Tyler Austin out at least six weeks with fractured foot

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have suffered their first injury of the year. Earlier today Joe Girardi told reporters in Tampa that Tyler Austin will miss a minimum of six weeks with a fracture in his left foot. He suffered the injury when he fouled a pitch into his foot during batting practice. Austin will be in a boot for the next three weeks.

As these things tend to do, the Chris Carter situation has worked itself out. I don’t mean to make light of Austin’s injury. It really sucks. Point is, depth is a good thing, and the Yankees brought Carter on board just in case something like this happened. Losing Austin does cost the team a good piece of first base and outfield depth, however.

Austin, 25, hit .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) with five home runs during his 31-game big league cameo last season. He also hit .294/.392/.524 (161 wRC+) with 17 homers in 107 games between Double-A and Triple-A to earn the call-up. Austin struggled quite a bit the last few years before getting his career back on track in 2016. It was fun to watch.

This is a fluke injury, and the timing means once Austin’s foot heals, he’s still going to need time to get ready for game action. He basically has to go through Spring Training. I suppose the good news is this happened early in camp. Six weeks from today still isn’t Opening Day. Hopefully Austin will be ready to go at some point in April.

The mental side of Michael Pineda’s two-strike, two-out issues

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Aside from Dellin Betances, arguably no pitcher in the Yankees organization has better raw stuff than Michael Pineda. He sits in the mid-90s with his cutter even after shoulder surgery, and his slider is allergic to bats. Pineda ranked seventh among the 73 qualified starters with a 27.4% strikeout rate last season. He was fifth with a 10.61 K/9. That speaks to the sheer quality of his stuff.

And that’s a big reason why Pineda is so frustrating. His cutter/slider combination is so obviously excellent, yet the results don’t match. He’s more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe. Shaky command definitely explains some of the disconnect between his stuff and results. A nasty slider is no good when you hang it right out over the plate, something Pineda did far too often last season.

There is also a mental component to pitching, and while I hate focusing on it — bad results means he’s stupid, right? (as if a clubhouse can be confused for a Mensa meeting) — it is definitely part of the game. Focus is important, especially for a pitcher when things start to go south. Pineda had some big time problems with two strikes and two outs last year, and at one point pitching coach Larry Rothschild said it was a matter of focus.

“I need to have better focus when I’m pitching. I need to finish after I get two outs. When I get two outs or two strikes, I need to finish,” said Pineda to George King earlier this week. “(Rothschild) always tells me, ‘You have a good fastball, a good slider and good changeup. You need to focus, especially with two outs.'”

Looking at Pineda’s career overall, his issues with two strikes and two outs are limited to last season. He had no such trouble in those situations in his previous big league seasons. Here are the numbers (Pineda didn’t pitch in MLB in 2012 or 2013 due to his shoulder surgery):

Two Strikes Two Outs
2011 .136/.203/.210 (59 OPS+) .233/.298/.316 (77 OPS+)
2014 .176/.200/.239 (73 OPS+) .176/.186/.318 (48 OPS+)
2015 .202/.244/.349 (86 OPS+) .227/.263/.362 (76 OPS+)
2016 .187/.246/.286 (104 OPS+) .325/.383/.598 (172 OPS+)
MLB AVG .176/.246/.276 (100 OPS+) .241/.319/.395 (100 OPS+)

OPS+ provides important context. Pineda held hitters to a .187/.246/.286 batting line with two strikes last year and wow that sounds great, except the league average was .176/.246/.276. A guy with Pineda’s slider should not be league average in two-strike counts. He should perform like, well, the 2011-15 versions of Pineda. That guy had no trouble with two strikes or two outs.

Now just because Pineda had no trouble with two strikes and two outs in the past does not necessarily mean last year’s issues were a fluke. Confidence is important, and if his confidence took a hit last season, it could still need to be rebuilt this year. Something like this could snowball pretty easily. Get two quick outs, then a bloop falls in, and all of a sudden it’s “here we go again.”

“It’s hard to look at the (stats) with the stuff he has. We continue to remind him to finish innings. Two-out runs seem harder to recover from than solo homers (earlier in the inning),” said Joe Girardi to King. Rothschild added Pineda “tried harder to do more” to close out innings.

