Tomorrow is the Yankees’ first spring workout, so tonight we’ll finish our countdown of the most pressing spring training issues by looking at one that could single-handedly determine the success or failure of this season.
Do the Yankees actually have a good starting rotation, or even a viable starting rotation?
Some of this is out of the Yankees’ hands at this point. All they can do is hold their breath and hope Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow doesn’t snap, Michael Pineda’s shoulder doesn’t blow out, and CC Sabathia’s fastball isn’t smacked all over the yard. They can only follow protocol with Ivan Nova’s rehab, work on Nathan Eovaldi’s offspeed pitches, and evaluate their options for the fifth starter spot. For the most part, their major rotation decisions were made weeks ago. Maybe even months ago. In some cases, years ago.
But at some point, the Yankees will have to decide whether they have enough.
Is this a rotation capable of getting the Yankees into the postseason. Should they consider a trade for a guy like Cole Hamels? Have they left themselves too short-handed to make a serious run?
This winter, the Yankees chose to role the rotation dice. They acknowledged in the fall that their rotation was a concern, but they didn’t want to make a Sabathia-like commitment to Jon Lester or Max Scherzer, and they didn’t like the going rate for high-risk secondary options like Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson. They chose to sacrifice one starting pitcher to acquire a shortstop, which made their one trade for another starting pitcher more of a replacement than an upgrade.
• Is there any indication Tanaka’s favoring his elbow; has this rehab protocol really worked?
• Does Pineda seem to have his usual arm strength; is this spring 2012 all over again?
• What kind of pitcher is Sabathia at this point; has he successfully transitioned to a new stage in his career?
• Did the Yankees find a young gem in Eovaldi; can he do anything more than light up a radar gun?
• How much does Chris Capuano have left; did the Yankees get his last drop of effectiveness last season?
• Are Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers legitimate options; have the Yankees overly neglected their immediate depth?
• Can Bryan Mitchell or Chase Whitley spot start if necessary; how far away is Luis Severino?
Whatever the answers to those questions, there’s only so much the Yankees can do at this point. Their most important rotation decisions came when they passed on Scherzer and Lester, when they made a pair of rotation-based trades (three trades counting the Manny Banuelos deal), and when they selected Capuano and a handful of minor league free agents to build their back-of-the-rotation depth.
In some ways, their key 2015 rotation decisions came when they traded for Pineda, extended Sabathia, and elected to forgo surgery on Tanaka.
But as pitchers and catchers settle into Steinbrenner Field, it’s still hard to look at this Yankees team and see a more all-or-nothing situation than the state of the rotation. This spring, the Yankees will have to figure out whether this rotation is good enough to make the Yankees contenders or thin enough to keep them out of the playoffs.
And as with any spring training decision, the evaluation will be subject to change once the season gets started.
Associated Press photos
Masahiro Tanaka said this afternoon that he feels no pain in his right elbow. He’s been able to go through his usual offseason routine, he threw a normal bullpen yesterday — including splitters — and he’s expected to throw another one on Sunday.
“I feel (the elbow) is healed,” Tanaka said. “I’m confident I can get through the season… because I’m able to throw the ball absolutely fine.”
Tanaka said he made no substantial changes to his offseason routine, and he expects to make no substantial changes now that he’s reported to spring training. He’ll continue to throw all of his pitches and continue to prepare for a full year in the rotation. Joe Girardi basically said the same, that the Yankees will monitor Tanaka, but that they’ll treat him as a guy getting ready for the season.
“I actually feel a little bit better than last year,” Tanaka said. “Just overall body health, feeling better.”
A few other small notes from this first day of pitchers and catchers:
• In his opening press conference, Girardi talked a lot about this spring training having more open competition than usual. Eventually, it became clear that he was referring to playing-time competition more than roster-spot competition. The Yankees have a lot of guys basically locked into roster spots, but they haven’t decide exact roles for them. Have to decide whether Didi Gregorius needs a platoon partner, whether Stephen Drew is playing second base every day, how often Alex Rodriguez will be in the lineup, who’s going to be the closer, whether a few relievers might instead find a spot in the rotation — stuff like that.
• Speaking of guys who could play various roles, Adam Warren has already faced hitters two times. He’s thrown live batting practice twice, which makes me think — just guessing — that he’s a strong bet to start the spring opener.
• Alex Rodriguez is expected to report with the rest of the Yankees position players on Wednesday. Girardi said he doesn’t expect Rodriguez to be here any earlier. He does expect, however, that Rodriguez might play a little more than he usually does in spring training, though most of that playing time will come as a designated hitter just to get him at-bats. Might spend some time getting loads of ABs at the minor league complex as well.
