Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and the Yankees’ Latest Pair of Elite Relievers [2015 Season Preview]

In each of the last four seasons and in five of the last six seasons overall, Joe Girardi had the luxury of having two top shelf relievers in his bullpen. The tandem has changed over the years — it was Mariano Rivera and Phil Hughes in 2009, Rivera and David Robertson in 2011, Rafael Soriano and Robertson in 2012, Rivera and Robertson in 2013, and Robertson and Dellin Betances in 2014 — though there were always two high-end relievers for Girardi to turn to in the late innings.

The tandem has again changed heading into 2015. Robertson was allowed to leave as a free agent and the Yankees signed ex-Red Sox southpaw Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36M contract to replace him. New York saved $2.5M per season by replacing Robertson with Miller and gained a supplemental first round draft pick in the process. Losing a stud homegrown Yankees sucks, like really sucks, but it was an understandable set of baseball moves.

Miller joins Betances to again give Girardi a pair of elite relievers, this time one righty and one lefty. Girardi has yet to name a closer with Opening Day two weeks away — he’s hinted at using co-closers but I think that’s unlikely — and my hunch is Betances will get the job heading into the season. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Both Betances and Miller are capable of closing and both will be counted on in the late innings of close games.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Dellin’s Dominance: So Good It’s Close To Impossible To Repeat

I’ve said this before and it’s worth repeating for no reason other than because it’s fun: Betances’ career path is eerily similar to Rivera’s. Both were good starting pitching prospects in the minors who shifted to the bullpen during their age 25 season, dominated as multi-inning setup men during their first full MLB season at age 26, then took over the ninth inning in their age 27 season after the Yankees let their veteran closer depart as a free agent. Well, we’re assuming Betances will take over as closer, but you catch my drift. Freakishly similar career paths.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Betances will be the next Rivera and we shouldn’t think about him that way either. It’s not fair to him. He’s not the next Rivera, he’s the first Betances. Dellin was by far the most exciting Yankees development last year, pitching to a 1.40 ERA (1.64 FIP) with an elite strikeout rate (13.5 K/9 and 39.6 K%) to go along with better than average walk (2.40 BB/9 and 7.0 BB%) and ground ball (46.6%) rates in 90 innings. Ninety innings! Betances was the best reliever in baseball in terms of bWAR (3.7) and fWAR (3.2) in 2014.

Dellin set the bar impossibly high last year. So high that I find it hard to believe he could do it again in 2015. Does that mean I expect him to stink? No! I fully expect Betances to dominate and again be one of the top bullpeners in the game in 2015. It just means I don’t think he’ll be that good again. Only 27 relievers in history have had a season with a sub-2.00 ERA and a sub-2.00 FIP while throwing at least 50 innings in baseball history. Only six have done it twice. (Rivera was not one of those six!) It’s hard to do what Dellin did once. It’s even harder to repeat it.

Betances has been out of sorts in Spring Training — his first two outings were typical Dellin but he’s allowed one run on two hits in each of his last two times out — but I’m not particularly concerned with that. His fastball has been mostly mid-90s rather than high-90s like we saw at the end of last year, but he was sitting mid-90s at the outset of last season as well (via Brooks Baseball):

Dellin Betances 2014 velocityDellin’s curveball … or slurve … or slider … or whatever the hell we’re calling it these days seems to have been giving him the most trouble. He simply hasn’t had much control over it, so hopefully he irons that out before the season starts in two days. Betances’ history as a prospect with basically zero control in the minors is always going to be in the back of my mind, but two Grapefruit League outings aren’t enough of a cause for concern to me.

Regardless of whether he closes or sets up, Betances will be Girardi’s ace right-handed reliever this year and someone he relies on for huge outs. I don’t think we’ll see him make as many multi-inning appearances this summer simply because throwing 90 innings out of the bullpen year after year isn’t a thing that happens anymore, though Girardi can certainly use Dellin for six outs on occasion. Given the plan to win close games with pitching and defense, Betances is a crucial piece of the 2015 Yankees.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The New Guy: Not Just A Lefty Specialist

Aside from Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller was arguably the best left-handed reliever in baseball last season. He was outstanding, posting a 2.02 ERA (1.51 FIP) in 62.1 innings with a better strikeout rate than Betances (14.87 K/9 and 42.6 K%) and comparable walk (2.45 BB/9 and 7.0 BB%) and ground ball (46.9%) rates. It was the best season of Miller’s career but it would be a mistake to call it his only good year. To wit:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB%
2012 40.1 3.35 3.17 30.2% 11.8% 43.2%
2013 30.2 2.64 3.05 35.6% 12.6% 56.1%
2014 62.1 2.02 1.51 42.6% 7.0% 46.9%
2012-14 133.1 2.57 2.37 37.0% 9.9% 47.8%

Miller missed the start of the 2012 season with a hamstring injury and the end of the 2013 season with a ligament issue in his foot. (He didn’t pitch in the postseason that year.) He was healthy all of last year and those aren’t arm injuries, so they aren’t much of a concern going forward.

Anyway, Miller has consistently improved since moving into the bullpen full-time at Bobby Valentine’s behest in 2012. He was a high draft pick who never could get his mechanics right as a starter, but it’s clicked in the bullpen and his mid-90s fastball/mid-80s slider combo is lethal. Robertson, by the way, had a 2.59 ERA (2.59 FIP!) in 191.1 innings from 2012-14, so Miller was on par with New York’s ex-relief ace on a rate basis.

