Late this morning, about two hours before today’s Grapefruit League finale, Joe Girardi was asked what’s surprised him most this spring. Girardi paused for several seconds, then gave three answers:
1. “Really pleased with what Alex did.”
That was Girardi’s first response, a one-sentence answer that basically speaks for itself. Alex Rodriguez was perhaps the least predictable piece of the roster coming into camp, but he’s thrived in all aspects. He’s played a passable version of first base and third base, he’s hit .286/.400/.524, and he’s handled inevitable off-the-field questions without digging himself into a new hole.
“I’ve said all along, I thought Alex was going to help us,” Girardi said. “But until you get into (you don’t know). I mean, it’s two years, really, since he played. I wasn’t 100-percent sure. If I was a betting man, I would have bet on him playing well, but there’s still that, you’ve got to see it after two years of not playing and being 39 and a half.”
2. “Pleased with our infield and them working together.”
This was the second sentence of Girardi’s answer, a fairly broad response that involves four players. Third baseman Chase Headley has been arguably the best everyday position player in camp, second baseman Stephen Drew has begun to hit in the last two weeks or so, first baseman Mark Teixeira has looked healthy and stronger than he did late last season, and shortstop Didi Gregorius has been perhaps the team’s most encouraging new addition.
“The way he moves (has been impressive),” Girardi said. “Arm strength. You can watch it go across the diamond, but you don’t realize it’s just that little flick and it’s gone. Relay throws. He’s the whole package. When you watch him play defense, he’s the whole package. And I’m excited to watch him play all year.”
3. “And I was really impressed with our kids.”
The Yankees’ farm system — particularly it’s lack of upper-level success stories — has been a problem in recent years, but the organization seems to be getting stronger. Not only with the addition of young talent, but also with the development of on-the-verge prospects. Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Luis Severino impressed early in camp, while Jacob Lindgren, Rob Refsnyder and Slade Heathcott stuck around long enough to stay on the radar until the very end. That’s to say nothing of Mason Williams’ improvement, Cito Culver’s defense and Nick Rumbelow’s emergence.
“The kids played a lot in spring training,” Girardi said. “Their talent level. The way they hold each other accountable. The way they push each other. It’s really neat to see.”
Associated Press photo
Yesterday, Reggie Jackson compared Aaron Judge’s raw power to that of Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey. The day before, Alex Rodriguez called Judge and Greg Bird two of the best young hitters he’d seen in years. All spring, guys like Luis Severino, Jacob Lindgren and Rob Refsnyder have generated significant attention despite having a half-season of Triple-A experience among them.
“That’s what you do in the game, for better or for worse,” Brian Cashman said. “People go to the dream aspect.”
While the big league Yankees seem to have captured anything but the imagination this spring — far more doomsday scenarios than best-case scenarios floating out there — the young Yankees have stolen the show early this spring. At least, in theory they have. Counting my days with the minor league system, I’ve covered nine spring training, and it’s hard to remember a Yankees’ spring with this much prospect hype. Maybe the year of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, but this spring is different because many of the players in question are not even on the 40-man roster, much less on the verge of making the Opening Day roster.
Judge probably gets the most attention, and he has just one year of professional experience.
“I don’t think it’s hurtful,” Cashman said. “Listen, we all project what someone could be on a maximum case. Whether people want to throw out Giancarlo Stanton or Dave Winfield or McCovey, it doesn’t matter at all. You’re dreaming on the player’s abilities. Some players, you can dream bigger on than others. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big on a guy, especially a guy like that, that’s that big. It’s not hurtful.”
Seems to help that the Yankees like the mental makeup of their young players. Judge and Refsnyder have lockers right next to one another, and both have been soft spoken all spring. Girardi has raved about Severino’s early spring composure. Bird tends to sit quietly at his corner locker, doing as much observing as talking.
“I’ve discovered that there’s nothing I can do to prevent (growing expectations), regardless,” Cashman said. “I’ve gotten trained over time that whatever will be, will be. … Our young guys — the B-Bombers, I’ll call them — have been great. They’re in tremendous shape, they’re hungry, you can see they play with passion. The performance has been high-end this spring as well. Those are the stories you really want. You want your young guys to step up. It shows your fan base that, hey, there’s some good things on the come.”
Associated Press photo
Alex Rodriguez already has four hits this spring. He went 2-for-3 today, drove in a run, and raised his spring batting average to .444. He doesn’t have an extra-base hit, but for a guy who’s talked a lot about finding his timing, he’s making pretty decent contact and showing a good eye at the plate. He’s been good, which might impress some people, but it doesn’t impress Rodriguez himself.
“Nothing. Zero,” he said. “(Whether the numbers are) 0-for-9, 4-for-9. … It doesn’t really mean anything. I’ve played for a long time. It’s better than 0-for-9, I guess.”
But that’s not to say Rodriguez hasn’t been impressed this spring. Quite the opposite, actually. Asked a pretty broad question about Opening Day, Rodriguez used the opportunity to heap praise on some of the young guys in Yankees camp.
“I actually like our team,” he said. “One of the nice things about being here in spring this year is seeing the collection of nice young power arms. That’s been a really pleasant surprise. The other thing I’ve seen is two of the finest young hitters I’ve seen in a long time. One is righty and one is lefty. I think they’re both under the age of 24. That’s really encouraging. And I also saw that our lineup has the potential to be pretty deep and that’s something that I think can help us.”
