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
How’s everyone doing out there in the snow? If you’re stuck at home, here are a few Yankees minor league links and notes that are worth having on your radar.
Pretty surprising news out of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre today. The Railriders announced that Rob Crain is out as team president and general manager. Executive vice president Jeremy Ruby will step into the GM role for the time being, at least through the 2015 season. Crain had been with Scranton/Wilkes-Bare since 2012, and though I only knew him a little bit, he seemed like a good guy for the spot. I will say, however, that Ruby has been with that Triple-A organization for years including previous time as general manager, and I always thought he was perfect in that role. He played the game at a pretty high level, his father is a longtime pitching coach, and both players and staff seem to really like dealing with him.
• There are always a lot of prospect rankings around this time of year, and Kiley McDaniel has come up with an absurdly detailed Yankees list over at FanGraphs. McDaniel ranked his top 35, then kept going with mild scouting reports for another 30 or so others in the Yankees system. “Tampa Bay is the only other team with close to this kind of depth,” McDaniel wrote, “but the Yankees have two top-end talents (RHP Luis Severino and RF Aaron Judge) that the Rays can’t match, which helps separate the Bombers from Tampa Bay and other deep systems. Right now, I have the Yankees as the 10th best system in baseball, but with the bulk of high upside young talent and five of the top six prospects likely returning to next year’s list making it better than 50/50 that they’ll be even higher next year.”
• Speaking of absurdly detailed, this list Patrick Teale is still working through his individual scouting reports over at Pinstripes Plus, but his Top 50 list has been posted for a while. Patrick sees a lot of the really young kids in the system, and he’s never been afraid to break from conventional thinking in putting his list together. I have Patrick’s list bookmarked every year. That alone is worth the subscription fee.
• To go with McDaniel’s ranking, FanGraphs has also published a list of the five Yankees prospects projected to have the highest big league WAR this season. Might be surprised to see John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez tied — Sanchez gets a lot more hype than Murphy — but it probably comes as little surprise to see Rob Refsnyder at No. 1. Ramon Flores projects at slightly above replacement, which seems to make sense. Really does seem like a solid fourth outfield candidate (though not a great fit on the current roster because he hits left-handed).
• Over at MLB.com, the good folks who handle MLB Pipeline are ranking the top five prospects at each position. Greg Bird came in at No. 3 among all first basemen, and Rob Refsnyder was seventh among second basemen (right behind Devon Travis, the guy traded from Detroit to Toronto this offseason). I’m not surprised that neither Eric Jagielo nor Miguel Andujar cracked the top 10 at third base, though I was a little surprised to see Gary Sanchez fall out of the top 10 at catcher (his numbers haven’t been overwhelming, but he’s still so young for his level). Shortstops and outfield rankings are coming later this week (wonder if Jorge Mateo or Aaron Judge will make the top 10). MLB.com has already ranked its top 10 right-handed and left-handed pitchers. Luis Severino came in seventh among right-handers, but Jacob Lindgren didn’t make the list among lefties (even Royals standout Brandon Finnegan barely made top 10).
• Finally, he’s not a Yankees prospect — at least, not yet — but this winter has brought a lot of worthwhile focus on Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada. Both McDaniel and Baseball America’s Ben Badler have taken a look at what’s keeping Moncada from clearing the final government hurdle that would make him eligible to sign. McDaniel suggests it’s all about U.S. policy and perhaps some concern that Moncada could funnel money back to the Cuban government (maybe that’s why Cuba let him leave in the first place), but Badler says bluntly that “Major League Baseball, not the United States government, is the reason that Yoan Moncada and several other Cuban players have yet to begin their careers.”
UPDATE: Our good friend Jeff Passan has weighed in with more on Moncada, including this key bit of information: “One league source estimated Yoan Moncada could be a free agent as soon as two weeks from now should MLB square away its concerns with OFAC.” Making Moncada a free agent within two weeks should give the Yankees plenty of time to be involved in the bidding.
Associated Press photo
Year by year, Yankees longevity stands out • 01.23.15
My first reaction to seeing the graphic in this morning’s Pinch Hitter post was a bit of criticism: where were the names?
It seemed awkward to look at a chart that was created by individual players and showed no individual names, but as I looked at it a little longer, the lack of names became one of my favorite parts.
Whether intentional or not, one thing Steve and Rich really emphasized in their graphic was the value of longevity.
