Last week, Masahiro Tanaka returned from the disabled list and pitched seven innings on 78 pitches. Tonight, he went seven innings on 87 pitches. If he were a guy the Yankees were willing to let loose for 120 pitches, he might have had a complete game in back-to-back starts. Instead, he’ll settle for his four wins in his past five starts.
And this one came in a matchup against Max Scherzer.
“Obviously I knew who I was going up against today; a good pitcher,” Tanaka said. “Still, I’ve only had one year and a little bit here, so I have to build myself up to being a better pitcher here.”
Only a couple of partial seasons for Tanaka, but it seems Major League Baseball has learned to do whatever’s possible to avoid his splitter. Efficient pitch counts the past two games have a lot to do with Tanaka throwing a lot of strikes and having excellent stuff, but they might also have to do with opposing hitters swinging early to avoid those counts when Tanaka might break out his most devastating weapon.
“I think they probably have a game plan that they want to stay out of that count, and his splitter’s an outstanding pitch,” Joe Girardi said. “It’s kind of like Scherzer. If you’re right-handed, you don’t really want to see that slider, and if you’re left-handed you don’t want to see that changeup. That’s the kind of thing that you go through has hitters, so you look for the pitch that you can hit.”
According to Brooks Baseball, Tanaka threw 16 splits tonight, and 13 of them were strikes. Ten were strikes not put in play. By percentage, Tanaka has thrown fewer splits these past two starts than he’s thrown in most of his other starts, but that might not be an indication that the split isn’t effective. Only that it’s so effective, hitters are actively trying to avoid seeing it by swinging at other pitches earlier in the count.
“When he’s getting ahead early in the count with offspeed and he’s able to save that split for the second time around, he can throw any pitch in any count,” Brian McCann said. “… When he gets you to two strikes, there’s nothing a hitter can really do. You either sit on the split or you don’t.”
Two starts in a row now, Tanaka’s been excellent. Basically just as good as last season.
“Not really surprised,” Tanaka said. “I don’t have that sense of being surprised with my pitches.”
• Key play of the game had to be Ian Desmond’s decision to throw to third base in the seventh inning. Have to imagine he had a good chance of getting slow Alex Rodriguez out at first to end the inning, but third base was closer, and Desmond went that way. Looked like Ramon Flores made a nice heads up play running the bases — coming in at an angle that caused the throw to hit him on the backside — but Flores said that wasn’t the plan at all. “No, I was thinking the ball was going to go through,” he said. “So I was running at an angle, trying to make an angle to go home.”
• So Flores wasn’t trying to get in the way of a throw, he was trying to set himself up for a sprint home if the ball got past Desmond? At least I’m not the only one who thought he’d made the wide turn intentionally to get in the way. “I thought it’s an outstanding base-running play on his (end),” Girardi said. “You tell the guy to read the fielder that’s in front of you and try to get in the way of the throw like Reggie used to. But it’s just a heads up play, he sees it’s going to be a tough play, and that led to a big inning for us.”
• Good running play or not, Flores had another good game. He had three hits, including the one that set the stage for that pivotal four-run seventh. He also made another great play in left field with a diving catch. He’s been a nice player since he got here.
• Wound up not mattering, but the time it seemed Mark Teixeira’s bad read on a fly ball to center might be the biggest play of the game. It was a tied game at the time, and it really seemed Teixeira could have — or should have — scored from third, but he instead tagged up late and then didn’t break for home after Michael Taylor made a diving, sliding play. “It’s a tough read,” Girardi said. “I think what the thought was, he was going to catch it and not fall down. So he was going, in a sense, he was a little bit off the bag because he knew that he’s not going to throw on a tag-up if he catches it on his feet. So it’s a tough read.”
• But after the sliding play, shouldn’t Teixeira have gone home? “You think that he can make it,” Girardi said. “But he’s not 100 percent sure because the outfielder’s not that far out.”
• This was Stephen Drew’s second two-homer game in the past five days. He’s had just four multi-homer games in his career, and two of them have come within a week of one another during a horrific season at the plate. “His hits are extremely productive, is the bottom line,” Girardi said. “He’s had big hits for us.”
• Drew’s first home run was the 1,000th hit of his career. “It’s special,” Drew said. “Being able to play this game, and playing it for a long time, and being able to reach that milestone. It’s special. The Lord’s blessed me with being here as long as I have, and I’ll remember that when I’m done playing. It’s something you’re going to look back on and just be thankful for.”