Left-handers have a way of getting pigeonholed into small roles in the bullpen, specifically left-on-left matchup guys. Miller is way too good for that though and I’m certain Girardi knows it. Miller is a late-inning reliever who can face righties and lefties just like Betances. He just so happens to throw left-handed. Here are his splits since moving into the bullpen:

IP K% BB% GB% FIP wOBA
vs. LHP 66.0 40.1% 7.6% 40.9% 1.90 .236
vs. RHP 67.1 34.2% 12.0% 54.2% 2.82 .258

It’s no surprise Miller has been better against lefties than righties these last three years — between his stuff and low-ish arm angle, lefty hitters have basically no chance against this guy, he’s the bullpen version of Randy Johnson — though he’s been better than good against batters of the opposite hand. A few too many walks against righties, sure, but lots of strikeouts and lots of grounders too. This isn’t someone Girardi will have the shelter against righties late in a close game. Miller’s someone Girardi should want to use in those spots.

There’s really no wrong answer for the eighth and ninth innings in close games. The only wrong answer is one that doesn’t involve Betances or Miller. Both are capable late-inning relievers and I assume one will close and one will setup. Co-closers is nice in theory but I’m going to have to see that one before believing the Yankees would actually do it. Betances and Miller are the best righty-lefty bullpen combination in the game, and like Rivera/Robertson in the past or Robertson/Betances last year, these two are going to log a lot of important inning in close games. That’s the 2015 recipe.

The Cheap Flexibility and Competency of Chris Capuano [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After a generally successful 12-start cameo in pinstripes late last year (4.25 ERA and 3.85 FIP), veteran southpaw Chris Capuano returned to the Bronx this offseason on a one-year contract worth $5M. He was reportedly considering playing in Japan before the Yankees called. New York re-signed Capuano for depth, basically. He’s serviceable and relatively cheap, someone who can fill-in as the fifth starter until something better comes along.

Unfortunately, the 2015 season is not off to a good start for Capuano. He suffered a Grade II right quad strain covering first base last week and will be out of action for a few weeks, including the start of the regular season. The Yankees are currently sorting through several options — most notably Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers — to take over as the fifth starter, at least temporarily. Capuano figures to return in mid-to-late April and is a not insignificant piece of the pitching staff.

Yankees Need: Get Healthy!

First and foremost, the Yankees need Capuano to get healthy and come back from the quad strain. It’s not an arm injury — Capuano’s had plenty of those in his career, including two Tommy John surgeries — but the timing stinks. Once healthy, Capuano will basically have to go through Spring Training to get stretched out. The Yankees can accelerate that to some degree, but it’ll be an extended process. It’ll take two or three weeks for Capuano to get ready once the quad is healthy at a minimum.

Capuano Can: Get Healthy, Eventually

The quad injury is just one of those fluky baseball injuries. Capuano hurt himself covering first — it looked like the injury happened right as he hit the bag, but who knows — and that can happen to anyone. He doesn’t need surgery, it’s not his arm, it’s nothing complicated like that. Capuano just needs to rest and wait, that’s all. It is worth noting he is 36 years old, however. Older players tend to need a little longer to get over injuries than younger players. Perhaps that mid-to-late April timetable is really more like late-April/early-May.

Yankees Need: Be Flexible

I don’t think Capuano is guaranteed a rotation spot once the quad is healthy. He might get Wally Pipp’d. If Warren or Rogers or whoever gets the fifth starter’s spot pitches well early in the season, the Yankees won’t take them out of the rotation. Capuano was signed to be a placeholder until someone better came along, and the quad injury may have simply sped up the process. If someone does take a firm hold on that last rotation spot early in the season, Capuano would step into a relief role. (No, I don’t think the Yankees would release him. They aren’t in position to cut a starting pitcher.)

Capuano Can: Start Or Relieve

Pitching out of the bullpen would not be a new experience for Capuano. He signed with the Red Sox as a reliever last year and pitched out of their ‘pen early in the season before falling apart in early-June and getting released. (Capuano was sitting on 1.95 ERA and 3.10 FIP on June 1st last year.) Capuano also pitched briefly in relief for the Dodgers in 2013 and did it with a Brewers a few years ago.

Pitching out of the bullpen won’t be a new experience for Capuano, so I don’t expect flexibility to be an issue. He also doesn’t seem like someone who would make a big stink about being moved to the bullpen either. Everyone wants to start and I’m sure Capuano is no different, but if the team asked, I think he’d go down to the ‘pen and do his job like a professional. In fact, Capuano could be the perfect swingman, pitching in long relief and occasionally making a spot start when the Yankees want to give the other starters an extra day of rest.

Yankees Need: Just Don’t Melt Down

No one is expecting Capuano to dominate. Not you, not me, not the Yankees. The Yankees are just hoping for competence, which is what Capuano gave them in his 12 starts last year. Expectations are pretty low. Capuano just needs to be serviceable, soak up some innings in whatever role, and not completely melt down. Be better than Vidal Nuno was in pinstripes last year (5.42 ERA and 5.17 FIP), basically. I’m certain the Yankees would take what Capuano gave them in 2014 across the full season in 2015 and be happy with it.

Capuano Can: Be Serviceable

Even when you include his June meltdown with the Red Sox, Capuano had a 4.35 ERA (3.91 FIP) in 97.1 innings last year. He had a 4.26 ERA (3.55 FIP) in 105.2 innings for the Dodgers the year before and a 3.72 ERA (3.95 FIP) in 198.1 innings for the Dodgers the year before that. That all works out to a 4.01 ERA (94 ERA+) and a 3.83 FIP in his last 401.1 innings. Is that good? No, not really. It’s not a disaster either. It’s fifth starter/swingman material.