If you’re looking for individual superstars, they’re easy enough to find — just look for the huge patches of blue. Lou Gehrig and Don Mattingly are easy to spot in the first base column. Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada stand out at catcher. Joe Gordon, Willie Randolph and Robinson Cano are obvious at second. It’s not hard to spot Babe Ruth, it’s easy to find Derek Jeter, and the transition from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle is obvious.
There are some important specks on that chart — one speck is the year Rickey Henderson moved from center field to left field — but the graphic really emphasizes sustained success, either through one long-term player or through one very successful transition. And the Yankees are in a period of obvious transition without a lot of blue in these most recent years.
So what positions are close to developing large patches of sustained success?
Center field and left field could be heading that direction. There’s a 2014 dot of blue in left field because Brett Gardner had a nice season, and that season came after a very small gap of red following the mix-and-match left field success of the late 2000s. Jacoby Ellsbury also provided a blue dot last season as a transition from Curtis Granderson to Gardner to Ellsbury in center field. Gardner and Ellsbury are signed long term and could continue that outfield success through the end of this decade.
If a guy like Rob Refsnyder can take hold of the second base position, that could be another strong and relatively quick transition after the standout seasons of Robinson Cano. Maybe Dellin Betances can provide a strong transition in the relief column. Obviously the top two starters have generally provided a lot of blue-dot success over the years, and Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda seem poised to keep that going as long as they stay healthy.
Plugging short term holes is helpful and necessary along the way, but sustained success is what really stands out.
Associated Press photo
Thinking a little more about Neils’ post this morning, who on this Yankees roster might stand out in 15-20 years? If we don’t see any iconic Yankees right now, who might be considered a franchise icon when it’s all said and done? Here are a few candidates:
To me, this is the most obvious candidate. Young starting pitcher who showed in the first half of last season that he could be a legitimate ace going forward. Obviously the situation with his elbow ligament is a problem, but even if he’s lost for a year, Tanaka could still have a full career in which to establish himself as a great Yankees pitcher. His best-case scenario certainly could let him reach icon status by the time his career is over.
Raised in Brooklyn. Developed in the Yankees system. Rookie season so good it generated Mariano Rivera comparisons. The Betances foundation could certainly build toward icon status in the future, though it takes a lot for a reliever to reach that level. Rivera got there by being the greatest of all time. Hard to expect Betances to match that level of production, so how good does he have to be to become a Yankees icon several years down the road? And does he have time to get there?
If the Yankees pickup the club option for 2019, Gardner will have been on the Yankees big league roster for 12 seasons. He’s largely exceeded expectations, his gritty-gutty reputation makes him a fan favorite in some circles, and he’s been roughly a 4 WAR player in each of his past three full seasons, with a 7.3 WAR the year before. If he’s never an all-star and never an MVP candidate, can Gardner become a legitimate Yankees icon?
Although he’s been with two organizations before coming to the Yankees, Gregorius never really established himself in either Cincinnati or Arizona. That means, if he does establish himself as an everyday shortstop in New York, he’ll most certainly be remembered as a Yankee. He turns 25 in February, which means he could easily play a full decade in pinstripes if all goes well. Will he be good enough to become a second-tier icon as Derek Jeter’s replacement? If his career takes a step forward, new starter Nathan Eovaldi could be in a similar situation.
Might not even make the big league roster this season, and he certainly might not be good enough to be anywhere near icon status. That said, Refsnyder stands out as a guy who could step into an everyday role as a homegrown player. If he reaches his absolute ceiling and plays second base for the next 10 years, Refsnyder could retire as a Yankees icon. Worth putting Aaron Judge and Luis Severino in this same conversation, but I’ll focus on Refsnyder because he seems closest to actually playing for the Yankees this year.
Played so long and so well in Cleveland that Sabathia can never be iconic in the way Jeter, Mantle or Berra is iconic. But he could be iconic in the way Goose Gossage or Paul O’Neill is iconic. Sabathia is already top 10 in career strikeouts by a Yankees pitcher, and he could — with a bounce-back end of his career — finish top 10 in wins. His Yankees winning percentage is the same as Roger Clemens and better than Ron Guidry.
A-Rod an iconic Yankee? Surely not. I guess I’m including Rodriguez largely because there should be some question of who’s making the determination. Within the Yankees fan base, Rodriguez will never be an icon. But for baseball as a whole, his career will be most directly linked to the Yankees, and he’s certainly going to be an iconic player in one way or another. Twenty years from now, it’s entirely possible that some will look at the 2015 Yankees and immediately see Rodriguez as an iconic Yankees player on the roster.
