Last year’s top draft pick, Jacob Lindgren, allowed just one earned run in big league camp this spring. Utility man Jose Pirela almost certainly would have made the Opening Day roster had he not suffered a concussion. High-end second base prospect Rob Refsnyder led the team in doubles and on-base percentage.
Yet it was Slade Heathcott who today won the James P. Dawson Award as the top rookie in Yankees’ spring training. He was awarded for hitting .355/.459/.581 with three stolen bases and seven RBI in 31 at-bats (that’s before he walked in his only plate appearance today). He also played strong defense all over the outfield and impressed the Yankees with his attitude and work ethic.
Heathcott’s spring has been so good that, according to a source, the Yankees have decided to send him to Triple-A to open the season. That wasn’t the plan at the start of spring training, but Heathcott has played his way to a spot with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“I’m just having fun playing the game,” Heathcott said a few days ago. “It’s encouraging. I think confidence is a large part of this game. Everybody knows that. I think just finding a way to stay confident through the ups and downs, stay consistent, that’s a big deal. I just think it’s just playing healthy. I haven’t really felt that very much (in the past). A little bit in 2012, but besides that it’s just been battling through things. Now I’m just trying to grow as a hitter, starting to be a little bit more mature.”
After a second knee surgery limited him to just nine games last season, Heathcott was taken off the 40-man roster this offseason. He ultimately re-signed and clearly forced his way back onto the radar.
“Oh my God, yeah,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “Heathcott’s been very impressive. Very healthy, very athletic, very productive. There’s optimism.”
There’s rarely been any doubt about Heathcott’s talent, it’s his ability to stay on the field that’s largely derailed his growth and development. This spring, though, Heathcott looks and sounds like a different player. He not longer hoping to stay healthy, he’s fully believing that he is and will be healthy. He talks about growing up, about understanding the game, and about appreciating the opportunity. He grows just a little uncomfortable talking about his past injuries because he clearly doesn’t want to use them as an excuse.
It’s all about what happens next, not what’s happened before.
“Honestly, my knee never crosses my mind when I’m playing,” he said. “I’m to the point that I’ve trained hard enough and ran enough and done the training that I need to do to make sure that it will hold up. It very seldom crosses my mind. So it’s really just the confidence of getting back in the swing of things.”
Associated Press photo
For years, Joe Girardi has talked about the value of defined roles in the bullpen. Even this spring he’s talked about it. Relievers like to know when they’re getting in a game, and so it helps to have a true closer, setup man, long reliever, lefty specialist, etc.
But on this final day of camp, it seems the Yankees might be prepared to go into the season with more flexibility than definition in their pen. Girardi strongly indicated that he has no plan of naming a closer and will instead mix-and-match the final two innings, using Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances interchangeably depending on matchups.
“I really think that if you do it that way, and as long as you’re prepared, it has a chance to be advantageous to you,” Girardi said.
Girardi said the Yankees have not prioritized a closer decision, and now it seems they won’t make a decision at all. Instead, Girardi said he’s looking at Miller and Betances as his eighth- and ninth-inning relievers, but he’s open to using either one in either role. If there are lefties coming up in the eighth, then Miller will be the setup man and Betances the closer. If there are more lefties due up in the ninth, the roles will reverse.
“My thought has been more like with a power lefty who strikes out a lot of guys and a power righty, the lineups just might match up where one day he’s the eighth inning guy and then one day he’s the ninth inning guy a little bit better,” Giradri said. “… I think you start managing who you’re going to use (in the ninth) in about the sixth inning, because you try to prepare them.”
The flexibility goes beyond the ninth. The Yankees are currently planning to carry three lefties, but Girardi has said none is necessarily a true left-on-left specialist. They’ll all be used to get right-handers out as well. And while Esmil Rogers is the only real long man in the pen, today Girardi named him along with David Carpenter and Justin Wilson as options to will basically the seventh-inning role that Adam Warren had last season. Chasen Shreve was a starter through much of his minor league career, and Chris Martin has pitching multiple innings this spring, so one of those two might be available for long relief if necessary.
The Yankees see their bullpen as a strength, but they also see it as a evolving piece of the roster, which could change from day to day and game to game.
“I’ve talked to both (Miller and Betances)” Girardi said. “They’re concerned about winning more than (roles), in the sense of I’m this guy, I’m this guy. That’s the sense I’ve got from them. Now, could it iron itself out and you start to do it one way? Yes. But we talked a little bit about it yesterday. I’ll continue to talk about it with my coaches and Larry and his feelings about it as they get a feel, and Gary Tuck who’s in the bullpen, what do you think the importance of it is that we actually set a role? But as of right now, we haven’t felt that we have to.”
• CC Sabathia is cleared for 80-85 pitches today. This will be his final start before pitching the third game of the season. Sabathia has so far thrown only 4.2 innings this spring and will surely break camp with less than 10 innings of actually game experience, but Girardi said he’s satisfied that Sabathia’s gotten all the work he needs. After one regular season start, he’ll basically be as stretched out as any other starter, and the Yankees prioritized taking it slow ahead of giving him a ton of spring training work.
• Normal day off for Alex Rodriguez today. Carlos Beltran is also sitting out a second straight day because of flu-like symptoms. Girardi said he expects both to play tomorrow’s final exhibition game in Washington D.C.
• Still no catcher decision. Girardi said both John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine will make tomorrow’s trip to D.C. He expects to make a final decision after tomorrow’s game.
• Although they’re playing in a National League park, the Yankees will use a designated hitter tomorrow. Girardi said he expects to give all of his regulars a few at-bats. Sounds like the Opening Day lineup might be in there tomorrow.
• Talked to Slade Heathcott a little bit this morning. I didn’t realize this, but Heathcott said this should be the first year he’s ever broken camp with a team. Amazing how much injuries have slowed him down, but a source said yesterday that the team is planning to open Heathcott in Triple-A strictly because he’s played so well this spring. He finally feels fully healthy. “DL and injury are not in my vocab anymore,” Heathcott said.
• Just based on a few conversations these past few days, it seems a bunch of the upper-level minor league relievers are getting anxious to find out about Opening Day assignments. They all seem to recognize that there are way too many guys for the Triple-A bullpen, so some are going to naturally be forced back to Double-A. These guys have to get an apartment somewhere in the next few days, and right now it seems none of them has a clue where he’s going.