• Why use Andrew Miller in a game like this? “If the next guy hits a three-run homer, you want to give him a little wiggle room,” Girardi said. “So I want to give him two hitters to get one out before the tying run comes up. And I’m just taking advantage of the off days, and we have not used him a lot in the last five or six days.”
• This seven-game winning streak is the Yankees’ longest since winning seven straight in September of 2012. The last time they wont eight or more was a 10-game winning streak in June of 2012. They’re a Major League best 11-3 in their past 14 games.
• The Yankees have homered in seven straight games and 15 of 17 overall. They have 76 home runs in 56 games and have hit 17 home runs in their past seven home games.
• Tanaka is only the fourth Major League pitcher to get at least 17 wins in his first 26 career games joining Boo Ferriss, Cal Eldred and Steve Rogers. His streak of four consecutive starts of at least six inings and no more than five hits or one run matches the longest such streak by a Yankees pitcher over the past 102 seasons. Last to do it was Orlando Hernandez in 1998.
• Final word goes to Girardi about Tanaka: “Just really consistent. I think he threw 85, 86 pitches. To be so efficient I thought was really important. I thought they were aggressive on him, and I thought he made really good pitches early in the count. … I don’t ever make too much of one outing. I think you try to put together 10 outings and make an evaluation. But obviously it’s great to see him follow it up, but I think his stuff today was as crisp as it was the other day.”
Associated Press photos
Today’s cuts in Yankees camp:
· Optioned RHP Bryan Mitchell and OF Ramon Flores to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
· Reassigned RHP Kyle Davies, C Francisco Arcia, INF Cole Figueroa, INF Jonathan Galvez, OF Slade Heathcott, C Kyle Higashioka, LHP Jacob Lindgren and RHP Nick Rumbelow to minor league camp.
· Unconditionally released RHP Scott Baker.
“We’d like to re-sign Baker,” Brian Cashman said. “We told him we’d like to re-sign him and put him in Triple-A, but obviously he’s going to evaluate the marketplace. I thought he had a good camp. Obviously he took a run at putting himself in the conversation for, at worst, the long man situation that we’re still playing through, whether we take one or two long men. We’ve got more things to work out, but we had to make a call because we were contractually obligated to him.”
Associated Press photo
Postgame notes: “Not great” • 03.24.15
Asked what he thought of tonight’s outing, Esmil Rogers gave a brief but accurate assessment.
“Not great,” he said.
Just hours after manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that this was a “pretty big start” for the fifth-starter candidate, Rogers had his worst outing of the spring. His first inning was sloppy with three hits, but Rogers limited the damage to one run. His second inning was the real mess with a couple of walks, one hard-hit double, four runs and an error on Rogers himself. His third inning was clean, but at that point, the damage was done: Three innings, five hits, five runs, one earned (unearned runs were because of his own mistake), two walks and two strikeouts.
If the Yankees really are going to address their rotation first and then see how the remaining pieces fall into the bullpen, then it’s hard to see Rogers as a rotation front runner right now. He was having a strong spring before his past two starts, but those past two starts have been pretty bad, and they happened to be the starts when Girardi said results would really matter.
“The stuff is better than the way he’s pitched these last two outings,” Girardi said.
Later, Girardi added this: “You have to look at how the guys are doing. You’re there to compete, they understand that, and you’ve got to be able to make pitches.”
Earlier this spring, Rogers talked about the advice he got from Mariano Rivera about attacking hitters and staying aggressive. Today, he said his problem was that he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t attack because he couldn’t locate.
“I missed the glove today,” he said. “My ball was running a little bit from the lefties, and that’s why I tried to throw fastballs away, the ball cut into the middle. … All I can do is go work. Tomorrow, come in with my head up and keep working. That decision, they’re going to make it. I don’t have to.”
Adam Warren’s next start is Thursday. We could have a fifth-start declared by Friday.
“It’s something that we have to talk about, and I’m sure over the next week or so we’ll talk a lot about what we’re going to do here,” Girardi said. “I think you have to make a decision by the end of the week so the guy that’s not a starter can get to the pen and get some reps.”
