What needs to go right for the Yankees to contend in 2017?

An uphill climb. (Presswire)
An uphill climb. (Presswire)

In just three days the Yankees will play their first game of the Grapefruit League season. These next five weeks and four days will be used to determine the final few roster spots and shape the Opening Day roster, a roster that will inevitably change many times during the regular season. The Opening Day roster is never the roster that finishes the season.

The Yankees readily admit they’re in the middle of a “transition” right now, and while they’re not completely throwing in the towel and tanking, they are emphasizing the future over the present. It’s refreshing. They’ve needed to do this for a while. A year ago the Yankees won 84 games and were still in the wildcard race in late-September. It seems they’re in for more of the same this year. In fact, let’s look over the 2017 projections quickly:

  • FanGraphs: 80 wins (last in AL East, three games back of second wildcard spot)
  • PECOTA: 82 wins (third in AL East, two games back of second wildcard spot)
  • SportsLine: 80.4 wins (fourth in AL East, four games back of second wildcard spot)

The Yankees have outperformed the projections and their run differential for several years running now. Run differential says they should have won 323 games from 2013-16. They actually won 340. Do it once and it’s a fluke. Do it year after year — we’re talking about 17 extra wins across four years here, that’s a lot — and it’s a trend. For whatever reason the Yankees are always a few games better than expected. It’s happened too long to ignore.

Anyway, the projection systems see the Yankees as a .500 team or thereabouts in 2017, and I can’t say I strongly disagree with that. Based on the way things have gone the last few years, that probably means they’ll end up with something like 84 wins instead. Enough to remain interesting but almost certainly not enough to seriously contend for a postseason berth. They’ll need some things to break right to play in October this year.

Some of those things are obvious. Masahiro Tanaka needs to stay healthy or the Yankees are completely screwed. There’s virtually no path to the postseason that includes Tanaka being anything less than ace-like. Gary Sanchez needs to be an offensive force. He won’t do what he did last year again, though the Yankees are counting on him to provide big time power. When the team has a lead after seven innings, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman have to make it stand up.

The Yankees are going to need some other things to go their way to contend this year, things that are not so obvious. Without fail, each year every contending team get some kinda surprise out-of-nowhere performance that helps push them over the hump. Do you think the Red Sox expected Sandy Leon to hit like that last year? Of course not. The Dodgers weren’t counting on Grant Dayton being an ace setup man. Those surprise performances are what make baseball fun.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things I think need to happen for the Yankees to have a real chance at contending this year. I’m talking 89 wins or more, something that puts them right in the thick of the wildcard race. It’s doable. Unlikely? Sure. But doable. Let’s get to it.

Either Bird or Judge becomes bonafide a middle of the order hitter

#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)

First base and right field are offense positions. Strong defense is always appreciated, though generally speaking, teams are looking for bashers at those spots. Bird and Judge both have a lot of potential, though they’re kids with fewer than 300 big league plate appearances combined. It’s tough to know what to expect. Especially since one is coming back from major shoulder surgery and the other is 6-foot-7 and making all sorts of mechanical adjustments.

As it stands, the Yankees will lean on Sanchez and Matt Holliday to anchor the middle of the order. I’ll be surprised if they’re not hitting third and fourth (in either order) on Opening Day. The Chris Carter addition provides some protection in case Bird gets off to a slow start or needs time in the minors to get his swing back. Carter is a flawed hitter, no doubt, but at least you know he’ll sock dingers on the regular. Ideally he’d something like sixth or seventh though, not fifth.

Point is, the Yankees have a pretty glaring need for another middle of the order hitter, someone to give the team a formidable 3-4-5 with Sanchez and Holliday. Bird and Judge have the most offensive potential among the young players, and while it would be cool if both established themselves as big time hitters this summer, the Yankees are going to need at least one of those guys to do it to contend. They need to add length to the lineup. No doubt about it.

Gardner and Ellsbury bounce back at the plate

Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury had similar offensive seasons a year ago. Gardner got on base more often and hit .261/.351/.362 (97 wRC+) overall. That was down from the .259/.343/.399 (106 wRC+) line he put up in 2015. Ellsbury showed a little more pop than Gardner and finished with a .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) batting line last year. That was actually up from .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) in 2015.

The Yankees have hinted at breaking those two up atop the lineup, though the fact of the matter is the offense is at its best when Gardner and Ellsbury are playing like they did in 2014 and early in 2015, before Ellsbury hurt his knee. It seemed like they were on base a combined six times each night. The Yankees don’t want to break those two up. They want them to play well enough to remain atop the lineup. That’s the best case scenario.

Like I said earlier, the Yankees need a deeper lineup, and that starts right at the top with Gardner and Ellsbury. Whether they’re capable of giving more at their ages — Gardner turns 34 in August, Ellsbury will do the same in September — is another matter entirely. I can’t say I’m optimistic about Ellsbury bouncing back at the plate, personally. For the Yankees to contend in 2017 though, they’ll need their two veteran speedsters to raise some hell as table-setters.

