Luis Severino and Aaron Judge surely spark some optimism for the future, but if you were looking for immediate impact in the present, the big names from today’s Yankees spring opener were Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.
“I think we can do some damage as long as we both stay healthy and do our jobs,” Gardner said. “Get on base and take some attention from the hitter and (put it) on us from the pitcher and the catcher; get over into scoring position and give those guys in the middle of the lineup some RBI opportunities.”
That’s the idea, and the Yankees might actually be able to put it into action this season. When Ellsbury signed last winter, there was some immediate thought about the impact he and Gardner might have together as speed-oriented hitters and defenders. They played well side-by-side in the outfield, but they rarely hit together in the lineup. It seems inevitable that they’ll do that this year.
They didn’t do much today — a combined 0-for-6 — but last season, Gardner and Ellsbury ranked first and second in OPS among Yankees everyday players. They combined for 60 steals and each hit more home runs than any Yankee other than Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann. They are, perhaps, the most reliable pieces of this season’s projected lineup.
“If I play a full season this year and hit six (home runs), or if I hit 20, it really doesn’t matter to me,” Gardner said. “I still have to get on base. I don’t have to drive myself in. I just have to get on base and put myself into scoring position and those guys in the middle will drive me in if they’re healthy. … Get on base a little more (than last year), run a little more, and just use my speed to my advantage. Just taking things pitch by pitch, try and keep things simple. I kind of felt like I fell off a little bit towards the end of the season, the last month of last year. Right now I feel great. Just stay strong, try to stay healthy all season.”
For Ellsbury, hitting ahead of Gardner means he should have plenty of chances to run. Gardner’s a patient hitter, and Ellsbury can be an aggressive runner.
“I tend to go early in the count just to give a hitter a better opportunity before he’s down in the count or whatnot,” Ellsbury said. “But yeah, if I don’t go early, it just gives me opportunities to take a base. Brett does a good job with the bat and controlling the bat. Maybe he just advances me from second to third with no outs, something like that. … If I feel I can go, I’m going to take off unless they give me the red light and want the guy to hit if they’re so focused on the hitter seeing a pitch. I feel if I get my jump, I’m going to make it more often than not.”
• Pretty solid first outing for Adam Warren, who allowed just one hit — a weak single — through two scoreless innings. “I wanted to get ahead of hitters,” Warren said. “Didn’t really do that great today, but also wanted to establish fastball in to a lot of guys, which I did well today. Just have to keep working and improving. Getting ahead of guys for me is a the name of the game, so I want to do that a little bit better, but overall felt good.”
• Warren said he feels like he’s competing for a rotation spot and not simply serving as rotation insurance in case someone gets hurt. “Who knows where I’ll end up,” he said. “But right now my mind is being a starter and see where that leads.”
• Joe Girardi’s impression of Warren’s start: “A lot of quality strikes today. Good counts.”
• Every prospect reliever seemed to really thrive today except Jacob Lindgren. I was doing interviews in the Yankees clubhouse while Lindgren was pitching, so I actually missed most of his outing. He went two-thirds of an inning, gave up two hits and allowed two runs, which were unearned because of a Rob Refsnyder throwing error. Branden Pinder wound up finishing off that inning with a strikeout.
• Refsnyder wasn’t the only young second baseman with a throwing error. Jose Pirela also threw a ball away trying to make a tough turn on a double play.
• Aaron Judge on seeing his game-tying home run go over the fence. “I thought he robbed it, so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to turn around or keep going. So I just kept going, and no one stopped me.”
• Luis Severino said he believes he could be pitching in New York at some point this season, but he quickly shot down the idea that he’s trying to make a big impression this spring to make that happen. “No,” he said, flatly. “The same I do last year, I’ve got do this year the same.”
• Some of the pace of play rules were used today. The field had two red clocks counting down two minutes and 25 seconds for a pitcher to get ready at the start of an inning. I honestly didn’t even notice it at first. “It was a little strange,” Warren said. “I didn’t think about it the first inning. I went out there for the second inning, I noticed it at like a minute, 50 (seconds) when I first got out there. I’m like, ‘Crap, that’s not long at all.’ Then all of a sudden I look back after my last pitch, it’s at 50 seconds still, so it only took me a minute. After you’ve already gone out there, and you’re already a little bit loose, it didn’t affect me. I think you just have to get used to knowing the time’s ticking down to kind of know how long it takes you.”
• Garrett Jones singled in his first at-bat with the Yankees. Chris Young also had a single today. Of the guys really fighting for a roster spot, Pirela was the only other one who had a hit. Both Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy went 0-for-2. Jake Cave, Slade Heathcott, Greg Bird, Kyle Roller, Mason Williams, Jonathan Galvez, Nick Noonan, and of course Judge all had at least one hit today.
• Girardi said everyone came through today’s game healthy. No new injuries to report.
