The LoHud Yankees Blog

A New York Yankees blog by Chad Jennings and the staff of The Journal News


Tuesday notes: Ellsbury and Gardner looking to become one-two punch03.03.15

Phanatic, Joe Girardi

Luis Severino and Aaron Judge surely spark some optimism for the future, but if you were looking for immediate impact in the present, the big names from today’s Yankees spring opener were Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.

“I think we can do some damage as long as we both stay healthy and do our jobs,” Gardner said. “Get on base and take some attention from the hitter and (put it) on us from the pitcher and the catcher; get over into scoring position and give those guys in the middle of the lineup some RBI opportunities.”

That’s the idea, and the Yankees might actually be able to put it into action this season. When Ellsbury signed last winter, there was some immediate thought about the impact he and Gardner might have together as speed-oriented hitters and defenders. They played well side-by-side in the outfield, but they rarely hit together in the lineup. It seems inevitable that they’ll do that this year.

Brett Gardner“I think it’ll be fun,” Ellsbury said. “Having speed at the top of the lineup, you can do a lot of different things. Score a lot of different ways.”

They didn’t do much today — a combined 0-for-6 — but last season, Gardner and Ellsbury ranked first and second in OPS among Yankees everyday players. They combined for 60 steals and each hit more home runs than any Yankee other than Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann. They are, perhaps, the most reliable pieces of this season’s projected lineup.

“If I play a full season this year and hit six (home runs), or if I hit 20, it really doesn’t matter to me,” Gardner said. “I still have to get on base. I don’t have to drive myself in. I just have to get on base and put myself into scoring position and those guys in the middle will drive me in if they’re healthy. … Get on base a little more (than last year), run a little more, and just use my speed to my advantage. Just taking things pitch by pitch, try and keep things simple. I kind of felt like I fell off a little bit towards the end of the season, the last month of last year. Right now I feel great. Just stay strong, try to stay healthy all season.”

For Ellsbury, hitting ahead of Gardner means he should have plenty of chances to run. Gardner’s a patient hitter, and Ellsbury can be an aggressive runner.

“I tend to go early in the count just to give a hitter a better opportunity before he’s down in the count or whatnot,” Ellsbury said. “But yeah, if I don’t go early, it just gives me opportunities to take a base. Brett does a good job with the bat and controlling the bat. Maybe he just advances me from second to third with no outs, something like that. … If I feel I can go, I’m going to take off unless they give me the red light and want the guy to hit if they’re so focused on the hitter seeing a pitch. I feel if I get my jump, I’m going to make it more often than not.”

Adam Warren• Pretty solid first outing for Adam Warren, who allowed just one hit — a weak single — through two scoreless innings. “I wanted to get ahead of hitters,” Warren said. “Didn’t really do that great today, but also wanted to establish fastball in to a lot of guys, which I did well today. Just have to keep working and improving. Getting ahead of guys for me is a the name of the game, so I want to do that a little bit better, but overall felt good.”

• Warren said he feels like he’s competing for a rotation spot and not simply serving as rotation insurance in case someone gets hurt. “Who knows where I’ll end up,” he said. “But right now my mind is being a starter and see where that leads.”

• Joe Girardi’s impression of Warren’s start: “A lot of quality strikes today. Good counts.”

• Every prospect reliever seemed to really thrive today except Jacob Lindgren. I was doing interviews in the Yankees clubhouse while Lindgren was pitching, so I actually missed most of his outing. He went two-thirds of an inning, gave up two hits and allowed two runs, which were unearned because of a Rob Refsnyder throwing error. Branden Pinder wound up finishing off that inning with a strikeout.

• Refsnyder wasn’t the only young second baseman with a throwing error. Jose Pirela also threw a ball away trying to make a tough turn on a double play.

Ryan Howard, Jose Pirela• Aaron Judge on seeing his game-tying home run go over the fence. “I thought he robbed it, so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to turn around or keep going. So I just kept going, and no one stopped me.”

• Luis Severino said he believes he could be pitching in New York at some point this season, but he quickly shot down the idea that he’s trying to make a big impression this spring to make that happen. “No,” he said, flatly. “The same I do last year, I’ve got do this year the same.”

• Some of the pace of play rules were used today. The field had two red clocks counting down two minutes and 25 seconds for a pitcher to get ready at the start of an inning. I honestly didn’t even notice it at first. “It was a little strange,” Warren said. “I didn’t think about it the first inning. I went out there for the second inning, I noticed it at like a minute, 50 (seconds) when I first got out there. I’m like, ‘Crap, that’s not long at all.’ Then all of a sudden I look back after my last pitch, it’s at 50 seconds still, so it only took me a minute. After you’ve already gone out there, and you’re already a little bit loose, it didn’t affect me. I think you just have to get used to knowing the time’s ticking down to kind of know how long it takes you.”

• Garrett Jones singled in his first at-bat with the Yankees. Chris Young also had a single today. Of the guys really fighting for a roster spot, Pirela was the only other one who had a hit. Both Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy went 0-for-2. Jake Cave, Slade Heathcott, Greg Bird, Kyle Roller, Mason Williams, Jonathan Galvez, Nick Noonan, and of course Judge all had at least one hit today.

• Girardi said everyone came through today’s game healthy. No new injuries to report.

• Final word goes to Girardi: “You want to learn as much as you can about these (young) guys because we haven’t seen them a lot. See what their abilities are, what some of their strengths are. I think we’ve said all along, there’s some really good position players that are coming. They’re getting closer and closer, and at some point – you hope that you don’t have injuries, but at some point you know that it usually happens and these kids get a call-up and a chance to do something.”

Associated Press photos

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith Comments Off

Tuesday morning notes: Ellsbury back in the leadoff spot for Yankees03.03.15

Jacoby Ellsbury ; Brett Gardner

Hard to make much of Game 1 lineup in spring training, but after seeing a similar batting order in yesterday’s intrasquad game, it seems we have a pretty good idea how Joe Girardi plans to stack the top of his lineup. Barring a surprising change of plans, Jacoby Ellsbury is the leadoff hitter, and Brett Gardner is the No. 2 hitter.

