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
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
Just got off the phone with assistant general manager Billy Eppler, who answered a few questions about the non-roster guys invited to Yankees camp this spring.
Eppler confirmed that both Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers have been told to prepare as starting pitchers. They will essentially show up in Tampa as sixth-starter options — guys who could fill a rotation spot if someone else gets hurt — but Eppler didn’t rule out the idea of either Warren or Rogers pitching well enough to win a rotation job even if everyone else is healthy.
“I don’t know,” Eppler said. “I think you just walk into it with an open mind and just see. 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.”
Rogers pitched well as a starter in winter ball this offseason, and Warren was a legitimate rotation prospect throughout his minor league career (he made his big league debut as a starter back in 2012). For now, the Yankees seem to be looking at a five-man rotation of Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Capuano, while they wait for Ivan Nova to come back from Tommy John.
The Yankees expect reliever Andrew Bailey to be an active pitcher in camp. After missing basically all of last season while recovering from a shoulder injury, Bailey should be back on the mound this spring, presumably with a real chance to win a spot in the Yankees bullpen.
“He’s in a throwing program, and there’s been nothing adverse reported from him,” Eppler said.
Slade Heathcott is also expected to report to camp fully healthy. He had surgery yet again last season and played in just nine Double-A games, but the Yankees signed him to a new minor league contract this offseason.
“His progressions are moving forward really positively,” Eppler said. “The last checkup we had, he’s able to do full baseball activities, it’s just (a question of) how regular and how long of a duration.”
New reliever Johnny Barbato — acquired in the Shawn Kelley trade — is also healthy. Barbato didn’t get an invitation to big league camp, but Eppler said that’s not because of the elbow injury that kept him off the mound the second half of last season. Eppler said Barbato actually finished 2014 healthy and pitched in the Padres’ instructional league this offseason before the Yankees acquired him. They’re considering him a healthy and available pitcher, one that will continue to work as a reliever.
“He was cleared and good to go,” Eppler said.
MINOR LEAGUE ASSIGNMENTS
While he wouldn’t give an exact date, Eppler said that veteran pitcher Scott Baker does have an opt-out in his contract (pretty common for a veteran guy on a minor league deal). He’ll come to camp to provide rotation depth, but that could be a short-term thing. If he goes to Triple-A at all — and that might be a big, if — Baker might not be there very long before looking for an opportunity elsewhere.
As for Heathcott and Mason Williams — two prospects whose assignment, Double-A or Triple-A, seems pretty far up in the air — Eppler said their assignments will, in fact, be determined in spring training. This spring could be pretty important for each of those two.
“Any young player wants to make an impression,” Eppler said. “… But you want them to do so in a very cautious manner. (Joe Girardi) tells them, no one is making the team in the first week of spring training.”
Along those same lines, Eppler said the Yankees entered the offseason with strong interest in minor league infielders Noonan, Jonathan Galvez and Cole Figueroa — Galvez, in particular, was signed very quickly — and the team sees all three as potential Yangervis Solarte-types who could really capitalize on a fresh opportunity. Galvez is 24, Noonan is 25, and Figueroa is 27.
And for whatever it’s worth, Eppler said not to dismiss Cito Culver, the former first-round pick who’s hit just .233/.316/.321 in the minor leagues but still got an invitation to big league camp.
“When people look at Cito or whoever, when you look at a player, you’re throwing his offensive numbers in your face,” Eppler said. “We do feel that Cito Culver is a very high, high-end defender. Very high-end defender.”
Because of that defensive ability at such an important defensive position, Eppler said the Yankees still believe Culver could become a consideration should the Yankees have a need at shortstop in the big leagues. In the past, I’ve compared Culver to Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, also a first-round defensive standout who didn’t hit much in the minors but has seen quite a bit of big league time on pretty good teams.
Some of the more notable names left off the Yankees’ list of spring invites were, as expected, simply the victims of a numbers crunch. Taylor Dugas and Adonis Garcia each played well in Triple-A last season, but the Yankees have 10 other outfielders coming to camp, and Eppler pointed out that infielders Garrett Jones and Jose Pirela will also get some outfield time. As it is, that’s 12 outfielders for three spots.
