Aaron Judge is open to participating in the Home Run Derby and MLB should want him there

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

I don’t know about you, but Aaron Judge has very quickly become one of my favorite players on the Yankees. He’s so fun to watch because he’s such an extreme outlier. Baseball players aren’t supposed to be that big, and baseball players who are that big aren’t supposed to be such good athletes and runners. We’ve seen Judge save some runs in right field and beat out infield singles already this season.

And, of course, there are the home runs. They’re why everyone loves Judge. His four home runs have averaged a healthy 399 feet, and according to Statcast, Judge is responsible for five of the 14 hardest hit balls in baseball this season, including two of the top three. The ball just explodes off his bat. Judge has all the power you’d expect from a guy listed at 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds.

Given his early season exploits, folks are already starting to wonder whether Judge will participate in the Home Run Derby this summer. It makes sense, right? Put the big guy capable of hitting long home runs in the event dedicated to big guys hitting long home runs. Randy Miller asked Judge about the Home Run Derby earlier this week. Here’s his response:

“The Home Run Derby is awesome. It’s a fun event to watch and I’d probably do it if they asked me,” said Judge. “No (I’m not worried about screwing up my swing). I’ve been in them before and I just take my normal swing that I do in batting practice and hopefully it would all work out. I’d just go out there and have fun. I wouldn’t change anything. But it would be a fun thing to do.”

Judge’s batting practices are already the stuff of legend. YES has shown clips of Judge hitting balls over the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field and onto the concourse over the last week and a half. I saw him do that with my own eyes before the home opener and was amazed. But it’s normal for him. That’s just something does every day during batting practice. It’s incredible. There’s no doubt he’d be a fun Home Run Derby contestant.


Personally, I’m not worried at all about a potential Home Run Derby hangover effect. There have been several studies showing it isn’t real, like this one and this one. Pick eight players at random and inevitably one or two of them will perform worse in the second half than they did in the first. The same is true of guys who participate in the Home Run Derby. It’s just normal baseball being baseball stuff.

Anyway, I’m getting off track here. Judge indicated he’s open to participating in the Home Run Derby this summer and MLB should want him there. For a few reasons too. One, he’s a Yankee! The last Yankee to participate in the Home Run Derby was Robinson Cano in 2013. The Yankees are the most popular team in the sport and one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Put a Yankee in a Home Run Derby and he will attract viewers. No doubt about it.

Two, Judge is an exciting young up-and-coming player. MLB is trying like crazy to cultivate young fans and the single best way to attract new young fans is by showcasing your most exciting players. Judge is a freak and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Put him in the Home Run Derby and people who don’t know much about baseball are going to see him and not be able to take their eyes off him. Everything about him demands your attention.

(That’s also a reason for the Yankees to want Judge in the Home Run Derby. As MLB works to cultivate more young fans, the Yankees want as many of them as possible rooting for their team. Judge mashing dingers in the Home Run Derby would be a great “hey come root for the Yankees” sales pitch.)

And three, the power. At the end of the day, the Home Run Derby is a “hit ball far” competition with some bells and whistles. In a batting practice setting, which is essentially what the Home Run Derby is, few offer as much power as Judge. He’s going to hit the ball a mile and that’s what people want to see. MLB has brought non-All-Stars to the Home Run Derby in recent years just to ensure they showcase their top power hitters. (Giancarlo Stanton won the Home Run Derby last year but was not an All-Star. Todd Frazier also participated in the event as a non-All-Star.)

Judge has some Home Run Derby experience — he won the 2012 College Home Run Derby while at Fresno State — and while doing it at the MLB level is a heck of a lot different than doing it at the college level, he has some sort of Home Run Derby experience. It won’t be completely new to him. MLB (and the Yankees) have a lot to gain by putting Judge in their Home Run Derby and it is absolutely something they should consider when the time comes. An event like this is made for guys like him.

Unaccording to Plan

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

Two weeks of baseball are almost in the books and, as always, they’ve been predictably unpredictable. For the Yankees, that’s manifested itself in two divergent paths thus far: CC Sabathia‘s pitching and Greg Bird‘s “hitting.”

Despite the apparent completion of his reinvention project last year, what we’d get in 2017 from Sabathia was certainly no sure thing. A pitcher as good and smart as he is could repeat what he did in 2016, but a pitcher as old as he is could just as easily fall apart. So far, it’s been the former and CC has done a great job in his starts, even pitching into the eighth yesterday.

Last year, CC leaned mostly on the cutter. In this year’s few offerings, CC has been leaning more on the sinker than he did last year. Additionally, the handful of changeups he’s found this year have been successful, leading to whiffs 33% of the time overall and 66% per swing. It’s too early to tell and all that stuff, but things are looking good for CC. It’s not often a pitcher develops again and who knows what could happen next, but I’ve never been one to bet against Sabathia.