“It’s definitely a possibility,” Joe Girardi said (that’s about as much as he’ll ever commit to anything this time of year). “I think that both of them are capable of leading off. Ells has done it a little more in his career than Gardy, but I just kind of like the combination of those two guys together. We’ll take a look at it a lot this spring as we try to keep the outfielders together a lot early on, and the infielders together, just to see how it works. Left-handed, right-handed, in my mind right now I’m not really worried either way.”

Girardi wouldn’t go into detail about why exactly he likes Ellsbury ahead of Gardner — said it was about strategy, and he didn’t want to discuss strategy — but beyond Ellsbury’s experience in the leadoff spot, I think of the fact that Ellsbury seems to run more often than Gardner, and Gardner sees a lot of pitches, which creates plenty of opportunities for Ellsbury to take second or third.

“I would love (stealing bases) to be a successful tool whenever they can do it,” Girardi said. “That’s the key. Our success rate was really good last year. The one thing you don’t want to do is run yourself out of innings. But they’re both capable of stealing a ton of bases, creating a lot of pressure. Putting pressure on defenses, pitchers; maybe taking 10 percent, 15, 20 percent of their attention off the hitter, which is always great for the hitter, and I like that.”

While Girardi said it doesn’t bother him having two lefties at the top of the order, the situation gets a little more tricky when you consider Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius are natural fits in the No. 8 and 9 spots in the order, creating a lineup with four lefties in a row.

“That’s the one thing that we have to kind of iron out, how that’s going to work,” Girardi said. “It’s possible you could have four in a row, and if I don’t have concerns about 1 and 2, then maybe late in the game you pinch hit at the bottom. They bring in their lefty, you bring in a righty to hit for them, so (the other team has) to make a choice.”

Adam Warren• Adam Warren is starting for the Yankees this afternoon. Girardi said he would consider using Warren as a starter even if everyone is healthy, but he also acknowledged that it’s tempting to keep Warren in the bullpen considering how well he handled that role last season. “I think (putting him in the rotation) is something you have to look at with the way he’s pitched,” Girardi said. “And with the health of our pitchers I think we also have to be prepared. I think it’s both reasons.”

• Alex Rodriguez said he’ll be “a little nervous, for sure” to face live pitching tomorrow. He’s staying behind in Tampa to go through normal drills. He said he expects to begin really focused first-base drills “within the next week.”

• Carlos Beltran is among those scheduled to stay behind in Tampa and go through normal workout drills, with hitting and fielding. Pretty much the same stuff the Yankees have been doing since position players showed up last week. Rodriguez, Stephen Drew, Ramon Flores, Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley and Mark Teixeira will all participate in those drills. The catchers who are staying behind are scheduled to catch bullpens and hit.

• Brendan Ryan said he’s scheduled to take batting practice and field ground balls today. Yesterday he hit off a tee and played some light catch. The said his back is progressing well. Seems to be moving a lot a little quicker than he expected.

• Should be cool to see Luis Severino get into his first big league spring training game. “Pretty calm,” Girardi said. “Strike-thrower with very good stuff. I thought the BP sessions, the second one was better than the first; you saw growth, and him getting more comfortable. There’s kind of a buildup for pitchers. I don’t expect them to be in mid-season form their first BP, but he’s pretty calm. He’s a worker too, which is really good.”

• Francisco Arcia and Tyler Austin are making the trip to Clearwater, but they’re not scheduled to play. Drew the short straw, I guess.

WilsonBaileyLive batting practice in Tampa: (facing Ramon Flores and Kyle Higashioka)

Chris Martin (to Eddy Rodriguez)
Jared Burton (to Eddy Rodriguez)
Justin Wilson (to Gary Sanchez)
Andrew Bailey (to Gary Sanchez)
David Carpenter (to Trent Garrison)

Bullpen sessions in Tampa:

Ivan Nova (to Austin Romine)
Jose Campos (to Juan Graterol)
Michael Pineda (to Brian McCann)
Esmil Rogers (to Joe Graterol)
Bryan Mitchell (to Roman Rodriguez)
Chase Whitley (to Juan Graterol)

Today’s second string: C John Ryan Murphy, 1B Greg Bird, 2B Rob Refsnyder, SS Cito Culver, 3B Cole Figueroa, LF Slade Heathcott, CF Jake Cave, RF Aaron Judge, DH Mason Williams

Today’s scheduled relievers: Luis Severino, Jacob Lindgren, Branden Pinder, Nick Goody, Diego Moreno (also on the trip as just-in-case backups: Kyle Davies, Danny Burawa, Chasen Shreve and Tyler Webb)

Associated Press photos

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith Comments Off

Pinch hitting: Tyler Patterson02.13.15

Jacoby Ellsbury

Quick and to the point, today’s Pinch Hitter sent a one-line bio: “Tyler is a life-long Yankee fan and an attorney in Washington, D.C.” That’s Tyler Patterson in an incredibly small nutshell. Perhaps he kept the bio so short because he was saving so many words for his actual post.

As for his post, he calls it: “The 2015 Yankees and Elite Team Defense.”

Chase HeadleyWe all know the nickname of the Yankees that has been around since the 1930s: the Bronx Bombers.

Inspired by Ruth, Gehrig, and many, many others, the Yankees at their best are an offensive juggernaut. Not to mitigate the team’s past pitching accomplishments (indeed, some old-time Yankee pitchers are criminally underrated) but success for the Yankees has been predominantly associated with the organization’s offensive prowess over the years. Such is the case for the teams that the organization has fielded since 1995, the first year I, like many other millennials, began watching the team.

I challenge anyone to name me a Yankee club since the 1995 season that has been known for its defense (in a positive manner). I know I can’t do it. Not that the Yankees haven’t fielded stout defensive teams since 1995, but the point is that defense is just not what the Yankees are ever known for. And when you look past player reputations and at the numbers, it is not difficult to understand why.

For example, recently retired Yankees legend Derek Jeter is easily one of the greatest shortstops in MLB history and one of the greatest Yankees of all time. However, none of that was due to his defense. For his career, Jeter had a TZ of -129, a DRS of -159 and a UZR/150 of -7.1. If you do not know what any of these stats are, that’s fine. As you might guess, all those negatives indicate Jeter was not a strong fielder. This jives with the traditional eye-test as well, the jump-throws and Gold Glove awards aside.

