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These are the cyborg Yankees and they are here to win the World Series

For the longest time, New York Yankees fans have welcomed Opening Day with a sense of mild trepidation. More than anything else, the team’s recent fortunes have been beholden to health, and the ease with which Yankee stars wind up on the treatment table has become the definitive caveat of this pinstriped generation.

We have prayed for Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton to stay on the field. We have daydreamed about Luis Severino rebounding from yet another setback. We have winced at the physical implosion of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltrán and Jacoby Ellsbury.

We have crossed our fingers for CC Sabathia. We have shook our heads at Michael Pineda. Heck, going way back, we have even worried about Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter being ready to play amid their twilight years. Persistent, low-level worry has become ingrained in the organisation’s culture, teeth-gnashing panic concealed by smiley façades of frail hope.

Indeed, since the Yankees last won a world championship in 2009, there has been no end to the health-related anxiety coursing through this fanbase. That is unlikely to end anytime soon, as Major League Baseball gets set to open a severely truncated 2020 season amid a global pandemic of unprecedented scope and scale.

How COVID-19 is impacting Major League Baseball

Sure, Yankee fans are worried about the usual deluge of stress fractures and muscle strains, stiff necks and elbow implosions. However, just like every big league team, the Bombers have more pressing concerns in 2020, namely preventing the people in their employ from contracting COVID-19, the most devastating virus of our time.

Across the United States, more than 144,000 people have died from the disease, which is conveyed by a novel coronavirus that has altered our daily existence unlike anything in living memory. There have been 3.9 million cases in America, while New York was one of the early hotspots. We are still far from finding a cure, so turmoil will remain a familiar companion for months ahead.

Indeed, as state-mandated lockdowns plunged the world into quarantine, the very fabric of society has been altered beyond recognition. Home working has become the norm. Recreation has been restricted. Travel has been banned. Sports – perhaps the most important of the unimportant things – have been hit hard, too, as all major professional leagues hibernated for almost five months. Tremendous pain gave rise to a new, uncomfortable normal, and we are all still figuring things out.

Major League Baseball has not played a real, live, competitive game for 268 days. The Yankees last suited up for a meaningful game nine months and five days ago. Never in the game’s organised history have teams gone so long between full-blooded contests. I have almost forgotten what it feels like to watch a ballgame.

The 2020 regular season was originally tabbed to start on 26th March. However, MLB aborted traditional spring training two weeks before Opening Day, acquiescing to the global zeitgeist by entering a prolonged lockdown. Months of interminable labour strife then dragged baseball through the mud, as players and owners argued over return-to-play proposals, before a 60-game slate was finally forced through by beleaguered commissioner Rob Manfred in June.

Now, at a time when the US is facing its most daunting battle with COVID-19 to date, sports will attempt to return in a conflicting vacuum. Baseball, in particular, will look unfamiliar to traditional observers. Ballparks will be empty, rosters will be expanded, and influential players have already opted-out. Still, a group of guys wearing those fabled Yankee pinstripes will soon assemble on a diamond, chasing the most unusual world championship opportunity this sport has ever concocted. That alone will be intriguing to watch.

What to expect from the 2020 MLB season

When newcomers first learn that each MLB team plays 162 regular season games per year, they are typically astounded. However, that seemingly absurd total is used for a reason: it takes that many games to separate bad from mediocre, mediocre from average, average from good, and good from great.

More than any other sport, baseball is beholden to luck, with minuscule margins between success and failure. In a game where somebody who fails six out of ten times winds up in the Hall of Fame, a long track is needed to diversify the field. Playing every day from April through September helps filter the detritus.

Naturally, reducing the length of a baseball season by 63% will have drastic consequences for competitive balance, statistical accomplishments and the general race for playoff participation. Even the greatest baseball teams are not immune to losing streaks and periodic slumps, but in 2020, unlike more conventional years, those downturns could be fatal.

Within such a condensed and competitive environment, the value of every win is heightened considerably. Therefore, the worth of every run, and the importance of every out, also increases correspondingly. In turn, individual skills have an unusual power to influence outcomes this year, more so than at any other juncture of baseball history, and that will bring unending strategic nuance to the game.

For instance, a team that has a precious prospect capable of reaching triple digits on the radar gun may be inclined to use him in a pinch, ignoring traditional logic. We are going to see teenage Double-A phenoms drafted in to pitch singular innings, as teams study data and massage favourable matchups. We are going to see one-dimensional power hitters swing for the fences in tailored situations. And we are going to see designated base-stealers win games without even holding a bat.

In short, expect the unexpected this year. Await the chaotic, the ridiculous and the outright nonsensical. Things are about to get weird, and those who are able to adapt have the best opportunity to succeed. There will likely be a bunch of teams clustered around the postseason bubble, lurching for the line like sprinters in a 100-metre race. Weathering storms to merely be in that picture will be the first priority of every contender.