Who exactly are those young hitters?
“Greg Bird and Aaron Judge,” Rodriguez said. “You don’t see those type of young hitters come around very often. We’re lucky to have two of them. I’m very impressed.”
And Rodriguez wasn’t finished there. He also had plenty of kind words for Michael Pineda.
“When you have stuff like that, it makes you be a little bit more relaxed,” he said of Pineda’s recent demeanor. “I think the thing about Pineda that I learned in my rehab with him when we were down here in Tampa together is how athletic he is. He’s one of the fastest guys on the team. It doesn’t make sense that a guy that big can move that fast. He’s extremely athletic and fast. Then in the weight room, he can just lift the whole weight room. Those combinations, when you know that and you see how that transfers to his power stuff, it makes a lot of sense.”
How fast are we talking? Faster than Brett Gardner?
“No,” Rodriguez said. “But he’s faster than me and a lot of other guys.”
• Hard to ignore Pineda in his debut — and it’s impossible to ignore A-Rod saying the Yankees have two of the best young hitters he’s seen in a long time — but it’s worth leaving some of today’s spotlight for Nathan Eovaldi. In his second spring outing, Eovaldi racked up five strikeouts in three innings. “Just working ahead in the counts, I think, for the most part was the big key today,” he said.
• Eovaldi has said all spring that he wanted to work on his offspeed pitches. Today he got two strikeouts on fastballs, two on sliders and one on a split. “With every year you’re going to get more comfort with yourself and what you can and can’t do,” Brian McCann said. “With that stuff, it’s just going to be a matter of putting it all together and elevating when he needs to elevate and put it in the dirt when he needs to put it in the dirt, because he’s an uncomfortable at-bat for anybody.”
• One complaint from Eovaldi, he said he felt like he was rushing some of his offspeed pitches, but the results were still positive. “Besides rushing, I felt good,” he said. “I was able to throw the majority of them for strikes. I threw some splits. I felt like they were quality pitches, I just didn’t get offers on them.”
• Minor league reliever Diego Moreno — who could, honestly, be crowded out of even the Triple-A bullpen — gave up all three Rays runs in today’s 4-3 Yankees win. Moreno struggled, but the rest of the Yankees pitchers really thrived today. David Carpenter (pictured on the right), Justin Wilson and Chris Martin each pitched a scoreless inning today. All three allowed one runner.
• Last time out, Martin seemed to really catch Girardi’s attention. I have to imagine today’s outing did nothing to dull that strong first impression. Martin allowed a double, but he struck out the last two batters of the game. The first was on a 95-mph fastball, the second was on a big breaking ball.
• Pineda and Esmil Rogers will start the upcoming split-squad doubleheader on Saturday. Pineda will pitch at home, Rogers on the road. That leaves an upcoming rotation of — Tuesday: Chase Whitley, Wednesday: Chris Capuano, Thursday: Masahiro Tanaka, Friday: Adam Warren, Saturday: Rogers and Pineda.
• Prospect Luis Severino showed up sick this morning and was diagnosed with strep throat. He’s been told to stay home tomorrow and he’ll be back Wednesday. Severino was scheduled for early work tomorrow — I assume it was going to be a bullpen — so it sounds like the illness might only push him back a day or two.
• Shortstop Nick Noonan has a stiff neck and has been scratched from tomorrow’s road trip (Girardi said he might make the trip, but his name was literally scratched off the list). Girardi indicated it’s a minor injury at this point. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow,” he said.
• Nothing new on Brendan Ryan. He’s still on track to begin light baseball activities on Wednesday.
• Predictably, Girardi wouldn’t say whether he’s planning to use today’s lineup as his Opening Day lineup. That seems like a safe bet, but Girardi would only say, “it’s possible.”
• Rob Refsnyder made his second spring error. He also had another hit and is batting .500 this spring. … Bird and Brian McCann had the Yankees only extra-base hits today. Each doubled. … Slade Heathcott stayed hot with another hit. He’s batting .800. Small sample sizes are fun! … Austin Romine got his first hit. John Ryan Murphy also has just one hit this spring.
• Final word goes to Girardi about feeling at least a little encouraged by A-Rod’s early success: “I think it’s impossible not to. If you’re struggling in the beginning, like a lot of our hitters are, you say it’s timing. That was my concern for Alex, really, coming into camp. How long would it take for him to get his timing? I think he’s done a pretty good job adjusting, and I want to continue to see it.”
Associated Press photos
Tyler Wade just turned 20 in November. He’s too far from the major league radar to have gotten a real invitation to big league camp, but the Yankees keep bringing him up from the minor league complex day after day to play a little middle infield in the late innings.
The guy already has more spring training hits than Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury or Brett Gardner.
With the Yankees trailing by one in the ninth inning this afternoon, it was Wade who started the game-winning rally with a leadoff single to right. Jonathan Galvez and Jake Cave added singles of their own. Nick Noonan walked in the tying run, Rob Refsnyder put the Yankees in front with a two-run single, and Greg Bird put the game out of reach with a home run.