A similar glut of third basemen kept Eric Jagielo and Dante Bichette Jr. from getting invitations, and Eppler confirmed that reliever Mark Montgomery is healthy, he was simply kept out of big league camp by the recent influx of bullpen talent.
“There’s a limited number of at-bats and innings to hand out in spring training,” Eppler said. “You don’t want to water it down.”
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
Kind of a pointless exercise — you could probably say that about 80 percent of offseason stories and blog posts — but it occurred to me last week that you could put together a pretty decent organizational all-star team based on the guys who played in winter ball this year. The pitching is thin, and there’s not really a standout behind the plate, but otherwise the Yankees had one pretty solid young player at almost every position.
Just because it’s a Friday, here’s an attempt at a starting lineup of guys who played in winter ball this year. Let’s consider this a kind of recap of the winter standouts.
1. Ramon Flores CF
A lot of corner outfielders in the mix, so Flores shifts from left to center. He hit .347/.435/.505 in Venezuela and could be the first outfielder in line for a big league call-up this season. If he weren’t left-handed, he might have a better shot of making the team out of camp.
2. Jose Pirela 2B
Pulled from the Venezuelan playoffs because of a relatively minor hand injury, Pirela showed once again why he’s a candidate for a utility job with the Yankees. He hit .296/.394/.515 while playing second base, third base, left field and right field.
3. Aaron Judge RF
Probably the top offensive prospect in the Yankees system, Judge capped his professional debut by hitting .278/.377/.467 in the Arizona Fall League. That’s after he hit .308/.419/.486 during the regular season. Seems headed for Double-A. Question is, how quickly can he move up?
4. Greg Bird 1B
Most Valuable Player in the Arizona Fall League, Bird hit .313/.391/.556 and established himself as one of the top first-base prospects in the game. The converted catcher has always had an advanced approach at the plate, but this year the power seemed to really arrive.
5. Tyler Austin LF
Primarily a right fielder — with time at first base and third base — Austin started playing some left field in the Arizona Fall League, perhaps setting up the possibility of a big league bench role this season. His bat is still the key, and Austin hit .304/.392/.449 in Arizona.
6. Dante Bichette Jr. 3B
After a strong regular season, Bichette went to the Arizona Fall League and fell flat with a .260/.317/.274 slash line. That said, 2014 restored some of his prospect status as he seemed to make meaningful adjustments at the plate to hit .264/.345/.397 across two levels. That’s an OPS jump of basically 100 points better than the previous two years.
7. Adonis Garcia DH
His team lost in the Venezuelan championship series, but Gracia was key in simply getting them that far. He hit .313/.369/.468 as a regular in the middle of the order for Navegantes del Magallanes. After playing only the outfield corners in the winter ball regular season, he saw some time back at third base in the playoffs.
8. Ali Castillo SS
Not really considered much of a prospect, but in the Yankees’ thin system, Castillo might be the top upper-level shortstop (even if he’s more of a utility man). He hit .305/.346/.408 while playing all over the field in Venezuela this winter, but he might have to return to Double-A this season.
9. Francisco Arcia C
Despite all the catching depth in the minor league system, the Yankees didn’t have a big name behind the plate this winter. Kyle Higashioka got into just six games in the Arizona Fall League (hit .409/.480/.682 in those limited chances). Arcia was in Venezuela and hit just .184/.228/.218 through 87 at-bats. He hit a little better (.235/.316/.353) in the playoffs.
Starting pitcher: Esmil Rogers
Certainly not a prospect at this point, but Rogers was pretty much the headliner among Yankees pitchers in winter ball. He had 18 strikeouts and just four walks through 11.1 innings in the Dominican Winter League (he worked strictly as a starter), then he got into the playoffs and pitched to a 3.55 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with 28 strikeouts and six walks through five starts.
