While the northeast continues to dig itself out of one snowstorm after another, baseball teams are beginning to mark the impending arrival of spring as they make their way down to the Sunshine State for the start of another MLB season.
The New York Yankees officially kick off this year’s spring camp on Feb. 17 as pitchers and catchers report to the facilities at George M. Steinbrenner Field, while position players follow closely behind to report on Feb. 22.
The Bombers are hoping to capture their 28th World Series title in 2021, and this could be the year they get over the hump. However, a full season and playoff run stand between them and championship glory.
As the long-awaited excitement of Spring Training finally approaches, here are 10 reasons fans should be excited about this year’s Yankees season.
DJ LeMahieu is back
DJ LeMahieu has undeniably been one of the best players in baseball over the last two years. As he weighed offers from around the league in free agency this past offseason, the 32-year-old infielder decided to bring his talents back to the Bronx and agreed to a six-year deal to remain in Yankees pinstripes. LeMahieu’s achievements as a Yankee have been well documented, and even casual fans can easily see how effective he is at the top of the lineup for New York. There’s little reason to expect anything different from the MVP-caliber performances he’s put forth in his first two seasons with the Bombers, and few hitters in baseball are as downright fun to watch as LeMahieu.
The lineup is absolutely loaded
Perhaps the most encouraging news for the 2021 Yankees is that their depth in the starting lineup will return nearly in its entirety for the upcoming season. A year ago, the Bombers produced the most runs in the American League (315) and look to be entirely capable of matching that with a lineup featuring last year’s home run leader in Luke Voit (22), last year’s batting average leader in DJ LeMahieu (.364) -- and oh by the way, a few guys to fill in the gaps like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela to name a few. When healthy, there is virtually no weak spot in the Yankees lineup from top to bottom.
The big boppers have a new-and-improved training program
The only thing that’s held back the Yankees from reaching their full potential over the last few years has been the injury bug. From those challenges emerged a collective team identity characterized by the mantra “Next Man Up,” and in spite of all those ups and downs, the Bombers have managed to remain one of the top teams in the AL.
Two key players who have dealt with their share of injury setbacks are Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, but this winter the two mammoth sluggers have taken a “dramatically different approach” to their offseason training thanks to the guidance of Yankees Director of Health and Performance Eric Cressey. If Cressey’s wisdom can help those two immensely powerful bats stay in the lineup and approach their ceiling for the entire 2021 season, the Bombers may well become the “fully operational Death Star” they have the potential of being.
Gerrit Cole gets a full season to dominate
The Yankees’ biggest free-agent acquisition in years certainly had plenty of unpredictable hurdles to contend with in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, but Gerrit Cole still managed to fulfill his towering ace-level expectations a season ago. Cole instantly became a respected and vocal leader in the clubhouse and finished the regular season with a 7-3 record and a 2.84 ERA, good for a fourth-place finish in Cy Young voting. The 30-year-old will now get his first opportunity to settle into a familiar rhythm for a full season (barring any unforeseen COVID-19 setbacks) and Yankees fans should feel awfully excited to see what he can do on the mound in 2021.
The up-and-coming arms could be very exciting
One of the major narratives surrounding the Yankees heading into this new season is the uncertainty around which men will stake their claim for a full-time role in the pitching staff. Sure, veterans like Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton may no longer be with the team, but that might be overshadowing just how impactful the up-and-comers have a chance to be with more opportunities.
Clarke Schmidt has one of the nastiest breaking balls on the roster and he’s only 24. Deivi Garcia pitched himself to the Majors far earlier than expected and he’s only 21. Luis Medina has forced his way into the conversation with an outstanding winter ball performance in Puerto Rico and he’s only 21. Michael King is another capable young arm looking to prove himself at the next level and he’s only 25. And who knows who else might rise through the ranks after last year’s Minor League affiliates were unable to play out a proper season? It might be a different-looking Yankees staff in 2021, but it has the chance to be a dynamic one if things break the right way.
Clint Frazier gets his first full-season opportunity
After being hounded by questions about his defensive abilities in the outfield early on in his career, Clint Frazier earned himself a Gold Glove nomination last year while showing how mighty his “legendary bat speed” can be with consistent at-bats. Frazier, 26, has always maintained a high level of confidence throughout his time in pinstripes, and with concussion symptoms and MLB’s topsy-turvy 2020 season in the rearview mirror, this upcoming campaign could prove to be the official breakout party fans have been waiting for. In 162 career games at the MLB level, Frazier has posted a slash line of .258/.331/.475 with 32 doubles, 24 home runs, 82 RBI and an OPS+ of 113, not to mention a growing number of highlight-reel plays in the outfield. This year could be a season to remember for the young fan-favorite.
