Dustin Ackley is getting the Garrett Jones treatment, and there’s nothing the Yankees can do


As part of this ongoing on-the-fly rebuild process, the Yankees have been targeting talented young players who have worn out their welcome for whatever reason. That led them to Dustin Ackley last July. The Yankees picked up Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, for two fringe 40-man roster players because he was an upgrade over Garrett Jones with the potential to be much more.

Ackley hit his way into regular at-bats late last season and gave the offense a nice little shot in the arm. So far this year he’s assumed the role Jones filled last summer, meaning the bench player who fits the roster well but rarely plays. Jones gave the Yankees lefty pop and depth at first base, right field, and DH, three positions where the team had injury concerns. Ackley does the same, and adds second base to the mix as well.

So far this season Ackley has started two of the team’s first dozen games: one at first base and one at DH. He also came off the bench to play three innings in the field at the end of a blowout. That’s it. Ackley is 0-for-7 with a walk at the plate in the regular season after putting together a strong Spring Training in which he hit .298/.313/.404 in 48 plate appearances, seventh most on the team.

The Yankees haven’t been able to get Ackley much playing time thus far and it does not appear he will get much in the immediately future either. Not with all those lefties coming up. And here’s the thing: this is the right move. Aaron Hicks has the outfield covered, Starlin Castro‘s production has kept him into the lineup, and it’s hard to sit Mark Teixeira given what he does on both sides of the ball. Where does that leave Ackley?

On the bench, for now. It won’t necessarily stay that way all season. One injury can change everything, and even if everyone stays healthy (fingers crossed), Joe Girardi and the Yankees insist they will rest their regulars more often this season. They had four off-days in the first two weeks of the season. They have two in the next five weeks. Ackley is going to come into more playing time as the regulars rest.

The Yankees have Nick Swisher sitting in Triple-A as a possible alternative should Ackley not get it together at some point — Swisher reportedly has an opt-out in his contract, though I don’t know when it is — and need to be replaced. I’m not sure anyone would be able to produce in the Jones role given the lack of playing time though. Ackley is only 28 and he has talent, and at some point I’d like to see him get a chance to play, but there’s no obvious spot to do it.

The offense has struggled these last six games, and while the natural reaction is to change the lineup, Ackley’s a band-aid more than a solution. Teixeira, Castro, Brett Gardner, and Carlos Beltran are the Yankees’ four best hitters right now, so Girardi can’t take one of them out of the lineup to play Ackley. I supposed he could sit Alex Rodriguez, but getting A-Rod going is more important than getting Ackley at-bats.

The Yankees could really use some kind of a spark at the plate right now. I just don’t think Ackley can provide it. He’s stuck in a very difficult position. The Yankees need him because he plays positions where they have some age and injury concerns, but they also don’t want to sit the guys they have at those positions if at all possible. Perhaps Ackley can figure out a way to thrive in this role. That will be a big challenge, however.

If backup catcher race is between Sanchez and Romine, the choice is obvious for the Yankees

Sanchez. (Presswire)

Over the years the Yankees have been known to stage Spring Training competitions. Competition is healthy and they try to foster it in camp whenever possible, even if it means saying a job is up for grabs when we all know it really isn’t. The fifth starter competition in 2010 always stands out to me. If it was truly based on spring performance, Sergio Mitre would have gotten the job. Instead, it went to Phil Hughes, who was going to get it all along.

This spring the Yankees do have some true competitions, mostly in the bullpen but also on the bench. That last bench spot is up for grabs and it sounds like it will go to a backup third baseman. The Yankees must also pick a backup catcher from a group that includes top prospect Gary Sanchez, post-hype youngster Austin Romine, and veteran journeyman Carlos Corporan. From the sound of it, the race is between Sanchez and Romine.

“In evaluating Sanchez and Romine you want to give them equal starts and see how they do and how they adapt to the different pitchers … They re going to play,” said Joe Girardi to George King over the weekend. Player usage can be telling during Spring Training, and it’s worth noting Sanchez started Sunday’s game behind the plate with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound. Romine came off the bench to catch the Triple-A guys.

