With the lineup already posted on the door that leads to the batting cage, Alex Rodriguez came walking through the clubhouse this afternoon and suddenly stopped in his tracks. Someone had just mentioned that he was hitting second. The words initially seemed to pass without Rodriguez hearing them, then he froze and looked back.
“You’re kidding me,” he said.
He walked to the door. Looked at the lineup. Walked away. Came back. Looked again and kind of whispered, “wow” before going to hit in the cage.
“I didn’t tell him,” Joe Girardi said with a little laugh. “But we’re taking Gardy out, and against a left-hander I decided to move (Rodriguez) up. I like the way he’s swinging the bat, so we moved him up today.”
For a guy with Rodriguez’s resume, a turn in the No. 2 hole in early April surely doesn’t rate as any sort of real accomplishment. But for a guy who’s almost 40 and coming off a year-long suspension, hitting second seems pretty telling. Can’t imagine Rodriguez — even with Brett Gardner out of the lineup, even with a lefty on the mound — would be hitting second if he hadn’t shown the Yankees quite a bit in spring training.
Six weeks ago, the Yankees had no idea what to expect from him. Now he’s as dependable as anyone at the top of the order.
“Joe and I have a long history,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been through a lot together, we won a championship together, so I think there’s a lot of trust on both sides. Whether you’re hitting second or seventh, third or fourth, the goal doesn’t change. You have to help the team win.”
Asked if he’s surprised by the way Rodriguez has looked at the plate, Girardi said that after spring training, he’s come to expect it. Rodriguez has shown a good eye since exhibition games started, and he’s done a good job of making contact and occasionally driving mistake pitches.
“Naturally, any time you hit at the top of the order, you should have better pitches to hit because they want to stay out of the meat of the order,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re hitting me; I think they’re always going to honor the power at some point.”
So today he’s in the No. 2 spot. Tomorrow, who knows?
“Anything that Skip wants me to do, I’m ready to do,” Rodriguez said. “… It’s all about trust. You have to regain the trust every day. Every day is an opportunity to prove yourself and help the team win.”
• Stephen Drew, Brian McCann and Brett Gardner all have the day off because of the lefty starting for Toronto. No one is hurt. It’s just a chance to give guys a day off, and so three lefties are on the bench. Girardi said he plans to play Drew and sit Didi Gregorius tomorrow. Seems safe to assume McCann will be back in the lineup tomorrow as well, and I would expect the same for Gardner.
• Usually Girardi likes to pair his backup catcher with one particularly pitcher, but he said the decision to starter John Ryan Murphy today had more to do with the opposing starter and less to do with the Yankees starter. Doesn’t sound like Murphy and Sabathia will be paired together regularly, it just worked out that way this time around. “I think I’ll try to rotate it based on when Mac needs a day,” Girardi said.
• Speaking of today’s Yankees starter, it’s CC Sabathia’s return. “It means a lot to him, I know it does,” Girardi said. “But it also means a lot to us. It’s important that we have him in our rotation. I look back on last year, I didn’t realize how few starts he actually made. It’s really great to have him back, and we’ve just got to keep him in the rotation. I think that’s the important thing.”
• First two games of the season, the first pitcher out of the bullpen has been Chris Martin, and Martin’s been impressive. Two innings, no base runners, three strikeouts. “We’ve liked what we’ve seen obviously his last outing,” Girardi said. “But his last few outings of spring training (were also encouraging). His breaking ball has improved, which I think is really going to help him during the course of this season. He had the cutter, but he’s added a little bit bigger breaking ball which gives a different look. So I feel good about our guys in the bullpen, and I brought him in a close game hoping he would keep it there. I think our parts are somewhat interchangeable down there, and you just have to keep the guys fresh.”
• Rodriguez has moved up in the order, but when’s he going to play the field? “I have no idea,” he said. “I already took my ground balls this afternoon. Did the same thing yesterday early. I’m ready when my number is called.”
• Minor league seasons get started tonight. Bryan Mitchell has the start for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Associated Press photos
Thought we were finished talking about Masahiro Tanaka’s velocity, health and performance two days after his disappointing Opening Day start? You must be new.
In today’s Daily News, John Harper wrote that the Yankees believe something has been lost in translation in Tanaka’s public comments about his velocity and approach. The widespread perception has been that Tanaka is backing away from velocity because of concerns about his elbow, but the Yankees say that’s not the case, at least not based on their internal discussions with their young ace. Harper wrote that the team planned a meeting with Tanaka to make sure there’s a mutual understanding.
So the decision to throw more sinkers and fewer four-seamers is not because of the elbow?
“From my conversations with him, it’s a strategic thing,” Girardi said. “He knows that his four-seamer got hit some last year, and that really comes down to location. I think the important thing for him is that, whichever one he’s locating better, it’s the one he uses that day for the most part. He is a guy that gets 90 percent of his outs on sliders and splits. The fastball is to kind of setup the slider and the split. He needs to locate. I mean, he got in bad counts the other day. He didn’t really pitch Toronto much different than he did the last time he beat them in June, but he made mistakes and that was the difference.”
The numbers support the idea that Tanaka’s four-seamer was perhaps his worst pitch last season, so there is a non-health motivation in throwing fewer four-seamers. But, of course, given the situation — a slightly torn elbow ligament for such a high-end young pitcher — everything is going to be examined over and over again. Any change is hard to dismiss under the circumstances. From Harper’s story:
Yankee people also say the panic over Tanaka’s velocity is overblown, that his fastball against the Blue Jays, both two-seam and four-seam, were within one mile per hour of the way he pitched last year.
Likewise they say the percentage of fastballs he threw — 26 of 82 pitches, if you count the two-seam sinkers and the four-seamers — wasn’t dramatically different from 2014 either.
“I see the way he’s throwing his split,” Girardi said this afternoon. “I see him playing long toss. I just don’t think, if he was hurt, he could do the things that he’s doing. But I think that’s always going to be in the back of everyone’s mind just because that’s the way it is.”