• Girardi said he’s been very encouraged by Ivan Nova’s progress from Tommy John surgery, and Nova said this morning that he feels good. He sounds incredibly optimistic. Yankees are also optimistic about CC Sabathia, but Girardi acknowledged he needs to see Sabathia in a game setting to have a strong sense of what to expect.
• Jose Ramirez said last year’s lat issue has cleared up. He’s healthy and already throwing bullpens.
• The left wall of the Yankees spring clubhouse could pretty easily be described as the “big league pitching staff” wall. It’s where the veterans and most big league roster favorites are always assigned (Adam Warren moved from the middle lockers to that wall last year). This year’s group along that wall: CC Sabathia, Dellin Betances, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Adam Warren, Andrew Miller, Chris Capuano, Nathan Eovaldi, David Carpenter, Justin Wilson, Esmil Rogers, Scott Baker and Masahiro Tanaka. Andrew Bailey is in a locker right next to that group along the front wall.
• Chase Whitley’s wife is due to give birth to the couple’s first child any day now. Thought it might happen last night, but so far, they’re still waiting.
• Several position players were early arrivals, mostly just setting up lockers and getting situated. I saw Carlos Beltran, Chase Headley, Stephen Drew and Garrett Jones.
• Two random observations about the new relievers from the Braves: David Carpenter looks basically identical to Brian Gordon, and Chasen Shreve has a swooping hairstyle to rival David Huff’s.
• Another random observation: Among the first things I saw when the Yankees clubhouse opened to media was Tony Pena talking with Gary Sanchez. I wonder if we might see that a lot this spring. Feels like an important year for Sanchez now that he’s ready for Triple-A and needs to make strides toward the big leagues.
• Just as a heads up, the two pictures in this post are from earlier in the week. There was really very little actual baseball action at Steinbrenner Field today. A few guys might have played catch and maybe some position players hit, but this wasn’t a real workout day.
Associated Press photos
The Yankees first spring workout is now six days away. We’ll continue our countdown of key spring training decisions by looking at the very back end of the Yankees rotation. Clearly the bulk of the rotation’s success or failure will hinge on the health and production of the top four starters, but the Yankees do have to consider one rotation decision this spring.
I’ve written several times that I don’t think of Capuano as a bad choice for the role. He’s actually been a better pitcher than he sometimes gets credit for being, and he was perfectly solid during his 12-start stint with the Yankees last season. If he can give the Yankees another 12-starts like he gave them last year, Capuano could hold down the fort until Ivan Nova is healthy (assuming he’s back by early June).
That said, Capuano doesn’t have to round out the rotation.
Beyond a few young guys who offer intriguing upside, the Yankees have also told relievers Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers to arrive ready to work as starters in spring training, and assistant general manager Billy Eppler has said it’s not out of the question that either Warren or Rogers could pitch his way into the rotation even if everyone else is healthy.
“I think you just walk into it with an open mind and just see,” Eppler said. “I think you just let it all play out. You usually don’t have to end up making the call. Situations and the players will make the call for you.”
As always, there’s a chance the Yankees will need to fill more than one rotation spot — an injury could change things, and an injury is certainly not out of the question — but for now, the decision heading into camp is whether Capuano is definitely the best choice for the No. 5 spot. These will be the options as camp opens:
The favorite – Chris Capuano
When the Yankees re-signed Capuano, Brian Cashman made it clear that he would come to camp expected to fill a rotation spot. This is clearly the direction the Yankees are leaning. Capuano had a 4.25 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP — pretty close to his career numbers — in 12 starts for the Yankees last season. Nothing flashy, but never allowed more than four runs in a start last season (granted, one of those starts didn’t last beyond the first inning).
The relievers – Adam Warren, Esmil Rogers
As long as everyone is healthy, Warren and Rogers seem heading toward a return to the Yankees bullpen (either one could be a long man if he stays stretched out). That said, Rogers put up good numbers in winter ball, and Warren was a pretty good rotation prospect throughout the minor leagues. If he could maintain last season’s bullpen success as a big league starter, he could be another good young option for the rotation.
The veterans – Scott Baker, Kyle Davies
It’s been a while since either Baker or Davies was a viable big league starter, but Baker in particular was a pretty solid starter before his elbow injury a few years ago. Each of these two looks like little more than just-in-case depth — just in case several other plans fall through — but it’s worth considering the possibility that one of them comes into camp strong and looks surprisingly good as a short-term alternative.
The young guys – Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, Jose De Paula
These three have spots on the 40-man roster, so they could easily slide onto the big league roster in one role or another. For now, all three seem to most naturally fit as rotation depth in Triple-A, but Whitley was a significant rotation boost through his first few starts last season, and Mitchell pitched well in a couple of big league opportunities in September. De Paula’s never pitched in the majors, but the Yankees obviously see potential in the lefty.