• The two Tommy John rehab guys, Ivan Nova and Vicente Campos, are each throwing bullpens today. Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled for long toss and some flat ground work.
• Today’s second string: C Austin Romine, 1B Jonathan Galvez, 2B Rob Refsnyder, SS Nick Noonan, 3B Eric Jagielo, LF Ben Gamel, CF Slade Heathcott, RF Ramon Flores, DH Stephen Drew
• Today’s scheduled relievers: Chasen Shreve, Andrew Bailey, Branden Pinder, Cesar Vargas, Nick Goody
Associated Press photos
Don’t worry, this hotel desk is made of wood, and I knocked on it before publishing this post…
The Yankees have a roster overloaded with injury concerns, but with a week to go in spring training, they don’t necessarily have a roster overloaded with actual injuries. Their most significant injury of the spring cost them their fifth starter. Otherwise, they’ve dealt mostly with minor bumps and bruises at the major league level.
“There’s nothing major,” Brian Cashman said yesterday. “You’ve got the little stuff. Well, I guess (Jose) Pirela’s concussion, he could be a disabled list situation if it doesn’t resolve. But again, that’s a timing thing. That’s an unpredictable time frame.”
Here’s a quick injury report on where the Yankees stand on the medical front.
Torn elbow ligament
He’s made every scheduled start this spring and reported no problems with his elbow. His offspeed pitches have looked sharp, and there’s little indication he’s holding back. His next start is tomorrow as a final tune-up for Opening Day.
Offseason knee surgery
Just like Tanaka, he’s made every scheduled start. The Yankees kept him on a slow-and-steady schedule early in spring, but now he’s been let loose, and despite rough statistics, his raw stuff has been pretty encouraging. His velocity is up, but consistency remains an issue.
Repeat shoulder issues
After missing much of the past three years with shoulder issues, Pineda has shown no signs of injury or weakness this spring. In fact, he just might be their most reliable high-end starter.
Grade 2 quad strain
The only issue currently expected to impact the Opening Day roster: Capuano came into camp as the heavy favorite for the fifth-starter role, but he’ll likely miss at least a month of the regular season after hurting himself while covering first base.
Tommy John Surgery
A little less than a year removed from surgery, Nova has been throwing full bullpens — including breaking balls — for about two weeks now. He’s still expected back sometime around the first of June.
Got into games later than most pitchers, but he’s pitched well since returning to the field. Bailey missed the past year and a half, but he’s said he feels strong again this spring. Question is whether he has time to go back-to-back and prove he’s capable of breaking camp with the big league team.
Tommy John surgery
On roughly the same schedule as Nova, Campos has also been throwing bullpens and continues his rehab in big league camp until his inevitable reassignment to the minor league complex.
Released and re-signed, Burton came into camp on a minor league deal and got off to a strong start before hurting himself early in camp. The big league veteran began playing catch again this weekend and could become an option during the season.
Hasn’t played since March 15, but after a weekend of batting practice and other drills, Ellsbury is scheduled to get in a minor league game tomorrow. Fully expected to be healthy in time for Opening Day. Could even play in another Grapefruit League game or two.
Hit by a pitch at the minor league complex on Sunday, Teixeira was scheduled to have tomorrow off anyway. He’ll basically rest for two days before being expected back in the lineup on Wednesday.
Offseason elbow surgery
Held back very slightly at the beginning of spring training, Beltran has since been on a fairly normal schedule getting most of his time in right field with only a handful of DH days. No sign the elbow is holding him back at all.
Looked bad when Gregorius landed on his glove hand while trying to make a diving play on Saturday, but X-rays and an MRI came back negative. He’s now had two days off, and he’s scheduled to have another day off on Tuesday. Expected back in the lineup Wednesday.
Arrived in spring training with an injury and didn’t get into a game until March 20. Ryan has since played in seven games, and he’ll play again on Tuesday. He’s seen time at both second and short and is expected to break camp as the Yankees’ backup middle infielder.
Slammed into the outfield wall while playing center field last Sunday. Hasn’t played since, and even regular baseball drills have been put on hold while he tries to move past all symptoms. Was having a great spring, but seemed unlikely to make the team even before the injury.
Repeat knee issues
Had knee surgery yet again last season, but Heathcott arrived in big league camp talking about renewed health and confidence, all of which showed in a strong spring during which he seemed to be running well without pain. Sent to minor league camp yesterday.
Associated Press photos
First, a reminder that we’re doing a chat today at noon. This is an off day in Yankees camp. For me, that means a day to sit in a hotel room and write a whole lot of season preview stuff for the newspaper. For the Yankees, it means a day to catch their breath before one last burst of exhibition games and decision making. Heading into this final week, here are a few thoughts and impressions from Tampa:
• I actually think CC Sabathia looks pretty good. His numbers are awful, but I’m buying it when he says he’s encouraged. He’s clearly stronger than he was last year, and I think it’s good that he’s talking about his changeup a lot. He’s going to have to pitch smart and keep hitters off balance, and I think he’s able to do that. Scouts keep telling me what a “pitcher” he is; that Sabathia knows what he’s doing out there even with diminished stuff. The numbers are awful, but this is one of those situations in which I’m not sure spring training numbers mean much. He’s going to give up some home runs now — that’s just the way it goes — but I think he’ll be better than he was the past two seasons. Not a Cy Young candidate, but I think he’ll be a good No. 3 starter as long as he stays healthy.
• The middle of the order does not look very good. At this point, I think that’s a bigger problem than the rotation. Even if the lineup stays healthy, I’m still not sure what the heart of the order can provide. Carlos Beltran hasn’t looked great, Brian McCann has been so-so, and Mark Teixeira hasn’t hit for much power (though I do think Teixeira seems to be in much better shape than last spring, so maybe he can stay on the field and avoid a second-half decline). I just haven’t seen a lot that suggests the lineup is much better than it was last season. Veteran guys like that might be able to turn it on once they’re in real games, I just don’t think they’ve shown it down here.
