Thoughts two weeks into the Grapefruit League season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Okay, fine, the Grapefruit League season isn’t exactly two weeks old, but it’s close. Thirteen days. So sue me. The Yankees continue their exhibition schedule today with a World Baseball Classic tune-up game against Team Canada. Luis Severino lines up to start. That game, unfortunately, will not be televised. Lame! Anyway, I have a few thoughts on things and stuff, so let’s get to ’em.

1. Speaking of Severino, a few weeks ago we learned he’s changed his mechanics ever so slightly in an effort to improve the quality of his changeup. He now breaks his hands closer to his body. Nothing major. Severino says it helps with his changeup, and hey, whatever works, right? Anyway, let’s see what this actually looks like, shall we? Here is 2016 Severino on the left and 2017 Severino on the right:

2016-severino-vs-2017-severino

The GIF is synced up on the moment Severino begins his delivery, meaning when he moves his left foot. The difference with his hands is pretty easy to see. Last year Severino broke his hands out in front of his chest. This year they’re breaking down by his waist. How does that help his changeup? I have no idea. Interestingly enough, when he starts his delivery, Severino isn’t taking as big a step toward first base with his left foot, which is why he’s releasing the ball a split second earlier this year (GIF on the right) than last year (GIF on the left). His tempo this year looks better. That doesn’t mean he’ll perform better, of course, but one of the knocks on Severino throughout his career has been his less than picturesque delivery. Now it looks a little more streamlined and less herky jerky. Could be something, could be nothing.

2. Spring Training pitcher usage can give you a glimpse into the team’s internal depth chart, especially with prospects, and Jordan Montgomery has gotten much more run than fellow minor league starters Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield, Daniel Camarena, Dietrich Enns, Brady Lail, and Yefrey Ramirez this spring. Montgomery has thrown multiple innings on an every fifth day schedule, and each time he’s been the first guy out of the bullpen following the projected big leaguers. From the outside looking in, Montgomery appeared to be the club’s most big league ready pitching prospect coming into the spring, and his usage during Grapefruit League play all but confirms the Yankees see him that way. That doesn’t mean he can sneak up and win the fifth starter’s job or anything, but he is at the front of the line for a call-up whenever another starter is inevitably needed. The Yankees don’t seem to consider Adams, Camarena, et al quite as ready to help at the MLB level based on their sporadic usage this spring. Montgomery has been more of a priority. (I wonder how often Ronald Herrera would have pitched this spring had he not come down with shoulder inflammation.)

3. I have to think Matt Holliday will play left field and first base in a game at some point. Even if the Yankees plan to use him as a designated hitter and a designated hitter only, it would be wise to give him some action at those positions this spring, just in case. Holliday has played both positions before — he played ten games at first last season, his only experience at the position — but if he’s needed in the field during the regular season, even in an emergency, you don’t want it to be the first time he sees a ball hit at him all year. A tune-up appearance or two at first and in left is in the cards, I imagine. The real question is whether the Yankees will play Chris Carter in left at some point this spring. He’s played 77 career games out there, most in 2013 and none since 2014. It would be another way to get him into the lineup though. I mean, it’s hard to think of a reason not to put Carter in left field for a Grapefruit League game or two. Might as well try it and see what happens. But, if the Yankees don’t do it, we’ll know they have zero plans to put him in the outfield this year. First base and designated hitter only.

4. I don’t remember where I heard this — it’s possible it was something discussed during a game broadcast and not written in an article — but Johnny Barbato is working on a splitter this spring. He used a splitter earlier in his career, before the Padres moved him to the bullpen full-time, and now he’s trying to get it back. Barbato has good velocity on his fastball and he throws both a slider and a curveball, which we saw last year. Now he’s working on a fourth pitch, the splitter. And he’s worked multiple innings in each of his Grapefruit League appearances. Hmmm. Spring Training is the time of year when pitchers work on random pitches, so chances are this splitter business goes nowhere. Still, the Yankees went into last year planning to try Nick Rumbelow and Tyler Webb as starters — Rumbelow blew out his elbow in April while Webb did make some starts and extended relief appearances with Triple-A Scranton — and I wonder if they might try to same with Barbato. What’s the worst that could happen? He gets smacked around as a starter with the RailRiders and they move him back into a short relief role? Kinda funny how Barbato went from “I wonder if they’ll drop him from the 40-man roster to make room for Carter” to “wait are they going to try him a starter?” in, like, two weeks.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