The kid – Luis Severino
Probably the most exciting possibility, but also probably the least likely. Severino is the top pitching prospect in the organization and one of the better pitching prospects in baseball. He was given an invitation to big league camp, and the Yankees have acknowledged some chance that he could reach the big leagues this year. That said, he turns 21 on Friday and has just six career starts above A-ball. Huge upside, but might not be there just yet.
Associated Press photos
With the Yankees first workout now seven days away, we’ll continue counting down some of the key spring training decisions by looking at the most wide open spot on the roster. The Yankees have a two-way competition for the backup catcher, they could be convinced to change their plans at second base, but there’s only one roster spot that has a slew of candidates and no obvious favorites heading into camp.
Who’s going to fill the final spot in the bullpen?
Granted, that one open spot could be two or three open spots by the time Opening Day rolls around. But that’s always the case. What’s unusual about this particular bullpen spot is there’s really no telling which direction the Yankees might go.
To be clear, these are the 11 spots on the pitching staff that have clear favorites:
Rotation: Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Capuano
Bullpen: Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, David Carpenter, Adam Warren, Justin Wilson, Esmil Rogers
Of course “favorites” aren’t guarantees, but based on what we know today, those 11 feel like safe bets. The 12th spot, on the other hand, is thoroughly up in the air. The Yankees could go several directions with that final spot in the bullpen, and nearly every direction comes with its own set of options.
A hard-throwing right-hander
Based on pure numbers, this might be the most likely decision. Protecting Danny Burawa and Branden Pinder from the Rule 5 draft added two hard-throwing, right-handed prospects to the 40-man roster. Acquiring Chris Martin from the Rockies added yet another. As long as Jose Ramirez is fully healthy, he’ll be another possibility (having made his big league debut last season). Nick Rumbelow isn’t on the 40-man, but he was invited to big league camp and finished last season in Triple-A. Minor league free agent Wilking Rodriguez seems like a long shot, but he did pitch in the big leagues with the Royals last season. It’s worth remembering that one of these guys could fill, essentially, the role Betances had at the beginning of last season. Joe Girardi often talks about taking the 12 best pitchers, and it’s worth wondering if one of these guys could really take advantage of the opportunity.
A third left-hander
With Miller and Wilson, the Yankees seem to have two left-handed relievers with big league spots waiting for them. Miller is certainly going to make the team, and Wilson seems like a near lock, if not an absolute lock. But is there room for a third lefty? Neither Miller nor Wilson is purely a left-on-left specialist, the Yankees could ease a young pitcher into the big leagues by starting him in a situational role. Maybe that’s the way top draft pick Jacob Lindgren gets his feet wet. Or it could be the way the Yankees get their first up-close look at Chasen Shreve, who broke into the big leagues with Atlanta last season. Tyler Webb didn’t have standout splits last season, but he did put up good numbers in Triple-A. James Pazos would seem like the long shot of this group, but he was dominant against Double-A lefties last year.
A former big league closer
Only one guy in all of Yankees camp fits this description, and it’s not any of the guys listed as favorites for the big league bullpen. After missing all of last year while recovering from shoulder surgery, former Oakland closer Andrew Bailey signed a new minor league deal with the Yankees this offseason. He’s said to be healthy and expected to be pitching off a mound this spring. It’s hard to know what to expect from Bailey, but that’s part of what makes him so intriguing. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2009, an all-star in 2010, and as recently as 2013 he had huge strikeout numbers with the Red Sox. Hard to know what he can do at this point, but there could be high-end potential if he’s close to his pre-surgery form.
A pure long man
With plans to have Warren and Rogers work as starters in spring training — just in case they’re needed in the rotation — the Yankees projected bullpen already has two guys who could serve as long relievers. They also have both Betances and Miller who aren’t necessarily restricted to one inning at a time. But there could still be room for a long reliever/sixth starter. Perhaps Chase Whitley, who worked as a reliever most of his career before getting to the big leagues as a starter last season. Or maybe Bryan Mitchell, who’s become one of the Yankees top upper-level rotation prospects, but could find an immediate role in the bullpen. Long relief could also open a big league door for new lefty Jose De Paula. If the Yankees prefer a veteran, both Scott Baker and Kyle Davies are coming to camp, each with multiple years of big league rotation experience.
Associated Press photo of Whitley
Eight days before the Yankees’ first spring workout, we’ll continue looking at some of the key issue the Yankees have to figure out in spring training. We’ve already discussed the backup catcher competition and the batting order possibilities, today we’ll look at a fairly hard to define bit of decision making.
