Brian Cashman and the 2017 trade deadline [2017 Season Preview]

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Welcome to another contract year for Brian Cashman.

Don’t worry: Cashman has enough job security that he isn’t about to trade the farm for some short-sighted fix that harms the Yankees’ future. He’s acquitted himself quite well over the last two decades and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the job right now. It doesn’t hurt that he has a healthy relationship with the Steinbrenner family and Hal in particular.

But this season won’t be without some drama for the 49-year-old general manager. There are two scenarios: the good and the bad, both coming with certain pitfalls and questions with which to deal come the trade deadline. Let’s dive in.

If the Yankees are winning…

This situation doesn’t pose problems so much as it forces choices. If the Yankees are middling at the deadline (near .500 like last year), then the Yankees may make a few minor moves, but they wouldn’t be about to trade away a boatload of prospects, particularly for a short-term asset. However, if the Yankees are able to get off to a positive start and build momentum towards the All-Star break, Cashman will be in a strong position to be a buyer.

It’s been a minute since the Yankees were really significant buyers at the break, but it’s been even longer since the team has had such a strong prospect core. The last time the Yankees’ farm system was booming like the present came before Cashman was in charge. Ideally, you want to see this group of prospects come to the majors and be the foundation for future success. But many prospects fail and sometimes you’re better off trading them before they’re exposed to the majors.

Mike brought up the upcoming 40-man roster crunch and that incentivizes a significant buying effort if the team’s major league success calls for it. What better way to solve the 40-man roster crunch than trade players on the 40-man or who need to be added after the season for 1-2 marquee players?

Identifying and prying those players in the right deal will be tough, but man, wouldn’t trading some prospects for Jose Quintana be a pretty sweet boost for the pennant race? Quintana may be an Astro by then, but that won’t limit the Yankees from being players in the trade market. The team could stand to upgrade multiple rotation spots mid-season, maybe even add a reliever. Plus there are always injuries that come up and force a creative solution to an unforeseen problem. No one thought the Yankees would have needed Bobby Abreu at the start of 2006, but Gary Sheffield was hurt and Cashman pounced at adding the high-OBP right fielder with multiple years of control. The Yankees could have a position of weakness pop up that we don’t expect.

The team has to balance the option to buy at the deadline with the plan to get under the luxury tax after next season in preparation for the robust free agent winter of 2018-19. The luxury tax for the 2018 season will be $197 million, but there is also a 50 percent tax for repeat offenders, which the Yankees certainly are until they can get under. Cashman utilized what was left in ownership’s budget for this season on Chris Carter‘s deal, so anything adding money would receive extra scrutiny from ownership. This will need special consideration if there is significant money added to the payroll beyond this season.

If the Yankees are losing…

This is what selling did to Cashman last time. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
This is what selling did to Cashman last time. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

This is where there are going to be some potential problems. If the Yankees are under .500 and hovering near the cellar of the AL East in July, the most obvious solution would be to sell. Give up on expiring assets that you don’t want to potentially retain and add to an already substantial farm system. It worked pretty darn well last season.

However, it’s not that simple. The team is not giving up on this season easily and refusing to call it’s current situation a rebuild: It’s a transition and one in which the team wants to be competitive. It’s understandable, too: The team wants to win games to keep fans in the seats.

So convincing ownership to sell for a second consecutive season is tough. On top of that, Cashman made two pretty remarkable deals for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, but unless the team wants to trade Dellin Betances, it’s harder to see any one player getting that large a return. Matt Holliday could fetch a minor piece or two. Michael Pineda could be dealt for a return similar to Ivan Nova. Brett Gardner could be attractive. Masahiro Tanaka is where it gets interesting, but his buy-out and elbow create complications.

All of this is to say another sell-it-all summer is unlikely. The team has enough expiring contracts (CC Sabathia, A-Rod, Holliday and possibly Tanaka) to get the payroll underneath the tax next season, but that would also involve relying even further on the young core or bringing in cheap replacements in free agency.