The same can be said about many other Yankees since 1995 (Williams, Posada, Giambi, O’Neill, Soriano, Sheffield). None of these players was an especially good fielder, and the list goes on. Very few Yankees since 1995 were great (or in most cases, even average) fielders. In fact, from 1995 through the 2014 season, the Yankees ranked dead last in all of baseball with a Def rating of -440.8 (Def, as calculated by FanGraphs, is a combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average [fielding runs] and positional value relative to other positions [positional adjustment]). The next worst club, the Cubs, had a Def of -308.5.

Since 1995, the Yankees cumulatively have been far and away the worst defensive squad in all of baseball.

That being said, the Yankees have showed marked improvement in team defense in the past several seasons. For example, the Yankees’ Def in 2013 was 21.4 and in 2014, 10.8.

This trend should continue in 2015, a season in which the Yankees might easily field their best defensive team since 1995.

The Yankees have made a conscious effort to get younger and cheaper wherever they can, and in baseball’s current suppressed run environment, the Yankees have realized that it is easier to upgrade the roster defensively rather than offensively. That is not to say there is not offensive upside to some of the Yankees’ offseason acquisitions, but improved team defense has certainly been on the mind of the front office, especially during the last two offseasons.

Let us run through the 2014 squad position by position and compare it to the projected team for the upcoming season. It is clear that the 2015 squad projects to be fantastic defensively, perhaps the best defensive team since 1995.

Brian McCannCATCHER
2014: Brian McCann
2015: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy

McCann is the Yankees’ catcher for the foreseeable future after the team signed him to a five-year deal following the 2013 season. He saw the bulk of the work behind the plate in 2014 and did not disappoint, at least defensively. McCann is a world-class defender and one of the best defensive backstops in baseball. His Def of 11.5 in 2014 was exactly what the Yankees signed up for, as was his pitch-framing performance (11.4 Runs Above Average, good for 11th in MLB. This represents a “down” year for McCann, who is consistently top 10 in MLB every season in this category). Long story short, McCann is an elite defensive backstop, and he projects to continue to be so, as his 2015 projected Def of 8.8 illustrates.

Backing up McCann will presumably be Murphy, who anyone will tell you is an above average defender behind the plate. The Yankees have been emphasizing catcher defense for some time now, and with Murphy (and McCann for that matter) the Yankees continue the trend. It is not actually settled who will be the Yankee backup catcher, as Austin Romine will also be “competing” for the role in spring training, but my money is on Murphy with Romine being dealt or placed on waivers. Murphy is clearly the better player, both defensively and offensively.

Mark Teixeira, Jonathan SchoopFIRST BASE
2014: Mark Teixeira, Kelly Johnson
2015: Mark Teixeira, Garrett Jones

Obviously, Teixeira will be the Yankees’ first baseman in 2015, at least until the obligatory injury. Unlike last year, the Yankees have a back-up first baseman on their roster in Jones, although his defensive abilities leave a lot to be desired. First base, like catcher, is a position where I do not put too much stock in advanced statistics because, at least in my experience, the stats do not measure up to the eye test. Teixeira is a perfect example of this. Teixeira has had a pretty consistent negative Def rating throughout his career, and last season was no different, as his -3.6 shows. His UZR/150, however, was 7.1 last season and has been consistently positive in his career. That jives more with my perception of Teixeira and my experience watching him pretty regularly since 2009, but it is also obvious confirmation bias.

Either way, I’m not the only one who will tell you Tex is at least an average defender at first, and probably slightly above average. I expect no different in 2015, so long as he can stay on the field (a BIG if in his age-35 season). If injured, the aforementioned Jones figures to man first base. He is projected for a -9.1 Def, which is not very good, and unlike Teixeira, the eye-test does not save Jones; he has never been thought of as a strong defender, and the stats back that up. Let’s hope Teixeira remains healthy. Or, if not, that Greg Bird is mauling in Trenton and gets a call. Unlikely, but I can dream.

Stephen DrewSECOND BASE
2014: Multiple Players
2015: Stephen Drew, Rob Refsnyder

Offensively, second base was a mess for the Yankees last season until they dealt for Martin Prado, who was fantastic in his 37 games for the Yankees (his true value was as trade bait, allowing the Yankees to obtain Jones and Nathan Eovaldi). Defensively, however, the myriad of players the Yankees played at second combined for a -1.9 Def, which is not awful but not great either. A carryover from last season, Drew, was signed to a no-risk, one-year, $5-million deal to hold second base down until Refsnyder is ready to permanently take over (or until the Yankees gain another year of team control by manipulating Refsnyder’s service time).

Drew’s calling card in his career has been his defense at short, which has always been excellent. There is no reason to think that, save for a minor adjustment period, he will not be able to excel at the less-demanding second base position. A legitimate reason why the Yankees may not, as of this moment, be comfortable opening the 2015 season with Refsnyder as their everyday second basemen is his defense. A converted outfielder, Refsnyder has taken to second base well, but there is certainly room for improvement. The scouting reports peg Refsnyder as an average defensive second baseman at best, but combined with Drew’s projected performance, as well as Brendan Ryan’s skill as the infield backup, the team’s second base defense should be at least as good as it was last year, and probably much better. Backing up either of these players will be Ryan, a world-class defensive infielder.

Derek JeterSHORTSTOP
2014: Derek Jeter
2015: Didi Gregorius

We have already discussed Jeter’s defensive shortcomings, and last season was no different as he compiled a -4.0 Def, a -12.5 UZR/150, and a -12 DRS. By any measure Jeter was a very, very bad fielder last season. His replacement this season will be Gregorius, who projects to compile a 4.3 Def, a huge improvement over 2014 Jeter.

Gregorius has a reputation as being a strong defender with excellent range and a cannon for an arm, and let’s hope we see that in 2015. Under team control for the next several seasons, the position is Gregorius’s to lose (at least until Jorge Mateo is ready to take over) and the Yankees will give him every opportunity to be their everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future. Having Chase Headley manning third base will also make his job much easier, allowing Gregorius to shade up the middle more so than he normally would.