• Alex Rodriguez has good career numbers against Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey, but Girardi said he didn’t want to start moving players up and down the lineup after one game. “I’m not going to start changing the lineup already,” he said. “We’re only one day in. A lot of it, I think sometimes, is something that you look over. Sometimes you make some changes, sometimes you don’t, based upon the personnel that’s in there at the time. I thought we could go with the same lineup two days in a row, it’s something a little bit different than what we’ve done the past two years.”
• The lineup will change tomorrow, though. The Yankees face left-handed starters on Thursday and Friday, and Girardi said he plans to use both Chris Young and Gregorio Petit as everyday guys against lefties. They won’t necessary replace the same player each time, but they’ll play against lefties, giving the regulars a chance to sit. It’s a way to add some right-handed balance to this left-leaning lineup. “I would say I will probably do that, try to give guys a day off,” Girardi said. “Maybe one of the outfielders a day off against a lefty, and one of the infielders a day off against a lefty, yes.”
• Didi Gregorius is back in the lineup after being hit by pitch to the elbow late on Monday. “He said he’s fine,” Girardi said. “I’ll watch him take BP and let him go through BP, but he said he felt good so my expectation is that it won’t be an issue.”
• In his fourth season with the Yankees, but only his second year breaking camp with the team, Michael Pineda seems to be an even better pitcher than the Yankees expected when they got him. His health might be worse than expected, but his stuff is better. “He’s much different (than in 2012),” Girardi said. “The first Spring Training didn’t go so well. He ended up getting hurt, and he wasn’t where he needed to be physically. Now you look at him and the ball is coming out well. He’s a much different guy. … He had a pretty serious injury and he has bounced back. I think he grew up a lot through that. I think during that time too his mechanics improved dramatically. It really helped him.”
• Last time Pineda pitched on a cold night in April, he wound up ejected and suspended because of a massive glob of pine tar on his neck. Girardi actually laughed when asked about it today. “I’m sure we’ll have a lot of eyes on him tonight,” Girardi said. “I think he understands, yes. I hope.”
• As expected, there’s no set closer for tonight. “It’s the matchups (that will decide who pitches the ninth,” Girardi said. “It’s the order.”
Associated Press photos
This was a game all about Masahiro Tanaka. Big picture, small picture, however you want to look at it, this was Tanaka’s game. It was his rocky third inning that put the Yankees in an immediate hole, and it was his lackluster outing that made the Yankees seem even less reliable than they were coming out of spring training.
In many ways, Tanaka is a snapshot of the team as a whole — clearly talented, but perhaps too damaged in one way or another — and so it’s impossible to ignore him on a day like today.
But even with Tanaka under that sort of microscope, no one drew a bigger Yankee Stadium reaction than Alex Rodriguez. His ovation during pregame introductions was certainly the biggest, and it came with more cheers than boos. In the batters box, he had a hit and a walk as the only Yankees player to reach base more than once.
“I have to admit, it definitely felt good, that’s for sure,” Rodriguez said. “I have a lot of love for the city of New York, especially our fans. But let’s make it clear, the fans don’t owe me anything. (One thing) I’ve said all along in spring training is that part of feeling like a rookie is that I have to earn their cheers and earn their respect.”
He actually earned them today. On a day the Yankees had just three hits, Rodriguez was perhaps their best offensive weapon outside of Brett Gardner, whose home run accounted for the only Yankees run.
“I thought he performed well, and I thought he was received well,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I thought our fans were behind him and want to see him, in a sense, make a comeback.”
The fact Opening Day centered on a pitcher with a slightly torn elbow ligament and a hitter who hasn’t played in more than a year probably says a lot about the state of the Yankees. They’re a team loaded with uncertainty, and that uncertainty of course came front and center today. They walk a fine line. Today they didn’t hit very much, and for one inning, their No. 1 starter pitched poorly. That was enough for a lopsided loss.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t get a win,” Rodriguez said. “But I like this team a lot. This team showed a lot in spring training, I think it has a lot of potential.”
Is Rodriguez a part of that potential? Can he be an impact player for an offense that could use a real boost?
“I think overall my expectations are different now,” Rodriguez said. “I just want to contribute and help the team win. … It means the world to me (to be back). I don’t think I ever took it for granted, but I can guarantee you that I won’t take this year for granted.”
• The offensive low point was surely in the eighth inning when the Yankees were down by five and had two runners on for cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira. That’s when — of all times — Didi Gregorius tried to steal third, getting thrown out easily to end the inning and destroy any chance for a rally. “I’m just going to chalk it up as someone trying to do too much,” Girardi said. “And in a game like this, you’re looking for a three-run homer there. (Gregorius’s) run doesn’t mean a whole lot. The guy behind you has to get a hit, in a sense. It’s probably a real good learning experience that it happened in game one here and hopefully it never happens again.”
• Gregorius explaining his decision to run: “They were shifting a little bit so I decided to try and take third but it was a bad mistake. … It was a bad mistake by me, I’ll admit it. I’ll admit that it was my mistake and it won’t happen again.”
• Also on Gregorius: He was on base because he’d been hit by a pitch in the elbow. The early indications are that he’ll be fine. “Hopefully he’s OK and hopefully the day off helps,” Girardi said. “He said he was OK. I think you have to wait to see how he feels on Wednesday, because sometimes there can be swelling after the game and you have to deal with it. He did not say that we needed to take him out, which was a good sign, but you never know in those situations.”
• From a low point to a high point: The Yankees’ bullpen pitched five innings with just one run. No one was better than Chris Martin, who struck out — in order — Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson in the fifth inning. That was quite the Yankees debut. “Some new guys who haven’t pitched in Yankee Stadium, I thought they fared pretty well,” Girardi said.
• The Yankees actually had Esmil Rogers getting loose as early as the third inning, but when Girardi went to the bullpen, he elected to use a bunch of relievers rather than lean on his only true long man. He wound up getting four first-time Yankee pitchers in the game. “I could have went to Esmil earlier,” Girardi said. “But I just thought I’d kind of spread it out to the bullpen. (Rogers) ended up getting in anyway. He’s our true long guy in a sense, but I thought to get all those guys in there.”
• Brett Gardner’s home run was the 100th Opening Day home run in franchise history. The last Yankee to homer on Opening Day was Raul Ibanez in 2012 at Tampa Bay. Today was Gardner’s first Opening Day home run.