I can definitely buy that. There were times last season when Pineda seemed to try so hard to execute a perfect two-strike pitch — rather than just focusing on making a quality pitch — that he messed up and hung it out over the plate. Not every pitch needs to be perfect, especially when the hitter is on the defensive with two strikes. How do you get Pineda out of that mode? Damned if I know. That’s up to Girardi, Rothschild, and Pineda to figure out.

Last season Pineda allowed 52 of his 98 runs with two outs, or 53%. That is completely and totally bonkers. The league average is 36%. Pineda with a league average number of two-outs runs allowed would have had a 3.99 ERA in 2016, not a 4.82 ERA. That’s a huge difference! We’re talking about getting that one last out here. Get the out and the threat is over. Its impact can be enormous.

Because Pineda’s problems with two outs and two strikes were limited to last season, I’m hopeful he can get over them going forward. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done on the mental side. Of course there is. This problem won’t fix itself. Getting over the hump is a win-win. The Yankees will get a more effective Pineda in 2017 and Pineda will put himself in a good position heading into free agency after the season.

Mailbag: Home Opener, Didi, Sanchez, Carter, Mateo, Reeves

I’ve got 13 questions in the mailbag this week, the first of Spring Training. Just think, when next week’s mailbag is posted, we’ll be only a few hours away from the Yankees playing their first Grapefruit League game. Good times. Anyway, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the mailbag email address.

Sabathia. (Presswire)
Sabathia. (Presswire)

Christian asks (short version): Girardi named Tanaka as the starting pitcher on Opening Day, which is an honor. The home opener is Game No. 7 this year. Do the Yankees consider that when lining up their rotation?

I’m not sure, honestly. The home opener is the seventh game of the season this year, though the Yankees have two off-days in the first week. They could, conceivably, line up their rotation in such a way that Masahiro Tanaka starts both Opening Day and the home opener. The off-days give them a lot of flexibility early on. I’m not sure how much of a consideration this is, however.

Here are the Opening Day and home opener starters during each year of the Joe Girardi era (an asterisk indicates the Yankees opened at home that year):

Opening Day Home Opener
2008 Chien-Ming Wang Chien-Ming Wang*
2009 CC Sabathia CC Sabathia
2010 CC Sabathia Andy Pettitte
2011 CC Sabathia CC Sabathia*
2012 CC Sabathia Hiroki Kuroda
2013 CC Sabathia CC Sabathia*
2014 CC Sabathia Hiroki Kuroda
2015 Masahiro Tanaka Masahiro Tanaka*
2016 Masahiro Tanaka Masahiro Tanaka*

In 2010, 2012, and 2014, the Yankees did not do anything fancy with their rotation. They opened on the road those years and used five starters right out of the gate, so the home opener start went to whoever happened to line up that day. In 2009, the Yankees opened the season with a nine-game road trip. They use an off-day to skip their fifth starter the first time around, then stayed on turn. That allowed Sabathia to start Opening Day and the home opener, which was the tenth game of the season.

These days the Yankees are pretty obsessive about giving their starters extra rest whenever possible, so while those two off-days in the first week give them a chance to do something creative, I think they’ll stay on turn and use all five starters right away. That means Tanaka on Opening Day and the No. 2 starter for the home opener. I’d put money on Sabathia being that guy, not Michael Pineda.

Matt asks: When it’s all said and done, does Cashman get a plaque in Monument Park?

That’s an interesting question. Brian Cashman was the general manager for the most recent Yankees dynasty, plus he built another championship team in 2009. Hopefully this rebuild leads to a few more titles as well. Right now there are 37 honorees in Monument Park, 28 of them players. The other nine include one broadcaster (Mel Allen), one general manager (Ed Barrow), one public address announcer (Bob Sheppard), two owners (Jacob Ruppert, George Steinbrenner), and four managers (Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Joe Torre).

If Cashman retired today, I’d say he belongs in Monument Park. And you know what? I think he’ll get a plaque eventually as well. Maybe not right away, especially if he leaves to join another team, but down the line. Remember, Cashman has been with the Yankees since the 1980s. He was based in Tampa and worked in player development when the Yankees drafted and developed guys like Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada. That should count for something.