Chase HeadleyTHIRD BASE
2014: Multiple Players
2015: Chase Headley

The Yankees opened 2014 with Kelly Johnson as their starting third baseman, and the position was a mess until Headley was acquired before the trade deadline. Signed to a four-year deal this offseason (at a below market rate), Headley is the Yankees’ third basemen moving forward. From a defensive standpoint, the Yankees are set. In only 58 games with the team last year, Headley compiled a 12.4 Def and has been an absolute defensive stud throughout his career.

Combined with Gregorius, the defense on the left side of the infield will be among the best in baseball. Like second base, third base was not as bad defensively as I thought it was in 2014 (thanks mainly to Headley), but with Headley in pinstripes for an entire season, third-base defense will be an absolute strength for the 2015 squad. Headley is among the best defensive third baseman in all of baseball, and it will be fun watching him man the hot corner for the Yankees in 2015 and beyond.

Indians Yankees BaseballLEFT FIELD
2014: Brett Gardner
2015: Brett Gardner

Gardner was signed to a team-friendly four-year deal that begins this season, and barring a trade (which I do not think is out of the question) he will be the Yankees’ left fielder in 2015 and for the foreseeable future. Gardner is a superb defender in any outfield position, and left field is no different. It is important for the Yankees to man left field with a strong defender given the stadium’s dimensions, and Gardner handles it about as well as a player can. Because of this, he has more value to the Yankees than most other (if not all) teams.

Look for Gardner to continue his defensive excellence, giving the Yankees another above-average defended position. He also serves as a backup to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, further adding to Gardner’s value.

EllsburyCENTER FIELD
2014: Jacoby Ellsbury
2015: Jacoby Ellsbury

In the second year of a seven-year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season, Ellsbury will once again man center field. There is not much to say here, as Ellsbury has always been a very strong defensive center fielder, and 2015 projects to be no different.

This gives the Yankees yet another position fielded by an above-average defender.

Carlos Beltran, Jacoby EllsburyRIGHT FIELD
2014: Multiple Players
2015: Carlos Beltran, Chris Young

Right field is the only position on the diamond I believe the Yankees will field below-average defenders in 2015. Last season, Beltran projected to be the everyday right fielder. Long gone are the years when Beltran was an elite defender in center field. Since 2009, Beltran has been a below-average fielder wherever he has played, mainly in right, and 2015 projects to be no different. Beltran suffered a myriad of injuries in 2014, and the Yankees were forced to play multiple players in right as a result. I expect the Yankees to DH Beltran quite a bit this season due to his age and the fact that he can still hit plenty when healthy. That will leave Young to get plenty of reps in right in 2015, especially against lefties as he is a career 116 wRC+ hitter against them.

Projection wise, Beltran sits at a -11.8 Def for 2015, while Young sits at a -2.2 Def. It is important to note that there is not a lot of room in right field in Yankee stadium, so bad defense in right for the Yankees is far less detrimental than it would be to, say, the Athletics or Padres. This is also a reason why I tend to shy away from advanced defensive statistics for Yankees’ right fielders, but I digress. The stats back up the eye tests for both Beltran and Young.

CONCLUSION

I am not going to analyze Ryan or Young any more than I already have because the backup infielder and fourth outfielder positions are very fluid on every team in baseball and it would not be a shock if Ryan and/or Young end the 2015 season off the active roster. That being said, the Yankees project to field an exceptional defensive squad in 2015 and, save for right field, will have at least an average fielder at every position.

In an era where run scoring is down significantly due mainly to an ever-expanding strike zone, it is far easier to upgrade pitching and defense. The Yankees have done a very, very good job upgrading team defense the past two offseasons, and it should be fun to watch.

Associated Press photos

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith Comments Off

On the 40-man: Brett Gardner02.12.15

Brett Gardner

Next up in our series looking at each player on the Yankees 40-man roster is one of the farm system’s greatest success stories of the past decade. Long labeled as nothing more than a fourth outfielder, he’s become an everyday left fielder with a new contract extension to show for it.

GardnerBRETT GARDNER

Age on Opening Day: 31
Acquired: Third-round pick in the 2005 draft
Added to the 40-man: Contract purchased for June 2008 call-up

In the past: Walk-on at the College of Charleston. Third-round pick in the amateur draft. Speedy, on-base oriented center fielder throughout the minor leagues. Gardner had plenty of prospect attention by the time he reached the big leagues, but he came with his share of familiar doubters who feared he might not hit enough to play regularly in the big leagues. Since finally getting regular at-bats, he’s had a 105 OPS+ (slightly above average offense) to go with his speed and strong defense.

Role in 2015: When the Yankees gave Gardner a contract extension last spring, it was a clear indication that they plan to keep using him as their everyday left fielder and backup center fielder. The question this year seems to be whether he’ll hit first or second in the order (in front of or behind Jacoby Ellsbury). His days of splitting time or batting ninth seem to have passed. According to Baseball Reference, Gardner’s been at least a 4 WAR player each of his past four healthy seasons.

Best case scenario: If Gardner were to hit his career highs in each slash category, he’d have a .277/.383/.422 slash line this season. Add in his career-high of 49 stolen bases (when he led the league back in 2011) and Gardner seems capable of an all-star season if all goes extremely well. Even if that’s overly ambitious, it seems reasonable to hope for a repeat of last year’s surprising home run power along with some spike in his on-base percentage. As always, there seems to be some sense that Gardner should be stealing more bases than he has the past two years.

Worst case scenario: Injuries aside, Gardner’s really been a pretty steady player since 2011. His 2010 was a pretty extreme year in terms of on-base percentage, and his home runs spiked last year, but even without those outliers he’s been a steady contributor since becoming an everyday guy. If things are going to suddenly take a turn for the worst, I suppose it could be a product of trying to repeat last year’s power, never quite getting there, and sacrificing on-base percentage along the way. Gardner’s also been streaky, so perhaps an extended slump is a worst-case scenario. Ultimately, though, the past five years suggest he’s not likely to end a season with extreme OPS fluctuations one way or the other.