• Players making their Yankees debut today: Gregorius, Martin, Chasen Shreve, Justin Wilson, David Carpenter. Chase Headley and Stephen Drew were with the team on Opening Day for the first time. Martin, Shreve and Carptenter combined to retire 12 of 13 batters from the fifth through eighth innings.
• Martin is the second Yankees pitcher since 1914 to strike out every batter faced in his team debut. The first to do so was Edwar Ramirez — with that ridiculous changeup — back in 2007.
• Good news: The Yankees’ pitchers tied a franchise Opening Day record with 12 strikeouts. Tanaka had half of them.
• Bad news: The Yankees hitters had just three hits, their fewest on Opening Day since also having just three in 1984.
• This was the Yankees’ fourth consecutive Opening Day loss, their longest losing streak since also losing four in a row from 1982 to 1985.
• Final word goes to Girardi on Tanaka’s arm strength: “I think all of our guys still need to (build arm strength). We saw 93, 94 in (Tanaka’s) first game in spring training. I think it’s something that all of our guys still build upon. It’s just getting into a long season. It’s a long season for these guys, and we want them for the long term. We felt this spot is the best spot for him considering the extra days and all of that. He pitched really well for us and we thought he would handle today well. It just didn’t work out.”
Associated Press photos
I suppose this is true for every team in baseball, but it seems especially true for these Yankees as they prepare to start a season loaded with uncertainty.
“There’s a lot of things that have to go right for you to be where you want to be at the end of October,” Joe Girardi said. “But I feel there’s a lot of great pieces here. I feel there’s a lot of guys that are going to have really good years, and it’s our job to keep them on the field every day. But I like what we’ve assembled.”
A lot that has to go right, indeed. The entire heart of the Yankees’ lineup is coming back from disappointing seasons. They have no defined closer. Alex Rodriguez is nearly 40 and hasn’t played in more than a year.
Then there’s today’s starting pitcher.
On a team full of unpredictability, there is perhaps no all-or-nothing situation quite like Masahiro Tanaka.
Still trying to avoid Tommy John surgery, Tanaka made it through spring training healthy, but he’s raised a lot of eyebrows with his admission that he’s not planning to throw as hard this season. Tanaka says that’s all about preferring his two-seam fastball ahead of his four-seam fastball, but when a guy’s playing through an injury, any situation like this is sure to raise red flags.
Not white flags of surrender, but red flags of caution and curiosity.
“There’s so much talk about it,” Girardi said. “But until guys get out there, it’s speculation. He’s not exactly sure what he’s going to have every day when he goes out there. That’s just the nature of being a pitcher. You feel you’re always going to have your best stuff when you warm up, but some days it’s just not quite the same. For me, I’m just going to watch and see what happens.”
• Tanaka might be the most important piece of the Yankees’ roster, but Rodriguez will surely generate the most attention. He’s back from a year-long suspension, playing designated hitter and batting seventh. It’s certainly a different situation than what we remember from most of his career. “I think you’re going to get production from him,” Girardi said. “I don’t want to make a prediction on homers & RBIs, but I think you’re going to have good at-bats. You’re going to see him get on base and you’re going to see him hit some homers. I think the thing, as we get into this, that I have to pay close attention is when I feel I need to give him a day off, that sort of thing.”
• As expected, the Yankees are opening the season without a true closer. Girardi said again today that he’ll pick who pitches the ninth inning depending on matchups. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are the go-to options, but which one gets the ninth will depend on lefties and righties in the Blue Jays’ lineup. “They know who their guys are in the lineup and who we expect them to get out,” Girardi said. “If we’re in this part of the lineup, this is who you got. Their well aware of what we’re doing, I’ve explained it to them. They’re fine with it. So, we’re going to go with it and see how it works.”
• I suppose it’s worth noting that the Blue Jays do not have any pure left-handed hitters in their starting lineup. Instead, they have three switch hitters and a bunch of righties.
• As previously reported by Dan Barbarisi, CC Sabathia has moved into Derek Jeter’s old locker in the Yankees clubhouse. Brian McCann has moved into the locker most recently used by Mariano Rivera and Dave Robertson. Dellin Betances has moved into Sabathia’s old locker. Rodriguez has the same locker he had before last season (the locker Chris Young used briefly last year).
• The Blue Jays have former Yankees catcher Russell Martin batting second today. They also have former Yankees catching prospect Dioner Navarro at DH batting sixth. In between is one of the most dangerous middle of the orders in baseball: Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson.
• Today’s pregame schedule:
12:43-12:53 p.m. - Baseline introductions
12:53:30 p.m. - Unfurling of giant American flag by West Point Cadets
12:54 p.m. - Presentation of Colors: West Point Cadet Color Guard
12:55 p.m. - National Anthems: United States Military Academy Band
1:05 p.m. - Umpires and Managers to Home Plate
1:08 p.m. - Yankees take the field; ceremonial first pitch thrown by Joe Torre
1:10 p.m. - First Pitch
Associated Press photos
Late this morning, about two hours before today’s Grapefruit League finale, Joe Girardi was asked what’s surprised him most this spring. Girardi paused for several seconds, then gave three answers:
1. “Really pleased with what Alex did.”
That was Girardi’s first response, a one-sentence answer that basically speaks for itself. Alex Rodriguez was perhaps the least predictable piece of the roster coming into camp, but he’s thrived in all aspects. He’s played a passable version of first base and third base, he’s hit .286/.400/.524, and he’s handled inevitable off-the-field questions without digging himself into a new hole.
“I’ve said all along, I thought Alex was going to help us,” Girardi said. “But until you get into (you don’t know). I mean, it’s two years, really, since he played. I wasn’t 100-percent sure. If I was a betting man, I would have bet on him playing well, but there’s still that, you’ve got to see it after two years of not playing and being 39 and a half.”
2. “Pleased with our infield and them working together.”
This was the second sentence of Girardi’s answer, a fairly broad response that involves four players. Third baseman Chase Headley has been arguably the best everyday position player in camp, second baseman Stephen Drew has begun to hit in the last two weeks or so, first baseman Mark Teixeira has looked healthy and stronger than he did late last season, and shortstop Didi Gregorius has been perhaps the team’s most encouraging new addition.
