One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.

Plate discipline is Dustin Fowler’s biggest weakness, and he’s working on it this spring

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ever since last year’s trade deadline, nearly every conversation about the Yankees has focused on their farm system. It’s unquestionably one of the best in baseball, and we’ve seen much of that young talent this spring. The big names like Gleyber Torres and Aaron Judge have been excellent. Others like Billy McKinney have opened eyes too. It’s been a fun spring so far.

Outfielder Dustin Fowler has also been a standout this spring, going 7-for-23 (.304) with two triples and two steals. He’s also played a very nice center field aside from one hilarious miscue two weeks ago — the ball deflected off his glove and bonked Clint Frazier in the head — which had more to do with a lack of communication than some sort of skill deficiency. The young talent has been exciting in Spring Training and Fowler is one of the guys making it happen.

“He’s swung the bat well, he’s played good defense, he’s run the bases well,” said Joe Girardi to Bryan Hoch. “You kind of see a young man growing up in front of you. He had a tremendous year last year, for the age that he was in Double-A. That’s not always the easiest place to hit, the first couple months of the year, with the weather. It’s not really a hitter’s ballpark. He’s made some big, big strides.”

Fowler, who turned 22 in December, would receive more attention in a farm system not quite as deep as New York’s. The Yankees have a ton of prospects and it’s easy to overlook players as a result. Fowler was a three-sport guy in high school (baseball, football, wrestling) and he’s really blossomed since being the club’s 18th round pick in 2013. His ability is breaking through now that he is focusing on baseball full-time. And he’s had some help, of course.

“(Double-A Trenton hitting coach P.J. Pilittere) really changed my career from a hitting aspect,” said Fowler to Mike Mazzeo. “I was always a guy with my hands above my head, so he shortened me up, which allowed me to put the barrel on the ball more. Last year, my power numbers went up and my average went up a bit, so he’s helped me out getting shorter and making contact more.”

There is, however, one glaring deficiency in Fowler’s game. I mean, it’s tough to knock a left-handed batter who can get the bat on the ball (15.0 K% in Double-A in 2016), has some pop (.177 ISO), can run (25 steals), and can play above-average center field defense. But, in Fowler’s case, he just doesn’t walk. He had a 3.8% walk rate in a full season at Double-A last year, and in his career, it’s a 4.4% walk rate in nearly 1,500 plate appearances.

Minor league walk rates are fickle and not very predictive — there are so many pitchers in the minors who have no idea where the ball is going, plus most talented hitters drive something in the zone before taking four balls — but in Fowler’s case, the walk rate is emblematic of his approach. He’s a free swinger. Not a wild hacker who swings and misses a lot, but someone who swings at anything he can reach and puts it in play. From MLB.com’s scouting report:

Fowler makes repeated hard contact with a short, quick left-handed stroke. His bat speed, strength and plus speed give him 20-20 upside, though he’s still learning to be an efficient basestealer. To reach his offensive ceiling, he’ll need to get more selective at the plate because he walks infrequently and puts too many early-count pitches in play rather than waiting for one to drive.

The lack of walks and plate discipline hurts Fowler in two ways. One, it drags his OBP down. Duh. The guy hit .281 with a .311 OBP last year. It’s .279 and .313 for his career. Yeesh. Nice AVG, yucky OBP. And two, Fowler doesn’t get himself into as many hitter’s counts as you’d like. It’s possible he’d show even more pop with a few more 2-0 and 3-1 counts. Fortunately, Fowler recognizes this and is working on his plate discipline this this year.

“Get the walk rate up little bit, trying to figure out the zone a little bit better,” said Fowler to George King and Ken Davidoff when asked what he’s working on this spring. “It’s going to help me in the long run. It will help everything. Strikeout rate will be better, squared-up contact will be better … I’ve always been an aggressive hitter. Just picking pitches that are in the zone that (I should) probably take, get to the next pitch, get a little deeper.”

So far this spring Fowler has drawn three walks in 26 plate appearances. Yay? I guess. I wouldn’t read much into that. Unfortunately there is no PitchFX data for the Grapefruit League nor is there reliable swing rate data for Double-A, so we can’t look at Fowler’s approach more in-depth. It’s entirely possible he is showing more patience this spring and getting himself into better hitter’s counts — Fowler is hitting .304/.385/.478 in those 26 plate appearances, after all — but we need more information.

