Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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After signing a new designated hitter this winter, the Yankees have their position players figured out — barring any trades. The impending competition between young players and overall uncertainty of what they will bring to the plate make predicting the batting order a fun, thought-provoking exercise.
The names in a lineup are more important than the order in which a manager stacks them. I’m not breaking any news that you, the Yankees, and baseball fanatics everywhere didn’t already know. Different people place different stock in the order of which the starting nine is stacked.
What I do know is no matter how you stack it, the Yankees’ offense was mediocre in 2016. They ranked in the bottom half of each of these major offensive categories:
AVG: 20th (.252)
HR: 19th (183)
RBI: 23rd (647)
SB: 18th (72)
R: 22nd (680)
OBP: 25th (.315)
OPS: 24th (.720)
The Yankees’ home run leader was Carlos Beltran, who held onto the title with 22 homers before he became a member of the Texas Rangers August 1. Veterans Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira didn’t age gracefully and watched the sun set on their playing careers — Rodriguez was released, Teixeira retired.
When it comes to constructing a lineup, managers have to consider a multitude of aspects. It’s not as simple as listing nine players in order of their batting averages or OPS-es. The manager is tasked with incorporating rest days, strategizing statistics, balancing egos and honoring contracts.
For example, if a certain center fielder is hitting in the low .260s with an 88 OPS+, the fact that he was given a $153 million contract makes it difficult to demote him in the lineup without a barrage of media questioning. Doing so makes the general manager look bad and risks damaging the player’s mind. That might not sound like a big deal to the common fan, but it creates a semi-circus that ultimately distracts the team from its main goal of winning. Thus, the struggling $153 million center fielder stays atop the lineup.
Jacoby Ellsbury aside, the Yankees are in the process of forming a dynamic roster that features a mixture of exciting young blood and veteran mentorship. All eyes are on a nucleus of Baby Bombers to replace the black holes in last season’s batting order. Here’s a teaser of the possible lineup cards fans can look forward to in 2017:
Editor’s Note: What follows is typical of the writing you’ll always see at Yanks Go Yard. Aaron has put together a piece that has real thought behind it. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Sep 27, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez (24) hits a two-run home run during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
This possibly could be the Yankees’ lineup when they open the new season against Rays’ right-hander Chris Archer — assuming Archer is not traded by April.
The Yankees are crossing their fingers that the contact-speed skill sets of Ellsbury and Gardner will table-set nicely for Sanchez and Holliday. The outfielders made for a disappointing duo atop the lineup last year when they combined for a dull .262 batting average and lowly 36 stolen bases.
A Sanchez-Holliday-Castro-Gregorius-Bird onslaught gives manager Joe Girardi the chance to stack a fivesome of batters who can each eclipse 20 homers in a season. That total rises to six if Judge mashes his way up the order.
I know, I know: you must be thinking, “Why is a power bat like Bird’s in the bottom of the lineup?” The answer is quite simple.
After missing the entirety of 2016 recovering from shoulder surgery, Bird was assigned to scrape off the rust in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a .215 batting average with one homer in 65 at-bats. The numbers weren’t the important part; it was about getting the reps in. That said, it’s unlikely that Girardi pressures Bird into being a middle-of-the-order bat early on during his sophomore session against major-league pitching.
When the Yankees face a right-handed starter in a National League park, where the usage of designated hitters is forbidden, Holliday might see limited action in left field. He played the position in 84 games (644 innings) with the Cardinals last year, albeit poorly, with -8 Defensive Runs Saved. Of course, Holliday can always be lifted for a late-inning defensive replacement. This is just a tactic to keep both his and Bird’s bats in the lineup to challenge home-field NL righties.
Sep 6, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin (26) flips his bat after hitting a two-run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays during the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Which one Girardi uses will be determined by whoever needs a day of rest.
In my eyes, Gregorius’ success against lefties last season earned him a promotion. Remember when the Yankees wanted to platoon him with Brendan Ryan? Me neither.
Didi has made tremendous progress at the plate, even developing into sort of a line-drive power threat. The 26-year-old slashed an impressive .320/.357/.469 against left-handers over 160 plate appearances. The Yankees aren’t afraid to bat two left-handed hitters in a row, so if Gregorius can sustain those numbers and refine his plate approach — he only drew 19 walks in 579 plate appearances last year — he’d make for a solid No. 2 hitter.
Despite everlasting contempt from fans after an abysmal start to the season, the switch-hitting Headley managed a respectable .272 average and .692 OPS versus lefties. Fun fact: although he hit lefties for a better average, Headley displayed more power against right-handers, averaging an extra-base hit per 11.8 at-bats, compared to one per 22.6 against southpaws.
It’s realistic for the Yankees to use Bird and Austin in a platoon to begin the season. Doing so would allow them to see what each player has to offer while they keep Bird well-rested. In this scenario, Austin receives playing time when tough left-handers are on the mound.
The full-time job at first base, however, is Bird’s to lose after bursting onto the scene with his stellar rookie campaign in 2015, when he slashed .261/.343/.529 with 11 homers in 46 games. Coming off his injury, though, it would be wise for the Yankees to ease him into an everyday role.
Hicks, the Yanks’ other switch-hitter, did poorly against left-handed pitching during his first year with New York, mustering a weak .484 OPS. Oddly, it went against his career norms and the main reason GM Brian Cashman traded for him in the first place. The organization is banking on Hicks’ relatively young age (27) and late-season improvements with consistent playing time to lead to a better campaign in 2017.
When playing at a National League park against a lefty, the Yankees have Holliday as a first base option. Bird can come off the bench in a pinch-hitting scenario or as a late-inning defensive replacement.
Jul 10, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; USA outfielder Clint Frazier hits a RBI double in the third inning during the All-Star Game Futures baseball game at PetCo Park. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
If you’re making a lineup without adding a few shake-ups and predictions, are you having any fun?
My guess is that Gardner gets dealt by the July 31 trade deadline, though that could depend on where the Yankees are in the standings. If Frazier, the highest praised piece acquired in last summer’s Andrew Miller deal with the Indians, plays well in Triple-A, moving Gardner clears a path for Frazier to receive big-league playing time. He already has energized New York’s fan base with tweets about his ginger locks, anxiousness to wear the pinstripes, and light-hearted, Yankees-endorsing exchanges with Nationals superstar Bryce Harper. At this point, the only thing left for Frazier to do is perform.
If Frazier cracks the starting nine, Girardi will ease him into the majors by giving him a low position in the batting order. Obviously, Frazier has a much higher ceiling than a No. 8 hitter.
If all goes as the Yankees hope, 2017’s lineup will have added thump and better balance. Sanchez will have performed exceptionally over a full season, and Bird and Judge will have taken strides in their development and slugged their way up the order. None of that, though, is guaranteed.
For the Yankees, this will be a year primarily dedicated to player development. By season’s end, they hope to have more answers than question marks. New York’s high-end prospects are the fruits of a transition that, best-case scenario, could lead to a new dynasty.