TAMPA, Fla. — Nearly an hour before Yankees Manager Aaron Boone sat down for his first news conference of spring training on Wednesday, a sports book released its early odds for the 2019 World Series champion.
Granted, the baseball world is still waiting on free agents such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Craig Kimbrel to be signed, but as teams are currently constructed, the Yankees were listed as the favorites to win the 2019 World Series — ahead of their division rivals and defending champion Boston Red Sox.
Still, the glowing potential of the 2019 season hasn’t entirely washed away the pain of how 2018 ended, with Boone and many of his players watching as those very Red Sox, who eliminated the Yankees in the American League divisional round, went on to win it all.
“I’ve always been a fan of the game and watched the postseason,” said Boone, a former player and television broadcaster. “This year was a little more difficult. I made a point to watch even the World Series and watch the Red Sox celebrate. I don’t know if I was torturing myself or not.”
A significant page will turn on Thursday morning, when Boone will address the Yankees’ pitchers and catchers (position players are not officially expected in camp until Monday). Boone said that, while he expected to mostly speak from the heart, he had a few messages to convey. The team’s sky-high expectations will be among them.
It helps, in Boone’s mind, that the Yankees’ roster has only gotten deeper after winning 100 games last season in his first year as a manager.
Although the Yankees whiffed on signing Patrick Corbin, the top free agent starting pitcher, they dumped the struggling right-hander Sonny Gray and brought back the veterans C.C. Sabathia ($8 million for one year) and J.A. Happ ($34 million for two years), while trading for the oft-injured but talented James Paxton. Luis Severino, who said he lost 15 pounds by eating healthier this winter after an up-and-down 2018, will most likely start opening day for the Yankees.
“It’s obviously a better team,” starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka said through an interpreter.
Beyond the rotation, the Yankees retained Zack Britton ($39 million over three years) and signed Adam Ottavino ($27 million over three years) to pair with Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green in what is likely to be the best bullpen in baseball.
“In every season, even in the best of seasons — I don’t know exactly what the numbers are — but you’re going to need about 30, 40 or up to 50 guys that make serious contributions to a club,” Boone said. “We feel like we’re in the pretty good position to have guys come in and step up.”
The infield may be more fluid than before because shortstop Didi Gregorius is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and is not expected to return until this summer. Troy Tulowitzki, 34, a former all-star shortstop whom the Yankees acquired in January, will get the first crack at filling in for Gregorius, but he, too, has injury concerns — returning from two heel surgeries that forced him to miss all of the 2018 season. Boone said he would be cautious with Tulowitzki’s spring training schedule “and even early in the season.”
Should Tulowitzki struggle, Boone said he would slide Gleyber Torres from second base to shortstop, and use DJ LeMahieu, another newcomer, at second base. If not, LeMahieu will bounce around the infield, even providing backup for Miguel Andujar at third base.
At first base, Luke Voit leads the competition for the starting job over Greg Bird, who struggled with injuries and hitting last season, while Voit ended the season on a hitting tear.
Then there is the potential for growth from players who underperformed last season, such as catcher Gary Sanchez, who is coming off his worst season in the majors and had an operation on his non-throwing shoulder in the off-season.
And even amid all that depth, the roster still includes obvious weak spots. The Yankees will go slow with Sabathia, who is 38 and entering his final major-league season, since his off-season training was slowed by knee and heart surgeries. Boone said Sabathia’s first bullpen session would not take place for a couple more weeks. Another reason to avoid any rush: Sabathia still must serve a five-game suspension for throwing at Jesus Sucre of the Tampa Bay Rays last September.
Of all the announcements Boone made on Wednesday, the least surprising one involved Jacoby Ellsbury. Boone said Ellsbury, who has two years and more than $42 million left on his contract, and who has not played since the end of the 2017 season because of injuries, would not join the Yankees in Tampa until next month because of an issue with the plantar fascia in one of his feet.
But Ellsbury was never likely to figure significantly into a packed outfield. The Yankees have Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner as the primary options in the outfield.
It all adds up to, on paper at least, the trappings of a contending team. But a long road lies ahead.
“It’s early February,” Boone said. “So in a lot of ways, the talk about it is cheap. We have tremendous expectations and we rightfully have those expectations but we’ve got to go out and do it.”
Luis Severino declined to address his pending arbitration hearing with the Yankees nor a report that the sides had held preliminary discussions over a contract extension. Severino, who will turn 25 next week, is eligible for salary arbitration in 2019 for the first time in his career, and will not be a free agent until after the 2022 season. He filed for a 2019 salary of $5.25 million with the Yankees countering at $4.4 million.