Here’s an inside look at some issues facing the Yankees as the 2021 season approaches:
Best position battle: It seems hard to believe there could be any doubt about who the Yankees’ catcher would be, given Gary Sanchez’s production at times during his career. And though the Yankees did keep Sanchez around and give him a raise to $6.35 million after at least discussing the idea of trading him or designating him for assignment, his benching during the playoffs last October after what general manager Brian Cashman recently called a “horrible” season leaves his role in doubt —though his competition, Kyle Higashioka, is more suited to a backup role. For the Yankees’ offense to meet expectations, they need Sanchez to get back to where he was less than two years ago, when he hit 34 homers in 106 games.
Most intriguing minor leaguer: Outfielder Jasson Dominguez just turned 18 this month, and he’s finally due to see his first professional action after signing with the Yankees for $5.1 million in July 2019. Widely considered one of the sport’s top prospects, Dominguez, like nearly all minor leaguers, lost out on last season due to COVID-19. He’ll likely be in Rookie ball this season and isn’t expected to see The Bronx for at least another two years, but after becoming a sensation thanks to his high-price batting-practice videos posted online, and scouting reports that have compared him to Mike Trout and Bo Jackson, it will be interesting to actually see him on the field.
Story to watch develop: Plenty of elite players had miserable 2020 seasons, impacted by the shutdown in March, as well as the strangeness of the entire year. Gleyber Torres was certainly on that list, with Cashman calling into question his conditioning following the restart. But the Yankees are still relying on him at shortstop and are counting on the fact he played much better in the latter part of last season (.873 OPS in his final 25 games, compared to a .509 OPS in his first 17) and even better in the playoffs, when he went 10-for-23 with a pair of homers in seven games.
Manager’s toughest challenges: Cashman and owner Hal Steinbrenner have spoken glowingly of Aaron Boone throughout his time with the Yankees. Still, he’s entering the final year of his contract and despite playoff appearances in each of his first three years, Boone’s Yankees haven’t reached the World Series. To get there, Boone will have to get the most out of a new-look rotation, as well as better health from players such as Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks. And Boone will no doubt play a large role in trying to get more production from Sanchez, who complained to ESPN during the offseason that he wasn’t told why he was benched in the playoffs.
Most intriguing newcomer: Is Corey Kluber the pitcher who lasted one inning a year ago before being sidelined by a shoulder injury — after dealing with a fractured arm in 2019 — or is he the one who had five straight sterling years with the Indians prior to the downturn? The Yankees gambled $11 million on the latter, which is why they let Masahiro Tanaka go back to Japan. They should have an insider’s perspective on Kluber’s health, since he rehabbed with their director of player health and performance, Eric Cressey. Pitching coach Matt Blake also worked with Kluber while both were in Cleveland. But Kluber also turns 35 in April and has pitched just 36 ²/₃ innings over the past two seasons.
Most notable absence: As of this writing, Brett Gardner remains unsigned, and if the outfielder, who made his Yankees debut in 2008, ends up not re-signing with the team, his absence in the clubhouse would be greatly felt. And it would open a giant door for Clint Frazier to finally play a full season in the majors after he emerged as a force when given the opportunity last season. In the meantime, the loss of Tanaka will be sizable. The 32-year-old pitched well and was a steady presence over the course of his seven years with the Yankees. Tanaka said he wanted to return to the Yankees as a free agent, but ultimately went back to play in Japan once the Yankees signed the free agent Kluber and traded for Jameson Taillon.
Don’t be surprised if it becomes an issue: Remember Miguel Andujar? He’s still around, but if third baseman Gio Urshela recovers from offseason elbow surgery in time to be ready for Opening Day, it’s hard to see where Andujar would fit on the roster. The Yankees’ attempt to make him somewhat of a utility player a year ago, moving him from third base to first to left field, didn’t go well, and he split time between The Bronx and the alternate site. He hired a new agent this offseason and, like Sanchez and some others, played winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Andujar turns 26 in March and still has time to prove his 27-homer season, when he finished second to Shohei Ohtani (and ahead of Torres) in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, wasn’t a fluke.
Biggest comeback: Stanton’s comeback may have started last October, when he showed again he’s capable of being one of the most feared hitters in the game. He hit six homers in seven games — after injuries limited him to just seven homers the previous two regular seasons.