New pitching staff additions could make major impacts
The two major additions the Yankees made to their starting rotation include the signing of free agent and two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, as well as the acquisition of 2010’s second overall draft pick Jameson Taillon. Both have worked tirelessly to build themselves up for the 2021 season; Kluber and Cressey have worked together to try and fend off any more injuries for the veteran righty and Taillon enters 2021 with a totally re-worked pitching motion that’s got him all kinds of excited to step back on the mound.
Sure, there’s some risk involved in betting on two players coming back from injuries, but there’s also immense reward to be gained from adding a pair of arms with these kinds of proven track records to the pitching staff. The Yankees are always diligent in scouting players’ health outlooks before bringing them to the Bronx, and with some good luck, these two top-end talents could help the Yankees prevent as many runs as the lineup expects to put up this season.
Aroldis Chapman’s arsenal is evolving
It might be easy for Yankees fans to take for granted how luxurious having a closer like Aroldis Chapman at the back end of the bullpen has been, but even into his 30s, the hard-throwing lefty has remained a dominant force. Chapman, who will turn 33 on Feb. 28, has noticeably evolved as a pitcher over the last several years. In 2021 he could look to further incorporate a splitter into his simple-but-effective arsenal.
“As the years go by, you develop more as a pitcher,” Chapman recently told Lindsey Adler of The Athletic. “You become smarter. Experience plays into that as well. The effectiveness of mixing pitches and being able to be smarter on the mound, it’s really the reason why I find myself interested in using different patterns of pitching.”
Even if his average fastball velocity has inevitably waned over his 11-year career, it can still be an overpowering force. The Yankees bullpen has undergone a handful of changes from 2020 to 2021, but having Chapman back in the fold to shut things down should give fans a very comforting feeling heading into the new year.
The American League is very winnable
Looking from a bird’s-eye view on the American League, the Yankees are shaping up to be one of its most dominant teams again this season. The latest PECOTA projections predict a 97-win season for the Yankees -- a full four wins better than the next-closest AL team, the Astros (93.0), and 11 wins better than the defending division-champion Rays (86.4).
Tampa has now seen the departures of two major contributors to their rotation in Blake Snell (San Diego) and Charlie Morton (Atlanta), and even though the Blue Jays have brought in premier free-agent hitters like George Springer and Marcus Semien, their rotation still lacks top-end depth behind Hyun-jin Ryu.
Outside of the AL East, which clubs pose the biggest threat to derailing the Yankees’ path to the World Series? The Twins? White Sox? Astros? Angels? With all due respect to each of these clubs (and barring any other significant roster moves), the Yankees should have plenty of confidence facing any one of them in a potential must-win series, making the AL pennant as winnable as it’s been in recent history.
More motivation than ever to win No. 28
With all the roster moves, offseason narratives and lofty expectations heading into 2021, the ultimate question left to be answered is: “What will it take for the Yankees to get over the hump and win it all?”
Aaron Boone was asked this very question in late-January. “The difference between moving on and going home is sometimes razor-thin, and that’s certainly been the case for us,” Boone explained. The Bombers have advanced all the way to the ALCS twice in the last four seasons, getting achingly close to their first World Series appearance since 2009. Sometimes all it takes is one crucial lucky break or one wrong move by the opposition, but as John Sterling’s timeless catchphrase goes, “That’s baseball, Suzyn.”
One thing working in the Yankees’ favor and demonstrated by recent baseball history is how difficult it is to repeat as World Series champions. As PECOTA and Las Vegas oddsmakers can affirm, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the biggest superpower on paper standing in the Yankees’ way of a 28th championship. No club has won back-to-back titles since the late-90s Yankees dynasty teams, who claimed three straight in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Dodgers have taken strides to become the first team since those legendary Bombers clubs to win consecutive titles with the addition of prized free-agent ace Trevor Bauer, but the challenge is going to be immense for them to climb to the mountaintop for the second year in a row.
“Hopefully this is the year we can do it, that’s the expectation,” said Boone of his team’s World Series aspirations. “I know we’ll have a confident group that hopefully will put is in that position.”