• The Yankees won this game 9-8 on a three-run, walk-off homer by Ramon Flores. “He’s a guy that’s definitely on our radar,” Girardi said. “If something was to happen to one of our outfielders, I think he’d be a pretty strong candidate.”
• The YES radar gun had Dellin Betances at 93-94 mph tonight. His spring numbers aren’t great, and right now his velocity is a little down from last season. “I’ve got to just trust whatever I have right now,” Betances said. “I know that the velocity will come. Same thing last year in spring training; last year I just trusted it and this year I’m trying to do a little extra with whatever I have instead of just trusting it.”
• Girardi said a lot of the same stuff about Betances, mostly that Betances wasn’t reaching the upper 90s last spring either. “There’s not concern for me now,” Girardi said. “If it was to go on for a long time, we would be concerned. He wasn’t throwing 97, 98 in spring training last year at this time. He wasn’t. And power pitchers usually take a little bit longer to get going.”
• It’s worth noting that relievers are held back a little bit early in spring training, and Betances has always said — ever since he successfully transitioned out of the rotation — that it’s the constant work out of the bullpen that’s helped him thrive in that role. Because of that, he’s excited to get back out there tomorrow for his first back-to-back appearance. “I’ve just got to pitch more,” he said. “The more I pitch, the better I’ll feel. That’s always been my thing. Ever since I moved to the bullpen, the more I get to pitch, the better I feel with all my pitches.”
• Other Yankees relievers looked much better. Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson pitched a scoreless inning apiece, each with a strikeout. Nick Rumbelow — who’s put up impressive numbers this spring — also looked sharp before a bad play on what should have been the final out of his inning (ruled a hit, but it was a pretty routine grounder to third). That opened the door and Rumbelow wound up allowing two runs, one earned. Back up from minor league camp, James Pazos had three strikeouts in an inning.
• After his two-homer game yesterday, Chris Young delivered the leadoff double that kick-started a three-run Yankees seventh tonight. The double came off a lefty, which is exactly the kind of thing the Yankees are hoping to get from Young this season.
• Later in the inning, Didi Gregorius doubled off the same lefty. Gregorius has actually been getting quite a few hits off lefties lately. The Yankees would like him to be more than a platoon shortstop. Ideally, he’ll prove capable of playing every day.
• Brett Gardner had no steals this spring. Tonight he had two. He leads the Yankees in both strikeouts and walks.
• Kyle Higashioka just missed a grand slam in the seventh inning. He hit it plenty far enough, just hooked it four. Would have been his first hit of the spring. Instead he walked in a run.
• Nathan Eovaldi on today’s minor league game: “A lot of the time I speed up even more (in a tough spot), as opposed to taking a step off the mound and then regrouping. The first inning, it took me about 10, 11 pitches to finally step back and walk it back in. In the third inning, I got into some more trouble and was able to stand back and regroup right away, and get out of it. That’s a good thing.”
• While Girardi said he wouldn’t comment on the Opening Day starter, he did acknowledge that there’s really no chance CC Sabathia would pitch on short rest for either his last spring start or his first regular-season start. “I wouldn’t think I would do that, no,” Girardi said. That effectively means Sabathia is officially of the running for the opener. Also, Giradri said Sabathia’s start on Saturday might be in a minor league game instead of in that day’s big league game against the Orioles.
• No final word today, instead I’ll just direct you to the Yankees OnDemand remake of an iconic Sandlot scene using various Yankees players. It’s pretty incredible. Betances cracks me up, and Brian McCann plays the role perfectly. One of the highlights of spring, for sure.
Associated Press photos
There are three distinct groups in today’s Yankees lineup.
1. The big league infielders. Familiar names all around the diamond, each with well-established story lines, from bounce back seasons, to lingering health issues, to a young shortstop trying to make a strong first impression.
2. The designated hitter. A thoroughly unique situation, and the one that will most certainly generate the most attention this afternoon. Is there any chance Alex Rodriguez won’t be the focus today? Nope.
3. The young outfielders. Three guys on the 40-man roster but with no time in the big leagues. All three have a chance to play a big league role this season (and a chance to be overshadowed and forgotten by September).
Of the nine players in today’s batting order, the one most easy to dismiss just might be the guy who, only two years ago, was considered by many to be the top prospect in the entire Yankees system. Mason Williams gets the start in center field today, one year after he hit just .223/.290/.304 in Double-A.
