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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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.

Brian Cashman on starting Greg Bird in Triple-A: “That’s the optimal”

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

I wouldn’t call it a problem, but one of the biggest questions heading into the 2016 season is how Greg Bird fits the roster. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira at first base, Alex Rodriguez at DH, and another DH candidate in Carlos Beltran. Bird is a first baseman (and DH) only, and his lack of versatility doesn’t fit the bench.

“That’s the optimal,” said Brian Cashman to Ken Davidoff and Bryan Hoch when asked about Bird starting next season in Triple-A. “Not for Bird, but optimally period, that would be the best. Currently, Tex is the better player … If Alex went down, we could swing Carlos over from right field to DH … Currently (Bird is) blocked by some pretty significant players. It creates a great dynamic.”

That is basically CashmanSpeak for “we just have to wait for Teixeira or A-Rod to get hurt.” He can’t come out and say it, but I’m sure that’s what the Yankees are thinking. Stash Bird in Triple-A for a few weeks, let him work mostly on his defense, then call him up when the need inevitably rises. Teixeira and Rodriguez aren’t all that durable these days, after all.

Bird, 23, hit .291/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) with eleven home runs in 46 games with the Yankees this past season after taking over at first base following Teixeira injury. He really struggled against lefties in September and was passable at first base, but not an asset. Bird is very clearly the heir apparent to Teixeira, whose eight-year contract expires next winter.

Like I said, this isn’t a problem. Have too many good players is a good thing. Stashing Bird in Triple-A is a short-term measure, that’s all. It’s temporary. We’ll see him again at some point next year. It’s inevitable.

Finding a way to create flexibility will be key to offseason for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The 2015-16 offseason is now underway, but things really won’t get going until Saturday, when free agents can start signing with new teams. Even then the first few days and weeks of free agency can be slow. Like the regular season, the offseason is a marathon, not a sprint.

Once the offseason really gets moving, the Yankees will look for ways to improve despite limited maneuverability, both in terms of the roster and payroll. The payroll could always increase — these are the Yankees after all, they might has well have a money printing room in the basement of Yankee Stadium — but Hal Steinbrenner has been hesitant to give the thumbs up. That’s another topic for another time, I guess.

Roster flexibility is a different matter. Roster spots are finite. You’ve got your 25-man active roster and 15 reserve players on the 40-man roster. That’s it. For the Yankees, eleven of those 25-man roster spots are already accounted for thanks to guaranteed contracts. Add in arbitration-eligible players and it’s 18 spots. Then add in the no-brainer pre-arbitration guys and it’s 21 spots. Here’s the roster:

Catcher Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Brian McCann Mark Teixeira Brett Gardner CC Sabathia Andrew Miller
Dustin Ackley Jacoby Ellsbury Masahiro Tanaka Dellin Betances
DH Didi Gregorius Carlos Beltran Michael Pineda Justin Wilson
Alex Rodriguez Chase Headley Nathan Eovaldi Adam Warren
Luis Severino Ivan Nova
BENCH ?
John Ryan Murphy ? ?
Brendan Ryan ?

Four open spots: two pitchers and two position players. With Warren and Nova in the bullpen — at least for this exercise — the Yankees have rotation depth in case someone gets hurt or unexpectedly falls apart. So those last two pitching spots don’t really come with defined roles. The closer is set, the setup guys are in place, the long men are there. They need two middle relievers, basically. The more dominant the better.

The position player spots are where it gets interesting because the Yankees need a backup outfielder and they need to find a way to better rest their veteran players. That will be easier said than done given the lack of versatility. Here are some possible ways to improve things.

Give Alex A Glove

The Yankees were very hesitant to play A-Rod in the field this year — he didn’t play the field at all after May 23rd and didn’t play a full inning in the field after May 5th — and I get it. He’s over 40, he’s got two surgically repaired hips, he’s not very mobile anymore. All good and valid reasons to keep him at DH.

That said, I think the Yankees should have him work out at first base a little more often next year. (Forget third base, that’s not happening at this point.) Not regularly, but maybe once every ten games? That frees up the DH spot for someone else and adds more flexibility. It’s not much, but it’s something. Alex is crazy good at this baseball thing. Give him time at first in Spring Training and he’ll pick it up.

Joe Girardi has already talked about finding a way to keep his veteran players fresh next year, and that includes A-Rod, who faded in the second half. He played 151 games this season and started 138. Maybe the magic number next year is 120 starts. Is there any chance it could be 105 at DH and 15 at first? That’s not too much to ask.

Put JRM Back On The Infield, Sometimes

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The infield is not unfamiliar territory for Murphy. He played third base in high school before converting to catcher full-time after being drafted, and he played 14 games at third in the minors as well. The Yankees had him work out at first base late this year and Murphy routinely takes ground balls at third base before games, though most players work out at other positions in batting practice.

Murphy’s long-term value is greatest at catcher. Put him at another position full-time and he’s just another guy. The Yankees don’t need him to play another position full-time, however. They could just use him for spot start duty at either first or third base. Position changes are usually far-fetched, especially when they involve catchers, but the Yankees did have Murphy spend time getting familiar with first base this season, so it’s at least crossed their mind. He’s athletic enough and it’s a way to get him some more at-bats.

Put Refsnyder Back In The Outfield, Sometimes

To me, this is less realistic than putting Murphy at first or third base. Murphy’s a good defensive catcher. Refsnyder is a bad defensive second baseman who needs more reps there. Any time he spends in the outfield — as you know, Refsnyder was an outfielder in college before the Yankees moved him to second base — is time he could be spending at second base, where he needs work and is ultimately most valuable. Is putting Refsnyder in the outfield an option? Yeah. Of course. It’s an idea to kick around. I’m not sure having Refsnyder spend time in the outfield is best for his development at second base though.

Get A True Utility Man

The “go outside the organization” option. The Yankees could bring a true utility player type. They could go high-end (Ben Zobrist), mid-range (Martin Prado), or low-end (Mike Aviles). All three of those guys can play both the infield and outfield. And unlike Ackley, they can play the left side of the infield. (Ackley’s arm has been terrible since he had Tommy John surgery in college. Shortstop or third base ain’t happenin’.)

Zobrist or Prado would not necessarily be a bench player, they’d almost be like the tenth position player, capable of playing in a different spot depending on who needs rest. Aviles is not someone you want to give much playing time, so he’d be a Ryan replacement more than anything. Neither can hit and Ryan is the better defender, but he can’t play all three outfield spots like Aviles. You’d being trading some defensive competence for versatility, a trade that may or may not be worth making.

More than anything, the Yankees need to figure out a way to get their players more rest, whether that’s full days off or half-days as the DH. This past season they had no real backup third baseman and the DH spot was unavailable because of A-Rod. With limited roster flexibility, both in terms of players under contract and available roster spots, the Yankees will have to get creative.