5. I’m one of those weirdos who enjoys the World Baseball Classic — it seems folks hate the WBC, then the games start and they love it — because the players are really into it and the games are often intense. The Israel vs. South Korea game Monday was as entertaining as any postseason game last year. The WBC is also a chance to watch players we normally don’t get to see, either because they play in the minors or overseas. (Israel’s starting shortstop, Rockies farmhand Scotty Burcham, spent all of last season in the Low-A South Atlantic League.) Pools A and B have started in South Korea and Japan, respectively, so the game times haven’t been viewer friendly, but Pools C (Miami) and D (Mexico) start later this week. (Here’s the full schedule.) Marlins Park is completely sold out for Saturday’s game between Team USA and the Dominican Republic. That’s going to be awesome. So I guess that was the long way of saying I am pro-WBC and am glad the tournament has started. Yay baseball.

6. Great work by MLB ensuring the topic of conversation will be “how do we fix baseball?” when the new season begins in a few weeks. All this talk about pace of play and weird extra innings rules and all that has everyone discussing ways to speed things up and make the game more enjoyable for casual fans. Now everyone thinks baseball is broken. It’s not! Baseball is great. Are there ways it could be better? Of course. There’s always room for improvement and baseball is no exception. It’s just that now, instead of talking about the excitement of a new season and baseball being loaded with all these insanely talented young players, everyone is talking about fixing the game. Not great, Bob. Going to be tough to cultivate new young fans, something MLB is desperately trying to do, when everyone is perpetuating the myth baseball is broken. And this is all on MLB and the MLBPA too. They’ve made all these rule changes front and center.

7. Have you noticed just about all the Yankees commercials this spring are focused on the kids? Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge have been getting the face time, not big name veterans like Aroldis Chapman, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka. Even Clint Frazier has been in some promo videos. It’s neat to see and also a bit of a shock to the system. It’s been nothing but Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez and all those dudes the last two decades. The Yankees are all-in on this youth movement and that even extends to their advertising. They’re selling the kids, not the veterans. The times, they’re a changin’.

It’s time for the Yankees to relax their hair policy

(Getty)
(Getty)

Without fail, whenever the Yankees trade a player away or let him walk as a free agent, that player shows up to his new team with longer hair and a beard. Happens all the time. Same thing in the offseason too. Players go home for the winter and skip shaving every day. I don’t blame them. Shaving sucks.

The Yankees’ hair policy — hair above the shoulders, no facial hair below the lip — has been around since the 1970s, when George Steinbrenner decided his players should look professional and business-like. A few players have pushed the limits of the hair policy in recent years — we’ve seen CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera take the mound with five o’clock shadows — but, generally speaking, it’s still a strict rule.

The hair policy has been in the news the last few weeks and months thanks largely to Clint Frazier, who, before being traded to the Yankees last year, was known for his long curly bright red locks. He trimmed his hair following the trade and again before Spring Training, though it’s still on the long side. From yesterday’s game:

clint-frazier-hair

Billy Witz says Jennifer Steinbrenner, George’s daughter, enforces the team’s hair policy. She scolded both Frazier this year and Ben Gamel last year for the length of their hair, says Witz. I’m sure more than a few other players have heard from her over the years too.

The Yankees are free to run their business however they see fit, though at this point, after all these years, it’s probably time to loosen up the hair policy. It’s not the 1970s anymore. It’s 2017. The Yankees are building a very young and exciting team, yet the hair policy takes away part of the players’ personality. Frazier with his poofy red hair is a ton of fun. Frazier with a short haircut is just another ballplayer.

Surely there’s a happy medium here, right? Somewhere between a Joe Girardi crew cut and letting everyone look like Brent Burns. Hair down to the shoulders but not below, neatly trimmed beard or goatee. That sound doable? Keep in mind the Yankees could market the hell out of this. “Clint Frazier wig day” at Yankee Stadium would be a smash hit. The Yankees have been far too corporate (and boring) in recent years. This would help liven things up.