Left-handed reliever: Jose De Paula
Although he’s really a starter, De Paula’s quickest path the big leagues is probably as a reliever. Signed to a major-league deal this offseason, De Paula made just two appearances in the Dominican Winter League — both starts — with 10 strikeouts, one walk and one run through 10 innings.
Right-handed reliever: Kyle Haynes
The Yankees were position player heavy in their Arizona Fall League assignments. Branden Pinder was on the initial list and would have been the pitching standout, but he was replaced by Haynes, the hard-thrower acquired in last winter’s Chris Stewart trade. He had a 2.31 ERA in Arizona, but an ugly 1.63 WHIP.
Associated Press photo of Pirela
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
Winter leagues playoffs are wrapping up, and the Yankees might have dodged a bullet down in the Venezuelan postseason.
Utility man Jose Pirela was finishing off a terrific winter when he was hit by a pitch in the right hand (he went 2-for-3 in that game, by the way). There was lingering soreness so Pirela went for X-rays, which were negative, but an MRI revealed a bruise near the bottom of his hand (base of his second metacarpal if you’re into exact details).
It was a mild injury, but Pirela was shut down for the rest of the winter. He didn’t play in his team’s final 12 postseason games, but Yankees assistant general manager Billy Eppler said Pirela is back to working out and going through normal offseason drills.
“He’s all good to go,” Eppler said.
With no serious damage to the hand, Pirela is expected to be in big league camp to make his case for a spot on the big league roster. He hit .333/.529/.417 in his four Venezuelan postseason games after hitting .296/.394/.515 in the Venezuelan regular season. That bat is interesting as a bench guy who can play all over the field.
A few other notes from winter ball:
• In the Dominican Winter League, Esmil Rogers has a 3.55 ERA through five postseason starts for Estrellas de Oriente. He has 28 strikeouts and six walks through 25.1 postseason innings. Rogers last pitch on Tuesday, but his team is in the Dominican championship series, so he could get another start before the playoffs finish. I still wonder if he could come into spring training as basically a sixth starter candidate who could move into a long-man role if all the other starts stay healthy.
• Navegantes del Magallanes have advanced to the Venezuelan Winter League championship series, and they’ve gotten there with Adonis Garcia generally hitting cleanup. Garcia hit .313/.369/.468 in the regular season, but he’s hit just .237/.286/.305 through 14 playoff games. After playing only the outfield corners during the regular season, Garcia’s actually gotten a little bit of time at third base in the postseason. He’ll likely return to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, trying to squeeze into that crowded outfield.
• Also down in Venezuela, Ramon Flores hit just .200/.289/.300 in the postseason but didn’t play in his team’s last three games (Eppler said there’s no injury). Flores had a terrific winter ball regular season. … Pirela’s winter ball teammate, Ali Castillo, hit .250/.361/.288 in the playoffs. He did a pretty good job getting on base all winter. … Reliever Diego Moreno pitched four hitless innings in the postseason. He got a lot of closer opportunities with Aguilas del Zulia in the regular season, but the Yankees now have so much Triple-A bullpen depth that Moreno could be crowded back to Double-A this year.
• By the way, the go-to starter for Magallanes in the postseason has been former Yankees up-and-down long man Chris Leroux who has a 1.93 ERA and 0.99 WHIP through four playoff starts. He had a 1.23 ERA in five regular-season starts. He’s not still in the Yankees organization, but he’s pitched well this winter.
• New Yankees outfielder Robert Hernandez — the former pitcher signed to a minor league contract this winter — hit .264/.350/.358 while playing each outfield corner during the Venezuelan regular season. He played just one game in the postseason (1-for-4 with a double and a strikeout).
Associated Press photo
On the 40-man: Esmil Rogers • 01.22.15
Continuing to look one-by-one at each player on the 40-man roster, we’ll next turn to a player who seemed headed for a non-tender before the Yankees signed him at a diminished salary. In theory, he adds depth and versatility to the pitching staff. That is, if he can pitch well enough to stick around.