“I think it has shown how much he has grown, that he is getting starts now as opposed to coming in and backing up and (catching) guys he knew from the minor leagues. Now he is getting guys he doesn’t know and you want to see how he adjusts,” said Girardi. Sanchez started and caught Ivan Nova last week, another big league pitcher he’s not too familiar with. Romine’s only start this spring came with Bryan Mitchell on the mound, and those two know each other from Triple-A last season.

Romine is out-hitting Sanchez very early in Grapefruit League play — he’s 4-for-8 with three booming doubles, Sanchez is 0-for-3 with two walks and a hit-by-pitch — and while that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to hurt Romine’s case. He said it himself the other day. To make the Opening Day roster, he’s going to have to hit all spring. Another .171/.216/.200 showing like last spring won’t cut it. Romine has to force the issue.

The Yankees have been going young whenever possible over the last 16 months or so, and handing the backup catcher reins over the Sanchez is an obvious move. He’s their top catcher prospect, he had success at Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he put an exclamation point on his season in the Arizona Fall League. Sanchez has reportedly matured over the last year and his defense improving. Giving him the job makes sense. At the same time, more time in Triple-A is justifiable.

“I think you have to see where his game is as we go through Spring Training,” said Girardi. “Sometimes you talk about players who have high ceilings and sometimes people say, ‘Let’s finish (his development) off in the minor leagues before we call them up.’ I think Gary does have a high ceiling but he is a guy who might be able to help us a lot, too. If you think he is ready then you have to weigh that. Is he better off playing every day and really finish everything off? Or do you see if he can help you out and make a difference.”

Romine. (Presswire)

Beyond the on-field development — Sanchez is improving defensively but he’s still not great back there — there’s also roster and service time considerations. Thirty-five days in the minors pushes Sanchez’s free agency back a year. Romine, meanwhile, is out of options and has been outrighted before, which means if the Yankees want to send him to the minors, they have to pass him through waivers. And even if he clears waivers, he can elect free agency thanks to the prior outright.

If the backup catcher competition is truly between Sanchez and Romine — Corporan is a bystander who was brought in as depth, in that case — then the decision seems pretty obvious to me. The Yankees should go with Romine and keep him around a little longer. (I assume he’d elect free agency if outrighted to find a better opportunity.) That allows them to maintain some catcher depth and, more importantly, push Sanchez’s free agency back. That almost feels like the top consideration here, not his on-field development.

Sanchez and Romine are not oblivious to the situation. Sanchez reached the big leagues as a September call-up last year and said over the winter his goal is to make the team for good this year. Romine is basically fighting for his career. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. This might be his last chance at a big league roster spot. If this doesn’t work out, he’s in danger of becoming a journeyman teams pick up to fill Triple-A roster holes. That’s one hell of a motivator, don’t you think?

“It doesn’t feel different,” said Sanchez to Bryan Hoch when asked about the general belief he is the favorite for the backup catcher’s job. “To me, I’m just focusing on my job. I’ve got to keep working hard every day, call a good game and whatever decision is up to them. It’s exciting to be in the mix. For us, all players, we want to make it to the big leagues. But that’s not my decision.”

Whoever the Yankees pick to be their backup catcher, that player doesn’t figure to actually play much early in the season. Brian McCann is going to start most games, and all the April off-days mean it’ll be easier to keep him in the lineup. That’s another reason to send Sanchez down. He won’t actually start much in April. Going with Romine as the backup catcher is not so much about having Romine on the roster. It’s about trading a handful of games now for an extra season of Sanchez later, and that’s an easy call.

Refsnyder passes first test at the hot corner as Girardi clarifies plans for final bench spot


For the first time in his professional career, Rob Refsnyder played third base yesterday, and the limited look was positive. Refsnyder had to make two plays and neither was routine; both were hot shot grounders hit almost right at him. He scooped the first grounder and threw to second to start a 5-4-3 double play. He scooped the second grounder and threw to first for the out. It went as well as the Yankees could have hoped.

