The Crookeds and the Straights

“You got to take the crookeds with the straights.” Few lines can more accurately sum up the course of a baseball season than this one. Opening Day for the Yankees is just one sleep away and so our tired, baseball-starved feet finally rest at the variously crooked and straight path that is the 162-game marathon of a Major League season. Just like the 30 teams, each individual player will have his own crooked and straight moments to form the mosaic of his season. Hopefully for the Yankees’ players, there are more straights than crookeds. Let’s take a look at those possibilities for the place that’s a big question for the Yanks: the mound

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Middle Relief

I’ll take this as a group instead of going player-by-player, since the same thing applies to just about all of them. Here lies the boom and bust potential of the team. If they can preserve the leads that the starters–not always likely to go deep–can hand to them, they can help overcome the iffiness of the rotation and hand things off to the definitively solid back end of the bullpen. If not, they make the back end of the bullpen almost meaningless. The faces in here will change throughout the year, but the job remains the same: just get the outs when your name is called.

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)
(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Ivan Nova

I touched on his relief potential earlier in the year, and I’ll stick to my story here. The straight side of things is that Nova becomes Adam Warren. The crooked is that he continues being Ivan Nova, a pitcher whose only new trick is inconsistency in a new role. Ironically, going crooked instead of straight may be Nova’s best shot; like I wrote back in late January, if he focuses on his sinker and his curve, he may turn out alright as a reliever.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Andrew Miller & Dellin Betances

This is the place where the Yankees are mostly likely to have things go straight. Miller and Betances–along with Aroldis Chapman–are the safest bets of any Yankee players to be their elite selves this year. If things go crooked, it’s because Miller’s newly injured wrist isn’t holding up or Betances’ innings catch up to him. Luckily, the Yankees are crooked-proof here thanks to the three-headed monster they’ve assembled that will be hard to defeat; they’ve got insurance for insurance.

CC Sabathia

The straight path for CC is a lot more crooked than it is for others. There is not likely to be a return to dominance or even a return to goodness. All we’ve got to hope for here is a straight shot from April to October that includes health. Sabathia is going to be the fifth starter and all he needs to do is perform like one.

Masahiro Tanaka

The difference between crooked and straight matters most when it comes to Tanaka. Going straight, he can finally pitch a full season and be the ‘full time’ ace that injuries haven’t allowed him to be. Going crooked, he can finally prove a lot of amateur injury experts right and hurt his elbow for good. With so many question marks on the mound, it would be great for Tanaka to be the anchor we’ve all wanted him to be. He’s got frontline potential that obviously plays in the season, and would be great in the playoffs, especially paired with…

(Getty)
(Getty)

Nathan Eovaldi/Michael Pineda

Way back in November, I wrote about the mutual crossroads that Nasty Nate and Big Mike were about to approach; now they’ve arrived. The crooked part of the path sees their development stalling. The straight path sees Eovaldi continuing his second half surge and Pineda rediscovering his pre-Mother’s Day form. If you had to choose which one of these things if more likely, which would you? Because I have no idea. These two are a mystery, bigger even than…

Luis, you're No. 1. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Luis, you’re No. 1. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Luis Severino

Severino, no longer a rookie, will be counted on to take a step forward this season. Hopefully, that step is straight. We shouldn’t expect dominance and we shouldn’t expect him to meet his full potential already, but a straight step by Severino would boost the Yankees now and in the future. If he doesn’t step straight, though, he’s still young enough that he’s got time to correct his ‘gait.’ A crooked step by “Sevvy” might be bad for 2016, but luckily, it doesn’t mean the end of him.

It’s easy today to get overly emotional with each pitch, each play, each game–especially with the immediacy of social media. But we need to remember to try to stay calm. It’s a long road from here to November, and the path will be winding; we’ve got to take the crookeds with the straights.

Thoughts on the final day of the Grapefruit League season

Adios, Tampa. (Presswire)
Adios, Tampa. (Presswire)

Today is the final day of the Grapefruit League season for the Yankees. They’ll play a pair of split squad games this afternoon, then shuttle off to Miami for two exhibition games at Marlins Park on Friday and Saturday. After that, it’s back to New York for an off-day Sunday and Opening Day Monday. Hooray for that. Here are some thoughts.