“Really (exciting) to see that our system has a lot of good players,” Joe Girardi said. “And a lot of kids are going to contribute along the way here is what we’re going to see at some point. That’s what you need. We need to continue to have young players come up and contribute, and a lot of it’s been in the bullpen the last couple of years, but it looks like you’re getting some real position players who are coming up too.”
To be fair, a lot of minor league players began hitting at the minor league complex long before the big league hitters arrived. In the late innings, minor league hitters are usually facing minor league pitchers, and it seems that minor leaguers — eager to open eyes — go all out early in camp, while big league hitters take their time and try to fine tune specifics without really trying to get early results.
That said, the Yankees have hit a total of five home runs so far this spring, and each one was hit by a minor leaguer (Bird, Cave, Ramon Flores, Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge). Eight players have more than two hits, and only one of them — Garrett Jones — seems to have a spot on the big league roster. Wade already has two hits, and he’s not even officially here.
“It’s pretty fun to watch young players contribute and what they’re capable of doing,” Girardi said. “… You watch their at-bats. You watch the pitches that they’re swinging at. If they’re over-swinging. Their approach. How the ball comes off the bat. You saw a lot of good things.”
• After this morning’s simulated game, Masahiro Tanaka said once again that he feels ready to pitch in a real game. He seems to really feel that the elbow is a non-issue at this point. “It’s obviously really good and I really don’t think about it at all,” he said. “I think all of the pitches I threw today, I’m pretty satisfied with.”
• While Tanaka’s split gets a lot of understandable attention, Tanaka said that’s not the pitch that tells him his elbow is fine. “I do look at the split, how it moves and all that,” he said. “But I actually look at my fastball the most when I’m pitching. The fastballs are coming off my hand pretty good right now.”
• Although Girardi wouldn’t give an exact date, he said Tanaka’s next outing will in fact be a real game.
• Speaking of pitchers in a real game, Scott Baker said he felt better than the numbers indicate. He was disappointed with some of the pitches he made early in counts, and the Astros came out swinging, which caused problems. But he got better later in the inning. “They jumped on Baker pretty quick,” Girardi said. “He made some adjustments as the inning went along and got his split going and got some outs with that. His first outing, I don’t make too much of that.”
• Asked a broad question about today’s pitching, Girardi singled out Nick Rumbelow and Jose De Paula — who was making his spring debut — as guys who pitched well. Rumbelow was charged with a run, but only after he went out for a second inning of work (when he didn’t end up recording an out). His first inning was clean with a strikeout.
• Shortstop Didi Gregorius got another start against a left-handed pitcher, and the Yankees seem to like that. They want him to see lefties in hopes of improving his numbers against them. “To be honest, it’s the only way you’re going to get better,” Gregorius said. “Not getting better if you’re not doing work. For me, facing all these lefties means I’ll stay in there and get more comfortable against lefties.”
• Gregorius said he’s already made a minor mechanical change. “Just trying to stay a little bit taller and a little bit closer (with the hands) too,” he said. “I tend to fly open. I’m going to try not to do that and stay on the ball more and drive the ball the other way.”
• Jose Pirela struck out during that go-ahead, six-run ninth inning, but Girardi was quick to point out that he really helped get the rally going with an RBI double in the eighth. That’s what pulled the Yankees within a run (after Cave had homered earlier in the inning).
• Girardi on the fact it’s taking CC Sabathia a long time to get into games this spring: “We’re taking it slow. We just think it’s a good idea to do it. He’s probably going to throw a couple of innings tomorrow. It’s like starting in a game but you can control it more, that’s all.”
• We’ll give the final word to Gregorius, talking about the Yankees infield defense. “It looks really good, I’m not going to lie. Defensively we look really good. Offense is getting there. It’s Spring Training, so we’re getting there. It’s really good guys we’re playing with. … Today (Headley) cut one of my ground balls off. That means he plays hard. Trying to catch everything. The whole infield is like that and it’s great.”
Associated Press photos (that’s Wade and Judge at the top, Flores in the middle, Bird at the bottom)
When I put out the call for Pinch Hitters, I honestly didn’t expect to get one in defense of Brian Cashman. That said, I kind of like when these posts go against the typical public opinion, and this winter, a pro-Cashman blog post certainly qualifies.
Now that James Shields has landed in San Diego, we know the Yankees are not going to make a free agent signing any bigger than Chase Headley. They’re going to roll the dice in the rotation, lean heavily on the bullpen, and hope for bounce-back seasons from several veteran hitters.
As a general rule, I’m of the opinion that the Yankees needed to restrict spending this offseason to avoid some familiar pitfalls, so I mostly agree with Daniel’s morning post: I basically think Cashman did a fine job under the circumstances. There are plenty of questions in the rotation and the lineup, and the farm system seems a year away from making a major contribution, but the Yankees did manage to get younger without adding any huge-risk contracts.
I think it was a reasonable approach to the offseason, but it clearly comes with considerable risk. Whether it works in the short-term will depend on several touch-to-predict factors.
Here are 10 issues that may determine whether we look back at Cashman’s offseason as a real success or a total failure.
1. Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow
Of all the health questions in the Yankees’ rotation, none is as significant as Tanaka’s torn elbow ligament. When the injury came to light last season, some of the top medical experts in the world recommended the Yankees postpone surgery and try to rehab the injury. The Yankees listened, followed that advice, and Tanaka returned to make a couple of late-season starts. The elbow, though, still looms as a ticking time bomb. Whether it was his decision or not — his evaluation or not — Cashman will most certainly take the heat if Tanaka’s elbow blows out between now and the postseason. If it holds up, the Yankees have their ace. If it doesn’t, Cashman will have missed out on the opportunity to acquire a ready replacement in Max Scherzer or Jon Lester.
2. Brian McCann’s bat
Last winter, there seemed to be near universal agreement that McCann was a natural fit for the Yankees. There were certainly those who wanted the team to stay away, but the Yankees have a long tradition of impact catchers, and McCann’s left-handed power and pitch-framing reputation made him an obvious target. Cashman gave him a five-year deal, despite the presence of John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez. Now the Yankees are committed, and McCann stands out as the one middle-of-the-order slugger who can’t blame injuries of last year’s diminished production. His bat remains a key piece of this lineup, both in the short term and the long term. If he doesn’t produce for a second straight season, McCann’s contract is going to look like an overwhelming problem going forward.
3. Stephen Drew’s return
A one-year, $5-million deal isn’t a make-or-break contract for the Yankees. In this case, though, it seems like an all-or-nothing decision for Cashman. If Drew struggles to another sub-.200 batting average, Cashman is going to look foolish for giving a second opportunity to a player who performed so poorly a year ago (especially when there were younger second basemen in place). If Drew bounces back to his 2013 level of production — providing a great glove and decent power for a middle infielder — Cashman will appear savvy, taking advantage of a buy-low opportunity (especially for a player who provides insurance at not only second base but also at shortstop).
4. The ninth inning
Whoever takes the job, the Yankees need someone to effectively close the door in the ninth inning. It stands out as an especially sensitive issue because of the decision to let Dave Robertson sign with the White Sox for marginally more money than the Yankees gave Andrew Miller. Cashman has said the decision was based, at least partially, on the draft pick compensation tied to Robertson. A draft pick, though, is no sure thing, and right now the Yankees don’t have a single reliever with significant ninth-inning experience. Robertson was a known quantity. If Miller or Dellin Betances or whoever else can’t handle the closer role, Cashman will have neglected a job that the Yankees — after two decades of Mariano Rivera — should appreciate as much as anyone.
5. The fifth starter
Top-of-the-rotation concerns aside, one of the Yankees most pressing rotation issues is the apparent lack of depth. If healthy, the Yankees seem to have a perfectly good top four, but right now their fifth starter is Chris Capuano, with relievers Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers looking like the most immediate sixth starter candidates. Pitching prices got out of control this winter — four years for Brandon McCarthy, eight figures for Brett Anderson — but the Yankees certainly went into the offseason recognizing their need for rotation help. They acquired Nathan Eovaldi, but also gave up Shane Greene. Essentially, Cashman chose to roll the dice on the health of his in-place starters, the return of Ivan Nova, and the short-term ability of Capuano. A big contract would have been a big risk, but the alternative isn’t exactly risk-free.
6. Everything about Didi Gregorius
This was the choice at shortstop. With Derek Jeter retired, the Yankees were left with a glaring hole at a position once claimed by an icon. Cashman chose to make a trade for a 24-year-old kid who’s never proven he can be an everyday player in the big leagues. If Gregorius is a great defensive player (and others are able to provide some offense), the decision might look like a solid one. If Gregorius can actually hit beyond his Arizona numbers, the decision could look like a great one. But if Gregorius falls flat, the Yankees will have given up a young starting pitcher — one who might have solved some of those familiar rotation issues — for a guy who does nothing to solve an issue the Yankees had to see coming for several years.
7. Everything about third base
There was little Cashman could do this offseason about Alex Rodriguez. Unless ownership decided to simply cut ties, Cashman was stuck with a roster that included a 39-year-old coming off a year-long suspension after a series of injuries and several seasons of declining numbers. All Cashman could do was try to work around the Rodriguez issue. He did so by making his most expensive commitment of the winter: a four-year, $52-million deal with Chase Headley, a player with a history of back problems and only one season with more than 13 home runs. It was a fairly risky deal, but if Headley plays well — and doesn’t cause a stir with A-Rod — it will look like a reasonable reaction to a difficult situation. If Headley gets hurt or doesn’t produce, it will stir questions about the decision to give such a contract while trading away a guy like Martin Prado.
8. Three names: Judge, Bird, Severino
Rob Refsnyder and Jacob Lindgren might be the first chance to make the big league roster, but the perceived value of the Yankees farm system could hinge heavily on the continued development of Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Luis Severino. Those are the high-end, upper-level talents — or at least, those are the perceived high-end, upper-level talents — and those three are natural in-house solutions for the bad contracts that currently belong to Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia. Younger guys like Jorge Mateo and Luis Torrens might help eventually, but Cashman needs a minor league victory sooner than that. Get Judge, Bird and Severino to Triple-A this year — perhaps even to New York before the end of the year — and the Yankees will at least have a farm system that seems ready to provide immediate impact.