“How you drew it up,” said Refsnyder to Chad Jennings after the game when asked about his first real game speed experience at third base. “I was talking about it yesterday. I just want a hard one … I felt good, comfortable. My goal was to kind of be aggressive, try to make a lot of plays, do a lot of different things on both sides of the ball. I just wanted to be aggressive.”

Two plays do not a make a third baseman. Yesterday was nothing more than a good first step for Refsnyder, who is trying to increase his versatility and improve his chances of making the Opening Day roster. “I kind of understand my role going forward with this team,” he added. “I’m just trying to do my job and help the team out as much as possible. I’m kind of all over it. I split my time, try to get reps in everywhere, wherever Joe needs me.”

The Yankees intend to try other players at third base this spring as they look for a suitable backup for Chase Headley. At some point Starlin Castro will play third. Others will get a chance too. Did you notice who replaced Refsnyder yesterday? It was Ronald Torreyes, another bench candidate. He took over at the hot corner and made a tough play himself, on a similar well-struck grounder hit into his general vicinity.

Brian Cashman said over the winter the Yankees plan to use their final bench spot as something of a revolving door to give Joe Girardi whatever he needs at any given time. An extra infielder, an extra arm, whatever. It’s a good idea in theory. I’m curious to see how it works in practice. Girardi, however, said yesterday the team has to take someone who can play third base, so right now it seems the Yankees are leaning in that direction.

“You have to take someone who can play third. You really have to see how this plays out. You have guys like a (Donovan) Solano, and a Castro, and a Torreyes and a (Jonathan) Diaz, who have played all over,” said the skipper to George King. Refsnyder is in that mix as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have started at third base yesterday. Same with Torreyes. He’s a natural middle infielder who’s played only 36 career games at the hot corner, yet there he was yesterday.

I know their statements sound contradictory but Cashman and Girardi are not at odds here. They’re on the same page. The Yankees can use the final bench spot on a backup third baseman come Opening Day and still use it as a revolving door throughout the season. Whoever breaks camp with the team in that roster spot won’t necessarily stay there. As with the bullpen shuttle, playing well doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll keep your big league job.

The Yankees figure to see several lefty starters in the first two weeks of 2016 — they open the season with series against the Astros (Dallas Keuchel), Tigers (Daniel Norris), Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), and Mariners (Wade Miley, James Paxton) — so perhaps Refsnyder’s righty bat will be worth carrying in April. And then in a few weeks it might make sense to carry another outfielder. Or an eighth reliever. Who knows how things will shake out.

For now, Refsnyder is very early in the process of increasing his versatility. Yesterday’s five innings at third base were encouraging and certainly didn’t hurt his chances of making the team. I assume the Yankees will run him out there again in a few days along with Torreyes and Castro and whoever else. Refsnyder at third base is an experiment worth trying, and if nothing else, yesterday showed this might not be as far-fetched as it once seemed.

Cashman confirms Yankees will use 25th roster spot as a revolving door


On the position player side of things, the Yankees have only one open roster spot right now: the final bench spot. They have their eight starting position players, a full-time DH, and three bench players. (The exact identity of the backup catcher is undecided at this time, but we have a good idea who it will be.) That final bench spot is the only wide open position right now.

The Yankees have made it clear they intend to try Starlin Castro at third base, and his ability to handle the hot corner will play a role in that final bench spot. If Castro can back up Chase Headley, the Yankees can go in any direction with that last roster spot. If he can’t, then they’re going to need a backup third baseman. For now, the Yankees are proceeding as if Castro can play third, and they’re planning to use the last bench spot as a revolving door.

“If Castro can (play third), it gives us so much more flexibility with that 25th man on the roster,” said Brian Cashman during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “The 25th man could very well be a 13th pitcher. As we all know, our starting rotation isn’t seven, eight, nine-inning pitchers on a consistent basis, so having maybe the access to that 13th up-and-down guy or maybe an extra position player that you can utilize in a different way.”

