Even if the 2018 Major League Baseball season started tomorrow, the New York Yankees could still go out and improve on a 2017 season that ended at the doorstep of the World Series.
This, despite how their only offseason move of note has been finding a new manager.
The job that belonged to Joe Girardi for a decade now belongs to Aaron Boone, a man with baseball bloodlines and a loaded resume of baseball achievements. Although managerial experience isn't among the latter, the hope is he can put the Yankees in the World Series much like he once did in 2003.
A quick glance at the Yankees' payroll makes it look like their next move should be doing what they usually do during the winter. They are only projected to spend $156 million in 2018, $40 million short of where they opened 2017. That's license to go full-Steinbrenner on the free-agent and trade markets.
New York's mission is to get under the luxury tax, which precludes it from its typical brand of lavish spending. Most winters, that would be a problem. Here's a look at why it's not this time around.
They Are Owed Wins
With a few exceptions—notably CC Sabathia, Todd Frazier, Matt Holliday, Michael Pineda and Jaime Garcia—the Yankees are set to bring back the same roster that produced 91 wins in 2017.
That's a solid sign in and of itself, and a great sign in context of how many games the 2017 Yankees should have won. Baseball Reference put their true record at 100-62. FanGraphs did that one better, putting it at 101-61.
These aren't concoctions of eccentric science. They are concoctions based on how many runs the Yankees scored and allowed. Their good-not-great record was backed by a run differential that was bested only by the Cleveland Indians', per ESPN.com.
The implication is that even a repeat of 2017 could lead to better results for the Yankees in 2018. They need not load up their roster with additional stars. Simply rounding it out with enough depth should be good enough.
But there is still the matter of how the Yankees will materialize their outstanding wins. What should help is...
Boone's Bullpen and Clubhouse Wizardry
When it comes down to how, exactly, the Yankees fumbled their shot at a 100-win season, the best answer is they struggled to finish close games. To wit, they went just 18-26 in one-run games.
The irony is they were precisely the kind of team that should have dominated such contests.
Nothing secures close games like elite relievers, and the Yankees had more than their share of those. Their bullpen only finished third in ERA but first in OPS allowed and, according to FanGraphs, wins above replacement.
Barring a trade, the gang is due to return in full in 2018. Although Chad Green, Chasen Shreve and Tommy Kahnle are regression candidates, David Robertson is as steady as they come and Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances could both be a lot better than they were in 2017.
One reason this bullpen's results didn't match its ability in 2017 is what Joel Sherman of the New York Post referred to as a "panicky bullpen strategy" on the part of Girardi. Boone sounds like just the guy to bring more tact to that part of the job.
"I find myself managing games all the time and thinking about strategies and how I would handle different situations," he said, per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "Certainly, it's fair to question my experience in actually doing the job, but I would say in a way I've been preparing for this job for the last 44 years."
Boone is also lauded for how he communicates and connects with people. That promises to be another welcome change from Girardi, whose struggle to connect with his players was a fundamental element of his ousting. A flip from one extreme to another won't raise the Yankees' overall talent level but should help make them equal to the sum of their parts.
Elsewhere, there's how...
Their Starting Pitching Can Be Better
It may have felt like Luis Severino was their only dependable starter at any given moment, but Yankees starters did well enough to finish with a 3.98 ERA in 2017. Only four teams did better.
Up next is the doable task of improving on that performance.
Severino will be back, and there's little reason to expect worse from him. He may get by on electric stuff and little else, but he proved something in 2017: The grind of a full major league season won't necessarily stop him from staying healthy or from maintaining his stuff.
After Severino is Masahiro Tanaka. In light of the 4.74 ERA he put up in 2017, it looks like he did himself a favor by not opting out of his contract. And considering how he finished the year with a 3.12 ERA over his final 19 starts, however, he did the Yankees a favor by not opting out.
New York can also look forward to a full season of Sonny Gray. Acquired in a July blockbuster with the Oakland Athletics, he managed a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts thereafter. Not his best work but in line with his track record as an above-average starter.
Then there's Jordan Montgomery, who's fresh off an overlooked rookie season that featured a 3.88 ERA in 29 starts. Even if some regression is in order, he still makes the grade as a good No. 4 starter.
Shohei Ohtani, best known as Japan's Babe Ruth, would have been a dandy of a choice for the open spot in New York's rotation. Alas, Hoch reported Sunday that the Yankees are out of the running for him.
On the bright side, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported that they have Sabathia in mind for a Plan B. The veteran was a stabilizing force in 2015 and 2016, yet could be had at a reasonable rate for 2018.
The Yankees also have in-house options to pin their hopes on. Among their best prospects are three pitchers who will be ready to contribute in 2018: right-handers Chance Adams and Domingo Acevedo and left-hander Justus Sheffield.
With their pitching squared away, the Yankees would only need their offense to do its part. On that note...
Their Offense Can Be As Good, If Not Better
The Yankees finished 2017 ranked second in MLB in runs and first in home runs. That doesn't leave much room for upward mobility.
Even Aaron Judge may be powerless to push the offense higher. It would be asking a lot of him to repeat the 1.049 OPS and 52 homers that won him the AL Rookie of the Year even if he was fully healthy. Following surgery on his left shoulder, it's asking too much.
Still, a Judge regression wouldn't be the end of the world for this offense.
Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird could pick up whatever slack Judge lets out. The former was good enough to post an .876 OPS with 33 homers in 2017, but his excellent finish (a .944 OPS and 17 homers over 50 games) indicates he still has unexplored upside. The latter was a forgotten man who re-emerged with a .910 OPS and 11 homers over 42 games (postseason included) at the end of the year.
The Yankees offense also stands to get a boost from full seasons from 2017 breakout star Aaron Hicks, who was limited to 88 games, and veteran second baseman Starlin Castro, who was limited to 112 games. It would also help if Didi Gregorius stayed his course and matured even further as an offensive threat.
The big question is what the Yankees will get out of the designated-hitter and third-base slots that were offensive black holes for much of 2017.
However, there are in-house options to fall back on here as well. Clint Frazier is a big-time sleeper coming off an unspectacular rookie season. Gleyber Torres will be arguably baseball's best prospect if he recovers well from Tommy John surgery. Not to be overlooked is Miguel Andujar, who packs a promising bat at third base.
The Yankees will be heard from before the offseason is over. Everyone can count on that. But even as things stand, the cheapest Yankees team in years should be one of the best Yankees teams in years.