It’s pretty obvious that one hopes for the first scenario. It’s a lot cleaner and likely portends for future success as well, something Cashman has built towards with a tear down in 2016. It’s unlikely we see a repeat of that but ninja Cashman could come out and surprise. The Yankees’ front office often strikes when least expected. Expectations may be slightly less for the Yankees this season, but the job ahead is the same: Look for potential trades, scout for next season’s free agency and prepare for June’s draft.

Joe Girardi and the coaching staff [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

New year, same coaching staff. For the first time in a little while, the Yankees didn’t tinker with the staff surrounding Joe Girardi and will go into their second straight season with the same coaches.

That means Larry Rothschild is still the pitching coach, Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames handle the hitters, Mike Harkey is the bullpen coach, Tony Pena and Joe Espada man the bases and Rob Thomson returns as the bench coach.

This doesn’t mean the job will be easy for these guys just because they remain in their roles. Each of them may have their most challenging job yet with the Yankees promoting their youth throughout the roster.

Joe Girardi

Girardi is entering his 10th season as the Yankees manager. Only two managers — Mike Scioscia with the Angels and Bruce Bochy of the Giants — have been in their current jobs longer than Girardi, who was hired in October of 2007. Stability hasn’t always been a trademark for Yankees’ coaches, but this is the second straight manager to last at least a decade. Not bad.

This is a contract year for Girardi: his four-year deal ends after the season. As in past years, the team isn’t going to extend him early, which will lead to plenty of speculation that the Yankees will move on at manager. That seems unlikely: the Steinbrenners appear to be happy with Girardi’s performance thus far and that’s for good reason. Girardi has been solid as manager. Still, that storyline will play out this season, especially if the team gets out of the gates slow.

In his 10th season, Girardi has perhaps his toughest days ahead of him. In the past, he’s been surrounded by veteran players who know the “Yankee way” and can indoctrinate the few young players moving onto the roster. But now Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are all gone in one fell swoop. The Baby Bomber movement has taken over with plenty of rookies, or at least inexperienced, players taking key spots on the roster. Girardi’s main job is making sure that all gels in the clubhouse.

He has some veteran help with Matt Holliday‘s addition or the continued presence of guys like Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and co., but it’s still a challenge. For Girardi (and I guess Thomson), making sure inexperience doesn’t topple this team will be paramount to success. The one positive of having a younger roster is a lot less rest needed all around. Starlin Castro, for example, has played 151 games or more in five of the last six seasons. Fewer achy vets like A-Rod and Tex means more days with the team’s optimal lineup, whatever that may be.

Another change to the job will be instant replay. MLB has mandated that teams are quicker in requesting replays this season, so there will be less of the manager holding up play while the team’s replay people check it out. The Yankees’ guy, Brett Weber,  will have a tougher job this year (NY Times profiled him last year) and the team may need Girardi to go with his gut on challenges. The Yankees were the second-best team at getting calls overturned percentage-wise last year (Royals), but they also requested the fewest challenges (just 28). Maybe Girardi takes more chances with it and risks being quite as efficient in 2017.

Finally, Girardi’s job comes down to the bullpen. He once again has a strong back-end with Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. I expect Chapman will have the 9th, Betances usually just the 8th and Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren would then be dispensed for the middle innings along with maybe Ernesto Frieri? Don’t forget Tommy Layne as a LOOGY! Girardi loves to get the platoon advantage.

And that’s not a knock on Girardi. His bullpen management is his best trait and is likely why the Yankees consistently outperform their Pythagorean record. He both has strong relievers to utilize and then actually utilizes them well. I don’t expect anything different in 2017.

Hitting, hitting and more hitting

Cockrell and Thames return, but many of their disciples do not. The two have been handed some interesting projects this season. They won’t have to worry too much about the veterans like Matt Holliday. Instead, they’ll have to work with 6-foot-7 rookie Aaron Judge to keep his strikeouts down or with Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez to make sure their rookie performances aren’t just mirages.

It’s tough to ever pinpoint exactly where a hitting coach makes his mark — best example for the Yanks in recent memory is Kevin Long working to correct Curtis Granderson‘s swing in the summer of 2010 — but any breakouts this year could come from Cockrell and Thames’ tutelage. Let’s hope they can make plenty happen.

