AL EastAnalysis

New York Yankees 2021 Season Preview: World Series or Bust

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Adam Koplik takes a look at the New York Yankees!

The New York Yankees. A team who’s legacy is so engrained with winning that any season without hoisting the World Series trophy is a failure. At least, it used to be. The Yankees just completed their first decade without a World Series appearance since the 1910s. Despite continuing the streak of no losing seasons since 1993, the past eleven years have been nothing short of failure for the team. Can 2021 be the year they overcome that final hurdle? Expectations are the highest they’ve been in years, and it’s World Series or bust for the team. So, without further ado, here’s a look at the 2021 Yankees.

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 33-27, 2nd Place in AL East

Team MVP: DJ LeMahieu (.364/.421/.590, 176 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR)

Team Cy Young: Gerrit Cole (2.84 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 1.5 fWAR)

Pros of the 2020 Season:

Ah, the glass half full paragraph! This one is much more fun. Starting off, DJ LeMahieu proved that not only was his fantastic 2019 not a fluke, but that he can produce at an even higher rate as he learned how to use the short porch to his advantage to the tune of 10 home runs. Speaking of dingers, Luke Voit hit more than anyone with 22. Gerrit Cole was as advertised as the season came to a close, Giovanny Urshela proved his bat was legit (133 wRC+), and Clint Frazier finally was able to put it all together (149 wRC+, 2 DRS). All in all, it wasn’t half bad!.

Cons of the 2020 Season:

It was half bad. The 2020 Yankees season finished a shortened season at just 33-27, or an 89 win pace. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton fought injuries (again), Gary Sanchez was simply horrible (68 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR), Gleyber Torres regressed (106 wRC+), and Adam Ottavino took a monstrous step back so large that the Yankees didn’t trust him over Jonathan Loáisiga in October. All in all, the disappointing regular season came to a bitter finish after Mike Brosseau crushed an Aroldis Chapman fastball in Game 5 of the ALDS, sending the Yankees packing from San Diego.

2020-21 Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020:

The most recent offseason saw Yankees fans saying goodbye to many familiar faces. The Yankees chose not to re-sign neither Tanaka nor Paxton as they attempted to stay under the luxury tax threshold. Tanaka decided to go back to Japan, however he did note that he has “unfinished business” in America, which could allude to a possible reunion in the future. Paxton, who’s coming off of a horrendous 2020 season that saw him unable to throw his fast ball with velocity after back surgery and him miss the playoffs with an injury, went back to his original Seattle Mariners. The team non-tendered Tommy Kahnle, who signed a two-year deal with the Dodgers as he’s set to miss the 2021 season due to Tommy John surgery, and shipped former fan favorite Adam Ottavino off to the Boston Red Sox in a shocking trade for many reasons. Not only did the Yankees move a high profile player to their bitter rival, but in a salary dump to get Ottavino’s contract off the books.

Notable Free Agent Additions:

  • SP Corey Kluber – 2019-2020 fWAR: 0.6 (8G)
  • RP Justin Wilson – 2019-2020 fWAR: 0.8
  • RP Darren O’Day – 2019-2020 fWAR: 0.4

Not listed here is the Yankees biggest move of the offseason, as they brought back star second baseman DJ LeMahieu on a steal of a six-year, $90M ($15M AAV) contract. While the deal was a bit longer than fans expected, the amazingly low AAV gave the Yankees the flexibility they needed to stay under the self imposed salary cap and still make moves. One of those moves was taking a chance on former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber on a one-year, $11M deal as he rehabs from a shoulder injury, hoping to unlock what once made him great. The team also addressed the bullpen, using the money freed up by the Ottavino trade to bring in double-barreled action in Justin Wilson and sidearmer Darren O’Day, each on one one-year deals with both team and player options for year number two. Another player who got that same contract was fan-favorite Brett Gardner, who returned to the team on a last-minute signing just before Spring Training began.