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

On the other side of the coin is Greg Bird, who can hardly buy what even looks like a good plate appearance these days, let alone a hit. Would this stretch be markedly less noticeable if it happened in the middle of the season? Definitely. Is it concerning, at least a little bit, that Bird looks so lost at the plate? Yes.

After a hot spring in which he looked fantastic–and had similar results–it’s disappointing to see Bird struggling so much. Of course, it is still way early and just as Sabathia can fall down, Bird can climb up. Pretty much everything has been a disaster for Bird, but I find it hard to believe he’s going to keep whiffing this much on his swings.

Compared to 2015, Bird is swinging at similar rate, but he’s chasing out of the zone about four percent more. This has led to a four percent drop in zone swing percentage, too. When he has swung in the zone this year, though, it hasn’t mattered much. There’s the aforementioned whiffing problem, which as led to a zone contact rate of 53.1%; league average is just around 86%. Whether it’s timing, mechanics, or lack of pitch recognition, something is vexing Bird.

For both of these players, even if their results have been opposite of each other and opposite of expectations, there is still plenty of time. Sabathia and Bird both have the talent and the know how to succeed at their respective levels. Though it’s a positive thing with Bird and potentially a negative thing with Sabathia, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know it’s coming, but what the footprint looks like is a mystery.

Thoughts following yet another early season off-day

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

The Yankees and Rays will resume their three-game series with the middle game this afternoon. Assuming the weather cooperates, that is. It should. When I checked the forecast last night, it said it would rain in the morning and dry up by game time. Anyway, here are a few early season thoughts.

1. Later today left-hander Jordan Montgomery will make his first big league start and I wonder whether Joe Girardi will pair him with catcher Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka caught Montgomery for much of last season with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, so there’s familiarity there, plus the Rays are starting left-hander Blake Snell. Higashioka is a right-handed batter with some pop. Seems like a good way to get him his first start, right? Pair him with a pitcher he knows and give him the platoon advantage at the plate. My hunch is Girardi will stick with Austin Romine behind the plate while Gary Sanchez is out, but Higashioka is going to have to start once in a while, and this afternoon’s game seems like the perfect time to give him his first start.  A lot will be working in his favor, both on the offensive side and defensive side of the ball.

2. Prior to Monday’s game Girardi said he won’t necessarily stick with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury hitting one-two while Sanchez is out, though those two are playing well right now, and my guess is Girardi will keep them together atop the lineup as long they’re both hitting. We’ve seen them both get hot at the same time in the past — the first few weeks of the 2015 season come to mind — and when it happens, they can carry the offense. That means Greg Bird won’t hit third whenever he returns because there’s basically no chance Girardi will stack three lefties at the top of the lineup. Matt Holliday third and Bird in the cleanup spot? Or maybe drop Bird to fifth or sixth given his sluggish start? Regardless of what happens with Bird, I don’t think Girardi ever wanted to move Ellsbury down in the lineup, and now that both he and Gardner are playing well, I think it gives Girardi an accuse to bat them one-two again. We’ll see what happens.

3. The Yankees seem to be giving Jonathan Holder every opportunity to prove his worth in middle relief. He’s appeared in four of seven games so far, and Girardi has used Holder in all sorts of situations. Here are the situations Holder has been brought into in those four appearances:

  • April 2nd: Start of the seventh inning down five.
  • April 4th: Start of the eighth inning with a five-run lead.
  • April 7th: Start of the sixth inning with a one-run lead.
  • April 8th: Start of the eighth inning down one.

In that April 7th game, the first batter Holder faced was Mark Trumbo, a player who was very capable of tying the game with one swing. (Trumbo struck out.) The Yankees clearly like Holder. They wouldn’t have called him up last September if they didn’t. Holder is not really as good as his 2016 minor league numbers would lead you to believe — he threw 65.1 innings with a 1.65 ERA (1.30 FIP) and 42.4% strikeouts and 2.9% walks at three levels last year — but he definitely has a chance to be a big league reliever. The Yankees are in position to ease Holder into things. They have Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances for the late innings, and Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren are capable third and fourth pieces. Girardi can pick and choose his spots with Holder while still getting him plenty of work, and that’s exactly what has happened so far.