Fortunately, there is some evidence a player Fowler’s age (22) will see his walk rate improve as he gets into his mid-to-late-20s. Is it guaranteed to happen? Of course not. Being a free-swinger is in your DNA and it’s a difficult thing to change. It’s not impossible though. Here is a walk rate aging curve via Jeff Zimmerman:

bb-aging-curve

Keep in mind that aging curve is from 2014, so it could use an update. Point is, plate discipline is clearly something Fowler can improve, and it’s the kind of skill that could allow him to make the jump from good prospect to great prospect. The ability to drive the ball is there, as is the speed and defense, which makes for an exciting package of tools. Only plate discipline is lacking.

“(Baseball is) something I always loved and something I was really talented at … I believe in my abilities,” added Fowler while talking to Mazzeo. “I don’t really get into the hype and everything. I try to stay away from that as much as possible, but I believe in my abilities and I do everything I can on and off the field to help my career. Hopefully I can keep it going, stay healthy and get better and better.”

The Yankees, even with Jacoby Ellsbury under contract for all eternity (through 2020, to be exact), are going to need a new full-time center fielder fairly soon. Ellsbury will turn 34 this summer and not too many players that age man center full-time. Perhaps he’ll be an exception. If not, Fowler is the obvious candidate to get the first crack at being the new full-time center fielder given his career to date, and the fact he’ll begin 2017 in Triple-A. He’s on the cusp of the show.

The raw tools are there for Fowler to be an impact two-way player. He makes contact and will surprise you with his power, plus he can cover center field gap to gap. His ability to improve his plate discipline could very well determine whether he’s a nice bottom of the order player, or someone who could legitimately hit first or second for a contending team, and Fowler seems to be aware of that. Working the count and refining his approach seems to be a priority for him this year.

Open Thread: March 14th Camp Notes

The Yankees were back in action this afternoon and they lost to the Rays. Bummer. The good news: Gary Sanchez homered, Greg Bird had a double and a triple, and Gleyber Torres had a double and a home run. They are good at baseball. Also, Mason Williams started in center field and went 0-for-2. It was his Grapefruit League debut. He’d be shelved by patella inflammation the last few weeks.

Luis Severino started and allowed one run on two hits and a walk in three innings. He fanned four and allowed a solo homer to Rickie Weeks, who is still playing, apparently. Johnny Barbato and Dietrich Enns let the game get out of hand in the middle innings. They combined to allow eight runs while recording four outs. Here are the box score and video highlights, and here are the notes from Tampa:

This is the open thread for tonight. MLB Network will have live WBC games at 9pm ET (Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico), 12am ET (Netherlands vs. Cuba), and 6am ET (Israel vs. Japan). The Knicks, Nets, and Islanders are all playing too. You know how these things work by now, so have at it.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.

Betting on a Bounce Back [2017 Season Preview]

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

On the heels of a relatively solid offensive season in which he posted a 109 wRC+ with 20 HR in just 426 PA, Matt Holliday has the look and feel of a hitter that can offer so much more. Some of this is undoubtedly based on his reputation (he was, by wRC+, a top-10 hitter as recently as 2013, and a top-30 hitter in 2014), as well as the hope that a healthy, more rested version of the 37-year-old will be more productive. There are several indicators that Holliday will improve relative to his 2016 season, or, at the very least, stall the effects of Father Time for one more year.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

What stands out the most among a slew of career-lows for Holliday may well be his .253 BABIP. Prior to 2016, Holliday had never posted a BABIP lower than .298, and his career norm sat at .335 (the same mark that he posted in 2015). Much of this can be explained away by career-high groundball rate and a career-low line drive percentage – but how much?

Attempts at calculating an accurate predictive version of xBABIP (expected BABIP) haven’t been all that great thus far, but the folks at FanGraphs keep on trying. Progress has certainly been made, and enough so that it isn’t entirely inane to plug-and-play with the latest and greatest in their formulas. Using the methodologies outlined in those three separate posts, we find that Holliday’s xBABIP ranged anywhere between .300 and .345 … which is a testament to how rough these equations are, but I digress.

If we take the low end of those samples and give Holliday a .300 BABIP for 2016 and treat all of the extra hits as singles, his numbers look significantly better (obviously). Instead of a .246/.322/.461 slash line with a 109 wRC+, he would’ve hit .281/.353/.484 with a 120-ish wRC+. All this for an extra nine or ten singles.

This is far from perfect analysis, to be sure, as the quirks and inconsistencies of xBABIP cannot be ignore – but it is demonstrative of the simple fact that a bit more favorable treatment from the luck dragon can change things dramatically.

Hitting the Ball Hard

As Mike pointed out when the signing was made official, Holliday hit the snot out of the ball in 2016. To wit:

[H]is hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority.

