Before the Astros got busted for cheating, resulting in them losing general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, before it cost Alex Cora a managing gig in Boston, and before the Red Sox dealt superstar Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, the Yankees were the team to beat in the American League.
Adding stud right-hander and ex-Astro Gerrit Cole in December on a nine-year, $324 million free-agent contract immediately installed the Yankees as the favorite to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009. Even the possibility of being without lefty starter James Paxton until late May or early June doesn’t remove the favorite tag from the Yankees, who open spring training Wednesday in Tampa when pitchers and catchers report.
That puts them in the toughest position a sports team can be in: Win when the masses expect you to win.
Whether you believe John Wooden’s 10 NCAA basketball titles in a 12-year stretch and seven straight with UCLA were cleaner than the board of health or not, Wooden won when expected due to the talent he drew to Westwood.
“They are very smart, extremely intelligent people,’’ Yankees GM Brian Cashman said of the folks who set the odds. “They put their system in play and it spits out who the favorite is. It doesn’t guarantee anything.’’
Manager Aaron Boone’s third Yankees team finds itself in the role of favorite due to several sport-altering events, not the least of was bringing Cole to The Bronx. Pitchers don’t necessarily raise ticket sales, but the Yankees are up from a year ago and the expectations are soaring.
In Boone’s first two years, the Yankees have won 203 games, and last year they copped the club’s first AL East title since 2012. With Cole, 29, ready to assume the role of staff ace of a rotation that was strong before his arrival and the Red Sox losing their best player, winning 103 regular season games while dealing with significant injuries and advancing to the ALCS this coming season won’t be enough.
“I believe we had a championship-caliber team last year and the year before,’’ Hal Steinbrenner said at a MLB owners meeting this week in Orlando, Fla. “We’re even better this year.’’
Of course, the Red Sox aren’t going to raise the white flag because Betts and Price are gone. And though the thrifty Rays lost two key front office members, expect them to be a team to reckon with from March to October.
Cole leaving the Astros is a bigger hit than Luhnow and Hinch getting fired after MLB suspended the duo for a year for using electronics to swipe signs at Minute Maid Park in 2017, when they took Game 7 of the ALCS from the Yankees and beat the Dodgers in the World Series.
Of course, to reward the self-loathing Yankees fans who logged into nypost.com or are holding the paper product, there will be potholes on the way to the October parade up Lower Broadway.
The Yankees are betting Gleyber Torres can replace Didi Gregorius at short and let Gregorius leave via free agency — he landed in Philadelphia. Torres played short while becoming an elite prospect in the Cubs’ system and handled the switch to second with the Yankees well. There are questions about Torres’ footwork at short, and if he struggles, will that impact him at the plate — where he has hit .275 with 62 homers, 167 RBIs and posted a .849 OPS in two big league seasons?
Can Giancarlo Stanton play in 130 games? Ditto Aaron Judge? Can Brett Gardner handle the everyday job in center until Aaron Hicks returns from Tommy John surgery? It would be a plus if Gary Sanchez can avoid multiple trips to the IL, which hasn’t happened the past two seasons.
Will having a bone spur removed from Masahiro Tanaka’s right elbow hamper him? He had a similar procedure following the 2015 season, was brought along slowly in spring training and went 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 31 starts. J.A. Happ finished strong in his first full season as a Yankee, but overall it was a struggle. Eighteen-game winner Domingo German will be missing until early June due to an 80-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy. How about Adam Ottavino’s October funk (8.10 ERA, .389 batting average against, 1.143 OPS in eight games)? Can Tommy Kahnle repeat a very strong 2019 in which he posted a 3.67 ERA and fanned 88 in 61¹/₃ innings?
So, there are questions that need to be answered in a positive mode. Yet when it comes to having talent, the Yankees possess more of it than any other AL team. Talk all day and night about clubhouse chemistry and “glue guys,” but the first commandment of sports is this: Talent wins.
And the Yankees have plenty of it.