• Final word goes to Girardi: “You want to learn as much as you can about these (young) guys because we haven’t seen them a lot. See what their abilities are, what some of their strengths are. I think we’ve said all along, there’s some really good position players that are coming. They’re getting closer and closer, and at some point – you hope that you don’t have injuries, but at some point you know that it usually happens and these kids get a call-up and a chance to do something.”
Associated Press photos
Last night I was asked what I’ll be keeping an eye on the rest of spring training. And for the most part, the answer is obvious.
Now that camp is in full swing, the Yankees have clear points of interest with their trying-to-stay-healthy starting pitchers and their trying-to-stay productive veteran hitters. Alex Rodriguez is his own sort of curiosity, but the success and failure of the Yankees seems to hinge on Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia on the pitching staff, and Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann in the lineup.
Having a pair of good leadoff hitters doesn’t mean much if no one can drive them in, and having a deep core of relievers doesn’t mean much if they aren’t given a lead.
So that’s what I’ll be keeping an eye on … the obvious things.
But I’m also curious about the Yankees middle infielders. Not so long ago, shortstop and second base belonged to Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. Now belong to a whole lot of unknowns.
Can Didi Gregorius take the next step toward being a legitimate everyday player?
Can Stephen Drew rebound from a horrible season to become a real free agent bargain?
Can Rob Refsnyder hit his way onto the lineup?
Can Brendan Ryan’s glove win him a role that comes with some regular playing time?
Can Jose Pirela keep himself on the radar and prove he’s a big leaguer (and maybe more than a big league utility man)?
Can someone like Jonathan Galvez emerge as this year’s Yangervis Solarte?
The middle of the Yankees infield probably won’t make or break the team, but it’s going to be an interesting storyline throughout camp. It’s not really an area that hinges on massive health concerns or aging veterans. There’s some youth at those positions, and there’s some real possibility for better-than-expected production.
Speaking of which, up top is some video of Refsndyer taking batting practice and fielding a few ground balls yesterday. As you can tell from the footage, yesterday’s defensive drills weren’t exactly high intensity. It’s extremely early. We’ll have a better idea of what exactly Refsnyder can do as the Yankees get into the exhibition schedule next week.
With the Yankees’ first spring workout three days away, we’ll continue counting down the team’s key spring training decisions by looking at the situation at second base. The Yankees signed a veteran free agent who’s able to handle the position right away. The decision is whether that’s the best way to go for Opening Day. The choice comes down to this:
Is one of the young guys ready to play second base?
The Yankees are fully aware of just how bad Stephen Drew was last season. He had the worst offensive season of his career, and saved the very worst of it for his two-month stint with the Yankees. Even so, the Yankees gave him a fresh one-year, $5-million contract because it could be a prime buy-low opportunity. He’s been a good defender in his career, and as recently as 2013 he was a pretty good hitter.
Drew gives the Yankees a veteran option at the position.
Even with Drew under contract, though, the Yankees have to take a serious look at Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder, a pair of 20-somethings who played well in Triple-A last season and could be ready for the big leagues immediately. The Yankees have gone out of their way to say the Drew signing doesn’t rule out the possibility of a prospect making the team and playing second base on Opening Day.
These are the second base possibilities the Yankees have to consider:
The second-chance veteran
32 years old
Last year: .162/.237/.299 in Boston and New York
Career: A long-time shortstop in Arizona, Drew was a good defensive player with good offensive power for a middle infielder. Last season he signed late, missed all of spring training, and had a season far worse than any he’s ever had in the past.
Why give him the job? Because he’s been a good fielder at shortstop and looked pretty good at second last season (maybe still working on the double plays, though). Also, his .777 OPS in 2013 is far more representative of his career than last year’s numbers.
If he doesn’t get the job? It’s not second-base-or-bust for Drew. If he’s not the everyday second baseman, Drew could still play a platoon role with regular at-bats against right-handers, or he could slide into a utility role, perhaps replacing another defense-first veteran, Brendan Ryan.
The resurgent utility man
25 years old
Last year: .305/.351/.441 in Triple-A (.333/.360/.542 in seven big league games)
Career: A teenager when he signed with the Yankees back in 2006, his prospect status basically faded away a few years ago, but he moved off of shortstop, started bouncing around to different positions, and put himself back on the map with good Double-A and Triple-A numbers, leading to a September call-up last season.
Why give him the job? Because he’s been around for a while, but might just now be figuring out the kind of player he can be. He’s still young, but this could be a good window to figure out what he can do. At the very least, he could take Ryan’s spot on the bench and former a second-base platoon with Drew.
If he doesn’t get the job? Pirela’s versatility leaves him with a few options if he’s not the Yankees’ regular second baseman. He could go back to Triple-A, or he could find a role on the big league bench as a guy who can help out at second, third and the outfield corners.
The on-the-verge prospect
24 years old
Last year: .318/.387/.497 between Double-A and Triple-A
Career: A fifth-round pick in 2012, Refsnyder came into the organization as a college outfielder, but he was quickly converted to second base. He’s played the position for two years and has a half-season of Triple-A experience.