9. One other name: Manny Banuelos
Prospect success goes both ways for Cashman. If he’s going to get credit for the success of those he’s kept, he has to take the blame for those he’s traded away. Even without a single inning in the big leagues, Banuelos was pretty close to a household name as far as prospects go (at least among Yankees fans). He was kind of like Jesus Montero in that way. Fans were waiting for him and expecting big things, and Cashman traded him away. If Banuelos gets back on track with Atlanta and lives up to his potential, Cashman will have given up a young, much-anticipated young starter for a couple of relief pitchers. Even if David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve are great, that trade will look ugly if Banuelos is racking up wins in Atlanta.
10. Yoan Moncada’s free agency
This is a strange fit on this list for two reasons: 1. it will have absolutely no impact on the 2015 Yankees, and 2. it will probably have very little to do with Cashman himself. That said, if ownership is willing to pay a massive price to sign the market’s most coveted international free agent, Moncada could very well stand out as the Yankees most impressive signing of the offseason. It will show a willingness to spend big bucks, it will give the farm system a huge talent — and a big name — and every evaluation of the Yankees’ winter will have to include the fact that, while they passed on a guy like Scherzer, they went all in for Moncada. It will make very clear that Cashman came into this offseason with a plan to get younger and build for something long-term.
Associated Press photos
Yankees youth movement is an ongoing process • 02.02.15
As Jackson wrote this morning, the Yankees made an obvious effort to get younger this winter. They traded away one young starter, but added an even younger one. They went with a 24-year-old to fill their glaring hole at shortstop. They made two long-term commitments, neither was signed beyond his 34th birthday. They made a boatload of trades, but kept nearly all of their high-end prospects.
So just how overwhelming was this youth movement? It wasn’t universal — some positions are still tied to veteran contracts — but if this is a trend and not just a one-winter effort, the Yankees might have set themselves on a path to be younger still within a few years.
In place: Brian McCann, 31 years old, signed through 2018
Getting younger: The Yankees commitment to McCann created a roadblock behind the plate (which might speak to the uncertainty about whether John Ryan Murphy or Gary Sanchez can be everyday catcher in the big leagues). The Yankees did, however, commit to either Murphy or Austin Romine being their backup, which is a clear attempt to give a young player a chance.
Next in line: Sanchez should be in Triple-A this season. He just turned 22 in December, so he’s still awfully young for his level. If his offensive numbers begin to match his raw talent, and if his receiving skills take a step forward, he could be pushing for a big league job next season and eventually force the Yankees to make a decision of Sanchez vs. McCann. Before then, Murphy should have an extended opportunity to show what he can do in the big leagues. Luis Torrens is very good, but he’s also way too young to be in the big league picture just yet.
In place: Mark Teixeira, 34 years old, signed through 2016
Getting younger: The Yankees really made no effort to get younger at first base this winter. Their hands were essentially tied because of their ongoing commitment to Teixeira, who’s deal still has two more years. For a backup option, the the Yankees traded for Garrett Jones and suggested Alex Rodriguez getting some time at the position, all of which could block a brief window of opportunity for Kyle Roller, who had an .875 OPS in Triple-A last year.
Next in line: Roller is at the top of the minor league depth chart, but he’s not necessarily next in line for the position. The guy best poised to replace Teixeira in two years is Greg Bird. He’s coming off a standout regular season and the MVP award in the Arizona Fall League. Bird seems likely to open in Double-A, which puts him on a pretty good trajectory — as long as he keeps moving forward — to have a real shot at the first base position when Teixeira is gone in 2017.
In place: Stephen Drew, 32 years old, signed through 2015
Getting younger: In their own weird way, the Yankees kind of opened the door to getting younger at second base. The job would have been Martin Prado’s with no questions asked, but the Yankees traded Prado and signed Drew, who comes with a much smaller commitment and much higher chance of being dumped to the bench should Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela play well enough to win the second base job.
Next in line: One other thing about Drew: he’s only signed for one year; Prado had two years left. While the Yankees still believe Refsnyder has the potential to be an everyday second baseman — last year could have only reinforced that idea — his experience at the position is limited, and another turn at Triple-A could finish off his development. Pirela has taken an obvious step forward, but Refsnyder is still the top second base prospect in the system, one of the better second base prospects in baseball, and he could take the job — and keep it — sooner rather than later.
In place: Didi Gregorius, 25 years old, pre-arbitration
Getting younger: The Yankees could have signed Drew early in the offseason, put him at shortstop and been done with it for the time being. Or maybe they could have signed Jed Lowrie, or traded for Jimmy Rollins. Instead, they acquired Gregorius, a 25-year-old on Opening Day who has yet to really establish himself in the big leagues. His glove is strong and his bat is questionable, but he’ll get every opportunity to play shortstop regularly this season and beyond.
Next in line: Really, no one. Not in the immediate future, anyway. The Yankees have Jorge Mateo and others in the lowest levels of the minor league system, but that group is a long way from the big league radar. Unless Cito Culver’s bat finally takes a sudden leap forward, there’s really no shortstop in the system who’s remotely close to the big leagues. That’s one reason Gregorius seems likely to get multiple chances and a long leash. Aside from stopgaps Drew and Brendan Ryan — and minor league free agent Nick Noonan — there’s really no one else in the picture.