The Yankees brand is built on winning, not a hair policy. They’re not going to lose fans by letting players let grow their hair out a bit. It just seems like, given everything the Yankees are doing to build a young and energetic team, sucking some of the personality out of it with a 40-something-year-old grooming policy seems counterproductive. Let the players be themselves. Baseball is supposed to be fun, not business-like. Most folks watch baseball to escape the real world.

Recent reliever trades show the Yankees hit the jackpot with the Chapman and Miller deals

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In the early days of Spring Training, we’ve gotten a nice little peek at some of the best young players the Yankees have in their much ballyhooed farm system. Aaron Judge socked what will probably go down as the longest home run of the spring, Gleyber Torres doubled to left and right fields the next day, and Clint Frazier has been wearing out the opposite field with extra-base hits. It’s been fun!

Judge was one of New York’s three first round picks back in 2013, and, as you know, Torres and Frazier both came over at last year’s trade deadline. So did outfielder Billy McKinney, who hit a home run Sunday, as well as Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. We didn’t get to see Justus Sheffield make his spring debut Tuesday because the game wasn’t televised, but he was another trade deadline pickup as well.

Last summer the Yankees were uniquely positioned heading into the trade deadline and Brian Cashman & Co. took advantage in a big way. They turned Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, two relievers (great relievers, but relievers nonetheless), into three top 100 prospects, plus several others. The reliever trade market had really taken off in previous months and both the Cubs and Indians were pretty desperate despite sitting in first place. They had baseball’s two longest World Series droughts and wanted to get over the hump. Sure enough, the trades helped both get to the World Series.

Whenever we see trades, especially blockbuster trades that go beyond anything we expected, our first inclination is to think the market has changed. The Yankees got massive hauls for Chapman and Miller, which means every great reliever is going to require a massive Torres/Frazier caliber package going forward. It hasn’t worked out that way. Two other great relievers have been traded since those deals:

  • Pirates trade Mark Melancon to the Nationals for reliever Felipe Rivera and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn, whom Baseball America ranked as the 14th best prospect in Pittsburgh’s system in their 2017 Prospect Handbook.
  • Royals trade Wade Davis to the Cubs for Jorge Soler, a 25-year-old former top prospect who is still trying to find his way at the big league level. He came with four years of team control.

The Melancon trade was made one week after the Chapman trade and one day after the Miller trade. The Davis trade went down over the winter. Melancon was a rental like Chapman, and while he’s not as good as Chapman, he’s not that much worse either. And yet, the Pirates turned him into a good reliever and an okay prospect. The Yankees turned rental Chapman into arguably the best prospect in baseball in Torres, plus three others.

The Davis trade really drives home how well the Yankees did with the Miller and Chapman trades. From 2014-15, Davis was the best reliever on the planet, throwing 139.1 innings with a 0.97 ERA (1.72 FIP). He also excelled in the postseason (one earned run in 25 innings), closed out a World Series, and has an affordable contract ($10M in 2017). Somehow the Yankees got more for rental Chapman than the Royals did for a full year of Davis.

We can go back even further to show how much the Chapman and Miller trade look like outliers. Last offseason the Padres acquired four prospects for Craig Kimbrel, including two who landed on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list soon after the trade: Javier Guerra (No. 52) and Manuel Margot (No. 56). Kimbrel had three seasons left on his contract at the time of the trade. Well, two seasons and a club option. There’s an escape there in case things go wrong.

When the Yankees traded Miller, he had two and a half years remaining on his contract. They traded him for four prospects, including two who appeared on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list a few weeks earlier: Frazier (No. 21) and Sheffield (No. 69). Would you rather have the Nos. 21 and 69 prospects, or the No. 52 and 56 prospects? I’d take Nos. 21 and 69. Prospect rankings are not linear. There’s not a significant difference between Nos. 52, 56, and 69. The difference between Nos. 21 and 52 is pretty huge though.

(For what it’s worth, the prospect valuations at Point of Pittsburgh indicate Frazier and Sheffield were worth a combined $78.5M in surplus value at the time of the trade. Guerra and Margot combined for $44.8M. Top 20-ish position player prospects like Frazier are insanely valuable.)

The Phillies didn’t got a single top 100 prospect in the Ken Giles trade, and he came with five years of team control. They just got a bunch of players with performance and/or health issues. Two years of Jake McGee was traded for a designated hitter (Corey Dickerson) who hasn’t hit outside Coors Field. Three years of Justin Wilson fetched two okay but not great pitching prospects. Four and a half years of Sam Dyson was given away for two non-prospects. Giles, McGee, Wilson, and Dyson have all been among the game’s top relievers the last few seasons, and look at those trades packages.

