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Division Preview: The [expletives deleted] are hopefully still a year away

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They’re coming.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays
The man hits a lot of home runs.
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

We’ve covered the Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays, and today we cover the Yankees. Let’s get on with it.

First, the good news: They probably won’t compete for the division title this year. Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings peg them at 82-80, eight games behind the first-place Sox and two games behind Tampa, in line with last season’s 84-78 finish. The bad news is twofold. One, “probably,” doesn’t mean “certainly,” and two, the Yankees are clearly ascendant in the long-run, and 2017 figures to be their worst season in the near future.

Before we look at how the Yankees might do this year, let’s look at the good and bad of what they did last season.

The Good

The Yankees made a bunch of shrewd trades in mid-year, having effectively punted on the season on Opening Day onward, even as they racked up an impressive number of wins. The biggest on-field story of the year, by far, was Gary Sanchez. Promoted to the majors for good in August, Sanchez proceeded to make a mockery of the league, hitting .299/.376/.657 with 20 homers over 229 plate appearances in 53 games. That gave him a 1.032 OPS, which was merely better than that of American League MVP Mike Trout, whose OPS was .991. That is insane.

He didn’t win, but he had a strong case.

There were fewer bright spots elsewhere on the Yankees’ offense, with Didi Gregorious’ .276/.304/.447 20-homer line besting out those of any other returning Bronx Bombers. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann both had decent years, but both will start this season in Houston. Outside of those two, there wasn’t much to write home about, save for perhaps the very real pop showed by Tyler Austin over a handful of playing appearances.

New York’s real strength was in the bullpen, where it began the season with a historically incredible back-three of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, the latter two of whom were shipped to the World Series runners-up and champions, respectively, mid-season. (Chapman is back, of course) but we’ll look ahead in a minute.) In the rotation, Masahiro Tanaka went 14-4 with a 3.04 ERA in a year in which he finished with a higher bWar (5.4) than our own Rick Porcello, the Cy Young Award winner (5.0), but he was the rotation’s only real bright spot, unless you count C.C. Sabathia’s workmanlike 3.91 ERA over 179.2 innings at age 35 one season after seeking help for a substance abuse problem. I’m a Sabathia evangelist, so I do count it.

The Bad

Most of the offense was anemic, and starters Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova (now on the Pirates) and Nathan Eovaldi (now on the Rays) all finished with nearly 5 ERAs, with Luis Severino out-crapping them with one near 6.00. As with any year the Yankees don’t win the World Series, the “bad,” grading on a curve, could be this failure, and in this we can temporarily rejoice. The Ruthian caveat here is that this was the rare year in which the Yankees were legitimately punting, and they had precious little long-term bad things happen to them.

The Year Ahead

It’s unlikely that Gary Sanchez will produce at his prorated pace from 2016, but it is not unprecedented. In 2005, Ryan Howard hit 22 in a half-season in Philadelphia and followed it up with 58 the next year; this is the nightmare scenario for Red Sox fans, especially because Sanchez easily bested that rookie pace. The good news is that , mostly due to their starting pitching. Tanaka is pretty damn good as often as he can take the mound, while Pineda is heckin’ great about thirty percent of the time he does it, but it falls apart after that outside of Sabathia. On the offensive side, they added Matt Holliday and Chris Carter, who are perfect for them, and super prospect Greg Bird returns after missing all of last season with an injury.

With their absurdly strong bullpen and potential superstar catcher, the Yankees are probably one or two permanent pieces away from quite good. As it stands, the Red Sox are clearly better, as are the Blue Jays, but neither is out of striking distance for the pinstripes. They are just close enough to see in the rearview mirror, and they aren’t getting any slower.