Handling the pitching

(Getty Images)
Rothschild and Tanaka (Getty Images)

This season will be Rothschild’s seventh with the Yankees. Wow, feels like it’s been fewer but then you remember him working with big Bart in 2011 and others in the early 2010s. For the most part, Rothschild doesn’t have a new pitcher to work with this season. There are three veterans returning to the rotation, most of the bullpen was there at some point last season and even the guys fighting for the last rotation spot have big league experience (except Jordan Montgomery).

Rothschild will be judged on his ability to coax some solid seasons out of those back-end starters. Whether it’s Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino or Chad Green and Montgomery, there’s a lot of work ahead for the Yankees’ pitching guru. Rothschild has been known to get pitchers to increase strikeout totals, but getting a guy like Severino or Mitchell to improve their command will be much tougher. It isn’t even necessarily on Rothschild if they fail. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes with young pitchers.

And the rest

What can you really say about the rest of the staff? If you have a hard time accessing the performances of the hitting and pitching coaches, it’s even tougher with the bench or bullpen coach. Harkey begins the second season of his second stint with the Yankees. Seems like he never left for the desert, eh?

Meanwhile, Thomson has been with the Yankees since Girardi came aboard and has been the bench coach in two stints sandwiched around his time as the third-base coach. The bench coach seems like both another person for the manager to bounce ideas off of and another voice to work with the 25 personalities populating the Yankees’ clubhouse. Either way, Thomson has been solid enough in his role to stick around for 10 years.

Tony Pena has been here even longer. This will be his 12th season as a Yankees coach, now the first base coach after fulfilling other roles under Girardi and Joe Torre. Pena seemed to do a solid job as the Dominican Republic’s manager during the WBC and one has to wonder if he’ll be in consideration for another managerial gig (previously with the Royals) in the near future. Pena has a new full-time guy in Sanchez to work with behind the plate, which surely has him excited.

And then there’s Espada. He’s been perfectly fine as the third base coach. Like anyone in that position, he gets a ton of notice when he makes a bad send but otherwise has been left alone. He served a similar role for Puerto Rico at the WBC. If anything has changed for him, it’s that there are fewer base-clogging veterans like McCann or Teixeira and maybe a little more speed in the Yankees’ everyday lineup. Not much, but some. May be to Espada’s advantage in sending runners.

Going beyond the top relievers [2017 Season Preview]

(Gett Images)
Layne. (Getty Images)

Over the last few days, we’ve covered the four key cogs in the Yankees’ bullpen machine: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard. If healthy, each will take up the main roles in Joe Girardi‘s ‘pen and be called upon for the most important innings this season.

But the bullpen features far more than four guys. There will be at least seven on opening day. The Yankees had 20 different relievers pitch in at least one game last season. They had 26 the year before (24 if you take out position players).

So let’s take a look at the rest of the bullpen. Chances are, far more than the guys listed below will log time in relief, but these are the ones that jump out with a chance right now.

The veteran pick-up

Frieri circa 2014. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Frieri. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Last week, the Yankees added Ernesto Frieri on a minor league deal. Frieri didn’t pitch at all in 2016 after an awful spring with the Phillies, but he played for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. While there, he tossed two shutout innings against the Dominican Republic, even striking out Nelson Cruz.

Frieri, just 31 years old, was a pretty solid reliever from 2010-13, highlighted by a 2.32 ERA and 23 saves with the Padres and Angels in 2012. However, he was barely usable in 2014-15 with the Angels, Pirates and Rays with his ERA ballooning as high as 7.34 in 2014. At his best, he utilizes his mid-90s fastball to get hitters out, mixing in a slider and the occasional change or curve.

He’s a real wild card for the Yankees’ pen. There’s a solid chance he’ll make the team (seven batters into spring, he has six strikeouts and one HR allowed) but what he does from there is anyone’s guess. His velocity seems to have returned after falling a bit in 2014-15 and could be the secret to an improved Frieri.