• Whether Alex Rodriguez has a successful season might depend on your definition of success. If he carries his spring training slash line through the season he’ll be an MVP candidate, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. More likely, I think he’ll get on base at a decent clip, pounce on some bad pitches to hit home runs now and then, and generally provide what you’d expect from a No. 6-7 hitter. That’s honestly better than I was expecting. He’s not running well, but I think he’s running well enough. He’s not a good defender, but he’ll field balls that are hit right to him. He’s better than I thought he would be.
• As a side note to the Rodriguez situation: He’s also handled all of the off-the-field stuff pretty well. Believe it or not, he actually makes some small talk and jokes with reporters in the clubhouse. Teammates seem to like him. Opposing players don’t seem to completely hate him. He’s heard his share of boos, but he’s heard plenty of cheers as well. I’m telling you, from every angle, this situation has been much better and easier than I expected. The Yankees seem to feel the same way. Both Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi said yesterday that they’re happy with the way Rodriguez has settled back into the clubhouse.
• I have no idea what the Yankees are going to do about those final two spots in the bullpen. I think Chase Whitley is a favorite for one of those spots, if only because I think they’ll want another long man other than Esmil Rogers (and all the other long relief candidates have been sent away). What I can’t figure out is who the favorites might be for that last spot in the pen. I do think it’s worth noting that Chris Martin and Chasen Shreve are on the 40-man and have options, and I think that final bullpen spot might be very flexible early in the season. For that reason — because the 12th reliever might have to go up and down to Triple-A a few times — I’m not surprised the Yankees steered away from Jacob Lindgren. He’s looked great, but I imagine that once he’s on the big league roster, the Yankees want him to stay there. Why not carry Martin or Shreve out of camp, send him down for a sixth starter in late April, and then think about adding either Lindgren or Andrew Bailey?
• Backup catcher might be more wide-open than I expected when camp opened. Last season showed the Yankees clearly prefer John Ryan Murphy, but don’t think they’ve completely given up on Austin Romine. Ideally, I think — and this is just a gut feeling — the Yankees would prefer to trade Romine before the season starts, but I think they’d like to get real value for him. If they can’t, maybe he gets one month to prove himself one way or the other in the big leagues. If he can’t do it, Murphy comes up to take his place. That said, if the Yankees choose to DFA Romine in favor of Murphy, that wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I really think it could go either way. If I had to guess right now, I think I’d still pick Murphy.
• Slade Heathcott has looked so good this spring, I wonder if the Yankees might get aggressive and send him straight to Triple-A to play center field every day. That would free Jake Cave, Mason Williams and Aaron Judge to play the outfield every day in Trenton (and Williams had a good enough spring that I think he’s worth everyday at-bats as well). Put Heathcott in the Triple-A outfield with Ramon Flores and Tyler Austin and see what happens. This isn’t a typical development year for Heathcott. The Yankees really need to find out by the end of the season whether he’s a high-end asset again.
• At this point, I’m assuming Jose Pirela will end up in Triple-A, but where does he play regularly? Obviously he’ll have to bounce around a little bit — some time in the outfield corners, some time at second base — but it might make sense to see what he can do as a regular third baseman. If Chase Headley gets hurt, Rodriguez isn’t good enough in the field to play third every day, so the Yankees might want to get Pirela prepared just in case he has to play that role at some point. But he really can’t play any one spot every single day. He’s going to have to maintain some flexibility because the Yankees might want his bat at some point even without an injury at third.
• Sure, Sabathia says his knee feels fine and Masahiro Tanaka is pitching like his elbow is healthy, but the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Yankees’ rotation might be Michael Pineda. That guy looks fantastic. He’s still throwing hard, still throwing a ton of strikes, and his offspeed stuff is more effective than when the Yankees first acquired him. It’s amazing that, after missing much of three years with shoulder problems, Pineda just might be the most reliable piece of the Yankees rotation. I think Nathan Eovaldi could be pretty good, but Pineda could be great.
• Speaking of the rotation, what happens if everyone stays healthy and Adam Warren has a 3.00 ERA at the end of May. Would he move right back into the bullpen to make room for Chris Capuano? What about Ivan Nova? Granted, this is a pretty extreme hypothetical — it involves Warren having an all-star caliber first two months, and involves a rotation full of injury concerns staying healthy — but I really think Warren’s a nice pitcher who could thrive. Maybe not to the tune of 3.00, but what about a 3.20 or a even a 3.50? Would you take that out of the rotation in favor of a guy one year removed from Tommy John?
• Relief pitchers are notoriously inconsistent from year to year. Only a very few are able to truly get the job done season after season. For that reason, I think the Dellin Betances struggles should raise some red flags. Not white flags of surrender, but red flags of concern. He just hasn’t looked great, and it’s not just the fact he’s not throwing 98 mph. Some of that added velocity could very easily come with regular-season adrenalin. Right now, he’s also missing spots and looking fairly hitable. I think that should be a bit of a concern. The Yankees have banked on the idea of having a standout bullpen. What if they don’t?
Associated Press photos
Today’s cuts in Yankees camp:
· Optioned RHP Bryan Mitchell and OF Ramon Flores to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
· Reassigned RHP Kyle Davies, C Francisco Arcia, INF Cole Figueroa, INF Jonathan Galvez, OF Slade Heathcott, C Kyle Higashioka, LHP Jacob Lindgren and RHP Nick Rumbelow to minor league camp.
· Unconditionally released RHP Scott Baker.
“We’d like to re-sign Baker,” Brian Cashman said. “We told him we’d like to re-sign him and put him in Triple-A, but obviously he’s going to evaluate the marketplace. I thought he had a good camp. Obviously he took a run at putting himself in the conversation for, at worst, the long man situation that we’re still playing through, whether we take one or two long men. We’ve got more things to work out, but we had to make a call because we were contractually obligated to him.”
Associated Press photo
Yesterday, Brian Cashman declared Adam Warren the “Secretariat” of the fifth-starter competition. Today, Warren struck out five and allowed one run in 3.1 innings. Are the Yankees really going to bump him back into the bullpen tomorrow? While Joe Girardi said the team still wants to have some discussions, it seems clear Warren has realistically locked up the open rotation job.
“He threw well again,” Girardi said. “Not easy conditions to pitch in today either, so I thought he threw the ball, mixed everything in again, and that’s what he’s done all spring.”