Who’s first in line to fill the inevitable roster needs during the season?
While much of spring training is spent sorting out the Opening Day roster — assigning roles and weeding out the lesser candidates — the Yankees have to pay especially close attention this spring to the guys who won’t break camp with the team. That’s an impossible to ignore aspect of a team that has serious health concerns in the rotation and serious production concerns in the lineup. It’s also a good bit of reality for an organization that finally has a wave of young players getting close to the majors.
Basically, the Yankees have to figure out who can help right away, because chances are, they’re going to need some help at some point.
And in the case of this group of next-in-line possibilities, there are few cut-and-dry decisions. The Yankees have a lot of upper-level outfielders, but there’s not one who definitely fits the current roster better than anyone else. Is Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder the best choice for an infield opening? Is Gary Sanchez ready if the Yankees need another catcher? What about that long list of relievers; who stands out in that pack?
Spring training gives the entire organization — especially the big league coaching staff — a chance to really evaluation the options, and there’s a good chance one of these mid-season call-ups will end up playing a much bigger role than some of the guys who make the Opening Day roster. Last year, the Yankees had to make moves to fill holes. The hope is they can plug holes from within this time.
A few possibilities they’ll have to consider:
1. What if the Yankees need an outfielder?
Right now, it seems Chris Young and Garrett Jones are fourth and fifth on the outfield depth chart, but the Yankees have four other outfielders on the 40-man (counting Jose Pirela) and another three outfielders coming to camp on non-roster invitations. That’s a big group to consider, and who gets the call might depend on need and production. When the time comes for a call-up, is there room for another left-handed bat, and if so, who stands out among Ramon Flores, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams? If an offensive-minded right-handed hitter fits best, does Tyler Austin seem ready? How close is Aaron Judge? Has Pirela picked up where he left off last season?
2. What if the Yankees need an infielder?
Obviously this question could depend on specific positions, but the Yankees have enough flexibility with Jones, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan that they could move pieces around and simply call-up the best infielder available. That means, even if they don’t make the team, Pirela and Refsnyder will be competing for big league attention. And after seeing Yangervis Solarte last season, it’s hard to dismiss a guy like Nick Noonan (how good is he at short?) or Jonathan Galvez (can he hit enough to be a big league utility man?).
3. What if the Yankees need an offensive boost?
Given what we saw last year, it’s not out of the question that the Yankees might need a bat at some point. Maybe Alex Rodriguez stinks at designated hitter, or Carlos Beltran hasn’t fully recovered from elbow surgery, or Mark Teixeira’s still battling nagging injuries. If the Yankees have to go looking for offense, Kyle Roller should be worth serious consideration. Maybe Austin is still rolling after last year’s strong second half. Maybe Judge or Greg Bird deserve consideration straight from Double-A.
4. What if the Yankees need a catcher?
If the Yankees pick Austin Romine as their backup and option John Ryan Murphy to Triple-A, then this question is easy to answer. If, however, the Yankees keep Murphy and lost Romine on waivers, it could get complicated. Sanchez is on the 40-man and should be playing everyday in Triple-A, but he also carries significant questions about his defense and maturity. Is he ready for a big league job (even a part-time one) at this point, or should the Yankees keep an eye on guys like Eddy Rodriguez and Francisco Arcia as just-in-case alternatives.
5. What if the Yankees need a spot starter?
When the rotation began to fall apart last season, the Yankees first turned to a pair of relievers in David Phelps and Vidal Nuno. This year, though, Phelps and Nuno are gone. If there’s a need early in the season, perhaps Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers could play the Phelps/Nuno role, sliding out of the bullpen and into the rotation. If not, who’s the best alternative among Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, Jose De Paula, Kyle Davis and Scott Baker? Whitley got an early call-up last year. Mitchell pitched well late in the season. Shane Greene made a strong first impression in big league camp last spring, and we all know where that led.
6. What if the Yankees need a reliever?
Inevitable, isn’t it? Bullpens always evolve in the course of a season, and the Yankees are loaded with upper-level relievers who seem fully capable of filling in at any point this season. If all goes as planned, the Yankees will have just one bullpen opening out of spring training, but they’ll have no fewer than 10 guys looking to fill it (Bailey, Whitley, Mitchell, Ramirez, Pinder, Burawa, Martin, Rumbelow, Shreve, Lindgren, Webb). There won’t be room for everyone in New York, so the Yankees will have to make some judgments about who ranks 13th and 14th on a 12-man pitching staff.
