The New York Yankees are the marquee franchise in baseball and perhaps the most well-known team in American professional sports, so with that uniform comes a whole lot of responsibility.
The Yankees won 103 games this season and seem primed to make a push for their 28th World Series championship, and expectations are appropriately high. After all, this is a really good team.
I’m not sure there is a club in American sports that invites more pressure than the Yanks. Their fans are spoiled, ruthless and always hungry, and their players often incur their wrath.
This year in particular represents a pivotal year for the Bronx Bombers, especially after getting bounced by the Boston Red Sox last October.
So, with New York about to kick off its 2019 American League Division Series against the Minnesota Twins this Friday, here are the five Yankees players under the most pressure to perform:
5. James Paxton
When the Yankees traded for James Paxton during the offseason, it was billed as the deal that landed New York its ace.
Given that Paxton had never thrown for more than 160.1 innings during his six-year tenure with the Seattle Mariners, that was probably a but unfair, but analytics guys loved Paxton’s penchant for getting strikeouts and ground balls and thought he was exactly what the Yanks’ starting rotation needed.
Paxton ended up posting solid numbers, going 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA while striking out 186 hitters over 150.2 innings, but due to a shaky first few months that included injuries and some flat-out bad performances, he hasn’t been ace material.
You know how it works in the Bronx: the fans expect you to be the best player at your position, so when you fall short, you’re going to hear it.
The good news for Paxton is that he pitched incredibly well down the stretch and seems to be on a hot streak heading into the playoffs, but if he ends up pitching beneath expectations, he will be a lightning rod for criticism.
4. Didi Gregorius
This is actually more about Didi Gregorius’ future than it is about his standing with Yankees fans.
Gregorius is pretty beloved in New York, as he has been far better than most expected when he first arrived from Arizona in 2015. But with free agency looming this offseason, Gregorius picked a pretty bad time to have his worst season as a Yankee.
Of course, he underwent Tommy John surgery during the offseason and was sidelined until June as a result, but since then, the returns have been awful, as he has slashed .238/.276/.441 with 16 home runs and 61 RBI over 344 plate appearances while also being just average in the field, where he generally excels.
This comes on the heels of a 2018 campaign where Gregorius posted an .829 OPS and was beyond slick at shortstop.
Teams are probably past the point where they look at small postseason sample sizes as a determining factor in contract talks, but for a guy like Gregorius who just had a miserable regular season, it matters.
3. Luis Severino
Luis Severino would actually be a bit higher on this list had it not been for the fact that he missed almost the entire season with shoulder trouble.
As talented as Severino is, he does not have the greatest playoff track record. In six career postseason starts, Severino has gone 1-2 with a 6.26 ERA, posting a 1.565 WHIP.
Again, small sample size and all, but that doesn’t matter to Yankees fans who expect greatness every year, and Severino also has a habit of fading during the second half of seasons (something we didn’t really get to see in 2019).
Severino may have just returned to the mound last month, but if he comes out and puts forth another less-than-stellar performance in the playoffs, the chatter around his checkered postseason history will get louder.
2. Gary Sanchez
A couple of years ago, it looked like Gary Sanchez was on his way to becoming one of the best catchers the game had ever seen.
Sure, he had a problem with passed balls, but he had a rocket arm, called a good game and looked like he was on his way to becoming an absolute terror at the plate.
But the last two seasons, Sanchez has taken a nosedive.
In 2018, the 26-year-old slashed just .186/.291/.406 with 18 home runs and 53 RBI, and while he was considerably better this season, he wasn’t great, slashing .232/.316/.525 with 34 long balls and 77 RBI.
Couple that with the fact that Sanchez has had persistent injury issues and regular lapses in both defense and hustle, and Yankees fans are beginning to grow frustrated with their once-promising backstop.
Obviously, a great playoff showing could go a long way in helping Sanchez win New York back over, but there are some serious concerns about how much longevity Sanchez has at the catcher position moving forward and just how good of a hitter he really is.
1. Giancarlo Stanton
Poor Giancarlo Stanton.
The 2017 NL MVP will forever be held to the standard of his ridiculous and almost inhuman 2017 season when he bashed 59 home runs with the Miami Marlins, 38 of them coming after July 1.
Stanton’s final couple of months of that season are probably something we will never see again in our lifetime, but because he did it and because he has a big contract, he is expected to replicate it by Yankees fans.
The 29-year-old led the Yanks with 38 homers and 100 RBI last year. It didn’t matter. He was still booed. Aaron Judge was the one who lit a fire under the Red Sox by playing “New York, New York” by Boston’s locker room after Game 2 of the 2018 ALDS and did nothing for the remainder of the series, but somehow, he was let off the hook while Stanton was castigated.
Stanton has barely played this season, as a myriad of injuries have limited him to just 18 games.
He returned last month and looked great in brief action, smashing a couple of moonshot home runs and showing great plate discipline, but it doesn’t matter what Stanton does during the regular season; we all know his Bronx legacy will be defined by his playoff success.
As a Marlins fan, I am hoping Stanton has a monster postseason just to shut all of New York’s ridiculous fans up.