Reintroducing your 2020 New York Yankees

It has been so long since the Yankees last played a meaningful ballgame, it is worth refreshing the narrative with regard to this team and where it currently sits in the self-styled evolution authored by owner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman. The Yankees are all-in, hunting for a world championship, but a little context should help fuel even more optimism for the season ahead.

In each of the last three years, the Yankees have improved their regular season win total only to fall short in the playoffs. From 91 wins in 2017, New York improved to 100 victories in 2018 and 103 triumphs last season. Still, the Yankees lost in agonising fashion to the Houston Astros in 2017 and 2019, coming within breathing distance of a World Series appearance both times only to see their hopes shattered. A postseason loss to the rival Red Sox in between did little to help the mood, but a sense of momentum has accompanied these Yankees throughout their maturation.

Indeed, the franchise is now focused on taking advantage of the contention window it spent years defining. Without a world championship in 11 years, the Yankees tweaked their ethos in the 2010s, developing elite homegrown players such as Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez. The team went five years without a postseason win during that stretch, but a complicated rebuild yielded fresh opportunity.

As Judge and Sánchez bloomed into major league stars, the Yankees augmented their roster with strategic imports such as Giancarlo Stanton and DJ LeMahieu. They have been unable to crack the code thus far, failing to deliver on mounting expectations, but further enhancements over the prolonged offseason have the team firmly in contention once again.

The Gerrit Cole effect

Of course, the major addition was Gerrit Cole, arguably the best starting pitcher in baseball. A lifelong Yankees fan, Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the team in December, bringing his career full circle in pursuit of greatness. Once a Yankees draft pick, and perennially a trade target of Cashman, Gerrit finally gets a chance to wear pinstripes, and his starts will be appointment viewing.

At 29, Cole has blossomed into the ultimate ace of baseball’s post-analytics age. Between 2013 and 2017, Cole was very good for the Pittsburgh Pirates, posting a 3.50 ERA and a 1.217 WHIP through five seasons of progressive growth. However, after being dealt to the Astros in 2018, Cole became a zealot of empirical advancement, using the latest tools of algebra and bioscience to enhance his mentality, physique, strategy and pitch usage.

Once a stud, Cole became a legend in Houston, winning 77% of his decisions across 65 starts, spanning two scintillating seasons. Gerrit went 15-5 with a 2.88 ERA and a 1.033 WHIP in 2018, striking out 12.4 batters per nine innings. He improved to 20-5 last year, posting a 2.50 ERA and a comical 0.895 WHIP while logging 326 strikeouts. Cole’s 2019 K/9 rate of 13.82 was the greatest of baseball’s modern era (since 1901), eclipsing 2001 Randy Johnson and 1999 Pedro Martinez, hitherto the paragons of contemporary pitching.

That is what the Yankees are getting, folks. They went out and acquired the most dominant pitcher in baseball, and that has not happened for generations. Sure, Tanaka was hyped. And yes, Sabathia was a bulldog. Mussina was pretty good, too. But with the exception of Roger Clemens, it is difficult to find a recent comparison to the signing of Cole in pinstriped lore.

For so long, the Yankees have lacked that automatic, bonafide, electric lockdown ace. From Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry through Andy Pettitte and David Cone, their best pitchers have relied more on finesse than brute force. Cole has mastered both techniques, and it will be a pleasure to watch his Yankee Stadium ascent.

Pitch framing and bioscience - Inside the cyborg Yankees of 2020

Cole is already having a transformative impact on the Yankees’ team culture. Gerrit is so focused on the minutiae of pitching, and his meticulous methodology is contagious. In many respects, then, Cole is an ideal prototype of these new-age Yankees. If Cashman or Steinbrenner could build their ultimate ballplayer, Gerrit would be the result. He is the living embodiment of everything this franchise wants to become.

Indeed, the Yankees made a raft of non-roster upgrades during the offseason, taking a quantum leap forward in their domination of big data baseball. Matt Blake, a thirtysomething innovator, replaced Larry Rothschild, a crusty relic of yesteryear, as pitching coach. Tanner Swanson, a pitch framing whiz, was pilfered from Minnesota to become the Yankees’ catching coordinator. Meanwhile, the franchise overhauled much of its training staff, creating new roles focused on player performance and bioscience.

Last season, the Yankees suffered more injuries than any team in baseball history, but manager Aaron Boone was still able to deliver a deep playoff drive. This year, team powerbrokers hope the strategic improvements they have made help streamline Boone’s task and make his life easier. In theory, that will certainly be the case, but tangible results are still required for certainty.

Assessing the Yankees’ 2020 roster and taxi squad

Blake will hopefully eke more value from the starting rotation, which features James Paxton, JA Happ, Jordan Montgomery and Michael King besides Cole. Swanson will hopefully get the best out of Sánchez, whose truculence obscured precocious ability. But as ever with the Yankees, the relative strength of their 2020 roster will depend on the extent to which Boone gets to pick his best lineup every day.