1. Well, I was planning to start this by saying the Yankees made it through Spring Training healthy, but then Andrew Miller had to go and take a line drive to the wrist yesterday. The CT scan showed a chip fracture, whatever that means, so no, the Yankees didn’t make it though camp healthy. Alas. (Also, Bryan Mitchell managed to sprain his toe covering first base yesterday. We’re still waiting to hear the MRI results.) Aside from Miller, the biggest injury the Yankees suffered this spring was Jacoby Ellsbury taking that pitch to the wrist a few weeks ago, and he managed to escape without any major damage. The team is mostly healthy. That’s good news. The Yankees will go into the regular season at something very close to full strength, and the longer they’re at full strength, the better their chances to win the division. It looks like the AL East race will be pretty tight this year. It could very easily come down to which team stays the healthiest.

2. Joe Girardi may announce the rest of the roster later today. That was the original plan, but Girardi said Ivan Nova‘s strong start yesterday may force the team to think a little longer. The Miller injury may change things too. We’ll see. Anyway, Austin Romine will be the backup catcher — the Yankees triggered Carlos Corporan’s opt-out clause yesterday by emailing the other 29 teams about his availability — so the only open spots are in the bullpen. I still think Johnny Barbato and Kirby Yates will get them, though I’ve been wrong about this literally every step of the way, so what do I know. Either way, the point is Barbato and Yates are still in the mix for bullpen spots this late in camp, and I did not expect that coming into the spring. I mean, I knew it was always possible, but they were behind pretty much everyone else on the depth chart in my opinion. They pitched well this spring and no one else did, so here they are. Pretty crazy how that works out. Bullpens, man. (Barbato pretty much confirmed he’s made the team on Twitter last night, by the way.)

3. Whenever Girardi announces his regular season rotation, I expect it to line up like so: Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino. Same as last year, except with Severino instead of Adam Warren. Tanaka and Pineda are lined up to start the first two games of the season, so that’s the easy part. I think Sabathia will start the third game because the Yankees would rather let him face the Astros, who have a balanced lineup with some lefties, than the Tigers, who are so very righty heavy. Don’t get me wrong, Houston has some big righty bats themselves, but they also have some important lefties in Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, and Jason Castro. Detroit’s best only lefty hitter is Anthony Gose. Righties crushed Sabathia last season (.370 wOBA!), so I assume the Yankees will want to limit his exposure to them whenever possible. Make sense? Eovaldi and Severino then fall into place as the fourth and fifth starters. (Eovaldi pitches tomorrow, Severino Saturday.)

Hicks. (Presswire)
Hicks. (Presswire)

4. Speaking of the Astros, Girardi’s going to have to figure out what to do with his lineup against Dallas Keuchel on Opening Day. He sat Ellsbury and played Chris Young against Keuchel in the wildcard game last fall. Would he sit Ellsbury in favor of Aaron Hicks on Opening Day? Would he sit Brett Gardner or Carlos Beltran instead? Hicks had great numbers against southpaws last season (139 wRC+), so it makes sense to play him, but Opening Day has kind of a special connotation. Sitting an established veteran like Ellsbury or Gardner on Opening Day could be seen as disrespectful. It sounds silly, but stuff like that happens. I would be in favor of sitting Ellsbury for Hicks against Keuchel, especially if Ellsbury’s wrist is still sore. The Yankees have an off-day Tuesday, so if he sits Monday, he’ll have three straight off-days to rest the wrist. My hunch is the starting outfield plays Monday with Hicks on the bench.

5. Now that we know Ronald Torreyes has beaten out Pete Kozma, the bench to open the season will be Romine, Hicks, Torreyes, and Dustin Ackley. That bench is … young and kinda has upside? How about that. And it’s only a matter of time until Gary Sanchez replaces Romine too. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with carrying veteran players on the bench like the Yankees have done over the years, but wow, the Yankees have a nice collection of young and interesting reserves this season. That’s pretty fun. The Yankees have only so much flexibility with the starting lineup because of big contracts and all that, but there are no such concerns on the bench, so they’ve gone young. Times have definitely changed, huh? I never thought I’d see a bench full of 20-somethings whose best years figure to be ahead of them. Now watch them sign Rene Rivera to be the backup catcher.