7. What if the Yankees need to make a trade?
Kind of the opposite of every other question on this list: the Yankees not only have to figure out who can help them in the short term, they also have to decide which players are most expendable in the long term. If Sanchez looks less and less like a catcher, maybe he looks more and more like trade bait. If Williams, Heathcott and Jake Cave all seem to be making strides toward playing a role in New York, maybe it’s best to whittle down a group of similar players. If that bullpen depth is legitimate, maybe it’s easy to include an arm as a way to push a trade package over the top.
Associated Press photos
We haven’t done a chat in a long time. Even though it’s the offseason, let’s have one tomorrow. We’ll be chatting all about the Yankees offseason right here on the blog at noon tomorrow. Stop by if you can. For now, a few quick notes and links:
• Sweeny Murti reported this morning that the Yankees have signed veteran Kyle Davies to a minor league deal. The Yankees have since confirmed the signing, announcing that it comes with an invitation to big league camp. The former Royals starter is only 31 years old, but he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011 and hasn’t pitched to a sub-5.00 ERA in the big leagues since 2008. He’s presumably coming in to provide a veteran presence in Triple-A.
• The Yankees made three trades last year that included “either a player to be named later or cash considerations.” I checked with a Yankees official yesterday who said all of those trades were finalized with cash and not a player, so no unexpected prospects leaving the Yankees system to complete the 2014 deals for Martin Prado, Jeff Francis or Josh Outman.
• Mike Axisa points out that today’s James Shields signing means the 2015 draft order is set. The Padres are losing the No. 13 overall pick, which moves the Yankees top pick up to 16th overall. The Yankees will also get a compensation pick at No. 30 (for losing Dave Robertson). The Yankees haven’t drafted as high as 16th in long, long time. That said, the draft is no sure thing, and the 16th spot has not consistently provided an impact player in the past decade or so. Nick Swisher went 16th in 2002, but since then, Brett Lawrie is easily the most notable name (plus 2013 pick J.P. Crawford, who’s an unproven but highly touted prospect with the Phillies).
• In case you missed it, David Waldstein wrote a predictably great story about Yankees second baseman Rob Refsnyder. It focuses on some of Refsnyder’s life experiences as an adopted, Asian-American kid in California. We had a pinch hitter post about that very topic last week. Great stuff.
• Speaking of life experiences, our old friend Bryan Hoch wrote about Chase Whitley’s offseason. Today Whitley’s down in Tampa getting a head start on spring training, but he spent most of the winter at home in Alabama working with kids at a small baseball academy. There are some great anecdotes in there, including the story of kids from the academy sending Whitley good luck video messages before his big league debut. Whitley also converted a family barn into a baseball training facility. “I’m telling you, man, it’s as redneck as you can get,” Whitley said, “but it’s awesome.”
• If you’re in the mood for more prospect information, that hard-working rabble-rouser Dan Martin talked to pitching coordinator Gil Patterson about elite rotation talent Luis Severino. “I hope he gets to the point where he’s not knocking on the door,” Patterson said. “I hope he’s breaking it down.”
• From Baseball America’s latest minor league transactions, the Yankees have signed left-handed pitcher Anthony Marzi, a non-drafted free agent from the University of Connecticut. It seems Marzi impressed at a late January tryout in Port Chester (he also struck out former first-round pick Eric Jagielo twice in the 2013 Big East final). Also from the minor league transactions: infielder David Adams has signed a minor league deal with the Marlins.
Associated Press photo
I don’t have any hard statistics on this, but lefty specialists must be among the most common, highly specific role players on major league rosters. Not every team has one, but it’s not at all unusual to see at least one left-on-left guy in any given bullpen. It’s kind of a tiny role to play, but most teams find someone to do it. It’s kind of like carrying a pinch runner, or a powerful pinch hitter, or a pure defensive replacement on the bench: there’s an obvious benefit, it’s just a matter of finding room on the roster. In the case of lefty specialists, most teams seem to prioritize finding the room.
I point that out only because that’s one highly specific role the Yankees don’t necessarily have filled at this point. They have plenty of left-handed relievers, but not one who’s specifically assigned to those left-on-left situations (guys like Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson will surely face plenty of right-handers as well).
Do the Yankees have anyone to fill some of the other typical, highly specific roles next season?
The Yankees should get some difference-making speed out of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, but those two are going to be lineup regulars, not pick-your-moment pinch runners. If the Yankees need some late-inning speed, their best bet is probably Chris Young. He’s had only 26 stolen bases the past three years combined, but he’s a better source of speed than John Ryan Murphy, Brendan Ryan or Garrett Jones. If Jose Pirela finds a spot on the roster, he can run a little bit, but he’s not an extreme base stealer.