“The way he moves (has been impressive),” Girardi said. “Arm strength. You can watch it go across the diamond, but you don’t realize it’s just that little flick and it’s gone. Relay throws. He’s the whole package. When you watch him play defense, he’s the whole package. And I’m excited to watch him play all year.”
3. “And I was really impressed with our kids.”
The Yankees’ farm system — particularly it’s lack of upper-level success stories — has been a problem in recent years, but the organization seems to be getting stronger. Not only with the addition of young talent, but also with the development of on-the-verge prospects. Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Luis Severino impressed early in camp, while Jacob Lindgren, Rob Refsnyder and Slade Heathcott stuck around long enough to stay on the radar until the very end. That’s to say nothing of Mason Williams’ improvement, Cito Culver’s defense and Nick Rumbelow’s emergence.
“The kids played a lot in spring training,” Girardi said. “Their talent level. The way they hold each other accountable. The way they push each other. It’s really neat to see.”
Associated Press photo
For years, Joe Girardi has talked about the value of defined roles in the bullpen. Even this spring he’s talked about it. Relievers like to know when they’re getting in a game, and so it helps to have a true closer, setup man, long reliever, lefty specialist, etc.
But on this final day of camp, it seems the Yankees might be prepared to go into the season with more flexibility than definition in their pen. Girardi strongly indicated that he has no plan of naming a closer and will instead mix-and-match the final two innings, using Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances interchangeably depending on matchups.
“I really think that if you do it that way, and as long as you’re prepared, it has a chance to be advantageous to you,” Girardi said.
Girardi said the Yankees have not prioritized a closer decision, and now it seems they won’t make a decision at all. Instead, Girardi said he’s looking at Miller and Betances as his eighth- and ninth-inning relievers, but he’s open to using either one in either role. If there are lefties coming up in the eighth, then Miller will be the setup man and Betances the closer. If there are more lefties due up in the ninth, the roles will reverse.
“My thought has been more like with a power lefty who strikes out a lot of guys and a power righty, the lineups just might match up where one day he’s the eighth inning guy and then one day he’s the ninth inning guy a little bit better,” Giradri said. “… I think you start managing who you’re going to use (in the ninth) in about the sixth inning, because you try to prepare them.”
The flexibility goes beyond the ninth. The Yankees are currently planning to carry three lefties, but Girardi has said none is necessarily a true left-on-left specialist. They’ll all be used to get right-handers out as well. And while Esmil Rogers is the only real long man in the pen, today Girardi named him along with David Carpenter and Justin Wilson as options to will basically the seventh-inning role that Adam Warren had last season. Chasen Shreve was a starter through much of his minor league career, and Chris Martin has pitching multiple innings this spring, so one of those two might be available for long relief if necessary.
The Yankees see their bullpen as a strength, but they also see it as a evolving piece of the roster, which could change from day to day and game to game.
“I’ve talked to both (Miller and Betances)” Girardi said. “They’re concerned about winning more than (roles), in the sense of I’m this guy, I’m this guy. That’s the sense I’ve got from them. Now, could it iron itself out and you start to do it one way? Yes. But we talked a little bit about it yesterday. I’ll continue to talk about it with my coaches and Larry and his feelings about it as they get a feel, and Gary Tuck who’s in the bullpen, what do you think the importance of it is that we actually set a role? But as of right now, we haven’t felt that we have to.”
• CC Sabathia is cleared for 80-85 pitches today. This will be his final start before pitching the third game of the season. Sabathia has so far thrown only 4.2 innings this spring and will surely break camp with less than 10 innings of actually game experience, but Girardi said he’s satisfied that Sabathia’s gotten all the work he needs. After one regular season start, he’ll basically be as stretched out as any other starter, and the Yankees prioritized taking it slow ahead of giving him a ton of spring training work.
• Normal day off for Alex Rodriguez today. Carlos Beltran is also sitting out a second straight day because of flu-like symptoms. Girardi said he expects both to play tomorrow’s final exhibition game in Washington D.C.
• Still no catcher decision. Girardi said both John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine will make tomorrow’s trip to D.C. He expects to make a final decision after tomorrow’s game.
• Although they’re playing in a National League park, the Yankees will use a designated hitter tomorrow. Girardi said he expects to give all of his regulars a few at-bats. Sounds like the Opening Day lineup might be in there tomorrow.
• Talked to Slade Heathcott a little bit this morning. I didn’t realize this, but Heathcott said this should be the first year he’s ever broken camp with a team. Amazing how much injuries have slowed him down, but a source said yesterday that the team is planning to open Heathcott in Triple-A strictly because he’s played so well this spring. He finally feels fully healthy. “DL and injury are not in my vocab anymore,” Heathcott said.
• Just based on a few conversations these past few days, it seems a bunch of the upper-level minor league relievers are getting anxious to find out about Opening Day assignments. They all seem to recognize that there are way too many guys for the Triple-A bullpen, so some are going to naturally be forced back to Double-A. These guys have to get an apartment somewhere in the next few days, and right now it seems none of them has a clue where he’s going.
• The two Tommy John rehab guys, Ivan Nova and Vicente Campos, are each throwing bullpens today. Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled for long toss and some flat ground work.
• Today’s second string: C Austin Romine, 1B Jonathan Galvez, 2B Rob Refsnyder, SS Nick Noonan, 3B Eric Jagielo, LF Ben Gamel, CF Slade Heathcott, RF Ramon Flores, DH Stephen Drew
• Today’s scheduled relievers: Chasen Shreve, Andrew Bailey, Branden Pinder, Cesar Vargas, Nick Goody
Associated Press photos
Twenty three strikeouts. One walk. Michael Pineda knew he’d been pretty good this spring, but he didn’t know those numbers until a reporter mentioned them in the clubhouse after today’s start at Steinbrenner Field.
“It’s good,” Pineda said, laughing. “I’m very happy for that. I’m not really paying attention, but thank you for telling me about it. I’m very happy because I’m feeling, in spring training today, it’s a really good number. I’m very happy. It’s what I try to do: throw a strike when I get on the mound and get an out.”
