Thoughts following the back-to-back off-days

Starsky and Dutch. (Presswire)
Starsky and Dutch. (Presswire)

Thanks to Sunday’s rainout, the Yankees are coming off back-to-back off-days as they head into tonight’s series opener against the Blue Jays. It’s not too early to call this a big series, is it? Yeah kinda. Then again, every win the Yankees pick up now is one fewer win they’ll need later. Anyway, I have some thoughts. Read ’em and weep.

1. Through five games the Prestige Worldwide™ middle infield has gone a combined 15-for-38 (.395) with two doubles, three home runs, two walks, and three strikeouts. This is working out pretty well so far, eh? Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius are not going to keep up that pace, we all know that, but it’s exciting to see the Yankees have two bonafide building block players at second and short. I’m a huge believer in building a team from the middle of the field outward, and rebuilding the middle infield in the post-Derek Jeter/Robinson Cano era was not going to be easy. No one is going to confuse Didi and Castro for Jeter and Cano, but these two guys sure look like they have the potential to stick around for a few years. Gregorius has been getting better and better since last May, and Castro has hit the ground running in New York. They’ve been awesome in the super early going.

2. As he’s struggled these last few years, we’ve heard CC Sabathia has been tinkering with all sorts of different pitches. Cutters, two-seam fastballs, two-seam changeups, the works. Most of the time nothing came from it. Late this spring there were reports Sabathia was working on a new cutter that is somehow different than his old cutter, and he actually threw it in his start Saturday. A lot. From Brooks Baseball:

CC Sabathia pitch selectionI’ve been doing this long enough to know getting excited about a new pitch after one outing is foolish, but you can’t ignore the new pitch completely either. Sabathia made a tangible change to his arsenal and it very well may lead to a change in his effectiveness. Not necessarily for the better either. The cutter could stink going forward for all we know. I’m rooting for Sabathia more than any other player on the roster this season given everything he went through last year, and if this cutter in any way helps his performance, great. Sabathia is a dude worth pulling for.

3. The list of available shuttle relievers has very quietly thinned out one week into the season. Bryan Mitchell is out with his broken toe and now Nick Rumbelow needs Tommy John surgery. Jacob Lindgren and Vicente Campos are down in High Class-A getting themselves back on track. That leaves Branden Pinder, Nick Goody, James Pazos, and Tyler Olson as the 40-man roster call-up options. I see Olson as a pure left-on-left matchup guy, so his usefulness is limited. The Yankees do have an open 40-man spot thanks to Aroldis Chapman‘s suspension — Mitchell, Greg Bird, and now Rumbelow are 60-day DL candidates too — so they could always call up someone like Tyler Webb or Chad Green or Diego Moreno or whoever. Still though, if they need a fresh arm and either Pinder or Goody is unavailable because they just pitched, things could get interesting. The Yankees showed last year they’ll call just about anyone up, so don’t be surprised if we see Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Haynes, or Tyler Cloyd at some point.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

4. I can’t say I expect the imminent Nick Swisher signing to amount to much, if anything, but there’s nothing wrong with bringing him aboard for a look-see. He’s going to take at-bats away from Chris Parmelee and Deibinson Romero (and probably Cesar Puello too) at Triple-A, and that’s no big deal. Swisher is 35 now, his knees are shot, and he’s been awful the last two years. Those guys usually don’t bounce back and produce, even in limited roles. Given Mark Teixeira‘s injury history though, adding first base depth is not a bad move, and if nothing else Swisher is a guy who knows the strike zone and already knows how to take advantage of the short porch. It would be awesome to see him come up and have some kind of impact. I’m just not expecting anything.

5. How about my boy Ronald Torreyes? I said I was irrationally excited about him soon after the trade — that was before the Yankees designated him for assignment, lost him on waivers, then re-claimed him on waivers — so seeing that 3-for-4 game in his first MLB start last week was pretty cool. I don’t think Torreyes is a future regular or anything, but I think he can be a pretty good bench player going forward. He’s only 23 — good thing the Yankees went young instead of putting Rob Refsnyder on the bench, eh? — and he’s a high contact/high energy guy who can handle the three non-first base infield positions. It’s almost like he’s Eduardo Nunez with better defense. Torreyes is that same kind of live-bodied athlete without the defensive headaches. Nice little find for the Yankees.