At this point, the bigger question seems to be whether Warren can carry his bullpen success into the rotation. Specifically, just how good can he be as a regular starter? Over on FanGraphs, there’s a post called: Who Might Adam Warren Be? It’s an analysis of his raw stuff — a 94-mph fastball that generates weak popups, an effective changeup that he throws for strikes, a groundball inducing curveball — leading to a series of comparisons in search of just how good Warren might be if given a long look in the rotation.
The name that pops up most often is overwhelmingly optimistic: Dodgers No. 2 starter Zack Greinke.
They’ve both got straight, rising fastballs complemented by good sinkers. Greinke’s slider is better than his change, and Warren’s change is better than his slider, but the ratio between the two pitches is similar. Neither curve is great, but Warren’s gets so many ground balls that it might shorten the distance between their respective abilities to command their arsenals.
That’s a pretty giant comparison to throw out there. Warren pitched well out of the bullpen last season, and he was a pretty highly regarded prospect in the minors. Could he pitch well enough in the first month or so to keep a rotation job even after Chris Capuano is healthy? What about when Ivan Nova is healthy? If the Greinke comparison seems a bit too much, some of the other names mentioned in the FanGraphs piece range from the uninspiring (Erasmo Ramirez, Kevin Correia) to the impressive (Matt Cain, Homer Bailey).
“I feel like pitching is pitching,” Warren said. “I’ve proved I can pitch at this level. I just got to go out there and learn from some of the guys who have started and learned the mindset of being aggressive, attacking always, getting early outs. But I feel like I’ve got the stuff. It’s just going out there and executing pitches.”
John Ryan Murphy said he really doesn’t call a game much differently if Warren’s pitching as a starter vs. as a reliever. In either role Warren’s used all four of his pitches, and Murphy said all four are quality pitches that can be thrown for strikes and used to get outs.
“I think you just try to keep the foot on the pedal as long as possible,” Warren said. “The biggest thing for me — and I didn’t do a very good job today — that I want to focus on is getting outs early in the count, just be efficient with my pitches. My pitch count got a little high today and I didn’t have my best stuff, but being able to attack the zone is the biggest thing. Just try to go out with my best stuff from pitch one and see how far I can go with it.”
For now, it seems that approach has carried him into the starting rotation.
• There was a giant birthday cake in the Yankees clubhouse today (it was actually a bunch of cupcakes arranged to look like one big cake). Ramon Flores, Rob Refsnyder and Brendan Ryan all celebrated their birthdays today.
• Girardi said Jacoby Ellsbury came through today’s light baseball activity with no problem. Assuming he shows up feeling good tomorrow he’ll do more tee and toss and increase to taking a few rounds of batting practice inside. Girardi said he’s expecting Ellsbury to play a minor league game on Tuesday. Whether he gets in another Grapefruit League game will basically depend on how he’s feeling (when he was hurt late last spring, the Yankees kept Ellsbury in minor league games at the end of camp so that they could back-date any possibly DL stint; they seem less concerned this time around).
• Jose Pirela continues to have some concussion symptoms, so he won’t be playing any time soon. “Yesterday he rode the bike and was fine,” Girardi said. “Today he rode the bike and got dizzy. He’ll see a neurologist again. That’s the hardest thing to predict with a concussion; even though he looked great, he got dizzy today. We’ll back off a little bit, talk to the neurologist and try it again fairly soon.”
• The Yankees unconditionally released RHP Jared Burton from his minor league contract. Burton is a big league veteran and he was pitching well before he got hurt. If he wasn’t going to break camp with the big league team, though, the Yankees overwhelming bullpen depth probably didn’t leave much room for him.
• Austin Romine was supposed to catch this game, but he got some sort of stomach bug and had to be scratched. His competition for the backup catcher job, Murphy, played instead and went 1-for-2, raising his spring batting average to .219. “I think it’s going to come down to the last couple days,” Girardi said of the decision between Romine and Murphy.
• Girardi still expects to get Alex Rodriguez in a game at first base. “It’s coming up,” he said. “I didn’t have a chance to talk to him, but I have it on the board.”
• The plan is for Masahiro Tanaka to make Tuesday’s road trip to Fort Myers to pitch against the Twins. That keeps him lined up for Opening Day.
• As for today’s game, after Warren left the game, the Yankees relievers had a tough time. Jose Ramirez gave up two runs, so did Chris Martin, and Danny Burawa allowed one run. Tyler Webb finished the day with a scoreless eighth, but it still wasn’t a great day for the pen. Worth noting, of course, that of those relievers, Martin’s the only one actually still in big league camp. He struck out three but also allowed a home run to Desmond Jennings.
• Here’s Girardi on choosing his final relievers: “I think you’re going to look at the last 10 days. They’ve all had their ups and downs. That’s the interesting part of it. We’re going to make a decision over the next 10 days and it’s probably going to be the guys that we feel are going to give us the best chance to help us, but maybe have pitched the best the last 10 days.”
• While Girardi said he thinks Andrew Bailey has pitched well this spring, he’s still not sure whether Bailey will have a real chance to break camp with the team. “The fact that he hasn’t went back-to-back — and I don’t know if he’ll go back-to-back in spring training — might make it difficult,” Girardi said. “It’s something that we have to talk about next week, where we feel he’s at and how ready he is. But he’s throwing the ball pretty good.”
• Another nice game for Slade Heathcott, who had a double, a walk and pushed his spring batting average to .320. “He’s played great,” Girardi said. “The biggest thing we’ve said about this kid is we’ve got to keep him healthy. There are a lot of tools there offensively, defensively, running the bases. It’s just, he hasn’t had a lot of at-bats, but there’s a lot of talent.”
• Two-hit day for Didi Gregorius. He had a double and pushed his spring batting average up to .308. He’s definitely been a standout this spring. … After his walkoff homer a couple of nights ago, Flores had a two-hit day. He and Refsnyder each doubled on their birthday. Ryan went 0-for-3 with a walk. … One reason Refsnyder seems not ready for the big leagues: he made his fifth error today. … Jake Cave had an RBI single but was also caught stealing in the ninth.