Notable Trades:

The move that has me the most excited is the Taillon deal. With his value lower than ever due to him returning from his second Tommy John, the team swooped in and brought in Taillon for four prospects (Miguel Yajure, Roansy Contreras, Canaan Smith, and Maikol Escotto), none of which were in the team’s top ten according to

2021 Projected Roster

Bold denotes changes from 2020

Projected Lineup:

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Aaron Hicks, CF
  4. Giancarlo Stanton, DH
  5. Luke Voit, 1B
  6. Gleyber Torres, SS
  7. Gio Urshela, 3B
  8. Gary Sanchez, C
  9. Clint Frazier, LF

The Yankees lineup didn’t change from last year because, simply, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At the top of the lineup, DJ-Judge-Hicks is not the order I’d go in, but how I expect Aaron Boone to configure it. Personally, I’d swap DJ and Hicks, as Hicks’s amazing knack for walks combined with DJ’s contact ability is a recipe for early runs. Sandwiched between them is Aaron Judge, who is a top five player in baseball when healthy. On both sides of the ball, Judge absolutely dominates whenever he is on the field. The problem? He’s rarely been on the field the past couple of years. After putting together a 155-game year in which he was robbed of MVP by a certain Astro in the midst of a cheating scandal (who Judge had insanely better numbers then) in 2017, Judge has played just 242 of 384 (63%) possible games over the past three years. After a full year of a training regiment put together by renowned trainer Eric Cressey, the Yankees hope that Judge can stay on the field and put together the year they know is possible. If not, many reports have stated that the Yankees would balk on any long-term extension.

The heart of the Yankees order should scare the crap out of opposing hitters. Stanton-Voit-Torres is a trio of mashers that hit the bejesus out of the ball, as the strongest man in baseball and a budding superstar sandwich the defending home run champ. However, Stanton, like Judge, has fought injury issues to an even crazier extent, as he’s appeared in just 41 of 222 (18%) possible Yankee games over the past two years. Also on the Cressey-regiment, the Yankees are hoping for a full season of their oversized mashers. For Luke Voit, he looks to maintain what he had going in 2019, when he traded 40 points in his OBP for an almost 150 point increase in SLG and almost 30 points in wRC+. If Voit’s power surge is legit, the Yankees have a star protecting Stanton. Behind Voit is Gleyber Torres who had a sluggish 42 games in 2020. Torres’s power hit a wall, so despite his improving plate discipline (7.9 BB% —> 13.8%), he fell from a 38 HR season to just three, dropping his ISO by 131 points. With that, his first full year at short saw significant struggles as he recorded -9 DRS in just 350 innings. Torres needs to prove he can put it all together and man short well, or the Yankees may be inclined to splurge in the upcoming offseason on a legit shortstop of the future.

The bottom third of the Yankee order is what makes it one of, if not the, most dangerous lineups in the game. At the seven-hole sits Gio Urshela, who’s 133 wRC+ in 2020 proved that his shocking rise to glory in 2019 was no fluke. Gio also put together 5 DRS from the third base spot, a super good sign of things to come for the bombers. At eight, sits the Yankees biggest boom or bust candidate. Gary Sanchez was downright atrocious last year. His horrible numbers were mainly due to just an inability to put the ball in play. Sanchez struck out an astonishing 36% of the time last year, which completely erased the amazing 50% hard-hit rate and 10.1 BB%. Sanchez just couldn’t hit a fastball. Reports have said he’s made some changes to his swing, and he took a fastball 430 feet in the team’s second spring training game. If Sanchez can find his swing, he can once again lock himself in as an elite catcher. On the other hand, another year of struggles for Gary may mean the end of his Yankee career. On our most recent HotMic when I mentioned that Clint Frazier would be hitting ninth, my Diamond Digest colleagues Ryan Ruhde and Scott Bentley let out exasperated chuckles, followed by a vintage Scott Bentley “ridiculous”. Because, yeah, it’s ridiculous. Frazier was a near 150 wRC+ hitter in his 25 game sample which is probably not going to last, but is nevertheless insane for your nine hitter. Frazier also improved his defense to the point he was named a Gold Glove finalist for left field (based on DRS).

Projected Bench:

I really, really hope Kyle Higashioka doesn’t have a big role on this Yankees team. Last year Higgy got the Game 1 start due to him becoming Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher, and he ended up starting all but two postseason games for the Yanks. Higgy provides serviceable defense and a bat that can get a hold of one every once in a while – perfect for a backup. But, if Sanchez’s continues to struggle – whether it’s at the plate or simply catching Gerrit Cole – Higgy’s role could be much larger than it should be.