Of course, Capuano is now moving into Yankee Stadium full-time, and he is a year older, so the wheels could come off at any moment. That’s why he got a one-year deal, not a two or three-year deal. Capuano pitched decently in his 12 starts last year and his peripherals held steady. What more do you want? There’s no reason to think Capuano is on the verge of falling off a cliff other than age, and, as a soft-tossing lefty, he’s the kind of guy who can pitch forever as long as his arm holds up. I don’t care about strikeout rates, walk rates, or anything like that with Capuano. Get outs and keep runs off the board, I don’t care how. I believe he can still do that at a rate in line with the last three years.

Nathan Eovaldi and Trying to Go from Good to Great [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Despite all the health concerns in the rotation, the Yankees acquired only two bonafide Major League starting pitchers this offseason. One was veteran Chris Capuano, who returned on a low-cost one-year contract to add depth, and the other was youngster Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi came over from the Marlins with Garrett Jones and prospect Domingo German in exchange for Martin Prado and David Phelps in mid-December.

Even though he has a touch more than three years of service time and 460 career big league innings to his credit, Eovaldi just turned 25 last month. He’s younger than both 2014 Rookies of the Year and is the third youngest pitcher (behind Bryan Mitchell and German) and the eighth youngest player overall on New York’s 40-man roster. Eovaldi zoomed through the minors in three years as a high school draft pick and has plenty of MLB experience despite being so young. Needless to say, he’s an important piece of the 2015 Yankees.

Yankees Need: Innings

This is priority number one. With so many question marks surrounding the other starters on the roster — Capuano suffered a quad strain a few days ago and will be out the first few weeks of the season — the Yankees need Eovaldi to be the staff workhorse. The guy who won’t make them hold their breath and hope he doesn’t blow out with each individual pitch. Well, I’m sure they do that with every pitcher no matter what, but you know what I mean. Eovaldi fell one stupid little out shy of 200 innings last year and the club is hoping he gets up over that level this summer.

Eovaldi Can: Take The Ball Every Fifth Day

Eovaldi has had two arm injuries in his life. He had Tommy John surgery way back in 2007, during his junior year of high school, and he missed the first three months of the 2013 season with shoulder inflammation. Considering how hard he throws and the fact he’s stayed healthy since the shoulder issue, I’d say it’s in the past. Same with the Tommy John surgery. Eovaldi’s thrown over 800 total innings since having his elbow rebuilt, so he’s well beyond the “honeymoon” period*.

* Long story short, Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs found most pitchers who continue to have ligament trouble after Tommy John surgery do so within 400 innings of going under the knife. I don’t know if he’s written that anywhere but I’ve spoken to him about it in the past.

Both the Dodgers and Marlins did a good job controlling Eovaldi’s workload, so his innings jumps from year to year have been reasonable. Here’s a quick rundown:

2008 – 10.2 innings after the draft plus whatever he threw in high school
2009 – 96.1 innings in the minors
2010 – 98.1 innings in the minors (missed a month with an oblique strain)
2011 – 137.2 innings between MLB and the minors
2012 – 154.1 innings between MLB and the minors
2013 – 127 innings between MLB and the minors around the shoulder injury
2014 – 199.2 innings in MLB

The shoulder injury threw a wrench into things two seasons ago but that seems to have been a blip on the radar. Eovaldi’s workload has grown incrementally through the years and it appears he is ready to become a consistent 200 innings a year starter. He’s a big, physical guy at 6-foot-2 and 215 lbs., and there are no lingering health concerns. The Yankees can pencil him in for 32 starts this year and feel pretty comfortable with it.

Yankees Need: Unlock Those Strikeouts

Although he sports a high-octane fastball and a promising slider, Eovaldi has only struck out 16.2% of batters faced in his career (16.6% in 2014), well below the continually climbing league average (20.4% in 2014). The Yankees love strikeouts. Love ’em love ’em love ’em. They want to see Eovaldi turn his impressive stuff into more swings and misses so he can record more outs all by himself. He’s a good pitcher now. More strike threes will help him take that next step towards becoming an elite pitcher.

Eovaldi Can: Bring Great Stuff To The Table

As I said, Eovaldi’s raw stuff is among the best in the game. His four-seam fastball averaged 95.5 mph last season and 95.2 mph from 2012-14, the fourth and third highest average velocities in baseball among qualified starters, respectively. Baseball America (subs. req’d) called his slider “a plus pitch with tilt and late movement at its best” back before the 2011 season, the last time Eovaldi was prospect eligible, so that’s a solid two-pitch mix. It still hasn’t added up to strikeouts, however.

Personally, I see three reasons to believe Eovaldi may boost his strikeout this summer despite moving from the NL to the AL this season.

  1. Brian McCann: Simply put, McCann is one of the best pitch-framers in baseball and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Eovaldi’s catcher with the Marlins, is one of the worst. McCann’s going to get Eovaldi a lot more called strikes than Salty ever did.
  2. New Splitter: Eovaldi said he started tinkering with a splitter late last year (PitchFX classified it as a changeup) and he’s continued to work on it in Spring Training. He’s thrown a few nice ones during Grapefruit League play but the pitch is still very much a work in progress.
  3. Elevated Fastballs: At the behest of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Eovaldi has been working on elevating his fastball in two-strike counts this spring. High fastballs at the top of the zone or even above the zone are a great way to get swings and misses, especially when you throw as hard as Eovaldi. High fastballs are tough to lay off.

Rothschild has a long history of helping pitchers improve strikeout rates and Eovaldi seems like the perfect project for him. They aren’t trying to squeeze water from a rock here. Eovaldi has the kind of high-end stuff that should be allergic to bats, he just needs to better learn how to use it, especially in two-strike situations.

