In less than 28 hours the Yankees will open the 2019 regular season at home against the Orioles. Spring Training really flew by this year even though it seemed like someone got hurt every other day. Thank goodness it’s over, both Spring Training and an offseason that was frustrating for fans (of all teams) more often than not.
Since Opening Day is tomorrow, it’s time for what has become my annual bold predictions post. Two years ago I went 7-for-10 and that told me I didn’t go bold enough. I trimmed it to five bold predictions last year and went 0-for-5. That’s more like it. Fewer predictions with a greater emphasis on bold. That’s the point, right?
Well, anyway, here are my five hopefully bold enough predictions for the 2019 Yankees, listed in no particular order. We’ll come back and see how I did in a few months.
Judge and Stanton will combine for 116 home runs
The Yankees set several home run records last season, mostly notably the single-season record with 267 homers, but the whole “first team to get 20 homers from every lineup spot” thing is my favorite record. That is insane. That deep attack is how the Yankees were able to set the single-season homer record despite losing Aaron Judge to a wrist injury for seven weeks and others underperforming.
Breaking the home run record again this season is a very possible. It’ll take good health, something the Yankees don’t have right now, but it is possible. My focus is another home run record though. I’m predicting Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will combine for 116 homers, the most ever by two teammates in history. Only five sets of teammates have ever combined for as many as 100 homers in a season.
- 1961 Yankees (115): Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54)
- 2001 Giants (110): Barry Bonds (73) and Rich Aurilia (37)
- 1927 Yankees (107): Babe Ruth (60) and Lou Gehrig (47)
- 1998 Cardinals (101): Mark McGwire (70) and Ray Lankford (31)
- 2002 Rangers (100): Alex Rodriguez (57) and Rafael Palmeiro (43)
Judge and Stanton combined to hit 65 home runs last season, so, even as good as they are, they only got a little more than halfway to my boldly predicted total of 116. Here’s the thing though: Judge and Stanton combined to hit 111 home runs in 2017. Not as teammates, of course, but they combined for 111 homers. Judge hit a rookie record 52 homers and Stanton hit an MLB best 59 homers with Miami.
These two have already come pretty close to 116 homers! Stanton will play the entire 2019 season at 29 and Judge will turn 27 in a few weeks, so they’re both very much in the primes of their careers. Also, Stanton will presumably be more comfortable in year two in New York, and he gets to play in Yankee Stadium. I mean, the guy hit 59 homers while playing his home games in spacious Marlins Park. Why can’t he hit 60-65 in a friendlier ballpark in the Bronx?
Judge and Stanton combining for 116 homers means one of them will almost certainly have to hit at least 62 homers, which would pass Maris and set a new American League single-season home run record. I suppose they could split it right down the middle and hit 58 each. The more likely scenario is one has a historic record-breaking season while the other merely has a monster MVP caliber season. It could happen!
Paxton will receive the most Cy Young points by a Yankee since Clemens
The last Yankee to win the Cy Young award is Roger Clemens in 2001. He went 20-1 in his first 30 starts that year, and that created a Cy Young narrative that was more or less unbreakable. Going 20-1 (he finished 20-3) was hard to ignore even though new Yankees teammate Mike Mussina (3.15 ERA and +7.1 WAR) had an objectively better season than Clemens (3.51 ERA and +5.7 WAR).
Since 2001, eleven different players have combined for 16 instances of a Yankee receiving Cy Young votes. Most notably, Mariano Rivera was the runner-up to Bartolo Colon in 2005 and Chien-Ming Wang was the runner-up to Johan Santana in 2006. The Cy Young ballot is five names deep and a first place vote equals five points, a second place vote equals four points, all the way on down to one point for a fifth place vote. The most points wins.
The most Cy Young points tallied by a Yankee since Clemens was not Luis Severino two years ago. It was CC Sabathia in 2010. He threw 237.2 innings with a 3.18 ERA and +6.4 WAR that season, and finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Felix Hernandez and David Price. Here are the top Cy Young point totals among Yankees since Clemens:
- 2010 CC Sabathia: 102 points
- 2017 Luis Severino: 73 points
- 2005 Mariano Rivera: 68 points
- 2011 CC Sabathia: 63 points
- 2006 Chien-Ming Wang: 51 points
- 2004 Mariano Rivera: 27 points
- Ten instances with 13 or fewer points
For reference, American League Cy Young winners have averaged 166.4 voting points over the last ten years. (The National League average is a bit higher because Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and the late Roy Halladay skewed it with their overwhelming greatness.)