A hard contact rate generally correlates with strong offense, with 19 of the top 30 posting a wRC+ of 120 or better in 2016, and all but one sitting above league-average. This is a normal split, going all the way back to 2010 (the first year for which we have this data). There are varying degrees of offensive prowess sprinkled throughout the list of the hardest-hitters in baseball, so it isn’t necessarily predictive of anything other than solid-average offense – but it’s a good sign nevertheless.

Statcast’s exit velocity tells a similar story. There are few bad hitters among those that hit the ball with authority, but there is little predictive value beyond that.

The Yankee Stadium Boost

Or, phrased differently, the promise of having a new home ballpark.

Holliday was significantly better away from Busch Stadium last season, batting .297/.363/.554 with 11 of his home runs coming on the road. His splits were relatively steady heading into 2016, so it’s possible that this was merely a one year blip. However, it’s also possible that a park that limits power (particularly right-handed power) finally began to catch up to an aging hitter. Yankee Stadium is much friendlier to all hitters, and will greatly benefit a slugger that drives the ball to all fields, like so:

plot_hc_spray

Power to all fields will play in any park, and Yankee Stadium is particularly advantageous for a hitter of Holliday’s caliber. And the fact that he still showed an all-fields approach with power in what amounted to the worst season of his career is certainly encouraging. So is the fact that all three of his Spring Training home runs have gone to the opposite field.

Rest, Rest, and Even More Rest

Holliday should not (and hopefully will not) have to play the field all that often this year, if at all. The Yankees have five players listed as outfielders on the 40-man roster, and that does not include Tyler Austin, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder, and Ronald Torreyes, all of whom could play out there in a pinch, nor does it include those outfielders that stand to open the season in Triple-A and could easily be added (Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Jake Cave, etc). The depth at first base is strong, as well, albeit in a different manner, as probable back-up/platoon player Chris Carter could conceivably start for several teams.

Playing regularly at DH should help keep Holliday rested, and protect him from the nagging sort of injuries that have hampered his last two seasons. He has a bit of experience playing DH, for what it’s worth, batting .260/.340/.535 with 9 HR in 144 PA scattered across his career; such a small, spread out sample size may not mean much, but it lends a sliver of optimism that he can adjust to the routine of the position.


Two weeks ago, I discussed second-guessing the Matt Holliday signing due to the way the marketplace for designated hitters unfolded. That was never intended to be a question of Holliday’s potential, however, as I am a strong believer in his ability to have a strong season for the Yankees. The average DH had a 115 wRC+ last season, and he wasn’t all that far off in a down year. That should be well within reach for a mostly healthy Holliday, with a dash of luck.

Thoughts following the Grapefruit League off-day

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees enjoyed their first off-day of the Grapefruit League season yesterday, and this afternoon they’ll be back at work with a road game against the Rays. That game will not be televised. Lame. Anyway, I have some thoughts as the regular season creeps closer and closer.

1. The Yankees have been a run-scoring machine during Grapefruit League play and I don’t know what to think. Going into yesterday’s off-day, the Yankees were second among all teams in runs (101) and first in both homers (26) and extra-base hits (70) this spring. They were also fourth in batting average (.283) and fifth in OPS (.836), and in both cases the clubs ahead of them all play in the more hitter friendly Cactus League. Heck, the Yankees were the only Grapefruit League team among the top eight teams in OPS prior to yesterday’s off-day. That doesn’t even include their ten-run outburst against Team Canada because, technically, that was a World Baseball Classic exhibition and not a Spring Training game. Last spring the Yankees scored 116 runs and hit 20 homers in 32 games. This spring they’re already up to 111 runs and 29 homers in 18 games (counting the Canada game). I’ve been doing this long enough to know getting your hopes up based on Spring Training stats, even team-wide stats, is a recipe for having your heart broken. The Yankees won’t have Gleyber Torres (.421/.429/.842 this spring) and Billy McKinney (.462/.563/1.077) doing this during the regular season, for example. Still, I do think the 2017 Yankees will score more runs than the 2016 Yankees, and this spring is something of a sign of things to come. Carlos Beltran was really good in 2016, but going from an offensive core of C Brian McCann, 1B Mark Teixeira, RF Carlos Beltran, and DH Alex Rodriguez last year to C Gary Sanchez, 1B Greg Bird, RF Aaron Judge, and DH Matt Holliday this year sure feels like an improvement, doesn’t it? I don’t think this spring tells us the Yankees will be an offensive juggernaut this year. Not at all. But I do think their performance this spring compared to last spring tells us the offense is in a better place.