Associated Press photo
A few random thoughts on this morning after the Chase Headley signing…
• Four years and $52 million is too much for Headley, but that’s what happens in free agency. The Yankees needed an infielder, and this is where the market set Headley’s value (actually, remarkably, his value seems to have been set a little higher than what the Yankees are paying). Headley’s a strong defensive player who’s generally stayed in the lineup despite his back issues. He’s a nice hitter, but certainly not a great hitter, and he’s never hit for much power outside of that standout 2012 season. For the money, I’m not entirely sure the Yankees are better off having Headley instead Jed Lowrie, but I do think this is the kind of overpay the Yankees are willing to make. They committed to Headley without committing to someone beyond his mid-30s.
• Yes, the Headley signing blocks Rob Refsnyder’s most obvious path to the big leagues, but does anyone really expect the Yankees lineup to stay fully healthy all of next year? Refsnyder turns 24 in March, he’s been playing second base for just two years, and he has just 77 games of Triple-A experience. He’s not even on the 40-man yet. Going back to the minor leagues out of spring training shouldn’t hurt his development, and it wouldn’t shut the door to the possibility of having him in a regular big league role by the end of the season. The Yankees absolutely had to get some additional infield depth of some sort. They essentially got the best infield depth possible on the market. Now, the key is, if something happens in the infield, they have to be willing to give Refsnyder his shot.
• During interviews yesterday, Headley made it clear that he turned down larger contracts to sign with the Yankees. I regularly get emails saying no free agents are going to want to sign with the Yankees because the Yankees are no longer a winning team. I understand the frustration that leads to such a belief — and I don’t remotely believe the Yankees are currently a favorite to compete for a championship in 2015 — but I don’t believe players look at the Yankees as a losing organization right now. Certainly not over the course of a multi-year deal. Time will tell whether those players are right or wrong.
• One thing I like about Headley: He’s a good fit for this atmosphere. He seems to handle pressure, he’s good with the media, and he seems confident enough to slide into a secondary role without feeling as if he’s been slighted. “I didn’t know how I’d like playing in New York just with all the other things that come with playing in New York,” Headley said yesterday. “But once you get here and you realize how well you’re treated, how much the fans care, how much the city cares, how well the Yankees family take care of you and your family, it was pretty obvious after a week or so that I was extremely lucky to get a chance to play in the pinstripes. So, I was surprised, but it didn’t take long to see why other players had spoke so highly of the organization.”
• With Headley, Didi Gregorius, Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, the Yankees have at least five players who have a chance to be above-average defenders next season. I think Brian McCann could be as well if you factor in his pitch framing and the way he works with the pitching staff. Martin Prado at second should be just fine as well. If nothing else, the Yankees have made themselves a better defensive team.
• You know what the Yankees need to go with that defense? An actual pitching staff. That has to be the final piece of the puzzle. The Yankees really have no more glaring needs in their lineup. They could even consider their bench to be complete with John Ryan Murphy, Chris Young, Brendan Ryan and Jose Pirela. But the pitching still needs work. The rotation in particularly has taken a hit with the loss of Shane Greene. Most of the pitchers who seemed to fit the Yankees desire for rotation depth have already come off the board. I do wonder if Hiroki Kuroda could jump back into the picture at some point.
• Speaking of pitching: I still believe the Yankees when they say they’re not planning to get into the Max Scherzer bidding, but if they go another three or four weeks without signing a starting pitcher who they actually like, and Scherzer still out there as a big splash who fills a clear need, I do wonder if they could talk themselves into taking the risk — yet again — on a long-term commitment that carries obvious risk down the road. Not saying it will happen, only that I could imagine a scenario in which the Yankees ultimately bit the bullet and jump into the Scherzer sweepstakes.
• Interesting that the Yankees gave Headley pretty close to the same contract they weren’t willing to give either Dave Robertson or Brandon McCarthy. Of those three, I’d say McCarthy was the best fit — the Yankees have reached a point where they most desperately need a starting pitcher — but he was also the most obvious overpay (incredibly risky to give a guy with his injury history a four-year deal). I think Robertson would been a better investment on a four-year deal, but relievers tend to come and go, and before this offseason I’m not sure I would have been on board with such an investment into a bullpen arm, even one as good as Robertson. Free agency is all about picking battles, and when it came to spending roughly $50 million across the next four years, the Yankees prioritized Headley ahead of the two familiar and desirable pitchers.