“Obviously everyone knows this is a game of failure,” Williams said. “And for me, honestly, that’s the first time I’ve ever really failed (at baseball). For me, honestly, last year was probably the biggest year of my career so far. I feel like I learned the most I could have by going through that failure and seeing my struggles. Now I feel like I’m knowing what I do when I go wrong and how to not put myself back into that situation.”
There is no doubt Williams has a lot to prove this season, especially when he can look around the Yankees clubhouse and see Ramon Flores sitting right next to him, Slade Heathcott two lockers away, Jake Cave wandering through the middle lockers, and Aaron Judge generating as much attention as anyone other than A-Rod. Williams used to be a standout. Now he’s a guy with big tools and disappointing numbers in a system heavy on upper-level outfield prospects.
But it says quite a bit that the Yankees protected him from the Rule 5 draft this winter. His speed and defense are already seen as big league ready. It’s the bat that has to make some strides.
“For me, I learned that I’ve got to give myself chances,” Williams said. “Last year, I struggled, and I feel like I gave a lot of at-bats away. And that’s something I want to clean up this year. … I want to be a better player in general. I want to be a better teammate. I want to be better on the field, in the dugout. Even in my house. I just want to be a better person. I feel like if I try to be that, other things will be OK.”
Williams arrived in camp in good shape. He said he began really focusing on the nuances of the game last season, and he feels like a smarter player because of it. He spent his offseason training at home in Orlando, driving the hour or so to the minor league complex every once in a while to check in. With that new spot on the 40-man, Williams isn’t simply setting his sights on finally conquering Double-A. Players on the 40-man are one opportunity and one phone call away from the big leagues.
“It definitely shows they still believe in me,” Williams said. “I obviously still have a lot of faith in myself, and I believe in myself. Knowing that they still believe in me, come out here and try to help New York this year and try to win a championship.”
• The clubhouse opened to media pretty early this morning, and there was no sign of Rodriguez, who’s return to the lineup will obviously be the biggest story of the day. I assume he’s hitting second to make it a little easier to give him extra at-bats. It’s worth noting that no one is listed as the backup DH for today. Someone might replace him at some point, but the Yankees seem to be leaving Rodriguez’s playing time pretty open-ended.
• Ramon Flores is starting in left field today. Long overshadowed by guys like Williams, Flores has become an organizational standout. A severe ankle injury probably robbed him of a big league call-up last season, but he put up a .347/.435/.505 slash line in winter ball. Flores said his ankle was never 100 percent even after he came off the disabled list late last season, and he was still nervous about it when he started playing this winter. Eventually, though, he became convinced that he was completely healthy, and the results were pretty overwhelming.
• In the other outfield corner is Tyler Austin, who finally recovered from a lingering wrist injury last season and hit .336/.397/.557 in the second half. While Austin acknowledged heath might have played a part in that, he said that strong second half had more to do with physical adjustments he’d been working on with hitting coach Marcus Thames. They simply began to click in the second half, and the numbers took off. Count Austin among many, many people in the organization who love Thames has a hitting guru.
• Vicente Campos threw a 25-pitch bullpen yesterday. It was all fastballs, and Campos said he’ll start incorporating changeups next week. Working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Campos said he’s targeting May for his return to game action.
• Today is the two-year anniversary of Brian Cashman breaking his ankle while skydiving. Cashman said he was invited to try it again but turned down the invitation.
• Jose De Paula is throwing a simulated game today. He’ll pitch to Kyle Higashioka and face Greg Bird and Cito Culver.