Age on Opening Day: 29
Acquired: Claimed off waivers at the trade deadline
Added to the 40-man: Activated on August 1
In the past: Signed and developed by the Rockies, Rogers made his big league debut with Colorado back in 2009. He’s since been purchased by the Indians, traded to the Blue Jays and claimed by the Yankees (the Blue Jays gave up Yan Gomes to get him). Despite a 5.54 ERA and fairly high walk total, Rogers has appeared in 192 big league games, 43 of them as a starter. After coming to the Yankees last season, Rogers delivered an inconsistent two months that included one spot start (which was actually a really good outing).
Role in 2015: There’s at least some chance that Rogers could replace David Phelps as the Yankees long reliever who could slide into the rotation if necessary. When he was projected to earn $1.9 million in his second year of arbitration, Rogers seemed to be a non-tender candidate, but the Yankees signed him for $750,000 guaranteed. He’s been working as a starter in winter ball, and he could come into spring training as rotation depth, though he seems more likely to return to a relatively minor role out of the bullpen.
Best case scenario: There seems to be something tantalizing about Rogers, because despite his so-so numbers, he keeps getting extended looks in the big leagues. The best-case scenario for the Yankees is that Rogers pitches well in a small role, perhaps as the go-to long man or middle innings guy. If he’s in the rotation, something will have gone wrong elsewhere. Ditto for his emergence as a late-inning option. A good long reliever who shows some previously lacking consistency would be just about perfect.
Worst case scenario: If Rogers is pitching in key spots, it means something has gone wrong (likely a key injury either in the rotation or the bullpen). And if Rogers is pitching in key spots, there’s certainly a chance he won’t throw enough strikes or reliably get enough outs to be particularly valuable in that key role. Ultimately, the worst-case scenario is that the Yankees really have to lean on Rogers for something, and he pitches like a guy with a 5.54 career ERA.
What the future holds: Probably not much. The Yankees have enough young bullpen depth that Rogers shouldn’t be necessary beyond this season (might become unnecessary before the end of the summer). That said, if Rogers does take a step forward this season, the Yankees still have one more season of team control, meaning they could hold onto Rogers through 2016. He doesn’t seem to be a part of any grand plan, but he’s available if the Yankees want him beyond this season.
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Has anything changed for the Yankees in the wake of Max Scherzer’s new deal with the Nationals?
Since the fall, Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner created the public perception of fiscal restraint. With a bunch of big contracts (and big mistakes) already filling the payroll, the Yankees never positioned themselves as a favorite for Scherzer. Any thought to the contrary was based on past examples of the Yankees spending unexpected money for Scherzer-type players, but there was never any evidence that they were going to get involved this time.
In that way, nothing has changed. The Yankees weren’t supposed to get Scherzer, and they didn’t.
But with Scherzer off the market, the winter’s most popular “what if” scenario is off the board, leaving the Yankees with a rotation that is what it is.
Top five starters
These five have been in place since late December when the Yankees completed the trade for Eovaldi. Three of these players are in their mid-20s, and one exception is on a one-year, stop-gap contract. Even so, there’s such injury concern at the top that this rotation seems unreliable at best.
Major League depth
According to plan, Warren and Rogers should be relievers this season, but each has been a starter in the past — Rogers worked as a starter this winter — and so they could provide immediate rotation depth in spring training. Nova is expected back from Tommy John surgery around June or so.
Minor league depth
Jose De Paula
Whitley made 12 big league starts last season, but unless he wins a spot as a long man in the big league bullpen, he seems likely to land in the Triple-A rotation with Mitchell and De Paula (each of whom is currently on the 40-man). Severino is not on the 40-man and has just 25 innings above A ball, but he’s talented enough to potentially pitch his way into the mix. Can’t completely rule out guys like Matt Tracy and Zach Nuding, who could round out the Triple-A rotation, or a guy like Jaron Long, who’s likely heading for Double-A but made a huge impression last season.