4. Are you enjoying Holliday so far? I sure am. That dude is a total pro at the plate. He’s almost the perfect middle of the order veteran for a team that is transitioning to youth like the Yankees. He grinds out at-bats, takes his walks, hits to all fields, hits for power … what’s not to like? Holliday sets a good example for the young players and, in the grand scheme of things, helping the kids is more important than whatever he contributes at the plate this season. As productive as Carlos Beltran was last season, he was mostly a dead pull hitter who rarely walked (5.7% walks before the trade), and the Yankees needed to get away from that profile. Holliday will make a pitcher work and he’s not easy to defend. It’s refreshing. The season is still very young, but it’s tough not to impressed with what he’s bringing to the table as the designated hitter.

Holliday. (Al Bello/Getty)
Holliday. (Al Bello/Getty)

5. Speaking of the designated hitter, the Yankees have an interleague series coming up soon. They’ll be in Pittsburgh next weekend, April 21st to 23rd. I wonder what that will do to the lineup? Is Holliday going to sit, or will Girardi run him out there in left field for a few innings each night to make sure he gets three at-bats? Left field at PNC Park is not small. It’s one of the most spacious left fields in baseball. I want Gardner out there running fly balls down. It’s so ridiculously early in the season that I say sit Holliday next weekend and try to get by without the big bat in the lineup. The last thing the Yankees want is Holliday to pull a hamstring or something running after a fly ball, you know? Maybe if this were September and the Yankees were in a postseason race, I’d feel differently. This early in the season though? Forget it. Use Holliday to pinch-hit that weekend and nothing more.

6. Luis Severino threw 14 changeups out of 89 total pitches in his start last week — disclaimer: the Trackman system has had some pitch classification issues early on — which is a pretty good ratio considering the Orioles only had three left-handed batters in the lineup. More than anything, I thought Severino was working very quickly and throwing with a lot of conviction. It looked like he had a reliever’s mentality while working as a starter. Get the ball and throw it. Four runs in five innings isn’t great — the two-out walk to the un-walk-able Adam Jones that set up the Manny Machado three-run home run was Severino’s biggest mistake of the night — but I thought Severino looked better in that start than he did in any start last season. We’ll see how he looks going forward and how much he uses his changeup. I’d say I am cautiously optimistic at best right now. One or two starts isn’t enough to win me over.

7. Am I the only one who doesn’t care one bit about the New Era logo on the side of the hats? When it was first announced, I hated the idea. How could they desecrate the iconic interlocking NY hat??? Now that it’s been a few games, I hardly even notice it’s there. Meh. I wonder if the same thing will happen when the Under Armour logo makes its way onto the front of all jerseys in a few years. (MLB has announced Under Armour will replace Majestic as the league’s official uniform provider in 2020.) It’s only a matter of time until we see advertisements on jerseys. You know that, right? That’s an untapped revenue stream MLB and the MLBPA won’t sit on much longer. As long as it’s done tastefully and MLB jerseys don’t look like NASCAR cars, I’ll live. The thought of the New Era logo on hats bothered me. Now that I see it in action game after game, it’s no big deal. I’m guessing I’ll have the same reaction with the Under Armour logo and the inevitable jersey advertisements that are coming.

The Gary-less Lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

If you haven’t heard by now–though the collective worried gasp of Yankee fans everywhere yesterday afternoon probably gave it away–Gary Sanchez is injured, and will be going on the 10-day disabled list with a right biceps issue.

This leaves the Yankees with a gaping hole at what is the most important defensive position on the field–where Sanchez has shown great skill–and arguably the most important position in the lineup; slotting Sanchez in second made sense and was a big show of confidence in him by Joe Girardi and the coaching staff. Now, that’s for naught–at least for the next ten days. So, what can the Yankees do in Sanchez’s lineup absence?

My first thought was one I suggested previously, using DH Matt Holliday as the second hitter thanks to his combination of skills. However, without Sanchez to be in the clean up spot–and no one yet reliable enough to take his place–I don’t think that idea works. Holliday should stick at fourth, which is just as important as the second spot. But, since the route they’ll likely take is sticking Jacoby Ellsbury–who’s off to a good start–back into the second slot, giving the Yankees a more traditional look at the top of the lineup, that would mean three lefties–Gardner, Ellsbury, and Greg Bird stacked together, and that could lead to matchup problems late in games. So, I assume Girardi will split the lefties and have Holliday bat third with Bird cleaning up.

The team can go one of two ways with the fifth spot. The first way is to bump Chase Headley up a spot, rewarding him for a hot start. I’d be totally fine with that. The other would be to give the spot to Aaron Judge. This could show faith in him, challenge him, and give him an opportunity to hit behind better players, increasing the likelihood of him batting with men on base. That second option probably isn’t going to happen, but I think that’s the one I’d like, if only to keep up the ‘give the kids a shot’ theme that this season is likely to have.

Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)
Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)

So, the combination of the most likely scenario/what I’d want to see would look like this:

  1. Gardner, LF
  2. Ellsbury, CF
  3. Holliday, DH
  4. Bird, 1B
  5. Judge, RF
  6. Castro, 2B
  7. Headley, 3B
  8. Romine, C
  9. Torreyes, SS

You could flip Castro and Headley if you like, and I might do the same. But the main takeaway here is that without Sanchez, this lineup seems a whole lot shorter and a whole lot thinner than it did just 24 hours ago. Losing a big bat at a premium position always hurts, and that goes double when a backup quality player–Torreyes–is already in the every day lineup. Get well soon, Gary; the lineup needs you.

Thoughts following the start of the 2017 regular season

Where the magic happens. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
Where the magic happens. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

Once again, the Yankees are 0-1 on the young season. The Opening Day losing streak is starting to transition from annoying to impressive. Losing six straight season openers — and eight of nine! — is a hell of a thing. Most of those nine games were started by peak CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka too. The Yankees will win an Opening Day one of these years, possibly by accident. Anyway, I have some thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. One quick thing I will say only because I feel it needs to be said: I’m not at all worried about Tanaka or Gary Sanchez. They had ugly Opening Days, especially Tanaka, but as far as I’m concerned they are very good players who had very bad days. That’s baseball. Won’t be the last time it happens. It’s so very easy to overreact to Opening Day even though it is truly nothing more than another baseball game. It doesn’t have any greater meaning. Tanaka is a very good pitcher who will go back to being very good soon, probably next time out. Sanchez is still a baseball mashing monster who will resume mashing baseballs in short order. Opening Day is fun and exciting. It doesn’t mean more than any other game though. The game is still the same, so … chill out if you’re worried.

2. Chase Headley beat the shift three times — three times! — on Sunday including once with a pretty gorgeous bunt. It was the perfect time to bunt too. The Yankees were down five runs in the seventh inning and they needed baserunners. Headley beat the shift two other times with ground ball singles, and after spending way too much time watching this GIF, I’ve concluded Headley was indeed trying to beat the shift with this swing:

chase-headley-single

Chris Archer busted him inside — Acher missed his spot by the full width of the plate, look where the catcher set up — so the result was a jam shot, but it sure looks like Headley was trying to direct the ball toward the wide open left side of the infield. After the game he told Dan Martin, “If they’re going to give me a free hit, I’m going to take it. The more I execute that, the truer they have to play me.” Based on that, it’s worth noting that in the ninth inning Evan Longoria was positioned more towards the third base bag when Headley was the plate. See how wide open the left side of the infield is in the GIF? Here is Longoria’s positioning on Headley’s ninth inning single:

evan-longoria-chase-headley

Longoria is there, shading him toward third base. Perhaps the score had something to do with it — the Rays were up 3-0 in the second for the first hit and 7-2 in the ninth for the second — though the base-out situation was the same. Starlin Castro on first with no outs. After beating the shift twice, including once with a bunt, it sure seems Tampa changed their defensive alignment against Headley. We’ll see whether this lasts. Obviously Headley won’t beat the shift three times every game, and teams won’t ever stop shifting against him completely because he when he does put the ball on the ground as a left-handed batter, it’s often pulled. Hopefully this helps Headley get off to a better start though. He was so dreadful last April and the Yankees need him to be better. This can help him be better.

3. Am I the only one who noticed Chasen Shreve‘s velocity Sunday? His fastball averaged 93.3 mph and topped out at 94.7 mph in that one-inning sample. Last season he averaged 92.3 mph and topped out at 94.8 mph. Amped up on Opening Day? Maybe, but Shreve pitched on Opening Day last season — that was in a tie game in front of the home crowd at Yankee Stadium too — and his fastball averaged 92.4 mph and topped out at 93.4 mph. This is better shown in a graph. From Brooks Baseball:

chasen-shreve-velocity

Hmmm. The extra velocity didn’t help much — Shreve allowed two hits and a walk in his scoreless innings Sunday — but it was there and it happened. I dunno, a pitcher showing up with an extra mile an hour on his fastball at the start of the season — an extra two miles and hour from where he was last September — is kinda interesting, especially when the pitcher in question is a left-handed reliever. Those guys are always in demand. Let’s file Shreve’s velocity away as a #thingtowatch.