Chris Capuano (to John Ryan Murphy)
Masahiro Tanaka (to Eddy Rodriguez)
Domingo German (to Juan Graterol)
• Today’s second string: C Gary Sanchez, 1B Francisco Arcia, 2B Nick Noonan, SS Cito Culver, 3B Cole Figueroa, LF Jake Cave, CF Slade Heathcott, RF Aaron Judge
• Today’s scheduled relievers: Andrew Miller, Kyle Davies, Danny Burawa, Wilking Rodriguez, James Pazos, Tyler Webb (with Nick Rumbelow, Scott Baker and Jose Ramirez listed as just-in-case options)
• Tomorrow’s travel squad to Bradenton:
Pitchers: Jacob Lindgren, Diego Moreno, Esmil Rogers, Nick Rumbelow, Chasen Shreve, Chase Whitley
Catchers: Trent Garrison, John Ryan Murphy, Eddy Rodriguez, Austin Romine
Infielders: Greg Bird, Cito Culver, Cole Figueroa, Jonathan Galvez, Garrett Jones, Jose Pirela, Rob Refsnyder, Kyle Roller
Outfielders: Tyler Austin, Jake Cave, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ramon Flores, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, Mason Williams, Chris Young
Up from minor league camp: SS Tyler Wade, RHP Cesar Vargas, LHP Fred Lewis, RHP Zach Nuding, RHP Taylor Garrison
Associated Press photos
Five days before the Yankees’ first spring workout, we’ll keep counting down the key decisions to make in spring training. We’ve already looked at picking a backup catcher, setting a lineup, figuring out Triple-A depth, rounding out the bullpen and choosing a fifth starter. Today we’ll look at a decision that’s a combination of individual evaluation and full roster analysis.
What’s the best way to setup the Yankees bench?
The bench is all about role players. It’s about having backups at every position, about having some speed and defense in the late innings, and about using match-up hitters when necessary. It’s not about simply choosing which young catcher should play once a week; it’s about truly maximizing every spot on a 25-man roster.
Assuming a pretty standard roster construction — 12 pitchers, 13 position players — the Yankees have four bench spots to work with. Here are the projected reserves, their projected roles, and a few alternative ways of approaching each spot.
1. Chris Young
Role: Right-handed fourth outfielder
Similar option: Tyler Austin
Alternative approach: Right-handed utility man
Clearly the Yankees re-signed Young to be on the Opening Day roster. He brings right-handed balance to the outfield, and a bounce-back season would make him a real bargain. Ramon Flores would standout as a homegrown alternative, but he’s a lefty, which limits his value in an outfield that already has two lefties in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner (and could have another in Garrett Jones). If being a right-handed hitter is a key aspect of this role, the alternative way of approaching it might involve thinking beyond the outfield. Both Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder have outfield experience, meaning they could bring Young’s right-handed balance, but also provide some infield utility. Young has decent speed and potential for impact at-bats against lefties, which will probably be tough to pass up.
2. Garrett Jones
Role: Left-handed outfield and first base depth
Similar option: Ramon Flores
Alternative approach: Prioritize either the bat or the glove
A secondary piece of the Nathan Eovaldi trade, Jones has left-handed power that makes him a solid match-up hitter against certain right-handed pitchers. He also brings value because of his ability to backup a first base, right field and designated hitter, three spots where the Yankees have significant age, health and production concerns. Flores also hits left-handed and has some first base experience, but he doesn’t bring nearly the same amount of power. Austin could be a right-handed version of the same thing. To use this roster spot differently would be to prioritize one or the other: either the bat or the glove. Either give the spot to a true utility guy (someone like Pirela who adds more defensive flexibility than Jones) or give the spot to a pure hitter (someone like Kyle Roller, who barely plays a passable version of first base, but just might bring more offensive upside). Either of those alternatives seems unlikely. Jones has just enough flexibility and just enough platoon power to actually fit the roster pretty well.
3. Brendan Ryan
Role: Backup shortstop/infielder
Similar option: Nick Noonan
Alternative approach: Let Stephen Drew back up at shortstop
If Drew is strictly a second baseman, then Ryan stands out as the only experienced option as a backup shortstop. Minor league free agent Noonan is probably next in line — seems likely to play shortstop in Triple-A — largely because guys like Refsnyder and Pirela aren’t really shortstops (Pirela’s done it in the past, but not well enough to stick at the position). Thing is, the Yankees don’t have to think of Drew strictly as a second baseman. Even if Drew is playing second base regularly, he also serve as the No. 2 option at short (kind of like Brett Gardner plays left field, but is still the No. 2 option in center). By treating Drew as the backup shortstop, the Yankees could open Ryan’s roster spot for someone who’s a lesser defender but a better hitter. In that case, either Refsnyder or Pirela could be a strong fit. It’s worth noting that losing Ryan would cut into the Yankees shortstop depth should either Drew or Didi Gregorius get hurt. Basically, the Yankees would be an injury away from having either Noonan or Cito Culver on the big league roster.