The Jay Bruce spot could go to any of Mike Ford, Bruce, or Derek Dietrich. Each have a solid argument. For Ford, he’s the only one still on the league minimum deal, and the Yankees may be inclined to give him the role to save the money – not that it’s very much. Bruce is the most established hitter of the three and his lefty swing seems built for The Bronx. He struggled mightily in the short season, but in 2018 and 2019 he had an xwOBA of .340 and .352, respectively. The team may want to take a flier on his bat and ability to spot some starts in the corner outfield and, if it doesn’t work out, just bring up Ford. Dietrich would be a tantalizing player in The Bronx, as his noted loud mouth and bat flips would either make him beloved by The Bronx Faithful or hated (I would love it). His best argument is not just his solid bat, but his versatility as he’s played 1B, 2B, 3B, and LF before in his career (albeit, not too well). I think Bruce gets the nod with Ford waiting in the wings.

Tyler Wade isn’t very good, but provides versatile and solid defense off the bench. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Yankees try to get a backup infielder in a trade involving Mike Tauchman, who according to Bob Klapisch has the odds stacked against him. Why are the odds stacked against Tauchman? Brett Gardner. The Yankees brought back the speedy outfielder at the last second before spring training. Gardy has a spot on the team, and Tauchman is out of options. I’d be surprised if the Yankees carry five outfielders on the roster, so Tauchman seems like the odd man out. He’d bring a lot of value to any club, as he plays fantastic defense at all three outfield spots and has a bat with some potential that he unlocked in 2019 before shutting down in 2020 (couldn’t hit a fastball). I think Tauchman will be traded barring a spring injury, and Gardner will be the fourth outfielder for the year. I, honestly, loved the Gardner value. I think he’s a more than capable player who would be starting for a lot of ball clubs. But, at no point, barring injury, should the Yankees be thinking Frazier vs. Gardner. Boone named Frazier the starter, and that means he’s earned the right to actually be the starter. All 162.

Projected Rotation:

  1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
  2. Corey Kluber, RHP
  3. Jameson Taillon, RHP
  4. Jordan Montgomery, LHP
  5. Deivi Garcia, RHP*

*RHP Luis Severino will return from Tommy John Surgery in the summer.

When I project the Yankees staff, I for some reason constantly forget about Cole. Gerrit Cole is just an unbelievable pitcher. He provides consistent ace-level starts, and ended the season and playoffs with a 1.78 ERA in his final seven starts. The expectations for Cole are as high as they can be – win the Cy Young, and win a World Series.

After Cole, the Yankees rotation is built with a LOT of question marks. The squad pretty obviously constructed the rotation with a boom or bust mentality. Both Kluber and Taillon are coming off of injuries, Garcia hasn’t proven himself in a full season, and Domingo German (their sixth starter) didn’t pitch last year.

Kluber is, in my opinion, the most likely to bust. While he’s a two-time Cy Young winner, his age is another concern to injuries. Soon to be 35, Kluber will need to not only stay healthy but attempt to fight Father Time. I really hope Kluber proves me wrong, but I wouldn’t be too shocked if Kluber doesn’t have a huge impact on the team. Taillon on the other hand, my expectations are through the roof. He’s shortened his delivery to the point that not only will it help him avoid injuries, but it has also made his changeup and slider more efficient according to him. Taillon had finally put it together, putting up a 3.20 ERA before going down to Tommy John, but I think he could be even better with his new mechanics.

After Taillon the ace stuff that the first three in the rotation hold kind of dissipates, but Jordan Montgomery is no slouch. Probably the most underrated player on the team, Monty holds some of the nastiest breaking stuff in the game, and despite a bloated 2020 ERA, his peripherals were fantastic. Montgomery had a 3.87 FIP, 3.65 xFIP, and a 3.84 SIERA last season. While he’ll probably never be an ace, Monty is nevertheless a super dependable and solid middle of the rotation piece who could provide some stability to what is a risky rotation.