Dan asks: Seeing as how Didi almost definitely won’t start at SS for the Netherlands, what defensive position would it be better for the Yanks if he played (and learned)? I think third base. The yanks have a ton of MI depth, but could really benefit if Didi shows he can be an option there at all.

Probably third base. Didi Gregorius has a little second base experience in both the minors (349.1 innings) and majors (79.2 innings), and basically none at third (ten innings total). That said, we’re only talking about a handful of World Baseball Classic games here. The Netherlands should be able to make it out of the first round — they’re in a pool with South Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Israel — but getting out of the second round is a tall order. They’ll play maybe six or seven games total. That’s not enough time to learn a new position, is it? I don’t think so. Gregorius is a very good defender at short and he should remain there. I have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which it makes sense for the Yankees to move him around.

De La Rosa. (Joe Mahoney/Getty)
De La Rosa. (Joe Mahoney/Getty)

Joseph asks: I was looking for your take on Jorge de la Rosa. I feel he would be a good fit for the multi-inning swingman out of the bullpen role. The Yankees will be needing some innings out of their bullpen with the likes of Pineda, the #4 starter and the #5 starter. de la Rosa pitched well in relief, albeit in a limited 8 innings last year, so could be worth a flyer. Helps that he is a lefty as well, not having too much depth in that department.

I wouldn’t mind him. The Yankees have been connected to De La Rosa a few times over the years, both when he was a free agent and on the trade block. He had a rough 2016 season overall (5.51 ERA and 5.36 FIP), which was spent mostly as a starter. De La Rosa made three relief appearances, threw eight total innings, and allowed one run on a solo homer. He struck out ten, walked none, and allowed three hits. I’m not sure whether the information is useful in any way.

If the Yankees can bring De La Rosa, who will turn 36 in April, to camp as a non-roster player, then by all means, go for it. There’s no such thing as too many pitchers. Keep in mind De La Rosa is on Mexico’s WBC roster though, so he’s going to be gone for a few weeks. (Mexico has a solid team and could advance pretty deep in the tournament.) De La Rosa is a lefty with a history of missing bats, and he’s spent the last nine years pitching for the Rockies in Coors Field. He’s used to pitching in tough environments. That’s a plus to me.

John asks: If Gary Sanchez keeps putting up David Ortiz, Miggy type numbers, our best offense weapon is one foul tip away from a DL trip. The wear and tear of a long season also slows catchers down in the second half. A 2019 move to LF or 3b have to be considered?

This is a definite concern. Several teams have moved their top young hitters out from behind the plate in recent years to avoid injuries and general wear and tear. The Nationals and Bryce Harper are the best example. Wil Myers was also a catcher before moving to the outfield. Harper and Myers didn’t move for defensive reasons. They moved because their teams deemed their bats too special to put them at such a demanding position.

Sanchez is not nearly as athletic as Harper and Myers, which presents a problem. If he changes positions, he’s going to first base, not the outfield or third base. He doesn’t have the mobility for those positions. I wrote a post about the possibility of moving Sanchez out from behind the plate to protect his bat last September, and I came to the conclusion the Yankees are best off leaving him at catcher. His arm makes him an asset defensively, and having a top hitting catcher is such a huge advantage. Enough of an advantage that I think it outweighs the risk.

Nico asks: I was watching the Carter highlight reel you posted the other day (love his nice & easy swing!), I noticed that it seemed like a lot of his bombs were on offspeed stuff. Of course I didn’t keep a tally or anything, but is that true? More broadly, what’s Carter’s power profile? (eg types of pitches he hits out, areas of the zone he likes, fields he likes to hit to, etc)

Chris Carter hit 41 home runs last season, and here is the pitch type breakdown, via Baseball Savant:

  • Fastballs: 26 (16 four-seamers, seven two-seamers, two sinkers, one cutter)
  • Sliders: nine
  • Curveballs: four
  • Changeups: two

