A Dream Of Spring

In his first press conference of the season, New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone had a message for the media, but it was also a message to the fans and likely to his team.

“We are hellbent on being a champion,” was the message from an otherwise perfunctory session with the media at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

The Yankees had a solid offseason, trading for Juan Soto to bolster the lineup, and signing Marcus Stroman to help the starting rotation. But there are still plenty of question marks as the Bombers open camp.

The rotation behind ace Gerrit Cole has some holes; Carlos Rodon had an awful first season in pinstripes, Nestor Cortes has had his moments, but can he stay healthy? Stroman knows how to pitch, but can be a distraction when things don’t go his way.

Jordan Montgomery, a former Yankee who may have some lingering hard feelings after his trade to St. Louis two years ago, is still available. If Yankees GM Brian Cashman is as “hellbent” on being a champion as his manager, Montgomery would have been signed months ago.

A healthy Anthony Rizzo back at first base will be a major plus, Gleyber Torres is entering his walk year, and the feeling is that shortstop Anthony Volpe will improve offensively. DJ LeMahieu is fine defensively at third base, but his offense leaves a lot to be desired. His .243 batting average in 2023 was the worst of his career, and his production, 15 home runs and 44 RBI, is not acceptable for a player of his caliber.

Then there’s Giancarlo Stanton, who is a shell of the player who won the 2017 NL MVP with the Marlins. His HRs (24) and RBI (60) dropped for the third straight season, he played in only 101 games and hit an embarrassing .191 for the season.

The word is he’s dropped weight and has improved his athleticism, and might be, to use the old baseball adage “in the best shape of his life.” However, while he’s just 34, Stanton appears to be cooked. That’s going to put pressure on the lineup that’s anchored by Aaron Judge and now Soto.

Expectations aren’t nearly as high at Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, and even the most die-hard of Mets fans are having trouble buying into David Stearns’ off-season re-tooling of the roster.

Stearns signed Luis Severino and Sean Manaea, and traded for one of his former Milwaukee starters Adrian Houser to fill out the rotation behind Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana. On paper, it seems less than impressive. But last year’s rotation, which included Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Peterson, and Cookie Carrasco, was a major disappointment. Senga was the lone standout. Verlander pitched well when he finally joined the rotation (3.15 ERA), but he missed the first month of the season with an injury, then pitched to a 4-plus ERA in May and June when the Mets needed the guy who had a 1.75 ERA in Houston in 2022.

Call me crazy, but while the names don’t jump out at you, this rotation has a chance to keep this team in games. Then it will be up to the reconstructed bullpen, led by the returning Edwin Diaz, whose injury the &^%$# WBC helped derail the 2023 season.

But the hot corner and DH spot are the make-or-break spots in this lineup, which will determine whether this team can make the postseason.

Brett Baty, the former first-round pick, and fellow prospect Mark Vientos are expected to compete for the hot corner.

“We’re going to have some competition there,” Stearns told reporters at Spring Training earlier this week. “We believe in Brett there, we believe that Mark Vientos can also play that position.”

Vientos spent a lot of time with Francisco Lindor this offseason working on his fielding, but he’s a power bat that, in my opinion, should focus on the DH spot.

Baty struggled a lot last year, both at the plate and at third base, but I feel very strongly that he will be given the first opportunity to win and hold down third base.

Brandon Nimmo, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso (in his walk year), and Jeff McNeil have to have strong seasons. Starling Marte must prove he’s healthy and can return to his 2022 form, and Francisco Alvarez has to avoid the slumps that marred an otherwise fine rookie season.

Rookie manager Carlos Mendoza has a difficult task in front of him, trying to lead a retooled team under the spotlight of NYC and a demanding fan base.

Opening Day is not that far away, but for now, the dream of Spring is finally here.

Brett Baty Photo by D. Benjamin Miller/Wikipedia