4. John Ryan Murphy
Role: Backup catcher
Similar option: Austin Romine
Alternate approach: Catcher as designated hitter
Every team needs a backup catcher, so there’s really no way to approach this roster spot with any sort of radical change. One way or another, the Yankees need two catchers. The only way to look at it differently would be to use the backup catcher as a regular designated hitter. If, for example, Alex Rodriguez looks lost at the plate and Murphy looks like one of the best right-handed bats in spring training, perhaps the Yankees could regularly put both Murphy and Brian McCann in the lineup. It would essentially open a spot on the bench for Rodriguez or someone else, while also opening the possibility of losing the DH if the starting catcher can’t finish a game. Seems unlikely as an everyday approach. More likely, the Yankees will simply choose a backup catcher and use him as such.
Associated Press photo
Eight days before the Yankees’ first spring workout, we’ll continue looking at some of the key issue the Yankees have to figure out in spring training. We’ve already discussed the backup catcher competition and the batting order possibilities, today we’ll look at a fairly hard to define bit of decision making.
Who’s first in line to fill the inevitable roster needs during the season?
While much of spring training is spent sorting out the Opening Day roster — assigning roles and weeding out the lesser candidates — the Yankees have to pay especially close attention this spring to the guys who won’t break camp with the team. That’s an impossible to ignore aspect of a team that has serious health concerns in the rotation and serious production concerns in the lineup. It’s also a good bit of reality for an organization that finally has a wave of young players getting close to the majors.
Basically, the Yankees have to figure out who can help right away, because chances are, they’re going to need some help at some point.
And in the case of this group of next-in-line possibilities, there are few cut-and-dry decisions. The Yankees have a lot of upper-level outfielders, but there’s not one who definitely fits the current roster better than anyone else. Is Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder the best choice for an infield opening? Is Gary Sanchez ready if the Yankees need another catcher? What about that long list of relievers; who stands out in that pack?
Spring training gives the entire organization — especially the big league coaching staff — a chance to really evaluation the options, and there’s a good chance one of these mid-season call-ups will end up playing a much bigger role than some of the guys who make the Opening Day roster. Last year, the Yankees had to make moves to fill holes. The hope is they can plug holes from within this time.
A few possibilities they’ll have to consider:
1. What if the Yankees need an outfielder?
Right now, it seems Chris Young and Garrett Jones are fourth and fifth on the outfield depth chart, but the Yankees have four other outfielders on the 40-man (counting Jose Pirela) and another three outfielders coming to camp on non-roster invitations. That’s a big group to consider, and who gets the call might depend on need and production. When the time comes for a call-up, is there room for another left-handed bat, and if so, who stands out among Ramon Flores, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams? If an offensive-minded right-handed hitter fits best, does Tyler Austin seem ready? How close is Aaron Judge? Has Pirela picked up where he left off last season?
2. What if the Yankees need an infielder?
Obviously this question could depend on specific positions, but the Yankees have enough flexibility with Jones, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan that they could move pieces around and simply call-up the best infielder available. That means, even if they don’t make the team, Pirela and Refsnyder will be competing for big league attention. And after seeing Yangervis Solarte last season, it’s hard to dismiss a guy like Nick Noonan (how good is he at short?) or Jonathan Galvez (can he hit enough to be a big league utility man?).
3. What if the Yankees need an offensive boost?
Given what we saw last year, it’s not out of the question that the Yankees might need a bat at some point. Maybe Alex Rodriguez stinks at designated hitter, or Carlos Beltran hasn’t fully recovered from elbow surgery, or Mark Teixeira’s still battling nagging injuries. If the Yankees have to go looking for offense, Kyle Roller should be worth serious consideration. Maybe Austin is still rolling after last year’s strong second half. Maybe Judge or Greg Bird deserve consideration straight from Double-A.
4. What if the Yankees need a catcher?
If the Yankees pick Austin Romine as their backup and option John Ryan Murphy to Triple-A, then this question is easy to answer. If, however, the Yankees keep Murphy and lost Romine on waivers, it could get complicated. Sanchez is on the 40-man and should be playing everyday in Triple-A, but he also carries significant questions about his defense and maturity. Is he ready for a big league job (even a part-time one) at this point, or should the Yankees keep an eye on guys like Eddy Rodriguez and Francisco Arcia as just-in-case alternatives.