What the future holds: This is the first year of Gardner’s four-year, $52-million extension signed last spring. It includes a team option for a fifth year. The Yankees have Gardner locked up into his mid-30s, but that’s only if they want him that long. With Ellsbury in center field and outfield talent in the upper levels of the minor league system, Gardner always seems like a tradeable resource (with a contract other teams could covet). For now, the Yankees control his foreseeable future.

Associated Press photo

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Spring countdown 9: Putting the lineup in order02.12.15

Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann

With the Yankees first spring workout nine days away, our countdown moves onto the ninth-most pressing decision facing the Yankees in spring training. It’s a common question in every camp throughout baseball.

What’s the best way to stack the batting order to take full advantage of the pieces in the lineup?

It’s a question that might rank higher on this list if not for the limited options available.

Clearly Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner fit best near the top of the order, while Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew — or potentially Rob Refsnyder — seem like bottom-of-the-order guys (at least to start the season). That leaves a bunch of less-than-ideal choices to fill those crucial spots in the middle. Last year, the Yankees opened with Carlos Beltran batting third, Brian McCann fourth, and Mark Teixeira fifth, and it seems entirely possible they’ll have the same Opening Day heart-of-the-order this season.

But is that the best way to do it?

Ellsbury is a fairly flexible hitter, Chase Headley is a bit of a wild card, and no one knows what Alex Rodriguez is capable of doing this season. Those three could fit various spots in the lineup. The abundance of left-handed hitters — perhaps as many as six on any given day — also creates some interesting arrangement challenges.

I’ll offer nine points of lineup consideration, one for each spot in the order.

Ellsbury (6)1. Is Ellsbury the Yankees’ best leadoff hitter?
Clearly the Yankees signed Ellsbury with visions of him hitting leadoff for years to come, but he wound up hitting third much of last season while Gardner had a pretty nice year in the leadoff spot. That’s two years in a row that Gardner’s been pretty good in the leadoff spot. Surely one of those two will hit leadoff on Opening Day. Which should it be?

2. Is there a third top-of-the-order option?
Conventional thinking seems to say that, regardless of which one bats first, Ellsbury and Gardner should be the Yankees’ top two hitters. But should that be a given? Would it make sense to put a switch-hitter like Headley (with his .347 career on-base percentage) in the No. 2 spot, leaving either Ellsbury or Gardner (remarkably, two of the Yankees’ better power hitters last season) in a spot that might get more RBI opportunities? Might also be a way to keep from having three or four lefties in a row. Worth recognizing the recent research suggests this might be the most important spot in any lineup.

3. How does Beltran look this spring?
Little surprise considering he might be a Hall of Famer, but Beltran has far more career at-bats in the No. 3 spot than in any other spot in the order. It’s the spot the Yankees intended him to occupy last season, and he was thriving in that role before the elbow injury that sent him to the disabled list and ultimately limited his second-half production. Does surgery seem to have left Beltran capable of being that kind of hitter again? If so, he might be a natural for this spot again.

4. What do the Yankees expect from Teixeira?
If we’re thinking of these lineup spots in a traditional sense, then cleanup needs to be in the hands of a true power hitter. Even as understanding of batting orders has changed, the No. 4 spot is still found to carry significant weight. The Yankees don’t really have a reliable power hitter at the moment, but Teixeira hit for good power early last season. If the Yankees think he can maintain that production this season, maybe he belongs here. If not, what are the alternatives? Beltran? McCann? Rodriguez?

Alex Rodriguez, Joe Girardi5. Does Rodriguez have anything left?
Having not seen a single spring at-bat, I’d say Rodriguez could hit anywhere from second to eighth without causing much surprise. It would be stunning to see him in the leadoff spot, and batting him ninth would be jarring just because of who he used to be, but everything else seems fair game. For a team desperate for a run production, is there a chance Rodriguez is still a guy worth key at-bats in the middle of the order?

6. How many platoon situations make sense?
For now, the Yankees have set pretty clear expectations at each starting position, but there are plenty of platoon possibilities. Should Garrett Jones play regularly against righties (and if so, should he hit somewhere in the middle)? How often will Chris Young play against lefties? Is Brendan Ryan also going to play against lefties? What about second base; will a guy like Refsnyder force Stephen Drew to play only against righties?

7. Is Didi Gregorius any kind of hitter?
Production in the bottom third of the order adds real depth to a lineup. Given the concerns about the guys expected to fill those middle-of-the-order spots, the Yankees would love to get some extended production from No. 7 and beyond. Gregorius actually showed a little bit of power in the upper levels of the minor leagues, and he’s slugged .411 against big league righties. Should he be dismissed as a non-factor on offense?

8. How important is splitting the lefties?
Let’s say Jones is at designated hitter on a day Beltran, Teixiera, McCann and Headley are batting third through sixth. That’s not an outlandish suggesting, but it could leave the Yankees with five consecutive lefties in their lineup (Jones, Gregorius, Drew, Ellsbury, Gardner). That could open the door to significant matchup issues at the bottom of the order. The eighth spot could be determined by the Yankees desire to split their lefties in the bottom third.

9. Was Drew a surprisingly savvy investment?
If there were a lineup spot lower than ninth, that’s where Drew would have fit best last season. He had an unthinkably bad offensive season, but the Yankees brought him back because he used to be a pretty decent hitter for a middle infielder. If he hits again, should he move up in the order? If so, how high? And if he’s nothing more than a No. 9 hitter at this point, is it better to let Refsnyder or Jose Pirela take those at-bats?

Associated Press photos

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith Comments Off

Homegrown players offer easy connections to Yankees’ fan base02.10.15

Brett Gardner

Almost eight years later, I still remember standing in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre clubhouse talking to Brett Gardner about farming.

He was a pretty big deal on that 2007 Triple-A roster — a legitimate prospect brought up from Double-A in the middle of the season — and although I didn’t really know him at all, I knew I’d have to write about him a lot, so I went looking for a connection.

Brett grew up on a family farm in South Carolina. I grew up on a family farm in Missouri. It was perfect, enough of a connection to start a conversation that wouldn’t feel like an interview.