6. Our season predictions at CBS will be posted at some point later today, but I’ll spoil them here. (Update: Here’s the link.) I have the Blue Jays, Royals, Astros, Mets, Cubs, and Dodgers winning the divisions, with the Yankees, Rangers, Nationals, and Cardinals as my wildcard teams. I went Mets over Astros Rangers for my World Series pick but wish I would have changed it to Mets over Blue Jays before the damn thing was put together. Too late for that. I think Toronto’s going to out-hit any pitching problems they have this year, and the Mets are built to dominate a short postseason series. I went boring with my MVP and Cy Young picks (Mike Trout/Chris Sale and Bryce Harper/Clayton Kershaw) but did pick Hicks as my surprise player in the AL. I buy him being on the verge of a breakout, and I think he’ll end up with close to 500 plate appearances in 2016. So anyway, those are my picks. Point and laugh as you see fit.

Thoughts one week before Opening Day

Kozma. (Presswire)
Kozma. (Presswire)

One week from today, the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season at home against the Astros. They have to squeeze in eight exhibition games and an off-day between now and then — hooray split squad games! — so this last week of Spring Training will be pretty busy. Soon though. Soon meaningful baseball will arrive. Anyway, I have thoughts.

1. For whatever reason there seems to be a ton of attention being paid to Spring Training stats and performance this year. Not just by Yankee fans and media folks, but all around the league. I guess it’s a function of not having anything else to talk about it. It just seems like the microanalysis of Spring Training numbers has been kicked up a notch this year. I’m guilty of it, no doubt. Just last week I said I was irrationally excited about Dustin Ackley. March is the very worst month to evaluate a baseball player (September is the second worst) and yet it’s still so easy to read too much into every little thing. Bryan Mitchell has walked one batter in 14.2 innings; does that mean he’s over his career long command issues? Didi Gregorius is hitting .417 against lefties; is he starting to learn how to hit southpaws? Spring Training is a dangerous time of year, man. Baseball will play tricks on you in March. This year spring stats seems to be getting more attention than ever and that’s bad news overall.

2. I was already planning to mention this, but Ken Davidoff beat me to it: no one is talking about Dellin Betances this spring, and that’s a good thing. Last spring everyone was focusing on his reduced velocity and non-existent control and for good reason. Betances was a huge part of the bullpen and he endured a huge workload in 2014. The missing mph and bad control couldn’t be ignored. This spring there are no concerns at all. Dellin looks like Dellin. He’s shown an overpowering fastball, a knee-buckling breaking ball, and just enough wildness to make hitters uncomfortable in the box. I forget where I saw it, but I remember reading Betances changed his routine this offseason and gave himself a few extra weeks of rest, so I wonder how much that has helped him. Either way, at this time last year Dellin was a legitimate source of concern. He looked nothing like the guy who carved up the league the year before. This spring, it’s business as usual, and that’s great news.

3. Once again, I have to revise my Opening Day bullpen prediction. Last time I had Betances, Mitchell, Andrew Miller, Ivan Nova, Chasen Shreve, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow going north. I’m going to swap out Pinder and Rumbelow for Kirby Yates and Johnny Barbato this time. The other five guys are pretty set in stone at this point, so really it’s only those last two spots that are up for grabs. Rumbelow was sent to minor league camp over the weekend, which takes him out of the running. Yates and Barbato have simply pitched better than Pinder in camp, and this feels very much like a “whoever pitches the best this spring will get the job” situation. Remember, this is the bullpen shuttle. Just because Yates and Barbato start the season on the roster doesn’t mean they’ll stay there all year. In fact, I would be surprised if they remained on the roster the entire month of April. So yeah, I have Yates and Barbato getting the last two spots right now.

