Yankees: Weighing 2020 season performance in determining 2021 roster

As the 2020 season draws to a close, the Yankees will have to decide how much to weigh player performances to form the club’s 2021 roster.

Most baseball historians agree that the abbreviated 2020 season has been one of the weirdest in MLB history. Without a doubt, it has been characterized by unique features and remarkable challenges. It has affected everyone differently.

How should MLB general managers, specifically in this case Brian Cashman, view this chaotic time and plan for their 2021 roster/season?

Due to COVID-19, spring training abruptly ended on March 12, almost three weeks before the scheduled beginning of the regular 2020 season. Most Yankees went home and continued to work out and stay in shape. Others remained at the team’s spring training facility in Tampa and worked out there.

Players lost nearly three valuable weeks of spring training and the start of the season was postponed. Instead, they had to wait until the MLB owners and the MLB Players Association reached an agreement as to what a new season would look like (and even decide whether baseball should be played at all).

The two sides were unable to reach an agreement and Commissioner Robert Manfred stepped in and established a plan on how to move forward with a modified/condensed schedule and expanded playoff scenario. The result? A 60-game season with barely any days off and a 16-team playoff field.

Yankee players had only about two weeks of spring training following an approximately two-month layoff before the reduced season began on July 23. The inability to play live baseball for a significant amount of time probably set back Yankee (and other) players.

At the very least, the 60-game season provides ballplayers with fewer opportunities to restore their timing in the batter’s box and improve their fielding.

Among other things, reducing the number of games by over 100 makes it more difficult for players to break out of their batting slumps and for pitchers to get in a rhythm.

On top of that, the stop and start of spring training, with a considerable amount of off time in between, may have had a deleterious effect on conditioning, possibly resulting in injuries to several valuable players (e.g., Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Tommy Kahnle, James Paxton, etc.).

Further, travel and lodging are strictly regulated, and players are forced to adhere to stringent virus protection protocols. Such rules and procedures provide more challenges to address.

There’s a question as to what extent empty stadiums and the absence of loud cheering fans have affected the level of performance of batters and pitchers as well as the general psychology of baseball teams.

As we know, attendance at games varies significantly across MLB teams during the regular season. Unlike a lot of other teams, the Yanks consistently draw large and rowdy crowds at their home games throughout the season.

Most Yankees players are used to raucous cheering fans to uplift their spirits and increase their energy during games, and some Bombers might find the unusual silence in a cavernous empty Yankee Stadium discouraging. At the same time, visiting teams can especially be intimidated by the loyal fans and environment of Yankee Stadium.

The Yanks have had to navigate the negative effects of several rainouts (e.g., on the starting rotation and figuring out ways to use players during countless doubleheaders). New rules governing the length of games in doubleheaders (seven rather than nine innings) and how extra-inning games are played and decided (e.g., an extra-inning contest opens with a runner on second base) were adopted before the start of the compressed season.

Thus far, I believe that most of the “savages” from the Bronx have dealt with these changes well, and may have even benefited from them.

As if the COVID pandemic and being away from their families for an extended period of time wasn’t enough to deal with, Yankee and other baseball players also have been understandably preoccupied with the important equality and social justice/Black Lives Matter movement that has gripped the country during the summer. The movement led to the postponement of games.

While the Bombers have not been directly impacted thus far, wildfires burning out of control and filling the skies with thick smoke in California and other western states are making playing baseball uncomfortable (i.e., lower visibility and respiratory issues). As just announced, the American League playoffs will take place in Los Angeles (Dodger Stadium) and San Diego (Petco Park).

In his attempt to manage these conditions, manager Aaron Boone has had to create new strategies on how to deploy his “savages,” especially starting and relief pitchers and catchers. How much to push ballplayers and how best to rest them has emerged as an ongoing issue for him. Constantly having to juggle lineups from one day to the next has been a major preoccupation for Boone.

Such circumstances and challenges may have adversely affected the level of performance of several Yankee players. Cashman and other club executives will have to determine in what manner and to what extent the unusual conditions involving the 2020 season have affected the performance of their ballplayers.

How much should poor performance during these highly unusual times be weighed in determining roster positions going into the offseason and the 2021 season?

Which Yankees players were affected most by the pandemic?

Comparing the performance of players between the 2019 regular season and the 2020 compressed season, along with performance expectations for this season, it’s evident that several Bombers have struggled during the 2020 season, with Miguel Andujar, Mike Ford, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, James Paxton, Gary Sanchez, Mike Trauchman, and Tyler Wade chief among them.

Besides the vagaries of the shortened 2020 season, age may have caught up with Gardy this summer, and his best years are probably behind him. Both Andujar and Hicks have come off long stints on the IL, and they probably would have benefited from participating in a normal spring training regimen as well as more regular season games.

Paxton, though he was expected to miss time due to his back surgery, could very well now be dealing with his flexor strain because he didn’t have enough time to build back up his arm strength. We’ll never know.

But Sanchez has been arguably the biggest disappointment during the 2020 season. Despite his physical gifts, he has failed to deliver at the plate. He has a low batting average (.134), has struck out almost half the time he’s appeared at the plate, and has only hit a modest number of home runs (8) this summer.

Also, Sanchez continues to struggle with his fielding. My guess is that we are witnessing the real Sanchez this summer irrespective of the strange conditions under which baseball is being played. I predict that the club’s patience will run out (if it hasn’t already) and that the Yanks will move him after the end of the 2020 season.

On the bright side, several players have truly shined. At the top of the list are Clint Frazier and Luke Voit. Each one surpassed prior performance and initial expectations heading into this shortened season.

Frazier is now the regular left fielder with the return of Judge to right field while Voit is a competitive candidate for MVP in the American League. No one predicted either one of these occurrences before the beginning of this season.

DJ LeMahieu was expected to do well this season and he has been terrific. Giancarlo Stanton has had a nice comeback from last year despite his five-week absence. Even Erik Kratz is delivering!

Kyle Higashioka, like Frazier, has been a pleasant surprise, too. His recent three-home-run night against the Toronto Blue Jays was quite impressive. He may be catching more (and Sanchez less) as the season winds down, and then in the playoffs.

Kudos on the mound go to starters Gerritt Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ. And poised beyond his years, Deivi Garcia has been an unexpected bonus towards the end of the year for the Yanks. Zack Britton and Jonathan Holder, along with Jonathan Loaisiga in short and long relief, have been effective coming out of the ‘pen in many difficult situations.

Tanaka and Paxton are free agents heading into the offseason. The Bombers will likely keep Masa and jettison Pax based on their performance during the shortened 2020 season, among other factors.

The Kraken and Miggy will likely be traded for a solid young starting pitcher(s) or perhaps more relief arms.

With the emergence of Frazier as the regular left fielder, the Yanks are unlikely to exercise their $10 million team option for Gardner for next year and will, instead, pay him the $2.5 million buyout.

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At this point, there’s a chance that similar virus protection measures will have to be put in place at least at the outset of the 2021 season. Unless stronger, scientifically-based public health measures are adopted nationally and a safe and effective vaccine is developed and distributed widely, the continued existence of COVID-19 may require a resumption of many if not most of the rules and policies instituted by MLB during the 2020 season.