Point is, compared to some other top reliever trades, specifically the Melancon and Davis deals, the Chapman and Miller hauls look like a minor miracle. It was a perfect storm for the Yankees. They had an elite reliever on a contract that wasn’t burdensome, and the team that wanted him was not only very desperate to get over the hump and win their first World Series in a lifetime, they also had the tippy top prospects to trade. And then it all happened again.

I don’t want to call the Miller and Chapman trades once in a lifetime events, that’s a wee bit over the top, but given everything that happened leading up to and since the deals, it sure looks like everything came together at exactly the right time for the Yankees. They had the right players to offer very motivated buyers. And maybe it won’t work out and all the prospects will bust. Baseball can be a jerk like that. Right now, at this very moment, the Miller and Chapman deals look like franchise-altering trades. You dream of your favorite team making trades like this.

Which Yankees would make the best two-way players?

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

For the first time in what feels like forever, MLB is on the verge of having a true two-way player.

That’s right, the same person as a pitcher and position player on a semi-regular basis. Christian Bethancourt, to this point almost exclusively a catcher for the Padres, is in spring training splitting his time between catcher and pitcher and is set to pitch Wednesday. He did pitch twice last season and threw 96 mph, so his stuff is there, and he began to fulfill more of a utility role last season, a hint towards his versatility/athleticism.

One of my favorite things to see is when position players pitch or pitchers rake. Remember Brendan Ryan tossing two shutout innings in 2015? It made attending a 15-1 loss a ton of fun.

Anyway, with Bethancourt and Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Otani in the news, I thought we could take a gander at which current Yankees would make the best potential two-way player, even if there is approximately a zero percent chance any of them actually become one. First up, the outfielder with the rocket arm.

Aaron Hicks

Hicks is the obvious choice here because he has a freaking cannon. It isn’t always on the money and it doesn’t always get a baserunner out, but it surely makes any runner think twice about taking the extra base. His 105.5 mph throw last April is the fastest recorded throw in the Statcast era and even tops the fastest pitch of Aroldis Chapman. Granted, it’s different heaving the ball with a running start on a lazy fly ball vs. what a pitcher does, but it’s a perfect display of what Hicks is capable.

Hicks also still has my favorite outfield assist ever, even though it came when he was with the Twins against the Yankees. Indulge me and re-watch this masterpiece that really shows off how strong Hicks’ arm really is.

With all that in mind, it should come as little surprise that Hicks was also a pitcher when he was drafted 1st round, 14th overall, out of high school. Baseball America mentions it in their blurb about Hicks in multiple prospect handbooks back in his Twins days, including right off the bat when he was Minnesota’s No. 4 prospect in 2012. Here’s what they said about him in 2011, when he was the Twins’ No. 2 prospect.

“Some teams liked him more as a pitcher coming out of high school, thanks to his athleticism and a fastball that reached 97 mph at times, and he retains excellent arm strength, his best present tool.”

It’s still his best tool and Hicks still has that top-notch velocity. Hicks threw a near no-hitter in high school and after the game mentioned his curveball as one of his top pitches. At the 2007 Perfect Game Showcase, Hicks hit and pitched. You can catch a glimpse of his pitching at 2:38, 6:13 and 11:30 of the showcase video, in which Hicks says he had been told he had “starter stuff” but indicated he wanted to be a position player. In a world where the Yankees now asked him to be a pitcher in addition to his hitting, they’d have to build back up his off-speed offerings.

CC Sabathia

Of the players I’ll list, this is more a dream than anything. CC Sabathia isn’t going to start playing a position in 2017. At most, he’ll get an extra chance or two to swing away compared to other Yankees’ pitchers in interleague play.

But back in the day, CC was a capable hitter. From 2002 to 2008, he hit .261 (22-for-84), having his ‘breakout’ offensive season in 2008 when he switched leagues for the second half of the season and carried the Brewers to the playoffs. That year, he hit two mammoth home runs, one with the Indians and one with the Brewers, including this moon shot at Dodger Stadium.

