It’s too early to know if the 2017 Yankees will be any good, but one thing is guaranteed: They will be different.
The announcement of their final Opening Day roster – for now, that is, since you can bet the roster will morph in many different ways over the next three months, and again at the trade deadline – reveals a team that bears little resemblance to the 2016 team, and virtually none to the team I began covering on a full-time basis back in 2010.
There are only two holdovers from that team that had just won a World Championship – Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia – and at least one, and possibly both, will be gone at this time next year. And when the Yankees take the field for their regular season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays and Chris Archer on Sunday at Tropicana Field, there will be nine players on the roster who were not there last April, and four of them are likely to be in the starting lineup.
Instead of Alex Rodriguez, Matt Holliday will be the DH. Instead of Mark Teixeira, Greg Bird will be at first. Instead of Brian McCann, Gary Sanchez will be behind the plate. Instead of Carlos Beltran, Aaron Judge will be in right. And in place of the injured Didi Gregorius, the improbable Ronald Torreyes will be the shortstop. New faces Chris Carter and Pete Kozma will be on the bench.
A lot of potential there but so far, no real production.
But where the season gets interesting is here: For the first time in years, the Yankees lineup will be full of players whose best years are presumably ahead of them. That is a real change from last year, and many of the previous five seasons, in which the best days of most of the guys in their lineup were way back in the rear-view mirror.
Which also means that for the first time in a long time, this is a Yankees team that can sell you something more valuable than big names (with big, often undeserved, paychecks). It can sell you hope, if not specifically for this season, then at least for the seasons yet to come.
Manager Joe Girardi, as is his habit, created some unnecessary head-scratching on Wednesday when he implied Judge, the monster-sized slugger who tends to make baseballs disappear – either over the fence or into the catcher’s glove – might be headed to Scranton instead of the Bronx. But he defused that silliness by naming Judge his Opening Day right-fielder before Thursday’s Grapefruit League finale against the Phillies.
The presence of Judge in the Yankees lineup means that unlike last season, the Yankees will have three bats that might actually strike fear into the heart of an opposing manager, after a season in which they had precisely none. Sanchez, of course, is a dangerous hitter and Bird, who missed all of 2016 with a serious should injury but came back to belt seven home runs this spring, is expected to start the season as the club’s No. 3 hitter. (How long Sanchez stays in the two-hole remains to be seen, but for as long as that experiment lasts, he should provide ample protection for Bird).
And the presence of some power bats in the lineup might free up Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury to do what they were hired to do, which is get on base, steal bases and create run-scoring opportunities. Potentially, at least, this offense has a chance to be a lot better than last year’s, which plodded its way to a -22 run differential.
Of course, all the runs in the world won’t mean a thing of the pitchers can’t keep them in the ballgame, and once again, the starting rotation is huge question mark. Masahiro Tanaka, who continues to perform well despite a small tear in his UCL – and has the added incentive of an opt-out clause in his contract after this season – is the undisputed ace of the staff and gets the Opening Day start again.
But after that comes a lot of uncertainty. Can CC Sabathia, with his diminished repertoire and leisurely fastball, put together another serviceable season in the final year of his contract? Can Michael Pineda ever shake his maddening inconsistency? Will Luis Severino return to the form he showed as a rookie in 2015? And will the bullpen, minus Andrew Miller and with a possibly disgruntled Dellin Betances, effectively shorten the game for a starting staff that had trouble giving the Yankees 7 good innings last season?
And will Girardi, never the coolest customer in the best of times and a manager who has always seemed loath to trust younger players, be able to remain level-headed with a roster full of youngsters and a contract entering its final season?
The answers to those questions could well determine the Yankees fate in 2017. But it is the promise of the new faces on their roster, and in their lineup, that provide hope for the seasons beyond.
When this team takes the field on Sunday, I’m not too proud to admit that I will hardly recognize a lot of them.
And that, in itself, is a sign of improvement, if not exactly a guarantee of success.