In three weeks and two days the Yankees will open the 2019 regular season at home against the Orioles. They are a week and a half into their Grapefruit League season and, so far, no one has gotten hurt. That is the most important thing right now. The pitchers are getting stretched out and the hitters are still working to get their timing down. The single most important thing on March 5th is good health.
Spring Training numbers are full of lies. Tyler Wade’s .333/.412/.733 batting line doesn’t mean anything, and I say that as a Wade fan. J.A. Happ’s 20.25 ERA is no big deal. Spring Training performance is generally meaningless and yet, each and every year teams base roster decisions on spring numbers. Not major decisions, it’s usually only one of the last roster spots, but spring performance does sometimes dictate roster decisions.
The Yankees, thankfully, do not have many roster spots up for grabs this winter. We don’t have to worry about them reading too much into Grapefruit League numbers and taking the wrong guy north. That said, not everything we see in spring is meaningless and we have learned some things about the 2019 Yankees from their nine exhibition games to date. Here are four things we’ve learned so far.
Tulowitzki might actually have something left in the tank
Coming into camp, it was impossible to know what Troy Tulowitzki had to offer the Yankees. He’s battled injuries throughout his career and he hadn’t played in a competitive game since July 2017, and he’s also 34 now, which is where you’d expect normal age-related decline to become a factor as well. The Yankees decided to roll the dice on the Blue Jays’ dime because hey, why not? If it works, great. If not, then no big deal.
Tulowitzki took Marcus Stroman deep in his very first Grapefruit League at-bat this year, which made for great schadenfreude, but the home run was only a little poke just inside the right field foul pole. That ball probably sails foul if it were, say, 320 feet down the line rather than 314 feet. The more telling homer came in Tulowitzki’s next game, when he yanked a ball over the wall in the left-center field gap:
“More than (the homers), the way he’s moving in the field,” said Aaron Boone to Erik Boland when asked what most excites him about Tulowitzki. “It’s great to get some early results and get some homers out of the gate. But I’m probably more excited about how he’s moving in the field and how he’s attacking the ball and playing free and easy. He looks really athletic out there. I think that’s the thing I’m even more excited about.”
After that long layoff, it would’ve been understandable if Tulowitzki came out of the gate looking rusty and sluggish. The guy hadn’t played in 20 months, after all. It would’ve been understandable and also concerning because the Yankees have Tulowitzki penciled in as their regular shortstop. Sliding Gleyber Torres over to shortstop and putting DJ LeMahieu at second base is a fine backup plan. Clearly, the best Yankees roster includes a productive Tulowitzki.
If nothing else, Tulowitzki has shown there is still some life in his bat, and that playing shortstop is not a pipe dream. He’s given everyone a reason to keep paying it attention. Will this last? Who knows. History suggests Tulowitzki will get hurt at some point. Tulowitzki came to camp as an unknown and the first impression is good. We’ve seen signs of a productive player, not someone who looks like he missed the last 20 months.
“I have a lot of work ahead of me,” said Tulowitzki to Bryan Hoch following his second homer. “Two games; I need to be out there more, see more pitchers, just be on my feet more. But I’ll take it. It’s a good start. I’m just having fun, man. It was a long road for me, so every time I step out there on the field, I don’t take it for granted. I’m trying to enjoy every moment.”
Bird is healthy
Greg Bird is a Grapefruit League Hall of Famer. He’s hitting .462/.533/.923 with three doubles and one home run through 15 plate appearances this spring and is a career .319/.420/.674 hitter in Spring Training. Bird has never carried his spring performance over into the regular season because he’s never actually made it through Spring Training healthy as a big leaguer. The last three years:
- 2016: Had shoulder surgery and missed Spring Training.
- 2017: Fouled a pitch off his foot at the end of camp and tried to play through it in April.
- 2018: Started the season on the disabled list after dealing with ankle soreness in camp.
Bird was impossibly lost last year after returning from his second ankle surgery in two years — he hit .135/.210/.260 (26 wRC+) after August 1st last season and looked every bit as bad as those numbers suggest — and the fact of the matter is the 2017 postseason is the only time in the last three years Bird was a productive big leaguer. Otherwise he’s been hurt or bad or both.
Through nine Grapefruit League games, we know Bird is healthy. Or at least he looks healthy, anyway. That’s a start. The numbers are nice, especially since he’s driving the ball the other way with authority …
“I’ve just been enjoying it, to be honest,” said Bird to Ken Davidoff about his Spring Training. “That’s it. It’s still early. We’ve got a lot of camp left. Long season. I’m excited. I’m excited for the team we have.”