Sabathia didn’t ever have the speed and athleticism to man anything other than maybe first base and a corner outfield spot. If you put him in a corner, you know he’d have a good arm, even if he lacked range. As a Yankee, he has only two hits, none for extra bases, in 27 at-bats while laying down just one sacrifice hit.

Didi Gregorius

Gregorius would make a much more realistic two-way player than Sabathia, although his role as the everyday shortstop makes it a true impossibility. His arm is the entire argument. Watching him throughout the season, he fires some lasers to first base and has some solid accuracy as well. No word on how hard he throws off a mound or even if he ever has. Baseball America rated his arm as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale when he was a prospect in the Reds system.

While Didi doesn’t have a history of pitching like Hicks, there is evidence of possible aspirations. The YES Network posted a video of Gregorius pitching on flat ground to a teammate in warmups before a game last season.

The Yankees wouldn’t risk injury to Gregorius, but I have a feeling he’d go out to the mound with the same infectious zeal that Ryan had when he got his opportunity in a game.

Quick Hits

Aaron Judge on the mound would be a spectacle to behold. He is perhaps the most unlikely person to be a two-way player because working out mechanics for a 6-foot-7 pitcher is tough enough as it is but especially from scratch. He’s another guy with a strong arm in the outfield, but yeah, this one’s a pipe dream.

Gary Sanchez, like Sabathia, doesn’t quite have the athleticism to pull off the two-way life, but he’s got the arm. While Hicks had the fastest recorded throw on Statcast, Sanchez had the quickest for a catcher throwing out a base stealer. We’ll see plenty more attempted base stealers thrown out as long as he’s the Yankees’ backstop.

In the minor leagues, Cito Culver seems like an obvious choice. Like Didi, he’s a middle infielder with a strong arm, but Culver actually had experience on the mound in high school. BA said he hit 94 mph. They said the same thing for Jake Cave, who had 17 outfield assists last season across three outfield positions.

Thoughts following the first four Grapefruit League games

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first four Grapefruit Leagues games are in the books and the Yankees won three of them. They rallied to tie the game in the ninth inning in the one loss too. It’s good to have baseball back, isn’t it? Spring Training games are fun in their own way. Are you ready for some super small sample size reactions? Good. I have some thoughts.

1. Let’s get to the bottom of this Aaron Judge leg kick business, shall we? We know Judge and hitting coach Alan Cockrell worked on something with his lower half this offseason. What exactly? No idea. At one point it appeared he eliminated his leg kick, but nope, that’s not the case. My bad. Here is Judge last spring (left) and Judge this spring (right):

aaron-judge-2016-17-leg-kick

I wouldn’t say Judge’s leg kick is smaller this spring, but he is getting his foot down a little quicker. The GIFs are synced up at the moment he lifts his front foot, and you can see it touches down a tad earlier than last year. Last spring his foot kinda dangled out there for a second. This year it’s up and down, and he’s ready to hit. I have no idea whether this is what Judge and Cockrell worked on over the winter, but there’s his leg kick last year and his leg kick this year. They look about the same size — Judge isn’t picking his leg up any higher (or lower) — but this year his front foot gets down a tad bit sooner, ostensibly putting him in better position to hit. Intrigue!

2. Three quick observations about the kids. One, Gleyber Torres looks like a big leaguer. I don’t mean he’s ready to play in the big leagues right now, but the way he carries himself. He’s calm at the plate and in the field. Gleyber’s good and he knows it, though not in an arrogant way. It’s a quiet confidence. Two, Clint Frazier has been on everything. He’s gone 3-for-5 with a double and a triple, and even his two strikeouts were good at-bats with quality swings. It’s easy to see what Brian Cashman meant when he said Frazier has “legendary bat speed.” The kid gets the bat to the ball in a hurry. And three, Billy McKinney sure does have a pretty swing. I have no idea whether he’ll actually hit and be a productive player long-term, but his swing is a sweet. However his career plays out, McKinney will look good doing it. These first few games have been more fun than I expected as far as the prospects are concerned.