Twenty-six of the 41 came on some kind of fastball, or 63%, which seems normal since last year 61% of all pitches were fastballs. Carter pulled 16 of his 41 homers last year. The rest were to center and right fields. Similar to what I did with the rest of the Yankees a few weeks ago, here is a strike zone plot of Carter’s 100+ mph line drives and fly balls:

chris-carter-100-mph-ldfb

Carter’s best contact, meaning a well-struck ball in the air, tends to come on pitches in the bottom half of the strike zone. Below the belt, basically. So, generally speaking, Carter hit home runs against all types of pitches last year, pulled fewer than half of them, and did the most damage on pitches over the middle plate and in the lower half of the strike zone. That’s his power profile, I guess you could call it.

Nic asks: Kyle Higashioka — I feel like he’s been lost in the shuffle a little bit. Obviously, he’s outside your top 30, but where would he have fallen? Also, any possibility he overtakes Romine for the backup C roster spot?

Higashioka wasn’t a serious top 30 consideration. He’s going to turn 27 shortly after Opening Day, he has an ugly injury history, and he has only one season performing at this level. In this farm system, that guy isn’t particularly close to a top 30 prospect. I mentioned I had about 15 players I was seriously considering the final few spots of the top 30, and Higashioka was not one of them. He was outside the top 50.

As for winning the backup catcher’s job, it’s always possible, but I think it’s very unlikely. Beating out Austin Romine means Romine is out of the organization — he’s out of minor league options and would almost certainly elect free agency before accepting an outright assignment — and your third catcher in Triple-A is, uh, Wilkin Castillo? Yikes. The only way I see Sanchez and Romine not being the Opening Day catching tandem is injury.

Stephen asks: Is there some way to calculate maximum value when balancing positional scarcity vs. defensive quality? Specifically in a case like Jorge Mateo‘s, where we know he can handle the toughest position of shortstop – how many more runs would he need to save as a centerfielder to justify the move down the defensive ladder?

The positional adjustments used in the various versions of WAR can help us here. A league average hitting (100 wRC+) and fielding (0.0 runs saved) shortstop is more valuable than a league average hitting and fielding first baseman because of position scarcity, right? Right. The positional adjustments account for that. Each version of WAR uses different positional adjustments. Here are a few:

bWAR fWAR Zimm 2015 Update Average
C +9.0 +12.5 +7.75 +9.8
1B -9.5 -12.5 -9.25 -10.4
2B +3.0 +2.5 +1.75 +2.4
SS +7.0 +7.5 +4.75 +6.4
3B +2.0 +2.5 +1.75 +2.1
LF -7.0 -7.5 -4.25 -6.3
CF +2.5 +2.5 +1.75 +2.3
RF -7.0 -7.5 -4.25 -6.3
DH -15 -17.5 -9.25 -13.9

So, based on the average positional adjustments, the gap between the most valuable position (catcher at +9.8) and least valuable position (DH at -13.9) is a whopping 23.7 runs. That’s a difference of more than +2 WAR just based on position scarcity. (Roughly ten runs equals one win.)

Using the average values, the positional adjustments tell us a shortstop is worth 4.1 more runs than a center fielder (+6.4 minus +2.3). Mateo would have to save four more runs as a center fielder than he would has a shortstop just to break even, essentially. He very well might be able to do that! It’s definitely doable. His speed in center field could be a real weapon. We’ve seen other track stars like Billy Hamilton move to center and put up insane defensive numbers. (Whether those numbers reflect reality is another matter.)

Bob asks: The Yankees worked out Jorge Mateo in CF, and you are a fan, but isn’t his hit tool a little weak for CF? His bat would seem to work better at SS or 2B. Your thoughts please.

That’s the big question. Mateo’s ultimate position isn’t going to matter much if he doesn’t hit. He can be a bit of a hacker and it leads to a lot of soft contact, and as fast as he is, he’s not going to beat out that many infield singles. Mateo needs to be a bit more disciplined and also get a little stronger so he can drive the ball more consistently. He’s still only 21, remember. The kid is far from a finished product.