The lefties

Girardi loves his southpaws, so one has to figure there will be at least one on the roster at all times, if not two. That’s not including Chapman, who won’t be used as a matchup lefty and is the definitive closer.

First up is Tommy Layne. Layne, 32, is a classic LOOGY, much better against lefties than righties. He tosses a lot variations of fastballs alongside a slider and curveball to produce some strikeouts. He was perfectly fine in 29 games for the Yankees in 2016 and it’s not outlandish to expect him to have another mid-3.00 ERA with a few too many walks and struggles against righties. Again, classic LOOGY.

Behind him lie a few different options, namely Chasen Shreve and Jon Niese. Niese, 30, has started most of his career and has succeeded at primarily keeping the ball on the ground. He’d provide a solid option as both another lefty and as a long man, two roles Girardi has said he sees Niese filling. He is coming back from a knee injury that he struggled with last season, so a healthy Niese would be an interesting piece.

We all know about Shreve. He was dominant for a couple months in 2015 with his low-90s fastball and changeup before becoming a liability late in ’15 and shuffling between the bullpen and the minors in 2016. The 26-year-old southpaw isn’t a LOOGY with the changeup as an out-pitch, but hitters appeared to figure out his off-speed offerings over the last couple seasons.

Two pitchers who reached Triple A last season are also in the mix for roles this summer, if not earlier. Jordan Montgomery and Dietrich Enns each played roles in Scranton’s success last fall and looked solid in Double A Trenton before that. Enns was added to the 40-man roster this winter. Lefties hit Enns slightly better than righties last season and the soft-tossing southpaw may not be best suited for a role as a LOOGY.

Montgomery — who is potentially in play for a spot in the rotation on opening day, let alone a relief spot — isn’t on the 40-man roster yet. Similar to Enns, Montgomery had a reverse split last year, although neither lefties or righties hit him well. He throws from a high arm slot and has a solid change-up and would be a solid long reliever if he isn’t a starter.

Righties with a taste

Heller (Getty Images)
Heller. (Getty Images)

Both Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder got chances last September to help the Yankees bullpen and neither particularly impressed. Heller, a 25 year old who came over in the Andrew Miller trade, throws in the upper 90s with his fastball and mixes in an effective slider. Despite his 6.43 ERA in seven big league innings, he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on because he has the stuff to be effective. He’s posted strong strikeout numbers everywhere in the minors, solid enough to mask occasional issues with walks. I’d expect him to be one of the first relievers called up this spring, if not someone on the roster opening day after a lights-out spring (one run, 8 ks in 9 2/3 innings with 6 BB).

Like Heller, Holder couldn’t seem to have his strikeout numbers translate in his short big league stint (8 1/3 innings). He also uncharacteristically struggled with control. Still, his fantastic strikeout rates (101 Ks in 65 1/3 innings last year over three levels) are the reason he was added to the 40-man roster early at 23 years old. He’s likely behind Heller but still a solid option this spring/summer.

Long man

The Yankees’ have a series of young pitchers competing for the final rotation spots right now and only two will walk away with said spots. Therefore, the rest will be relegated to Triple A or to spots in the bullpen. Frieri’s addition to the team makes it less likely the team brings two of those losing out north — or actually south 20 miles from Steinbrenner Field to Tropicana Field — for opening day.

Still, there is likely one spot, if not two, for those who lose out. Let’s say Luis Severino and Bryan Mitchell get the rotation spots. It’s easy to see Luis Cessa take the long-man role while Chad Green and Montgomery go to Triple A. The latter two would still be likely to see time in the majors and could be see it quickly considering the bullpen shuttle of recent years.

40-man roster and beyond

Barbato (Getty Images)
Barbato. (Getty Images)

There is a gaggle of relievers that got opportunities to show off their stuff this spring with the Yankees, way too many to go through in detail. Johnny Barbato and Gio Gallegos are both on the 40-man and closest to the majors.

Further down the 40-man, Yefrey Ramirez and Domingo German both have strikeout worthy stuff, but they’re starters at the moment and haven’t pitched above Single A. Ronald Herrera, acquired for Jose Pirela a couple years ago, has all of five innings above Double A.