Aside from Castro playing third, the Yankees will need optionable pitchers and position players to make this work. They have a ton of pitchers who can be sent up and down, that’s not a problem, but things are a bit more limited on the position player side. Right now, the only position players on the 40-man roster with options are Gary Sanchez, Rob Refsnyder, Greg Bird, Lane Adams, Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ben Gamel. A catcher, two right side infielders, and four outfielders. Not the most diverse group.

The Yankees have signed several infielders to minor league contracts this winter (Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, Jonathan Diaz) and could call those guys up if necessary, though sending them down requires exposing them to waivers. That’s not a huge deal — no one’s going to miss them if they get claimed — but it would remove a body from the infield mix and subtract depth. The Yankees are kinda short on upper level infielders as it is.

Either way, the only way this plan works is if Castro can play third. He has minimal experience there, but he’s young and athletic, and is used to playing the left side of the infield. It could happen. “If (Castro at third) doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work,” added Cashman. “Then we’ll adjust and adjust accordingly and find an alternative who can handle that side of it for us, and then obviously we won’t be playing around as much with that 25th spot.”

I like the idea of a rotating 25th roster spot. The Yankees had a bullpen shuttle last season and it worked in the sense that the team always had a fresh reliever or two, though none of those guys had much of an opportunity to show what they can do. They seem to want to take it to another level this year with a rotating bench spot. Flexibility is good! But I think I’d prefer it if someone stood out from the pack and grabbed that bench spot full-time.

Despite veteran starting outfield, Hicks in line for a lot of playing time in 2016

(Duane Burleson/Getty)
(Duane Burleson/Getty)

The very first move the Yankees made last offseason was re-signing Chris Young to be their fourth outfielder. They did that days after the end of the World Series. This offseason their first move was acquiring Aaron Hicks to replace Young. Probably a coincidence, or maybe the Yankees just really value quality fourth outfielders.

Brett Gardner trade rumors were flying at the time of the Hicks trade, so for a while it seemed he could end up in a starting role. Gardner is still with the Yankees, so Hicks remains the fourth outfielder for now, though it’s starting to become clear the team intends to play him a fair amount. After all, Young appeared in 140 games and batted 356 times last season.

“I think (Hicks is) going to play a lot,” said Joe Girardi during a recent YES Network interview (video links). “Being a switch-hitter, you don’t worry about (matchups) as much. If they bring in a lefty, okay. If they bring in a righty, we don’t care. And I think he’s going to get a lot of playing time because of that.”

Brian Cashman called Hicks an everyday player soon after the trade — he also called John Ryan Murphy an everyday player — which sounded like one of those things every GM says after a trade. He was pumping up his new acquisition. It seems there’s some teeth to the idea though. The plan apparently calls for Hicks to play an awful lot going forward.

“For (Hicks) to have a strong year is extremely important,” added Girardi. “Cause if you can start playing Aaron Hicks four or five times a week, and give these guys a day off a week — or maybe even two days if they need a couple days — it would really help them down the stretch.”

Both Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury faded big time in the second half last season, and the Yankees have indicated resting the two and keeping them healthy is a priority next season. Add in soon-to-be 39-year-old Carlos Beltran in right field and the Yankees have three outfield starters who maybe aren’t 150+ games a year players anymore.

The math is pretty simple. To get Hicks those four or five games a week, the Yankees could rest Gardner once, Ellsbury once, and Beltran twice — one day on the bench and one day as the DH. (That would also give Alex Rodriguez some more rest.) I’m sure Hicks will come off the bench as a defensive replacement a bunch of times too. Hot and cold streaks and injuries will inevitably complicate things, but that seems like a viable plan.

“You don’t necessarily need to move Gardner to center if you’re giving Jacoby a day off. You can leave people just where they are,” said Girardi of Hicks’ versatility. “And this guy’s very athletic. He’s a very good right-handed hitter and I saw improvements in his left-handed swing and I watched him and watched his approach at the plate. That really excites me because I think this kid can be a complete player.”