4. Never in a million years would I have thought Greg Bird would open the regular season as the No. 3 hitter. First of all, I didn’t think Joe Girardi would bump Sanchez up into the No. 2 spot. It just didn’t seem like the kind of thing he would do. (I also didn’t think he’d drop Jacoby Ellsbury, but that’s besides the point.) Secondly, Bird is essentially a rookie, and I didn’t think the Yankees would thrust him into such a prominent lineup spot so soon. I thought they would start him out a little lower in the lineup, then move him up. That’s usually how it works, right? And third, Bird is coming back from major shoulder surgery. I’m not sure why that would factor into where he hits in the lineup, though I’m surprised the guy could miss an entire season and be slotted right into the middle of the order, no questions asked. This shows a) I have no idea what I’m talking about, b) the Yankees believe Bird is going to be a middle of the order force right away, and c) they believe he can handle significant responsibility. They could have very easily stuck a veteran in the No. 2 spot — I was totally expecting Castro to hit there as soon as we heard Ellsbury might be dropped in the lineup — and Sanchez in No. 3 spot, but no, they’re going with Bird as the No. 3 hitter. I love it.

5. I am very surprised the Yankees did not have Castro play shortstop in Spring Training. Not even one inning. He took ground balls there during infield practice and that’s it. Same with Matt Holliday at first base and in left field. Those guys have played those positions a ton throughout their careers — well, Holliday has only ten games worth of experience at first base, but you know what I mean — so it’s not like they have no idea what they’re doing there, but it just seemed like the Yankees would give them a little time there, just to reacquaint them. You know Holliday is going to end up playing left field at some point this season. It’s inevitable. Someone will get banged up and miss a few days, something like that, and he’ll be standing out there for a game or two. Same with Castro and shortstop, especially with Didi Gregorius injured. You’d think the Yankees would at least want to get them a little time at those positions in Spring Training, so when they do play those positions during the regular season, it won’t be the first time they see a live ball hit at them from that direction this year. I guess they’re really committed to Castro at second and Holliday at designated hitter.

6. The Padres seem really committed to carrying Luis Torrens, huh? Torrens was a Rule 5 Draft pick from the Yankees and he’s a 20-year-old catcher making the jump from Low-A to MLB after missing all of 2015 and the first half of 2016 with shoulder surgery. And yet, he is on San Diego’s big league roster. They’re carrying four catchers and three true outfielders. Goodness. The tank is strong with that team. I still expect Torrens to come back at some point, and fairly soon too once the Padres realize carrying a fourth catcher who only plays in blowouts is not viable — Torrens made his MLB debut and caught a few innings in yesterday’s blowout loss — but give them credit. They’re trying to make it work. The Yankees are light on catching prospects at the moment and getting Torrens back would be nice. At the same time, 40-man roster space is precious, and the Yankees had to focus on players who can best help them short and long-term when make their roster decisions back in November. It’s easy to understand why they declined to protect the 20-year-old Low-A catcher who isn’t far removed from major shoulder from the Rule 5 Draft. They might get burned and lose Torrens, but that’s life. When you have a good farm system, you’re going to lose good players to roster crunches.

Ten bold predictions for the 2017 Yankees season

lol (Presswire)
lol (Presswire)

This coming Sunday the Yankees will open the 2017 regular season with the first of three games against the Rays in Tampa. I can’t wait. They’re going to play literally the first game of the entire season, you know. The season opener is a 1:10pm ET start on Sunday. There are two other games later that day before the traditional Opening Day around the league Monday.

So, with Spring Training nearing an end and the regular season only four days away, I figured I’d come up with some bold and completely unnecessary predictions for the 2017 season, because why not? I came up with ten because ten is a nice round number, and if three are correct, I’ll be pretty pleased. Four would be cool. Anyway, here are my ten stupidly bold predictions for the 2017 season, in no particular order.

1. Pitchers not currently on the 40-man roster combine for 30+ starts.

Some of these predictions are more bold than others, and this one is lacking in the boldness, I’d say. Even if the Yankees don’t carry Jordan Montgomery on the Opening Day roster, he’s put himself in position for an early call-up. It’s not at all difficult to imagine him making, say, 20 starts for the Yankees this season. Chance Adams and the lesser hyped Daniel Camarena will be looming in Triple-A Scranton too, and I get the feeling the Yankees will wind up bringing in a little outside help at some point as well.

2. Judge finishes in the top three of the Rookie of the Year voting.

Many folks have jumped off the bandwagon, scared away by those 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances last season. Me? I am still very much on board because Aaron Judge is a better pure hitter than he gets credit for, because he’s shown the willingness and ability to make adjustments throughout his career, and because few make as much loud contact. My prediction is the very idea Judge had to compete with Aaron Hicks for the right field job this spring is going to look silly in a few weeks, and big power numbers will have Judge firmly in the Rookie of the Year conversation come September.