The last two bullpen spots aren’t really up for grabs
Ah yes, a good ol’ fake Spring Training competition. Fake, rigged, whatever you want to call it. The Yankees have been known to do this from time to time. Make it appear a roster spot(s) is up for grabs even though they made their decision a long time ago. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with it. Competition brings out the best in people and there’s no harm in keeping players motivated.
The Yankees currently have two open bullpen spots behind Dellin Betances, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Jonathan Holder, and Adam Ottavino. Barring injury, those two spots are going to Luis Cessa and Tommy Kahnle. They’re both out of minor league options, so they can’t go to Triple-A without passing through waivers, and there’s no chance either would clear. The roster mechanics factor into the decision at least somewhat.
Aaron Boone talked up Kahnle over the weekend — “That’s the best I’ve seen him throw since I’ve been here … That was exciting to see,” he said to Brendan Kuty following Kahnle’s three up, three down, three strikeouts performance Friday — and said his fastball sat in the 95-97 mph range without much effort. That’s very encouraging for early March. Last season Kahnle’s fastball averaged 95.5 mph and he put everything he had into each pitch.
As for Cessa, the Yankees very clearly like him, and they will need a swingman/sixth starter type on Opening Day. He has allowed one run in five innings this spring — “I try not to think about (being out of options). The last two years I put too much pressure on myself to make the team. Right now I will do my job and pitch,” Cessa said to George King recently — but it’s five innings. Who cares? Still, Boone is talking Cessa up like he is Kahnle.
“We believe he can fill (the swingman) role really effectively. It’s important for him to come out and pitch well, but we really like where he’s at and how he’s throwing the ball right now. I think he’s going to play a big role for us this year,” said Boone to Erik Boland recently. “I think he’s going to play a big role for us this year” is definitely not something that gets said about a guy who is fighting for a roster spot.
Beyond Boone’s words, Kahnle’s and Cessa’s usage is telling. Kahnle is getting the veteran reliever treatment and pitching early in games, against actual big leaguers. Cessa is working as a starter and getting stretched out. So to is Domingo German, which is only smart, but he has an option remaining. Other bullpen hopefuls, specifically Stephen Tarpley, have been pitching later in Grapefruit League games. They’re further down on the priority list.
Injuries can always change things and keep in mind the Opening Day bullpen is just that, the Opening Day bullpen. The bullpen will change throughout the season. Right now, the Yankees are talking and acting like a team that has already decided Kahnle and Cessa are getting the final two bullpen spots. Kahnle is worth an extended look to see whether he can get back to his 2017 form, and Cessa being out of options gives him a leg up over German.
Sabathia won’t be ready for Opening Day
This is something I think we all knew would be the case coming into the camp, but now it is official. CC Sabathia is working his way back following his annual offseason knee cleanup and also his December angioplasty. His offseason program was interrupted and he reported to camp behind the other pitchers. He started throwing bullpen sessions last Friday. Unless the Yankees rush him, which they would never do, Sabathia won’t be ready for Opening Day.
“We haven’t mapped out a timetable yet, but I have plenty of time (to get ready for the season),” said the perpetually optimistic Sabathia to Bryan Hoch and George King recently. “After I got the clearance from the doctor to start working out, I started working out pretty heavy. I knew coming down here I would feel good. I felt fine playing catch, getting on the mound the other day felt great and today, so I’ll just keep progressing. I feel great.”
Assuming Sabathia starts the season on the injured list rather than simply serving his five-game suspension, the Yankees will need someone to make two spot starts in April, and this probably means both Cessa and German will make the Opening Day roster. One will make the spot starts and the other will be the long man in the bullpen. Once Sabathia is activated, German goes to Triple-A and Cessa moves into the bullpen full-time. Something like that.
As long as the weather cooperates the Yankees can very easily arrange their early season rotation in such a way that Sabathia’s replacement makes his first four starts against the Tigers, Orioles, White Sox, and Royals. The schedule works in their favor. The Yankees can give Sabathia as much time as he needs while running their sixth starter out there against some truly terrible teams. That’s the best case scenario given the circumstances, really.
Coming into camp, there was a tiny sliver of hope Sabathia would be ready for the start of the regular season. That is definitely not the case now. That question has been answered. Sabathia is only now starting his usual spring routine. The Yankees have to figure out who will fill in as the fifth starter in the early going (I’d put money on Cessa) and prepare accordingly.