Yankees Need: Improve Against Lefties

Like most pitchers, Eovaldi spent the first two seasons of his career going back and forth between Triple-A and MLB. He moved into the big league rotation full-time after being traded from the Dodgers to the Marlins for Hanley Ramirez at the 2012 trade deadline, and since the trade, these are his platoon splits:

IP wOBA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB%
vs. RHB 181.0 .308 3.32 16.3% 7.3% 47.7% 7.5%
vs. LHB 188.0 .328 3.73 15.2% 7.5% 41.3% 6.0%

It’s not a huge split, but it’s enough of a split that the Yankees would like to see Eovaldi improve against lefty hitters. After all, Yankee Stadium is a great place to hit if you swing from the left side.

Eovaldi Can: Maybe Improve Against Lefties

It’s no surprise Eovaldi’s been more effective against righties than lefties in his career as a fastball/slider pitcher. Those guys typically have decent (to significant) platoon splits. The splitter will be crucial to Eovaldi’s potential improvement against lefties, not just an improved strikeout rate. His changeup stinks but the splitter would be a fine substitute as an offspeed pitch that moves down and away from lefties. There’s really not much more to say than that. If Eovaldi can develop his splitter into a reliable third pitch, he should see improvement against batters of the opposite hand.

Yankees Need: Adapt To A New Environment

Eovaldi is going from one end of the figurative baseball map to the other. These last few years the Marlins have played in front of tiny crowds in a big ballpark with four regular beat writers and basically no expectations. The Yankees play in front of much bigger crowds in a much smaller ballpark with eleven beat writers and a ton of expectations (regardless how good they actually project to be). Oh, and there’s a whole NL to AL thing too. Eovaldi’s about to enter a very different situation and he needs to adapt.

Eovaldi Can: Maybe Adapt?

There’s no way to know how some will react to a new environment until he’s actually there. The Yankees had some firsthand knowledge of Eovaldi from current third base coach Joe Espada — Espada, who spent last year as a special assistant to Brian Cashman, was the Marlins third base coach from 2010-13 and presumably got to know Eovaldi then — and I’m sure they did their homework before acquiring him. They’ve put a lot of time and effort into evaluating makeup (or attempting to evaluate makeup) in recent years. I have no reason to think Eovaldi won’t be fine in his new situation, but again, there’s no way to know for sure until he gets there.

Michael Pineda and the Quest for Better Health and More Strikeouts [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Finally. After two years of nothing, the Yankees finally got to see Michael Pineda in action last season. And it was glorious, even if it was only 13 starts. Big Mike pitched to a 1.89 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 76.1 innings across those 13 starts, and, most importantly, he showed his stuff had not been seriously compromised by his shoulder injury. He did lose some velocity — his fastball averaged 95.4 mph in 2011 and 93.3 mph in 2014 — but not a career-sabotaging amount.

Last year was sort of a feeling out period for the Yankees and Pineda. The team had no idea what he could do following two lost seasons and I don’t think Pineda did either. Sure, he was confident (he’s always confident), but the hitters were going to tell him how good he was after the injury. And they told him he was still good. Pineda has yet to hold up over a full season in pinstripes, though we know more about him now than we did at this time last year, and that affects his role on the 2015 Yankees.

Yankees Need: A Full Season

Pineda was great last year but only in flashes. He missed nearly four months with a teres major strain the Yankees officially called a “shoulder” injury in their press release. Pineda pulled a muscle in his back near his shoulder, basically. The injury limited him to those 13 starts, the only 13 he’s made in three years with New York.

The Yankees need Pineda to get over that physical hump now. He’s now three years removed from shoulder surgery and they want to see him out there for 30 starts. It’s time. They need him to do it because other pitchers in the rotation carry injury concerns and because they want him to lead the rotation. Remember, the Yankees acquired Pineda hoping he would have developed into their ace by now. That didn’t happen. The next step now is to be someone who takes the ball every fifth day.

Pineda Can: Just Go Out There And Pitch

Pitchers who have major shoulder surgery tend to continue having problems throughout their careers. Pineda is young and strong, so maybe he has a better chance of staying healthy than a veteran pitcher who undergoes a similar procedure, but we don’t know that for sure. I wouldn’t say I feel confident in Pineda staying healthy this summer, but I do think it’s important to note his injury last year was just a muscle pull. There was nothing wrong with his surgically repaired labrum. That’s encouraging in a lesser of two evils kinda way. Otherwise no one knows if Pineda’s physically capable of making 30 starts after his shoulder surgery. The only thing he can do is pitch as his body allows, that’s all.

Yankees Need: Find Some Strikeouts

Pineda was awesome last year, but he only struck out 59 batters in 76.1 innings. That works out to 6.96 K/9 and 20.3 K%, which is more or less league average for an AL starting pitcher (7.36 K/9 and 19.4 K% in 2014). Pineda struck out 173 batters in 171 innings as rookie in 2011 (9.11 K/9 and 24.9 K%) and his minor league strikeout rates were as good as it gets, so last year’s league average-ish strikeout rate was a big startling. I wouldn’t say alarming, he was pretty damn effective with a reduced strikeout rate, but the Yankees would like to see those strikeouts return in 2015, even with their improved team defense. Strikeouts are the best outs for pitchers.

Pineda Can: Still Get Swings & Misses, Just Not As Many He Once Did

Watching his stuff on television as a dumb fan sitting at home, it looks like Pineda should strike out more batters. He throws hard, he locates exceptionally well for someone who throws that hard, and slider is just filthy. Pineda’s changeup is very much a work in progress though it did flash some nice potential last year, like this one (GIF via IIATMS):

That specific changeup was poorly located — that baby is center cut, thigh high and splitting the plate right down the middle — but it had action and the hitter’s timing was disrupted. Like I said, the changeup is a work in progress but it shows flashes of being a weapon with some more refinement.