6. James Kaprielian, last year’s first round pick, made his season debut last night with High-A Tampa and was pretty awesome. His stats are in the James Kaprielian Watch in the sidebar. Kaprielian threw only 60 pitches in his five innings, and that leads me to believe the Yankees are controlling his workload early in the season so he can help come August and September. This is exactly what they did with Luis Severino last year. The limited his work in the minors in April, May, and June, then turned him loose in the second half in the big leagues. They didn’t want to run into a situation where Severino had to be shut down in early or mid-September because his workload was getting out of control. It appears Kaprielian is on a similar plan. That doesn’t guarantee he will be up later in the season. It just means the Yankees want to be prepared in case Kaprielian does force the issue and come up.

The importance of rest, and the importance of having the best lineup as often as possible

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

The 2016 season is only five games old, and already one thing is clear: the Yankees have a really good offense. Their 35 runs scored are the most in the AL and the fifth most in MLB overall, and their team 145 wRC+ is by far the best among the 30 clubs. (The Orioles are second at 132.) That’s despite being shut out once and losing a game to a rainout. The Yankees have scored at least eight runs in three games already, which is awesome.

This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The Yankees had a very good offense last season — they averaged 4.72 runs per game in 2015, second most in baseball — and the same roster returns this year, except the generally unproductive Stephen Drew has been replaced by Starlin Castro. Castro has been phenomenal so far. It’s early, no doubt about it, but right now the Yankees have a powerful lineup. It’s been fun to watch.

Of course, the offense faded big time down the stretch last season, and the Yankees are trying like hell to avoid that this year. The plan is to give the regulars more rest, and that plan has already been put into motion. Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Chase Headley have all spent a game on the bench. The first three guys spent the same game on the bench, and that was the game the Yankees were shut out.

“Everyone asked me all about last year (why) guys got fatigued at the end of the year,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings after Friday’s shutout loss. “What really made me do this was: we got in late, we played three days in a row, it’s early in the season, you’ve got (players soon to be) 39 and 41 years old. I’ve got to manage them. Mac caught three days in a row (before) another short turnaround. It’s not ideally what you want to do, but it was kind of a product of the rainout.”

I am fully on board with giving the regulars more rest. I have no idea whether it will actually result in the Yankees avoiding another second half slide, but I can’t imagine it’ll hurt. More than a few guys looked out of gas down the stretch last year. Out of gas and banged up. Anything the Yankees can do to avoid that is a-okay in my book. Girardi has to be proactive, not reactive, hence resting players in the fourth game of the year.

There are two ways Girardi and the Yankees can approach this plan to rest everyone more often, I suppose. Here are the two possible courses of action I see:

  1. Rest everyone at once. That’s what happened Friday, when three regulars were out of the lineup. The upside here is you get the full strength lineup more often.
  2. Rest one guy at a time. This is the rest A-Rod one day, Beltran the next, McCann the next, and so on approach. You won’t have the full strength lineup, but you’ll have something close to it each day.

I honestly think there is a valid argument for both approaches, and really, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. The Yankees could use each approach at different times throughout the season.

Personally, I’d rather see the Yankees rest one guy at a time. Sitting three or four of your best hitters in one game doesn’t automatically equal a loss — even the worst teams in baseball win 60-something games each year — but it sure puts you at a disadvantage. The Yankees don’t have a great rotation and they need their offense to carry them most days.

I think Girardi and the Yankees prefer to rest one guy at a time as well. Putting three regulars on the bench Friday was the result of some unusual circumstances. The Yankees lost Tuesday’s off-day to the Opening Day rainout, and they were playing an afternoon game Friday — it was the Tigers’ home opener — after getting into Detroit late Thursday night. It was a very quick turnaround. You don’t see many of those during the season.

The key to this “rest the regulars” plan is the bench players. Aaron Hicks and Dustin Ackley have be worth a semi-regular lineup spot — I’m optimistic about both, but my opinion doesn’t mean anything — and so does Ronald Torreyes. If the bench guys produce, Girardi will have more flexibility to rest the veterans. Either way, the Yankees are at their best when the lineup is at full strength. That much is clear one week into the season.