The five starter is gonna be a fight in Florida. Garcia, German, Jhoulys Chacin, and Michael King are all going to be in the conversation for the final spot. While Clarke Schmidt was expected to be involved in the battle, he went down with an injury and will miss 3-4 weeks. Garcia is the best of the four, in my opinion, but I could see the Yankees “giving him more time” (manipulating his service time) in the minors early in the year. Chacin could be a sleeper candidate to nab the fifth spot, as he’s a veteran with a lot of experience. German may be the safest bet to get the role, but he also hasn’t pitched in a year so the Yankees may want to ease him back in.

The Yankees have a lot of pitching depth for the first time in a while, which could be huge as they await Luis Severino’s return from Tommy John. Health is a huge concern for the team, as always, but if they’re able to stay healthy, the potential is best rotation in baseball.

Projected Bullpen:

There really isn’t much to say about the Yankees bullpen. It’s quite good. Chapman is still dominant despite giving up a season-ending home run every now and then, Britton continues to be an anomaly that is grossly underrated by the analytics community due to his sustainably unsustainable group ball rate, and Chad Green is just damn good. The Yankees used the money saved by the Ottavino to bring in sidearmer Darren O’Day (basically the same pitcher as Ott) and Justin Wilson who will help the Yankees bridge the gap between starter and closer. Cessa has been consistently solid but is probably the last guy the Yankees will want to go to on any given day. Loáisiga and German have stuff built for the pen, flamethrowers with good breaking stuff. German may spend some time in the rotation though, which in that case Addison Russ, Nick Nelson, Mike King, or Kyle Barraclough could all fight their way into a roster spot.

2021 Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record:

95.7-66.3, 1st place in American League East

PECOTA Projected Record:

99-63, 1st place in American League East

Personal Projection:

103-59, 1st place in American League East

2020 saw some really crappy stretches of baseball from the Yankees, hence their 89 win pace. I fully believe though that if they played another 102 games the team would’ve hit 100 wins and won the division. They were too talented not to. The rotation may have improved from last season, replacing Tanaka and Paxton with Kluber and Taillon. While I could see Kluber going down with an injury, I do think that Taillon will be better than both Tanaka and Paxton would’ve been, and Kluber’s ceiling is so high. The rotation could either be one of the best in baseball or grossly mediocre. One note that has been a bit overlooked about the rotation has been the depth the Yanks have developed on the staff. They have about ten respectable starters in the system that are ready right now, which gives a huge backup plan to the injury risks up and down the rotation.

Once again, it all depends on injuries for the team. If Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and the pitching staff can stay anywhere near healthy I think they are on a level of their own in the American League. Eric Cressey has a lot of pressure on him to keep the big guys healthy, and they’ve been doing more yoga so…maybe that will help? The expectations are through the roof for this squad, as they should be. The depth on the team is so legitimate that I could see 100 wins in a lot of scenarios regardless of injury, but they really need to find a way to stay healthy for once.

Final Thoughts

I’m rarely a “World Series or bust” fan. I think the playoffs a complete crapshoot and the only true indicator of a well built team is the regular season. I still believe that. I also believe this season is World Series or bust. There’s not a team in the American League anywhere near the New York Yankees. They’re absolutely fantastic top to bottom. If they don’t reach the World Series, Hal Steinbrenner deserves a brunt of the blame for refusing to go all in and blow by the luxury tax. They may never get a better chance. The team is gonna have to start paying their players, and the Blue Jays and White Sox are both still developing as sleeping giants. The Astros and Rays both took a massive step back this year. This is the best chance the Yankees will ever get to make a World Series (notice I say make, since I don’t expect anyone to beat the Dodgers). That’s not to say the Yankees won’t still be the best team in the AL in future years, but their path will get harder and harder. This is the year to prove themselves. Aaron Judge needs to prove he can stay healthy. Gerrit Cole needs to prove he’s worth $36M. Gleyber Torres needs to prove he’s the shortstop of the future. Clint Frazier needs to prove he belongs in the lineup. Prove yourselves, and bring number 28 to The Bronx.

Adam Koplik

Rudy said my bio was too long. Hamilton College '25 Yankees writer, fluent in nerd. Follow me @adamkoplik on Twitter.

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