I think all of us look for connections like that, anything that bridges the gap between two completely different people. We do it at work, we do it in our friendships, and we do it as fans. Common ground matters, and as that common ground gets more and more specific, its significance seems to grow. Gardner and I grew up driving tractors. David Phelps and I are from Missouri. Russell Martin and I share a mutual friend. Mark Teixeira and I once talked extensively about a band we both liked in college. I was Derek Jeter’s best friend for about two seconds one spring when he overheard me tell someone I’d picked Michigan to advance to the Final Four.

We fist bumped. That’s how Jeter bonds over a shared hope for the Wolverines.

Mariano RiveraThe common ground Will wrote about in last week’s Pinch Hitter post about Rob Refsnyder — the one about the connection he finds in watching an Asian-American ballplayer — might be different, but I’m not sure it’s all that different. It’s still a shared connection, a bit of familiarity between strangers; in Will’s case between a 36-year-old attorney and a 23-year-old second baseman.

And that instant familiarity is one reason it matters that Refsnyder — or some other homegrown prospect — eventually shows some staying power with the Yankees. Because at some point, players like that develop universal common ground; they create the kind of connection Alex wrote about this morning.

Connections between strangers is not always so easy to find. Will wrote about a connection that he found quickly between himself and Refsnyder, and it’s a connection that carries significant weight for him personally. But what’s his connection to CC Sabathia or Chase Headley or Carlos Beltran? Unless they share some high school connection or a favorite restaurant I don’t know about, their strongest connection is probably through the Yankees. The longer a player sticks with a one particular team, the stronger his connection to that fan base becomes.

Longevity is surely a big reason Bernie Williams became so instantly familiar and beloved in New York. Williams played 16 seasons at Yankee Stadium, and fans — in their own way — shared those games with him. It’s a kind of common ground, the kind that makes a guy like Alex — from all the way in California — feel connected to his favorite player.

Homegrown players have an obvious financial impact on a baseball team, and successful player development is surely the easiest way to build a roster without having to enter the murky waters of free agency. But beyond all that, homegrown players who stick around build common ground with the fan base. They create an easy connection. They spark loyalty.

I have friend whose fiance is a huge Yankees fan. She’s from New Jersey, has never set foot in a corn field as far as I know, but her favorite player is Gardner. Their shared connection? I have no idea. I think she just likes him, thinks he’s a nice player and probably a good guy, and he’s been playing for her favorite team for seven years now.

The Yankees can build more connections like that if this latest youth movement has staying power. Gardner’s already locked up long term. Refsnyder has a chance to break into the big leagues this season. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Luis Severino could be next. Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Dellin Betances and Didi Gregorius could become fixtures of the next decade.

We all look for connections, and the Yankees are trying to build some new connections of their own.

Associated Press photo

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith Comments Off

Year by year, Yankees longevity stands out01.23.15

Orioles Yankees Baseball

My first reaction to seeing the graphic in this morning’s Pinch Hitter post was a bit of criticism: where were the names?

It seemed awkward to look at a chart that was created by individual players and showed no individual names, but as I looked at it a little longer, the lack of names became one of my favorite parts.

Whether intentional or not, one thing Steve and Rich really emphasized in their graphic was the value of longevity.

If you’re looking for individual superstars, they’re easy enough to find — just look for the huge patches of blue. Lou Gehrig and Don Mattingly are easy to spot in the first base column. Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada stand out at catcher. Joe Gordon, Willie Randolph and Robinson Cano are obvious at second. It’s not hard to spot Babe Ruth, it’s easy to find Derek Jeter, and the transition from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle is obvious.

There are some important specks on that chart — one speck is the year Rickey Henderson moved from center field to left field — but the graphic really emphasizes sustained success, either through one long-term player or through one very successful transition. And the Yankees are in a period of obvious transition without a lot of blue in these most recent years.

So what positions are close to developing large patches of sustained success?

Center field and left field could be heading that direction. There’s a 2014 dot of blue in left field because Brett Gardner had a nice season, and that season came after a very small gap of red following the mix-and-match left field success of the late 2000s. Jacoby Ellsbury also provided a blue dot last season as a transition from Curtis Granderson to Gardner to Ellsbury in center field. Gardner and Ellsbury are signed long term and could continue that outfield success through the end of this decade.

If a guy like Rob Refsnyder can take hold of the second base position, that could be another strong and relatively quick transition after the standout seasons of Robinson Cano. Maybe Dellin Betances can provide a strong transition in the relief column. Obviously the top two starters have generally provided a lot of blue-dot success over the years, and Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda seem poised to keep that going as long as they stay healthy.

Plugging short term holes is helpful and necessary along the way, but sustained success is what really stands out.

Associated Press photo

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith Comments Off

Girardi has tough questions to answer with this lineup01.22.15

In today’s Pinch Hitter post, Bennett focused on the Yankees batting order. Lineup construction is always a source of fascination, and it’s still an evolving art form as we continue to learn more and more about the game. In the past decade or so, managers have changed the way they build lineups, and although most analysis finds that lineup optimization has limited impact, it does have some impact, which makes it important.

So how should the Yankees stack their batting order this season? Like everything else about this unpredictable season, it really depends on many factors.

Jacoby Ellsbury ; Brett GardnerIs Jacoby Ellsbury definitely the leadoff hitter?
Last year Ellsbury hit third, which always seemed odd considering he came to the Yankees as one of the top leadoff hitters in baseball. In theory, a healthy lineup should free Ellsbury to move back to the very top of the order this season, but that shouldn’t be a given. With Brett Gardner, the Yankees have another obvious leadoff candidate who had nearly the exactly same on-base percentage and a slightly higher OPS than Ellsbury last season. The Yankees could keep Gardner in the leadoff spot and use Ellsbury one of two ways: Either in a return to the No. 3 spot, or as the No. 2 hitter. While baseball used to lean toward batting its best hitters third, there’s been a recent move toward prioritizing the No. 2 spot. That might be where Ellsbury fits best.

Is Alex Rodriguez a good hitter? Is he even an everyday player?
This morning, Bennett proposed batting Rodriguez eighth — that’s happened before, hasn’t it? — and it makes a lot of sense. It’s been a while since A-Rod was a great, middle-of-the-order slugger, and his return from suspension isn’t exactly generating a lot of optimism. But what if he does hit? Could he be a legitimate No. 4 or 5 hitter? Is that too much to even dream about? There’s also an opposite scenario to consider. What if Rodriguez is so bad that he can’t get regular at-bats, especially against right-handed starters? If Garrett Jones is the everyday DH against righties, that raises a new batting order problem. Specifically…

Brian McCannHow should Joe Girardi split up his left-handed hitters?
Right now, the Yankees seem to be banking on only one right-handed regular, and that’s A-Rod. Otherwise, Ellsbury, Gardner, Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew and Brian McCann are each lefties; Headley, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira are switch hitters. It seems entirely possible, if not likely, that Ellsbury and Gardner will hit back-to-back at the top of the order — they each handle left-handed pitchers pretty well — but Drew and Gregorius have significant splits, so it’s worth keeping them separated. And the lineup becomes even more left-leaning if Jones is starting at DH. A middle-of-the-order that has Beltran, McCann, Teixeira and Headley bunched together — which isn’t an absurd idea on the surface — could leave five straight lefties (Jones, Gregorius, Drew, Ellsbury and Gardner).

Will the lineup look significantly different against lefties?
Basically, how many platoon situations are the Yankees planning to have this season? Is Chris Young going to play against most lefties to give one of the regular outfielders a day off? Is Brendan Ryan going to platoon with Gregorius at shortstop or with Drew at second base? Can Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela make the team out of camp and play regularly (or at least play regularly against lefties)? Is there anything to the idea of giving John Ryan Murphy regular reps against lefties so that McCann can either DH or take some days off? We know the American League East doesn’t have many left-handed starters these days, but that doesn’t mean the Yankees won’t run into their share during the course of the season. How drastically will the lineup change on those days?

Chase HeadleyWhat should we make of Chase Headley’s strong second half?
Here’s the central point Bennett was making this morning: Headley has been a terrific hitter in the past, and since the Yankees have to bank on healthy veterans anyway, why not bank on a healthy Headley being a productive run producer? Since the alternatives aren’t all that appealing, Headley could be a middle-of-the-order guy. Problem is, Headley’s been a true power hitter only once in his career. During that standout 2012 season he slugged .498, but he’s otherwise slugged better than .400 only once, and that was in a partial season (even in 2012 he didn’t slug a ton in the first half, just went nuts after the break). Most of his career, Headley’s been more of an on-base guy, and that’s mostly what he was with the Yankees last season despite the lingering impression of those big hits along the way. His career slugging percentage is lower than Derek Jeter’s or Kelly Johnson’s. Can he be productive enough to hit in the middle, or does he have to be considered more like a No. 6-7 hitter?

Can at least one veteran seriously bounce back this season?
This might be the most important question of all. The Yankees might not be banking on much production from Rodriguez, but they’re surely counting on McCann, Beltran and Teixeira. Those are the real sources of power in this lineup, and the Yankees need at least one of them to perform like a stereotypical No. 3 or cleanup hitter. McCann slugged .519 in September (maybe that was a sign of adjustment). Teixeira slugged .474 through the end of June (that’s a good slugging percentage these days, and maybe he can maintain that pace after a normal offseason). Beltran hit .263/.311/.516 in April (maybe his May elbow injury was root of all the disappointment that came next). If one of those three can get productive and stay that way, the Yankees might have to adjust their lineup to give that guy priority at-bats.

Associated Press photos

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Who has iconic potential on this Yankees roster?01.21.15

Derek Jeter, Brett Gardner

Thinking a little more about Neils’ post this morning, who on this Yankees roster might stand out in 15-20 years? If we don’t see any iconic Yankees right now, who might be considered a franchise icon when it’s all said and done? Here are a few candidates:

Masahiro Tanaka
To me, this is the most obvious candidate. Young starting pitcher who showed in the first half of last season that he could be a legitimate ace going forward. Obviously the situation with his elbow ligament is a problem, but even if he’s lost for a year, Tanaka could still have a full career in which to establish himself as a great Yankees pitcher. His best-case scenario certainly could let him reach icon status by the time his career is over.

Dellin Betances
Raised in Brooklyn. Developed in the Yankees system. Rookie season so good it generated Mariano Rivera comparisons. The Betances foundation could certainly build toward icon status in the future, though it takes a lot for a reliever to reach that level. Rivera got there by being the greatest of all time. Hard to expect Betances to match that level of production, so how good does he have to be to become a Yankees icon several years down the road? And does he have time to get there?

Brett Gardner
If the Yankees pickup the club option for 2019, Gardner will have been on the Yankees big league roster for 12 seasons. He’s largely exceeded expectations, his gritty-gutty reputation makes him a fan favorite in some circles, and he’s been roughly a 4 WAR player in each of his past three full seasons, with a 7.3 WAR the year before. If he’s never an all-star and never an MVP candidate, can Gardner become a legitimate Yankees icon?

Didi Gregorius
Although he’s been with two organizations before coming to the Yankees, Gregorius never really established himself in either Cincinnati or Arizona. That means, if he does establish himself as an everyday shortstop in New York, he’ll most certainly be remembered as a Yankee. He turns 25 in February, which means he could easily play a full decade in pinstripes if all goes well. Will he be good enough to become a second-tier icon as Derek Jeter’s replacement? If his career takes a step forward, new starter Nathan Eovaldi could be in a similar situation.

Rob Refsnyder
Might not even make the big league roster this season, and he certainly might not be good enough to be anywhere near icon status. That said, Refsnyder stands out as a guy who could step into an everyday role as a homegrown player. If he reaches his absolute ceiling and plays second base for the next 10 years, Refsnyder could retire as a Yankees icon. Worth putting Aaron Judge and Luis Severino in this same conversation, but I’ll focus on Refsnyder because he seems closest to actually playing for the Yankees this year.

CC Sabathia
Played so long and so well in Cleveland that Sabathia can never be iconic in the way Jeter, Mantle or Berra is iconic. But he could be iconic in the way Goose Gossage or Paul O’Neill is iconic. Sabathia is already top 10 in career strikeouts by a Yankees pitcher, and he could — with a bounce-back end of his career — finish top 10 in wins. His Yankees winning percentage is the same as Roger Clemens and better than Ron Guidry.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod an iconic Yankee? Surely not. I guess I’m including Rodriguez largely because there should be some question of who’s making the determination. Within the Yankees fan base, Rodriguez will never be an icon. But for baseball as a whole, his career will be most directly linked to the Yankees, and he’s certainly going to be an iconic player in one way or another. Twenty years from now, it’s entirely possible that some will look at the 2015 Yankees and immediately see Rodriguez as an iconic Yankees player on the roster.

Associated Press photo

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Yankees have outfield depth (but not necessarily outfield trade bait)01.06.15

Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury

With Slade Heathcott re-signed to a minor league deal, the Yankees now have a ton of outfield depth, but still not the kind of depth that necessitates a trade or a particularly difficult decision. It’s not like the Francisco Cervelli situation in which the Yankees have a player with a defined value, along with the need to move someone in order to open up the proper at-bats for everyone else. Here’s a rough look at the Yankees top upper-level outfielders. Each comes with some good, some bad, and some reason — either because of the team’s needs or because of his own value — that limits his trade possibilities.

Brett GardnerIN THE BIG LEAGUES

Carlos Beltran
The good: Already a borderline Hall of Famer expected to be healthy again after last year’s elbow injury.
The bad: About to turn 38 years old — are we sure last year’s .703 OPS was strictly the product of injury?
Trade him? Not a lot of trade value in an aging player, coming of a bad year, with $30 million left on his deal.

Jacoby Ellsbury
The good: Signed a hefty deal last winter and more or less delivered an as-expected season in his Yankees debut.
The bad: Even coming off a solid season, seven years and $153 million is a massive contract.
Trade him? Might be the best position player on the roster right now.

Brett Gardner
The good: Power numbers spiked, and for a while he looked like a better player than Ellsbury last year.
The bad: Still a rather streaky player with limited power for a corner outfielder.
Trade him? Might be the most valuable trade chip on the big league roster, but also signed to a reasonable extension.

Garrett Jones
The good: History of left-handed power with an ability to backup first base, right field and designated hitter.
The bad: Turns 34 in June and his power numbers have been down the past two seasons.
Trade him? Would be more of a salary dump than an actual effort to get anything valuable in return (also provides first base insurance).

Chris Young
The good: Returns to bring right-handed balance after reestablishing himself with a terrific September.
The bad: Other than one good month, last season was bad enough to get him released … by the Mets.
Trade him? Plays a role the Yankees need as a veteran right-handed bat with power and speed off the bench.

Ramon FloresON THE 40 MAN

Tyler Austin
The good: Last year’s terrific second half brought back memories of how good a hitter he was earlier in his career.
The bad: A wrist injury contributed to much less exciting numbers before that second-half resurgence.
Trade him? Of all the outfielders ticketed for Triple-A, Austin probably has the most offensive impact potential.

Ramon Flores
The good: Left-handed hitters with speed and some defensive flexibility; looks like a nice fourth outfielder down the road.
The bad: Coming off an ankle injury and isn’t a great fit while Gardner and Ellsbury are on the roster.
Trade him? Low power potential probably limits his value to more of a second or third piece in a significant trade.

Eury Perez
The good: Right-handed hitter who’s shown some speed, defense and on-base ability in the minor leagues.
The bad: Plucked off waivers, suggesting he was not exactly a high commodity (also put up bad winter ball numbers this year).
Trade him? Value is pretty low just a few months after being placed on the waiver wire; DFA might be more likely than a trade.

Jose Pirela
The good: Offensive utility man put himself back on the prospect map — and in the big league picture — with a terrific Triple-A season.
The bad: Can’t really play shortstop and hasn’t really established whether he hits enough to keep a job in the big leagues.
Trade him? First and foremost, he seems to have a legitimate shot at the big league second base job heading into spring training.

Mason Williams
The good: Speed and defense were deemed major-league ready, enough to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter.
The bad: Hasn’t hit the past two years, doing a number on his once elite prospect status.
Trade him? Would be selling awfully low — Williams no longer has the value to remotely headline a significant deal.

—-

Slade Heathcott, Ronnier MustelierON THE VERGE

Jake Cave
The good: Might have surpassed Williams and Heathcott as the system’s top center field prospect.
The bad: Doesn’t have overwhelming speed or power, and doesn’t have more than 42 games above A ball.
Trade him? Could be a nice complementary trade piece; could also be the most viable center fielder in the minor league system.

Taylor Dugas
The good: The guys gets on base way too much to ignore; played his way out of the shadows and up to Triple-A last year.
The bad: Never a standout prospect, doesn’t run much, very little power, has spent more time in left field than center.
Trade him? Has never moved the needle among prospect watchers, suggesting his stock is too low to be considered a real chip.

Ben Gamel
The good: Has been a solid hitter throughout the minor leagues, even when easily overshadowed by other prospects.
The bad: Always kind of a sleeper prospect, but not one who’s forced people to really wake up and take notice.
Trade him? Hasn’t done nearly enough; could more easily simply become a Double-A bench player behind all of this depth.

Adonis Garcia
The good: Has been a pretty nice hitter both in Triple-A and in winter ball (able to play center field and third base in a pinch).
The bad: Turns 30 years old in April so the upside is probably limited.
Trade him? Sure, if some team values a 30-year-old with no major league experience; could be another Ronnier Mustelier.

Slade Heathcott
The good: No one seems to question the former first-round pick’s raw talent and ultimate potential.
The bad: Just can’t stay healthy, which has cost valuable development time; hard to gauge his ceiling at this point.
Trade him? Was a free agent until yesterday; if another team valued him highly, he probably wouldn’t have come back.

Aaron Judge
The good: After a standout first full season, he emerged as the top offensive prospect in the entire minor league system.
The bad: Ultimately we’re talking about fewer than 500 minor league at-bats; he’s promising but unproven.
Trade him? Plenty of value here, but Judge could be the best middle-of-the-order bat the Yankees have developed since Robinson Cano.

Associated Press photos

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith Comments Off

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