Severino pulls a Danny Salazar

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

In 2013 the Indians called Salazar, a top pitching prospect, up to the big leagues in the second half, and he gave them ten starts with a 3.12 ERA (3.16 FIP). Cleveland was counting on him to be a key member of their rotation in 2014, but instead Salazar didn’t pitch all that well (4.25 ERA and 3.52 FIP) and spent a chunk of the season in the minors. Then, in 2015, Salazar reestablished himself as a top young arm by throwing 185 innings with a 3.45 ERA (3.62 FIP).

The Yankees are hoping Severino follows a similar path. He came up and helped the team with eleven strong starts in 2015 before struggling in 2016 and spending part of the season in the minors. With any luck, Severino’s 2017 will look like Salazar’s 2015. There are plenty of caveats here — Salazar’s changeup is better than either of Severino’s secondary pitches, and Salazar really wasn’t that bad in 2014 — though the point stands. A good second half cameo in year one, struggles in year two, then a breakout in year three. This is year three for Severino.

Pineda has a big contract year

If there was ever a time for Michael Pineda to become the pitcher the Yankees expected when they acquired him all those years ago, this would be it. Big Mike will be a free agent after the season and putting together a solid campaign from start to finish would set him up for a nice payday. The Yankees need him to pitch well to solidify the rotation too. Pineda pitching well is a win-win. He sets himself up well for free agency and the Yankees get some wins out of it. Another year of below-average production helps no one.

At least one of the young relievers breaks through

In Betances and Chapman, the Yankees have as good a bullpen one-two punch as any team in baseball. Things get a little dicey after that. Tyler Clippard was solid after the trade last year, though he is clearly no longer the pitcher he was a few years ago, and an extreme fly ball pitcher whose fastball is dipping closer and closer to 90 mph might not be such a great fit for Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general. Clippard is the No. 3 reliever right now.

Adam Warren is the fourth option and he seems to be at his best when he’s a Swiss Army Knife reliever, not someone who is tied down to a specific inning. Then there’s Tommy Layne and two open spots, which figure to log a lot of mileage this year. We’ll see plenty of pitchers come in and out over the summer months. We always do. Sometimes by design but often out of necessity. The Yankees have been as aggressive as any team calling up relievers.

One of the young relievers like, say, Ben Heller or Jonathan Holder becoming a reliable sixth or seventh inning guy would go a long way to improving the bullpen. The rotation doesn’t figure to log many innings, making the middle of the game treacherous at times. Another year of middle innings instability won’t get the Yankees to the postseason. Finding that extra bullpen piece could swing a lot of games in those tricky middle innings.

Bryan Mitchell: Starter or reliever?

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

There are rarely real battles for important rosters spots in Yankees Spring Training. Sure, there’s usually a race for the utility infielder spot or the last spot in the bullpen, but we don’t often see a significant role up for grabs. However, from the outside looking in, it appears that the competition for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation is an honest-to-goodness competition.

As Mike wrote last Wednesday, how that battle shapes up could very well shape the Yankees’ bullpen. After all, you have more than two guys fighting for just two spots. That brings me to Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell very likely would have played a larger role — initially in the bullpen — for the 2016 Yankees if he didn’t injure his toe towards the end of the camp. He ultimately made just five appearances, all starts coming in September. Now he could see himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot to begin the year.

Mitchell in a lot of ways seems like an afterthought, but he’s a pitcher with some real talent. After all, pitchers with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and power curveball don’t grow on trees. (He has a third pitch but more on that later). While he has a 4.52 ERA in 65 2/3 big-league innings, he’s shown enough stuff and performance to make me believe he can be viable MLB pitcher. The question becomes: Is he a starter or a reliever?

Case for Mitchell the reliever

Mitchell, who will turn 26 on April 19, only really has one season with bullpen experience, that being his 2015 campaign, in which he split time between Triple A and the majors. In 29 2/3 innings, Mitchell struck out 29 batters but had an ugly 6.37 ERA. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Through Aug. 17, Mitchell had a 3.86 ERA over 21 innings (15 1/3 in relief) and had been effective, particularly in low-leverage multiple-inning outings.

His Aug. 11 game was his best. Coming into the 12th inning of a tied game on the road, Mitchell marched through the Indians order, struck out five, allowed two hits and two walks (one intentional) but worked himself out of trouble and kept Cleveland off the board. It was a gutsy performance by a rookie thrown into a tough situation.

And then it all fell apart his next appearance. Asked to make a spot start on Aug 17, Mitchell took a line drive from Eduardo Nunez off the face in the second inning. He somehow only missed 11 days, but his performance cratered afterward, allowing 12 runs in his last 10 appearances. He walked over a batter an inning and gave a glimpse of where his game can go wrong.

Still, though, Mitchell showed a lot before his broken nose. He can clearly give the team length, something they will need out of the bullpen with their current rotation, and he had cut down on his walks for the most part, something that has always been an issue for him. MLB.com gave his control a 40 grade prior to the 2015 season while ranking him 14th among Yankees prospects. However, they were pretty positive on his raw talent, saying he had “some of the best stuff” in the system and saying that he “should be able to carve up hitters” with his fastball and curveball.

That’s where the crux of the “Mitchell should be a reliever” argument lies. Both his fastball and curveball are plus pitches and he would be able to shorten his repertoire in the bullpen, cutting out his ineffective changeup. His fastball has hit 98 in the bullpen. If he can set hitters up with his fastball, his curveball can be a nice one-two punch as his out pitch.

It’s easy to make a lot of Adam Warren comparisons here, probably too easy. Warren is a definite success story for the Yankees while Mitchell hasn’t proven himself yet. For 2017, Mitchell would be more likely to emulate 2013 Warren than 2014-15 Warren. That means his value in relief is likely to be maximized by his ability to produce multiple quality innings rather than needing high leverage situations that Warren excelled in over the 2014-15 seasons. The Yankees seem to be taken care of at the moment in the backend of the ‘pen.

Case for Mitchell the starter

Why does Mitchell work in the rotation? Beyond a fastball that still sits in the mid-90s throughout his starts (dips to 94.6 third time through the order), Mitchell has developed his cutter as a more effective secondary pitch. He still uses his four-seamer 43 percent of the time, but he actually used his cutter more often than his curveball (24.7 to 21.4 percent) in 2016. His curveball was still his out-pitch, but Mitchell utilized his cutter as a swing-and-miss secondary pitch more often as the opposing lineup turned over.

The sample size is key to note: We have only 65 2/3 major league innings of data from Mitchell, about 55 percent as a starter and the rest as a reliever. His cutter, which was his best pitch by wRC+ against in 2016, showed improvement statistically from year over year in that sample, a sign that Mitchell might be more than just a two-pitch pitcher. However, it could easily be noise rather than a major breakthrough. We need to see a full season of him in the majors before you draw any real conclusions on his cutter.

If you tend to believe the 2016 number more than anything, Mitchell can be a viable back-end starter. He had two scoreless outings (with seven walks in 12 innings), two less than stellar starts and one quality start where he took the loss. The five games were against the Blue Jays (2x), Red Sox (2x) and Dodgers, so he had to face some stiff competition along the way.

Conclusion?

When I began this exercise, I thought Mitchell was best suited for relief. Part of that is definitely the Cleveland game from 2015 sticking in my mind. I still lean that way, but I’m certainly curious as to what he would do at the end of the rotation. Is his cutter a real solid weapon or is that reading too much into too few data points? Remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: Mitchell isn’t a future ace. Yet in all but the best of rotations, the No. 4 and 5 pitchers are going to have some major warts. For Mitchell, it’s his control. If he sticks as a starter, he’ll have to conquer the ability to throw strikes more consistently. Even if that doesn’t happen, Mitchell has the makings of a strong reliever who can help make up for the Yankees’ lack of length from their starters.

Headley embraces new challenges while his Yankee status is anything but guaranteed

by Sung Min Kim/River Avenue Blues
(Sung Min Kim/RAB)

Chase Headley showed up to Yankee Stadium yesterday with a beard, as if he had been traded away to another team awhile ago. However, he still remains a member of the New York Yankees. He will shave his face clean before showing up to the Spring Training next month.

When it’s all said and done, it’s unlikely fans will remember Headley as a part of the great Yankee lore. As we know, he is an average hitter with solid glove and, well, that doesn’t exactly sell a lot of jerseys. The club also owes him $26 million for the next two years.

Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise when the Yankees looked to trade Headley during this offseason. At yesterday’s press conference, Brian Cashman sounded off when asked about Headley’s future with the organization.

“I can’t predict that. I expect him to be here as a starter at the third base,” Cashman said while adding he shopped Headley around this winter, but couldn’t find a return that he liked. There weren’t many replacement options at third available either.

Headley admitted he saw heard the trade rumors, though he didn’t pay attention to them.

“I’ve dealt with that for a lot of my Major League career,” he said. “I don’t act like I’m angry about it … I understand that those are certainly business decisions that are made and me worrying about that isn’t going to change one thing one way or another.”

But still, to Cashman, Headley is a valuable commodity.

“Tell you what, in New York, when you struggle, everyone lets you know about it,” said Cashman. “It’s tough to pull yourself out of it, so he showed some serious mental confidence to continue to stay focused and (bounce back). He showed some toughness and I really respect that. I’m looking forward to a bigger year this year because I think he’s even better for that kind of experience.”

Two and half seasons into being a Yankee, the fans have an idea what to expect from their starting third baseman: a reliable glove and a decent-but-forgettable bat. In these past two seasons, Headley registered a 92 wRC+ each, which means he was a bit below average in runs created metrics. It’s safe to say we are not getting the guy who led the NL in RBI in 2012 anytime soon.

Entering the third year of the four-year, $52 million contract, Headley seems determined to set the tone this coming season by diagnosing one of the things that went wrong with him last year: that brutal 9-for-60 start in April.

“Trying to get a couple hits in April would be great,” he said. “There was a mechanical thing from the left side of the plate and once I got corrected, I started to swing a bat a little bit better … Hopefully I’ll be a mechanically better.”

The encouraging part of that statement is that Headley hit for a .265/.338/.418 line the rest of the season after April. Not the sexiest numbers, but they look better than the .252/.315/.405 line that the entire team averaged in 2016.

The discouraging part is that Headley is not getting any younger. The 2017 season will be his age 32 season, and we shouldn’t expect some kind of renaissance with his bat. If anything, the fans can be realistically optimistic by hoping he avoids a slow start and puts up slash line similar to what he did after the dreadful April last season.

However, as long as he is the member of the 2017 Yankees, Headley has a bigger off-the-field aspect to look forward to: being a more vocal clubhouse leader amidst the Yankee youth movement.

“I am looking forward to getting know (the younger players) and, hopefully, offering them help that I can to help them to this level and to help (the Yankees) to be successful,” Headley said. “I am excited about having the opportunity to have a little bit more leadership in the clubhouse … I’m excited to be able to be more vocal and speak my mind a little bit more.”

I don’t know if the Yankees will win a division title while Headley is under his current contract. This year is looking like a rebuilding year. The 2018 season could feature some exciting young talent on the ML roster, but I don’t think the Yankees will really compete until 2019, when they will possibly have added one of big 2018-19 free agents (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Clayton Kershaw, if he ops out, just to name a few) and fuse them with the talented youngsters.

If the Yankees manage to find a young big league ready third baseman, Headley will probably not be the starter going forward. However, because there are games to be played and valuable youngsters to be taught, Headley is a perfectly fine team asset for now, and I think it is in the team’s best interest to play him and hope for the best possible performance.

The 2017 season is a make or break year for Aaron Hicks

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Baseball people and writers tend to overuse certain key phrases. I know I’m guilty of it. “Ace” and “top of the rotation starter” are thrown around quite a bit, especially after a guy has a good month or two. “Five-tool player” is another big one. He’s got three better than average tools? Eh, close enough. He’s a five-tool player. Happens all the time.

Another popular one, and I suppose this isn’t limited to baseball, is “make or break year.” Two years ago folks were saying Gary Sanchez was facing a make or break year, which was preposterous. He was a 21-year-old catcher coming off a .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) line at a full season in Double-A. C’mon now. A few weeks ago I saw someone say Yoan Moncada was facing a make or break year. Seriously?

One Yankees who is truly facing a make or break year, meaning what very well might be his last chance to establish himself as an everyday player, is outfielder Aaron Hicks. Hicks turned 27 in October, so he’s not old by any means, but he’s also reached the point where he should have seized a full-time job by now. He’s four seasons and nearly 1,300 plate appearances into his career already. This isn’t a rookie we’re talking about here.

Overall, Hicks was undeniably disappointing in 2016, hitting .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) with eight home runs in 361 plate appearances. He did perform better after Carlos Beltran was traded away and his playing time increased — Hicks hit .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five homers in 129 plate appearances around a hamstring injury after the trade deadline — which was nice to see, but ultimately it doesn’t mean a whole lot.

It’s easy to see why Hicks was a first round pick and why he continues to get chances. The athleticism is obvious, his arm is a rocket, his plate discipline is better than he gets credit for (18.8 K% and 8.3 BB% in 2016), and he’s a switch-hitter who can hit the ball a mile when he connects.

The bad news for Hicks is the Yankees don’t have an opening for him right now. Sure, they could play him everyday in right field next season, but I’m certain the team would rather see Aaron Judge grab that spot and run with it. Judge figures to get playing time priority over Hicks. Jacoby Ellsbury is locked into center field, meaning a Brett Gardner trade may be Hicks’ only path to regular playing time. A trade seems unlikely at the moment.

The raw ability is there and you hate to give up on it. And yet, you can’t wait forever either. There comes a point where a player is what he is, and Hicks is close to reaching that point, if he hasn’t gotten there already. He’s yet to play a full season as an everyday player, and part of that is the way his teams have used him, but he shares the blame too. Had Hicks performed better, the Twins and Yankees would have made more time for him.

Switch-hitters with this kind of pedigree and athleticism will continue to get chances, so it’s not like Hicks will be run out of the league if he doesn’t have a successful 2017. This might be his last chance to stake a claim to an everyday job though, his last chance to show he’s more than a spare part player. The Yankees have several young outfielders ready to break into the show soon, and the Hicks won’t be an obstacle unless things finally click.

“Giving up on a prospect is one of the hardest things to do,” said an executive to Chris Crawford (subs. req’d) recently. “We spend so much time with these players, sometimes we refuse to move these players in trades, and we want these kids to succeed. Sooner or later, however, we have to see them make the necessary adjustments, and if they can’t, we have to move on. It’s a lot easier said than done, but it has to happen.”

Dellin Betances isn’t the only Yankee who could play in the 2017 WBC

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

In a few weeks baseball players all around the league will leave their teams in Spring Training to participate in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. Pool play begins March 6th in South Korea, and the tournament will end with the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium on March 22nd. Here is the full 2017 WBC schedule.

The 16 countries do not have to finalize their WBC rosters until January, though we already know Dellin Betances will pitch for the Dominican Republic. He committed to them recently. Betances was on Team USA’s preliminary roster but instead choose to honor his family by pitching for the Dominican Republic squad. So far he’s the only Yankees player to commit to the WBC.

The Yankees are not as star-laden as they once were — a few years ago a case could have been made their entire starting infield belonged in the WBC — so they don’t figure to send a ton of players to the WBC next spring. Chances are Betances won’t be the only Yankee to participatein the event, however. In fact, farmhand Dante Bichette Jr. already played for Brazil in the qualifying round in September. Who knew? (Brazil did not advance.)

So, as we wait for the commitments to trickle in and the final rosters to be announced, lets look at the Yankees who could wind up joining Betances and participating in the WBC. Keep in mind the WBC is not limited to big league players — some countries can’t field an entire roster of MLB players, hence Bichette playing for Brazil — and the rosters are 28 players deep, not 25, so there are extra spots.

Canada: Evan Rutckyj

Rutckyj, who recently re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent, was the team’s 16th round pick back in 2010. The Braves took a look at him this past spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick, but Rutckyj failed to make the Opening Day roster and instead returned to the Yankees. He struck out 14 in 11.2 innings around a relatively minor elbow procedure during the 2016 regular season.

Only eleven pitchers born in Canada have appeared in the big leagues over the last three years — only seven did so in 2016 — and five of those eleven threw fewer than 20 innings. Three of the other six are now retired (Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Phillippe Aumont). Rutckyj, who grew up across the river from Detroit in Windsor, has had some Double-A success as a reliever and could make a Canada roster that has been heavy on minor league pitchers in previous WBCs.

Colombia: Tito Polo, Carlos Vidal

Colombia clinched their first ever WBC berth by winning their qualifying round back in March. They won a pool that included France, Spain, and Panama. Both Polo and Vidal were on Colombia’s roster for the qualifying round and chances are they will be on the actual WBC roster as well. Only six Colombian-born players appeared in MLB in 2016, one of whom was Donovan Solano and none of whom were an outfielder like Polo and Vidal.

Vidal, 20, has spent most of his career with the various short season league teams in New York’s farm system. He went 2-for-8 with a double and played in all three qualifying games in March. Polo, 22, came over from the Pirates in the Ivan Nova trade. He was Colombia’s extra outfielder in the qualifying round. He appeared in two games as a a pinch-runner and defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat. Both Vidal and Polo figure to play in the WBC in March.

Dominican Republic: Gary Sanchez (Starlin Castro?)

WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)
WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Over the last three seasons, the leader in bWAR among Dominican-born catchers is Welington Castillo. Sanchez is second. For all the great baseball players to come out of the Dominican Republic, the island hasn’t produced much catching talent in recent years. Their catching tandem in the 2013 WBC was Francisco Pena, Tony’s son, and Carlos Santana, who is no longer a catcher.

The Dominican Republic’s current catching pool includes Sanchez, Castillo, Pena, Pedro Severino of the Nationals, and Alberto Rosario of the Cardinals. I have to think they want Sanchez and Castillo there. Then again, Tony might want Francisco on the roster, and I’m sure the Yankees would rather Sanchez spend his first Spring Training as the No. 1 catcher learning the pitching staff.

The Yankees can’t stop Gary from going to the WBC if he’s invited though. They might need Pena to pull some strings, which would be kind of a dick move. I’m sure Sanchez would love to play. Bottom line: Sanchez is arguably the best Dominican catcher in baseball right now and inarguably one of the two best. In what is intended to be a best vs. best tournament, Gary belongs on the Dominican Republic roster.

(For what it’s worth, Victor Baez reports Pena promised Sanchez he would be considered for the WBC team, but acknowledged things may change before the final roster is submitted.)

As for Castro, he has an awful lot of competition on the Dominican Republic middle infield. Robinson Cano is the presumed starter at second with someone like Jose Reyes or Jean Segura at short. Jonathan Villar, Jose Ramirez, Eduardo Nunez, Jhonny Peralta, and some others are WBC candidates too. Castro’s a possibility for the tournament but probably isn’t part of the club’s Plan A infield.

Japan: Masahiro Tanaka

Interestingly enough, not a single MLB player was on Japan’s roster for the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro Suzuki. They filled their entire roster with NPB players. Japan has had big leaguers on their roster in previous WBCs, including Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, just not in the last one. Will they invite big leaguers this time? I honestly have no idea. We’re going to have to wait and find out.

If Japan does want current MLB players, Tanaka figures to be near the top of their list. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and on the very short list of the best Japanese-born pitchers on the planet. The Yankees can’t stop Tanaka from playing in the 2017 WBC. Brian Cashman confirmed it during his end-of-season press conference. Needless to say, the thought of Tanaka suffering an injury during the WBC is enough to make you squeamish. The Yankees have already been through that once before, with Mark Teixeira and his wrist in the 2013 WBC.

For what it’s worth, Tanaka has participated in the WBC twice before. He was on Japan’s roster in both 2009 and 2013, throwing 9.1 total innings across one start and seven relief appearances. Maybe that was enough for Tanaka? Maybe he’s had his fill of the WBC — Japan won the 2009, so he has a championship — and would rather focus on the Yankees in Spring Training and putting himself in the best position to use his opt-out the team in the best position to win? Gosh, I hope so.

Mexico: Luis Cessa, Gio Gallegos

Fifteen pitchers born in Mexico have appeared in the big leagues over the last three seasons, and 13 of those 15 did so in 2016. The two exceptions are ex-Yankees: Manny Banuelos and Al Aceves. Banuelos is coming off another injury and Aceves spent the 2016 season in the Mexican League. Mexico figures to try to build their WBC rotation from a group that includes Marco Estrada, Julio Urias, Jorge De La Rosa, Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, and Miguel Gonzalez.

Cessa and Gallegos — fun fact: the Yankees signed Gallegos away from a Mexican League team as part of a package deal with Banuelos and Aceves in 2007 — could be candidates for Mexico’s bullpen. Especially Cessa since he has MLB experience. Gallegos might not get much consideration given the fact he has yet to pitch in the show. Roberto Osuna, Joakim Soria, and Oliver Perez are likely to be Mexico’s late-inning relievers, but they’re going to need other pitchers for middle relief, especially early in the tournament when starters have limited pitch counts.

Keep in mind both Cessa and Gallegos figure to come to Spring Training with a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Cessa will be among those competing for a rotation spot, which is kind of a big deal. Gallegos, who the Yankees added to the 40-man roster earlier this month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, is trying to reach the show for the first time. As much as I’m sure both guys would love to represent their country in the WBC, they would be better off hanging around Spring Training and focusing on winning a roster spot with the Yankees at this point of their careers.

Netherlands: Didi Gregorius

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Dutch team has had to rely heavily on players from Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of pro ball in the Netherlands, to fill their WBC roster in the past. The same figures to be true this year. Only six Dutch players have played in MLB the last two years: Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Jurickson Profar, and Kenley Jansen. So, if nothing else, the Netherlands doesn’t have to worry about their infield or closer. They’ll need Honkballers in the outfield and rotation.

It’s entirely possible the Netherlands will look to take all five of those infielders to the WBC because, well, they’re the best players the country has to offer. Profar has played first base and Bogaerts has played third, so the starting infield could very well be those two on the corners with the other three guys splitting time up the middle and at DH. Gregorius was not on the 2013 WBC roster, and with his Yankees roster spot secure, he could jump at the opportunity to play for the Netherlands.

Team USA: Tyler Clippard (Brett Gardner? Jacoby Ellsbury?)

Even with Betances committing to the Dominican Republic, Team USA’s potential bullpen is insane. Zach Britton closing with Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel setting up, Wade Davis as the fireman, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson as the middle relievers … goodness. What are the odds of that happening though? Extremely small. Some of those guys are going to pass on the tournament. Happens every WBC.

The Team USA bullpen in 2013 included Kimbrel and, uh, Luke Gregerson? Tim Collins? Mitchell Boggs? Vinnie Pestano? Yup. Yup yup yup. Team USA’s leader in relief innings in 2013 was Ross Detwiler. So yeah. The odds of a super-bullpen are so very small. Clippard could be among the club’s Plan B or C relievers. Team USA is going to miss out on a ton of the top guys, no doubt, so who’s next in line? Clippard could be one of them.

Along those same lines, I suppose Gardner and/or Ellsbury could receive outfield consideration if enough top guys drop out. We already know Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are passing on the tournament. Team USA would need to receive a lot of “nos” before considering Ellsbury and Gardner for their outfield — they ranked 12th and 20th in bWAR among American-born outfielders in 2016 — but hey, you never know.

* * *

The Yankees are said to have interest in bringing Carlos Beltran back, and I have to think he will suit up for Puerto Rico in the WBC next spring. The next generation of Puerto Rican stars has arrived (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez) but Beltran is still insanely popular in Puerto Rico, and he usually gives the people what they want. Aroldis Chapman, on the other hand, won’t pitch for Cuba regardless of whether he returns to the Yankees. No expatriates on the national team.

Greg Bird’s Lost Year [2016 Season Review]

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

This past season the Yankees started their youth movement in earnest. It kinda sorta began with the Greg Bird and Luis Severino call-ups last year, but it wasn’t until the team started trading veterans for prospects at the deadline that their direction was clear. The Yankees are going young, so much so that they’re moving productive veterans for kids in Single-A. It’s a whole new world.

Once again, the Yankees called up a bunch of young players in the second half this year, most notably Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge. Others like Tyler Austin and Luis Cessa were around too. So was Severino. The young guy who wasn’t around was Bird. The presumed first baseman of the future spent the entire 2016 season rehabbing from February surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

The 2016 season was a lost season for Bird. He didn’t get to advance his career in any way, which stinks for a guy who would have played the entire season at age 23. That’s a crucial development year, especially after his successful MLB cameo last year. Let’s review Bird’s lost year and its big picture impact on the Yankees.

How Did He Get Hurt?

Bird hurt himself during an offseason workout, though the shoulder trouble was not new. He spent a month on the Double-A disabled list with a shoulder problem in the middle of the 2015 season. Apparently the shoulder was never really healthy the rest of the season. Bird admitted to not necessarily playing through pain, but playing through occasional discomfort. He hit those eleven homers in 46 games with the Yankees with a less than 100% shoulder.

The offseason workouts exacerbated the problem and led to the surgery. It was not one awkward movement or one exercise that caused it. This was a wear and tear injury. It started in Double-A and gradually got worse and worse. In February, the shoulder finally gave out and Bird needed surgery. Maybe the Yankees could have done something differently to keep Bird healthy. I have no idea. I’m no doctor. Won’t change anything now.

The Rehab

By all accounts Bird’s rehab went according to plan. His surgery came with an 8-9 month recovery timetable, which meant there was a chance he could return late the season, but the Yankees were never going to push it. Bird spent the summer rehabbing in Tampa and the rehab went well enough for him to get at-bats in Instructional League in September. That was our first indication Bird was getting better.

Following the stint in Instructs, the Yankees sent Bird to the Arizona Fall League for more playing time, where he hit .215/.346/.354 (102 wRC+) with one home run in 17 games and 78 plate appearances. I’m not worried too much about the statistical performance given the long layoff. Bird had to get his swing back. The most important thing is he made it through the AzFL healthy and didn’t miss a game. He was limited to DH because he hasn’t been cleared to throw at 100% effort yet, but everything else is going well. The rehab is right on track.

The Service Time Situation

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bird spent the entire season on the Major League disabled list following the injury. I know he started last season in Double-A, but he was a big league ballplayer at the time of the injury. He played in the 2015 Wildcard Game, remember. Bird was a big leaguer when he got hurt and that means he spent the entire 2016 season on the disabled list collecting big league salary and service time. Good for him.

For the Yankees, it’s not so good. They lost one of Bird’s dirt cheap pre-arbitration years to injury. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2019 and eligible for free agency following the 2021 season, which is the same as it would have been had Bird been healthy and spent the entire year at first base and DH. Injuries are part of the game. They happen. It stinks when they happen to good young players when they are in the most cost effective years of their careers.

The Yankees Really Could Have Used Him

Geez, did the Yankees miss Bird this season or what? He hit .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) with eleven homers in 46 games during his 2015 cameo, and last winter ZiPS pegged Bird for a .252/.324/.486 (122 OPS+) batting line with 26 homers in 2016. That would have been really useful! The Yankees got nothing from the first base and DH positions this past season. Bird would have been a huge, huge help. Enough to get them into the postseason? Doubtful. But enough to make them more competitive and fun to watch.

Outlook for 2017

Hitters who have surgery to repair a torn labrum in their front shoulder are known to lose pop for some length of time. Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp both had the same surgery as Bird and needed a year or so to get back to normal. On the other hand, Brian McCann had the same surgery while with the Braves in 2012, and he bounced back just fine in 2013. There was no short-term power loss.

The Yankees are hoping Bird follows the McCann path and not the Kemp/Gonzalez path. The good news is the timing of the injury is on their side. Bird is going to be a full year out from surgery by time Spring Training rolls around. McCann, Kemp, and Gonzalez all had surgery after the season and were racing against the clock to get ready for Opening Day. There are no such issues with Bird. He’ll have a nice long rehab.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Bird to grab the first base job in Spring Training and run with it. That would be ideal. I also think they’re prepared to send Bird to Triple-A should he need time to get back on track following surgery. There’s little doubt Bird is the first baseman of the future. That’s the plan. Is the first baseman of the present? The first few weeks back from shoulder surgery will determine that.

The Spare Part Relievers [2016 Season Review]

Bleier. (Presswire)
Bleier. (Presswire)

The active player portion of our 2016 season review comes to a close today with the random pitchers pretty much no one expected to see in pinstripes this summer. There are a few of these guys every year, and really, every team needs them. Sometimes the best option is to call up a veteran with no long-term future in the organization so you can run him into the ground for a few weeks.

That sounds harsh, but it happens all around the league, and these guys would rather chew up undesirable innings in the big leagues than sit in the minors. These guys aren’t kids. They’re journeymen either trying to hang on and extend their careers, or get to the big leagues for the first time and lock in that sweet affordable health care for life. Here are the random journeyman relievers who found themselves with the Yankees in 2016.

Richard Bleier

None of these spare part arms had more success this year than Bleier, who the Yankees signed as a minor league free agent last winter. The 29-year-old bounced from the Rangers to the Blue Jays to the Nationals in recent years before hooking on with New York. He started the season in Triple-A Scranton, as expected, then received his first big league call-up in late May.

Bleier had been a starting pitcher pretty much his entire career, and that was his role early in the season with the RailRiders, but the Yankees needed him in relief. Joe Girardi used Bleier as kind of a Swiss Army reliever. He was used as a left-on-left matchup guy, as a one-inning reliever, or as a multi-inning mop-up man. Bleier faced as few as one and as many as 14 batters during his 23 total appearances with the Yankees.

Believe it or not, the first of Bleier’s two stints in New York lasted nearly three months. He was called up on May 26th and not sent down until August 9th. That’s a span of 66 team games. And in those 66 team games, Bleier made only 16 appearances. That’s a pace of 39 appearances per 162 games. So yeah, Bleier was a very rarely used low leverage reliever. In those 16 appearances he had a 3.38 ERA (2.70 FIP) in a whopping 13.1 innings.

The Yankees sent Bleier down in August to get stretched back before bringing him back when rosters expanded in September. He actually had to wait until September 9th to come back. Bleier wasn’t among the first wave of call-ups. The southpaw’s best outing of the season came on September 12th, when he hurled four scoreless and hitless innings of relief against the Dodgers. No video of this performance exists, so you have to take my word for it.

Bleier closed out his season with a scoreless September, and towards the end of the year he seemed to work his way into the Circle of Trust™. Four of his final five appearances came in close games. Bleier finished the season with a 1.96 ERA (2.67 FIP) in 23 innings, and as per the finesse lefty rulebook, he had a low strikeout rate (14.1%), a low walk rate (4.4%), and a high ground ball rate (54.1%). Bleier is still on the 40-man roster, and while I would never say a soon-to-be 30-year-old journeyman’s spot is safe, he’s not at the front of the DFA line either.

Phil Coke

The Yankees had a little 2009 reunion going on for a while in Scranton. The team signed Nick Swisher as a backup backup (backup?) first baseman and stashed him in Triple-A for a while, and, in late April, they also brought in Phil Coke and sent him to Scranton too. Coke was pitching in an independent league at the time and the Yankees were already running short on pitching depth, so the veteran lefty plugged a hole.

Coke, now 34, made two appearances with the RailRiders before the Yankees decided to call him up when CC Sabathia went down with his groin injury. Coke made three relief appearances with the big league team, allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits and four walks in six innings, and struck out only one. He did give up one home run, but sadly it was a line drive, so Coke didn’t point up like it was a routine fly ball. Would have liked to have seen that for old time’s sake.

The Yankees dropped Coke from the roster after that game and he spent almost the entire rest of the season in Triple-A. He was pretty good for the RailRiders, pitching to a 2.96 ERA (2.97 FIP) in 70 innings spread across eleven starts and nine relief appearances. Coke tossed two perfect innings in Scranton’s win in the Triple-A Championship Game.

Believe it or not, one team was so impressed by Coke’s work this season that they actually traded for him in September. Following the Triple-A title game, the Yankees sent him to the Pirates in a cash trade. Coke threw four scoreless innings in three games with Pittsburgh. He became a free agent after the season, and apparently Coke recently signed with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan. Can’t say I expected to write a Phil Coke review blurb this season, but here we are.

Tyler Olson

Olson. (Presswire)
Olson. (Presswire)

Olson, 27, is best known as the other guy the Yankees received in the Ronald Torreyes trade with the Dodgers. It was Torreyes and Olson for Rob Segedin. Olson has a classic lefty specialist skill set, right down to the mid-80s fastball and funky delivery, yet the Yankees had him open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation. Weird move, but whatever, it’s Triple-A. Who cares.

Getting Olson stretched out came in handy in mid-April, when he was called up to the big leagues to serve as an extra mop-up man. In his only appearance with the Yankees, Olson allowed two runs in 2.2 innings against the Mariners, the team that originally drafted and developed him. The Yankees lost the game by six runs. They sent Olson back down to Triple-A immediately, then eventually designated him for assignment in June. He went from the Yankees to the Royals to the Indians on waivers, but alas, Cleveland didn’t call him up in September. No AL championship ring for Olson. Womp womp.

Anthony Swarzak

Swarzak. (Presswire)
Swarzak. (Presswire)

Olson was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot for Swarzak, who the Yankees signed to a minor league contract last offseason. The 31-year-old right-hander had a 3.86 ERA (2.96 FIP) in 46.2 innings with the RailRiders. He was called up to serve as the team’s veteran innings eating low-leverage reliever, or so we thought.

Swarzak’s first few weeks in pinstripes were fine (two runs in 7.1 innings), and in hindsight, that’s probably the worst thing that could have happened. Girardi started to give him some more responsibility and it cost the Yankees games. Swarzak made ten appearances from June 22nd through July 30th, and he allowed at least one run in seven of those ten appearances. Oy vey.

In mid-August, when the Yankees were making a spirited run towards a postseason spot, Swarzak played a major role in two crushing losses. On August 16th, he allowed four runs in two-thirds of an innings against the Blue Jays to help the Yankees blow a 6-0 lead.

Can’t help but wonder how that game would have turned out had the lengthy rain delay not forced Michael Pineda from the game after five scoreless innings and only 68 pitches. But still, maybe get more than two outs before allowing four runs with a 6-0 lead?

Because that wasn’t bad enough, Girardi called on Swarzak to help protect a two-run lead against the Mariners on August 22nd. There were two outs in the inning, but Seattle had runners on second and third with the powerful Mike Zunino at the plate. He hammered Swarzak’s sixth pitch of the night out of the park for a go-ahead three-run home run. The Yankees went on to lose the game.

After the game, Girardi said he went to Swarzak in that spot because he “liked his slider,” which I’m pretty sure is a sentence never uttered before or since about Swarzak. Baseball is a team sport and no loss can ever truly be blamed on one player, but yeah, Swarzak really blew those games. In fact, his performance in the Seattle game was the team’s eighth costliest pitching appearance of the season in terms of WPA. That’s out 645 total pitching appearances by the Yankees in 2016.

The Yankees placed Swarzak on the disabled list with a shoulder issue following that game against the Mariners. He remained sidelined close to a month before returning in late September. Swarzak appeared in just one more game the rest of the season, tossing two scoreless mop-up innings against the Orioles in Game 160. He finished the season with a 5.52 ERA (6.11 FIP) in 26 games and 31 innings in pinstripes. Swarzak elected free agency after being removed from the 40-man roster after the season. Let us never speak of this again.