• The top third basemen in the minor league system are Miguel Andujar, Eric Jagielo and Dante Bichette Jr. Andujar is still a teenager and won’t necessarily be blocked by the Headley contract, Bichette hasn’t shown enough consistency for the Yankees to really bank on him, and there are enough questions about Jagielo’s defense and strikeouts that the Yankees couldn’t let his presence standing in the way of a deal. That’s not at all to say Jagielo (or anyone else) won’t develop into a legitimate big league third baseman, but I don’t think the Yankees could say with confidence their farm system will be ready to fill the third base hole within the next four years.
Associated Press photos
Re-signing Chase Headley blocks the easiest big league pathway for the Yankees most advanced position prospect, Rob Refsnyder. Before Headley, Refsnyder was in position to make a serious run at the everyday second base job. With Headley, Martin Prado will move to second base and Refsnyder will — most likely — be left on the outside looking in.
That said, is anyone expecting this Yankees lineup to stay healthy next season? Prado’s defensive flexibility clears the way for Refsnyder to be essentially the backup plan at every position except shortstop and catcher. Here’s how:
First base – If Mark Teixeira got hurt, the Yankees could consider Kyle Roller for the position (good hitter but a poor defender) or they could think about Tyler Austin (primarily a right fielder who has yet to play at Triple-A). But they could also slide Headley to first base, push Prado back to third, and let Refsnyder handle second. Alex Rodriguez could also be a first base option, again setting off a series of dominoes that could open second base or DH at-bats for Refsnyder.
Second base – The most obvious way to land a spot in the big league lineup: if Prado were hurt, Refsnyder would naturally move back to the top of the pecking order. His greatest competition could come from within if Jose Pirela plays well enough to earn everyday consideration.
Third base – Again, a pretty obvious one. If Headley got hurt, the Yankees would presumably revert back to their fallback plan with Prado taking over third base and Refsnyder competing with Pirela for the second base job.
Outfield corner — A lot like third base, the Yankees could easily shift Prado to left field or right field should either Brett Gardner or Carlos Beltran get hurt. That would open second base for Refsnyder. It’s also possible Refsnyder himself could move into right field, where he played in college, though the Yankees seem to prefer him at second. That said, if an outfielder gets hurt, moving pieces to involve Refsnyder wouldn’t be a no brainer considering the Yankees upper-level outfield depth. They could consider a corner-outfield platoon of Chris Young and Ramon Flores, or they could hand a corner job to a guy like Austin or Aaron Judge if those two are putting up huge numbers.
Center field — A lot of moving parts here, but basically the same idea as above. If Jacoby Ellsbury got hurt, Gardner would presumably slide from left field to center field, in which case the Yankees would have a corner outfield opening, which they could fill with Prado, which could open second base for Refsnyder. Again, the Yankees would have to choose that route ahead of several upper-level outfield prospects who seem close to big league ready.
Obviously there’s not a catcher scenario that really creates a pathway for Refsnyder. There’s not much of a shortstop opening either because Prado’s never been much more than emergency shortstop. If there’s a short-term shortstop opening, though — some minor injury to either Brendan Ryan or Didi Gregorius — the Yankees could possibly decide to carry Pirela as their backup shortstop for a week or so (similar to what they did with Yangervis Solarte for a little while last season) and bring up Refsnyder to play an infield role off the bench.
Photo from the Scranton Times-Tribune
Random thoughts on this Friday morning • 12.05.14
It’s Friday, and I’m actually off the clock for about 72 hours. I’m taking a few vacation days to spend today and the rest of the weekend with my parents, who are visiting from Missouri. I’ll check back in on Monday — or late Sunday night — when I get to San Diego for the Winter Meetings. Until then, a few random thoughts.
• One sure indication that this free agent market hasn’t played out in the Yankees favor is the fact Chase Headley has gotten a ton of attention lately. He’s a nice player — great glove, does enough offensively, strong presence in the clubhouse — but we just reached the start of December and he’s the best infielder out there. That’s not a great thing for a Yankees team that would like to add not one but two everyday infielders this offseason. With that in mind, last year’s Martin Prado trade looks better and better. Can you imagine trying to find three everyday infielders in this market? If that were the case, wouldn’t the Yankees have to simply roll the dice with either Alex Rodriguez or Rob Refsnyder?
