While many of the great Yankees’ teams of the past few decades have boasted proven veterans, often signed through free agency, the 2017 lineup features a younger core. While up-and-coming hitters like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Aaron Judge will command a significant amount of attention, the team’s 2017 lineup is complemented by four experienced players.
In a previous post, about the Yankees I pointed out a few of the burning questions facing the team in 2017. In this first installment of this weekly series, let’s take a lot at what fans of the Bronx Bombers can expect from the team’s veteran hitters in Matt Holliday (37 this Sunday), Jacoby Ellsbury (33), Brett Gardner (33) and Chase Headley (32).
Holliday came on board during the winter meetings in December after signing a 1-year $17 million deal. A career .303 hitter through 13 seasons, Holliday saw his average drop to .246 with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016, but still had a productive season from a power standpoint. Through 110 games, the Oklahoma-native launched 20 home runs and 62 RBIs with an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .782- 11th best in the National League (if he had enough at-bats to qualify).
Unfortunately for Holliday, his season came to a halt on August 11 after he was struck in the hand by a fastball from Mike Montgomery, fracturing his thumb.
While he has not played a full season since 2014 (he only played 183 games from ’15-’16), Holliday has the potential to be an impact bat in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup if he can stay healthy.
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While it is difficult to predict exactly what to expect from an injury-riddled played like Holliday, this low risk-high reward signing was the perfect way for GM Brian Cashman to improve the team’s offense. The Yankees have a plethora of outfielders, which eliminates some opportunities for injury- as Holliday will almost exclusively serve as the designated hitter.
Aside from the seven-time all-star’s potential to hit upwards of 25 home runs in the hitter-friendly Yankees Stadium, Holliday possesses a grit that should be passed on to the team’s younger players. With the Cardinals in the thick of a wild card race last season, Holliday returned after being sidelined for just short of two months to give his team a push in the final week of the season — recording a home run and two RBI.
There is no way to sugarcoat it or try to put a positive spin on it — Jacoby Ellsbury has been an utter disaster since joining the Yankees in 2014. With $89.5 million still owed to Ellsbury through 2020 (not to mention a $21 million option/$5 million buyout in 2021), Yankees fans hope that the left-hander can rebound in 2017.
While I lean on the positive side regarding proven players, I have little-to-no expectations for Ellsbury to post impressive numbers ever again. While Ellsbury’s days posting MVP-caliber seasons are surely behind him, the Yankees need Ellsbury to at least perform as an above-average major league player over the course of a full season.
In 148 games last season, the Oregon-native hit to a .263 AVG/.330 OBP/.374 SLG line with nine home runs, 56 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases. Yuck. These statistics have more or less been in line with Ellsbury’s production while with New York over the past three years —.264 AVG/.326 OBP/.382 SLG while hitting just 32 home runs during that span. Ellsbury’s 2.0 WAR (wins above replacement) tied his career low mark set in 2009.
2017 will likely decide Ellsbury’s role with the Yankees moving forward. If he continues to put up barely-serviceable seasons like he did in 2016, the left-hander could see his a significant portion of his playing time delegated to younger players/prospects like Clint Frazier, Aaron Judge or Tyler Austin this year or next.
Gardner has been the closest thing to a Yankees captain since Derek Jeter stepped outside of the lines for the final time in 2014. The nine-year veteran quietly produces impactful stats year after year but flies relatively under the radar because he doesn’t steal as many bases as he could with his speed, or record an average over .300 like many leadoff hitters.
The speedy outfielder makes up for those concerns in other facets of his game — such as his .9919 fielding percentage (FPCT), the fourth highest by a left fielder in Yankees history. Gardner’s spectacular defense netted him a well deserved Gold Glove Award in 2016, which as he finished second in the American League in fielding percentage (.989) and putouts (249).
Additionally, the South-Carolina native led the MLB with 86 plays made “out of his zone” (OOZ) — 11 more than Justin Upton, who was the runner-up. Gardner also finished second in the MLB with 12 Defensive Runs Saved, just two short of Colby Rasmus. His nine assists were good for third-best in the AL.
Gardner’s 2016 offensive statistics (.261 AVG/.351 OBP/.362 SLG) were on par his career numbers (.264 AVG/.346 OBP/.388 SLG), and a closer look at his offensive production shows that if he can continue to produce at this pace, the Yankees will be in good shape.
The lefty’s .351 on-base percentage (OBP) was 26th best in the AL last season. Gardner’s OBP being .90 points higher than his batting average (AVG) can be credited to his keen eye at the plate. His 70 walks were 13th best in the AL last season, and his 11% base-on-balls percentage was 14th best. These stats translated to Gardner having the 9th best contact percentage (84.6%) — meaning that he put 84.6% of the balls he swung at in play.
The biggest concern regarding Gardner’s offense is whether or not he can regain his power in 2017. Gardner homered 33 times between ’14-’15 but hit just seven in ’16. I suspect that this may have just been a down year for Gardner’s power stroke and that he will return to hitting roughly 15 home runs this season.
The Yankees’ third basemen put together his fourth consecutive serviceable, yet unspectacular season, since finishing 5th in the NL MVP-race in 2012. Headley hasn’t even scratched the surface of his 33 home run and league leading 115 RBI season in 2012 since, and it’s hard to get excited to watch him play in 2017.
He produced an offensive line of .253 AVG/.331 OBP/.385 SLG with a .716 OPS to go along with 14 home runs and 51 RBIs in 2016. A decent major league clip, but probably not worth the $26 million Headley is due through 2018.
One major bright-side regarding Headley is that he performed much better at the hot corner in ’16 than he did the previous year. Headley’s FPCT in ’16 (.974) was almost 30 points higher than his FPCT in ’15 (.946). He committed only ten errors last season, which was 13 fewer than he made in ’15.
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Akin to Ellsbury, Headley needs to increase his production this season to keep his regular playing time throughout this season and into next. According to MLB.com, three of the Yankees top 10 prospects (Gleyber Torres, Jorge Mateo, and Miguel Andujar) are infielders expected to be MLB ready in the next two seasons.
Yankees fans can expect completely average seasons out of the duo mentioned above, but perhaps a sense of urgency will spark Ellsbury and Headley’s production in 2017.