7 Key Storylines for the New York Yankees' 2021 Season
This is what New York Yankees fans were tweeting at beat writers after The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler broke the news that the team had sent reliever Adam Ottavino to the Boston Red Sox on Jan. 25, in exchange for salary relief. The Yankees were not going to go over the luxury tax threshold.
While the Yankees were busy dealing their Brooklyn-born pitcher, the New York Mets were wheeling and dealing, making several upgrades to their roster, including a splashy acquisition for shortstop Francisco Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco. New owner Steve Cohen made it known he will spare no expense when it comes to building a World Series winner.
What universe are we living in when the Yankees are poor and the Mets are rich? It has been a strange year for everyone, but for the roles in the New York City baseball hierarchy to drastically switch like that, it almost didn’t seem real.
Late owner George Steinbrenner never would have let that happen on his watch.
But the notion that the Yankees are poor is not quite accurate. They may no longer be the best team money can buy, that honor goes to the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. They blew past the luxury tax threshold this winter. But the Yankees will have the second-highest payroll in baseball next year, so just because fans are unhappy with their spending does not mean that they are not spending.
Maybe the bigger story is how the luxury tax is seemingly acting as a hard salary cap for 29 of 30 teams, which would indicate that a salary floor would help keep the competitive balance of the league. But that’s a story for another day.
This story is about the Yankees.
In fact, this is about seven Yankees-related stories. With spring training underway, we preview seven stories to watch for during the 2021 season, because there is more to the Bronx Bombers than just payroll.
1. Domingo German Tries to Make Amends
The right-hander was one of the Yankees' best pitchers in 2019 and the club was counting on him to help pitch them deep into the postseason. But he was placed on administrative leave in September 2019 while the league investigated an alleged domestic violence incident that occurred with his girlfriend, who is also the mother of his child. German received an 81-game suspension in January 2020 and missed the duration of the 2020 season.
German apologized to the team in two group settings (two groups were necessary for COVID-19 distancing) and used his first Zoom press conference to issue a formal apology.
"I want to take this opportunity before answering questions to sincerely apologize to the Steinbrenner family, my teammates, the front office and those around me who love me," he said in Spanish through an interpreter. "I have made mistakes of which I am not proud of, and for that I want to apologize."
The 28-year-old came under fire for an Instagram post a week ago that was captioned, "Everything is over." The caption was quickly changed to "I'm ready."
He asked for forgiveness from his team. He said he has attended mandatory counseling and learned from this incident. Some did forgive him. First baseman Luke Voit, DH Giancarlo Stanton and even manager Aaron Boone said they felt he deserved a chance to redeem himself.
But for some, forgiveness does not come easy. Zack Britton's comments from Feb. 18 revealed that matters this serious require more than just an apology.
"Sometimes you don't get to control who your teammates are," Britton said in a Zoom press conference. "That's the situation."
It will be interesting to watch "the situation" play out through the season.
2. Starting Pitching Depth
The German situation is complicated by the fact that the Yankees badly need him in their rotation. They lost three veteran pitchers from their 2020 rotation and Luis Severino will start the season on the injured list as he continues to recover from February 2020 Tommy John surgery. He could give the club a boost come summer, but the rotation still has to get through the first few months of the season without him.
Instead of signing the most heralded pitchers on the free-agent market this winter, like they have been known to do in years past, the Yankees acquired two reclamation projects in right-handers Corey Kluber (free-agent contract) and Jameson Taillon (trade with Pittsburgh Pirates).
Kluber, a two-time AL Cy Young Award winner, has been limited him to only 36.2 innings over the past two seasons because of injuries.
Taillon underwent Tommy John surgery last winter, his second, but when healthy he's known for his high spin rates. He got a vote of confidence from ace Gerrit Cole, his close friend and former Pirates teammate, before the trade.
They're both risks. And it's strange to see the Yankees taking risks like that when starting pitching was not the team's strength last season. They could have brought back Masahiro Tanaka, one of their most consistent arms, but instead the best they can hope for is that Kluber and Taillon return to old form to pitch behind ace Cole, while left-hander Jordan Montgomery and German give them some quality starts. Top pitching prospects Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt give them some insurance, but like any young pitching prospects, they will have some workload restrictions.
3. Will They Stay Healthy?
COVID-19 is still very much a threat as spring training opens. There is a hope the situation will get better as vaccines become more widely available, but distancing measures are still in effect and teams must adhere to health and safety protocols.
However, there are health concerns for the Yankees beyond coronavirus. Given the club's recent track record when it comes to injuries, the health of the Yankees could be what makes or breaks the season.