With all due to respect to Masahiro Tanaka, who is forever cool with me, James Paxton is the Yankees’ best chance at Cy Young votes this year given Severino’s injury. Paxton has flashed ace ability in the past — at one point last May he struck out 16 and threw a no-hitter in back-to-back starts — but he hasn’t had that complete, fully healthy ace season yet. Last year he threw 160.1 innings with a 3.76 ERA. The year before it was 136 innings with a 2.98 ERA.
Blake Snell lowered the Cy Young threshold last year by throwing only 180.2 innings, the fewest ever by a Cy Young winner in a non-strike season. Of course, Snell also became the first American League starter with a sub-2.00 ERA since peak Pedro Martinez, so those 180.2 innings were super high-quality. Point is though, winning the Cy Young with only 180 or so innings is no longer impossible. You just need to be really, really good.
The bold prediction here is Paxton will not only stay healthy and get to 180 innings or thereabouts, but that he’ll also perform as well as 2017 on a rate basis. Even with the move from
Safeco Field T-Mobile Park into Yankee Stadium. That means a 3.00 ERA or so, a FIP about a half-a-run lower, a strikeout rate approaching 30%, and nearly five strikeouts for every one walk. Add in the “new guy carrying to the Yankees to the postseason” narrative, and there you go. Even if he doesn’t win the award, Paxton will rake in Cy Young points.
Andujar will finish the year as an above-average defender
Perhaps my boldest prediction ever. I’m a longtime Andujar believer — what’s a good fan club name, the FANdujars? — and yes, I know he was atrocious defensively last season. Defensive Runs Saved data goes back to 2003 and includes over 31,000 individual player seasons. Last year Andujar finished with the 25th worst rating (-25 runs) in DRS history, sandwiched right between 2004 Bernie Williams (-26 runs) and 2007 Derek Jeter (-24 runs). Eek.
Like I said though, I am an Andujar believer, and I’m boldly buying into all the defensive work he did over the winter and in Spring Training, as well as a year’s worth of MLB experience. Being a rookie in the big leagues isn’t easy, especially not in New York with a Yankees team that is in the race. It’s pretty remarkable Andujar and Gleyber Torres were as productive as they were last season. There’s a lot to absorb during that first year in the show.
Andujar (and Torres) knows what to expect now, and he’s a very hard worker who’s spent a lot of time working on his defense the last five months. A lot. I expect all that work to pay off this summer. We’re going to see more plays like this …
— YES Network (@YESNetwork) March 13, 2019
… and fewer missed dives and double-clutches and short-hopped throws. Will Andujar be Adrian Beltre? Maybe! But no, probably not. I’m going with above-average, and, just to be completely upfront about this, I am totally claiming victory here if Andujar finishes the season at, like, +0.1 UZR with the other defensive metrics in the negative. One stat in plus territory, even by a tiny little bit, works for me.
Ottavino will lead the Yankees in saves
On paper, Adam Ottavino is what, fourth on the closer depth chart? Aroldis Chapman will again go into the season as the ninth inning guy, as he should, and my hunch is Zack Britton is next in line for save opportunities over Dellin Betances whenever Chapman needs a day. Either way, it’s Britton and Betances behind Chapman in either order, which means Ottavino is fourth at best. Maybe he’s even behind Chad Green? Could be.
Even at fourth on the closer depth chart, you don’t have to try real hard to envision Ottavino getting save chances at some point. I’m worried this bold prediction isn’t all that bold. Betances is already hurt, and while it’s not expected to be a long-term injury, you never really know with shoulders. He might not be the same dominant Dellin when he returns. That means Ottavino would have one fewer player standing in his way for save chances.
I didn’t love the decision to re-sign Zack Britton — like the rest of the Yankees’ free agent activity, it was fine and nothing more — because his strikeouts have gone down and his walks have gone up, and hitters aren’t chasing out of the zone nearly as much as they did a few years ago. For a 31-year-old reliever who’s missed a bunch of time with injuries the last two years, expecting Britton to be good rather than great isn’t crazy. I mean, look at this:
As for Chapman, he looked sneaky crummy this spring, with a fastball that sat mostly 94-96 mph rather than 97-98 mph. I know it’s only Spring Training, believe me, but Chapman’s fastball averaged 99.1 mph last March. For a guy who’s already losing velocity, seeing mid-90s rather than upper-90s this spring was a little worrisome. Hopefully he will regain those last few miles-an-hour as the weather warms up and the ninth inning adrenaline flows.