Power pinch hitter
Every team has some pinch hit options on the bench, but there seems to be specific value in a guy who can come off the bench and provide some pop in a key situation. Sometimes it depends on the matchup — a right-handed or left-handed pitcher on the mound — and the Yankees could have two potential power bats on the bench in Young (against lefties) and Jones (against righties). Jones especially stands out as a pick-your-moment weapon if he’s able to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field. In a big RBI situation, he could be a better bet than Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew or Alex Rodriguez.
The Yankees most obvious defensive replacement is Ryan, but he’s also a defensive replacement for an infield that should be pretty good defensively even without him. Is Ryan a definite upgrade over Gregorius, Ryan, Chase Headley or Mark Teixeira? Really, Ryan’s more of defensive insurance, a guy who can provide a solid glove in case an infielder gets hurt. The real defensive replacement might be Young, who should be a right-field sub for Carlos Beltran in the late innings.
Not sure this really counts as a highly specific role these days. It’s pretty common for teams to have a player or two who only jumps into the starting lineup for specific matchups. The Yankees might have two of them in Young and Jones — one to play against lefties, one against righties — but that really depends on whether guys like Beltran and Rodriguez are productive (best-case scenario involves those two having no need for platoon protection). Instead, the Yankees best platoon situation might be in the middle of the infield, with either a platoon of Gregorius and Ryan at shortstop, or a platoon of Drew and Pirela at second (I would say Rob Refsnyder in that platoon, but surely if he’s on the team, it’s to play against more than just left-handed starters).
Not exactly a role anyone wants to play, but the fact is, basically every bullpen needs someone who’s capable of eating multiple innings when a game has turned lopsided one way or the other. That role is basically the way David Phelps broke into the big leagues in 2012. Adam Warren had that job early in 2013. Last year, the Yankees cycled through a several mopup guys who didn’t follow the Phelps/Warren path to something better. This year? Maybe Esmil Rogers could eat innings, or maybe there’s a spot for a guy like Chase Whitley or Bryan Mitchell to start the season as a mopup man with hopes of becoming something more substantial.
Aside from the roles that aren’t really for “role players” — ace, first baseman, closer, leadoff hitter, etc. — every player who’s in a specific role is probably hoping for something better and more significant. That’s certainly true for this one. A team’s sixth starter is usually either a long man in the bullpen (a mopup man) or starter in Triple-A. Right now, the Yankees next-in-line starter is pretty hard to define. We know the projected top five, but the sixth starter could be a safe bet for the bullpen (Warren or Rogers) or a safer bet for Triple-A (Whitley, Mitchell, Scott Baker). The sixth starter will have to define himself in spring training, and that role will surely shift through the course of the season. Ideally, the sixth starter the Yankees use this season will be Ivan Nova.
Associated Press photos
The Yankees picked Didi Gregorius to be their shortstop. They chose Chase Headley to play third base. Chris Capuano was signed to be the stopgap fifth starter, David Carpenter was added to pitch some key innings of relief, and Garrett Jones was added to back up at three key spots. We know these things because the Yankees roster seems more or less set at this point.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some position battles to watch for in spring training.
This morning’s Pinch Hitter post was all about the final out, which led to a post about who should be the Yankees closer. But choosing which reliever should handle the ninth inning isn’t the only roster decision the Yankees have to make this spring. Here are a few roster competitions to keep in mind:
1. Who starts at second base?
Right now it looks like Stephen Drew, but that doesn’t seem set in stone. Far from it, actually. A one-year deal worth $5 million doesn’t necessarily guarantee a player’s spot in the starting lineup. There a ways to get creative with the roster, and if either Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder is too good to ignore, the Yankees might have to make some adjustments. Second base has a favorite heading into camp, but it doesn’t have a sure thing.
2. Is Alex Rodriguez really the designated hitter?
No one knows what to expect from this guy, which means this question goes two ways. Is it possible he could play so well that he’s more of a third baseman who gets quite a bit of time at DH? Also, is it possible that he’s so bad he can’t be trusted with regular at-bats in any role? At the very least, with Garrett Jones offering a left-handed alternative, a DH platoon seems possible. There seems to be at least some chance Rodriguez can’t stick on the roster, much less play every day.
3. What’s the shortstop situation?
Clearly the Yankees want Didi Gregorius to be their regular shortstop. Ideally, he’ll hit well enough to play against both lefties and righties, but at the very least he should be the starter against right-handed pitching. That said, the Yankees do have Drew in camp. If Gregorius falls flat on his face, could Drew take the job? It’s not remotely ideal, but there are two veteran shortstops who will provide alternatives at the position.
1. Who starts on Opening Day?
It’s not really a roster battle, so maybe this is a weak argument. But it’s certainly going to be a discussion at some point. Whether you like him on the mound or not, CC Sabathia is definitely a leader in the clubhouse, and his role as leader of the pitching staff might win him another turn on Opening Day. Masahiro Tanaka, though, is the clear ace. Frankly, the answer to this question might have more to do with health than anything else.