• Andrew Miller is really good, and between him and Dellin Betances, the Yankees could surely find a closer. But I still think if the Yankees do end up signing Miller — without signing Dave Robertson — they might go after a guy like Jason Grilli or Casey Janssen on a one-year deal to potentially handle the ninth inning. Closer is an unusual job, but it’s not necessarily the most important job in the bullpen. Find a one-inning guy who’s been there and done that, and use Miller and Dellin Betances to really shorten the game. Just an idea. I still think the better way to go is simply re-signing Robertson.
• Isn’t it a bit odd that the free agent rumor mill seems to have completely forgotten Asdrubal Cabrera and Jed Lowrie? Stephen Drew’s name pops up occasionally in reports about the market’s lack of a standout shortstop, and Headley has gotten a ton of attention ever since Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval came off the market, but there’s been hardly a peep about Cabrera or Lowrie. Those two might not be shortstops, but in a market that’s thin on third basemen and second basemen, they can surely find an everyday job somewhere. Maybe even with the Yankees if dominoes fall the right way.
• Some talk earlier this week about the possibility of giving up the pursuit of Headley and simply giving Refsnyder a chance to play second base. How would the market have to develop for the Yankees to engage in similar conversations about letting Brendan Ryan play shortstop every day? He hardly played last season, but he carries a well-earned reputation as a defensive wizard. There are worse fallback options, I just what it takes for the Yankees to legitimately open that particular possibility.
• Six at least fairly interesting Yankees prospects who can play center field in Triple-A and/or Double-A next season: Eury Perez, Jake Cave, Mason Williams, Ramon Flores, Taylor Dugas and Adonis Garcia. That’s not to mention Ben Gamel, and even Jose Pirela got some center field time with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year. Point is, the Yankees have a lot of center fielders in the upper levels, so many that I have no idea where exactly Slade Heathcott will play if he re-signs. Losing a first-round pick in a situation like this — ultimately non-tendered because of recurring injuries — is obviously no good, but at this point, I’m not sure Heathcott is a better prospect than a lot of guys just mentioned. Maybe he’ll be back, maybe he won’t, but I have a hard time disagreeing with the Yankees decision that they could no longer hold onto him at all costs. (By the way, all of this is to say nothing of Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge who will surely get most of the time in right field, and give the Yankees two more legitimate upper-level outfield prospects.)
• A quick checklist of topics for the first couple weeks of spring training: Don’t forget to ask about Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow, Carlos Beltran’s elbow, CC Sabathia’s knee, Michael Pineda’s shoulder, Ivan Nova’s rehab, Mark Teixeira’s wrist, Tyler Austin’s wrist, Martin Prado’s appendix, Brett Gardner’s abdomen, and Alex Rodriguez’s … everything. Offseason injury updates usually fill a day or two down in spring training. They might take up all of February this time.
Associated Press photo
I try not to think of prospect rankings as any sort of definitive analysis. They’re more useful as a tool for discussion. Slade Heathcott falling out of Baseball America’s top 10 list for the Yankees, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t be an impact player, but it says a lot about his injuries and the uncertainty he faces going forward. By the same token, a guy like Jorge Mateo jumping into the top three doesn’t mean he’s absolutely going to be the Yankees starting shortstop in a few years, but it says a lot about his raw talent and high-end potential.
Top 10 lists like this one point out some organizational highlights, and they spark plenty of conversation about not only the names that made the cut, but also those players who didn’t. They’re interesting. They’re not definitive.
Josh Norris — who used to cover the Yankees system and put together this particular top 10 list — will be chatting over at BA’s website at 2 p.m. ET. Go jump into that conversation. For now, here are a few of my own thoughts about this year’s Baseball America Top 10 Yankees prospects.
1. RHP Luis Severino
In my mind, this is a no brainer. Big fastball. Already has a feel for the good changeup. Undeniable numbers. Clearly being fast-tracked through the system. Even as the Yankees have struggled to produce big league position players, they’ve had some success with big league pitchers. Perhaps not an ace — Phil Hughes carried that expectation and settled for being simply a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy — but the Yankees have added plenty of minor league arms to the big league pitching staff. And Severino could follow that path as early as next year. Can’t reveal everything about the Baseball America scouting reports, but BA does note that Severino is “likely” to open next season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after making just six Double-A starts this season. The Yankees have publicly mentioned Severino as a guy who could help them next season. This kid is really good, and he’s moving very quickly.