Off the 40-man roster, it’s worth paying attention to a few names. Nick Rumbelow, outrighted off the 40, is coming off Tommy John surgery and once showed promise for a middle relief role. Joe Mantiply — a southpaw who was claimed off waivers, DFA’d and then re-signed to a minor league deal this winter — has solid strikeout rates in the minors but hasn’t thrown much above Double A. Finally, J.P Feyereisen was acquired in the Miller deal with Heller and co. and was solid as a fireman for Double A Trenton in the MiLB playoffs last year. Could be something down the road and I wouldn’t be shocked if he is seen in the majors for a stint this summer.

Could Didi Gregorius’ injury be Rob Refsnyder’s opportunity?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Didi Gregorius‘ injury is unfortunate in every way, even if he may only miss a month of the season. The Yankees don’t have a ready-made replacement and, much more importantly, a key cog of their future has to deal with an injury that can set him back after he made strides last season and hoped to bring into this season. Furthermore, Gregorius’ best tool is perhaps his arm strength and that could be affected by this injury.

As with every injury in sports, there is now an opportunity for someone else. As Mike detailed the other day and some reporters have indicated, the likeliest scenario is Starlin Castro, despite his prior experience at short, to stay at second while Ronald Torreyes and possibly Ruben Tejada or Pete Kozma take the load at short. This is a fine option, albeit with the lesser offensive (and likely defensive) production at shortstop. It’d be tough to imagine Tyler Wade or Gleyber Torres are quite ready for the job either (again, check out Mike’s piece on this).

There is another option, albeit one that guarantees lesser performance defensively and that is moving Castro to shortstop — he played just three games there last year — and handing the second base job to … Rob Refsnyder. The oft-talked of second baseman has been masquerading as a super utility player for the last year, but perhaps this is the opportunity he needs to prove himself, one way or another.

Joe Girardi talked about how the team sees him as that utility player, working all around the field. “I look at him at second, first, right and left, is how I look at Ref,” Girardi said to the Daily News. “Depending on what we do, that’s why I talked about he can play his way in, and if he’s an extra infielder and outfielder, whatever he is, then you might have to move Castro to play some short. If you give (Chase Headley) a day off and you move Torreyes over, then that would be Ref’s spot at second. Those are the different options we have.”

Is this the chance Refsnyder needs? Well, he’ll need to show some improvements to make it happen.

1. Refsnyder needs to show more at the plate

So far in his MLB career, Refsnyder has had all of 222 plate appearances. For all the talk of him taking over second base during the 2015 season, it would seem like he’d have taken more ABs, but alas, that is not the case. He hit quite well during his 47 PAs in 2015 (131 wRC+) but looked exposed in sporadic stints last season, batting just .250/.328/.309 (72 wRC+).

As has been discussed on this website before, he needs to hit for power in order to make at the big league level. He actually had a .512 slugging percentage (.210 ISO) in 2015 and there was reason to believe he has some power potential. With Torreyes, you’re simply not going to get much power, but you’ll get plenty of contact. He hit .258/.305/.374 (81 wRC+) last season in 168 plate appearances and had an 11.9 percent strikeout rate compared to Refsnyder’s 17.1 percent mark.

Refsnyder does walk a bit more than Torreyes, but as detailed below, he’s enough of a negative defensively that he’ll need to more than make up for it at the plate for this experiment to be worth it. While spring stats are relatively meaningless, Refsnyder has struck out in 11 of 39 PAs while Torreyes has just two in 41 PAs. Refsnyder does have a better slash line this spring but neither has impressed with the bat.

2. How would it work defensively?

Losing Gregorius is a blow to the Yankees’ team defense. While defensive metrics were down on Didi last season, it’s likely that Gregorius would have been a defensive plus for the month or so he’ll now miss. Last season, Torreyes only played 99 innings at shortstop, his only time at short in his brief MLB career. He made one error in 11 starts there while UZR had him at -0.7 there (-15.9 UZR/150). Again, short sample size, hard to judge.