Hicks turned 26 in October and there is some evidence he is on the verge of breaking out, mostly in his more aggressive approach and new leg kick. Surely that’s part of the reason the Yankees acquired him. The raw ability is obvious and they see the signs of improvement, and hope he develops into a true everyday player down the road. They’re going to try to get him as much playing as possible next year to make it happen.

The Yankees are in the middle of this on-the-fly rebuild and have been buying low on young players since last winter. In some cases, plugging them into the lineup was rather easy, like it was with Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. In other cases, like Hicks and Dustin Ackley, the Yankees will have to get a little creative. Acquiring the talent is the easy part. Getting players like Hicks to reach their potential is where it really gets challenging.

Current bench may make it easier for Yankees to use a six-man rotation in 2016

Ackley. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Ackley. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

Last year the Yankees made it no secret they wanted to give their starters extra rest whenever possible. That meant not using off-days to skip the fifth starter and inserting a spot sixth starter whenever possible. Almost all of their projected starters had some kind of health concern, none bigger than Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow, and the Yankees were trying to prevent further injury.

It’s difficult to say whether the plan worked. The foursome of Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi combined to make 107 starts, including 63 on extra rest (59%). All four got hurt at some point — Tanaka and Pineda had forearm problems, Sabathia’s knee acted up, and Eovaldi’s elbow barked in September — and only Tanaka was comfortably above-average.

Overall, the Yankees rotation had a 4.25 ERA (4.04 FIP) last season and maybe things would have been worse had they not given their four main starters extra rest. The Yankees had good intentions. Whether they got the desired results is another matter. Either way, it seems likely the team will again try to give their starters extra rest in 2016. New health concerns exist, plus Luis Severino will presumably have some sort of innings limit.

“I think there’s depth there but there’s questions about health … I think our guys are capable of getting it done,” said Joe Girardi when asked about his rotation at the Winter Meetings last month. “But the thing is, you have to keep them out there for 30 to 32 starts. I think our rotation has a chance to be good, but we’ve got to keep them out there.”

Teams are using pitchers less and less these days, and it feels like only a matter of time until the six-man rotation is widespread. Several teams, including the Dodgers and Phillies, used a six-man rotation for part of September last season, when it was easier to pull off thanks to expanded rosters. That’s the tricky part of a six-man rotation: you either need a short bullpen or a short bench to make it work.

The Yankees right now have the kind of bench that can make a six-man rotation work. They’ll have a backup catcher, presumably Gary Sanchez but possibly Austin Romine, plus Aaron Hicks as the backup outfielder and Dustin Ackley as the utility guy. Starlin Castro is currently slated to back up Didi Gregorius at second and Chase Headley at third, with Ackley filling in at first and second. They have every position covered, at least in theory.

Castro’s ability to play third is the X factor. If he can play the position on occasion, a three-man bench and six-man rotation could actually work. If Castro can’t play third though, the Yankees will need to carry a fourth bench player to back up the hot corner, blowing this whole plan up. It’ll be interesting to see how the Yankees use Castro in Spring Training. That’s the time and place to give him reps at third base if they’re serious about using him there.

It’s also possible the six-man rotation would lead to a revolving bullpen or bench spot. The Yankees can carry six relievers or three bench players depending on their needs at the time. Bullpen’s taxed? Call up an extra reliever and send down a bench guy. Position player banged up? Carry the fourth bench player and only three relievers. That plan involves having optionable relievers and bench guys. We know the Yankees have the former. The latter? Yeah, but not as much.

“We could have an open bench spot. Maybe we use that with a revolving door with position players and/or pitching, depending on what our needs are,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings earlier this week. Sounds like we might see a bench player shuttle in addition to a bullpen shuttle next season. That would make it a bit easier for the Yankees to employ a six-man rotation, though it would still create a roster headache. That’s unavoidable.

I don’t think the Yankees will use a true six-man rotation next season. I think we’re still a few years off from that, thankfully. I do think the team will try to get their starters extra rest whenever possible though, again by using a spot starter on occasion. Ivan Nova could be that guy if he stays stretched out as the long man, or the job could belong to Bryan Mitchell or Luis Cessa. Plans like this have a way of being thrown out of whack though.