2. RF Aaron Judge
The Yankees were in Oakland when Judge showed up for batting practice just after being drafted in 2013. It seems most everyone had heard about him at that point — mostly we’d heard that he was huge — and Judge did not disappoint. His massive frame suggests an all-or-nothing slugger, but his first season of pro ball proved otherwise. He was patient, hit for average, and showed a willingness to send line drives to the gap rather than constantly go for massive home runs. There’s very real power, no doubt, but there’s also an advanced hitting approach that should have Judge in Double-A to start next season. Although there was some talk of center field after he was drafted, Judge has played only right field since joining the Yankees, and that’s clearly his position of the future. There’s so far little indication that he’ll have to move to first base or designated hitter. There are two years left on Carlos Beltran’s contract, and when it runs out, Judge just might be ready to take over.
3. SS Jorge Mateo
Just a personal preference of mine: I’m always hesitant to make too much of a toolsy teenage prospect. I’ve only seen a very small first-hand glimpse of Mateo as a player, but I’ve heard enough about him to understand why Baseball America ranked him this high. The kid has all of the tools to be a Jose Reyes-type shortstop. His speed is off the charts, and his defensive ability suggests he’ll be able to stay at the position. I’ve heard former vice president of baseball operations get pretty excited talking about some young kids, but he saved some of his most colorful descriptions for Mateo. “Holy (cow) tools!” he said, and you can imagine which word he said instead of “cow.” My only hesitation about Mateo is that he has 58 at-bats in rookie ball, and I like to hold off on setting expectations until a player moves up the chain a little bit. Last year, Baseball America had Severino and No. 9 and then adjusted after seeing him pitch a full season and move quickly. That’s more the way I would have approached ranking Mateo. But the kid is awfully talented. There’s a reason he’s this high.
4. 1B Greg Bird
I think it was two years ago that Bird was invited to big league camp. He was really young at the time, but the Yankees needed some extra bodies because of the World Baseball Classic, and so Bird took his place in the clubhouse and observed. He was 20 years old, in a locker room with some of the biggest names in baseball, and he carried himself with a surprising amount of quiet confidence. Bird hardly played, but he made a strong first impression for the way he went about his work and largely blended into the background. He seemed comfortable, even though he was barely out of high school. Since then, it’s been a mature approach at the plate that’s kept Bird’s stock high. He’s been a steady hitter who gets on base at a good clip. He’s also shown some increased power, and he’s currently raking in the Arizona Fall League. A converted catcher, Bird does not get strong reviews on defense, but I’ve also never had a scout tell me that he’ll have to give up the position. If he can play a passable first base, keep putting together smart at-bats and continue his recent power surge, he could legitimately emerge in the next year or two as the heir to Mark Teixeiera.
5. C Gary Sanchez
I’m not necessarily the biggest Sanchez believer in the world — and I’m a big Bird believer — but even for me, this ranking is a little low. I can completely understand it, just would have put Sanchez up at No. 3. In my mind, Severino, Judge and Sanchez are the clear standouts in the system. As for why Baseball America has Sanchez slightly lower: Obviously this year’s offensive numbers weren’t overwhelming, there’s still some question about his ability to stay behind the plate, and the discipline issues are concerning. But Sanchez is still just 21 years old. He’s less than three years older than Mateo, and just like every kid his age — kids in and out of baseball — there’s some maturing that has to happen. Even though he’s ready for Triple-A, Sanchez still faces a lot of questions, and those can’t be ignored. But he also has a strong mix of being advanced in the system with a high ceiling if things work out.
6. LHP Ian Clarkin
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that it’s pretty easy to overlook Clarkin. Maybe it’s because he missed time with an ankle injury his first season. Maybe it’s because Judge and top pick Eric Jagielo get the bulk of the attention from the 2013 draft class. Maybe it’s because Severino has so clearly emerged as the top pitching prospect in the system. For whatever reason, Clarkin kind of falls into the shadows a little bit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt he belongs in the Top 10. Somewhere in the middle of the Top 10 seems about right, too. The sense I’ve always had about him is that, while there’s no single thing that really shines, Clarkin does a lot of things very well. And Baseball America notes that he added a cutter this season, which has further enhanced his ability to get ground balls. He’s only a few months older than Mateo, and he’s already pitched to a 3.21 ERA in a half season with Low-A Charleston (he also made one solid start with High-A Tampa). He’s light on innings and experience, so I doubt the Yankees will rush him too much, but Clarkin could really emerge with a strong full season next year.