Prior to last season, the Yankees hired Eric Cressey as the director of player health and performance. Cressey is a favored trainer among some of MLB's elite talent, especially on the pitching side. He trains Mets' pitcher Noah Syndergaard, and he works with Kluber as well, so the Yankees have been able to keep tabs on their new pitcher's progress.
The Yankees set a record for the most injured players in a single season in 2019. Oft-injured outfielders Stanton, Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks are key pieces of the lineup the club is counting on and the pitching staff needs to stay healthy. The Yankees don't want a repeat of 2019, and may not be able to withstand it this time either.
If healthy, the Yankees are a World Series contender. But it's a big if.
4. Where Will Miguel Andujar Play?
The Yankees' stud third base prospect went from an AL Rookie of the Year favorite in 2018 to a taxi squad regular in 2020. Gio Urshela seems to have overtaken Miguel Andujar at third base. Both of them lack a little bit defensively, but Urshela edges his predecessor in that category and has established himself as a solid-hitting third baseman.
Playing time tends to work itself out, but there is no doubt that Andujar faces an uphill climb. He could find himself back in the minor leagues or on another team completely.
So, what will Andujar do?
The club has been having him take reps in left field during spring. That could be a path back to regular playing time for the 25-year-old Andujar. But the outfield appears just as crowded as the infield, with Brett Gardner back for what could be his final season in baseball and the possibility of Stanton playing some games in the outfield. There's also Judge, Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier.
Which brings us to the next storyline...
5. Will Clint Frazier Get His Chance?
According to Boone, Frazier will be the Yankees starting left fielder as the season begins. But Gardner is still gunning for that job too, and the 37-year-old veteran isn't one to back down.
"I'm planning on playing every day. Obviously, that's not realistic. I know that's not going to happen," the 37-year-old veteran outfielder said on a Zoom press conference Thursday. "But we've seen in the past guys get hurt and things don't always go as planned. And for me, physically, mentally, I just need to be prepared to play every single day."
That statement is textbook Gardner. This shows why he's such a respected leader. If younger players see Gardner preparing as though the job is his, they won't be so quick to cede to another player in a position battle either. This is why the Yankees brought back Gardner on a one-year, $4 million contract with player and team options for 2022.
But the job should go to Frazier, at least until he proves it shouldn't. After battling through concussions, a foot injury and a logjam in the outfield, Frazier finally received the opportunity to show what he could do last season and he took full advantage, hitting .267 with a .905 OPS and eight home runs.
Now 26, Frazier has been the future of the Yankees' outfield for years. The future is finally here.
6. The Gary Sanchez Dilemma
He was once considered one of the best young catchers in baseball, but the last few years have been a little messy. It's been messy behind the plate and behind the scenes, as Sanchez was rumored to be on the outs with the Yankees after a disastrous 2020 season.
The rumor mill has a way of spinning out of control in New York City, especially when it comes to the Yankees. Brain Cashman called his 2020 season "horrible," but the questions began long before Sanchez hit .147 and lost his starting job in the 2020 postseason.
Did pitchers not like throwing to him? Did Aaron Boone not like him? Publicly, Boone defended his catcher following last season. Sometimes controversies in New York are a little overblown.
The Yankees decided to keep him instead of trading him or designating him for assignment over the winter. Now, Boone is pairing him with the Yankees' ace during spring training, indicating that the club still values the embattled Sanchez. Cole previously threw to Kyle Higashioka during his first season in pinstripes, but Boone says there are no plans to give Cole a personal catcher this season. Higashioka and Sanchez will work with all of the team's pitchers at some point this spring.
Sanchez played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where his career began, with the hopes of rediscovering the stroke that made him a two-time All-Star.
7. Can They Win the AL East?
Historically, the AL East has always been one of the toughest divisions, but most years it's dominated by the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It makes for good TV and good headlines.
But now, the Tampa Bay Rays are coming off an American League pennant-winning season. Nothing angers Yankee fans like seeing the low-budget Rays go all the way.
The Toronto Blue Jays have also made no secret of their plans to try and contend. They have three of the best young hitters in the game, in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette, and they were aggressive this winter in their efforts to build a winning team around those three. They want to capitalize while those three are young and in their prime. George Springer and a revamped pitching staff will help them accomplish that.
It's unclear how good the Red Sox might be, but we do know the Baltimore Orioles won't be very good. No longer just hockey towns, Tampa and Toronto are not content being the also-rans this year. The Yankees have World Series aspirations, but so the Rays and Jays. So you can call the Yankees the favorites, but don't say it's by a heavy margin.