Why give him the job? Because, quite frankly, he might be the best second baseman in the organization. His defense is improving — though it’s clearly a work in progress — and he’s always been touted as a good hitter who gets on base and sprays line drives. He’s a legitimate prospect who might not need anymore minor league seasoning.
If he doesn’t get the job? Back to Triple-A to keep learning the position. If the Yankees want a right-handed second baseman on the bench, Pirela might be the better fit because he’s more versatile. With Refsnyder still learning the position, it makes sense to have him playing second base everyday either in New York or in the minors.
The in-the-conversation backup
33 years old
Last year: .167/.211/.202 in extremely limited playing time
Career: Originally a utility type with the Cardinals, Ryan became known as one of the best — if not the very best — defensive shortstops in baseball. His offense, though, has declined to point of non-existence and the Yankees have used him as a backup.
Why give him the job? To be clear, no one is suggesting Ryan will become the everyday second baseman. He’s in the conversation only because he’s a right-handed hitter who could provide a platoon alternative at both second and shortstop this season. Basically, if Drew can’t hit lefties and neither Pirela nor Refsnyder makes the team, Ryan could be a part of the second-base puzzle for a while.
If he doesn’t get the job? For now, Ryan’s greatest attribute is the fact he’s a proven defender at shortstop. Although he doesn’t hit much, the fact he hits right-handed gives him some offensive value as a platoon partner for Drew and Didi Gregorius (each of whom has struggled against lefties). If Ryan can’t play at least occasionally at second base and shortstop, there won’t be much use keeping him on the roster at all.
Cole Figueroa/Nick Noonan/Jonathan Galvez
The minor league free agents
27, 25, and 24 years old
Left, left, and right-handed hitters
Last year: All three were Triple-A regulars with only Figueroa getting any big league time
Career: Noonan is a former first-round pick and the current favorite to play shortstop in Triple-A this season, but he’s been mostly a second baseman in his career, including a few big league games in 2013. Figueroa is the oldest of the bunch, and he’s shown a real knack for getting on base while playing basically anywhere. Galvez is the youngest of the bunch, has no big league experience, but he put up good Triple-A numbers last year.
Why give one of them the job? There’s no good reason to unless something goes wrong between now and Opening Day. That said, last spring the Yankees wound up finding big league playing time for Yangervis Solarte, Dean Anna and Zelous Wheeler, so it no longer makes sense to completely dismiss these sort of minor league free agents.
If they don’t get the job? Most likely, all three are heading to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where Noonan is already the favorite to play shortstop every day, and either Figueroa or Galvez could see a lot of time at third base (which is relatively wide open unless Rob Segedin takes it). Because the upper levels are thin in the infield — especially up the middle — the Yankees needed additional infield depth, and they got it with these three.
Associated Press photo
This morning’s Pinch Hitter post centered on an issue that seems key to the perception of the Yankees’ offseason: there’s a real sense that there’s nothing to be excited about this season.
With familiar icons having faded into retirement, the Yankees are now a collection of relatively new guys, many of them disappointing veterans whose best years are behind them. Even those players who could bring some excitement also bring cause for concern either because of an injury, because of lagging numbers, or because of one very prominent suspension.
As Derek pointed out this morning, the Yankees don’t have a standout source of constant excitement. There’s no Enter Sandman playing in the ninth inning, no Bob Sheppard announcing No. 2, and no telling what to expect from Alex Rodriguez. Out of that desperation, Derek wrote this morning that he sees hope for Rodriguez to create some kind of stir; to at least grab the crowd’s attention four or five times every game.
I’m wondering if there might be other reasons — in some cases, more likely reasons — to cheer this season.
Here’s my list of 10 things that could grab fans’ attention and give reason to cheer at Yankee Stadium this season. As always, these are based on positive scenarios, because how often does a worst-case scenario capture our imagination?
This is probably the most obvious and most important element in making any stadium feel “electric.” Fans like a winner, even if it’s a winner that doesn’t have some roster ties to past championships. Want Yankee Stadium to feel exciting again? Put a winner on the field. Teams that miss the playoffs two years in a row tend to draw less-than-enthusiastic crowds. Want Yankee Stadium to be a place opposing players fear? Put those opposing players against a good team.
2. Masahiro Tanaka
More than A-Rod, I think it’s Tanaka who has the best chance to single-handedly bring some excitement to Yankee Stadium this season. Sure, he pitches only once every five days, might pitch only once in a given home stand, and might not pitch at all if his elbow blows out — but if Tanaka is healthy and as good as he was last year, he could be electric and bring some true excitement. This isn’t a past-his-prime veteran. This is an ace in his mid-20s with a bright present and a bright future (assuming things go the right way).
3. Young guys up the middle
If the common knock against the Yankees is that they’re too old with a roster past its collective prime, Didi Gregorius and Rob Refsnyder could change that with a pair of 20-somethings playing in the middle of the infield. Gregorius isn’t homegrown, but he never really established himself elsewhere, so any upside belongs to the Yankees. Refsnyder isn’t a finished product, but he could hit his way into the lineup, and he could stick around for the next decade. These two could make a case for helping the Yankees in the short-term, while giving fans some long-term hope for the future.
