There are three distinct groups in today’s Yankees lineup.
1. The big league infielders. Familiar names all around the diamond, each with well-established story lines, from bounce back seasons, to lingering health issues, to a young shortstop trying to make a strong first impression.
2. The designated hitter. A thoroughly unique situation, and the one that will most certainly generate the most attention this afternoon. Is there any chance Alex Rodriguez won’t be the focus today? Nope.
3. The young outfielders. Three guys on the 40-man roster but with no time in the big leagues. All three have a chance to play a big league role this season (and a chance to be overshadowed and forgotten by September).
Of the nine players in today’s batting order, the one most easy to dismiss just might be the guy who, only two years ago, was considered by many to be the top prospect in the entire Yankees system. Mason Williams gets the start in center field today, one year after he hit just .223/.290/.304 in Double-A.
“Obviously everyone knows this is a game of failure,” Williams said. “And for me, honestly, that’s the first time I’ve ever really failed (at baseball). For me, honestly, last year was probably the biggest year of my career so far. I feel like I learned the most I could have by going through that failure and seeing my struggles. Now I feel like I’m knowing what I do when I go wrong and how to not put myself back into that situation.”
There is no doubt Williams has a lot to prove this season, especially when he can look around the Yankees clubhouse and see Ramon Flores sitting right next to him, Slade Heathcott two lockers away, Jake Cave wandering through the middle lockers, and Aaron Judge generating as much attention as anyone other than A-Rod. Williams used to be a standout. Now he’s a guy with big tools and disappointing numbers in a system heavy on upper-level outfield prospects.
But it says quite a bit that the Yankees protected him from the Rule 5 draft this winter. His speed and defense are already seen as big league ready. It’s the bat that has to make some strides.
“For me, I learned that I’ve got to give myself chances,” Williams said. “Last year, I struggled, and I feel like I gave a lot of at-bats away. And that’s something I want to clean up this year. … I want to be a better player in general. I want to be a better teammate. I want to be better on the field, in the dugout. Even in my house. I just want to be a better person. I feel like if I try to be that, other things will be OK.”
Williams arrived in camp in good shape. He said he began really focusing on the nuances of the game last season, and he feels like a smarter player because of it. He spent his offseason training at home in Orlando, driving the hour or so to the minor league complex every once in a while to check in. With that new spot on the 40-man, Williams isn’t simply setting his sights on finally conquering Double-A. Players on the 40-man are one opportunity and one phone call away from the big leagues.
“It definitely shows they still believe in me,” Williams said. “I obviously still have a lot of faith in myself, and I believe in myself. Knowing that they still believe in me, come out here and try to help New York this year and try to win a championship.”
• The clubhouse opened to media pretty early this morning, and there was no sign of Rodriguez, who’s return to the lineup will obviously be the biggest story of the day. I assume he’s hitting second to make it a little easier to give him extra at-bats. It’s worth noting that no one is listed as the backup DH for today. Someone might replace him at some point, but the Yankees seem to be leaving Rodriguez’s playing time pretty open-ended.
• Ramon Flores is starting in left field today. Long overshadowed by guys like Williams, Flores has become an organizational standout. A severe ankle injury probably robbed him of a big league call-up last season, but he put up a .347/.435/.505 slash line in winter ball. Flores said his ankle was never 100 percent even after he came off the disabled list late last season, and he was still nervous about it when he started playing this winter. Eventually, though, he became convinced that he was completely healthy, and the results were pretty overwhelming.
• In the other outfield corner is Tyler Austin, who finally recovered from a lingering wrist injury last season and hit .336/.397/.557 in the second half. While Austin acknowledged heath might have played a part in that, he said that strong second half had more to do with physical adjustments he’d been working on with hitting coach Marcus Thames. They simply began to click in the second half, and the numbers took off. Count Austin among many, many people in the organization who love Thames has a hitting guru.
• Vicente Campos threw a 25-pitch bullpen yesterday. It was all fastballs, and Campos said he’ll start incorporating changeups next week. Working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Campos said he’s targeting May for his return to game action.
• Today is the two-year anniversary of Brian Cashman breaking his ankle while skydiving. Cashman said he was invited to try it again but turned down the invitation.
• Jose De Paula is throwing a simulated game today. He’ll pitch to Kyle Higashioka and face Greg Bird and Cito Culver.
• Three bullpen sessions today:
Chris Capuano (to John Ryan Murphy)
Masahiro Tanaka (to Eddy Rodriguez)
Domingo German (to Juan Graterol)
• Today’s second string: C Gary Sanchez, 1B Francisco Arcia, 2B Nick Noonan, SS Cito Culver, 3B Cole Figueroa, LF Jake Cave, CF Slade Heathcott, RF Aaron Judge
• Today’s scheduled relievers: Andrew Miller, Kyle Davies, Danny Burawa, Wilking Rodriguez, James Pazos, Tyler Webb (with Nick Rumbelow, Scott Baker and Jose Ramirez listed as just-in-case options)
• Tomorrow’s travel squad to Bradenton:
Pitchers: Jacob Lindgren, Diego Moreno, Esmil Rogers, Nick Rumbelow, Chasen Shreve, Chase Whitley
Catchers: Trent Garrison, John Ryan Murphy, Eddy Rodriguez, Austin Romine
Infielders: Greg Bird, Cito Culver, Cole Figueroa, Jonathan Galvez, Garrett Jones, Jose Pirela, Rob Refsnyder, Kyle Roller
Outfielders: Tyler Austin, Jake Cave, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ramon Flores, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, Mason Williams, Chris Young
Up from minor league camp: SS Tyler Wade, RHP Cesar Vargas, LHP Fred Lewis, RHP Zach Nuding, RHP Taylor Garrison
Associated Press photos