Pineda struck out six this afternoon. He walked none, allowed one run and finished spring training with a 1.42 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP. There’s been no indication that there’s any lingering problem in his shoulder. Instead, Pineda has looked fully healthy, and fully dominant.
“I think he really just picked up where he left off last year,” Joe Girardi said. “I really didn’t expect a whole lot different because of what we saw last year from him and how well he pitched, but it’s really nice to see it carry over. … I feel really good when he takes the mound. I do. You know he’s going to pound the zone and he’s going to give you every opportunity to win.”
Pineda’s not the only Yankees starter who pounded the zone. Nathan Eovaldi has 14 strikeouts and no walks this spring. Masahiro Tanaka has 13 strikeouts and one walk. Adam Warren: 11 strikeouts and one walk. CC Sabathia: six strikeouts and no walks.
That’s 67 strikeouts and three walks for the rotation.
“It’s good because if you don’t walk too much hitters, you don’t get in trouble,” Pineda said. “When you walk a lot of hitters, you get in trouble. So, it’s good. Throw strikes.”
Easier said than done, but the Yankees have thrived in that regard this spring. And Pineda seems to be leading that charge. If the shoulder issues really are behind him, Pineda just might be the Yankees’ most reliable starter. This spring he’s been their most dominant, looking like an even better version of the guy the Yankees first acquired more than three years ago.
“Every year I’m growing and growing, (becoming) a better person,” Pineda said. “So now I’m a better person and a better pitcher. I feel happy with that.”
• Another rocky outing for Dellin Betances who walked two batters but got through his inning without a run. “I’m getting my work in,” Betances said with a laugh. “I’m throwing a lot of pitches, but health-wise I feel fine. I felt a little stronger today. I’ve just got to be able to get that first guy out right away. I can’t be walking the leadoff guy. I got myself into a little jam again but I was able to come out with no damage, I guess. That’s a positive note.”
• Betances said he’s convinced his command issues have been caused by a minor mechanical issue that he’s close to fixing. He said he’s drifting too much, and that’s hurt him. It’s led to walks and pitches up in the zone. He’s expecting to pitch again on Saturday, which should be his final tune-up before Opening Day.
• Still no word on who will be the closer. “That’s one discussion we have not talked a lot about,” Girardi said. “It’s probably something we’ll talk a lot about tomorrow.”
• Speaking of the bullpen, it now looks like the Yankees will carry three left-handed relievers. Obviously Andrew Miller will be used as something more than a lefty specialist, and Girardi said the same is true for both Justin Wilson and Chasen Shreve. “Shreve was a starter for most of his career,” Girardi said. “And I trust Justin against both, too.”
• Carlos Beltran did not play today because he had flu-like symptoms. He probably won’t play tomorrow either. “You worry about the dehydration factor,” Girardi said. “My guess is, right now I do not have him penciled in (tomorrow). Everyone who’s had this, we’ve given them two days.”
• Girardi on the decision between Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy: “I think defense has to come first in that situation. Pitchers being comfortable, you want them to be able to work. So we have a tough decision.” The Yankees aren’t expecting to make that decision until Saturday night.
• Pretty good day for Alex Rodriguez at first base. He had to make a couple of scoops and nearly started a double play on a sharp ground ball. “I didn’t realize how involved and alert you have to be on every play (at first base),” Rodriguez said. “Even on that base hit up the middle, I had to sprint to the mound for a cutoff man. Those are things that I’ve never really had to do. A couple times, you find yourself just kind of standing around not knowing what to do and then you kind of go. It’s not really natural.”
• Girardi was clearly happy with the way Rodriguez looked in the field today and said he would not hesitate to use him at first base during the season. Garrett Jones is still the go-to backup, but Girardi said he could also imagine putting Jones in right field and playing Rodriguez at first on days he wants to DH Carlos Beltran and rest Mark Teixeira.
• The first real challenge for Rodriguez came on first-inning a throw in the dirt from Stephen Drew, who was playing shortstop for the first time this spring. “It’s natural,” Drew said, joking that he was trying to make sure Rodriguez got his work in. “It’s just more or less getting throws over there, which I haven’t taken all spring because of Didi. He’s done a good job, and knock on wood, everybody’s healthy and we’re ready to go.”
• The Yankees got their first look at Gregorius Petit this afternoon. He played shortstop and got a couple of at-bats in the second half of today’s home game. “He’s a player that can play anywhere; second, short and third,” Girardi said. “He’s going to give you good at-bats, going to play hard. He can run a little bit. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. He got caught in a position where there were a few guys over there that could do the same role that he could, so he became available. We’re happy to have him.”
• As planned, Didi Gregorius played shortstop in today’s road game. He seems past the wrist issue and should be ready for Opening Day. So when Gregorius takes a day off, will Drew or Petit play shortstop? “It’s probably something I need to talk about our scouts with, what’s the best scenario there,” Girardi said.
• Girardi stressed that the Yankees are sending Rob Refsnyder to Triple-A because they expect him to be an everyday guy when he finally gets to the big leagues. “He’s pretty close,” Girardi said. “I think for him, it’s a guy that’s made a position change, really. There was talk about him yesterday, could he possibly be that guy? I think we felt it was more beneficial for him to play every day, finish his development, and when he comes he’s here for good and that he’s an everyday player. Because I think that’s how we envision him.”
• Speaking of guys sent down, a source told me today that the Yankees will have center fielder Slade Heathcott open the season in Triple-A. That wasn’t the plan coming into spring training, but Heathcott has played so well that the Yankees think Heathcott is ready to make the jump. For whatever it’s worth, I also heard that Gary Sanchez has looked very impressive in minor league camp. Apparently the feeling is that he’s taken a giant leap forward.
• Final word goes to Girardi on a day the Yankees very nearly finalized their roster: “There’s a lot of guys in this camp I’ve had to send down that you can’t really tell them they’ve done a lot wrong. And (that includes) even some of the younger kids we played. These guys did a lot of things right, and it is difficult. I still say, it’s the worst part of my job. It’s very difficult for me and I feel for them, because it’s a dream of theirs. Obviously we believe that a guy like Chase Whitley is going to help us at some point this year. We believe that. And you just have to remind him of that. And you just try to talk about where you were last year at this time, and how far you’ve come, and be prepared, because there’s a good chance we’re going to need you at some point.”