4. Resurgent veterans
If CC Sabathia is good again, I think he’s worth watching every time he’s on the mound. He’s an emotional player. He’s a clubhouse leader. He’s a guy who’s fallen down the past two seasons, and seeing him pick himself up would surely make him a fan favorite (even if he’s nothing more than a No. 2 or 3 starter at this point). Carlos Beltran could also be a rallying point, and a strong Mark Teixeira could give the Yankees a true home run threat, the kind of guy who could change a game with one swing.
5. Second-half arrivals
I suppose it depends on the circumstances in which they arrive, but there’s a lot to be said for a wave of young players showing up it the second half to make a difference. Maybe Refsnyder takes the second base job. Maybe Jacob Lindgren joins the bullpen. Maybe Slade Heathcott gets healthy, gets back on track, and gets a chance. Maybe it’s not out of the question that Aaron Judge and/or Luis Severino could be in the Bronx before September. A mid-season youth movement should catch the attention of the fan base.
6. Speed on the bases
I’ve said it several times: I love the way speed plays in the game of baseball. I love watching someone track down a fly ball in the outfield. I love watching an infielder charge a slow roller while a hitter sprints down the first-base line. I love watching a guy steal second base or try to leg out a triple. The Yankees have speed in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, and those could can generate excitement without hitting home runs.
7. Dellin Betances
Asking that he become the next Mariano Rivera is probably asking too much, but give this guy the closer role and pick a good song to serenade his trip to the mound, and Betances could be a show worth watching in the ninth inning. Homegrown prospect, raised in New York City, throwing 99 mph fastballs and striking out a ton of guys? How is that not worth watching? How is that not going to grab the attention of Yankee Stadium?
8. A rotation of 20-somethings
If Tanaka’s elbow holds up, and Michael Pineda’s shoulder doesn’t blow out, and Ivan Nova comes back from Tommy John, and Nathan Eovaldi improves his strikeout numbers — that’s four starting pitchers, each in his 20s, filling almost all of the Yankees’ rotation. Yes, the Yankees’ rotation is a giant question mark right now, but if it gets/stays healthy, it could be an exciting group to watch for now and for the future.
9. Alex Rodriguez
Let’s face it, Derek was onto something this morning. Rodriguez could be worth all of the attention he’s going to get. If he’s terrible, he’s going to be just another part of the problem; just another guy who fans don’t want to see at the plate or in the field. If Rodriguez stinks, he’ll be a microcosm of all that’s drained the life out of Yankee Stadium (too rich, too old, too unproductive, too unappealing). But if he hits, people will take notice, and people will react one way or another. If Rodriguez is doing anything positive on the field, Yankee Stadium will not be quiet about it.
10. Some sense of a plan
Maybe this is too broad, but I do think that some life will return to Yankee Stadium if there’s some sense of a clear direction. Back in 2013, the lineup was a complete mess and it was clear that the roster was full of short-term placeholders. Last year, injuries again took away key pieces, and it was hard to tell whether the Yankees were still focused on spending or development. This year, some clarity — something to let us know which direction this team is heading — might renew confidence and let fans focus on the bigger picture instead of booing every disappointment along the way.
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
Pinch hitting: Tyler Patterson • 02.13.15
Quick and to the point, today’s Pinch Hitter sent a one-line bio: “Tyler is a life-long Yankee fan and an attorney in Washington, D.C.” That’s Tyler Patterson in an incredibly small nutshell. Perhaps he kept the bio so short because he was saving so many words for his actual post.
As for his post, he calls it: “The 2015 Yankees and Elite Team Defense.”
Inspired by Ruth, Gehrig, and many, many others, the Yankees at their best are an offensive juggernaut. Not to mitigate the team’s past pitching accomplishments (indeed, some old-time Yankee pitchers are criminally underrated) but success for the Yankees has been predominantly associated with the organization’s offensive prowess over the years. Such is the case for the teams that the organization has fielded since 1995, the first year I, like many other millennials, began watching the team.
I challenge anyone to name me a Yankee club since the 1995 season that has been known for its defense (in a positive manner). I know I can’t do it. Not that the Yankees haven’t fielded stout defensive teams since 1995, but the point is that defense is just not what the Yankees are ever known for. And when you look past player reputations and at the numbers, it is not difficult to understand why.
For example, recently retired Yankees legend Derek Jeter is easily one of the greatest shortstops in MLB history and one of the greatest Yankees of all time. However, none of that was due to his defense. For his career, Jeter had a TZ of -129, a DRS of -159 and a UZR/150 of -7.1. If you do not know what any of these stats are, that’s fine. As you might guess, all those negatives indicate Jeter was not a strong fielder. This jives with the traditional eye-test as well, the jump-throws and Gold Glove awards aside.