As for the question, here are the league averages at the various up-the-middle positions in 2016:

  • Second Base: .270/.329/.425 (101 wRC+)
  • Shortstop: .262/.319/.407 (92 wRC+)
  • Center Field: .259/.324/.407 (96 wRC+)

Second basemen are providing more offense than ever before right now. Short and center are still glove over bat positions, and based on last season, the offensive bar is basically the same. Maybe Mateo will be so much more comfortable in center that his offense will blossom. That’d be cool. Relative to the positional standards, Mateo’s bat will play the same at short and center. The question is whether a move to center allows him to save more runs with the glove.

P.J. asks: Just saw where the Yankees invited James Reeves to ST as a NRI. Looking at his numbers why haven’t were heard more about this kid? Am I missing something, here.

Reeves, 23, was a senior sign as New York’s tenth round pick in 2015. They gave him a well-below-slot $50,000 bonus and used the pool savings elsewhere. Since signing, Reeves has thrown 124.2 minor league innings with a 2.60 ERA (2.89 FIP) and good strikeout (29.1%) and okay walk (8.5%) numbers. Most of those innings have come in relief and at High-A. Reeves did make a short late-season cameo at Double-A last summer.

Long-term, Reeves has some sleeper potential as a future left-on-left matchup reliever. He throws from a true sidearm angle (here’s some not great video) with an upper-80s fastball and a big sweepy slider. The Yankees like Reeves enough that they added him to their non-roster list earlier this week, and he figures to start this season at Double-A, so he’s getting close. Reeves wasn’t close to making my top 30 prospects list and I like Tyler Webb more because he has more fastball and better control. That said, as a funky lefty with a bat-missing slider, Reeves could be a big league option at some point, even if he’s only an up-and-down guy.

Tamir asks: Has a player ever qualified in a season with a higher AVG than OBP?

Nope, never. You can have a higher AVG than OBP due to sac flies. Go 2-for-3 with a sac fly and you’re hitting .667 with a .500 OBP, for example. We see players with a higher AVG than OBP for the first few weeks of the regular season, but it never lasts. As best I can tell, the closest anyone with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title has come finishing a season with a higher AVG than OBP is Ozzie Guillen, who hit .263 with a .273 OBP in 528 plate appearances in 1996. That’s what drawing ten walks and hitting seven sac flies in a single season with do for you.

John asks: I am wondering if there are any updates on Henderson Alvarez. He showed a lot of promise when on the Marlins even making an all star game before having arm trouble. Last I saw he got shoulder surgery in September and was released by Oakland. He seems to be someone worth taking a shot on to see how his rehab goes since he isn’t even 27 yet.

Alvarez missed a bunch of time with shoulder trouble in 2015 and eventually had surgery that July. He rehabbed last year, it didn’t go well, and he needed another surgery on both his shoulder and biceps in September. The last update I can find on Alvarez came from Jon Heyman on January 29th. Heyman says Big Hendo should be game ready by May and that teams are reviewing his medicals. Game ready by May seems optimistic, but we’ll see.

When he was healthy with the Marlins from 2013-14, Alvarez was really good, throwing 289.2 innings with a 2.98 ERA (3.44 FIP). He’s a fun player too and I am pro-fun. Alvarez has a novelty windup he uses for the first pitch of each start …

… and he uses a wide array of offspeed stuff, including a 60-something mile an hour curveball, and it’s just very entertaining to watch. Alvarez had shoulder problems earlier in his career, so this is a recurring thing and that’s kinda scary. But, if he’ll take a minor league deal, sure, bring him aboard. You can’t guarantee him anything after two shoulder surgeries though. The A’s paid Alvarez $4.25M last year and all they got out of it was more medical bills.

Danny asks: Assuming they have similar seasons this year as last (performance and health), which of Tanaka and Sabathia is more likely to be on the team next year?

Hmmm, I’d say Sabathia. Tanaka would put himself in position for a pretty large contract with another strong season, and the Yankees might not want to go that far given a) the elbow, and b) their commitment to getting under the luxury tax threshold. Sabathia, if he comes back, figures to do so on a one-year deal with a much smaller base salary than what he’s making right now. Obviously Tanaka is the better pitcher and the Yankees would be dealt a major blow if he leaves. Sabathia’s terms figure to be so much more friendly that I think a reunion is inevitable as long as he stays healthy. I think there’s a better chance Tanaka leaves than Sabathia, basically.