Checking in on Ivan the Reliever

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

The choice facing Joe Girardi for whom to pick for the fifth starter’s spot was not necessarily an easy choice; however, it wasn’t actually that consequential either; he Yankees’ season will likely not hinge on how the fifth starter performs and the differences between CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova as starters in 2016 are not big enough to make any decision horribly wrong or unequivocally right.  Both pitchers have had one appearance thus far and both have made their manager look pretty wise, small sample size caveats in tow.

Yesterday, Sabathia became the first Yankee starter to complete six innings in his win over the Tigers. Last Wednesday, Ivan Nova took over for a shaky Michael Pineda and earned a save in the Bombers’ 16-6 win over the Astros. He allowed four hits and one walk while striking out five across his four innings of work. As the defacto long reliever/this year’s Adam Warren, that’s exactly the type of performance the team is looking to get out of Nova and he delivered. So, how did he do it? To toot my own horn, he took my advice.

Back in January, I wondered about the possibility of Ivan Nova being highly successful in the bullpen given his repertoire of pitches. I ended the piece saying:

Ditching a fastball may seem like an odd choice, but it may be best for Nova if he’s going to succeed in a relief role. Moving into the ‘pen and out of the rotation is about simplifying your game and the simplest thing Nova can do is use his two best weapons–his bowling sinker and his effective curve. If he can do that and harness the power of those two pitches, perhaps he can move from just a long-man to an effective short reliever. The chances may not be great, but this is baseball, after all, and stranger things have happened.

Apparently, Ivan listened. In that relief appearance last Wednesday, Nova relied primarily on his sinker and his curveball; he threw 32 of the former and 13 of the latter. The sinker netted him a 75% grounder per balls-in-play rate and the curve got him an 80% whiff-per-swing rate. I’m a genius, huh? In all seriousness, this approach isn’t rocket science and it’s one that’ll make him successful as a reliever. The fewer pitches he uses, though, the more likely he is to run into trouble if one of them isn’t working. Still, if he’s a reliever, he won’t be turning the lineup over more than once–maybe one and a half times–and that can help mask the problem.

Given his background as a starter, it’s not likely that Nova will be deployed in a mid-inning situation. However, his appearance against the Astros shows that his arsenal makes him well-equipped to handle those situations. Even out of the bullpen, his sinker is still getting ground balls and his curve is still getting swings-and-misses. Ivan the Reliever is an experiment born out of necessity, but after one trial run, it seems like it’s one that could set up both the team and the player for success.

Thoughts following Opening Day

Fifth starter auditions now underway. (Presswire)
Fifth starter auditions now underway. (Presswire)

We had to wait one extra day, but the 2016 season has finally begun. The Yankees lost to the Astros yesterday for their fifth straight Opening Day loss. That’s annoying. The last time they won on Opening Day, Curtis Granderson hit a home run off Phil Coke and Joba Chamberlain threw a perfect seventh inning. Here’s the box score. That feels like a lifetime ago. Anyway, I have thoughts.

1. This is bugging me so I might as well start with this: what was up with those baseline introductions yesterday? The Yankees introduced the starting lineup, then they had the rest of the team come out of the dugout together and join them for the National Anthem (video). Doesn’t everyone usually get introduced on Opening Day? I mean, the Marlins introduced the clubhouse attendants before their Opening Day game last night. I’m not joking. I dunno, just seemed weird to me. I was expecting a full set of introductions, the coaches and bench players and bullpeners and everything. I couldn’t have been the only one who wanted to see Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller and Luis Severino and CC Sabathia be introduced before the game, right? Maybe the postponement screwed this up somehow. Hopefully it’s a one-year blip.

UPDATE: The Yankees and Astros agreed to the abbreviated baseline introductions because of the cold, reports Jim Baumbach. Only the managers and starting lineups were introduced because they want everyone unnecessarily standing in the cold. Disregard thought No. 1!