4. The more time Rob Refsnyder spent at third base, the worse he looked. The last few days were really rough in particular. Earlier in camp he looked fine at third, mostly because balls were being hit right at him, but lately we’ve seen the ugly side of Refsnyder’s defense. He didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball this spring either, going 8-for-33 (.242) with a .649 OPS in 35 plate appearances. Refsnyder was going to have to do two things to make the team this spring: hit and show he can handle third base defensively. He obviously did neither of those things to the team’s liking, hence yesterday’s demotion. Some Triple-A time to rebuild confidence might not be such a bad thing for Refsnyder. The likelihood of Pete Kozma making the Yankees as the safe veteran utility man — “You look at Kozma, he’s going to battle through his at-bats. He’s swung the bat better lately,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings over the weekend — is annoyingly high at the moment. The unpopular but probably true opinion says Kozma is the most useful player among the team’s backup infielder options, but I am still curious to see what Ronald Torreyes has to offer. I liked the pickup from the start.

Ryan. (Presswire)
Ryan. (Presswire)

5. That said, I would not at all be surprised if the Yankees went outside the organization to acquire a backup third baseman at some point in the next few days. (For what it’s worth, George King says they’re “likely” to look for infield help before Opening Day.) The out of options market doesn’t offer much help. Perhaps the Yankees can find a backup infielder among the Article XX(B) free agents. Those are the players with at least six years of service time who signed a minor league contract, like Chris Denorfia. Article XX(B) free agents get a $100,000 bonus if they’re sent to Triple-A and an automatic opt-out on June 1st. Most of those players end up getting released in the final week of Spring Training once teams decide they won’t make their Opening Day roster, again like Denorfia. Casey McGehee, Clint Barmes, Joaquin Arias, and Brendan Ryan are among the Article XX(B) infielders this spring. Who’s ready for the Brendan Ryan reunion?

6. I’ve said this before and it’s worth saying again with Opening Day only a week away: I’m really excited about this coming season. I haven’t been this excited about an upcoming season since at least 2012. The Yankees have a nice blend of exciting young players and productive veterans, not to mention a bullpen that is must-see television. And they’re fun. Even the old guys are fun. The team isn’t as bland and business-like as they were for so many years. Will the Yankees win the AL East or even get a wildcard spot? Who knows. Baseball would be boring if it were predictable. I do think the Yankees have as good a chance of winning the AL East as any other team in the division. They’ll need some people to stay healthy and some others to break out, just like everyone else. I’m really looking forward to this season. I like the roster and I like where the Yankees are heading long-term, even if I nitpick and complain about the Pete Kozmas of the world.

Thoughts 13 days prior to Opening Day

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Opening Day is two weeks from yesterday, and we’re at the point of Spring Training where everyone wants it to be over. Even the players. Most of the top prospects are in the minor league camp and the veterans are going through the motions. These are the dog days of March. Just gotta grind it out and wait for the season to begin. Here are some assorted thoughts.

1. Even though the tests came back clean, the Jacoby Ellsbury injury worries me because he has a history of getting hurt and staying hurt. His injuries tend to linger and they have pretty much his entire career. I can’t imagine that will change now that he’s over 30. There are 13 days between now and Opening Day, and the Yankees have outfield depth, so they’re in good shape there, but to get back to the postseason this year, they’re going to need Ellsbury on his A-game from the leadoff spot. Wrist injuries can be pretty serious even without a break. All the inflammation can make it tough to hold a bat properly, and if you can’t hold a bat properly, you’re not going to hit. Hopefully this blows over quickly and Ellsbury gets back on the field by the end of the week. I just worry we’re going to be talking about this hit-by-pitch in three months and how Ellsbury still doesn’t look right.

2. So how many teams do you think called the White Sox about Chris Sale since last week? Probably 29, right? Sale threw some serious verbal barbs management’s way after the whole Adam LaRoche fiasco — he called vice president Kenny Williams a “bold-faced liar,” among other things — and was clearly unhappy with that whole situation. Teams smell blood in the water and if there is any chance the incident could make Sale available, they wanted their foot in the door. GM Rick Hahn told Dan Hayes they have no interest in moving their ace, which is no surprise whatsoever. Sale is one of the most valuable commodities in the game as a true No. 1 starter who is owed a maximum of $47.15M through 2019. I hope the Yankees placed a call out of due diligence. I don’t think they have the pieces to get Sale — Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, and Gary Sanchez maybe piques Hahn’s interest — but you’ve got to at least make the call. And by the way, the White Sox have every right to ask LaRoche to not bring his kid to the clubhouse every day and LaRoche has every right to retire. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said about that.