Open Thread: February 16th Camp Notes

Earlier today lefty Randy Choate told Sweeny Murti he has retired as a player. Choate was the last active member of the 2000 World Series champion Yankees. That feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Choate ranks 136th all-time with 672 appearances and signed over $13M in contracts during his career. Remember to teach your kids to throw left-handed, folks.

Choate’s retirement got me wondering how many members of the 2009 Yankees are still active, and the answer is shockingly few. The Yankees used 45 different players that year and only 13 are still active: Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Francisco Cervelli, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, Mike Dunn, Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Mark Melancon, Ramiro Pena, David Robertson, and CC Sabathia. Crazy. Time flies, man. Anyway, here are the day’s camp notes:

  • Johnny Barbato, J.P. Feyereisen, Chad Green, Jason Gurka, James Kaprielian, Brady Lail, James Reeves, and Masahiro Tanaka all threw bullpen sessions today. I guess that means Green is officially over the elbow woes that sidelined him in September. The guys who didn’t throw went through pitchers’ fielding practice. Everyone’s favorite. [Brendan Kuty]
  • Justus Sheffield said he is trying to win a big league rotation spot this spring. “You never know what can happen. I’m going to go out there and give it my all and show everybody what I’m capable of because you never know what opportunities are going to come up,” he said. Good attitude, though I can’t see him winning a big league job. [Randy Miller]
  • Brian Cashman was in camp and said what everyone knew already: “We are in a transition but we’re not waving any white flag while we’re transitioning.” He added he is “hoping I’m back in 2018 and 2019.” Cashman’s contract expires after the 2017 season. [Erik Boland, Jack Curry]
  • Alex Rodriguez will be in camp as a guest instructor for three days next week. Also, the Yankees brought Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston to camp to talk to their prospects. He basically told them not to make the same mistakes he did. [Marly Rivera, Kuty]

Here is the open thread for the evening. All three local hockey teams are in action, and there are a handful of college basketball games going on as well. Talk about anything except religion and politics here. Have at it.

Yankees officially sign Chris Carter, designate Richard Bleier for assignment

Bleier. (Presswire)
Bleier. (Presswire)

Earlier today the Yankees officially announced they have signed Chris Carter to a one-year contract. The deal will reportedly pay him $3.5M with another $500,000 available in bonuses based on plate appearances. To clear a spot on the 40-man roster, Richard Bleier was designated for assignment.

Bleier, 29, signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent during the 2015-16 offseason. He made his MLB debut last year and threw 23 relief innings with a 1.96 ERA (2.67 FIP). Bleier also had a 3.72 ERA (3.38 FIP) in 58 innings with Triple-A Scranton. He threw almost 1,000 minor league innings before reaching the big leagues.

I’m kinda surprised Bleier lasted as long as he did given the team’s 40-man roster crunch. Soon-to-be 30-year-old rookies are usually among the first guys to get cut once roster space is needed. Instead, the Yankees dumped younger pitchers like Jacob Lindgren, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, and Nick Goody before Bleier this winter. Weird.

The Yankees now have seven days to trade, release, or waive Bleier. It used to be ten days, but now it’s seven under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. There’s always a chance Bleier will be claimed because he’s left-handed and breathing. My guess is he clears waivers and remains with the Yankees as a non-40-roster player, and stays in Spring Training as a non-roster invitee.

The Yankees could follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint with James Kaprielian in 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Luis Severino and James Kaprielian, two of the best young pitchers in the Yankees organization, are looking to rebuild value this season. Severino had big league success in 2015 before struggling big time as a starter in 2016. Kaprielian, meanwhile, was sidelined for most of the 2016 regular season by a pretty significant elbow issue. Both are talented and looking to rebound this summer.

When the Yankees selected Kaprielian with their first round pick two years ago, he was billed as a quick moving college starter who could possibly reach the big leagues late in 2016. It didn’t happen because of the elbow injury, but the Yankees brought him to Spring Training as a non-roster player last year, which was the first time in at least a decade they brought their first round pick to big league camp for his first pro season. They were eager to see him.

