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Yankees season preview, prediction

Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman believe they have put together a “championship-caliber” roster and defended the Yankees’ payroll, which is around $256 million as the season begins.

We’ll soon find out if they’re right, as a lackluster offseason that was slowed by the MLB lockout and the Yankees’ decision to sit out the free-agent shortstop class — and the entire high-end free-agent group — is over.

Now that the dust has settled, the Yankees are still in position to compete in the AL East, but are they ready to contend for their first World Series title since 2009? It’s hard to see that happening with the roster as currently constructed, with question marks in the rotation, behind the plate, at shortstop and in the outfield.

Aaron Boone is back in the dugout after signing a new deal in the offseason and Cashman is entering the final year of his contract — although there are no signs the general manager’s job might be in jeopardy. The team will be looking for Gerrit Cole to put together his first Cy Young-worthy season as a Yankee and will wait and see how newly acquired Josh Donaldson holds up at third base after being the most significant financial addition since last season. Along with Donaldson, they will be counting on another recent arrival, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, to prove himself to be an everyday shortstop.

Gerrit Cole tops the Yankees rotation
Gerrit Cole tops the Yankees rotation
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

The Yankees also brought in Dillon Lawson as the hitting coach to complete a nearly total overhaul of their coaching staff the last few years.

And while fans loved to hate Gary Sanchez, they sacrificed considerable offense when they shipped him to Minnesota.

They’ll also be hoping Aroldis Chapman can get back to where he was for much of the first half last season, when he returned to form as one of the most dominant closers in the game before faltering in the second half. If that happens again, Jonathan Loaisiga could earn an even more prominent role in the bullpen — something that already figures to be in the works, with Chapman expected to pitch in the eighth inning more often.

The lineup should be solid, but they’ll again be relying on Aaron Judge — in what may be Judge’s last season in The Bronx before he hits free agency if they don’t strike a deal on an extension before Opening Day — and Giancarlo Stanton to stay healthy.

Yankees essentials

Aaron Judge is in a contract season
Aaron Judge is in a contract season
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Most important hitter: Aaron Judge. The Yankees won’t go far if they don’t get much better production from guys like DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, but there’s a reason the most important storyline during the latter part of camp was Judge’s contract status, as he heads into his last year before he can hit free agency. Judge led the team in just about every meaningful offensive category, from homers and RBIs to OPS, but the two sides could end up in an ugly battle over arbitration. And unless the right fielder and the team reach a deal on a long-term extension, Judge will have quite a bit to play for if he intends to hit the open market once the season ends.

Most important pitcher: When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million contract, they couldn’t have foreseen COVID wreaking havoc on the 2020 season and a crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances impacting last year. The MLB lockout then led to a shortened spring training, which limited Cole’s workload before Opening Day. Cole said he is confident the renewed focus on the use of sticky stuff won’t impact him, but it certainly seemed to impact his season a year ago — as did the hamstring injury that slowed him at the end of last season, including the wild-card loss in Boston. Whatever happens, all eyes will again be on the 31-year-old right-hander.

Will have a bigger year than expected: Gleyber Torres has looked like a different player since being moved off shortstop and back to second for the final month-plus of last season and into the spring — both on defense and at the plate. After back-to-back nightmarish seasons offensively, with his power having vanished, Torres showed some of the form that made him one of the top young players in the game in 2018 and ’19 last September and appears to have continued it this spring. He said he was hitting too many ground balls a year ago, and after looking off-balance at the plate throughout most of 2021, he’s had a better approach in the early going.

Most likely to disappoint: Luis Severino. The right-hander showed encouraging signs when he finally returned from Tommy John surgery and a variety of setbacks late last season. He’s seen by some as a potential No. 2 starter behind Cole, and with the way the Yankees’ rotation is set, there will be considerable expectations placed on Severino. He’s pitched just 19 ¹/₃ innings over the past three seasons, though, and it will be difficult for him to return to the heights he reached in 2017 and 2018, when he was among the best starters in the game. Donaldson, at 36, also bears watching in this category, as does Chapman, who is coming off a season in which he walked 6.1 batters per nine innings.