• Girardi said “it’s possible” he’ll be ready to name a fifth starter tomorrow. We basically know who it’s going to be, but it would be nice to have the Yankees waste no time making it official.
• Let’s give the final word to Warren: “I came into the spring and wanted to pitch well. Wherever I ended up, I wanted it to be because I pitched well and not because I didn’t pitch well. I feel like I’ve gone out there and proven myself. It all comes back to, I just want to get ready for the season. I was a little more comfortable this year just being around the guys, early on working on some things and then ramping it up these last two outings and really go out there and compete. It’s been a fun spring for me. ”
Associated Press photos
The Yankees have a night game — their first of the spring — so we have a few hours to kill today. Let’s start with a few random observations and thoughts as we enter the middle of March:
• So who’s the fifth starter now, what does that mean for the rest of the pitching staff, and what does that mean for the Yankees idea of using six starters a few times in April and May? It really seems those questions could be answered any number of ways by the time Opening Day roles around. My feeling is that Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers are the heavy favorites for the rotation opening, which further opens the possibility of either Chase Whitley or Bryan Mitchell taking a long-relief role. I also wonder if the Yankees might carry a guy like Scott Baker as their long man, sending Whitley and Mitchell to Triple-A to stay stretched out for a call-up to make a spot start here and there. If I have to guess right now, I’ll say it’s Warren in the rotation, Rogers in the bullpen, with Whitley and Jose Ramirez breaking camp as the 11th and 12th pitchers on the staff. But that’s a true shot in the dark.
• Honestly, Alex Rodriguez looks better than I expected. I don’t think he looks great, but he seems to still have a solid eye at the plate, and I think he can at least make the routine plays at third base. The Yankees might be able to get away with starting him there every 10 games or so, knowing they’ll have to bring Chase Headley or Brendan Ryan (or Jose Pirela) in to play some late-inning defense. Saying that Rodriguez looks better than I thought isn’t to say I think he’s going to be a middle-of-the-order slugger, only that I think there’s at least some reason to hope he can be a useful hitter near the bottom of the order (maybe a little higher against lefties). Most surprising thing about A-Rod this spring: fans seem to be mostly on his side. Certainly not completely on his side, but definitely more cheers than boos.
• Weird thing about covering Masahiro Tanaka’s spring is that each good day seems like a tease. The best the Yankees can say is, well, his elbow hasn’t blown out yet. That’s it. Maybe optimism grows each time he goes out there, but a successful bullpen, batting practice or exhibition game doesn’t eliminate the possibility of his elbow blowing out the very next time he pitches. I think the Yankees should feel encouraged at this point, but I’m not sure they’ll ever feel secure. I do think they made the right call in trying to rehab — I honestly think we rarely hear about the success stories when pitchers approach it that way — but even if Tanaka makes 30 starts this year, those are going to be 30 uneasy outings.
• Tanaka is the best pitcher on this team, but it’s hard to be in the Yankees clubhouse and not see CC Sabathia as the clear ace. Pitchers still look to him for advice. They look to him for leadership. And the big man provides. I have no clue whether he can be a great big league pitcher again. I don’t even know if he can be a solid No. 3. But I don’t think his role in the clubhouse has changed from what it was three years ago. Even veteran guys will gather around near his locker to talk to him about anything and everything.
• When camp opened, I thought Rob Refsnyder would get some chance to compete for a roster spot. I didn’t think he’d win one, but I thought he’d get some significant attention beyond that of his other inevitable Triple-A teammates. Instead, Refsnyder doesn’t seem to be getting any more of a look than Jonathan Galvez or Nick Noonan. Refsnyder might jump into the picture if Stephen Drew gets hurt, but it really seems — they haven’t said this, just seems obvious — that the Yankees have no intention of sending Refsnyder anywhere but the minor leagues, probably to work on his defense.
• Three ways I see for Jose Pirela to make the roster. 1. Brendan Ryan’s back doesn’t get better and the Yankees choose Pirela as a right-handed platoon infielder, sliding Drew to shortstop on days Didi Gregorius needs a break. 2. Chris Young gets hurt, and Pirela is the right-handed fourth outfielder. 3. Alex Rodriguez absolutely can’t play third base, leaving Ryan as the only backup at second, short and third. If that’s the case, the Yankees could decide they need a bigger bat and settle on Pirela instead (again, using Drew at shortstop on days Gregorius sits). Even in that third situation, though — with A-Rod relegated to DH only — I still tend to think Ryan would actually keep the bench job ahead of Pirela, at least coming out of camp. The Yankees seem to want to make sure they have enough shortstop depth to open the season, and losing Ryan really makes that position thin.
• I think Nathan Eovaldi is going to be good, but I also think the closest thing to a sure thing in the Yankees rotation is Michael Pineda, and that’s just crazy after what that guy’s been through these past three years.
• Slade Heathcott looks good so far. Incredibly small sample size, but he’s hit pretty well and has played a pretty good center field when he’s been out there. Heathcott is always in insane shape, and he’s clearly convinced the knee problems are behind him. He lost considerable prospect status and a spot on the 40-man roster for good reason — he simply has to stay healthy — but there’s still a lot of talent there.
• Backup catcher? I still think it’ll be John Ryan Murphy, even though he’s not doing much at the plate. If that’s the case and the Yankees have to put Austin Romine on waivers, I honestly hope he’s claimed so that he can get another shot somewhere else. Romine seems to do things the right way, and he’s just been buried in this organization.
• One thing making me think the Yankees are preparing themselves for the possibility of losing Romine is that Eddy Rodriguez seems to be catching quite a few bullpens with big league pitchers. He caught Masahiro Tanaka’s sim game the other day. He’s caught CC Sabathia. I wonder if the Yankees are trying to get Rodriguez a little familiarity with the big league staff just in case they lose Romine and need another catcher during the year. There’s no guarantee Gary Sanchez will deserve a call-up — and the Yankees might not want Sanchez to be a backup at this stage of his development — so Rodriguez could be that just-in-case veteran waiting in Triple-A. If so, it would make some sense to let him get a little familiar with the guys on the big league staff.