The same can be said about many other Yankees since 1995 (Williams, Posada, Giambi, O’Neill, Soriano, Sheffield). None of these players was an especially good fielder, and the list goes on. Very few Yankees since 1995 were great (or in most cases, even average) fielders. In fact, from 1995 through the 2014 season, the Yankees ranked dead last in all of baseball with a Def rating of -440.8 (Def, as calculated by FanGraphs, is a combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average [fielding runs] and positional value relative to other positions [positional adjustment]). The next worst club, the Cubs, had a Def of -308.5.
Since 1995, the Yankees cumulatively have been far and away the worst defensive squad in all of baseball.
That being said, the Yankees have showed marked improvement in team defense in the past several seasons. For example, the Yankees’ Def in 2013 was 21.4 and in 2014, 10.8.
This trend should continue in 2015, a season in which the Yankees might easily field their best defensive team since 1995.
The Yankees have made a conscious effort to get younger and cheaper wherever they can, and in baseball’s current suppressed run environment, the Yankees have realized that it is easier to upgrade the roster defensively rather than offensively. That is not to say there is not offensive upside to some of the Yankees’ offseason acquisitions, but improved team defense has certainly been on the mind of the front office, especially during the last two offseasons.
Let us run through the 2014 squad position by position and compare it to the projected team for the upcoming season. It is clear that the 2015 squad projects to be fantastic defensively, perhaps the best defensive team since 1995.
McCann is the Yankees’ catcher for the foreseeable future after the team signed him to a five-year deal following the 2013 season. He saw the bulk of the work behind the plate in 2014 and did not disappoint, at least defensively. McCann is a world-class defender and one of the best defensive backstops in baseball. His Def of 11.5 in 2014 was exactly what the Yankees signed up for, as was his pitch-framing performance (11.4 Runs Above Average, good for 11th in MLB. This represents a “down” year for McCann, who is consistently top 10 in MLB every season in this category). Long story short, McCann is an elite defensive backstop, and he projects to continue to be so, as his 2015 projected Def of 8.8 illustrates.
Backing up McCann will presumably be Murphy, who anyone will tell you is an above average defender behind the plate. The Yankees have been emphasizing catcher defense for some time now, and with Murphy (and McCann for that matter) the Yankees continue the trend. It is not actually settled who will be the Yankee backup catcher, as Austin Romine will also be “competing” for the role in spring training, but my money is on Murphy with Romine being dealt or placed on waivers. Murphy is clearly the better player, both defensively and offensively.
Obviously, Teixeira will be the Yankees’ first baseman in 2015, at least until the obligatory injury. Unlike last year, the Yankees have a back-up first baseman on their roster in Jones, although his defensive abilities leave a lot to be desired. First base, like catcher, is a position where I do not put too much stock in advanced statistics because, at least in my experience, the stats do not measure up to the eye test. Teixeira is a perfect example of this. Teixeira has had a pretty consistent negative Def rating throughout his career, and last season was no different, as his -3.6 shows. His UZR/150, however, was 7.1 last season and has been consistently positive in his career. That jives more with my perception of Teixeira and my experience watching him pretty regularly since 2009, but it is also obvious confirmation bias.
Either way, I’m not the only one who will tell you Tex is at least an average defender at first, and probably slightly above average. I expect no different in 2015, so long as he can stay on the field (a BIG if in his age-35 season). If injured, the aforementioned Jones figures to man first base. He is projected for a -9.1 Def, which is not very good, and unlike Teixeira, the eye-test does not save Jones; he has never been thought of as a strong defender, and the stats back that up. Let’s hope Teixeira remains healthy. Or, if not, that Greg Bird is mauling in Trenton and gets a call. Unlikely, but I can dream.
Offensively, second base was a mess for the Yankees last season until they dealt for Martin Prado, who was fantastic in his 37 games for the Yankees (his true value was as trade bait, allowing the Yankees to obtain Jones and Nathan Eovaldi). Defensively, however, the myriad of players the Yankees played at second combined for a -1.9 Def, which is not awful but not great either. A carryover from last season, Drew, was signed to a no-risk, one-year, $5-million deal to hold second base down until Refsnyder is ready to permanently take over (or until the Yankees gain another year of team control by manipulating Refsnyder’s service time).
Drew’s calling card in his career has been his defense at short, which has always been excellent. There is no reason to think that, save for a minor adjustment period, he will not be able to excel at the less-demanding second base position. A legitimate reason why the Yankees may not, as of this moment, be comfortable opening the 2015 season with Refsnyder as their everyday second basemen is his defense. A converted outfielder, Refsnyder has taken to second base well, but there is certainly room for improvement. The scouting reports peg Refsnyder as an average defensive second baseman at best, but combined with Drew’s projected performance, as well as Brendan Ryan’s skill as the infield backup, the team’s second base defense should be at least as good as it was last year, and probably much better. Backing up either of these players will be Ryan, a world-class defensive infielder.