Gleyber Torres in a spring training game on April 5, 2022
Gleyber Torres in a spring training game on April 5, 2022
USA TODAY Sports

Key call-up: Deivi Garcia. Depending on how Kiner-Falefa performs at short, the Yankees may look to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to see how Oswald Peraza is doing, with most scouts of the opinion his defense is already major league-ready. But there is no doubt the Yankees will need to dip into the minors to get some pitching help throughout the year. That’s where Garcia comes in. The right-hander showed up to spring training a year ago with sky-high expectations after a promising debut in 2020. A change to his delivery helped lead to a horrendous season. Garcia lost his command and saw a drop in his velocity, while Luis Gil ended up serving in the role that had previously seemed carved out for Garcia. This spring, Garcia, 22, has gone back to a delivery more resembling what he had two years ago. His velocity has jumped again and the results have followed.

Biggest managerial decision: What to do with DJ LeMahieu and Torres? If everything goes according to plan, it could be a good problem to have. LeMahieu has fully recovered from the sports hernia that sapped him of power and production last season and Torres has shown encouraging signs after his down seasons. Aaron Boone then has to determine how to keep both of them sharp, which could be done by using LeMahieu at first and third to rest Anthony Rizzo and Josh Donaldson and the rest of the time at second. The key, if both stay healthy and productive, is to get both more than 500 plate appearances apiece.

Don’t be surprised if: After remaking their lineup in the middle of last season by acquiring a tandem of lefty sluggers — Rizzo and Joey Gallo — prior to the trade deadline, the Yankees look to do something similar with their rotation at some point this year to make up for some of their lack of activity during the offseason. They’ve got depth in the minors, with Garcia, Gil and Clarke Schmidt, but they may look to get a veteran pitcher with postseason experience. What could complicate this deadline is the new playoff format, with a dozen teams in the postseason instead of 10. That may lead to fewer sellers.

Deivi Garcia impressed during the spring
Deivi Garcia impressed during the spring
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Sure to make fans grumble: Any closer is sure to get on the bad side of fans, but Aroldis Chapman is in a unique spot. After being dominant in the first half of last year, Chapman was inconsistent and had trouble with his control much of the rest of the way. Now, he’ll be used in both the eighth and ninth innings in an effort to keep him sharp and avoid long layoffs between save opportunities, but any blown saves will likely strengthen the call for Jonathan Loaisiga to be the closer.

Will make playoffs if: MLB doesn’t revert back to the 10-team playoff. With a dozen teams heading to the postseason this year, the Yankees would have to bottom out to not get one of those spots. The three AL wild-card spots could all come from the AL East.

Will miss playoffs if: Certainly, a significant injury to Cole would make a rotation that doesn’t have a lot of high-end talent considerably weaker. They barely got in last year with full seasons from Stanton and Judge. An prolonged absence by either would reduce the Yankees’ margin for error.

Injury that would hurt the most: Losing Judge for any extended period of time would damage the lineup, but the answer is still Cole. There’s a reason he’s the highest-paid starting pitcher in the American League and when he’s right, he’s shown what he can do for a team. If he’s out — or even only average — the Yankees become a lot less scary.

Playing the field

Catcher: After years of trying to make Gary Sanchez better defensively and more consistent at the plate, the Yankees finally gave up on the polarizing backstop and so far are counting on Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino, just acquired from Texas, to be a defense-first tandem. Another new arrival, Ben Rortvedt, came from Minnesota, and the lefty-hitter is also a defensive specialist and will provide depth. Now, they have to figure out how to get production from the position.

First base: They all but gave up on Luke Voit last season when they traded for Anthony Rizzo and pushed Voit to the bench during another injury-plagued year. And they officially moved on from Voit in spring training, with the trade that sent the 2020 home-run champ to San Diego. Rizzo provided left-handed power, but he’s coming off two somewhat subpar seasons for him.

Second base: Gleyber Torres is back at second following the failed shortstop experiment. He looked better once the Yankees abandoned the plan late last year and has picked up where he left off this spring. It’s still not an ideal situation, since it’s the position that DJ LeMahieu is best-suited for, but the Yankees are confident both players looking for bounce-back seasons will get enough playing time, with LeMahieu expected to play first and third, as well as second — and Torres perhaps seeing an occasional day at short, although that seems like a bad idea.