In place: Chase Headley, 30 years old, signed through 2018
Getting younger: Compared to 39-year-old Alex Rodriguez, Headley does make the Yankees younger at third base. And compared to players signed into their late 30s, Headley will remain relatively young through the end of his contract. While the Yankees have some third base talent in the system, there wasn’t anyone ready to take a shot at the big league job.
Next in line: Pirela and Rob Segedin probably fit in this conversation somewhere, but it’s really the two guys who shared third base time in High-A Tampa last year who are next in line. Eric Jagielo and Dante Bichette Jr. are each first round picks with some uncertainty about whether they’ll be good enough — offensively and defensively — to eventually play third base regularly in the big leagues. Miguel Andujar is lurking lower in the system, but before he’s truly on the verge, a full year in Double-A should provide some clarity about what to expect from Jagielo and Bichette.
In place: Brett Gardner, 31 years old, signed through 2018
Getting younger: Instead of opening the door for a homegrown prospect, the Yankees committed to a homegrown big leaguer. Gardner is one of the farm system’s true success stories of the past decade; one of their very few position players to actually become an everyday guy in the majors. Last spring, the Yankees gave him a four-year extension plus a team option. With his speed and defense, he’s been a solid everyday guy his past four healthy seasons.
Next in line: Ramon Flores could be on the verge of a big league role, but he’s typically labeled more of a fourth outfielder than a future starter (granted, so was Gardner, but Flores hasn’t shown Gardner’s speed or defense). The upper levels of the Yankees system have several other left field candidates like that — Pirela, Taylor Dugas, Ben Gamel, a few guys who usually play center field — so it might be a matter of someone exceeding expectations, someone moving positions, or Gardner keeping his job for a while.
In place: Jacoby Ellsbury, 31 years old, signed through 2020
Getting younger: This is one spot where the Yankees seem fully committed. Even if Ellsbury were to get hurt, the center field job would likely transfer to Gardner before it went to one of the young guys in the minor league system. The Yankees have some center fielders close to the big leagues, but they’re all left-handed, and basically their best-case scenario is to eventually become lesser versions of Ellsbury himself.
Next in line: It will be interesting to see how the Yankees react if one of their center field prospects has a huge year in Double-A or Triple-A. If Slade Heathcott is healthy and productive, if Mason Williams starts to hit again, or if Jake Cave takes another leap forward, would the Yankees simply trade away the prospect or try to find a place for him in New York? Leonardo Molina is an interesting young player in the lower levels, but he’s far from the big league roster. First the Yankees have to figure out what they have in Heathcott, Williams and Cave (and what to do with them while Ellsbury’s in place).
In place: Carlos Beltran, 37 years old, signed through 2016
Getting younger: Basically the exact same situation that the Yankees are dealing with at first base. The organization has high-end right field talent entering the upper levels of the minor league system, but the team is also tied to a declining veteran for two more seasons. The Yankees added some short-term right field depth with Jones and Chris Young, which might block a young guy, but there’s also no guarantee a young guy will be ready to play right field this season.
Next in line: After last season’s strong second half, Tyler Austin seems ready for Triple-A, and his bat can’t be dismissed as a right field option. But the clear standout here is Aaron Judge, generally considered the top positive prospect in the system who had a standout professional debut and should open in Double-A. Just like Bird at first base, Judge seems to be on a good trajectory to have a shot at the right field job by the time Beltran is gone in 2017.
Youth in place: Masahiro Tanaka, 26 years old; Michael Pineda, 26 years old; Nathan Eovaldi, 25 years old; Ivan Nova, 28 years old
Age in place: CC Sabathia, 34 years old; Chris Capuano, 36 years old
Getting younger: The youth movement has been a process in the rotation, and it was hard to notice until this winter when the trade for Eovaldi put the Yankees in line to eventually have four 20-somethings in their rotation this season. Signing Tanaka gave the Yankees the young ace they’ve been unable to develop internally, and Eovaldi gave them an experienced big leaguer who’s a month younger than prospect Jose Ramirez. As long as Nova gets healthy, the Yankees will have a pretty young big league rotation by mid-summer.
Next in line: How fast can Luis Severino make it to the big leagues? That’s the question. Are the dominant numbers he put up last season a true sign of his long-term potential, and can he jump on a fast track that leads to New York by late 2015 or early 2016? The Yankees have other upper level starters (Bryan Mitchell is the headliner) and they have intriguing lower-level talent (Ian Clarkin headlines that group), but Severino is the guy who immediately jumps out as the next impact arm for the rotation. He could easily be in Triple-A at some point this season, perhaps on Opening Day.
In place: Andrew Miller, 29; Dellin Betances, 27; David Carpenter, 29; Adam Warren, 27; Justin Wilson, 27
Getting younger: Miller and Dave Robertson are basically the same age, so that swap was a wash in terms of youth in the bullpen. But the Yankees have gotten younger by transitioning from Shawn Kelley to Carpenter, and from Matt Thornton to Wilson. They’ve also found good young relievers in Betances and Warren. This winter, they also acquired several young bullpen arms, and last summer they drafted a high-rising reliever. The bullpen has added some youth without losing its reliable depth.
