Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
Occasionally beleaguered general manager Brian Cashman, once one of baseball’s boy wonder GMs, enters his 20th season in the Bronx. Remarkably, Cashman’s Yankees have never finished below .500. While doing the Bronx version of “rebuilding” over the past few years, they’ve still been competitive, even making a Wild Card game appearance in 2015. In 2016, they were the deadline’s biggest sellers, cashing in elite relievers to both pennant winners for a major haul of top prospects and sending Carlos Beltran to Texas for a plethora of pitching depth. Yet even after selling hard, they reloaded the roster with assets from the farm and a few cheap trades, and hung in the playoff picture until fading in the season’s final days.
The Yankees still have the greatest financial advantages of any team in the game, and with the exception of Jacoby Ellsbury they have no questionable money committed past 2018. Their organization ranked second in our recent farm system rankings, with nine prospects in the BP 101 and two more just missing. They’re concentrated in High-A or higher; of those top 11 prospects, eight or nine are only a good season away from seeing the majors.
Throw in incredible depth in major league-quality arms on the farm—so many that they lost three pitchers in Rule 5 without blinking—and sprinkle on top a large pool of high-upside prospects bubbling below full-season ball thanks to a July 2014 spending spree, and you’ve got a team that’s going to be pumping out its own cheap talent indefinitely. And it's starting right as several epic classes of superstars hit free agency.
At the forefront of the coming talent boom is catcher Gary Sanchez. Long considered a top catching prospect with all the raw tools, Sanchez emerged in the second half as one of baseball’s premier catchers and power hitters, swatting 20 homers in just 229 plate appearances. He’ll soon be joined by two of baseball’s top hitting prospects, infielder Gleyber Torres and outfielder Clint Frazier, both acquired in last year’s selling spree. Outfielder Blake Rutherford looked like a major steal out of last year’s draft from the day he signed, and there’s buzz around Swiss Army knife prospect Tyler Wade jumping from Double-A to the major-league roster by or shortly after Opening Day. Only the Braves can match the quality and depth of position player talent on the Yankees’ farm; we haven’t even mentioned the high-upside talents of incumbent top prospects Jorge Mateo and Aaron Judge yet.
The cupboard isn’t bare in the bigs, either. Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro are a pair of 27-year-old middle infielders who are relatively inexpensive, controlled for a few more years, and quality major leaguers. Either or both could stick around as Torres, Mateo, and Wade filter into long-term spots, or become significant trade chips. First baseman Greg Bird was 2015’s Gary Sanchez before missing 2016 with a shoulder injury. He’ll battle 2016 NL home run king Chris Carter for first base and designated hitter opportunities. Veterans like Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, and Brett Gardner are more than capable bridges to whatever’s next, and even Ellsbury should be a contributor moving forward, albeit an overpaid one.
With the exception of Masahiro Tanaka, the starting pitching is in a state of upheaval. Michael Pineda has been a chronic enigma and isn’t so young (28) or cheap (a free agent at season’s end) anymore. Luis Severino’s long-term fate always looked like it might be in the bullpen, and that inflection point isn’t far off. CC Sabathia turned his career and life around in 2016, but he’s still a 36-year-old with one good season in the last four and the Yankees won’t be unhappy to see his contract expire after the season.
What the Yankees lack in solid current rotation options, they make up for in depth of pitching prospects. The first wave is already in the process of landing, with a group of potential mid-rotation starters such as Jordan Montgomery, Dietrich Enns, Ronald Herrera, and Chance Adams already nipping at the heels of lesser current rotation depth. Not all that far behind is a trio of power arms that all made the BP 101: lefty Justus Sheffield and righties James Kaprielian and Albert Abreu. All three possess immense upside, but also come with significant risk factors. Sheffield and Kaprielian could enter the MLB picture as early as midseason, depending on health and success against upper-level hitters.
If the Yankees do make a playoff run in 2017—a possibility that should not be counted out with a near-.500 PECOTA projection and plenty of upside present—it’ll likely be on the back of one of the majors’ best bullpens. Between Dellin Betances and the returning Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees will roll out two of the five best relief pitchers in the game. They’ll be supplemented by a solid core of middle relievers like Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren, and Tommy Layne, plus an unusually strong base of flamethrowers in the minors already converted to the pen, led by Jonathan Holder.
The next two years might just be about figuring out who is and isn’t a keeper among the young talent. After 2018 comes one of the most comically loaded free agent classes ever, led by superstar hitters Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, both of whom will be free agents at just 26, and ace of the world Clayton Kershaw. Beyond that class, it’s just as easy to envision Shohei Otani in pinstripes when the time to post him comes, given the team’s past aggression in the high-end Japanese player market. Perhaps the assumption that the Yankees are ready to throw down a couple billion in guarantees within the next few years is made a little too casually, but I bring up the biggest names to show you that there will be monumental upgrade options out there right at the time that the Yankees should be ready to commit a few more huge contracts.
This might not be baseball’s next dynasty, because talent and luck are hard enough to predict. The Cubs might get there first anyway, and second-generation Steinbrenner ownership has been relatively less profligate than George was. But the seedlings for long-term greatness are present, and at the very least 2017 represents the revitalization of a perpetual contention machine that Cashman has been running for two decades now.