3. A pitcher other than Tanaka, Betances, and Chapman makes the All-Star Team.

Along with Gary Sanchez, the pitching trio of Masahiro Tanaka, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman are the super early candidates to represent the Yankees at the All-Star Game. I think they’ll send a pitcher other than those three to the Midsummer Classic as well. Who? Well that’s the mystery. My guess right now would be Michael Pineda. He certainly has the stuff and swing-and-miss ability. It’s just a matter of better location and perhaps a little more luck on balls in play. Pineda was an All-Star with the Mariners back in 2011, remember. I think this guy was lost forever following the shoulder surgery:

(Fun Fact: Betances is one of only five pitchers to go to the All-Star Game in each of the last three seasons along with Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Madison Bumgarner. The four best starters and the best reliever on the planet, basically.)

4. Green emerges as the next great Yankees reliever.

I like Chad Green. The Yankees did a nice job identifying an unheralded pitching prospect in another organization who had room for growth, and they helped him take that next step last season. Green improved the quality of his slider in Spring Training thanks to pitching coach Larry Rothschild, then, while in Triple-A, he learned a cutter as well. His MLB debut last season wasn’t great (4.73 ERA and 5.34 FIP in 45.2 innings) though he has some tools on the mound.

One of those tools is not a changeup. Green has been working to add either a changeup or splitter to his arsenal over the years and it just isn’t working. At some point this year he will inevitably find himself working out of the bullpen, and I think once that happens, Green will be so dominant the Yankees will just leave him there. His fastball averaged 95.4 mph as a starter last season with a 26.3% strikeout rate. Let him air it out as a fastball/slider pitcher for one inning at a time in relief, and Green will join Betances and Chapman to form a three-headed bullpen monster.

5. Neither Sanchez nor Bird will lead the Yankees in home runs.

These two are the obvious candidates to lead the Yankees in home runs this season, right? Sanchez socked 20 homers in 53 games last year, and while I don’t think anyone expects him to repeat that pace, Sanchez clearly has a ton of power and knows how to hit. Greg Bird has a tremendous approach and the kind of left-handed pop that plays very well in Yankee Stadium. Those two should sock a lot of dingers this summer. Can’t wait.

That said, I’m boldly predicting Sanchez and Bird will finish second and third on the Yankees in home runs, in either order. Judge could sock 25+ dingers, which would probably be enough to lead all rookies, though I don’t think he’ll lead the Yankees either. Not Matt Holliday or Chris Carter either. My pick? Starlin Castro. Boom. Castro turned 27 last week and is at the age where maximum power output could be reasonably expected. He set a career high with 21 dingers last year, and now that he’s entering his second year with the Yankees and is presumably more comfortable with things, I’m saying he’ll get to 30 this year.

6. The Yankees do more buying than selling at the trade deadline.

The Yankees sold at the trade deadline last season and I’m glad they did. It was time. The trades netted them an incredible farm system and have set the team up for success in the coming years. It’s exciting. I don’t expect that to happen again though, and for a few reasons.

  1. Hal Steinbrenner doesn’t want to sell. Remember, Brian Cashman spent weeks trying to convince Hal to sell before he agreed to it last year. The only reason Chapman was traded was because he rejected a contract extension first. I don’t think Steinbrenner wants to go down that road again.
  2. I think the Yankees will be in the race. They’re not front-runners or a no-doubt postseason team by any means, but I think they’ll get much more out of the young players this year than the veterans last year, putting them in the thick of the race come late-July. If they’re in the race, they won’t sell.
  3. The stars won’t line up again. The Chapman and Andrew Miller trades were a perfect storm last year. Everything came together at the right time for the Yankees. They do have some quality trade chips to peddle at the deadline (Tanaka and Betances, most notably), but I don’t think anyone will blow them away with an offer.

Rather than sell, I expect the Yankees to buy. Not necessarily in a huge way though. I don’t think they’re going to make a deal for Jose Quintana, for example. I do think they’re going to end up acquiring a starting pitcher though — keep in mind I said the same thing at the outset of the offseason and was dead wrong — and also package some prospects together for other pieces, similar to last year’s Tyler Clippard trade. The 40-man roster and upcoming Rule 5 Draft situation tell us something is very likely to happen here.

7. Ellsbury, not Gardner, is the outfielder traded away.

I am going to predict one big trade and it will be Jacoby Ellsbury who gets dealt away, not Brett Gardner. Ellsbury’s contract is a sunk cost. The Yankees owe him that money no matter what. With outfield prospects like Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler knocking on the door, I think Cashman will be able to convince Steinbrenner salary dumping Ellsbury and saving, say, $7M a year over the four years left on his contract to open a spot for a prospect is the better big picture move than keeping Ellsbury at full price and trading the $25M owed to Gardner the next two years. Now, will Cashman be able to convince Ellsbury to waive his no-trade clause? I think so. I just don’t expect them to get much in return.