2. Is Chris Capuano really the No. 5 starter?
Brian Cashman has made it clear that Capuano was signed to be a starting pitcher. He’s coming to camp with a rotation spot. But logic seems to dictate that someone could force the Yankees to change their plans. What if Adam Warren works as a starter in spring training and looks fantastic? Same for Bryan Mitchell or Esmil Rogers. What about Luis Severino? Is it possible the Yankees top pitching prospect — or anyone else — could force the Yankees to change their minds at the back of the rotation?
3. What’s the sixth starter situation?
This could have an impact on another roster spot. Let’s say a guy like Chase Whitley pitches extremely well in spring training and could make the team as a long reliever, but he also looks like their best bet to make a spot start should someone get hurt early in the season. Would the Yankee carry Whitley in the bullpen or send him to Triple-A to stay stretch out? Same question for a guy like Mitchell or Jose De Paula.
1. Who’s the backup catcher?
Perhaps the second most obvious position battle in camp. The Yankees traded away Francisco Cervelli specifically to open a big league job for one of their young catching prospects. Logic says that John Ryan Murphy is the heavy favorite after he won the backup role last year while Cervelli was hurt, but Austin Romine has big league experience, some prospect potential of his own, and he’s out of options. Can he beat the odds and win the job?
2. Is Brendan Ryan really the backup infielder?
The Yankees signed Ryan to give themselves some much-needed shortstop depth for the immediate future. He backed up Derek Jeter last year, and right now he’s positioned to back up Gregorius. But with Drew also in the mix, the Yankees could cut ties with Ryan, carry Gregorius and Drew as their shortstops, and make room for either Pirela or Refsnyder or anyone else who plays too well to leave behind. Ryan seems to be going into spring training with a roster spot, but does that have to mean he’ll leave with one?
3. What’s the outfield situation?
We know the five names: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Chris Young and Garrett Jones. Those seem to be the big league outfielders — a group that bring flexibility and balance and leaves a couple of decent pinch hitters on the bench. But given all of the outfield depth in the upper levels of the minor league system, is it possible for someone else to sneak into the picture? Ramon Flores, maybe? Tyler Austin? Injury could obviously open a door, but that’s always the case. The question is whether a Triple-A outfielder could play his way to New York without an injury.
1. Who’s the seventh reliever?
I wrote that backup catcher is the second most obvious position battle. That’s because this is the most obvious. If the Yankees stick with their projected rotation, that will leave six obvious favorites for the bullpen, meaning there’s one spot that’s completely up for grabs. And it really does seem to be a wide open competition. Maybe a lefty like Chasen Shreve, a long man like Chase Whitley, a hard-thrower like Chris Martin, a prospect like Jacob Lindgren, or a total wild card like Andrew Bailey. This is the one roster spot that’s completely up the air (unless the Yankees sign a veteran closer between now and Opening Day).
2. Is Esmil Rogers really guaranteed a spot?
He has some guaranteed money tied to his new contract, but does that mean the Yankees have to stick with a guy who’s never really had sustained success in the big leagues? Clearly the Yankees think Rogers can help them — either as a spot starter or a long reliever or in short stints — but there are so many bullpen options coming to camp, it’s Rogers whose spot seems most uncertain. He’s penciled in for now. By mid March, he might not be.
3. What’s the closer situation?
This was addressed earlier today, but it’s too obvious to leave off of this list. For the first time in a long, long time, the Yankees are heading into spring training without a clear closer (even last year, Dave Robertson was the obvious choice even before he took the job). Could the Yankees choice of a closer — if it’s not Dellin Betances or Andrew Miller — impact the way they build the rest of their bullpen? Could they make a late decision to add an experienced closer to the mix?
Associated Press photos
On the 40-man: Chase Whitley • 01.17.15
Up next in our look at every individual on the Yankees 40-man roster is a college reliever who moved into the rotation to find a path to the big leagues. It usually goes the other way around — from starter to reliever — but in this case, the Yankees have a starter who’s perfectly comfortable falling back into a relief role.
Age on Opening Day: 25
Acquired: 15th-round draft pick in 2010
Added to the 40-man: Put on roster for a spot start in May of last year
In the past: A college reliever at Troy University, Whitley moved through the Yankees system quickly. He got to Triple-A early in his second full season of pro ball, but he stalled there until last season when the Yankees moved him full-time into the rotation and called him up for a spot start against the Mets. Whitley stuck in the rotation for basically two months, getting off to a terrific start before slumping his way back into the bullpen. He had a 2.56 ERA in his first seven starts; an 8.03 the rest of the season.