Question is: Is this enough? The top five looks perfectly good, but that’s only if its healthy. There are plenty of alternatives in the mix, but each one seems to come with significant uncertainty (about upside, about health, about ability to consistently start at the big league level). So if the Yankees want to upgrade their rotation — either adding talent up top or adding depth at the bottom — what are their options?
1. Spend big – There’s still one high-end starter on the market, and he has a history of success in the American League East. But if the Yankees weren’t interested in Scherzer, what are the chances they’ll become interested in James Shields? He’s already 33, so his next contract is likely to carry him into his late 30s, which seems awfully risky at this point.
2. Take a chance – Beyond Shields, the free agent market really doesn’t have a reliable starter still available. Instead, the Yankees could roll the dice on a small contract — perhaps even a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation — with a veteran starting pitcher who comes with serious warts. Johan Santana recently got some attention, but guys like Chad Billingsley, Roberto Hernandez and Chris Young are also still out there.
3. Sacrifice the farm – The Yankees clearly prefer to keep their top prospects at this point, but they don’t have to. Cole Hamels is clearly available and signed to a contract that seems perfectly reasonable compared to Scherzer, but it would likely take a massive package to get him. The Nationals are reportedly not pushing to trade Jordan Zimmermann, but he might be available. Is it worth giving up some of the future to add a pitcher for the present?
4. Wait and see – Nothing says the Yankees have to make a change right now. Last season, they managed to rebuild a rotation on the fly, and they could try to do the same this year if necessary. They could go into spring training with this group and adjust only if/when one of those top five starters goes down. If that doesn’t happen until May, they might have Nova ready to step in. If it happens in August, Severino might be ready.
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Winter leagues are into the postseason at this point, which means we have complete regular season numbers from Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The results are pretty solid for most of the Yankees who had significant playing time.
The standout, in my mind, is left fielder Ramon Flores. This was the first winter Flores received significant at-bats in his home country of Venezuela. At 22 years old, he was the everyday left fielder for the Tigres de Aragua, and by the end of the season, he was their regular No. 3 hitter. And he finished with a flourish.
In his final eight regular season games, Flores had 14 hits including three doubles, a triple and a home run. He finished with a .347/.435/.505 across 196 at-bats. That’s a .940 OPS, by the way, .007 points lower than the OPS that earned Greg Bird MVP of the offense-heavy Arizona Fall League. Flores led the Venezuelan Winter League in on-base percentage, finished third in batting average and was fifth in runs scored. He’s hit .286/.333/.571 with one home run and eight RBI through three playoff games.
Flores has a spot on the 40-man roster and he was having a pretty solid Triple-A season before a severe ankle injury sent him to the disabled list for roughly half of the season. He can play all three outfield spots (and has some first base experience), he can run a little bit, and he’s general shown an ability to get on base, hit for a solid average and provide a very little bit of power. He stands out as an obvious fourth outfielder type, with the only problem being that he hits left-handed (which makes him not a great fit behind fellow lefties Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner).
In what’s likely to be a crowded Triple-A outfield, though, Flores could be at the top of the pecking order for an early season call-up. Tyler Austin has never played at the Triple-A level, Adonis Garcia doesn’t have a spot on the 40-man, Mason Williams has struggled offensively (and could certainly return to Double-A rather than going to Triple-A), no one seems sure what to expect from Slade Heathcott (or at what level he’ll open the season), and Eury Perez could be easily outplayed (could even be DFA when Stephen Drew is added to the roster).
Can’t make too much of winter league numbers, but for a young kid like Flores coming off a season cut short by injury, an impressive winter seems to keep him on the map as a legitimate big league candidate sooner rather than later.
Some other winter ball updates:
• Here’s a regular season slash line nearly as impressive as Flores: Jose Pirela finished his Venezuelan season hitting .296/.394/.515 with 21 extra-base hits in 47 games. He split his time pretty evenly among second base, third base and left field, though he’s stayed in the outfield through four playoff games. Pirela did not finish the season particularly strong — no extra-base hits in his final 11 games — but he’s hit .333/.529/.417 through his first few playoff games. His chances of making the big league roster seemed to take a hit when the Yankees signed Stephen Drew, but he could still force his way into the mix with his versatility and right-handed bat. This winter has only further established the fact he can hit and play all over the field.