8. Rutherford will take over as the No. 1 prospect in the organization.

Rutherford. (@MLBPipeline)
Rutherford. (@MLBPipeline)

I love Gleyber Torres. He’s awesome. He hits, he defends, he runs the bases well, and he manages to play the game with both a lot of energy and a quiet confidence. You couldn’t create a better shortstop prospect in a video game. I also love Blake Rutherford. He doesn’t have Gleyber’s defensive chops at a premium position, but he’s an excellent offensive prospect thanks to his potential to hit for average and power, as well as his ability to draw walks, and I think that’ll vault him over Torres in the prospect rankings this summer. I’m not saying Torres will be bad! I expect them to both be top 15-ish prospects come the midseason rankings, with Rutherford a few spots higher than Gleyber.

9. The Yankees will have the most productive DH spot in baseball.

Alex Rodriguez was so bad last season it might come as a surprise Yankees’ designated hitters hit .261/.312/.450 with 28 home runs last year. You can thank Carlos Beltran for that. He spent a lot of time at DH. Of course, that slash line works out to a 96 OPS+, which ranked ninth among the 15 AL teams. Not good. The Yankees didn’t get enough offense from a position that exists solely to provide offense.

This year I expect the Yankees will not only get more production from the DH spot, I think it’ll be the most productive DH position in baseball. David Ortiz is retired and Edwin Encarnacion is moving into a less hitter friendly ballpark in a division without nearly as many hitter’s parks as the AL East. Nelson Cruz will give Holliday a run for his money, but don’t forget, it won’t just be Holliday at DH. Sanchez will surely get a few at-bats there, as will Carter, who led the NL in homers a year ago. Holliday will get most DH at-bats and he’ll pepper the short porch with opposite field homers. The other guys will chip in some as well.

10. The Yankees will spend more days in first place than last year.

Okay, I’m cheating, because the Yankees didn’t spend any time in first place last season. Literally zero days. That’s what happens when you lose Opening Day, drop six of your first ten games, and don’t get over .500 for good until August. In all seriousness though, I think the 2017 Yankees will spend more days in first place than the 2013 Yankees (17 days) and possibly the 2014 Yankees (24 days), though I don’t think they’ll win the AL East. Even with the questions at the back of the rotation, I believe this team is better than last year, and it’ll show when they get off to a better start in April. They’ve had some trouble keeping their head above water early on the last few seasons.

Thoughts five days prior to Opening Day

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

One week from right now, the Yankees will be either 1-0 or 0-1 one game into the 2017 regular season. Opening Day is only five days away. Can’t wait. Here are some random thoughts as Spring Training draws closer to an end.

1. At one point earlier this month three consecutive runners were thrown out trying to steal second base with Dellin Betances on the mound. The first was thrown out when he was still in Yankees camp, the other two were thrown out while he was away at the World Baseball Classic. That’s notable because, as I’m sure you know, runners were a perfect 21-for-21 stealing bases against Betances last season, including 6-for-6 with Gary Sanchez‘s rocket arm behind the plate. And yet three straight were thrown out a few weeks ago. Huh. Betances worked on his fielding over the winter — he’s also fielded several weak tappers back to the mound with no issue this spring — as well as his pickoff move and ability to hold runners, and perhaps that work led to the three straight caught stealings this spring. I don’t think anyone is expecting Betances to develop a Nathan Eovaldi caliber pickoff move, but he clearly has to be better, and he worked at it over the winter. Perhaps those three runners who were thrown out are an indication Dellin is doing a better job slowing guys down and making sure their lead and/or jump isn’t quite as great as they have been in the past. Or perhaps it’s just an anomaly and it doesn’t mean anything. That’d be lame.

2. Two years ago Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Greg Bird as the 81st best prospect in baseball, and in his scouting report, he noted Bird was “rarely putting the ball on the ground because he squares it up so frequently” during his minor league career. I wrote it about more in-depth that August. We didn’t get to see Bird last year because of his shoulder surgery, but he’s back now, and he’s torn the cover off the ball this spring. MLB.com has very basic batted ball data available for Spring Training games, and because I am a crazy person, I went through the game logs. Here are Bird’s batted ball rates for the 37 balls he’s put in play this spring:

  • Ground Balls: 8 (21.6% of all balls in play)
  • Fly Balls: 14 (37.8%)
  • Line Drives: 12 (32.4%)
  • Infield Pop-Ups: 3 (8.1%)

The limited sample size is an issue, so let’s not read too much into this, but once again Bird has an extremely low ground ball rate. He had a 26.7% ground ball rate during his 2015 cameo, which is tiny. The MLB average was a 44.7% ground ball rate last season. We don’t have any exit velocity or contact quality data for Spring Training games, but the batted ball data tells us Bird is still getting the ball in the air at an astronomical rate. Hitting the ball hard in the air is a wonderful recipe for doing serious damage, especially as a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium. We saw Bird do that back in 2015, and so far this spring, he’s getting the ball airborne again. It sure seems like he’s consistently hitting the ball hard too based on the eye test too. I am: overly excited.