• Carlos Beltran looks healthy, but he’s done nothing at the plate so far. Everyone should know not to make anything of these early at-bats for a veteran guy like Beltran, but it’s hard to apply that logic when he’s coming off such a bad year and the Yankees are counting on him so heavily. I make nothing of Jacoby Ellsbury’s slow start, nothing of Didi Gregeoius’s slow start, and I guess I make nothing of Beltran’s slow start, but I can’t help noticing it.
• Four players who I absolutely do not expect to make the big league roster under any circumstances: Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Luis Severino and Heathcott. Yes, they’re high-end talents, but I just don’t think the Yankees are seriously considering them as big leaguers out of camp. In the second half? Maybe. Especially for Severino. But out of spring training is way too ambitious. I think Refsnyder and Jacob Lindgren could make it under some circumstances — probably Lindgren easier than Refsnyder — but I just don’t see any of the most hyped prospects actually being on the big league radar for April. They’re getting attention because they’re talented, not because they’re about to make the team.
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Eight Yankees have hit a home run this spring. Only one of them is expected to actually break camp with the big league team.
“Some of the guys were saying that it looked like I didn’t even swing,” Alex Rodriguez said. “That’s always a good sign for me. It looked like a little pepper swing and the ball jumped pretty good, so that’s a good sign.”
Who had A-Rod in the first big league Yankee to homer pool? If you did, congrats, because today he got an 88-mph, 3-1 pitch from right-handed Red Sox pitcher Brandon Workman and sent it over the wall in left-center field. It was Rodriguez’s first home run since September 20, 2013. He said he had no idea when he hit it whether it would carry over the wall.
“I haven’t hit a ball like that in a long time,” Rodriguez said. “So I don’t know what’s a home run and what’s not. … It feels good. Look, I’m happy that I can contribute. It’s early March. Let’s see what happens. You have to do that in New York where it counts. It’s certainly a good start.”
Both Rodriguez and Joe Girardi seemed most impressed by the fact Rodriguez was in a 3-1 count. He’s shown a pretty good eye this spring, and good counts usually lead to easier pitches.
“He’s getting in good counts to hit,” Girardi said. “He drove a breaking ball the other day pretty well to right center that was down in the zone, which is not necessarily easy to do. I don’t see him chasing pitches, which I think is key for him.”
Said Rodriguez: “Laying off the 1-1 slider, the 2-1 fastball, gets you to a 3-1 count. I think that’s going to be the key for our offense this year, to really stay disciplined.”
Did Rodriguez ever doubt he’d hit another home run at some point?
“You always have doubt,” he said. “Look, I haven’t played in a long time. You guys have been writing it. It’s a tough game. What I’m trying to do, not a lot of people have been able to have this comeback. I’m working hard every day trying to make the team and contribute.”
• The Yankees announced that Chris Capuano’s right quad strain in a Grade 2. That’s definitely going to keep him off the Opening Day roster. “I think it happened right before he got (to first base),” Girardi said. “I thought it was a calf the way he pulled up, but obviously it’s an upper quad.”
• This was Rodriguez’s second game at third base. He had to make another play and another long throw, but he still hasn’t really tested his range. It’s pretty clear he’s not expecting to cover a ton of ground. “I forgot how far that throw is,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “The game is really hard, but I’m having a lot of fun playing it and I’m working hard at it. I want to be able to play a respectable enough third base where Joe feels comfortable enough where I can give him an option here and there to give those guys a blow.”
• The plan is for Rodriguez to DH tomorrow.
• Speaking of tomorrow, Girardi said Tanaka is scheduled for two innings in his spring debut. “We’re pretty happy with where he’s at,” Girardi said. “But we need to build him up now. It was good that he started two games last year because I think there would have been even bigger of a deal tomorrow. The first game he started, I sat on the edge of my seat a little bit. I feel pretty good about where he’s at.”
• Before Tanaka’s debut, CC Sabathia is scheduled for a 2:30 p.m. simulated game. “We’ve been really pleased with where he’s at,” Girardi said. “He’s throwing the ball well. We get through the simulated game and then we’ll probably get him in a game.”
• Andrew Miller allowed a solo homer to lead off the second inning today. It was hit by young first baseman Travis Shaw. “Don’t want to face young kids early on in spring,” Girardi said. “They let it fly.”
• That sentence might be reassuring for Miller, but it goes both ways. Right now the Yankees have some hitting putting up huge numbers, but they’re also young kids. Girardi said he keeps that in mind when evaluating what the prospects are doing so far. “They joke about when Major League pitchers go down to throw minor league games in spring training, they try to set these kids up,” Girardi said. “No chance. They’re hacking. That’s what happens.”
• Speaking of young guys who are putting up big numbers, Slade Heathcott hit a ninth-inning home run today and is batting .625 so far this spring. … Also read hot is Jose Pirela, who went 2-for-2 and raised his early spring average to .533. … Bryan Mitchell was knocked around for four runs on seven hits in two innings today. Tyler Webb allowed two runs on three hits in one inning, and Chris Martin allowed three runs — one earned — also on three hits in one inning.
• Rob Refsnyder made his third error of the spring. That’s not at all helped his case for a spot on the Yankees roster (not that it seemed he was getting a real look anyway). … Brendan Ryan did a pretty light workout. He’s scheduled to take dry swings tomorrow. … After missing two days with a stiff neck, Nick Noonan is expected back tomorrow.
• Luis Severino played light catch today. “We’ll slow him down a just little because he’s been sick,” Girardi said.
• Low-level minor league pitcher Brayan Alcantara has received a 72-game suspension after testing positive for metabolites of Stanozolol, a performance-enhancing substance in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
• Final word goes to Rodriguez about (sort of) getting to be a part of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry again. “It’s like nothing in sports, Red Sox-Yankees. I have so much respect for that organization over there. It’s just great. Even saying hello to the umpires, saying hello to double-five over there, (Brian) Butterfield, he’s a good friend. Just being back in the game and the great reception I’ve been getting from the fans, it’s been a pleasant surprise.”
Associated Press photos
Stephen Drew made all the plays he was supposed to make today, but he also went 0-for-3 at the plate. It was kind of a take-the-good-with-the-bad kind of day for a guy who’s suddenly having to prove himself on both offense and defense.