Kyle Higashioka takes over as the Yankees starting catcher
Kyle Higashioka takes over as the Yankees starting catcher
AP

Third base: Josh Donaldson still has a much-feared bat. That’s not the issue for the 36-year-old. Instead, it’s his health. The Yankees owe Donaldson $50 million over the next two seasons and he’s coming off consecutive years in which he’s missed time with calf injuries. There’s also the sore shoulder he nursed during spring training. A similar injury put him on the injured list in 2018. But when he’s on, the 2015 AL MVP is still one of the most feared hitters in the league.

Shortstop: Instead of Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, the Yankees went with the much lower-profile — and less expensive — Isiah Kiner-Falefa to take over at short after ending last season with Gio Urshela at the position. The Yankees are banking on Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe — or both — arriving to the majors soon, which could impact what they do down the road at the position, but for now, they’re rolling with Kiner-Falefa, who has responded with a good spring.

Left field: Looking for more outfield flexibility, the Yankees will use Joey Gallo in left primarily, where he’ll try to put a dreadful Bronx debut behind him. But they say they’re also willing to put Aaron Hicks in left, depending on the lineup on a given day.

Center field: Brian Cashman mentioned a potential upgrade at center during the offseason, but they are sticking with Hicks, who says he’s healthy after missing most of last season following surgery to repair a torn sheath in his left wrist. The fact remains, though, that the 32-year-old hasn’t played more than 59 games since 2018 — although he was mostly healthy in the COVID-shortened 2020 season.

Right field: Aaron Judge is able and willing to play some center, but he’ll be out in right more often than not and will look to put together back-to-back healthy seasons for the first time in his career.

DH: Even with Giancarlo Stanton likely in the outfield two or three times a week, he’s going to spend a lot of time at DH, looking to duplicate much of what he did last year. And after battling injuries the previous two seasons, Stanton looked good in 2021 and has been one of the best postseason hitters in the game as a Yankee.

Luis Severino during spring training on March 20, 2022
Luis Severino during spring training on March 20, 2022
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Starting pitching: It’s Gerrit Cole at the top and then … what else? Jordan Montgomery established himself as a solid left-hander last season and Jameson Taillon was excellent for stretches after coming back from Tommy John surgery. If they can build on what they did in 2021, the Yankees will take it. They’ve already gotten promising results from Taillon, who has come back well from offseason ankle tendon surgery. Nestor Cortes’ unexpected emergence helped stabilize the rotation, and he likely will open the season as a starter looking to duplicate what he did a year ago. There’s potential depth coming from Luis Gil, Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia. The biggest wild card may be Luis Severino, who has pitched just a handful of innings over the past three seasons.

Bullpen: The Yankees have shown an ability to develop relievers well, and three newcomers to last year’s pen — left-handers Lucas Luetge and Wandy Peralta and righty Clay Holmes — are back with increased expectations. Right-hander Miguel Castro was swapped in for lefty Joely Rodriguez in a trade with the Mets. They’ll be without Zack Britton for most — if not all — of the season as he recovers from elbow surgery, but the back end will still have Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga and Aroldis Chapman — who will no longer be seen exclusively in the ninth. Michael King could be among those who factor in as a long reliever, as well as Cortes. Ron Marinaccio is a new face who is likely to fill a role at some point.

Bench: Marwin Gonzalez has fit in well after signing a minor league deal following the start of spring training and the Yankees like his ability to play around the infield and outfield, as well as switch-hit. The Yankees will open the season without a true spare outfielder, as Brett Gardner is unsigned and Tim Locastro and Ender Inciarte didn’t make the roster. Trevino will back up Higashioka instead of Rortvedt.

Prediction: 92-70

More star power ended up elsewhere — some of it in Queens and Boston — and the Yankees’ inaction in the offseason stood out even more thanks to Steve Cohen’s aggressiveness across town. But the Yankees are banking on a return to form from some key players, and they’ve managed to finish first or second in the AL East in seven of the past eight seasons. 

https://nypost.com/2022/04/06/yankees-season-preview-prediction/ Yankees season preview, prediction

JOE HERNANDEZ

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