Yankees: Are they really the American League favorite?

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 21: A New York Yankees hat is seen during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on April 21, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 21: A New York Yankees hat is seen during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on April 21, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /
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Yankees fans are by now aware of Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s assertion that “There’s no way you can’t think that the Yankees are the team to beat in the American League.”

They are also aware Astros pitcher Justin Verlander wasn’t happy about that, and, at the risk of having my fellow Yankees fans grab pitchforks and chase me down, I can’t say I blame him.

"I can think of a reason. https://t.co/Pt3nTunBNK— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) February 13, 2018 I can think of a reason. https://t.co/Pt3nTunBNK— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) February 13, 2018"

Before we go any further, let me point out that I am a lifelong, die-hard Yankees fan. That is why I’m here. I’m also not blind to the facts, which show the Yankees are not the favorite to win the American League.

Here are the facts: the Yanks enter Spring Training with their excellent bullpen intact from last season. Key players like Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez are also back. However, they also begin the season with questions about two infield positions and the starting rotation.

In the projected American League standings from Baseball Prospectus, the Yanks project to finish at 96-66. That’s good enough to win the AL East, but it’s not even the best record in the American League.

Both the Cleveland Indians and — you guessed it — the Houston Astros project to win more games.

In fact, the ‘Stros project to win 99 games and finish with the best record in the majors. The defending champs didn’t lose much this offseason and added one of the league’s best young pitchers in Gerrit Cole.

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While the Yanks made a considerable addition to the offense in Giancarlo Stanton, they also lost Starlin Castro, Todd Frazier and Chase Headley. None of those guys is a world-beater, but all three were key contributors.

Castro hit .300, made the AL All-Star Team and was worth 2.0 WAR (wins above replacement).

Frazier had a 1.6 WAR value during his stint in New York, and Headley had a 1.8. That’s a total of 5.4 WAR in the regular season. Also, Headley was one of the few Yankees to produce at the plate in the 2017 ALCS against the Astros.

Let’s look at some projections for the players expected to replace those three guys for the Yanks in 2018: Gleyber Torres, Ronald Torreyes, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade.

According to the PECOTA projections in Baseball Prospectus, the entire group projects at 1.7 WAR. While Stanton projects to 3.9 WAR on his own (for a total of 5.6 WAR); players like Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks and Gregorius are expected to regress.

Let’s take a broader view. The Yankees’ projected depth chart this year has a value of 41.1 WAR. That’s pitchers and hitters combined. Last year’s squad? 53.2. That’s a significant regression.

Houston’s roster, coincidentally, was also worth 53.2 WAR last year. This year, it projects at 47.

Many fans compare the Astros’ addition of Cole to the Yanks having Sonny Gray for a full season.

Here’s the PECOTA projection for Gray: a 13-8 win-loss record, with a 3.99 ERA and 154 K in 174 IP for a WAR value of 2.5.

Cole projects to have a slightly better year: a 13-7 win-loss record with a  3.64 ERA and 159 K in 168 IP, for a WAR value of 2.8.

The Yankees did nothing to bolster their rotation from last year. CC Sabathia is another year older. The rest of the rotation, save for Gray, is projected to regress somewhat.

Here’s the good news: projections are just that. They’re not set in stone. Several Yankees outplayed last year’s projections. There’s no reason that can’t happen again.

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As Yankees’ fans, we always want to hear that the manager and players have their eyes on a championship. That should be the goal every year. But, to say there’s no reason the Yankees aren’t the American League favorite is pure fantasy.

The numbers just don’t bear it out. Besides, isn’t it more exciting to be the underdog?