We have already discussed Jeter’s defensive shortcomings, and last season was no different as he compiled a -4.0 Def, a -12.5 UZR/150, and a -12 DRS. By any measure Jeter was a very, very bad fielder last season. His replacement this season will be Gregorius, who projects to compile a 4.3 Def, a huge improvement over 2014 Jeter.
Gregorius has a reputation as being a strong defender with excellent range and a cannon for an arm, and let’s hope we see that in 2015. Under team control for the next several seasons, the position is Gregorius’s to lose (at least until Jorge Mateo is ready to take over) and the Yankees will give him every opportunity to be their everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future. Having Chase Headley manning third base will also make his job much easier, allowing Gregorius to shade up the middle more so than he normally would.
The Yankees opened 2014 with Kelly Johnson as their starting third baseman, and the position was a mess until Headley was acquired before the trade deadline. Signed to a four-year deal this offseason (at a below market rate), Headley is the Yankees’ third basemen moving forward. From a defensive standpoint, the Yankees are set. In only 58 games with the team last year, Headley compiled a 12.4 Def and has been an absolute defensive stud throughout his career.
Combined with Gregorius, the defense on the left side of the infield will be among the best in baseball. Like second base, third base was not as bad defensively as I thought it was in 2014 (thanks mainly to Headley), but with Headley in pinstripes for an entire season, third-base defense will be an absolute strength for the 2015 squad. Headley is among the best defensive third baseman in all of baseball, and it will be fun watching him man the hot corner for the Yankees in 2015 and beyond.
Gardner was signed to a team-friendly four-year deal that begins this season, and barring a trade (which I do not think is out of the question) he will be the Yankees’ left fielder in 2015 and for the foreseeable future. Gardner is a superb defender in any outfield position, and left field is no different. It is important for the Yankees to man left field with a strong defender given the stadium’s dimensions, and Gardner handles it about as well as a player can. Because of this, he has more value to the Yankees than most other (if not all) teams.
Look for Gardner to continue his defensive excellence, giving the Yankees another above-average defended position. He also serves as a backup to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, further adding to Gardner’s value.
In the second year of a seven-year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season, Ellsbury will once again man center field. There is not much to say here, as Ellsbury has always been a very strong defensive center fielder, and 2015 projects to be no different.
This gives the Yankees yet another position fielded by an above-average defender.
Right field is the only position on the diamond I believe the Yankees will field below-average defenders in 2015. Last season, Beltran projected to be the everyday right fielder. Long gone are the years when Beltran was an elite defender in center field. Since 2009, Beltran has been a below-average fielder wherever he has played, mainly in right, and 2015 projects to be no different. Beltran suffered a myriad of injuries in 2014, and the Yankees were forced to play multiple players in right as a result. I expect the Yankees to DH Beltran quite a bit this season due to his age and the fact that he can still hit plenty when healthy. That will leave Young to get plenty of reps in right in 2015, especially against lefties as he is a career 116 wRC+ hitter against them.
Projection wise, Beltran sits at a -11.8 Def for 2015, while Young sits at a -2.2 Def. It is important to note that there is not a lot of room in right field in Yankee stadium, so bad defense in right for the Yankees is far less detrimental than it would be to, say, the Athletics or Padres. This is also a reason why I tend to shy away from advanced defensive statistics for Yankees’ right fielders, but I digress. The stats back up the eye tests for both Beltran and Young.
I am not going to analyze Ryan or Young any more than I already have because the backup infielder and fourth outfielder positions are very fluid on every team in baseball and it would not be a shock if Ryan and/or Young end the 2015 season off the active roster. That being said, the Yankees project to field an exceptional defensive squad in 2015 and, save for right field, will have at least an average fielder at every position.
In an era where run scoring is down significantly due mainly to an ever-expanding strike zone, it is far easier to upgrade pitching and defense. The Yankees have done a very, very good job upgrading team defense the past two offseasons, and it should be fun to watch.
Associated Press photos
With the Yankees first spring workout nine days away, our countdown moves onto the ninth-most pressing decision facing the Yankees in spring training. It’s a common question in every camp throughout baseball.
What’s the best way to stack the batting order to take full advantage of the pieces in the lineup?
It’s a question that might rank higher on this list if not for the limited options available.
Clearly Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner fit best near the top of the order, while Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew — or potentially Rob Refsnyder — seem like bottom-of-the-order guys (at least to start the season). That leaves a bunch of less-than-ideal choices to fill those crucial spots in the middle. Last year, the Yankees opened with Carlos Beltran batting third, Brian McCann fourth, and Mark Teixeira fifth, and it seems entirely possible they’ll have the same Opening Day heart-of-the-order this season.
But is that the best way to do it?
Ellsbury is a fairly flexible hitter, Chase Headley is a bit of a wild card, and no one knows what Alex Rodriguez is capable of doing this season. Those three could fit various spots in the lineup. The abundance of left-handed hitters — perhaps as many as six on any given day — also creates some interesting arrangement challenges.
I’ll offer nine points of lineup consideration, one for each spot in the order.