The changeup and slider are Pineda’s moneymakers, and his decline in strikeout rate last year comes with a decline in overall swing-and-miss rate. Here are the numbers (via Brooks Baseball):

Four-Seamer Sinker Changeup Slider
2011 10.5% 8.7% 6.4% 19.4%
2014 8.2% 16.7% 15.2% 17.9%
MLB AVG 6.9% 5.4% 14.9% 15.2%

Ignore the sinker and changeup. Pineda threw those two pitches less than 10% of the time combined in both 2011 and 2014. We’re focusing on his four-seam fastball and slider, both of which had an above-average whiff rate last year yet were down considerably from his rookie year in 2011. Swing-and-miss rates are among the first stats to stabilize, within 300 pitches or so, so this isn’t a sample size issue.

As mentioned earlier, Pineda did lose some velocity between 2011 and 2014 thanks mostly to the shoulder surgery. His fastball velocity dropped but his slider velocity stayed the same — the pitch averaged 84.68 mph in 2011 and 84.67 mph in 2014. Pitches are not mutually exclusive. Pineda’s slider plays off his fastball and vice versa. The decline in fastball velocity means the separation between his two main pitches isn’t as great as it once was, giving hitters slightly more time to react. Enough to take that big a bite out of strikeout and whiff rates? I don’t know. Maybe.

Pineda’s stuff is still very good, just not as good as it once was. Shoulder surgery has a way of doing that to a pitcher. That doesn’t mean his strikeout and swing-and-miss rates will never recover, however. This could be an adjustment he has to make, an adjustment he was unable to make last year because a) he only made 13 starts, and b) he was dominating even without the strikeouts.

Weak contact has always been Pineda’s thing — he gets a ton of pop-ups, which are near automatic outs, so his career .250 BABIP in 247.1 innings is not necessarily a fluke — and he still generated a bunch last year. Adding in more strikeouts will help take him to the next level, however. Weak contact is good. Weak contact and missing bats is better.

Yankees Need: More Development

As good as he looked last year, we have to remember Pineda missed two full seasons at ages 23 and 24 due to his shoulder injury. That’s pretty serious. Those are crucial developmental years and he won’t get them back. He just has to try to catch up this season. The Yankees need to Pineda to make up for some of that lost development this year. As a pitcher, as a teammate, as a big leaguer, the whole nine. He’s a guy with nearly four years of service time but only a year and a half of actual MLB experience on the mound. Pineda has a lot of learning to do.

Pineda Can: Learn!

In his first spring as a Yankee, Pineda showed up to camp out of shape and didn’t seem to take his profession all that seriously. I don’t know if that led directly to the shoulder injury, but it certainly didn’t make a good first impression. This year though, Pineda camp to camp in tremendous shape, which he did last year as well. He’s grown as a person and better understands the kind of work this game requires. Learning how to read swings and set hitters up, stuff like that, he can only learn while being on the mound, and hopefully he does a lot of that in 2015.

Recalibrating Expectations for CC Sabathia [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After four truly excellent seasons (3.22 ERA and 3.28 FIP) from 2009-12, we’ve officially entered the “oh please just let it be over already” phase of CC Sabathia‘s stint in pinstripes. (That makes me sad.) The big man was bad in 2013 (4.78 ERA and 4.10 FIP) and both bad (5.28 ERA and 4.78 FIP) and hurt in 2014. He’s now working his way back from surgery to treat a degenerative knee condition that will require regular maintenance, specifically having fluid drained.

As the old saying goes, the Yankees took the elite years from Sabathia up front and have to live with the ugly years on the back-end of his contract. His days as a front of the rotation arm are almost certainly over and the team is now looking to salvage whatever they can from their erstwhile ace, who is signed through 2016 with a vesting option for 2017 based on the health of his shoulder. Sabathia is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut this evening. Now let’s see what the team needs from him this summer.

Yankees Need: Innings. Lots Of Innings.

Sabathia was once the game’s preeminent workhorse, averaging a mind-blowing 213.1 innings per season from 2001-13. I mean, take a second to wrap your head around that number. It’s staggering. And even during his bad starts with the Yankees from 2009-12, Sabathia was still pretty good. Four runs in six innings was a bad Sabathia start. There were no “seven runs in two innings” kind of clunkers those four seasons.

In fact, Sabathia started 129 games from 2009-12, and only four times did he fail to complete five full innings of work. One of those four was the result of a lengthy rain delay at Fenway Park. Sabathia went at least six innings in 116 (!) of those 129 games as well. Heck, even though he was so very ineffective in 2013, he still averaged 6.2 innings per start. He completed five innings in seven of his eight starts last year and six innings in five of the eight.

When he’s taken the ball, Sabathia has routinely pitched deep into the game. That’s not really the issue. The issue is being able to stay healthy enough to start every fifth day from April through September. I think the Yankees would happily live with Sabathia averaging 5.9 innings per start (the AL average in 2014) if it means getting 32 starts out of him. Taking the ball deep into the game would be nice, but the team has the bullpen to compensate if he can’t. Not missing a start is more important.

Sabathia Can: Maybe Throw Innings?

The good news is Sabathia’s arm is healthy. The bad news is we are flying blind with his now three-time surgically repaired right knee. (Two meniscus procedures and the clean out last year.) Sabathia has not pitched since last May and we have no idea how that knee is going to hold up, not within an individual game and definitely not over the course of a full season. This is uncharted territory.