The Yankees have already lost Severino, their fragile superstar, to Tommy John Surgery. Tanaka is currently working through a concussion protocol that could get complicated. Then you have to consider Aroldis Chapman, the bullpen ace; LeMahieu, last year’s team MVP; and Luis Cessa, a promising reliever – all of whom have contracted coronavirus. A delicate approach will be needed to reintegrate those important cogs when time allows.

In the outfield, Judge and Stanton are healthy at this point, after overcoming a myriad of scrapes and niggles throughout the offseason and spring. These days, we tend to get updates on their health even when there is no distinct injury, a worrying sign of unavoidable physical decline for two mammoth sluggers.

Nevertheless, Judge has been red hot during the abbreviated slate of exhibitions and intrasquad games here recently, so Yankees fans once again have their fingers crossed that Aaron and Giancarlo can stay on the diamond together. That will be a huge factor in determining the fate of this team.

Fortunately, the Yankees do have a decent amount of depth, and that is critical for any modern ballclub that wishes to contend for championships. Gleyber Torres is a genuine superstar at 23. Aaron Hicks is one of the most underrated players in baseball. Then you have the dynamic, toolsy guys who carried this team so far last season – understated heroes like Gio Urshela, Mike Ford and Mike Tauchman.

The Yankees also get Miguel Andújar back this season, while Clint Frazier has made noticeable improvements at the plate. In short, they have many pieces for Boone to shift around the board, mixing and matching as health and matchups dictate.

Clarke Schmidt is ready to contribute when needed. Deivi Garcia may get a chance, too. There are more than enough bodies to keep the Yankees competitive in even the worst circumstances. If anything, Boone may struggle to keep everyone happy with their playing time.

How will the Yankees perform in 2020?

Ultimately, then, the Yankees are beholden to injuries – or the suppression thereof – with regard to their ceiling. If Cole, Judge, Stanton, Sánchez and Torres stay healthy, they are quite possibly the best players at their respective positions in the American League. Throw LeMahieu in that bracket, too. Perhaps Chapman, as well. If Boone gets to string those names together on his lineup card more often than not, there is no limit to the Yankees’ potential.

Even if New York is forced to deal with a few injuries and COVID-related absences here and there, it has the depth to weather those storms. Often, championship teams are those with a sturdy floor rather than a lofty ceiling, and the Yankees have a wealth of complementary pieces that can be plugged into an otherwise functional juggernaut. In this regard, they should certainly make the playoffs, and anything can happen from there.

To be super critical of the team’s chances in 2020, I still worry about its pitching in October. Even if Tanaka slots back in nicely, the Yankees could do with another premium arm to compete in short playoff series. But hey, which team does not have that desire? Besides, there is a trade deadline on 31st August, and Cashman may look to find reinforcements then.

Right now, on the eve of Opening Day, I make the Yankees favourites to win the American League pennant. Houston will take a step back, I believe, after losing Cole and replacing the disgraced AJ Hinch with Dusty Baker, who last won a postseason series in 2003. Minnesota will be dangerous. Oakland could make a run. Even in the AL East, Toronto and Tampa Bay have the youthful vigour to make life difficult. However, the Yankees have what it takes to beat them all, and I think they will.

Projections and predictions for the 2020 Yankees

In this regard, it is worth taking a quick look at the various projections and predictions for this forthcoming season. FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski has the Yankees winning 37 games in his ZiPS model, an industry leader. FiveThirtyEight has them winning 36, as does RotoChamp, which collates projections from a wide array of sources into its system.

Personally, I have the Yankees a hair under those marks, more in the 35-win range, with Tampa Bay pushing them hardest in the division. We are likely to see an almighty scramble for the American League wildcard, but I have the Twins facing the winner of that play-in anyhow. I project the Yankees to face Houston in the 2020 ALDS, and I think they have enough to meet the challenge this time.

Minnesota has lost 12 consecutive postseason games to the Yankees. The Twins have lost 15 straight playoff games in total. I see them turning that around somewhat this year, likely pushing through to meet New York in the ALCS, but the Yankees should just have enough to clinch their first pennant since 2009, in my opinion.

Of course, this is silly season with regard to baseball predictions, but even I struggle projecting a likely World Series matchup at this point. I think the Dodgers will blow through the National League, and I put them top of the pre-season power rankings, but anything thereafter is risky. Just now, I would make Los Angeles the overall favourite to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy, but so much has to happen for us to even reach that point in October.

In many ways, then, we come full circle by trying to predict the outcome of a severely altered Major League Baseball season that may implode at any second. In a world where we can barely predict the next hour, let alone the next day, there are too many variables at play to make accurate pronouncements about any mere baseball team. We do so anyway, because the escapism is nice.

Life during a global health emergency is scary, confusing and capricious. Sports will be that way, too, both now and in years to come. I hope the Yankees win the World Series this year. I really do. But I also hope we just manage to play baseball every day for the next three months. Both would be great, but neither is guaranteed. Health remains the ultimate unknown, in the pinstriped galaxy just as in the real world at large. Nobody has the answer, but we all have hope. Let the best team win, but let them all stay safe regardless.

 

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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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