7. 2B Rob Refsnyder
This is where prospect rankings really depend on personal preference. Do you prefer Mateo’s high-ceiling with a long way to go, or do you prefer Refsnyder’s reliable impact with perhaps limited upside? Probably depends on what you make of rankings in the first place. Ultimately, there is no high-end Yankees prospect better poised to make an immediate impact than Refsnyder. He’s obviously still learning second base — played outfield in college — but the bat has been outstanding. In fact, Refsnyder has advanced to the very top of the minor league system and his numbers are still terrific. That said, there are still doubters. When the World Series started, I mentioned in a blog post that multiple scouts and executives saw comparisons between Refsnyder and Giants second baseman Joe Panik. A couple of days after that piece ran, another executive got back to me saying his organization still had Refnsyder projected as nothing more than a backup. We’ll see. It seems a safe bet that Refsnyder can and will play some sort of role in New York (probably soon). The question is, just how will great that impact be?
8. LHP Jacob Lindgren
Two names that were not on Baseball America’s Top 10 Yankees list a year ago: Dellin Betances and Shane Greene. Betances obviously carried some of the doubt that he’d generated throughout his up-and-down minor league career. Greene was coming off a breakout season and there was a sense of wait-and-see with him. There’s no such hesitation with Lindgren, the Yankees top draft pick from this summer. Hard to remember the Yankees ever drafting more of a sure thing. As a left-handed college reliever, Lindgren entered the Yankees system perfectly poised to move quickly, and he did exactly that with eight games in Double-A this year. If the big league team were realistically in the playoff hunt, I wonder if Lindgren might have moved even faster. As it is, he’s kind of like Refsnyder in that he’s a safe bet to play a big league role, the only question is how significant that role will be. Is he strictly a left-on-left guy (which would be the extreme low end), or can he establish himself as a setup man or closer? Good chance for both immediate and long-term impact here.
9. C Luis Torrens
As I’ve written many times, I’m hesitant to make too much of extremely young players, but I would have been surprised to see Torrens not make the cut here. Still just 18 years old, Torrens gets rave reviews for his ability behind the plate, which is pretty stunning for such a young kid who’s relatively new to the position. He’s also shown some ability to hit, though he’s obviously still maturing. Time will tell just how good he’ll be, but this is another case of the tools being simply too good to ignore. “We have people who think he’s the best catcher out of the whole group,” Newman said late in the year. “But he’s 18. He’s got a long way to go. Slow down.” Fair enough. There has to be time for Torrens to develop, and there’s incredible uncertainty with any 18-year-old, but I tend to think of Top 10 lists like this one as a way to highlight certain aspects of a system. And Torrens deserves to be highlighted.
10. 3B Miguel Andujar
Naturally could have gone any number of directions with the No. 10 slot. Could have mentioned Manny Banuelos and his return from Tommy John surgery. Could have chosen Slade Heathcott, with an acknowledgement that his injuries might be too much to overcome. Could have gone with a guy like Bryan Mitchell as a relatively safe bet to play some kind of big league role. And could have gone with top 2013 draft pick Eric Jagielo after he showed impressive power during an injury-shortened season in Tampa. Instead, Baseball America went with another low-level guy in Andujar, who had a rough first half but reestablished himself with a .319/.367/.456 second-half slash line in Low-A Charleston. It’s an interesting choice for this spot on the list if only because he’s a guy who can easily go unnoticed. Clearly one of the better prospects in the system, but at this point in a ranking, it’s a matter of preference and who gets highlighted. Andujar joins Jagielo and Dante Bichette Jr. as legitimate third base prospects in the organization.
Associated Press photo of Sanchez
What to do about second base? • 10.27.14
The Yankees really don’t have a problem at second base. They have a perfectly capable big league option in place with Martin Prado, and they have on-the-verge second base prospects in Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela. They’re set in the short term, and they have some hope for the long term.
None of these guys is Robinson Cano, but the options aren’t bad.
Problem is, what happens at second base is connected to what happens at third base, and so there’s still a bit of uncertainty. Move Prado to third and second base becomes all about potential and nothing about proven experience.
So what to do about second base?
1. Make third base a separate issue
This means, essentially, committing to Prado as the Opening Day second baseman. Pirela could still play his way into a bench role, and Refsnyder could force a change if he rakes in spring training (or in the first month or so back at Triple-A) but the Yankees could essentially approach this offseason with Prado locked in at second base, making the third base uncertainty a separate issue. If the second base situation is what it is – with Prado and the two young guys – then there’s little else to discuss at the position.