3. I admit a sliver of doubt is beginning to enter my mind about CC Sabathia getting the fifth starter’s job over Ivan Nova. I still think it will be Sabathia when it’s all said it done, though right now my confidence is like 98% instead of 100%. Like I said, it’s only a sliver of doubt. The team keeps talking about this being an open competition and Brian Cashman seemed pretty sincere while speaking to Meredith Marakovits over the weekend (skip to the 0:44 mark for the fifth starter talk):

Nova didn’t pitch well in his last start and that’s going to hurt his chances of breaking camp in the rotation. He’s going to have to really outperform Sabathia this spring to win that fifth starter’s spot. Anything close to resembling a tie will go to the veteran making $25M. Nova has to leave zero doubt he is the best man for the job. Either way, I’m sure both of these guys are going to end up making a bunch of starts this season. That’s baseball. The Yankees could go into the season with Sabathia as a starter thinking it’s only a matter of time until Nova moves into the rotation anyway.

4. Chasen Shreve has looked phenomenal this spring. The numbers are outstanding — the only base-runner against him in 6.1 innings came on an error — but beyond that, his stuff looks firm and his body language looks way better than it did last September. Shreve looked pretty down on himself late last year and who could blame him? He got torched for a few weeks there. He seems to be more confident this spring and he’s throwing with conviction. Maybe it’s something as simple as being fresh physically after an offseason of rest. After all, almost everyone who was asked about Shreve’s stumble to finish last year chalked it up to fatigue. Perhaps it really was that simple. Either way, Shreve has looked great this spring and I hope it carries over into the regular season. He can be dominant when right.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

5. Know who we’re going to see a lot this season? Kirby Yates. I just have that feeling, you know? Yates has been pretty good this spring but that’s not it. His stuff is good, he has a history of missing bats, and he has 56.1 innings of big league experience to his credit. I could see Yates being a very prominent part of the bullpen shuttle, if not the No. 1 up-and-down guy. Last season Branden Pinder held that role. Pinder was the guy who stuck around longer than the other shuttle relievers whenever there was a chance to stay with the team longer than 48 hours. I feel like Yates is going to be that reliever this season. We’re going to look up in August and this guy’s going to have 40 innings under his belt, isn’t he?

6. Both Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran will be free agents following this season, and the Yankees sure seem to be looking forward to having their big contracts off the books. They’ll have more payroll flexibility and two open roster spots for young players once they’re gone. But you know what? That’s an awful lot of offense walking out the door. You’re talking about the team’s best power hitter and best all-around hitter. That doesn’t mean the Yankees should look to retain Teixeira and/or Beltran — what are the odds they continue to be the club’s best power hitter and best all-around hitter in 2017 and beyond, in their late-30s? — just that the potential offensive hit is something they have to consider. This might be no big deal. Teixeira and/or Beltran could struggle this year and make replacing them easy. If that happens though, the Yankees probably aren’t making the postseason. The more they produce this season, the better it is for the Yankees in 2016 and the tougher it will be to replace them in 2017.

Weathering the Storm

Jacoby Ellsbury HBP

Looking back on my sports day yesterday, I’m realizing it was fraught with disaster-potential. In the afternoon, Jacoby Ellsbury left the game after being plunked in the right wrist. Later last night, my UConn Huskies bowed out of the NCAA Tournament, bested and humbled by the superior Kansas Jayhawks. Given the Ellsbury, HBP, the Huskies’ loss could’ve been the cherry on top of a very crappy sundae; instead, since that Ellsbury’s x-rays were negative, the basketball game was the sundae itself. Regardless of food metaphors, the HBP got me thinking about the Yankees and the lineup depth they’ll likely have to tap into at some point during the season if/when someone or multiple someones go down with a long-term injury.