Even then, Chapman spent about a month on the disabled list in 2017 (shoulder) and 2018 (knee), and had to be demoted out of the closer’s role each year. It wouldn’t be the most surprisingly thing in the world if it were to happen again. Between Betances already being hurt and Britton and Chapman showing signs of decline, it sure seems like Ottavino is closer to save chances than it may appear given the other names in the bullpen.
If Ottavino leads the Yankees in saves — ahem, when he leads the Yankees in saves — my guess is he’ll do so with a low total like 18 saves. Ottavino has 18 saves, Chapman has 17 saves, Britton has 14 saves, something like that. It won’t be Ottavino with 42 saves and the runner-up with five saves or something like that. The Yankees have a historically great bullpen on paper. I’m still boldly predicting Ottavino will have to save the day in the ninth inning.
Romine will get an extension before Judge
Look, this probably won’t happen seeing how it wouldn’t qualify as a bold prediction if it were likely, but folks, get ready for Austin Romine to get a contract extension before other core players. Romine is due to become a free agent after the season and …
- … the Yankees love him. Absolutely love him.
- … Romine will be cheap, which presumably makes coming to terms easier.
- … the free agent market is increasingly hostile toward players, hence all the recent extensions.
“I’d love to start, but I love being here. I like my job. I like this team. I’m looking forward to being on another winning team,” said Romine to Randy Miller recently. The American League catching picture stinks right now. Romine very well might get offers to start next winter, which is why I expect the Yanks to swoop in with an extension offer sooner rather than later. Two years and $5M seems reasonable.
As for Judge, he will earn $684,300 this year, his final season as a dirt cheap pre-arbitration player. The recent Alex Bregman extension (six years, $100M) and less recent Mike Trout extension (six years, $144.5M) indicate a Judge extension will fall in the six-year, $120M range. Bregman and Trout signed their deals at the same service time level as Judge, so that’s the ballpark number. He’s a $20M per year player on an extension.
During a radio interview earlier this week, Judge said “we haven’t spoken about that” when asked about a possible extension. He did kinda sorta indicate his agent may be talking to the Yankees though. Hal Steinbrenner more or less ducked a question about possible extensions in a radio interview the same day. Brendan Kuty has a transcript:
“I’ll leave that to (general manager Brian Cashman),” Steinbrenner said. “I’m not going to get into who we have talked to about the concept or who we do want to or don’t want to. But I will say it’s obvious we can’t do everybody at once. There are numerous situations we’re looking at when it comes to major league service time and the other part of the puzzle is, how conducive is the player to a concept like that. More to come. Stay tuned. We love all of our players. We love our young players. And we want them wearing pinstripes.”
This is my thinking: Judge already has lucrative endorsement deals with Pepsi and Adidas, among other #brands, and he’s a year away from a potential record arbitration payday. Kris Bryant ($10.85M), Francisco Lindor ($10.55M), and Mookie Betts ($10.5M) are the high-water marks for first year arbitration-eligible players. Repeating his 2018 season in 2019 (minus the wrist injury) would put Judge in position to crack $11M next year.
Because the endorsements give him some level of financial security, Judge is in good position to go year-to-year in arbitration to maximize his earning potential, or at least drive a real hard bargain in extension talks. He’s not stupid. He knows he’s the face of the franchise and one of the game’s biggest and most marketable stars. Passing on a nine-figure extension after only two full MLB seasons can’t be easy. Judge is one of the few players who could swing it.
The Yankees control Judge through 2022, so, while they surely want to lock him up at a below-market rate as soon as possible, there’s not much urgency. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Romine, on the other hand, can bolt after the season, and the generally weak catching situation around baseball means it’s possible another team will lure him away with a starting job. Time is of the essence with Romine. Free agency is months away, not years.
Furthermore, Romine is going to be cheap, and that makes coming to an agreement easier. The bigger the contract, the more complicated it gets. Martin Maldonado and James McCann both inked one-year deals worth $2.5M over the winter. Doubling that figures to catch Romine’s attention (and would double his career earnings) and could lead to a quick deal. It makes too much sense not to happen. Judge is playing the long game. Romine … is not.