Associated Press photos
Think back to the beginning of March.
Despite a lot of offseason talk about Rob Refsnyder getting a real opportunity this spring, he was getting no significant time with the big league regulars, and it seemed clear the Yankees weren’t considering him an go-to option for the major-league roster. As recently as today’s fifth inning, Refsnyder still seemed to have no realistic chance of opening in the big leagues.
By the end of the sixth inning, he was perhaps a favorite break camp with the team.
Utility infielder Brendan Ryan strained his right calf muscle during an awkward play in the sixth inning, leaving the Yankees searching for a last-minute replacement only five days before Opening Day. One week removed from his 24th birthday, Refsnyder has been one of the Yankees’ best hitters this spring, and just enough dominoes might have fallen to land him a spot in New York.
“The young man, I think, has continually improved,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s a name that I’m sure is going to fly around a lot today.”
It was less than two weeks ago that Ryan returned from a back injury, and the Yankees made it clear they fully expected him to be on their roster despite the shortened spring training. The Yankees liked his defense, liked the fact he hits right-handed, and liked the fact he could play both shortstop and second base. He was going to make the team.
If not Ryan, the best alternative would have been Jose Pirela, another right-handed utility man who had the highest batting average in camp before suffering a concussion last Sunday. Now Pirela’s gone more than a week without baseball activities and Girardi called him a “long shot” to be ready for Opening Day.
That means the only Refsnyder alternative in big league camp is Nick Noonan, who has some big league time but also hits left-handed, making him a less-than-ideal backup to lefties Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew. Even if the Yankees were to bring someone up from minor league camp, Cole Figueroa — the other Triple-A middle infielder — also hits lefty.
“Things can happen quick,” Girardi said. “I think a lot of clubs hold their breath this time of year that you leave camp the way you are. Sometimes it doesn’t happen and you’ve got to deal with it. … Didi and Drew are healthy, so we’re going to have to look at probably more of a second baseman in a sense. You could look at a second baseman more than a shortstop because you have two shortstops.”
Assuming Drew can slide back to shortstop without any problem — he has yet to take a single ground ball there this spring — the Yankees don’t need someone who has Ryan’s versatility. Instead, hitting from Ryan’s side of the plate might be more important. Refsnyder has impressed with a .333/.447/.538 slash line and the most doubles in camp, but he’s also shown room to grow with his team-high six errors. That’s twice as many as anyone else in camp.
“I think that my game reps haven’t reflected how well I’ve fielded in practice,” Refsnyder said. “Some of the errors I’ve made have been tempo plays, getting into the rhythm of the game again. … I wish I could have played better on all sides of the ball. But I’m happy with where my work is right now. Hopefully it translates in the game a little bit more, in the season, to be honest.”
It’s a curious situation. Refsnyder fits the profile of what the Yankees want and need, but they clearly want him to improve defensively, and it’s worth wondering whether they would be OK with one of their top prospects getting sporadic playing time off the big league bench. Carrying Refsnyder is certainly not what the Yankees had in mind, but it might be what they decide to do.
“Shoot, coming into camp, I was 23,” Refsnyder said. “I’m 24 now, and I’m playing with some of the best players in the entire world. Some of the best guys. It’s definitely not discouraging. Every day you can learn and get better from all these guys. They’ve been awesome to younger guys like myself who started this camp. I’ve learned a lot. Some things I can really continue on for the rest of my career hopefully. This has been a great opportunity for me.”
• Really strong outing by Chase Whitley today. He allowed a run on three hits in the second innings, but that was the extent of the damage. He finished with four innings, one run, no walks and six strikeouts. That might have locked up a spot in the Yankees bullpen. “I wanted to have a good spring and I was able to accomplish that,” Whitley said. “The results matched up today with how I felt, so that was pretty good.”
• If the Yankees carry Whitley, it would be as a second long man. Girardi said today that he considers Esmil Rogers locked into a roster spot. Rogers pitched 1.1 innings with an unearned run today. He struck out three and walked one.
• Another bullpen candidate, Chasen Shreve, allowed one hit and one unearned run in two-thirds of an inning. He struck out one. Most damaging to his case might be the fact he allowed a hard double to left-handed hitter James Loney. Presumably, Shreve would have to handle lefties to play much of a role in New York.
• Andrew Bailey delivered another scoreless inning with one hit and one walk. He has yet to allow an earned run this spring, but he’s also thrown just five innings.
• Why Adam Warren as fifth starter? “Consistency,” Girardi said. “Four-pitch mix. He throws strikes. His ability to get lefthanders and righthanders out, holds runners, does the little things, fields his position. He just does a lot of things right.”
• Gregorius is definitely playing tomorrow. “Unless something happens overnight,” Girardi said. “He felt good in BP. He’s scheduled and circled in on the trip. He’s going.” Gregorius said he’s perfectly unconcerned about the wrist after taking BP and going through fielding drills today. He’s fine.
• Alex Rodriguez is playing first base again tomorrow. He’ll play in the home game.
• Both Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Teixeira came through today’s game with no problems.
• Here’s Girardi on Refsnyder’s defense: “It’s a guy that was a right fielder. I think it’s improved over the spring. I’ve seen him on the back field every day and it’s improved. I think he’ll continue to get better. There’s no shortage of work ethic in this young man. He’s young. That’s the bottom line, he’s young. But depending on what we do, do I think we have a number of candidates that can handle it? Yes, I do. It’s just picking which one we think is the right one.”
• Would Pirela have been the favorite had he stayed healthy? “Yeah, I think he would’ve had a good shot at it,” Girardi said. Amazing how that weird decision to play Pirela in center field in Port St. Lucie — under what circumstances would Pirela play center this season? — might have impacted things.
• No surprise, but Girardi said he plans to stay on rotation at least through the early part of the season. Even after off days, the Yankees won’t skip Warren or any other starter. They’ll use off days for extra rest and occasionally insert sixth starters for even more rest when necessary.
• Chris Capuano is playing catch — not in a chair, standing up — but there’s still no time table for his return. “That’s hard to say,” Girardi said. “Obviously he’s playing catch, but it’s not the freedom you would have if you didn’t have a leg injury.”