Next in line: The core of the Yankees bullpen has no one who will be older than 30 at the end of the year, and Miller’s the only one tied to a long-term contract. That’s a pretty young core as it is, but the Yankees have legitimate power arms on the way. Jacob Lindgren and Chasen Shreve stand out from the left side; Nick Rumbelow, Jose Ramirez and Branden Pinder have Triple-A experience from the right side. The bullpen is fairly young as it is, and there’s more young talent on the way.
Photo from the Scranton Times-Tribune
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
How’s everyone doing out there in the snow? If you’re stuck at home, here are a few Yankees minor league links and notes that are worth having on your radar.
Pretty surprising news out of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre today. The Railriders announced that Rob Crain is out as team president and general manager. Executive vice president Jeremy Ruby will step into the GM role for the time being, at least through the 2015 season. Crain had been with Scranton/Wilkes-Bare since 2012, and though I only knew him a little bit, he seemed like a good guy for the spot. I will say, however, that Ruby has been with that Triple-A organization for years including previous time as general manager, and I always thought he was perfect in that role. He played the game at a pretty high level, his father is a longtime pitching coach, and both players and staff seem to really like dealing with him.
• There are always a lot of prospect rankings around this time of year, and Kiley McDaniel has come up with an absurdly detailed Yankees list over at FanGraphs. McDaniel ranked his top 35, then kept going with mild scouting reports for another 30 or so others in the Yankees system. “Tampa Bay is the only other team with close to this kind of depth,” McDaniel wrote, “but the Yankees have two top-end talents (RHP Luis Severino and RF Aaron Judge) that the Rays can’t match, which helps separate the Bombers from Tampa Bay and other deep systems. Right now, I have the Yankees as the 10th best system in baseball, but with the bulk of high upside young talent and five of the top six prospects likely returning to next year’s list making it better than 50/50 that they’ll be even higher next year.”
• Speaking of absurdly detailed, this list Patrick Teale is still working through his individual scouting reports over at Pinstripes Plus, but his Top 50 list has been posted for a while. Patrick sees a lot of the really young kids in the system, and he’s never been afraid to break from conventional thinking in putting his list together. I have Patrick’s list bookmarked every year. That alone is worth the subscription fee.
• To go with McDaniel’s ranking, FanGraphs has also published a list of the five Yankees prospects projected to have the highest big league WAR this season. Might be surprised to see John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez tied — Sanchez gets a lot more hype than Murphy — but it probably comes as little surprise to see Rob Refsnyder at No. 1. Ramon Flores projects at slightly above replacement, which seems to make sense. Really does seem like a solid fourth outfield candidate (though not a great fit on the current roster because he hits left-handed).
• Over at MLB.com, the good folks who handle MLB Pipeline are ranking the top five prospects at each position. Greg Bird came in at No. 3 among all first basemen, and Rob Refsnyder was seventh among second basemen (right behind Devon Travis, the guy traded from Detroit to Toronto this offseason). I’m not surprised that neither Eric Jagielo nor Miguel Andujar cracked the top 10 at third base, though I was a little surprised to see Gary Sanchez fall out of the top 10 at catcher (his numbers haven’t been overwhelming, but he’s still so young for his level). Shortstops and outfield rankings are coming later this week (wonder if Jorge Mateo or Aaron Judge will make the top 10). MLB.com has already ranked its top 10 right-handed and left-handed pitchers. Luis Severino came in seventh among right-handers, but Jacob Lindgren didn’t make the list among lefties (even Royals standout Brandon Finnegan barely made top 10).
• Finally, he’s not a Yankees prospect — at least, not yet — but this winter has brought a lot of worthwhile focus on Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada. Both McDaniel and Baseball America’s Ben Badler have taken a look at what’s keeping Moncada from clearing the final government hurdle that would make him eligible to sign. McDaniel suggests it’s all about U.S. policy and perhaps some concern that Moncada could funnel money back to the Cuban government (maybe that’s why Cuba let him leave in the first place), but Badler says bluntly that “Major League Baseball, not the United States government, is the reason that Yoan Moncada and several other Cuban players have yet to begin their careers.”
UPDATE: Our good friend Jeff Passan has weighed in with more on Moncada, including this key bit of information: “One league source estimated Yoan Moncada could be a free agent as soon as two weeks from now should MLB square away its concerns with OFAC.” Making Moncada a free agent within two weeks should give the Yankees plenty of time to be involved in the bidding.
Associated Press photo
A few notes and links from this third day of the GM Meetings in Phoenix:
• Brian Cashman told reporters in Arizona that he met yesterday with Dave Robertson’s agent, Scott Leventhal. Earlier today, Andrew Marchand reported that Robertson is expected to look for a contract similar to the four-year, $50-million deal that Jonathan Papelbon signed three years ago. As the top closer on the market, it makes sense for Robertson to go looking for a deal that large, but I would be the surprised to see the Yankees give it to him.
• Much smaller pitching news came late this morning when the Yankees signed relatively anonymous lefty Jose De Paula to a major-league contract. Cashman confirmed today that De Paula has an option remaining — so he could be Triple-A depth — and that the Yankees believe he could be a rotation option. De Paula’s minor league splits do not suggest he’s a strong lefty specialist out of the bullpen, but I guess you never know.