5. What if the Yankees need a spot starter?
When the rotation began to fall apart last season, the Yankees first turned to a pair of relievers in David Phelps and Vidal Nuno. This year, though, Phelps and Nuno are gone. If there’s a need early in the season, perhaps Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers could play the Phelps/Nuno role, sliding out of the bullpen and into the rotation. If not, who’s the best alternative among Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, Jose De Paula, Kyle Davis and Scott Baker? Whitley got an early call-up last year. Mitchell pitched well late in the season. Shane Greene made a strong first impression in big league camp last spring, and we all know where that led.
6. What if the Yankees need a reliever?
Inevitable, isn’t it? Bullpens always evolve in the course of a season, and the Yankees are loaded with upper-level relievers who seem fully capable of filling in at any point this season. If all goes as planned, the Yankees will have just one bullpen opening out of spring training, but they’ll have no fewer than 10 guys looking to fill it (Bailey, Whitley, Mitchell, Ramirez, Pinder, Burawa, Martin, Rumbelow, Shreve, Lindgren, Webb). There won’t be room for everyone in New York, so the Yankees will have to make some judgments about who ranks 13th and 14th on a 12-man pitching staff.
7. What if the Yankees need to make a trade?
Kind of the opposite of every other question on this list: the Yankees not only have to figure out who can help them in the short term, they also have to decide which players are most expendable in the long term. If Sanchez looks less and less like a catcher, maybe he looks more and more like trade bait. If Williams, Heathcott and Jake Cave all seem to be making strides toward playing a role in New York, maybe it’s best to whittle down a group of similar players. If that bullpen depth is legitimate, maybe it’s easy to include an arm as a way to push a trade package over the top.
Associated Press photos
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
On the 40-man: Ramon Flores • 01.29.15
Continuing to look at every player on the Yankees 40-man roster, we’ll next examine an outfield prospect who could be ready for a big league role almost immediately if the right doors begin to open for him.
Age on Opening Day: 23
Acquired: International free agent in 2008
Added to the 40-man: Protected from the Rule 5 draft in 2012
In the past: Long overshadowed in the Yankees’ minor league system, Flores was long thought of as a second-tier prospect without the upside of Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams, but he’s put up steady numbers throughout the minor leagues. Primarily a left fielder, he can play center field, right field and has some time at first base. Last year he hit .247/.339/.443 in Triple-A, but his year was cut short by an ankle injury. He rebounded to put up terrific numbers in Venezuela this winter.
Role in 2015: For now, Flores looks like the everyday left fielder — perhaps getting a lot of time in center — for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but he could also be considered the top outfielder in line for a call-up or an Opening Day job if someone gets injured. If Flores weren’t a left-handed hitter, he might be a better fit on the current Yankees roster, but with Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Garrett Jones already hitting from the left side, the Yankees have more bench need for a right-handed hitter like Chris Young. That’s why Flores looks more like a Triple-A outfielder at this point.
Best case scenario: Although he’s still not necessarily getting hype as a future everyday player, Flores is beginning to get more credit among Yankees prospects as a dependable young player whose ceiling might not be the highest, but whose floor is certainly not the lowest. Best-case scenario would have Flores hitting too well — against both lefties and righties — to avoid giving him a shot in New York. It’s certainly not the best-case scenario for the team as a whole, but if Gardner, Ellsbury or Carlos Beltran is hurt, there would have to be some realistic hope that Flores could at least be a regular platoon player against righties.
Worst case scenario: If there’s a downside to Flores it’s the fact he doesn’t do any one thing especially well. He hits for good average, but not a great average. He has some speed, but he’s only once had more than 13 steals in a season. He has some power, but probably not double-digit home run power. He can play center field, but he’s better in left. On-base ability might be his best high-end tool, but is that enough for a corner outfielder who doesn’t run a lot? Worst-case scenario is that Flores has enough across-the-board skill to thrive in Triple-A, but not enough to stick in the big leagues. A low-end comparison might be, I don’t know, maybe Colin Curtis (and that’s coming from a guy who still believes Curtis could have stuck on a big league roster if he hadn’t been hurt; so I mean that as a good thing).
What the future holds: This should be the last year Flores can be optioned to Triple-A (burned one option in 2013, one in 2014 and now 2015). That could limit his future within the Yankees organization. The signing of Ellsbury and the extension for Gardner limited his ability to fit nicely on the big league roster, but considering none of the lefties involved — including Flores — has overwhelming career splits, there could still be room for all three in the right situation.
Associated Press photo
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