Sabathia has been wearing a brace during his throwing sessions this spring for extra support — from what I understand it is more of a sleeve than some sort of clunky brace — and he will continue to wear it during the season. Basically from now through the end of his career. The knee issue is degenerative and will need regular maintenance. Sabathia’s a total gamer. He’s shown he will pitch through injury over the years. I have no reason to doubt his effort. The knee simply might not be up for 32 starts, however.

Yankees Need: Respectability

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees aren’t stupid. They know Sabathia’s best years are behind him and aren’t counting on him to be the staff ace anymore. They signed Masahiro Tanaka to be the ace last offseason and saw glimpses of Michael Pineda being that type of pitcher last year. (Obviously those two have physical issues of their own, but I digress.) The Yankees would love Sabathia to turn back into an ace but aren’t expecting it at all.

Instead, the Yankees simply need Sabathia to be respectable this year. How about league average? That’s a modest goal. Can Sabathia be league average this year despite playing in a hitter friendly park? I think the Yankees would consider 180 innings of league average pitching — the league average AL starter had a 3.92 ERA and 3.85 FIP last season, for what it’s worth (I miss offense) — a win given the state of Sabathia’s knee. Expectations are pretty low but the need to get some production from the lefty does exist.

Sabathia Can: Maybe Be Respectable?

In terms of plain ol’ run prevention, Sabathia stunk the last two years. He allowed 4.87 earned runs per nine innings pitched in 257 innings from 2013-14 and that’s bad. Very bad. One hundred and thirty six pitchers threw at least 200 innings the last two seasons and only eight have a higher ERA than Sabathia. Bad. Very, very bad.

If you want to squint your eyes and see some positives, they do exist. Even while pitching on that bad knee early last season, Sabathia did post very good strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%), walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%), and ground ball (48.3%) rates. If you strike out a lot of guys, limit walks, and get hitters to beat the ball into the ground, you should fare pretty well, especially now that the Yankees have such a strong infield defense. Hopefully Sabathia can do that stuff again this summer.

On the downside, Sabathia was incredibly homer prone (1.96 HR/9 and 23.3 HR/FB%) last year. That’s almost unsustainably bad, even in tiny Yankee Stadium. Then again, Hit Tracker classified eight of the ten homers Sabathia allowed last season as either “plenty” or “no-doubt,” meaning they were not cheapies, so who knows. Maybe Sabathia’s true talent level at this point of his career is nearly two homers per nine innings with a quarter of his fly balls leaving the yard? I’m not sure anyone is really that bad though. Home runs are hard to hit.

It has now been two full seasons since Sabathia was last even an average big league starter. The prospect of a healthy knee gives us hope he will rebound and be, well, respectable this coming season, but we haven’t even seen him pitch in a Grapefruit League game yet. We have no idea how his location looks, no idea if he slider is moving the way it’s supposed to move, no idea if his changeup is changin’ up. The combination of age, wear-and-tear, and the knee injury make it damn near impossible to project Sabathia’s performance this year. This is a total wait and see situation.

Yankees Need: Leadership

With Derek Jeter retired and Alex Rodriguez persona non grata, Sabathia is the elder statesman in the clubhouse. He’s been with the team longer than Carlos Beltran and has accomplished more in his career than Mark Teixeira. Sabathia is one of those “instant respect” guys as a former Cy Young winner and World Series champ, not to mention his oh so obvious willingness to leave it all out on the field. Players notice that. The Yankees will count on Sabathia to lead the clubhouse this summer and be a mentor to a surprisingly young pitching staff.

Sabathia Can: Be A Leader

Sabathia doesn’t need to be healthy to be a leader. He just needs to be around. Chad Jennings shared this story the other day and I think it’s important:

Tanaka is the best pitcher on this team, but it’s hard to be in the Yankees clubhouse and not see CC Sabathia as the clear ace. Pitchers still look to him for advice. They look to him for leadership. And the big man provides. I have no clue whether he can be a great big league pitcher again. I don’t even know if he can be a solid No. 3. But I don’t think his role in the clubhouse has changed from what it was three years ago. Even veteran guys will gather around near his locker to talk to him about anything and everything.

The Yankees have a very young pitching staff, especially now that Chris Capuano is hurt. (The second oldest pitcher on the projected Opening Day roster is Andrew Miller, who turns 30 in late-May.) Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi are pups and even Tanaka is still relatively young, having turned 26 in November. When these guys need guidance, they’re going to turn to Sabathia. Considering how popular he’s been in the clubhouse since the day he arrived in New York, we know CC will be there to help.

Masahiro Tanaka And The Scenario No One Bothered To Consider [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the second straight year, Masahiro Tanaka came to Spring Training as an unknown. The circumstances this year are very different though. Last year Tanaka was a newcomer to the Yankees and MLB in general, having been signed as a kinda sorta free agent in the offseason. The Yankees obviously believed in him, hence their $175M commitment, but no one knew what he could do for certain.

This year though, Tanaka came to camp as an unknown because of last season’s elbow injury. He missed almost the entire second half with a partially torn elbow ligament that did not require surgery because the tear was so small. Tanaka showed in the first half he was worth every penny of the team’s investment, he was that dominant, though the elbow injury has cast a cloud over his status this year, at least so far.

Things have gone well for Tanaka in Spring Training to this point. He’s had no issues in workouts — bullpens, live batting practice, simulated games, etc. — and his Grapefruit League debut last week was dominant. He looked like the healthy version of Tanaka we saw early last year. Yet the elbow injury lingers in the back of everyone’s mind — Tanaka says he’s not thinking about it but how could he not? — and it’s uncomfortable. That doesn’t lessen his importance to the team, of course.