If the Yankees do decide to use a six-man rotation at some point in 2016, even temporarily during a long stretch of games with no off-day, the current bench could allow them to do so with relative ease. It all depends on Castro’s ability to play third base. His ability to do so would give the Yankees a ton of flexibility and roster possibilities.

Hicks, Ackley, and Sanchez poised to give the Yankees a strong bench in 2016

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Over the last few seasons benches have become a critical piece of a baseball team. Platoons are widespread, and with amphetamines (“greenies”) now on the banned substances list, players need a little more rest throughout the season. The bench used to be full of guys who only played when the starters got hurt. Now they’re full of players with strategic roles.

Quality benches can be hard to build, especially for a big market team like the Yankees, who have a roster loaded with big name (and big contract) players. No free agent bench player wants to sign with New York because they’re worried they won’t get much playing time. I don’t blame them. Look at Garrett Jones last season. He never played because Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were healthy and productive.

The Yankees have had to grow their own reserve players or acquire them in trades over the last two decades or so. Either that or pick up reclamation project veterans and hope for the best. Think Darryl Strawberry and Eric Chavez. Same idea, just 16 years apart. Bench players are like relievers though. They do their work in inherently small samples, and their performance is very volatile from one year to the next.

Next season, the Yankees figure to carry three players capable of providing some thump off the bench in Gary Sanchez, Dustin Ackley, and Aaron Hicks. Sanchez is homegrown and the other two guys came over in the trades. The Yankees still have an open bench spot too, and depending how they feel about Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third, they could go in one of several different directions with that spot.

All three players will serve specific roles next season. Sanchez, who I must point out is not a lock for the backup catcher’s job, will likely give Brian McCann a rest against tough lefties thanks to his right-handed power. John Ryan Murphy was really awesome last season, but he doesn’t have Sanchez’s power. Sanchez is a threat to hit the ball out of the park every time he steps to the plate against a southpaw.


Ackley showed the kind of left-handed pull power that plays well in Yankee Stadium following the trade last year — he pulled six of his ten homers last summer, including all four with the Yankees (three at Yankee Stadium) — and his versatility means he’s an option in the outfield as well as at first and second bases. As we saw with Jones though, Ackley could wind up getting less playing time than expected if the veteran starters produce.

Hicks is the new addition to the bench after coming over from the Twins in the Murphy trade. He’s a switch-hitter and a high-end athlete with excellent defensive chops. Chris Young was an awesome fourth outfielder last season, though I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect him to repeat that performance. Hicks is a better defender and he hit southpaws hard himself last year (139 wRC+), and there are signs he may be on the verge of a breakout.

“I think Hicks has a chance to help (the veterans) in spelling them and keeping them healthy and strong,” said Joe Girardi in the Winter Meetings last month. Girardi and Brian Cashman have both indicated they see Hicks as an everyday type player who will play a lot going forward. (Young batted 356 times last year, remember. The fourth outfielder gets a lot of work.) He’s going to start against lefties and play defense in the late innings at a minimum.

Last year the Yankees appeared to have a very strong and powerful bench thanks to Young and Jones, two veterans with pop. Young worked out, Jones didn’t. So it goes. Hicks and Ackley add much more athleticism to the roster and more versatility as well, without sacrificing much offensive production, if any. I think there’s a chance going from Murphy to Sanchez will be a step down next year, but Sanchez at least offers big upside. Growing pains are part of development.

The trio of Sanchez, Ackley, and Hicks are poised the give the Yankees a very strong bench with power, speed, athleticism, and defense. (For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects them for 4.4 WAR combined.) There’s some real upside with this group, which is usually not the case with bench guys. That doesn’t mean they’ll all work out, benches are weird like that, but the Yankees are in the middle of this quasi-rebuild, and part of it is upgrading the reserves. It’s not often the Bombers have carried bench players with this sort of potential.