“These guys brought me over here to fill that role (at second base),” Drew said. “And playing in the league for as long as I have and understanding the game, it’s definitely big. And it’s still early. With these at-bats, it’s huge for me, whereas last year I was going into a season where guys were four months (ahead). It’s not an easy task. It’s not an excuse, but at the same time, it’s something that really I don’t think anybody has done quite like that. Knowing that, and knowing that feeling, it’s definitely a big key to be here in spring (training) right now.”
Yes, Drew knows there’s a big league job waiting for him. But it would be hard for anyone to not notice the way Jose Pirela is hitting so far this spring, and Rob Refsnyder gets more attention in the clubhouse than some of the veterans. Drew is coming off the worst offensive season of his career, and now he’s trying to learn a new position. Will he really break camp as the Opening Day second baseman? Probably. The Yankees have basically committed to that much, the question is whether he can play well enough to keep the job going forward.
“I mean, if (anyone) was to struggle, we’d probably make a change,” Joe Girardi said. “That’s the nature of our game, but we didn’t sign him to struggle. We signed him to play at a very high level, and we expect that he will.”
How does Drew go about learning second base and getting his numbers back on track with the rest of his career? Well, it starts right here, with games like today. If he stays healthy, this will be Drew’s first full spring training since 2011. He played no spring training games in 2012 because of a broken ankle, he missed most of the 2013 spring with a concussion, and he didn’t sign last year until May. He was in the big leagues roughly two weeks later.
“I was in good shape (last spring),” Drew said. “And like I keep telling you guys, the biggest thing is you haven’t seen live pitching, Major League pitching, along with that (time off). Last year was definitely a challenge. Really, you’ve got to slow the game down. I was rushing the game, trying to speed it up, trying to play catch up. To be here now is definitely a big moment for me.”
Drew has just 11 at-bats this spring, but he also has just one hit. He made an error on his first opportunity of the exhibition schedule. Anyone who follows this game knows not to make much of early spring training results, but it’s hard not to analyze everything Drew’s doing given his situation. For those who hated the signing in the first place, every 0-for-3 and every defensive mistake seems like proof that Drew’s contract was a mistake.
The Yankees, though, see a good defensive player, who’s athletic and experienced enough to learn a new position, and who’s 2013 — when he had a .777 OPS — is far more indicative of the kind of hitter he’s been through most of his career. They see a potential bargain where others see a sure bust.
“We expect him to be a productive hitter, to get back to the form that he was at before last year,” Girardi said. “I think he got behind, and I think it was difficult for him to catch up when you miss spring training. When you slowly progress into playing and then you have a rushed spring training in a sense. He wasn’t there very long. Maybe he had 15, 16 at-bats or whatever he had. It’s just hard to catch up. I think you get behind, and then you start off slow and you try to make things up. It just makes things worse a lot of time. We feel that he’ll get back to the form that he was at.”
• Despite going three scoreless innings, Chase Whitley wasn’t all happy with his start today. He walked three guys, got into jams in the first and second innings, and threw only 24 of 46 pitches for strikes. Good work to get out of trouble with a lot of ground balls, but Whitley said he’s clearly still in early spring mode. “Overall pleased with the result,” he said. “But the process has to get a little bit better.”
• Girardi seemed to like the fact Whitley had to handle some adversity and make big pitches. “He got some big ground balls when he needed them,” Girardi said. “He got in some long counts and got some baserunners, but he did a good job with runners in scoring position. You want to see that.”
• The Yankees lost 3-1 with all of the Orioles runs coming against Branden Pinder and Chasen Shreve, two 40-man guys who seem to be fighting for that open spot in the bullpen. Pinder was knocked around early in the fifth inning — four straight hits, two runs — but also got some big outs to limit the damage. Shreve gave up a solo home run to a switch hitter.
• Both Jacob Lindgren and Esmil Rogers pitched a scoreless inning with two strikeouts.
• A sure sign that it’s absurdly early: Chase Headley came into this game hitting .100 for the spring. He went 3-for-3 and in one day raised his average to .308. He had hits from each side of the plate. “It’s tough to figure out what you’re trying to do early,” Headley said. “You really want to see pitches, track the ball good out of the pitchers’ hands. I didn’t feel very good doing that, wasn’t seeing them like I wanted to, so I figured today I’d be a little bit more aggressive, try to take it a little more like regular-season at-bats. I think that put my rhythm and timing in better spots. It was good. It doesn’t mean a whole lot, but you want to get hits.”
• Yet another start for Didi Gregorius against a left-handed starting pitcher. Girardi seems happy about that, but he said it’s strictly coincidence. The lineups are generally set before the Yankees know who they’re facing in spring training. “I want to see him (against lefties),” Girardi said. “Obviously a lot of times you can get pegged early on in your career; I’ve seen it happen to a lot of players. We have a lot of confidence in Didi and we want him to get at-bats.”
• Aaron Judge made a nice diving catch in right field today. Headley almost made a terrific diving stop on a Machado double. He dived toward the foul line, but the ball hit off the tip of his glove. “I was mad at myself that I didn’t catch it,” Headley said. Would have been a sick catch.
• Big-time injury in the American League East as Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman is likely to miss all year with a torn ACL. “I feel like it’s becoming the NFL; there’s one big injury every day,” Girardi said. “It’s frustrating when you lose your players, guys that you count on. No one is going to feel sorry for you and you have to just move on, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
• Speaking of AL East injuries, the Yankees saw Manny Machado back in the Orioles lineup today. He went 3-for-3, and Girardi said the situation reminded him of a Yankees prospect. “Two knee surgeries, and having to fight back; it’s frustrating as a player,” Girardi said. “For him, he’s really young, but you know your time is limited. And that’s the last place you want to spend it is rehabbing on the DL. I look at a young kid that we have. He’s not as accomplished as Manny, but what Slade (Heathcott) has gone through, the knee surgeries. It’s frustrating. It delays your progress as a player.”
• Gary Sanchez hit a pretty long home run for the Yankees only run of the day. … Pirela went 1-for-2 with a walk and a stolen base. He’s hitting .462 (Refsnyder went hitless but is hitting .455). … Aside from Pirela, Sanchez and Headley, the only Yankees hit belonged to Mark Teixeira.