• One of Pirela’s teammates in Venezuela is middle infielder Ali Castillo, who’s generally been easy to dismiss as little more than an organizational utility man. Given the lack of upper-level infield depth, though, Castillo manages to stand out a little bit, and he had a strong season with the Aguilas del Zulia hitting .305/.346/.408 while playing shortstop, second base, third base and left field. He was the team’s primary leadoff hitter, and he’s been their everyday second baseman in the playoffs. He led the league with 16 stolen bases. That said, a solid winter isn’t enough to declare Castillo a legitimate candidate for the big league roster, in fact, on the infield depth chart he’s probably behind each of the minor league free agent additions. But Castillo was the everyday shortstop in Trenton last season, and he could continue to play his way into regular minor league at-bats while trying to prove he’s more than organizational fodder.
• Looking for an especially strong finish in winter ball, check out the way Adonis Garcia reestablished himself as a corner outfielder capable of providing right-handed power. In his final 13 games, Garcia hit four home runs, a triple, and five doubles, raising his winter slugging percentage from .377 to .468. He finished second in the league with 41 RBI and had a .313/.369/.468 slash line. Although he’s played some center field and a little bit of infield in the past, he got all of his winter playing time in the outfield corners. He so far has one homer but just four hits through five playoff games. It will be interesting to see how the Yankees use Garcia this season. He turns 30 in April, so if they’re going to get any sort of big league impact out of him, it has to happen soon. Guys like Austin and Flores probably deserve priority at-bats.
• Not such a great winter for Eury Perez. The Yankees late-season waiver claim has held onto his 40-man spot so far this offseason, but his stint in the Dominican Winter League could not have inspired much additional confidence. Perez opened the season as the regular left fielder and leadoff hitter for the Leones del Escogido, but he finished the season on the bench getting just scraps of playing time. He hit .194/.202/.258 with no walks and 21 strikeouts. He tried to steal two bases and was caught each time. Now that Slade Heathcott has re-signed, adding even more center field depth for the upper levels, I wonder if Perez could fall off the 40-man at some point. Losing him on waivers wouldn’t be crushing (though I think the Yankees do like his defense, sped and right-handedness).
• Possibly putting him on track to come into spring training as a rotation candidate (if only to provide depth just in case someone gets hurt before opening day), Esmil Rogers has worked as a starting pitcher this winter. He made three starts in the regular season and he’s so far made three more in the postseason (he’s pitching for a different team in the playoffs for whatever reason). His final regular season start spanned five scoreless innings with only one hit and 10 strikeouts. In the playoffs he’s had a 1.10 WHIP with 18 strikeouts and two walks through 16.1 innings. His most recent two starts came on Jan. 3 (six innings, one run, four strikeouts) and on Thursday (5.1 innings, two runs, nine strikeouts).
• New Yankees reliever Gonzalez Germen — the guy acquired from the Mets who basically replaced Preston Claiborne on the roster — made 10 appearances in the Dominican Winter League. He allowed nine hits and six earned runs through seven innings, strikeout out four and walking three. He hasn’t pitched since December 11.
• A few quick hits: Triple-A reliever Diego Moreno finished with a 1.43 WHIP through an up-and-down winter in Venezuela. He’s pitched two scoreless innings with one save so far in the playoffs. … Young shortstop prospect Abiatal Avelino got in one game for his Dominican Winter League team (super young guys like that rarely play much). He went 1-for-4 with a double. … Newly acquired left-handed starter Jose De Paula pitched in a couple of Dominican games before signing with the Yankees, but he didn’t pitch at all this winter beyond October 24. …. In the Mexican Winter League, low-level minor leaguer Luis Niebla had a 2.87 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP in nine starts (none of them coming after November 29), while Giovanny Gallegos had a 1.69 ERA and 1.31 WHIP through 16 relief appearances (none of them coming after December 1).
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