Severino, on the other hand, was the rare fast moving international amateur free agent. He went from the rookie Gulf Coast League to the big leagues in two calendar years. That’s pretty incredible. Were the Yankees perhaps overly aggressive with him? Yeah, I think that’s possible, but when Severino was blowing hitters away as thoroughly as he was, it’s tough to hold him back. And after he was called up in 2015, it sure looked like a smart move.

There is again talk Kaprielian, despite the injury, could reach MLB later this year. Obviously staying healthy is the primary goal. If he only makes it to Triple-A this year, so be it. That’ll put him in position to help in 2018 and that’s perfectly fine. Staying healthy is priority No. 1 here. If Kaprielian does that, it’ll be a successful season regardless of whether he actually makes it to the Bronx at some point.

The Yankees surely are at least planning for the possibility of Kaprielian reaching MLB this year though, right? Of course they are. They consider just about everything, just like they did two years ago, when Severino was a potential  second half call-up candidate. The team put together a plan to make that happen, and if it came to fruition, great! If not, they’ll adjust. Thankfully it worked it out.

The 2015 Severino plan could apply to 2017 Kaprielian. What plan is that, you ask? As a young pitcher with a workload limit, the Yankees conserved Severino’s innings early in the season so they could turn him loose in the second half. Brian Cashman admitted that was the plan and I wrote an entire post about it. Here is Severino’s workload by level in 2015:

IP per Start Pitches per Start
Double-A 4.8 75.5
Triple-A 5.6 88.3
MLB 5.7 93.1

Severino had one disaster start in the big leagues (2.1 IP, 6 R) that is skewing the results a bit. Remove that start and he averaged six innings and 95.3 pitches per start in MLB in 2015. Point is, the Yankees started Severino slow and gradually increased his workload as the season progressed. That way he didn’t hit his workload limit in, say, early-September.

The Yankees could follow the same blueprint with Kaprielian this year. In fact, earlier this week Kaprielian told Jack Curry he anticipates being on an innings limit early in this season, though the team hasn’t told him their plans yet. Chances are they haven’t made a final decision. There are two benefits to this:

  1. Conserving innings so Kaprielian won’t hit his workload limit at an inopportune time later in the season, which we just discussed.
  2. Easing Kaprielian back into things after the elbow issue. He was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and that’s great, but he Yankees don’t want to push him too much, too soon.

We’ve seen plenty of clubs run into problems with their young starters in recent years. There’s the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012. Others have had starts skipped or been moved to the bullpen in September. That sort of thing. There really is no easy way to control workloads. It’s a headache. A necessary evil.

Conserving innings in the minors like the Yankees did with Severino in 2015 and could do again with Kaprielian in 2017 works because it happens in the minors. Limiting a starter to, say, five innings and 75 pitches each time out for two months doesn’t really work at the big league level. Not when you’re trying to win games. In Double-A though? Who cares. It’s about development.

The key difference between Severino then and Kaprielian now is the fact Severino opened the 2015 season at Double-A. Kaprielian will likely begin this coming season at High-A. I don’t think that’s a huge deal though. Maybe that means Kaprielian won’t make his MLB debut in August like Severino in 2015. The plan still works though. Limit his innings early — Kaprielian should carve up High-A ball, he might be there long — and turn him loose later.

Now that I think about it, it’s entirely possible the Yankees will use the 2015 Severino plan with several minor leaguers in 2017. I thought of Kaprielian first because he’s the organization’s top pitching prospect. But what about Chance Adams and Jordan Montgomery? They’ll be on some sort of workload limit this year too. Limiting their Triple-A innings in April and May potentially buys them more big league time in August and September.

Like it or not, workload limits are part of baseball now. Teams spend a lot of money on these kids — the Yankees gave Kaprielian a $2.65M bonus two years ago — and they want to protect their investments, and make sure they get as much out of them as possible. Keeping Kaprielian healthy this year is the top priority, but it is possible he will reach the big leagues, and if he does, the Yankees want to be ready. They don’t want to have to shut him down early.