1. Is Ellsbury the Yankees’ best leadoff hitter?
Clearly the Yankees signed Ellsbury with visions of him hitting leadoff for years to come, but he wound up hitting third much of last season while Gardner had a pretty nice year in the leadoff spot. That’s two years in a row that Gardner’s been pretty good in the leadoff spot. Surely one of those two will hit leadoff on Opening Day. Which should it be?
2. Is there a third top-of-the-order option?
Conventional thinking seems to say that, regardless of which one bats first, Ellsbury and Gardner should be the Yankees’ top two hitters. But should that be a given? Would it make sense to put a switch-hitter like Headley (with his .347 career on-base percentage) in the No. 2 spot, leaving either Ellsbury or Gardner (remarkably, two of the Yankees’ better power hitters last season) in a spot that might get more RBI opportunities? Might also be a way to keep from having three or four lefties in a row. Worth recognizing the recent research suggests this might be the most important spot in any lineup.
3. How does Beltran look this spring?
Little surprise considering he might be a Hall of Famer, but Beltran has far more career at-bats in the No. 3 spot than in any other spot in the order. It’s the spot the Yankees intended him to occupy last season, and he was thriving in that role before the elbow injury that sent him to the disabled list and ultimately limited his second-half production. Does surgery seem to have left Beltran capable of being that kind of hitter again? If so, he might be a natural for this spot again.
4. What do the Yankees expect from Teixeira?
If we’re thinking of these lineup spots in a traditional sense, then cleanup needs to be in the hands of a true power hitter. Even as understanding of batting orders has changed, the No. 4 spot is still found to carry significant weight. The Yankees don’t really have a reliable power hitter at the moment, but Teixeira hit for good power early last season. If the Yankees think he can maintain that production this season, maybe he belongs here. If not, what are the alternatives? Beltran? McCann? Rodriguez?
5. Does Rodriguez have anything left?
Having not seen a single spring at-bat, I’d say Rodriguez could hit anywhere from second to eighth without causing much surprise. It would be stunning to see him in the leadoff spot, and batting him ninth would be jarring just because of who he used to be, but everything else seems fair game. For a team desperate for a run production, is there a chance Rodriguez is still a guy worth key at-bats in the middle of the order?
6. How many platoon situations make sense?
For now, the Yankees have set pretty clear expectations at each starting position, but there are plenty of platoon possibilities. Should Garrett Jones play regularly against righties (and if so, should he hit somewhere in the middle)? How often will Chris Young play against lefties? Is Brendan Ryan also going to play against lefties? What about second base; will a guy like Refsnyder force Stephen Drew to play only against righties?
7. Is Didi Gregorius any kind of hitter?
Production in the bottom third of the order adds real depth to a lineup. Given the concerns about the guys expected to fill those middle-of-the-order spots, the Yankees would love to get some extended production from No. 7 and beyond. Gregorius actually showed a little bit of power in the upper levels of the minor leagues, and he’s slugged .411 against big league righties. Should he be dismissed as a non-factor on offense?
8. How important is splitting the lefties?
Let’s say Jones is at designated hitter on a day Beltran, Teixiera, McCann and Headley are batting third through sixth. That’s not an outlandish suggesting, but it could leave the Yankees with five consecutive lefties in their lineup (Jones, Gregorius, Drew, Ellsbury, Gardner). That could open the door to significant matchup issues at the bottom of the order. The eighth spot could be determined by the Yankees desire to split their lefties in the bottom third.
9. Was Drew a surprisingly savvy investment?
If there were a lineup spot lower than ninth, that’s where Drew would have fit best last season. He had an unthinkably bad offensive season, but the Yankees brought him back because he used to be a pretty decent hitter for a middle infielder. If he hits again, should he move up in the order? If so, how high? And if he’s nothing more than a No. 9 hitter at this point, is it better to let Refsnyder or Jose Pirela take those at-bats?
Associated Press photos
Almost eight years later, I still remember standing in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre clubhouse talking to Brett Gardner about farming.
He was a pretty big deal on that 2007 Triple-A roster — a legitimate prospect brought up from Double-A in the middle of the season — and although I didn’t really know him at all, I knew I’d have to write about him a lot, so I went looking for a connection.
Brett grew up on a family farm in South Carolina. I grew up on a family farm in Missouri. It was perfect, enough of a connection to start a conversation that wouldn’t feel like an interview.
I think all of us look for connections like that, anything that bridges the gap between two completely different people. We do it at work, we do it in our friendships, and we do it as fans. Common ground matters, and as that common ground gets more and more specific, its significance seems to grow. Gardner and I grew up driving tractors. David Phelps and I are from Missouri. Russell Martin and I share a mutual friend. Mark Teixeira and I once talked extensively about a band we both liked in college. I was Derek Jeter’s best friend for about two seconds one spring when he overheard me tell someone I’d picked Michigan to advance to the Final Four.
We fist bumped. That’s how Jeter bonds over a shared hope for the Wolverines.