• For today’s final word, here’s Girardi’s response to a joking question about whether he’s ready for the big game against Boston tomorrow. “Huh? Oh yeah. I was thinking, big Boston game, what’s he talking about? Do you guys (in the media) have a game or something?” Rivalry games just don’t carry the same weight down here in spring training.
Associated Press photos
The Yankees might not have an experienced closer on their roster, but they do have one in camp.
Andrew Bailey is back with the Yankees on a minor league contract. He threw a bullpen this afternoon, and said he no longer thinks of himself as a rehab pitcher just trying to get healthy. He sees himself as a legitimate reliever trying to make the big league roster.
“One hundred percent,” Bailey said. “I came in and spent the offseason training, working as I would if I played last year. The doctor gave me 18, 24 months (to be healthy after surgery), and we’re in that 18th, 19th month. Everyone around here, training staff, coaches and strength and conditioning have all kind of (treated it as if) I’m a normal guy with some needs. Hopefully we get rid of those needs. Everything feels great. I’m with the team and doing everything as I would normally, and if I need a little extra work here or there, that’s fine too. I’m here to compete and earn a spot.”
Bailey has thrown five bullpens since he reported to Tampa after the Super Bowl. In between bullpens, he takes a few more days off than other guys, but the Yankees believe that’s a temporary precaution. Bailey expects to start throwing live batting practice around the time the exhibition schedule begins, which he believes will give him enough time to pitch the innings necessarily to break camp.
“I thought today he looked pretty good, actually,” Joe Girardi said. “I talked to Gil Patterson about it. Compared to where he was last year to where he is (now), there’s significant improvement. I don’t know exactly what we’ll see as far as games, and his bullpens are a little more spread out than maybe some of the other relievers, but that’s on purpose right now, and our hope is that we can catch him up and keep him healthy.”
Bailey’s still just 30 years old. He made two all-star teams as a closer in Oakland, and he could be an option for that wide-open spot in the Yankees bullpen (maybe not as closer, and maybe not by Opening Day, but certainly at some point he could play a significant role). Hard to know what exactly to expect from a guy who hasn’t pitched anything beyond a simulated game in more than a year, but Bailey was awfully good in the past, and he said he feels that way again.
“To feel as good as I do and locate as well as I have been, it’s a pretty awesome feeling,” Bailey said. “I feel fresh and ready to go, and excited for the next step.”
• Bailey is one of the few players who aren’t expected to be ready to play in games the first week of camp. Bailey is just slightly behind the others, but Girardi said he expects Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and CC Sabathia to each be ready for games when the spring schedule starts.
• Over at the minor league complex, Rodriguez was asked about the leadership void in the Yankees clubhouse. “First, no one can replace The Captain,” Rodriguez told reporters. “I know I’m going to miss him tremendously. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of things. If guys want to ask questions, I love talking baseball, and you guys know that better than anyone. I love the game, and I love to talk it. Whoever needs my help, I’m available.” Clearly Rodriguez isn’t going to be a leader in the way Derek Jeter is a leader, but he really does talk hitting with other players a lot.
• Speaking of which, Didi Gregorius said he got some hitting tips from Rodriguez at the minor league complex this afternoon. Said it was good to meet him. “He’s a good teammate,” Gregorius said. “He introduced himself to everybody when he walked in (at the complex). New player, you don’t know everybody yet, so everybody comes to introduce (themselves) or you go to them.”
• Several other position players began to move stuff into their lockers this afternoon, including outfield prospects Slade Heathcott, Ramon Flores and Tyler Austin, who have three lockers in a row right next to one another on a back wall. Jose Pirela also arrived today. Rodriguez, Gregorius, Chase Headley, Chris Young and Garrett Jones all worked out at the minor league complex.
• Heathcott had yet another knee surgery last season and spent six months recovering at the Andrews Institute. He said he feels a significant difference between now and last spring. “Excellent,” he said. “I’m ready to play in a game right now.” I’ve been talking to Heathcott for many springs at this point, this is the most confident I’ve heard him in years. Finally sounds like he truly believes he’s healthy.
• So far, no significant injuries to report in Yankees camp, though minor league catcher Juan Graterol is still coming back from a broken arm and hasn’t been taking batting practice with the other guys. He’s been catching bullpens, though.
• Speaking of bullpens, there were a lot of them today. I caught most of Michael Pineda’s, and he looked sharp. “I thought his bullpen was excellent,” Girardi said. “I think he ended up throwing 35 pitches. I thought everything was working for him. Arm strength was really good, so that was good.” Remembering that spring of 2012, the arm strength seems to be a key issue.
• Another bullpen that seemed to catch the manager’s eye: “You know, I thought (CC Sabathia’s) bullpen was good today,” Girardi said. “I was pleased, I mean really pleased, with what I saw. Physically, I know the recovery is important, and going out there inning after innings, sitting down and getting back up (will be a different challenge), but I saw a lot of good signs today.”
• Girardi has not yet talked to Rodriguez face-to-face about playing first base, but he said he expects that conversation at some point. “I anticipate that, yeah,” Girardi said. “I’ll talk to him about taking some grounders over there just to be prepared, if I need to give a guy a day off or whoever we chose to do it, but yeah, I’m going to talk to him about it and see how comfortable it is.”
• With Rodriguez set to work at first base, and Headley having some experience there, Girardi left open the decision about who will backup Mark Teixeira. There seems to be one obvious standout candidate, though, and Girardi mentioned him by name. “I think it’s too early to decide who our backup first baseman is,” Giradri said. “Garrett Jones has played over there. That’s something that we’ll work on in spring training.”
• Interesting tidbit from Brendan Kuty: Former Gold Glove third baseman Scott Rolen has been working with third-base prospect Eric Jagielo at the minor league complex. That was at the suggestion of Gary Denbo.
• Final word goes to Girardi, about the way he’ll handle Rodriguez now that position players are set to report in the morning. “The idea for me as a manager is to get the most out of a player,” Girardi said. “I have to do whatever it takes; that’s my job. Will I be any different? I don’t know if the situations will be the same, in a sense. In 2013, he hadn’t served his suspension, a lot of things were still in question and it was different. Now it’s different. He’s served his suspension, a lot of questions have been answered, and now my job is to get to the most out of him again. I’ll do what it takes.”
Associated Press photos