2. Commit to one of the young guys
Essentially, do nothing at either second base or third base. The roster stays as it is, but instead of Prado being penciled in at second base, he’s penciled in at third base. Alex Rodriguez is the regular designated hitter, and the Yankees commit to either Refsnyder or Pirela playing second base on Opening Day. It would essentially let them spend money elsewhere, but would force some level of belief and patience through inevitable growing pains.
3. Prepare to mix and match
Don’t commit to anything at either second base or third base. Simply try to find three options for two infield positions: Rodriguez, Prado and someone else. That likely means signing some sort of veteran second baseman – maybe a Mark Ellis type – to add an experienced option just in case Refsnyder and Pirela each fall flat. Mixing and matching would not require the kind of contract that absolutely has to be in the lineup, but it would likely involve some sort of free agent who has experience.
4. Focus on a second base upgrade
Maybe Chase Headley is too expensive for a defense-first player. Maybe Pablo Sandoval is too expensive, period. Maybe there’s not a great third-base option out there, so instead of focusing on third base a position of uncertainty, the Yankees decide that Prado is the third baseman, Rodriguez is the DH, and they go looking for help at second. That could mean finding a low-cost veteran to compete with Pirela and Refsnyder – perhaps that’s all the market will allow – but it would surely mean a more concentrated effort to do more. For example: how readily available and viable is Chase Utley? Essentially, instead of signing a new third baseman, the Yankees commit resources toward a regular second baseman.
Associated Press photos
For anyone wanting the Yankees to go with prospect Rob Refsnyder at second base next season, it might be worth keeping an eye on the kid playing second base for the Giants this week. Three different scouts, all from different organizations, said they saw pretty solid similarities between Refsnyder and San Francisco rookie Joe Panik.
“I think that’s a very good comparison,” one scout said. “Two guys making the most of their ability, and both have the knack of putting the barrel to the ball.”
Reading through most any scouting report on Panik feels almost exactly like reading a report on Refsnyder. At least, in terms of offensive ability and intangible makeup.
Panik is a “fundamentally sound line drive hitter who makes contact but doesn’t have a ton of power.” Through the minor leagues he showed “an advanced approach with a lean toward patience.” Even if he doesn’t have a standout tool, Panik “rarely strikes out, draws walks and looks like he should be able to continue hitting for a high average.” One of his minor league hitting coaches said that Panik was “professional, came from a decent family, and a good school at St. John’s.”
But the favorable comparisons largely end when it comes to defensive ability. Refsnyder was a college outfielder who’s made progress at second base but remains a work in progress. Panik was a college shortstop, so his move to second base was from a harder position to an easier one. Panik is seen as a better defensive player.
“Offensively I would make that comparison,” another scout said, noting that he’s seen far more of Refsnyder. “(Panik) looks smoother at second base.”
Called up to the big leagues in mid June, 23-year-old Panik hit .305/.343/.368 in his rookie season. He was regularly batting eighth, then seventh, and by the end of August he was San Francisco’s No. 2 hitter. He’s stayed in that spot through the postseason. Panik hit only one home run and had no stolen bases, but the bat itself — ability to make contact and get on base — largely lived up to its billing.
Refsnyder is five months younger and he was drafted one year later (Panik was a first-rounder in 2011; Refsnyder went in the fifth round in 2012). It’s hard to perfectly compare their minor league careers — Panik moved one step at a time, one year at each level; Refsnyder got an early-season promotion in back-to-back years; there’s also no league overlap — but their career numbers are fairly similar.
Panik: .296/.365/.403 in 1,620 career at-bats
.321/.382/.447 in 74 Triple-A games
Refsnyder: .297/.389/.444 in 1,144 career at-bats
.300/.389/.456 in 77 Triple-A games
Overall, Refsnyder has the better numbers, and that’s with Panik playing in a more hitter-friendly Triple-A league. Refsnyder has struck out more frequently, but he’s also walked more often. He’s also stolen more bases as a better success rate, but ultimately, the numbers are too similar to pick out any overwhelming differences. Give Refsnyder an additional 500 at-bats, and his career slugging percentage might dip a bit.
“Solid baseball guys that find a way to get better,” one scout said.
It’s risky business to assume two players will handle the major leagues in the same way, but baseball is often a game of comparisons, especially when it comes to on-the-verge prospects. Right now the Yankees have a young second baseman on the verge of the big leagues, and at least on the offensive side, there might be a solid comparison currently playing in the World Series.
Associated Press photo