if, New York calls on its next wave. It might be now or never for Tyler Austin, and Clint Frazier’s chances to play are limited by Stanton’s arrival and a veteran outfield next to Judge. You probably won’t hear names like Torres and Andujar, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New York’s youth movement isn’t dead, but the bulk of it might not arrive until 2019. In fact, if you see a bunch of the next wave come this year, it might be because the team is in some trouble.
Is the rotation ready to win?
We all know about the Yankees’ bullpen. Their middle relievers would be most teams’ eighth-inning choice or even a closer. If the Yankees can get six innings from their starters, they will be in a good position to win on most nights. The key for the Yankees will be the men who will hand the ball to the relievers. If the Yankees can pitch well early in games, they can win 100 games. If the starters can’t get to the bullpen with leads, having those great relievers won’t do the Yankees much good. Is Luis Severino ready to be a true ace? He was great last year, but will face more pressure this year, due to higher expectations. Can Sonny Gray regain the form many thought would lead him to become an ace in his own right? And will Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow last for another full season? Can CC Sabathia hold up again, and can Jordan Montgomery prove to be consistent, or was last year his high point? The good news for the Yankees is that they don’t need the rotation to be dominant. If the starters can just keep the games close until the sixth or seventh inning, the wins will pile up. If not, the bullpen could be taxed, and a tired bullpen come October is not a recipe for success in the postseason. If that happens, it won’t matter how many games the Yankees win in the regular season.