3. I get the feeling Jordan Montgomery will be pitching for an Opening Day rotation spot tomorrow afternoon. He threw very well in his first Grapefruit League start last week, and in the outing prior to that he tossed four perfect innings to close out the no-hitter. (A Spring Training no-hitter! That still cracks me up.) We’ve been waiting for someone to separate themselves in this pitching staff competition and Montgomery has surprisingly done it, not Luis Severino or Luis Cessa or whoever. It would be awfully hard for the Yankees to keep Montgomery off the Opening Day roster with another strong outing tomorrow. This isn’t like skipping Tyler Wade over Triple-A to fill in for Didi Gregorius. Montgomery is a polished pitching prospect who has succeeded everywhere and has both the command and repertoire necessary to start. I don’t think he’ll be an ace or anything, but I think he’ll be a reliable back-end arm, and the Yankees could really use one of those right now. There’s not much work left to be done with Montgomery. If the Yankees deem him ready, he should be on the roster, not wasting bullets in Triple-A. Tomorrow’s start could very well determine one of those still open Opening Day roster spots.

Kozma. (Presswire)
Kozma. (Presswire)

4. As for shortstop, my guess is the Yankees will go with Pete Kozma over Wade or Rob Refsnyder for that last bench spot. Ronald Torreyes has played more short than anyone since the Gregorius injury, which gives you an idea which way the team is leaning. Kozma can play shortstop and Refsnyder can not, and I don’t think the Yankees want to lean on Starlin Castro as the backup at short. Castro still hasn’t played short this spring. He’s taken some ground balls during defensive drills and that’s it. The Yankees don’t seem all that eager to put him back on the other side of second base, which leads me to believe Kozma is ahead of Refsnyder on the depth chart. Wade, on the other hand, is a just turned 22-year-old prospect with a development plan I don’t think the Yankees want to alter, especially not with Gregorius due to back reasonably soon. There’s also the 40-man roster situation on top of that. Kozma, for lack of a better term, is easily disposable. When Gregorius is healthy the Yankees can designate Kozma for assignment and not think twice about it. Wade would be on the 40-man for good. And maybe that’s not a good enough reason to go with Kozma over Wade, but that’s what I think will happen. Teams sign dudes like Kozma for exactly this reason, to make sure they don’t have to rush prospects when the regular has to miss a few weeks.

5. The Yankees can open one 40-man roster spot by placing Tyler Austin on the 60-day disabled list. He got hurt so early in camp that backdating the disabled list stint would still allow him to be eligible to be activated in mid-April. Opening a second 40-man roster spot would take a little more work, and I wonder if the Yankees will swing one of those last minute Spring Training trades rather than expose someone to waivers. The Giants just lost ace lefty reliever Will Smith to Tommy John surgery, so maybe they’d be interested in Chase Shreve. The Rays and Braves could both use another utility guy, making them potential landing spots for Refsnyder. (George King says Tampa indeed has interest in Refsnyder.) Point is, if the Yankees do take Montgomery and Kozma north at the end of Spring Training (or even Wade instead of Kozma), they’re going to have to open another 40-man spot, and I think that’ll happen via trade, not waivers.

6. Weird complaint: I’m bummed we didn’t get to see Domingo German or Yefrey Ramirez pitch this spring. They did pitch in Grapefruit League games before being sent to minor league camp — they each made two appearances and threw three innings — but their outings were not televised. The top prospects are cool and everyone focused on them for obvious reasons, though the secondary guys intrigue me too. German pitched in the 2014 Futures Game (video) and came over from the Marlins in the Eovaldi-Martin Prado trade, then he blew out his elbow in Spring Training 2015 and kinda became a forgotten prospect. I was hoping to see what he looks like these days because the post-Tommy John surgery reports have been pretty excellent. Yefrey was a minor league Rule 5 Draft pick who pitched well enough last season that the Yankees added him to the 40-man roster. I woulda liked to have seen what he was all about, you know? Alas. The Yankees have had a phenomenal Spring Training and just about every prospect in camp was been outstanding, and here I am complaining about not getting to see two secondary pitching prospects. Go figure.