(Jon Durr/Getty)
(Jon Durr/Getty)

Up the middle, the Yankees are actually in fairly good shape. Should Didi Gregorius go down, the (somewhat) newly acquired Starlin Castro can move over from his new home at second base to his old one at shortstop. While this leaves a hole at second base–one that could otherwise be created by a Castro injury–the Yankees have an assortment of options: Dustin Ackley, Rob Refsnyder, and even Ronald Torreyes, if he’s still around. None of those options are ideal, mind you, for various reasons. Ackely probably ‘is what he is,’ as they say, at this point of his career, but he’s a lefty hitter in Yankee Stadium, now for a full season. That always has the potential for fireworks. Refsnyder may not be defensively graceful, but there’s upside in his bat. Even Torreyes–who only has a handful of ML plate appearances–has some potential to tap into; he’s a career .298 hitter in the minors and has a strikeout rate under 7%. The impact on the batting lineup would be fairly minimal in this case. Both Castro and Gregorius figure to be bottom-of-the-order hitters anyway, and their potential replacements would be as well. Those replacements also have hitting profiles that are similar to those of Starlin and Didi, further mitigating any wrinkles.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Moving inward, the Yankees have Gary Sanchez in waiting should Brian McCann go down. It feels like we’ve been waiting on Sanchez to take over at catcher forever, and this is the year that we could get it. Granted, it’ll be bittersweet should it happen at McCann’s expense. McCann is still a middle-of-the-order hitter, and an injury here would upset things. Chase Headley would likely move up into the sixth spot with Sanchez slotting in behind him. Sanchez, though, as big power potential and if things broke right, he could find himself in a more meaningful spot.

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

In the outfield, Aaron Hicks provides upside and insurance at all three spots and Brett Gardner is a more-than-capable center field option should Jacoby Ellsbury go down. Additionally, the Yankees have Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ben Gamel on the 40-man roster to fill in on the bench. Dustin Ackley can also play the corners if necessary. This is where potential lineup disturbances will have the most impact. All three regular outfielders–Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Carlos Beltran–bat at the top of the order. Even with some upside left–and success against lefties–Hicks likely isn’t a top-of-the-order bat, and neither are the other potential fill ins. If an outfielder sustains an injury, I’m guessing Starlin Castro shoots up to hit in the two hole.

Rob Refsnyder
(Getty)

The corner infield spots present a big challenge for the Yankees in terms of depth. Greg Bird‘s injury leaves them without a true backup option at first base and aside from Chase Headley, the Yankees don’t really have anyone strong at third, having abandoned the Castro At the Corner experiment already. Refsnyder has been taking reps there, which is probably his best shot to make the team out of Spring Training. This is much less ideal than Ref filling in at second, where he’s already shaky defensively despite some experience there.

Should Teixeira be injured for a long period of time, I’d imagine we’ll see Chase Headley march across the diamond to play first, unless the Yankees opt to keep Chris Parmalee around and bring him up. That might actually be the better option. While Refsnyder has more upside and moving Headley would get Ref on the field, Parmalee has shown some degree of Major League success and using him allows for keeping Headley where he’s comfortable and most effective.

An injury to Alex Rodriguez would likely mean a rotation of players–Tex, McCann, and Beltran–into the DH spot with fill-ins at their vacated positions–Hicks in the outfield; McCann at first, perhaps; Sanchez and/or Austin Romine at catcher.

An old team like the Yankees needs to have depth. Despite not doing any shopping on the Major League free agent market, the Yankees do seem to have a fair amount of depth at most positions. No one wants injuries to happen, but they most certainly will. There might be some dropoffs, but it appears the Yankees have set themselves up to not fall off of a cliff when their mainstays get hurt.

Thoughts following the Spring Training off-day

The Board of Trustees. (Presswire)
The Board of Trustees. (Presswire)

The Yankees had their first Spring Training off-day yesterday. They’ll jump back into Grapefruit League play with a game against the Red Sox later tonight. That will in no way be blown out of proportion, I’m sure. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1. We’ve reached the dog days of March. The novelty of baseball being back has worn off and most of the top prospects have been reassigned to minor league camp. Now we’re just going to watch a bunch of big league players go through the motions and get ready for the upcoming season, which can be rather tedious. The grind has officially begun. Spring Training is too long — Eno Sarris (subs. req’d) spoke to a bunch of players (and non-players) and most agree Spring Training could be shorter — but it’s long out of necessity. Starting pitchers need time to get stretched out and it’s also good for players to have a chance to heal up from any nagging spring injuries. Twenty days to Opening Day. It’s so close and yet it feels so far away.