3. Each of the five fourth and fifth starter candidates have already appeared in games, and each has thrown two scoreless innings. And that means nothing to me right now. The first weekend of Grapefruit League games was never going to give someone an edge in this race. I was happy to see Luis Severino throw some nice changeups Sunday, though I’ve been doing this long enough to know a handful of changeups against minor leaguers (look at at the lineup Severino faced) in late-February don’t mean much of anything. The most encouraging thing I saw from the rotation candidates was probably Chad Green‘s velocity and overall health. His 2016 season ended early due to a sprained elbow ligament and strained flexor tendon, remember. That’s a scary combination of words. Green ran his fastball up to 94 mph in yesterday’s start and he was throwing free and easy. Hooray for that. The five rotation candidates got through their first appearances in one piece and that’s good. Once they get some more innings against MLB caliber hitters under their belts, those last two rotation spots will start to sort themselves out.

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

4. The Jacoby Ellsbury criticism has definitely been ratcheted up a notch this spring. I guess that’s what happens when Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira aren’t here to kick around anymore. Both Cashman and Joe Girardi have been asked directly about Ellsbury’s disappointing performance as a Yankee, Ellsbury himself has fielded questions about it, and the YES booth was on him Sunday as well. “We believe there’s more in there, we’ve seen it. Our job is to get that out of him,” said Girardi to George King, which is about as harsh as you’ll hear him criticize a veteran player. Hopefully Ellsbury uses this as motivation and has a strong bounceback season. That would be cool. I still think it’s unlikely he’ll be moved down in the lineup when the season begins — maybe a few weeks into the season, but not Opening Day — but I’m starting to think there’s a chance it will happen. Not a big chance, but a chance. I’d say it’s 90/10 in favor of staying at the top of the lineup. Sound good?

5. I thought it was kinda interesting Brett Gardner played center field and Aaron Hicks played left field in the first Spring Training game last week. Girardi said last season he wanted to keep Gardner in left field and he did. Gardner started only two games in center field last year, both in September when Hicks was on the disabled list and Mason Williams was still in Triple-A. Ellsbury got those days off and Gardner was the only other center field option. In all likelihood this is nothing. The Yankees are giving Gardner some center field time in Spring Training just to keep him sharp out there in case he’s needed. But maybe they consider him a better center fielder than Hicks at this point. By and large Hicks was really good in the field last year, though he took some funky routes at times, and stuff like that tends to stick in your memory. Hicks has played three games this spring, all in corner spots. His center field usage the rest of the spring is a #thingtowatch.

Assorted Baseball Thoughts

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Hey, baseball! You’re unofficially back and that’s all sorts of awesome. It’s still a while before things really count, but it’s nice to have the game back in our lives on a daily basis, even if it’s just in the form of players doing workouts or taking batting practice or throwing bullpens. Dinner, so to speak, is finally on the stove and we’re beginning to smell it as its scent wafts up to us, enticing us to walk down into the kitchen (even if it won’t really open until April). So, in celebration of the season, here are some assorted thoughts about baseball goings on and whatnot.

How about that Aaron Judge homer? Or Gleyber Torres knocking two doubles and scoring from second (!) on a wild pitch? Or Clint Frazier going oppo on a triple? In the long run, these things mean absolutely nothing. I know it; you know it; the players themselves (probably) know it. But, regardless, it’s nice to see. Spring Training already gives us that nebulously fuzzy feeling of optimism and that only gets heightened when prospects and young players perform well.

While on the topic of young players, whom do you guys think is more likely to start the year in AAA: Judge or Greg Bird? There are cases for both players needing more work. Judge still swings and misses a lot and Bird will need to find his power stroke after missing an entire year; it’s plan to see why those two things could/should be worked out in Scranton rather than the Bronx. Both have nominally capable “replacements” in Aaron Hicks and Chris Carter, though Carter is much more a sure thing than Hicks at this point. I don’t think either of them ends up in AAA to start the year, though, and despite arguments for it, in a year in which the Yankees are transitioning, it’s okay to see some growing pains at the highest level.

The World Baseball Classic is back this year and it’s still something that I like but don’t love at this point. I get why it exists and I think the commissioner and his office genuinely do want to grow the game internationally–as they well should from a business point of view–but the whole thing still feels a bit stilted and awkward and I can’t place why. As a fan of soccer, I enjoy tournaments that the WBC tries to mimic–the World Cup, the European/Copa America tournaments, the Champions League, the FA Cup, etc.–but I just can’t fully buy into the WBC. I think I’d like it a lot more if it were styled after the Champions League with club teams rather than international teams. The only problem there is lack of competition. Only teams from the US, Japan, Cuba, and Korea would really be able to hack it in such a tournament, as teams from the other leagues in the world aren’t anywhere near good enough to hang with the best of the best from those leagues. I suppose, then, that there really isn’t much to do about changing it. Eventually–when no Yankees play in the damn thing–I’ll learn to love it.

Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)
Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)

Speaking of changes, MLB is doing away with the intentional walk process and I feel very…ambivalent about it. I don’t necessarily like it, but I don’t feel nearly strong enough about it to make a stink. At the end of the day, it’s a fairly meaningless change that won’t do much to take away from the game and won’t do much to improve it. It’s a fairly transparent move, in fact, so MLB can say ‘Look! See? We’re making changes!’ without having to do anything radical or spend any money. Regardless of my personal feelings, pace of play is a concern of MLB’s and they’re going to do what they can to speed up play, though I’m not sure how much it’ll help. Will casual fans become die hards or will new fans be born because games go from three hours to two hour and forty five minutes? Eh.

To grow the game, MLB needs to think outside just the field of play. I love baseball not just because it was introduced to me by my family, but because I played it growing up. For many kids in this country–especially kids of color and those in urban environments–the cost of playing baseball is prohibitive. Pumping money into youth leagues of all shapes and sizes–even subsidizing some of them–is one way for MLB to grow both with young people and people of color, demographics the sport has lacked recently.

Additionally, MLB needs to tap into why young people like certain sports. Over the last five years or so, I’ve taught every grade from 7-12 (though only as a day sub for 8th grade) and kids like players more than they like teams. I was the same way when I was younger–I had basketball and football jerseys from a dozen different teams and kids today are no different. They talk about players and stars more than they talk about teams. MLB hasn’t done the greatest job of promoting its new crop of stars and that’s going to hurt them as they compete against star-driven leagues like the NBA and the NFL. Allow player personalities to shine on the field and give them exposure off the field. It’s 2017; act like it, MLB.

Thoughts prior to the first Grapefruit League game

Spring Training is weird. (Presswire)
Spring Training is weird. (Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees return to action with their first Grapefruit League game of the spring. Hooray for that. The game will air on both YES and MLB.tv. Prepare for all the small sample size analysis you can handle, even though we all know better. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this, the final day without baseball until November.

1. The best part of Spring Training games is the prospects, hands down. We’ll watch the veterans all summer. Spring Training will be our only chance to see most of the kids this year. Gleyber Torres figures to get some starts at shortstop when Didi Gregorius is away at the World Baseball Classic, and that’ll be cool. Jorge Mateo will run around center field and both James Kaprielian and Justus Sheffield will throw a few innings each as well. I’m most interested in seeing Clint Frazier, Chance Adams, and Jordan Montgomery, personally. Frazier in particular. Those three all have a chance to help the Yankees during the regular season — at least moreso than Torres, Mateo, Kaprielian, and Sheffield — and I haven’t seen much of them previously. Frazier has the talent to be an impact hitter, and while neither Adams nor Montgomery will be an ace, they can be useful big league starters, and gosh do the Yankees need some of those. I’m looking forward to getting some eyes on the near MLB ready kids.

2. The fourth and fifth starter competition officially begins tomorrow — Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren, Luis Severino, Chad Green, and Luis Cessa are starting the first five Grapefruit League games in that order — and my official prediction is Severino and Cessa get the two rotation spots. Warren and Mitchell go to the bullpen and Green winds up in Triple-A. I’ll be pretty surprised if Severino doesn’t get a rotation spot, to be honest. He seems to have a leg up on everyone else simply because he’s the youngest and offers the most long-term upside. Severino becoming a capable big league starter would be a wonderful thing for the Yankees, and I’m guessing they’ll give him every opportunity to make it happen. Using Spring Training to settle position battles is sorta silly, though in this case I don’t think it’s a big deal. The rotation candidates all have MLB experience and odds are they’re all going to get a chance to start games this summer anyway. Whoever wins the rotation spots on Opening Day won’t automatically get to keep them all season.