So what would happen if instead of Torreyes getting extended time at short, Castro shifted over and Refsnyder moved to second in his place? In Castro’s case, it could actually work out well. Castro has been seen as a definite negative in his 1,524 innings at second over the last two years with a -7.4 UZR. At shortstop, he’s been a minus in his career, albeit less so. He only played 20 innings there last season, but it is his natural position. He wasn’t particularly adept there (negative in DRS each season except 2012).

And then there’s Refsnyder. To be fair, he’s only played 147 MLB innings at second base, but they haven’t been pretty, either in terms of statistics or the eye test. He has a -3 DRS and -2.6 UZR in those innings and has been better, albeit in similarly small samples, at each other position he’s played in the majors. 1B, LF and RF are the ones he has more than an inning played (He actually graded out well in RF during 132 2/3 innings last year, if that’s worth anything). It’s also simply hard to forget how inept he looked at times during his stint at second in 2015. It seemed like a common announcer phrase during that time was “past a diving Refsnyder.”

All of this is to say that defensively, this pairing could be tough to stomach, hence why it’s so necessary that Refsnyder hit if he’s going to be anything more than a Quadruple A player.

3. Easy to change course

Putting Refsnyder in at second would be a perfect chance to see whether he sinks or swims at the big league level. He’d have the chance to know he’s starting every day for certain period and the team would see if he can produce with that comfort level. I have my doubts, but it’s an imperfect solution just like every other replacement for Gregorius.

If he didn’t perform after a few weeks, it’s easy to course correct. First of all, this is only temporary since Gregorius should miss only a month or so. With Torreyes on the roster, it’d also be simple enough to begin giving him the starts if the defensive minuses are too much or Refsnyder simply hack it at the plate.

The questions about Refsnyder can seem pretty glaring, but this would be a chance to answer them in a low cost scenario. It’s not like Torreyes will be much better with the bat. The worst case is that Refsnyder is so unpalatable at second that the team decides to send him back down to AAA quickly. In the best case, the Yankees find a suitable backup with restored promise for when Gregorius returns.

Same All-Star reliever but with minor concerns [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the last three years, I have essentially marked games as wins in my mind whenever Dellin Betances comes in. Sure, there have been a few blown saves here and there, but for the most part, the Yankees win when Dellin comes into the game whether they lead or are tied.

And it isn’t just his pure performance. He’s fun to watch, too. That nasty breaking pitch surely haunts the dreams of every hitter in the AL East and sends Yankee fans home happy. That’s even before you get to his fastball.

What does Betances — who turns 29 on Thursday — have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look.

All-Star stuff with some concern

Betances, when he gets to utilize his stuff to the best of his ability, is unhittable and it’s memorizing. He walks a few too many batters (3.5 per 9 career and in 2016) and his hits rose to 6.7 per 9 last year, but his pure stuff is still beautiful.

His fastball averaged 98.42 mph in 2016, which is just silly good. It doesn’t hurt that he has an above-average 2509 RPM spin rate. It’s surprising considering his September struggles, but his velocity actually jumped higher from August to September. Same for his curveball. When Betances really needs to hit another gear, he can. That 100 mph strikeout of Miguel Cabrera from 2014 is perhaps the best example. Or perhaps the 2016 All-Star Game.

And then there’s his curveball. It’s genuinely my favorite pitch going these days with all respect to Andrew Miller‘s slider. It sits in the mid-80s and just falls off the table. Even the best hitters in baseball — like Giancarlo Stanton — have zero idea what to do with it.

As he displayed in the WBC this spring, he’s among the best relievers in the game when he’s on. The Yankees’ AL East rivals know this all too well.

He throws his four-seamer (39.3) and his curve (55.3) about 95 percent of the time, occasionally mixing in a cutter. His curveball remained a behemoth in 2016, holding batters to a .371 OPS (14 wRC+) and accounting for 103 of his 124 strikeouts.