2. I’m not surprised the Yankees pulled the plug on Starlin Castro at third base, but I am surprised they ended the experiment so soon. He never did appear in a game at the hot corner. All he did was take some grounders at third during infield practice. This makes me wonder if Castro needs more work at second base than the Yankees realized. He is new to the position, so it would be completely understandable. Castro couldn’t have possibly learned all the nuances of second base in the 258 innings he played at the position last year. I’m guessing the third base experiment is on hiatus and not over completely — what are the chances we hear about Starlin possibly playing third next spring? 98%? — but clearly the Yankees weren’t comfortable moving forward with it at this time. That seems like a smart move. Asking Castro to learn his second new position within an eight-month span could have been overwhelming.

3. It’s still possible the Yankees will go outside the organization for a backup third baseman — I could totally see a shuttle reliever for an out of options infielder trade going down on, like, April 3rd — but right now things are looking pretty good for Rob Refsnyder in terms of making the team. He’s actually played more innings at third base (23) than second (17) this spring, and only Chase Headley (33) and Deibinson Romero (24) have played more innings at the hot corner in Grapefruit League games. (Romero was reassigned to minor league camp Sunday.) There’s still enough time for someone like Pete Kozma or Ronald Torreyes to win a bench job, though they do seem to be long shots. Refsnyder looks like the guy right now. Kinda weird how the Yankees steadfastly refused to call up Refsnyder last summer despite Stephen Drew‘s long periods of nothing, yet now had him change positions as a way to improve his chances of being on the Opening Day roster.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

4. Right now I think the backup catcher race is advantage Austin Romine. Joe Girardi has all but dismissed Carlos Corporan as a candidate, which surprised me, leaving Romine and Gary Sanchez. They’ve played the exact same number of innings behind the plate (26) but Romine has stood out more offensively, which he was going to have to do to win a roster spot. Sanchez literally doesn’t have a hit yet; he’s 0-for-10 with three walks and a strikeout. Romine is 5-for-14 (.357) with three doubles. In a way, Sanchez is making this easy for the Yankees. Five weeks in the minors delays his free agency another year, and sending him down to gain that extra year of team control would have been weird had he mashed in camp. I don’t think the Yankees care too much about fan backlash or things like that, but at least now they can say they want Sanchez to play everyday so he can continue to work on things in Triple-A and have it be totally believable. Saying that when a guy hits .350 in camp is a little tougher to believe. We’ll see. Lots of Spring Training left.

5. Jacob Lindgren was both the first 40-man roster player and first bullpen shuttle reliever to be reassigned to minor league camp this spring, and depending on how you want to look at it, the move could be telling or nothing at all. Lindgren is coming off elbow surgery, so the Yankees may want him to take it slow in minor league camp, where he won’t experience the same pressure to win a roster spot. At the same time, non-roster guys like Diego Moreno, Richard Bleier, and Tyler Cloyd are still in big league camp, and whatever innings they throw are innings Lindgren could be throwing. It’s not like those guys are serious candidates to make the Opening Day roster. Lindgren’s overall Grapefruit League numbers are ugly — he had one disaster appearance followed by two scoreless innings — but I don’t think the stats had anything to do it. Lots of guys have hideous numbers right now. I think sending him out was simply an indication the Yankees don’t believe Lindgren is ready to help at the big league level right now. Relievers can get by with bad command — none of the big three relievers have even average command — but they usually can’t get by with bad control, and right now Lindgren has bad control. He has to work on that.

6. My most recent Opening Day bullpen prediction has already been blown up with Lindgren being sent out. So much for that. We know Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances will get two of the seven bullpen spots, and Ivan Nova will get one of the others as long as the five starters ahead of him stay healthy. Right now I have those four remaining bullpen spots going to Chasen Shreve, Bryan Mitchell, Nick Rumbelow, and Branden Pinder. Pinder replaces Lindgren from my original projection and gets the spot over Nick Goody and Johnny Barbato, mostly based on seniority. He threw the most innings and had the most up-and-down trips among the shuttle guys last year. Nova and Mitchell give the Yankees two long men, which will come in handy early in the season as the Yankees ease their starters into things. Shreve is pretty much a lock at this point thanks to his excellent Grapefruit League showing and overall body of work last year. The Rumbelow and Pinder spots are shuttle spots. They might be on the Opening Day roster, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stick around very long. Besides, one is keeping the seat warm for Aroldis Chapman. The bullpen competition will be a year long adventure.