• Yankees first base prospect Greg Bird made Jonathan Mayo’s list of the eight players whose prospect stock — and prospect attention — got a boost in the Arizona Fall League this year. The Fall League schedule wraps up tomorrow. Bird is a candidate for the league’s MVP award.
• Interesting story from Bob Nightengale in USA Today taking a look at the sometimes confusing job titles filling baseball front offices these days. The Braves technically don’t have a general manager, while the A’s basically have two, neither of whom is really running the show.
• Writing for the New York Times, Tyler Kepner takes a look at a new MLB website called Pitch Smart that’s trying to help young pitchers stay healthy. Pretty great idea by Major League Baseball, and as the media game ace for Team New York, Tyler’s the perfect guy to write about it.
Associated Press photo
Ramon Flores continues to get more winter ball at-bats than ever before, and he’s making the most of them.
Moved regularly into the No. 2 spot in the order, Flores has 13 hits in his past five games for the Tigres de Aragua in Venezuela. He had three straight two-hit games, then he went 6-for-6 with a double on Wednesday. He has yet to steal a base, he hasn’t hit for a ton of power, but Flores has taken some walks and he’s struck out just nine times in 17 games. He’s hitting .411/.468/.518 through 56 at-bats.
Still just 22 years old, Flores has a spot on the Yankees 40-man roster, and he was hitting pretty well in Triple-A before a June 1 ankle injury cost him most of the second half. He’s mostly a left fielder — that’s where he’s playing regularly this winter — but he can play center, and he has some experience in right field and at first base.
Could be a legitimate bench option coming out of spring training. It’s worth noting, though, that Flores is left-handed and the right-handed fourth outfielder might be a better fit.
A few other notes from winter ball:
• Well, it seems Jose Pirela isn’t going to hit three home runs every week this winter (he did that in his first week in Venezuela). On Sunday, though, he did go 3-for-4 with a triple. Pirela already has three triples and three homers through his first 10 games this winter. He took an 0-for-6 on Thursday, but he’s still hitting .317/.364/.707 through 41 at-bats. He’s played mostly left field with starts at second base, third base and right field.
• One of Pirela’s winter teammates is utility man Ali Castillo, who’s having a terrific winter as the Aguilas leadoff hitter. Castillo is hitting .348/.378/.478 with nine stolen bases. He was playing shortstop until Freddy Galvis arrived, and now he’s basically playing left field or second base (whichever Pirela isn’t playing on a given day). Not really considered much of a prospect, but the Yankees don’t exactly have a ton of guys who can play shortstop in the upper levels.
• Not everyone is raking in Venezuela. On Thursday Adonis Garcia was dropped to sixth in the order for Navegantes del Magallanes. He put up impressive winter league numbers last year, but this year his power has been nowhere to be found. He’s hitting .272/.314/.296, with his only extra-base hits being a couple of doubles. I’d still say he has a chance to make an impression in spring training, just hasn’t done much this winter.
• Eury Perez, the guy acquired at the very end of the year, is still playing a lot of left field and batting leadoff in the Dominican Republic. He has just seven games 31 at-bats so far. He has yet to take a walk and he’s 0-for-2 in stolen base attempts — speed is a pretty big part of his game — but he’s also played in just seven games and has just 31 at-bats. The Dominican Winter League started a little later than the Venezuelan Winter League.
• Down in the Arizona Fall League, Dante Bichette Jr. has gotten his bat going a little bit. He has four hits and five RBI in his past three games, and one Wednesday he got his first Fall League extra-base hit (a double). He’s hitting .256/.328/.276, which pales in comparison to the other Yankees position players sent to Arizona this year.
• Speaking of those other Yankees hitters in Arizona, after winning Fall Stars Game MVP over the weekend, Greg Bird promptly had another 2-for-4 game on Monday, then he took two walks on Wednesday. He’s hitting .341/.404/.610 through 67 at-bats. … Aaron Judge hasn’t had an extra-base hit since his two-homer game last Thursday — he’s only had 15 at-bats since then — but his Arizona slash line is still an impressive .284/.395/.507 with nearly as many walks (12) as strikeouts (14). … Riding a mild four-game hitting streak, Tyler Austin is hitting .318/.392/.470 in the Fall League. He’s still seeing time in both outfield corners. Has yet to play either first base or third base.
• I’ve said this before, but it remains true: It seems that every year the Yankees have one pitcher who gets absolutely rocked in the Arizona Fall League. This year, it’s Alex Smith. In an offense-heavy league, Smith was roughed up for two more runs on Wednesday and his ERA is up to 9.72 with a 3.12 WHIP through eight appearances. … The other two Yankees pitchers in Arizona, Kyle Haynes and Caleb Cotham, each pitched one hitless inning this week. Cotham has 12 strikeouts and only two walks this Fall, but he also has a 5.56 ERA. Haynes has a 1.86 ERA, but he also has seven walks and four unearned runs in 9.2 innings.
• Recently re-signed minor league reliever Diego Moreno had four saves in his first five appearances this winter, but he’s now allowed eight hits and four earned runs in his past 2.2 innings spread across his past three outings. Really aren’t many Yankees pitchers getting many innings so far this winter.
Associated Press photo of Flores; headshots of Pirela, Perez and Smith