Three games into the season, the Yankees are looking fine. Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka turned in two excellent starts. CC Sabathia gave the Yankees the kind of back of the rotation workmanlike performance that most fans now expect of the aging former ace. The middle of the order remains probably the most intimidating in the game while newly acquired Giancarlo Stanton did not appear to have any problems playing for the Yankees on Opening Day.
Despite this, it is hard to overlook the reality that the bottom half of the Yankee lineup is essentially a replacement level offense. If Tyler Austin’s hot start is a harbinger of the kind of season he will have, that will change, but it is hard to believe veteran journeymen like Neil Walker and Brandon Drury and mid-level prospects like Tyler Wade are going to have a big impact on the offense. Didi Gregorius is a valuable player coming off a career year where he had an OPS+ of 106. There is real value in a shortstop who fields as well as Gregorius who, due primarily to his power, is a slightly above average hitter, but that is not the same as being a major offensive contributor. Aaron Hicks has had exactly one decent year in his career. If the 2017 Hicks is for real, and can stay healthy, he will be valuable, but if he slips back, the Yankees will be in the odd position of having a top four of Gardner-Judge-Stanton-Sanchez that is probably the best in baseball and a second half of the order comparable to that of some pretty bad teams.
There are a lot of variables here. Hicks could prove that the 2017 was real, or not. Gregorius could take another step forward, but could revert to being the light hitting defense first player he was for most of his career. Austin or Wade could become valuable hitters or not make it in the Bronx. Assuming all, or even most of these variables will work out is a big risk. The player who has the most ability to lengthen the Yankee lineup and ensure the offense is not just about players is the newly recalled Miguel Andujar. Andujar has hit at ever level he has played, including the five games he played with the Yankees last year. If Andujar hits over the next few days, when will likely see a lot of time at DH, he should remain with the big club for the rest of the season. Moreover, Aaron Boone should ensure that he gets enough playing time. He, unlike Drury, Walker, Wade or even Gregorius, has a very high ceiling, mostly with the bat.
With Greg Bird out for a while, no unmovable players at first, second or third base and several players like Walker and Drury who can play more than one position, there should be ample opportunity for Andujar to play. If Andujar struggles, he obviously will be sent down, but even then it makes little sense for him to be in the minors while the Yankees role out replacement level players at several positions.
The Yankees this year have some obvious and very impressive strengths. Their right-handed power is the best in the game. Sanchez, Judge and Stanton could conceivably combine for 120 or more home runs. The bullpen, despite Betances rough first outing, is also good enough to play well into October. The rotation, while not the best in the game, is nonetheless strong. All this makes it difficult to process the potential weaknesses of this team. This is exacerbated by a New York media climate the turns every journeyman traded to the Yankees, at least at first, into a potential star, and refuses to recognize a hot spring by a second tier prospect for what it really is.
Teams that win championships hit from top to bottom of the order. Pitchers facing the Yankees now undoubtedly dread that first inning, but also know that once they get past Sanchez, their job gets a lot easier. Brian Cashman is unlikely to allow this situation to persist throughout the entire season. A trade for a good hitting first baseman, for example, cannot be ruled out. Additionally, contending teams almost always go into September with a very bench and depth chart what they had at the beginning of the season. All of this begins with Andujar. If the Yankees send him down as soon as Hicks gets healthy, it will be an indication that they don’t think the bottom of the order is a problem. If they make sure that Andujar gets a real chance and significant playing time, it will show that they understand the problem of an unimpressive bottom half of the lineup.
It is still extremely early in the season, but the critique of the bottom of the order is not an overreaction to something, like Sanchez’s slow start, that has happened in the first three games of the year. Rather it is a problem that became evident with Greg Bird’s injury late in spring training. The longer the Yankees ignore it because the middle of their order looks so good, the tougher this year will become.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison