For good reason, there’s already been plenty of talk in Yankees camp about the defensive shift. Not about the ways the Yankees might use the shift this season, but about the ways the might try to beat it.
“We’ve talked about it as an organization,” Joe Girardi said. “We will discuss things with players. This is the adjustment defenses have made, and we need to make (offensive) adjustments too. I’m not asking you to be something you’re not. I’m not going to ask you to do something that you’re not comfortable doing, but it’s something that we need to have discussions about and see how we attack it.”
Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira in particular have lost plenty of hits because of shifted infielders. Their thoughts:
McCann: “I want to hit the ball where it’s pitched. It’s not necessarily that I’m going to try to go up there and hit the ball to left field. If it’s away from me, it needs to go to left field. If they come in on me, I need to be able to pull it, but pull correctly. If you pull correctly, you create back spin which is going to help you hit home runs. … If I hit two or three singles in a row to left field, they’re going to continue to play the shift because that’s where my power is. That’s just the way it is and whether that takes a couple of points off my batting average, if I take the approach I have day in and day out for 500 at-bats, at the end of the year things will be there.”
Teixeira: “Thoughts on (beating) the shift? Hit more home runs, hit more doubles, and walk more. We’ve talked about it ad nauseam. Every time I try to slap the ball the other way, it doesn’t go well for anybody. That’s what the other team wants. They want to take a middle-of-the-order power hitter and turn him into a slap hitter. So if I can hit more home runs, more doubles, walk more, that takes care of the shift. I don’t want to ground out to second base. That’s not what I’m trying to do up there.”
It goes without saying that it’s good to use the whole field, good to take what the defense is giving, and it’s bad to hit ground balls to an area crowded with defenders. The Yankees obviously agree with those principles, but they also seem focused on sticking with a player’s strengths.
“The biggest thing for me is don’t let it get in your head and don’t force things,” new hitting coach Jeff Pentland said today. “Obviously the ability to use the whole field is important. I’m not going to stand here and tell you we’re going to try to force things through the infield or through the shift. We’ve still got to go up there and hit the ball, but there are things we’ll spend time on.”
• Girardi met face-to-face with Alex Rodriguez today. Girardi said he told A-Rod that he would get all the spring at-bats “that he could physically handle.” Girardi also told Rodriguez that he would play some third base this spring, and formally asked him to get some reps at first base. “He’s willing to do anything,” Girardi said.
• Mark Teixeira on working with Rodriguez: “I’m looking forward to working with him over there. Alex and I have been friends for a long time now. I’ll enjoy working with him over there. It’s funny; I was a rookie when Alex was the best player in the world. He got to teach me some things, and now I’m going to be able to teach him some things at first.”
• According to Girardi, the plan is for Rodriguez to play in either the first or second game this spring. The Yankees will not hold him out of games when the exhibition schedule starts. They want him to start getting at-bats right away.
• Pentland on Rodriguez: “I’ve always been a big fan of Alex, are you kidding? … I don’t think he’s going to have that many issues. He was born to hit. That’s the way I feel about him.”
• As usual, Girardi said the Yankees have reached out to National League teams for permission to use a designated hitter in road games against N.L. teams in spring training. Typically, teams are perfectly happy to do that in the first half of the spring schedule. Girardi said some teams aren’t willing to do it as the schedule gets closer to Opening Day. I would expect, though, that there will be a DH when the Yankees open the exhibition schedule against the Phillies on Tuesday.
• Mariano Rivera is expected to be in Yankees camp for nine or 10 days. “He has free rein to help out as much as he can,” Girardi said. “I think the advice that he’ll give young players should be something they should listen to.”
• In full uniform, Rivera watched bullpens and then shagged some fly balls today. I wouldn’t hold out hope for an Andy Pettitte-like return, but it’s hard not to think of it. “I joked with him,” Girardi said. “I said, ‘The last time a guy like you came to spring training, he made two days of coaches meetings and then he went home for three days and decided he wanted to pitch again. So I’m just curious to see how long you’re going to make it in our meetings.’”
• I watched Gary Tuck leading catching drills for a while this afternoon. That group gets pretty intense, and both Joe Girardi and Tony Pena seem to love watching it. Worth noting that each day the Yankees update a contest for which catchers have the fewest drops in camp so far. Right now, three catchers still have zero, and it’s the three big league guys: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine.
• Pitchers going to the minor league complex to face hitters tomorrow: Andrew Miller, Adam Warren, Jose Ramirez, Nick Rumbelow, Nick Goody, Diego Moreno, James Pazos and Danny Burawa. Austin Romine is heading over there with them, presumably to catch some guys.
• Final word goes to Teixeira: “We have the talent in here. There’s a lot of teams that would love to have our roster right now. It takes talent, it takes health, it takes execution. We have the talent, so it’s the health and execution are the ones we’re going to work on this year. I think we all believe in each other here.”
Associated Press photos
Two things you don’t hear about very often: The positive side of Brian McCann’s 2014 season, and the surprising impact of a bullpen coach who specializes in working with catchers.
Each of those topics came up when McCann addressed the media this afternoon.
“I didn’t have a good year for me (last season),” McCann said. “I don’t feel like that’s the player I am. I feel like I’m better than the way I hit last year, (but) that’s the best I’ve ever caught for a full season. Gary Tuck, this guy is top of the game. He’s No. 1 in teaching catching. He opened my eyes up to a whole another world, and I was able to translate that on the field.”
McCann does still get positive reviews for his ability behind the plate. He’s good at framing pitches, and the Yankees staff seems to trust and respect him. He’s also working with a coaching staff that knows a few things about what makes a good catcher. Joe Girardi and Tony Pena were each long-time regulars in the big leagues, and Tuck has built a reputation for his ability to teach the position.
“I think it’s (McCann’s) ability to get the most out of his pitchers (that stands out),” Girardi said. “His ability to teach young pitchers and help them recognize what their strengths are, and to use those strengths to exploit weaknesses on the batters. I think he does a really, really good job. He’s a calming influence back there. You don’t see him get too worked up, and I think he’s easy to communicate with. So that’s a pretty good package for a catcher. … You see the really good catchers, they have that ability. They have the ability to get the most out of their pitchers. And I think if you look at our staff last year, I think you could say that about Brian.”
Associated Press photo
There was nothing jarring about seeing CC Sabathia in the Yankees clubhouse this morning. He didn’t look unusual, and the fact he’d put on weight — while obvious as soon as someone mentioned it — never occurred to me while I talked to him. He just looked … normal.
“I lost a bunch of weight drastically, pretty quick, two years ago,” he said. “Kind of was off balance and didn’t know really how my body was working. So just talking to Dr. Ahmad and to the trainers, I feel like this is a good weight.”
Sabathia said he wants to be between 295 and 305 pounds this season. He said it’s not at all the heaviest he’s ever been, but he’s intentionally put on a lot of the weight he lost the past two offseasons. As you might recall, there was some talk about Sabathia’s weight loss when he struggled through the 2013 season, and there was more talk about it when he reported to camp last spring.
In retrospect, it’s interesting to look back at this quote from an unnamed talent evaluator. It comes from August, 2013, when unusually skinny Sabathia had an unusually large 4.73 ERA. As told to the Boston Globe:
The weight loss has created a balance problem for him. He’s all over the place. He’s learning how to pitch in that body, a body he’s really never had. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him other than that. Sometimes you pitch at a certain weight all your life and then someone has the brilliant idea that you should lose weight because it’s putting stress on your knees, you do it, and then you’re dealing with something else.
Indeed, Sabathia’s past weight issues might have played a role in the degenerative knee problem that caused him to miss most of last season, but slimming down wasn’t enough to avoid surgery, and Sabathia simply wasn’t as good at a diminished weight. Was that the cause of his lackluster 2013 and his slow start before the injury in 2014? Pretty much impossible to say, but it would make sense. Pitching is about repetition, and Sabathia changed the very core of his balance and mechanics.
“I think I was just trying to find a good weight to play at,” he said. “I think last year I came in a little too light. By the end of the year last year, I felt good in where I was at. In the offseason I put on 10 more pounds, and I’ll work that off over the course of the season.”
To me, Sabathia looked unusual last year. This year, he looked like his old self. If he can look that way on the mound as well, I doubt anyone will care too much about how he’s tipping the scales.
“We’re comfortable with where he’s at,” Joe Girardi said. “The big thing for us is to keep him out there; that’s what we have to do on a consistent basis, so he can build off of each start. I have no concerns about that.”
• Girardi acknowledged today that the Yankees will “do things more in this spring training” to teach hitters to beat the defensive shift. That said, it seems the Yankees aren’t looking to force anything. “They’ve spent a long time in their career learning how to hit a certain way,” Girardi said. “And then once people start to defense it different, it’s not easy just to switch. You can work on bunting. You can work on hitting the ball the other way. Those are the two things that you can try. You don’t want to take a guy out of his comfort zone and make him something he’s not and have him lose confidence, but those are things that you will work on in spring training.”
• Among those most affected by the shift is Brian McCann: “I want to hit the ball where it’s pitched,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that I’m going to try to go up there and hit the ball to left field. If it’s away from me, it needs to go to left field. If they come in on me, I need to be able to pull it, but pull correctly. If you pull correctly, you create back spin which is going to help you hit home runs. … If I hit two or three singles in a row to left field, they’re going to continue to play the shift because that’s where my power is. That’s just the way it is and whether that takes a couple of points off my batting average, if I take the approach I have day in and day out for 500 at-bats, at the end of the year things will be there.”
• Actually, McCann says the shift wasn’t the biggest factor in last year’s disappointing numbers. “My bat path last year got out of whack, for whatever reason,” he said. “I had to go back this offseason and kind of study what I was doing wrong. I was able to pinpoint what the problem was and I feel good coming into camp. … The whole reason I went down to no toe tap (last year) was, I lost my bat path. I wasn’t using my hands. Spreading out, I was able to start slapping the ball around a little bit, and I didn’t have much power like that. But then when I stood back up tall, my hands started working again. At the end of the year, I felt like I was able to start driving the baseball like I should be.”
• Speaking of McCann, he caught only one bullpen today, but it was a new guy with whom he’s pretty familiar. McCann caught David Carpenter, his Atlanta teammate in 2013. “I think we were able to let him understand more about how to pitch,” McCann said. “What certain situations bring and just kind of diving into the game a little bit more. He was able to do that and posted a 1.70 or whatever it was. He was our setup guy for Kimbrel. We expect big things this year.”
• McCann said he was sent 10 to 15 video clips of every new Yankees pitcher this offseason, and the “clips” must have been pretty long. McCann said he feels like he saw “pretty much” every 2014 outing of every new reliever.
• Carlos Beltran went through outfield drills with Rob Thomson, and he took batting practice with McCann and the two catchers competing for the big league backup job.
• At least among media, three pitchers clearly generated the most attention during today’s bullpens: The first was Sabathia, the last was Jacob Lindgren, and in the middle was Luis Severino. “It’s a live arm,” Girardi said. “It’s a player that is bigger in (stature) than I thought when I heard some of the comparisons. He’s bigger than I thought. A lot of times you worry about the rigors of players that are extremely thin, but he’s a strong young kid, I believe, with a lot of talent.”
• The Yankees have hired former Angels outfielder Reggie Willits to be their minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator. He’ll be one of several minor league coaches working with the players in big league camp this spring.
• Former Yankees currently listed as guest instructors for this spring: Eric Chavez, Billy Connors, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, Hideki Matsui, Lee Mazzilli, Stump Merrill and Andy Pettitte.
• Final word on Workout 1 goes to Girardi: “There’s a collection of good young arms here. Obviously there’s guys that you’ve seen, but you look at the younger players that we had a chance to look at today. Those are some pretty good arms. And it’s not just from one side. It’s not just right-handed or left-handed, it’s both. And that’s exciting to us.”
Associated Press photos
A few mid-day notes on this Friday afternoon:
• Bob Klapisch wrote about the difficult position of Joe Girardi, who’s once again stuck in the middle of the Yankees’ tension with Alex Rodriguez. I tend to think Girardi’s been terrific at handling that middle ground in the past. The part of Klapisch’s column that stands out, though, is this: “This isn’t the first time Girardi has been caught in the crossfire. Sources say he was in favor of dropping Derek Jeter in the batting order last year, but was overruled by ownership. Girardi understood how explosive the issue was, especially because, according to those same sources, Jeter made it known he wanted to remain in the No. 2 spot.”
• Speaking of Jeter, The Associated Press reports that the retired Yankees shortstop missed his induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame because of “serious plane issues.” That’s according to Hall of Fame officials. An inductee must be present to be inducted, so Jeter will now enter the Michigan Hall with the 2016 class. The Free Press says he has already committed to attending next year’s ceremony.
• New Yankees starter Nathan Eovaldi is already in Tampa working with Larry Rothschild. Considering Eovaldi already throws extremely hard but has relatively modest strikeout numbers, it’s little surprise he says offspeed pitches have been his primary focus with Rothschild. “I controlled my walks (last season),” Eovaldi told Dan Martin, “but my ERA was a lot higher than I’d like it to have been. And I gave up too many hits.” Michael Pineda is also already in Tampa, focused on staying healthy (and staying away from the pine tar).
• Although he’s apparently not yet in Tampa, Brian McCann spoke to Ken Davidoff about trying to beat the shift that so thoroughly crushed his batting average last season. McCann said he went into this offseason recognizing “it’s time for me to make that adjustment.” One interesting idea McCann mentioned: He suggested to the Yankees that Brett Gardner shift from left field to right field any time there’s a left-handed pull hitter at the plate.
• As you probably already know, Yoan Moncada is expected to pick a team within a week or so. His agent has said Moncada would like to sign by February 23. At this point, it seems all of baseball agrees on his talent, it’s only a question of which team will be willing to commit an incredible amount of money on such a young, relatively inexperienced player. The Yankees, of course, are heavily in that mix. For now the Yankees seem less involved in another Cuban infielder, Hector Olivera, who’s older and would presumably open this season in the big leagues as either a second baseman or third baseman. The Yankees have not regularly popped up as an Olivera favorite like they have with Moncada.
Associated Press photo
Pinch hitting: Tyler Patterson • 02.13.15
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
5. 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
The biggest problem with this Yankees offseason?
It wasn’t passing on Max Scherzer or not trading for Troy Tulowitzki. It was making the decision in 2007 to re-sign Alex Rodriguez. It was pushing payroll in 2008 to sign Mark Teixeira. It was giving CC Sabathia an extension in 2011, and it was deciding last winter that Carlos Beltran was a safe-enough bet to deserve three years and $45 million.
The problem with the 2015 Yankees isn’t that they’ve gone cheap or stopped adding players, it’s that they’re already committed to players who have declined faster and more drastically than expected.
The Yankees didn’t go into this offseason oblivious to their offensive shortcomings. In fact, they were so aware of them that they fired hitting coach Kevin Long.
But where were the Yankees going to find the necessary upgrades this winter?
The outfield corners are usually good places to find power, but the Yankees have Beltran for two more years, and they just signed Brett Gardner to one of their more favorable contracts. Designated hitter could have been an obvious chance to upgrade, but the Yankees’ get-out-of-jail-free card on A-Rod expired. First base is typically a power position, but Teixeira’s signed for two more years with a full no-trade clause and no indication that he’s willing waive it.
So what did the Yankees have left?
The wide open spots for an offensive upgrade were second base (where there were no impact hitters available), shortstop (where the Yankees could have rolled the dice with Hanley Ramirez’s defense or given up the entire farm system for Tulowitzki), and third base (where the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley, choosing defense and on-base percentage over pure thump).
That left a middle of the order that looks a little too familiar. It looks too much like the middle of last year’s Opening Day lineup, with the biggest difference being Rodriguez at DH instead of released-by-mid-July Alfonso Soriano.
Fact is, power is getting harder to find these days. As disappointing as Teixeira’s been lately, his first three months last season were actually pretty powerful by today’s standards. If he’d maintained his .474 slugging percentage the second three months, Teixeira would have finished 12th in slugging in the American League. Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury were actually top 30 in slugging last season, and McCann’s brutal Yankees debut still placed in him the top 20 in home runs.
Are there ways to find more power this season? There might be, but they all seem to involve Beltran staying healthy, Teixeira staying strong, and McCann building on his powerful September. Role players like Chris Young and Garrett Jones might add some pop here and there – and Rodriguez could be surprisingly productive – but the middle of the Yankees lineup is going to hinge on the guys who are coming back, not the guys who were added this winter.
This morning, Bill recommended a buy-low trade for Josh Hamilton. I’m sure others could have made a similar case for Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder or B.J. Upton (pretty much anyone who found a place among Jonah Keri’s 10 worst baseball contracts). I would argue that even contract-for-contract, none of those trade possibilities represent a real upgrade over the pieces the Yankees already have in place.
Yes, the Yankees lineup is a giant question mark heading into this season. But that uncertainty has less to do with the players they didn’t add this offseason, and more to do with the players they did add in the past.
Associated Press photos
When I put out the call for Pinch Hitters, I honestly didn’t expect to get one in defense of Brian Cashman. That said, I kind of like when these posts go against the typical public opinion, and this winter, a pro-Cashman blog post certainly qualifies.
Now that James Shields has landed in San Diego, we know the Yankees are not going to make a free agent signing any bigger than Chase Headley. They’re going to roll the dice in the rotation, lean heavily on the bullpen, and hope for bounce-back seasons from several veteran hitters.
As a general rule, I’m of the opinion that the Yankees needed to restrict spending this offseason to avoid some familiar pitfalls, so I mostly agree with Daniel’s morning post: I basically think Cashman did a fine job under the circumstances. There are plenty of questions in the rotation and the lineup, and the farm system seems a year away from making a major contribution, but the Yankees did manage to get younger without adding any huge-risk contracts.
I think it was a reasonable approach to the offseason, but it clearly comes with considerable risk. Whether it works in the short-term will depend on several touch-to-predict factors.
Here are 10 issues that may determine whether we look back at Cashman’s offseason as a real success or a total failure.
1. Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow
Of all the health questions in the Yankees’ rotation, none is as significant as Tanaka’s torn elbow ligament. When the injury came to light last season, some of the top medical experts in the world recommended the Yankees postpone surgery and try to rehab the injury. The Yankees listened, followed that advice, and Tanaka returned to make a couple of late-season starts. The elbow, though, still looms as a ticking time bomb. Whether it was his decision or not — his evaluation or not — Cashman will most certainly take the heat if Tanaka’s elbow blows out between now and the postseason. If it holds up, the Yankees have their ace. If it doesn’t, Cashman will have missed out on the opportunity to acquire a ready replacement in Max Scherzer or Jon Lester.
2. Brian McCann’s bat
Last winter, there seemed to be near universal agreement that McCann was a natural fit for the Yankees. There were certainly those who wanted the team to stay away, but the Yankees have a long tradition of impact catchers, and McCann’s left-handed power and pitch-framing reputation made him an obvious target. Cashman gave him a five-year deal, despite the presence of John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez. Now the Yankees are committed, and McCann stands out as the one middle-of-the-order slugger who can’t blame injuries of last year’s diminished production. His bat remains a key piece of this lineup, both in the short term and the long term. If he doesn’t produce for a second straight season, McCann’s contract is going to look like an overwhelming problem going forward.
3. Stephen Drew’s return
A one-year, $5-million deal isn’t a make-or-break contract for the Yankees. In this case, though, it seems like an all-or-nothing decision for Cashman. If Drew struggles to another sub-.200 batting average, Cashman is going to look foolish for giving a second opportunity to a player who performed so poorly a year ago (especially when there were younger second basemen in place). If Drew bounces back to his 2013 level of production — providing a great glove and decent power for a middle infielder — Cashman will appear savvy, taking advantage of a buy-low opportunity (especially for a player who provides insurance at not only second base but also at shortstop).
4. The ninth inning
Whoever takes the job, the Yankees need someone to effectively close the door in the ninth inning. It stands out as an especially sensitive issue because of the decision to let Dave Robertson sign with the White Sox for marginally more money than the Yankees gave Andrew Miller. Cashman has said the decision was based, at least partially, on the draft pick compensation tied to Robertson. A draft pick, though, is no sure thing, and right now the Yankees don’t have a single reliever with significant ninth-inning experience. Robertson was a known quantity. If Miller or Dellin Betances or whoever else can’t handle the closer role, Cashman will have neglected a job that the Yankees — after two decades of Mariano Rivera — should appreciate as much as anyone.
5. The fifth starter
Top-of-the-rotation concerns aside, one of the Yankees most pressing rotation issues is the apparent lack of depth. If healthy, the Yankees seem to have a perfectly good top four, but right now their fifth starter is Chris Capuano, with relievers Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers looking like the most immediate sixth starter candidates. Pitching prices got out of control this winter — four years for Brandon McCarthy, eight figures for Brett Anderson — but the Yankees certainly went into the offseason recognizing their need for rotation help. They acquired Nathan Eovaldi, but also gave up Shane Greene. Essentially, Cashman chose to roll the dice on the health of his in-place starters, the return of Ivan Nova, and the short-term ability of Capuano. A big contract would have been a big risk, but the alternative isn’t exactly risk-free.
6. Everything about Didi Gregorius
This was the choice at shortstop. With Derek Jeter retired, the Yankees were left with a glaring hole at a position once claimed by an icon. Cashman chose to make a trade for a 24-year-old kid who’s never proven he can be an everyday player in the big leagues. If Gregorius is a great defensive player (and others are able to provide some offense), the decision might look like a solid one. If Gregorius can actually hit beyond his Arizona numbers, the decision could look like a great one. But if Gregorius falls flat, the Yankees will have given up a young starting pitcher — one who might have solved some of those familiar rotation issues — for a guy who does nothing to solve an issue the Yankees had to see coming for several years.
7. Everything about third base
There was little Cashman could do this offseason about Alex Rodriguez. Unless ownership decided to simply cut ties, Cashman was stuck with a roster that included a 39-year-old coming off a year-long suspension after a series of injuries and several seasons of declining numbers. All Cashman could do was try to work around the Rodriguez issue. He did so by making his most expensive commitment of the winter: a four-year, $52-million deal with Chase Headley, a player with a history of back problems and only one season with more than 13 home runs. It was a fairly risky deal, but if Headley plays well — and doesn’t cause a stir with A-Rod — it will look like a reasonable reaction to a difficult situation. If Headley gets hurt or doesn’t produce, it will stir questions about the decision to give such a contract while trading away a guy like Martin Prado.
8. Three names: Judge, Bird, Severino
Rob Refsnyder and Jacob Lindgren might be the first chance to make the big league roster, but the perceived value of the Yankees farm system could hinge heavily on the continued development of Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Luis Severino. Those are the high-end, upper-level talents — or at least, those are the perceived high-end, upper-level talents — and those three are natural in-house solutions for the bad contracts that currently belong to Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia. Younger guys like Jorge Mateo and Luis Torrens might help eventually, but Cashman needs a minor league victory sooner than that. Get Judge, Bird and Severino to Triple-A this year — perhaps even to New York before the end of the year — and the Yankees will at least have a farm system that seems ready to provide immediate impact.
9. One other name: Manny Banuelos
Prospect success goes both ways for Cashman. If he’s going to get credit for the success of those he’s kept, he has to take the blame for those he’s traded away. Even without a single inning in the big leagues, Banuelos was pretty close to a household name as far as prospects go (at least among Yankees fans). He was kind of like Jesus Montero in that way. Fans were waiting for him and expecting big things, and Cashman traded him away. If Banuelos gets back on track with Atlanta and lives up to his potential, Cashman will have given up a young, much-anticipated young starter for a couple of relief pitchers. Even if David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve are great, that trade will look ugly if Banuelos is racking up wins in Atlanta.
10. Yoan Moncada’s free agency
This is a strange fit on this list for two reasons: 1. it will have absolutely no impact on the 2015 Yankees, and 2. it will probably have very little to do with Cashman himself. That said, if ownership is willing to pay a massive price to sign the market’s most coveted international free agent, Moncada could very well stand out as the Yankees most impressive signing of the offseason. It will show a willingness to spend big bucks, it will give the farm system a huge talent — and a big name — and every evaluation of the Yankees’ winter will have to include the fact that, while they passed on a guy like Scherzer, they went all in for Moncada. It will make very clear that Cashman came into this offseason with a plan to get younger and build for something long-term.
Associated Press photos
Whatever the batting order, it’s the hitters themselves that will determine whether the Yankees lineup is any good this season. Joe Girardi could put them in the perfect 1 through 9, but if key players don’t perform up to their abilities, the offense simply won’t work. Hitters don’t have to be at their absolute peak to become valuable assets again, but key hitters reverting back toward key career stats would be a good strong step in the right direction.
If these specific players could bounce back in these specific ways, it would make a big difference.
MARK TEIXEIRA – Slugging percentage
Last season: .398
Teixeira has acknowledged that he’s probably not going to be a .300 hitter at this stage of his career. The shift has taken away a lot of his hits, and he’s just not a .300/.400/.500 guy anymore. But in 2012 — his last healthy season before last year — Teixeira slugged .475. That would have been the 12th-heighest slugging percentage in the American League last season. And it’s not that Teixeira absolutely can’t do that any more (he was slugging .474 at the end of June before a brutal second half). Power is at a premium these days, and Teixeira doesn’t have to be a great overall hitter to be a productive run producer.
BRIAN MCCANN – OPS vs. RHP
Last season: .633
McCann actually hit pretty well against lefties last season. Even exceeded his career numbers against them. What he did not do is hit against right-handers. He’d typically crushed them, but last season McCann slugged less than .400 with a sub-.300 on-base percentage against right-handers. Blame it on the shift. Blame it on the transition. Blame it on a bad year fully of lofty expectations. For whatever reason, McCann simply didn’t hit right-handers. Now that the American League East has lost several left-handed starters — including standouts Jon Lester and David Price — McCann should be able to feast on a bunch of righties in the division. Improve his splits, and McCann should significantly improve his production.
CARLOS BELTRAN – RBI
Last season: 49
Because of the elbow injury, it’s hard to know what to make of Beltran’s capabilities at this point. Was last year’s diminished slash line the product of age or injury? As recently as 2013, Beltran was still an .830 OPS guy. In his career he’s typically hit for a good average, hit for good power, and played a role in the middle of the order. That’s why he’s averaged more than 100 RBI per 162 games. Clearly RBI is not really an individual statistic. It depends heavily on playing time, and it depends on the rest of the lineup, and that’s why it’s such a key stat for Beltran. However he does it — through raw power or clutch hits or simply an abundance of opportunities — another 100 RBI season from Beltran would indicate that he’s stayed healthy and stayed in a lineup that’s generating plenty of run-scoring chances. As a guy the Yankees will surely count on in the middle of the order, a lot of Beltran RBI would be a good sign for the entire Yankees team.
JACOBY ELLSBURY – Stolen bases
Last season: 39
This is just a guess, but if Ellsbury is back at the top of the order (focusing on getting on base and creating havoc) rather than hitting in the middle (focusing on driving in runs and being a typical No. 3 hitter), I bet he’ll steal more bases this season. I might be completely wrong — and certainly a 39-steal season isn’t bad by any measure, it was the second-most in the American League — but a higher number of stolen bases would seem to indicate a better job getting on base and a willingness to run. In each of Ellsbury’s two highest-steal seasons, he’s had a .355 on-base percentage, which is 27 points higher than his on-base percentage last season. Stolen bases are hardly an absolute proof of Ellsbury’s productivity — he also had 39 steals in 2011, which was easily his overall best season — but a lot of steals in 2015 could be a sign of several things for the Yankees: It would suggest Ellsbury’s getting on base a lot, and that someone else hitting well enough in the middle of the order that Ellsbury gets to stay in his more-natural No. 1 or 2 spot.
STEPHEN DREW – Batting average on balls in play
Last season: .194
At times, BABIP is considered a measure of luck. If a typically good hitters has abnormally bad numbers, then a low batting average on balls in play could be an indication that he’s a few inches away from typical production. In the case of Drew, last year’s abnormally low BABIP could also be explained by his abnormally low line drive percentage. His home runs per fly ball were also down, as were his infield hits. His strikeout rate was significantly higher than usual. All of that could be an indication that Drew wasn’t simply unlucky last season, he simply wasn’t as prepared, making weaker contact when he made contact at all. Surely the Yankees aren’t banking on Drew being a dominant offensive player, but they’re obviously banking on him being better than last season’s .162/.237/.299. Better and more consistent contact should help.
CHRIS YOUNG – OPS vs. LHP
Last season: .561
Similar to the McCann situation, but from the opposite side of the plate and in a much smaller role. Even with that strong month of September, Young’s splits last season were not at all what’s come to be expected. He was alright against right handers, but he was brutal against lefties. Given all of the left-handed hitters in the Yankees regular lineup — and the presence of Garrett Jones as left-handed outfield option off the bench — Young’s role this season seems to be entirely in a platoon situation, bringing some right-handed balance to a team that leans to the left. Whether he’s in the lineup against lefties or coming off the bench to pinch hit for Drew or Didi Gregorius, Young could have a real impact if he’s able to make the most of his limited playing time against left-handers.
Associated Press photos
I believe I was 13 years old when Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park, and because I was 13 years old, I absolutely loved it. The dinosaurs were cool — dinosaurs are always cool — Jeff Goldblum laid out the movie’s central message with a not-so-subtle line:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
I thought of that line because among the challenges for new Yankees hitting coach Jeff Pentland — among the challenges for any hitting coach, really — is the question of how to handle defensive shifts that have become commonplace throughout baseball. Is it possible to teach a shift-susceptible player to go the other way? And if it can be done, should it be done?
“That’s the rub,” Pentland said this morning. “Do you change them, or do you let them keep doing it? The only thing I try to tell them is, if we’re going to do anything, let’s do it in Spring Training. Once the season starts, it’s very difficult to even think about changing swings. You’re always tinkering and fine tuning, and you’ve got older guys (so) you’re not inventing the wheel here. You’re not making wholesale changes. If I tried to do that, they’d shut me out in a heartbeat. These guys have been around, they know what they’re doing and they know how successful they’ve been. You’d be surprised how open-minded most of them are. I’ve got my work cut out for me as far as them getting to know me and trust me. Then we go from there. If we’re not making any adjustments at all, then I’m not doing my job.”
For the Yankees, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann stand out as key middle-of-the-order run producers who tend to pull the ball. Teams shift against them, and those shifts have cost them hits. The question is whether it’s worthwhile for these guys to go the other way more often, potentially raising their batting averages, but perhaps taking away the pull power that made them All-Star sluggers in the first place.
On the right is a Brooks Baseball chart of McCann’s career spray angles. Little surprise that he’s shown an obvious tendency to hit groundballs to the right side — that’s why teams are shifting in the first place — but the chart also shows that last season he showed a significant uptick in balls hit the other way. He seemed adjust to the shift by hitting more groundballs up the middle and to the opposite field.
The result was the worst offensive season of his career.
“As far as hitting the ball the other way, that’s something I’ve definitely done going into spring training,” McCann told MLB Network earlier this offseason. “And then a month into the season you look up and you sacrifice power and driving the baseball. Or at least I do. That’s the line I have to walk. I’ve hit a certain way for a long, long time.”
Here’s what Teixeira told Dan Barbarisi about beating the shift:
“You beat the shift by hitting line drives,” Teixeira said. “Don’t hit ground balls. If you hit a slow ground ball in the hole, you don’t deserve a hit. It’s a rollover. With line drives, yeah, every now and then you hit a line drive at somebody, but that’s baseball.”
There are obvious benefits to changing an approach and beating the shift, but it may be that the next generation of players — the guys who have faced shifts throughout the minor leagues — are better equipped to make those changes. Veteran guys like Teixiera and McCann got to the big leagues by hitting a certain way, and making a drastic change in the name of adding a few singles could do as much harm as good.
“We’ll talk about it,” Pentland said. “The player has to buy in, No. 1. We’ve got four or five weeks of spring training, and obviously I’m going to pick their minds. The shift becomes almost a mental block sometimes. It’s not only the Yankees, it’s a lot of teams that are going through that situation. You can’t completely change players, but we certainly could talk about it and work on it and make them understand. Sometimes you’ve got to think more in the middle of the diamond rather than focus on so much pull. But obviously that’s something between me and the player.”
Associated Press photo