• Final word goes to Girardi: “Those guys (Gregorius, Ellsbury, Teixeira), in my mind, I was pretty convinced we’d have them back. Now, it’s different now with Brendan. I think it’s a long shot. What happens, your depth is tested. We’ve got to talk about it. You understand going in that these things can happen and you’ve got to deal with it. I think that’s why they try to go out and acquire as many good players as they can.”
Associated Press photos
This morning I wrote about some of my thoughts and impressions heading into this final week of Yankees camp, but my opinions carry no weight around here. Brian Cashman’s opinions do, though. Here are some of the general manager’s thoughts with Opening Day coming up quickly.
On Dellin Betances having a rough spring
By letting Dave Robertson go to Chicago, the Yankees sent a clear message that they believe Betances can repeat last year’s success. Maybe not to that level — he could have a fine career and still have last season standout as his high point — but certainly the Yankees are banking on Betances being able to play a key role and get big outs. Problem is, he’s really struggled this spring with bad results and an underwhelming fastball.
“The Betances ‘Where has his velocity gone?’ story is not accurate,” Cashman said. “He’s actually averaging a mile (per hour) higher at this time this spring than last spring. If it’s apples to apples, then he’s right where he was last year. Obviously his performance in the spring is different than the arm strength, but the arm strength is not the issue. Just want to make sure everybody knows that.”
So what does the performance mean? Maybe nothing. Certainly it doesn’t mean enough that the Yankees are going to take Betances out of the mix in the late innings.
“You just want to make sure it doesn’t affect the confidence,” Cashman said. “I’ve been able to at least confirm for myself that he’s very confident, which is good. Spring Training is Spring Training and sample sizes are small. I thought he was much better (in a minor league game on Saturday).”
On whether Didi Gregorius needs a platoon partner
When the Yankees went shopping for a new shortstop, they found a marketplace that offered no perfect solutions. There were flawed free agents and expensive trade targets, and the most viable in-house option was all-glove, no-bat Brendan Ryan. Eventually, the Yankees settled on Gregorius, another glove-first shortstop, but one with both youth and offensive upside.
With Ryan still in the picture as a right-handed alternative, Gregorius has thrived this spring. He’s been outstanding in the field, and he’s been plenty productive at the plate. He’s even hit lefties in the past couple of weeks, adding some confidence that the Yankees might not have to use Ryan as a platoon partner.
“It’ll be more of a Joe decision right now,” Cashman said. “I’d just (say), it’s something we could consider, but Ryan’s also here for a reason. We have two left-handers in the middle infield in Drew and Didi, and we have Ryan as an alternative, so I trust that Joe — like he does all the time — he’ll dissect the matchups and try to put the best team on the field to win. If that means Ryan’s in there ahead of Didi on any given day, so be it. (Gregorius) has shown me a lot this spring, which I’m happy with. He’s an exciting personality, and really, clearly, we hope that it plays well for us.”
On the bounce-back potential of Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Stephen Drew
I suppose you could lump Brian McCann into this group, but at least McCann hit for decent power and had an impact behind the plate last season. The Yankees seem to have more offensive uncertainty from this trio of Teixeira, Beltran and Drew, all of whom dangerously underperformed last season. Teixeira fell apart in the second half, Beltran wasn’t the same after an elbow injury, and Drew had an unthinkably bad year at the plate.
Even so, the Yankees are clearly planning to use each one of them as a lineup regular this season.
“There’s no reason to believe, for instance, Carlos Beltran’s not going to hit all of a sudden,” Cashman said. “And I have seen a lot of Stephen Drew in the last week to 10 days, and it’s encouraging. And then Tex, I haven’t had any worries about Tex coming back, or even Beltran. It’s more like, just stay healthy and we’ll be fine. Drew’s really, out of those three, the only question mark, what is he going to be? Those questions are fair to ask, and it doesn’t matter what gets said, only he‘ll answer them over time. But he’s looked really good at the plate.”
On Alex Rodriguez’s return to the team
A wild card in every way, Rodriguez has returned from a year-long suspension and actually done a good job of settling into the clubhouse while also performing well on the field.
“He’s handled himself both on the field and in the clubhouse and in his interviews with you guys, extremely well,” Cashman said. “It’s been about baseball, and he’s done really well on that level too.”
Rodriguez has been one of the Yankees very best hitters this spring. Not sure anyone would have predicted that a month ago.
“I think I consistently told you guys, I don’t know what to expect,” Cashman said. “so in fairness, I can’t even say it surprises me because I didn’t know what to expect. It was like, let’s just let whatever’s going to be, be. Then we can talk about what’s happening rather than waste your time wrapping your mind around what it is or what it’s going to be or how it’s going to look when you have no idea, it’s just a guessing game. Camp’s gone really well for him.”
On choosing a backup catcher and final bullpen jobs
Assuming minor injuries to Gregorius, Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury don’t cause problems on Opening Day, the Yankees seem to have very few roster decisions to make between now and the end of camp. The most wide-open spots seem to be at backup catcher and for the final two spots in the bullpen.
“Well, we’re a week away from making (those decisions),” Cashman said. “So, if you define close as, a week, then I would say yeah, I think we’re close (to making a decision).”
It’s worth noting that yesterday the Yankees made one of their most significant cuts in sending Jacob Lindgren to minor league camp. As recently as Sunday morning Cashman talked about Lindgren as if he had a real shot of breaking camp on the roster. Now he’s clearly being looked at as a mid-season call-up at best.
“We’ve kept him this long for a reason because he’s continued to open people’s eyes,” Cashman said. “I’m not going to tell you what’s going to happen yet, but there’s a reason he was pitching in a game (Saturday) this late and hadn’t been assigned out yet. Some other guys I can’t say that about, but in his case, I can.”