Role in 2015: The possibilities are wide open. Whitley has played basically every role on a pitching staff, from starter to long man to late-inning reliever. For now, he seems most likely to open the season as a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre starter, providing rotation depth much like he did early last season. Whitley could also make the big league team as an extra long man in the bullpen.
Best case scenario: Always equipped with a good changeup, Whitley improved his slider/cutter and clearly became a more complete pitcher last season. His workload was larger than ever before in his career, which might help explain his decline as the season progressed. The best hope for Whitley is that those first few starts were a legitimate sign of his ability at this level. Ideally, he’s essentially a replacement for David Phelps as a versatile pitchers comfortable in either the rotation or the bullpen; perhaps not overwhelming but absolutely valuable.
Worst cast scenario: When Whitley’s run of strong major league starts came to an end, it was a spectacular end. He allowed 11 hits and eight runs through 3.1 innings on June 23, and he went another month before having another particularly strong outing. The worst-case scenario is that Whitley’s first few outings were a fluke built on unfamiliarity. Without overpowering stuff, he’ll have to constantly prove himself to stick around.
What the future holds: In trading away Phelps, Shane Greene and Manny Banuelos, the Yankees gave up some of their relatively young upper-level rotation depth this winter. They still have some in place — Bryan Mitchell, newly acquired Jose De Paula — but Whitley isn’t really overshadowed at this point. If he has another solid year, he could lock himself into at least a lingering role as an up-and-down sixth starter or long reliever who can plug holes as necessary. With a strong year, he could emerge as the new Phelps. He has the potential to stick around for a while if he performs.
Associated Press photo
The good news is, the Yankees added some rotation depth yesterday. The bad news is, it wasn’t by acquiring a front-end starter to make everyone feel better about the health concerns at the top of the rotation.
By re-signing Chris Capuano, the Yankees brought in an experienced lefty who pitched well in a fifth starter role last year. The good news is that he’s probably a little better than you’re thinking (his career numbers are nearly identical to the rock-solid results he put up with the Yankees last season), but the bad news is that the Yankees rotation still has an opening and is still crowded with uncertainty heading into next season.
Here’s a look at the Yankees starters in place — and the ones set to compete for a spot — as we move ever closer to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. As you might expect, with each one there’s some good news and some bad news.
Good news: Cy Young and Rookie of the Year candidate through his first three months in the big leagues.
Bad news: Slightly torn elbow ligament suggests Tommy John surgery is a real threat as early as spring training.
Good news: Finally joined the Yankees staff with a 1.89 ERA last season.
Bad news: That stellar ERA came in just 13 starts because of another shoulder issue.
Good news: Says he feels strong this winter; more than 200 innings in 2013 and a 3.38 ERA as recently as 2012.
Bad news: Coming back from knee surgery with a not-so-encouraging 4.87 ERA the past two seasons.
Good news: Farm system success story had a 3.10 ERA (and an especially good second half) in his last healthy season.
Bad news: Had Tommy John surgery after just four starts last season; not expected to be ready for Opening Day.
Good news: Solid No. 5 starter with a 4.25 ERA in 12 starts with the Yankees last season.
Bad news: Had been released and was pitching in Triple-A when the Yankees got him in July.
Good news: Was on a roll before a upper elbow injury (believed to be minor) pushed him to the DL last season.
Bad news: In three seasons has never quite established himself as a go-to member of the rotation.
Good news: Coming off a terrific, breakout season with a 2.97 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP.
Bad news: Truly emerged as a one-inning setup man; has just three major-league starts on his resume.
Good news: Showed flashes of promise late last year including a five-inning, one-run spot start in August.
Bad news: That promise has not consistently translated, leaving Rogers a 5.54 career ERA with four different teams before the age of 30.
Good news: Long-time minor league reliever emerged with a 2.56 ERA through his first seven major league starts last season.
Bad news: Had a 9.00 ERA through his next five starts, falling out of the rotation and back into the bullpen.
Good news: Long touted for talent that exceeded his stats, Mitchell’s results were actually pretty impressive in his brief big league cameo.
Bad news: He’s still a 24 year old with a 4.45 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP through five minor league seasons; never with as many as 150 innings.
Good news: One of the top pitching prospects in the system and one of the best in baseball before Tommy John surgery.
Bad news: Inconsistent with a 4.11 ERA and just 76.2 innings in his return from surgery last season.
JOSE DE PAULA
Good news: Hard-throwing lefty impressed the Yankees enough to land a major-league contract this winter.
Bad news: Has never actually pitched in the major leagues and has just 51.1 innings of so-so Triple-A experience.
Associated Press photos