Hitters actually got to his fastball pretty well last year. They batted .350/.447/.563 (184 wRC+) against it, a mark much higher than previous years (124 wRC+ against in 2015 and 95 in 2014). He peaked as a pitcher in 2014 (his -21 wRC+ against for the curveball says more than enough), but the trend with his fastball is a bit concerning. It began in the later months of 2015 and continued throughout 2016. Luckily, he still has a dynamite curveball, yet it’s worth monitoring how hitters do against Betances’ normally overwhelming velocity in 2017.

One quick aside: If you want to see how dominant Betances can truly be, check out the ISO power against him, especially right-handed batters. On pitches on the inner third of the plate, righties literally had a .000 ISO. All singles and outs. Here’s the chart via Baseball Savant.

dellin-betances-1

Workload

If there’s one chief concern for Betances, it’s his workload. In his three full big league seasons, he’s pitched in at least 70 games and thrown at least 73 innings. His innings have decreased year-by-year (90 to 84 to 73) and his ERA has increased year over year, including more than doubling from 2015 to 2016 (1.50 to 3.08). There have certainly been times when Betances, cursed in part by his own success, has been overused as the Yankees try to sneak out close victories.

There is no better example than this past September. After Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were dealt at the trade deadline, the closer role fell to Betances, a role which he is more than capable of filling. He may be more valuable as the stopper in the 7th and 8th innings, yet I think there are few people (maybe outside the front office) that believe Betances can handle the 9th. He surely has the stuff.

But the Yankees were in the midst of a playoff chase and they needed to hand him the ball as much as possible with plenty of save chances. Therefore, Joe Girardi used him on three straight days twice within an 11-day span. It started out just fine but ended with two straight losses, one because he couldn’t field the ball and the other simply because he was exhausted. That five-run ninth in Boston essentially finished the Yankees and also showed that Betances needed a rest. For the month, hitters were getting to not only his fastball but also hit curveball.

With Chapman’s return, Betances is obviously back in the middle innings, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get much of a reprieve from important spots. He consistently comes in during the highest leverage situations, sometimes for more than one inning, and now has 217 games in the last three seasons in his recent past. Hopefully, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and the rest of the ‘pen will be able to handle some big innings because the big man needs a rest.

World Baseball Classic

Wasn’t it fun to watch Betances pitch in the WBC? He seemed to really enjoy himself while dominating hitters during the tournament. It was even better than when he takes down a set of National League All-Stars in the Midsummer Classic.

He threw five innings for the Dominican Republic, giving up six baserunners while striking out five batters. Basically normal Dellin. If you add in his two innings with the Yankees earlier in the spring, he’s only thrown two more innings than Aroldis Chapman and is just as ready for the season. Perhaps more?

This is just to say that the WBC doesn’t seem to have hurt Betances going into April and may even have him more prepared for opening day. Maybe have high-ish leverage innings earlier will benefit him early in the season but help wear him down later in the season. It remains to be seen.

Contract welp and minor flaws

Things really got ugly between Betances and the Yankees front office after his arbitration hearing in February. Randy Levine made some really boneheaded comments about Betances in an unnecessary conference call and created some significant tension between Betances and the club. That shouldn’t affect his performance on the field — baseball is a business after all — but it may make Betances think twice before re-signing long-term.

As for the arbitration hearing itself, the Yankees brought up Betances’ struggles fielding the ball and holding runners. These are legitimate issues for the big righty. He’s allowed extra runs to score because he’s been unable to throw the ball to the bases or prevent runners from stealing. Even Gary Sanchez with his laser from behind the plate was unable to throw out runners with Betances’ deliberate delivery.

Good news is that Betances is working on his flaws. He made a basic fielding play during the WBC (nothing major) and Sanchez did throw out a runner during one of Dellin’s early spring outings. If Betances could improve on those two flaws, it’d make him that much more dominant, both at preventing runners from getting on base and then from scoring.

He may not throw 105 mph, but Betances is pretty much everything you want in a reliever. High velocity, killer breaking pitch and general fantastic performance. The guy literally struck out over 15 batters per nine innings last season. However, he may not be quite as good as his out-of-this-world 2014-15 in 2017 and there are reasons to doubt him after a lesser 2016. Still, expect Betances to be an essential part of the Yankees’ bullpen in this season.

One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.