Yankees Need: Tanaka To Be An Exception

This goes without saying: the Yankees need Tanaka to stay healthy this season. He is arguably the single most important player on the roster — if he’s not the team’s most important player, then he’s on the very short list of candidates — and not just in terms of contending in 2015, but for the future of the franchise overall. Tanaka is the Yankees’ version of Giancarlo Stanton or Mike Trout or Buster Posey. A significant injury to him changes everything.

Tanaka rehabbed his elbow injury last year and while that only slightly delays the inevitable in most cases, it can be enough to keep him healthy for several years. Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana are two players who pitched multiple years with partially torn elbow ligaments. Current Yankees non-roster player Scott Baker did as well. He recently told Chad Jennings he hurt his elbow ligament in college but didn’t need surgery until his seventh year in the big leagues.

Still, guys like Baker and Wainwright and Santana are the exception, not the rule. Others like Chad Billingsley, Drew Hutchison, Matt Harvey, Francisco Liriano, Bronson Arroyo, Cory Luebke, and Pat Neshek are recent of examples of pitchers who tried to rehab their damaged ligament only to need surgery a handful of innings later. If Tanaka’s elbow stays intact this year, he will be the exception given the nature of his injury, and that’s what the Yankees need.

Tanaka Can: Say He Followed Doctor’s Orders

It’s important to understand the Yankees and Tanaka are not being reckless. They’re simply following doctor’s orders. When Tanaka suffered his injury last year, he was examined personally by three doctors — Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad, Mets team doctor David Altchek, and Dodgers team doctor Neal ElAttrache — and his test results were also sent to Dr. James Andrews for review. All four recommended rehab.

Then, before Tanaka returned to the mound late last year, he was again examined and given the okay to pitch. Tanaka also said he underwent an MRI after the season and everything came back clean. He went through the rehab protocol as recommended and the doctors all cleared him to return to action, so that’s what he did. The Yankees and Tanaka did exactly what the experts recommended and that’s what they should have done. Sending him for Tommy John surgery against recommendations would have been the reckless act.

“There’s just no way to say surgery should be your first option,” said Baker to Jennings. “I think the reason people can say that is because of the success of the surgery. As far as sports injuries, aside from the ACL, it’s probably the most successful (surgery) as far as guys getting back to their previous level. So I think that allows (the argument), but does it justify it? No.”

J.J. Cooper recently looked at the success rate of recent Tommy John surgery and found it is actually on the decline. At the Sloan Sports Conference a few weeks ago, Dr. Glenn Fleisig presented research showing only 67% of MLB pitchers who have the procedure make it back for 10+ games. The risk is high — in recent years Luebke, Daniel Hudson, Joel Hanrahan, Jeremy Hefner, and Jonny Venters all needed a second Tommy John surgery before they even finished rehabbing from the first (in Venters’ case, he needed a third while rehabbing from his second) — so Tommy John surgery is something you don’t have until you absolutely need it.

The doctors said Tanaka did not need his elbow rebuilt last summer. They recommended rehab, he rehabbed, and they cleared him to pitch when the rehab was complete. If the elbow gives out at some point this year and he needs Tommy John surgery, then so be it. As long as Tanaka and the Yankees did what the various doctors recommended, they did the right thing.

Yankees Need: An Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees didn’t sink $175M into Tanaka to be a mid-rotation starter. They’re counting on him to be an ace — for years to come too, Tanaka is only 26 remember — and last year he showed he can be that ace. With CC Sabathia fading, Nathan Eovaldi still in the process of figuring things out, and Michael Pineda having not thrown a full season in three years now, Tanaka has to be a front of the rotation stabilizing force for New York. The guy that when the players show up to the park on the days he is scheduled to pitch, they know it’s win day. The guy who stops losing streaks and extends winning streaks. Simply put, the Yankees need Tanaka to be one of the best pitchers in the game.

Tanaka Can: Be An Ace

Based on what we saw in the first half last year, Tanaka absolutely can be that front of the rotation pitcher and the ace the Yankees need. He was a top ten pitcher in the game at the time of his injury, racking up strikeouts (9.39 K/9 and 26.6 K%), limiting walks (1.32 HR/9 and 3.6 BB%), and generally keeping the ball on the ground (45.9%). Because of his splitter, Tanaka was actually more effective against lefties (.280 wOBA) than righties (.302 wOBA) too.

The only flaw in Tanaka’s game is his tendency to give up the home run (0.99 HR/9 and 14.0 HR/FB%), though even that wasn’t all that bad considering his home ballpark (AL average was 0.89 HR/9 and 9.4 HR/FB% in 2014). Twelve of the 15 homers he allowed last year were solo shots because he was so good at limiting base-runners overall. Also, eleven of the 15 homers came off fastballs, which is actually his least effective pitch. Tanaka’s offspeed pitches are so good he can still dominate without an overwhelming fastball.

I also think there’s a mental component to being an ace, and Tanaka certainly showed it last year. He never seems to get rattled on the mound and is always in attack mode. He’s an elite competitor. That’s a big reason why the Yankees loved him so much and felt he was worth the $175M risk. If his elbow holds up, Tanaka is going to be a pretty damn good pitcher. He showed all of his pitches in his brief outing last week and everything looked crisp. Granted, it was 19 total pitches and we need to see more, but right now, I’m comfortable saying Tanaka can be ace-like this summer if the elbow cooperates.

* * *

We — and by we I mean basically everyone, Yankees fans and Yankees haters alike — spent all winter worrying about Tanaka’s elbow and more or less assuming it would blow out at some point this year. We never bothered to consider the alternative scenario. The one where Tanaka is the exception and his elbow does hold up. He’s a difference-maker when healthy, hands down the best pitcher in the AL East and one of the best in all of baseball. It’s far from a given Tanaka will stay healthy, we know that, but it’s not impossible either. He’s passed every test so far in camp, which is way more than many expected.

The Needed Production of the Unwanted Alex Rodriguez [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After a one-year hiatus, the most uncomfortable marriage in baseball returns in 2015. Alex Rodriguez‘s one-year suspension is over and he has rejoined the Yankees, not too long after suing the team, suing the team doctor, suing MLB, and suing the MLBPA. He sued everyone last year. But then all the lawsuits were dropped, he served his suspension, and now he’s back in pinstripes.

The only reason A-Rod is back with the Yankees is money. He’s owed over $60M the next three years and the Yankees are determined to see if they can get something more than nothing out of that investment. Well, that and they might be able to recoup some of the money through insurance (if A-Rod gets hurt) or another performance-enhancing drug suspension. The team is reportedly confident they can get out of the five $6M home run milestone bonuses, but that’s another matter. The $60M+ isn’t going away that easily.

The Yankees made it clear this offseason they are not counting on Rodriguez at all. They re-signed Chase Headley to be the everyday third baseman and they traded for Garrett Jones to be the regular DH if necessary. They’ve pulled no punches. It’s been made clear that if A-Rod is going to play a major role in 2015, he has to earn it, and to his credit Alex seems to have embraced that reality. He’s trying to win a job this spring.

Yankees Need: Hit Please, Even Just A Little

Here’s a scary thought: A-Rod is the team’s best right-handed hitter right now. It’s either him or Chris Young. The only other righty hitters on the projected Opening Day roster are John Ryan Murphy and Brendan Ryan, and no one has high offensive expectations for those two. A-Rod is important to New York’s righty/lefty lineup balance. And besides, if he doesn’t hit, he’s useless. His defense wasn’t all that good before his most recent hip surgery and long layoff. So please, Alex, be more than a zero at the plate. That’s what the Yankees need from him.

ARod Shrugs Shoulders

 

 

Simply put, no one has any idea what A-Rod can do at the plate this year. He wasn’t bad the last time he played — .244/.348/.423 (113 wRC+) with seven homers in 44 games in the second half of 2013 — but that was more than a year ago now, before last season’s suspension. Can Alex do that again in 2015, at age 39 and after not facing live pitching in a more than a year? That’s what we’re going to find out relatively soon.

I am certain the Yankees would take a repeat of Rodriguez’s 2013 performance in 2015. That almost feels like a best case scenario at this point. A-Rod comes into today 5-for-11 with a double, a homer, two walks, and two strikeouts in Grapefruit League play, but that doesn’t tell us much. Even he knows that. “0-for-9, 4-for-9 … It doesn’t really mean anything. I’ve played for a long time. It’s better than 0-for-9, I guess,” he said to Chad Jennings earlier this week. From watching him in camp, the only thing I can say is A-Rod still seems to know the strike zone. He’s taking balls and swinging at strikes. That’s pretty much all we know about Alex offensively at the moment.

Yankees Need: Play The Field More Than Never

Headley is going to be the regular third baseman but the Yankees don’t have an obvious backup. Ryan can do it if necessary, but that’s not an ideal situation. If all goes according to plan A-Rod will be the primary DH and only a part-time third baseman, someone who can fill in when Headley needs a day off. The Yankees have also been working Rodriguez out at first base in Spring Training in hopes of making him a backup option there as well. The team isn’t counting on Alex to play the field regularly at all. They just want to be able to do it on occasion to make his roster spot more functional.

ARod Shrugs Shoulders

 

 

Even before the suspension, A-Rod was no longer much of a defender at the hot corner. He was serviceable, making the plays he was supposed to make and occasionally a little more, but that was it. Two hip surgeries and one knee surgery sapped much of his mobility, as did Father Time.

But now, we again have no idea what Alex can provide defensively. He is further away from his various lower body surgeries but is also a year older, and who knows how the year of baseball inactivity will take its toll. A-Rod said it himself the other day, it’s not going to be an Ozzie Smith year, he’s going to make whatever plays he can and that doesn’t figure to be anything beyond the routine.

For what it’s worth, I do think A-Rod would handle first base fine because he’s such a smart and instinctual player. Once he gets a few innings under his belt I think he’ll look like a natural, not like Kelly Johnson or Brian McCann did at first base last year. Either way, hopefully Alex will hold up physically well enough to play the field — either first or third base, anything he can do to help — one or two days a week. Even that little bit will help.

Yankees Need: Ratings & Attendance Boost

Thanks to Derek Jeter‘s farewell tour, YES Network ratings increased 24% last year and attendance at Yankee Stadium increased roughly 4% from 2013-14. That’s all well and good, but ratings reportedly dropped roughly 30% and attendance dropped nearly 9% from 2012-13, so, even with the rebound, 2014 ratings and attendance were below 2012 levels. That’s not good for the #brand. The Yankees will never publicly admit it, but they’re hoping A-Rod’s return leads to a few more eyeballs watching the team in 2015.

A-Rod Can: Hog All The Attention In The Baseball World

People hate A-Rod. They hate him so much they can’t stop talking about him or reading about him or watching him or going to games to boo him. The media has obsessed over Alex this spring and you know why? Because he drives page views the same way he helps drive television ratings and attendance. People hate him so they tune in to see him fail. No player in baseball garners as much attention — mostly negative attention, but attention nonetheless — as Alex. He’s the king.