The New York Yankees’ 2020 season was about as unpredictable as anyone could have possibly imagined after an exciting offseason headlined by the addition of the game’s most highly coveted free agent, Gerrit Cole.
Every team in the league was impacted in some way or another by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the course of the 2020 season, most obviously in having to adjust to a 60-game regular season as well as changes to the playoff format, but it made for a rather topsy-turvy journey to the postseason for all 30 clubs.
Aaron Boone continued his impressive start as Yankees manager by leading another strong Yankees team to its MLB-record 56th trip to the postseason before falling just short in the decisive fifth game of the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays.
With their ‘Chase for 28’ tabled until 2021, the Yankees now face a critical offseason full of important decisions for the roster as well as the philosophy of the team as it gears up for another run toward World Series glory.
Here now we take a look at several of those questions.
1) Gary Sanchez’s future with the Bombers
Perhaps the biggest question regarding the Yankees’ future on a day-to-day basis is whether they feel confident in Gary Sanchez as the team’s everyday catcher behind the plate. The hard-hitting backstop’s tremendous power and offensive production has helped to overshadow some of the defensive question marks that continue to follow him, even after coming into the season with a new-and-improved stance behind the plate.
It’s hard to deduce whether those tweaks to his defense were the main culprit behind his downturn at the plate, but 2020 proved to be a trying year for Sanchez offensively, as he slashed .147/.253/.365 with 64 strikeouts in 178 plate appearances. The impressive job done by Kyle Higashioka toward the end of the season further complicates Sanchez’s standing in the organization, but it is sure to be a major focal point of the Yankees’ offseason discussions to make the best of Sanchez’s situation as they see fit.
2) How to keep DJ LeMahieu in pinstripes
By now, Yankees fans have grown to adore the blue-collar mentality of DJ LeMahieu, aptly nicknamed “The Machine.” Day in and day out, LeMahieu was the most consistent force in the Yankees lineup for the second season in a row. This year he earned himself the American League batting title after hitting a remarkable .364 at the plate, becoming the first player in the modern era to do so in both leagues.
LeMahieu’s top-shelf offense as well as his versatility and quality on the defensive side will help him earn a significant pay bump this offseason, and the Yankees will have to take that into consideration as they assemble their roster for the 2021 season. When LeMahieu signed prior to the 2019 season he did so on a two-year, $24 million deal with the Bombers, making him one of the best values in baseball over that span. Based on several expert opinions, that annual figure could rise in upwards of $20 million per season; it’ll just be a matter of how many years teams will be willing to offer to the MVP-caliber infielder.
3) Which Yankees free agents stay, which go?
Along with the aforementioned LeMahieu, there are some other key players hitting free agency this offseason including three members of the starting rotation: Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ. With Domingo German expected to rejoin the pitching staff for the start of next season followed eventually by Luis Severino coming off Tommy John surgery, the Yankees could elect to go with internal options like youngsters Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt to fill out those vacancies.
It would be hard to imagine the two-time All-Star Tanaka playing for a different club after the success he’s enjoyed in the Bronx, but he will be entering his age-32 season next year and the Yankees farm system is flush with promising arms on their way up through the pipeline.
4) Brett Gardner’s future and the Yankees outfield
After a year without fans in the stands, it would be tough to envision Yankees lifer Brett Gardner having played his final game in pinstripes without a proper Bronx send-off, and if it were up to him, he’d be back in uniform looking to mount one final charge toward another championship next year. Gardner has a $10 million club option for next season with a buyout of $2.5 million, but with youngsters like Clint Frazier and eventually Estevan Florial pushing their way to the forefront, the Yankees’ outfield depth chart is full of quality options.
Gardner showed he’s still immensely valuable in his role, providing some key clutch hits in the postseason and a 108 OPS+ during the regular season. Do the Yankees have room to keep him on the roster for one more go next year? Can they afford to lose his leadership in the clubhouse if they moved in another direction? Only time will tell.
5) What to do with Miguel Andujar?
The 2018 American League Rookie of the Year runner-up will be 26 years old by next Opening Day and with Gio Urshela playing like an All-Star for the Yankees at third base, it appears Andujar’s path to everyday playing time will once again be a bit murky heading into 2021. The Yankees worked to convert Andujar into an option in left field and may continue to explore that route for next season, but Clint Frazier’s breakout performance on both sides of the ball and the team’s depth will make it that much harder for Andujar to break into the outfield rotation.
An up-and-coming team like the Tigers could match up well as a potential trade partner for an impact hitter like Andujar, but roster depth has proven time and again to be critical to any MLB team’s long-term success. Andujar is too good to languish in the Minor Leagues for much longer, even if his defensive abilities still need some polish.
6) Improving defense and lineup balance
The Yankees offense was among the most prolific in baseball over the shortened 2020 regular season with an AL-best 315 runs scored and a .789 team OPS. Luke Voit ended the year as the AL home run leader with 22 blasts, LeMahieu owned the league’s highest batting average and Gio Urshela was once again outstanding with both the bat and the glove at third base. All three of those players, however, hit from the right side of the plate, and outside of Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, Mike Ford, Tyler Wade and the switch-hitting Aaron Hicks, the rest of the lineup was right-handed.
After falling short in the playoffs against the well-balanced lineup of Tampa Bay, would the Yankees consider looking to improve their right/left offensive balance as one of their offseason goals? Another factor is the team’s defense, which committed a league-high 48 errors this past season. All of those runs scored made up for some of those shortfalls, but tightening things up on the defensive side should be another area of focus the Yankees will look to improve heading into next year.
7) How to dethrone the AL East champion Rays
In Game 2 of this year’s ALDS, some thought the Yankees tried to out-Rays the Rays by attempting to deceive Kevin Cash into fielding a wrong-handed lineup against New York’s own opener/bulk pitching combination of Deivi Garcia and J.A. Happ. Whatever the intent was, the result did not tilt the Yankees’ way as they dropped the second game of the series by a score of 7-5. The ALDS could have easily gone the Yankees’ way with some better luck, but as the regular season proved, the Rays are no longer the little brother of the division and will once again pose another major challenge to AL East supremacy in 2021.
With the Orioles, Blue Jays and Red Sox still a ways away from legitimately contending for the division crown, it will once again shape up to be a two-team race in the East between the Yankees and Rays, two clubs whose burgeoning rivalry is quickly becoming one of the most compelling in baseball.
The Yankees’ proverbial window of championship contention doesn’t appear to be closing anytime soon, but as it is with every team, it won’t stay open forever. The Bombers will surely be back in prime position to achieve their ultimate goal of capturing a 28th World Series title next season, but there will also be some shake-ups to the roster before next Spring Training gets underway.
Stay tuned to YES Network for all the latest news and developments regarding the Yankees and the team’s offseason moves as the winter months begin to approach.