2. Masahiro Tanaka‘s two-seam fastball was moving a ton yesterday. So much so that PitchFX appears to have misclassified a bunch of fastballs as splitters. I don’t remember Tanaka’s two-seamer ever moving that much. Here is the two-seamer he threw to Jose Altuve for the first out of the game. Altuve rolled over on the pitch and grounded out to short:

Masahiro Tanaka Two-Seamer

The location is not great, Tanaka did miss his spot up — he was doing that all spring, seems like his command has not come all the way back following his elbow surgery — but the point is that pitch really moved. I went back and watched some 2014 and 2015 highlights really quick and I didn’t see anything that moved that much. I wonder if Tanaka is using a new grip or something. Or maybe he’s just going with more two-seamers in an effort to get more quick outs because the Yankees don’t let him pitch deep into games. That really stood out to me yesterday. Tanaka’s heater was running all over the place.

3. Under-the-radar bright spot yesterday: Johnny Barbato. His first pitch as a big leaguer hit a dude in the wrist, so that sucked, but Barbato also struck out three of five batters faced. He threw 18 pitches and Astros batters swung and missed six times. That’s pretty great. Given the way the bullpen is constructed, it’s entirely possible there is nothing Barbato can do to avoid being sent down as part of the shuttle early in the season. He pitched very well in Spring Training though, and he’s got bat-missing stuff, so it looks like he has a chance to stick around long-term. With no Bryan Mitchell and no Aroldis Chapman, there’s an opportunity for Barbato to step up and assume some important innings. Assuming, of course, the Yankees don’t ship him to Triple-A for a fresh arm at some point.

4. Speaking of Mitchell, man does his injury suck. Both for the Yankees and Mitchell himself. The Yankees lost at worst a power-armed reliever and at best a piece of rotation depth. That hurts. The Yankees aren’t exactly loaded with rotation options at the moment. As for Mitchell, this season was a huge opportunity for him to establish himself at the big league level and in the team’s long-term plans. I really like him as a reliever — I’m not sure he can hack it as a starter without significantly improved command and/or changeup — and thought he had a chance to emerge as a trusted late-inning guy this summer. Replacing Adam Warren as the Swiss Army Reliever did not seem far-fetched at all. Injuries are part of baseball, but that’s too bad. Hopefully Mitchell can return in August and shove for eight weeks.

5. The Didi Gregorius home run got me irrationally excited. He hit it against a big time pitcher — that was only the fourth homer Ken Giles has allowed in 116.2 career innings — and it was the kind of pitch you expect hitters to punish. Look at the location:

Didi Gregorius home run

Every player sees a bunch of mistake pitches out over the plate like that each season. That’s baseball. Last year Gregorius was missing those pitches — maybe not missing, but he wasn’t doing major damage — and letting pitchers get away with mistakes. He didn’t hit his first home run of 2015 until his 61st game, remember. Didi hit .294/.345/.417 (109 wRC+) in the second half last season. He looked like a different hitter after the All-Star break and we’re all hoping it carries over to 2016. Gregorius is still only 26, you know. A young 26 too. (February birthday.) I think there’s still some untapped offensive potential in there.

6. I didn’t love the decision to sit Brett Gardner yesterday from a baseball perspective but I get it. Someone was going to sit in favor of Aaron Hicks — if it was Game 101 instead of Game 1, no one would think twice about it — and Gardner was the pick. It just seems like the decision was based 10% on what gave the team the best chance to win, and 90% on avoiding any sort of headache that would stem from sitting Jacoby Ellsbury again. That would be a big deal after the wildcard game. Sitting a high-profile player in a winner-take-all playoff game and then again on Opening Day would create a firestorm. That’s just the way the media is these days. I hate seeing stuff like that impact decisions, but it happens all the time, so the Yankees are hardly alone. Hopefully everyone hits this year and we can argue which outfielder should sit each game. You don’t want these decisions to be obvious.

7. Starlin Castro‘s movements and body language are very Robinson Cano like, are they not? Especially in the field. The way he scooped grounders and sidearmed the throw over to first base looked very much like Cano to me. Robbie had a smooth style of play and he made things look very easy on a baseball field. (As a result, lots of people called him lazy because he didn’t seem to be trying hard. Whatevs.) Castro is the same way. I’m not saying Starlin will be as good as Robbie one day, it’s unfair to hang that on the kid, but watching him at second base yesterday had a very familiar feel to it. It feel like Cano was back out there for a bit. I’m a weirdo, sorry.

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.