3. A few weeks ago I mentioned the Yankees will face a severe 40-man roster crunch after the season, big enough that they have to consider trading some prospects just to avoid losing them for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft. The dream scenario is packaging three or four prospects together and trading them for one quality player, though that doesn’t happen often. There aren’t too many teams willing to take on three fringe players and commit 40-man roster spots like that. What about trading a prospect for a draft pick though? The 14 Competitive Balance picks are tradeable, you know. (Only during the regular season for whatever reason.) In my top 30 prospects post I mentioned Dustin Fowler as a possible trade candidate given the team’s outfield situation. Would you trade Fowler to, say, the center field needy Athletics for their Competitive Balance pick, the 33rd overall selection? That slot comes with nearly $2M worth of bonus pool money. It sounds like a neat idea, but you know what? I’d rather have Fowler, a two-way center fielder not far away from the big leagues, than the 33rd overall pick. This is just an idea I was kicking around. Dealing prospects for draft picks, rather than an actual player, to help clear up the 40-man logjam.

4. I have a weird feeling Carter Capps will be a Yankee at some point this season. They tried to get him from the Marlins at the trade deadline two years ago, presumably as a potential alternative to their proposed Mateo-for-Craig Kimbrel trade with the Padres. Capps is with the Padres now. He blew out his elbow last spring and had Tommy John surgery, then was traded to San Diego as part of the Andrew Cashner deal. The hard-tanking Padres bought low and are looking to get value out of him now, and it stands to reason Capps will be on the trade block at some point. Capps, in case you’ve forgotten, is the guy with the ridiculous yet somehow legal hop-step delivery:

Between his call-up and a late-season elbow injury in 2015, the 26-year-old Capps had a 1.16 ERA (1.10 FIP) with a 49.2% strikeout rate and a 5.9% walk rate in 31 innings. Fifty-eight strikeouts in 31 innings! Crazy. Capps averaged 98.9 mph with his fastball that year, and Perceived Velocity, a Statcast metric that adjusts for the pitcher’s extension, says his fastball played like 101.5 mph. That hop effectively adds 2.6 mph to his fastball because he’s releasing the ball closer to the plate and giving the hitter that much less time to react. The cost to get Capps — he’d be a good candidate for the “bundle a few prospects together to get one player” idea given San Diego’s deep rebuild, no? — shouldn’t be as high as it was in 2015 because he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and is closer to free agency (he’ll be eligible after 2018). The Padres have ripped their roster apart and healthy Capps is one of their few remaining tradeable pieces. The Yankees had interest in him in 2015. I dunno, just feels like something will come together at some point.

5. Nothing has been officially announced, though earlier this week reports said MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to make intentional walks automatic this season. Rather than making the pitcher throw four wide ones, the manager gives a signal from the dugout and the batter goes straight to first. First of all, if the signal isn’t holding up a rubber chicken, then GTFO. Secondly, I don’t love the rule change, but it’s not the end of the world. Intentional walks are a competitive play and I feel the pitcher and catcher should have to execute. At the same time, intentional walks happen so infrequently — one every 46 innings in 2016! — that we’ll barely even notice. Also, the distribution of intentional walks is highly concentrated. Nearly 20% of all intentional walks last year were issued to the No. 8 hitter in the National League, the guy hitting in front of the pitcher. I wonder if we’ll see a slight uptick in the number of intentional walks this year because giving the signal is so much quicker than throwing the pitches. General rule of thumb: the easier something is, the more people will do it. More intentional walks means more baserunners, and that will inevitably lead to more runs. Could be cool.

6. Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters earlier this week MLB may unilaterally implement rule changes next season, specifically with regards to pace of play (i.e. a pitch clock) and the size of the strike zone, which is apparently something they’re allowed to do per the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Manfred complained the MLBPA keeps rejecting proposals. Unilaterally implementing rule changes won’t sit well with the players, and the last thing anyone wants is bad blood in labor relations. That said, MLBPA gave a ton of concessions with the current CBA — they’re fighting harder to protect pace of play than the bonuses of amateur players! — and they backed themselves into this corner. MLBPA chief Tony Clark is a really smart and nice guy from what I understand, but the union could really benefit from having an actual labor professional in charge. The union keeps giving concessions rather than pushing for a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Instead of trying to fix the revenue distribution problem, MLBPA essentially agreed to a salary cap. The new luxury tax penalties are so harsh that no team will exceed them. Not a great couple weeks and months for the union.