Associated Press photos
First, a reminder that we’re doing a chat today at noon. This is an off day in Yankees camp. For me, that means a day to sit in a hotel room and write a whole lot of season preview stuff for the newspaper. For the Yankees, it means a day to catch their breath before one last burst of exhibition games and decision making. Heading into this final week, here are a few thoughts and impressions from Tampa:
• I actually think CC Sabathia looks pretty good. His numbers are awful, but I’m buying it when he says he’s encouraged. He’s clearly stronger than he was last year, and I think it’s good that he’s talking about his changeup a lot. He’s going to have to pitch smart and keep hitters off balance, and I think he’s able to do that. Scouts keep telling me what a “pitcher” he is; that Sabathia knows what he’s doing out there even with diminished stuff. The numbers are awful, but this is one of those situations in which I’m not sure spring training numbers mean much. He’s going to give up some home runs now — that’s just the way it goes — but I think he’ll be better than he was the past two seasons. Not a Cy Young candidate, but I think he’ll be a good No. 3 starter as long as he stays healthy.
• The middle of the order does not look very good. At this point, I think that’s a bigger problem than the rotation. Even if the lineup stays healthy, I’m still not sure what the heart of the order can provide. Carlos Beltran hasn’t looked great, Brian McCann has been so-so, and Mark Teixeira hasn’t hit for much power (though I do think Teixeira seems to be in much better shape than last spring, so maybe he can stay on the field and avoid a second-half decline). I just haven’t seen a lot that suggests the lineup is much better than it was last season. Veteran guys like that might be able to turn it on once they’re in real games, I just don’t think they’ve shown it down here.
• Whether Alex Rodriguez has a successful season might depend on your definition of success. If he carries his spring training slash line through the season he’ll be an MVP candidate, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. More likely, I think he’ll get on base at a decent clip, pounce on some bad pitches to hit home runs now and then, and generally provide what you’d expect from a No. 6-7 hitter. That’s honestly better than I was expecting. He’s not running well, but I think he’s running well enough. He’s not a good defender, but he’ll field balls that are hit right to him. He’s better than I thought he would be.
• As a side note to the Rodriguez situation: He’s also handled all of the off-the-field stuff pretty well. Believe it or not, he actually makes some small talk and jokes with reporters in the clubhouse. Teammates seem to like him. Opposing players don’t seem to completely hate him. He’s heard his share of boos, but he’s heard plenty of cheers as well. I’m telling you, from every angle, this situation has been much better and easier than I expected. The Yankees seem to feel the same way. Both Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi said yesterday that they’re happy with the way Rodriguez has settled back into the clubhouse.
• I have no idea what the Yankees are going to do about those final two spots in the bullpen. I think Chase Whitley is a favorite for one of those spots, if only because I think they’ll want another long man other than Esmil Rogers (and all the other long relief candidates have been sent away). What I can’t figure out is who the favorites might be for that last spot in the pen. I do think it’s worth noting that Chris Martin and Chasen Shreve are on the 40-man and have options, and I think that final bullpen spot might be very flexible early in the season. For that reason — because the 12th reliever might have to go up and down to Triple-A a few times — I’m not surprised the Yankees steered away from Jacob Lindgren. He’s looked great, but I imagine that once he’s on the big league roster, the Yankees want him to stay there. Why not carry Martin or Shreve out of camp, send him down for a sixth starter in late April, and then think about adding either Lindgren or Andrew Bailey?
• Backup catcher might be more wide-open than I expected when camp opened. Last season showed the Yankees clearly prefer John Ryan Murphy, but don’t think they’ve completely given up on Austin Romine. Ideally, I think — and this is just a gut feeling — the Yankees would prefer to trade Romine before the season starts, but I think they’d like to get real value for him. If they can’t, maybe he gets one month to prove himself one way or the other in the big leagues. If he can’t do it, Murphy comes up to take his place. That said, if the Yankees choose to DFA Romine in favor of Murphy, that wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I really think it could go either way. If I had to guess right now, I think I’d still pick Murphy.
• Slade Heathcott has looked so good this spring, I wonder if the Yankees might get aggressive and send him straight to Triple-A to play center field every day. That would free Jake Cave, Mason Williams and Aaron Judge to play the outfield every day in Trenton (and Williams had a good enough spring that I think he’s worth everyday at-bats as well). Put Heathcott in the Triple-A outfield with Ramon Flores and Tyler Austin and see what happens. This isn’t a typical development year for Heathcott. The Yankees really need to find out by the end of the season whether he’s a high-end asset again.
• At this point, I’m assuming Jose Pirela will end up in Triple-A, but where does he play regularly? Obviously he’ll have to bounce around a little bit — some time in the outfield corners, some time at second base — but it might make sense to see what he can do as a regular third baseman. If Chase Headley gets hurt, Rodriguez isn’t good enough in the field to play third every day, so the Yankees might want to get Pirela prepared just in case he has to play that role at some point. But he really can’t play any one spot every single day. He’s going to have to maintain some flexibility because the Yankees might want his bat at some point even without an injury at third.
• Sure, Sabathia says his knee feels fine and Masahiro Tanaka is pitching like his elbow is healthy, but the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Yankees’ rotation might be Michael Pineda. That guy looks fantastic. He’s still throwing hard, still throwing a ton of strikes, and his offspeed stuff is more effective than when the Yankees first acquired him. It’s amazing that, after missing much of three years with shoulder problems, Pineda just might be the most reliable piece of the Yankees rotation. I think Nathan Eovaldi could be pretty good, but Pineda could be great.
• Speaking of the rotation, what happens if everyone stays healthy and Adam Warren has a 3.00 ERA at the end of May. Would he move right back into the bullpen to make room for Chris Capuano? What about Ivan Nova? Granted, this is a pretty extreme hypothetical — it involves Warren having an all-star caliber first two months, and involves a rotation full of injury concerns staying healthy — but I really think Warren’s a nice pitcher who could thrive. Maybe not to the tune of 3.00, but what about a 3.20 or a even a 3.50? Would you take that out of the rotation in favor of a guy one year removed from Tommy John?
• Relief pitchers are notoriously inconsistent from year to year. Only a very few are able to truly get the job done season after season. For that reason, I think the Dellin Betances struggles should raise some red flags. Not white flags of surrender, but red flags of concern. He just hasn’t looked great, and it’s not just the fact he’s not throwing 98 mph. Some of that added velocity could very easily come with regular-season adrenalin. Right now, he’s also missing spots and looking fairly hitable. I think that should be a bit of a concern. The Yankees have banked on the idea of having a standout bullpen. What if they don’t?
Associated Press photos