The common ground Will wrote about in last week’s Pinch Hitter post about Rob Refsnyder — the one about the connection he finds in watching an Asian-American ballplayer — might be different, but I’m not sure it’s all that different. It’s still a shared connection, a bit of familiarity between strangers; in Will’s case between a 36-year-old attorney and a 23-year-old second baseman.
And that instant familiarity is one reason it matters that Refsnyder — or some other homegrown prospect — eventually shows some staying power with the Yankees. Because at some point, players like that develop universal common ground; they create the kind of connection Alex wrote about this morning.
Connections between strangers is not always so easy to find. Will wrote about a connection that he found quickly between himself and Refsnyder, and it’s a connection that carries significant weight for him personally. But what’s his connection to CC Sabathia or Chase Headley or Carlos Beltran? Unless they share some high school connection or a favorite restaurant I don’t know about, their strongest connection is probably through the Yankees. The longer a player sticks with a one particular team, the stronger his connection to that fan base becomes.
Longevity is surely a big reason Bernie Williams became so instantly familiar and beloved in New York. Williams played 16 seasons at Yankee Stadium, and fans — in their own way — shared those games with him. It’s a kind of common ground, the kind that makes a guy like Alex — from all the way in California — feel connected to his favorite player.
Homegrown players have an obvious financial impact on a baseball team, and successful player development is surely the easiest way to build a roster without having to enter the murky waters of free agency. But beyond all that, homegrown players who stick around build common ground with the fan base. They create an easy connection. They spark loyalty.
I have friend whose fiance is a huge Yankees fan. She’s from New Jersey, has never set foot in a corn field as far as I know, but her favorite player is Gardner. Their shared connection? I have no idea. I think she just likes him, thinks he’s a nice player and probably a good guy, and he’s been playing for her favorite team for seven years now.
The Yankees can build more connections like that if this latest youth movement has staying power. Gardner’s already locked up long term. Refsnyder has a chance to break into the big leagues this season. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Luis Severino could be next. Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Dellin Betances and Didi Gregorius could become fixtures of the next decade.
We all look for connections, and the Yankees are trying to build some new connections of their own.
Associated Press photo
We haven’t done a chat in a long time. Even though it’s the offseason, let’s have one tomorrow. We’ll be chatting all about the Yankees offseason right here on the blog at noon tomorrow. Stop by if you can. For now, a few quick notes and links:
• Sweeny Murti reported this morning that the Yankees have signed veteran Kyle Davies to a minor league deal. The Yankees have since confirmed the signing, announcing that it comes with an invitation to big league camp. The former Royals starter is only 31 years old, but he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011 and hasn’t pitched to a sub-5.00 ERA in the big leagues since 2008. He’s presumably coming in to provide a veteran presence in Triple-A.
• The Yankees made three trades last year that included “either a player to be named later or cash considerations.” I checked with a Yankees official yesterday who said all of those trades were finalized with cash and not a player, so no unexpected prospects leaving the Yankees system to complete the 2014 deals for Martin Prado, Jeff Francis or Josh Outman.
• Mike Axisa points out that today’s James Shields signing means the 2015 draft order is set. The Padres are losing the No. 13 overall pick, which moves the Yankees top pick up to 16th overall. The Yankees will also get a compensation pick at No. 30 (for losing Dave Robertson). The Yankees haven’t drafted as high as 16th in long, long time. That said, the draft is no sure thing, and the 16th spot has not consistently provided an impact player in the past decade or so. Nick Swisher went 16th in 2002, but since then, Brett Lawrie is easily the most notable name (plus 2013 pick J.P. Crawford, who’s an unproven but highly touted prospect with the Phillies).
• In case you missed it, David Waldstein wrote a predictably great story about Yankees second baseman Rob Refsnyder. It focuses on some of Refsnyder’s life experiences as an adopted, Asian-American kid in California. We had a pinch hitter post about that very topic last week. Great stuff.
• Speaking of life experiences, our old friend Bryan Hoch wrote about Chase Whitley’s offseason. Today Whitley’s down in Tampa getting a head start on spring training, but he spent most of the winter at home in Alabama working with kids at a small baseball academy. There are some great anecdotes in there, including the story of kids from the academy sending Whitley good luck video messages before his big league debut. Whitley also converted a family barn into a baseball training facility. “I’m telling you, man, it’s as redneck as you can get,” Whitley said, “but it’s awesome.”
• If you’re in the mood for more prospect information, that hard-working rabble-rouser Dan Martin talked to pitching coordinator Gil Patterson about elite rotation talent Luis Severino. “I hope he gets to the point where he’s not knocking on the door,” Patterson said. “I hope he’s breaking it down.”
• From Baseball America’s latest minor league transactions, the Yankees have signed left-handed pitcher Anthony Marzi, a non-drafted free agent from the University of Connecticut. It seems Marzi impressed at a late January tryout in Port Chester (he also struck out former first-round pick Eric Jagielo twice in the 2013 Big East final). Also from the minor league transactions: infielder David Adams has signed a minor league deal with the Marlins.
Associated Press photo