Tinkering for Tanaka?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

While it hasn’t been hard in the last few years to claim the title of ‘best Yankee starting pitcher,’ it’s one that undoubtedly goes to right hander Masahiro Tanaka. At times, there have been pitchers who’ve performed better than he has, but on balance, it’s difficult to compete with him. Whenever he’s on the mound, there’s a feeling that something special can and will happen; I think it’s safe to say that all of us want him to pitch as much as possible. Unfortunately for Tanaka, the Yankees,  and us the fans, he’s been unable to make at least 25 starts in both of his seasons in the US and has never reached even 160 innings pitched. To boot, he’s coming off surgery this offseason, so his health is a question going into the 2016 regular season (just like everyone else not named “Luis Severino,” who comes with his own concerns).

As of now, Tanaka is lined up to start Opening Day vs. the Astros, which is unsurprising. The honor is mostly ceremonial, but throwing your best pitcher on Opening Day is also a nice way to get off on your best foot early on in the season. That goes doubly when the team you’re playing first–the Astros–is a fellow potential Wild Card contender for later on in the season. The frequent breaks in the April schedule also offer an interesting temptation to the Yankees as it regards to Tanaka. With regular rest for each start, the Yankees can swing a way to have him make six starts in April, all against possible playoff teams.

If (when) he starts on Opening Day, he would be lined up to pitch again on Sunday the 10th against the Tigers if the Yankees opted to cycle through their rotation fully before returning to Tanaka. Continuing on that schedule would give him five starts in the month: 4/4; 4/10; 4/15 (Mariners); 4/21 (A’s); 4/26 (Rangers). There’s also a way the Yankees could get him six starts in the month by taking advantage of the off days and not using their back-end starters. Pitching Tanaka with exactly four days of rest, regardless of the rotation, would allow him to start on 4/4 (Astros); 4/9 (Tigers); 4/14 (Blue Jays); 4/19 (A’s); 4/24 (Rays); and 4/29 (Red Sox).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The effect here is two-fold: it gives Tanaka–the best pitcher–the most possible starts and it allows the Yankees to skip players they might want to skip, whether it’s CC Sabathia for purposes of easing him back into the rotation and keeping his knee healthy, or wanting to tinker with Luis Severino’s innings, as not to wear him out early in the year. The Yankees may say Severino has no restrictions, but as Mike noted in his season preview for Severino, there’s no reason to believe them.

Coincidentally, there’s also a performance trend regarding Tanaka and regular rest. The sample size is relatively small–87.1 innings–but Tanaka has his best split ERA–2.89–when pitching on just four days’ rest. He does his absolute best work on six+ days of rest, but that’s not feasible given the relative weakness of the Yankee rotation, even if they add a sixth starter.

(Tom Pennington/Getty)
(Tom Pennington/Getty)

This plan isn’t without its obstacles. Tanaka’s coming off of surgery and though everything seems to be going alright on that front, it may not be wise to push him right out of the gate. There are also concerns as they relate to the bullpen. Skipping starters in favor of Tanaka could put some extra strain on the bullpen, the middle of which is yet to be sorted out. This would be less of a concern were Aroldis Chapman around, but his more-than-well-deserved suspension pushes Dellin Betances back an inning and thins out the pre-eighth inning options for Joe Girardi. Employing the Scranton Shuttle could help alleviate the fatigue issue, but it doesn’t necessarily sort out the quality issue.

I’m conflicted on the alternate plans I presented earlier, but my senses want me to want the Yankees to give in to temptation and forgo others in favor of Tanaka getting the most starts. The Yankees faded in the back half of last year and given the age of their roster, it’s not hard to see that happening again. Getting off to the strongest start possible is of the utmost importance and pitching Tanaka six times–with three against division opponents–in April rather than five–with none against division opponents–helps accomplish that.