2. Opening Day is two weeks and five days away at this point, and right now I don’t think there are clear favorites for the fourth and fifth rotation spots. My prediction coming into camp was Luis Severino and Luis Cessa getting rotation spots, Bryan Mitchell landing in the bullpen, and Chad Green winding up back in Triple-A. I see no reason to change that at the moment. None of those four has had one of those dominant springs you simply can’t ignore, and, at the same time, none has pitched so poorly that they’ve knocked themselves out of the race. Heck, based on their spring performances, Adam Warren might be the front-runner for a rotation spot right now. I would be surprised if the Yankees went with him over the kids though. They seem to like Warren as a do-it-all reliever. It is not early in Spring Training anymore. The regular season isn’t that far away. It would be nice to see one or two of these young starters pull ahead of the pack and claim a rotation spot soon.

3. Needless to say, I hope James Kaprielian pitches Friday, not Thursday. Over the weekend Joe Girardi said Kaprielian will likely pitch either Thursday or Friday, and Thursday’s game won’t be televised while Friday’s will be, so yeah. Pitch him Friday, pretty please with a cherry on top. The Yankees brought Kaprielian along slowly this spring following last year’s elbow injury and I get it. There’s no reason to push it. That and some comments made by various folks with the Yankees in recent weeks lead me to believe Kaprielian will indeed get the 2015 Severino treatment this year. That means relatively short starts with High-A Tampa early in the season — by short starts I mean five innings and 75 pitches or so — before a bump to Double-A Trenton, where his workload will increase a bit. And then another bump to Triple-A Scranton, where his workload will increase even more. That will, in theory, save some innings for the end of the season should the Yankees decide to call Kaprielian up to the big leagues. (That is far from guaranteed to happen, of course.) It’ll also allow them to bring him along slowly early in the season. The Yankees really seem to love Kaprielian and who can blame them? His stuff has received rave reviews and he’s an off-the-charts makeup guy. I think they’d love it if he forces the issue this year and reaches the Bronx by September. I also think the Yankees have the big picture in mind and will be cautious, moreso than they were with Severino in 2015.

Higgy. (Presswire)
Higgy. (Presswire)

4. Last season was a breakout year for Kyle Higashioka, who earned a spot on the 40-man roster and is more exciting than most soon-to-be 27-year-old minor leaguers because he’s a catcher with power and good defense. He’s smacked two home runs in Spring Training already. But, if you’re hoping he beats out Austin Romine for the backup catcher’s job, don’t hold your breath. The way the Yankees have used them this spring tells you everything you need to know about their plans. Romine has way more Grapefruit League plate appearances than Higashioka (25 to 15) and he’s tied with Gary Sanchez for the most innings caught in camp. Also, Romine has started eight games and come off the bench once. Higashioka has started one game and come off the bench nine times. Romine has spent more time catching the big leaguers as a result. Barring injury, Romine will start the season as Sanchez’s backup. We’ll see Higashioka at some point. At worst he’ll be a September call-up, and chances are he’ll be up earlier than that as an injury replacement because catchers have a way of getting banged up. I do think Higashioka, not Romine, will be the backup catcher come the 2018 season. For now, Romine is the guy. The way the Yankees have used these two in camp tells us everything we need to know.

5. I totally understand why the rules are in place for the World Baseball Classic and why they may be implemented in the minors, but holy cow, after seeing the extra innings rules in action over the weekend, they’re even worse than I imagined. For those who are unaware, once a WBC game reaches the 11th inning, each half-inning starts with runners on first and second. Two games went to eleven innings this weekend. It feels like the road team has the advantage with these rules because they bat in the top half of the inning, and are immediately putting pressure on offensively. Also, extra innings create a certain level of suspense — if you’re rooting for one of the two teams, tension as well — and the extra innings rules break that suspense completely. I feel like, if you’re going to do something dumb by putting runners on first and second to start each inning, just go full dumb and start the bases loaded. Let’s get really ridiculous, you know? Thankfully, commissioner Rob Manfred recently said these extra innings rules are not being considered for MLB. They’re being looked at as a way to avoid overworking pitchers in the minors. That’s fine. I get that. Just not in meaningful big league games, please.

6. Watching the WBC, I just can’t see how the “act like you’ve been there before” mentality is more enjoyable than raw emotion. These games have been so exciting. Pitchers are pumping their fist after a big strikeout, batters are throwing up their hands after getting on base, and the crowd feeds off it. I get that it’s difficult to play with that much energy day in and day out during the long 162-game season, but geez, after every little show of emotion people shout it down. A guy hit a homer and flipped his bat? Stop showing up the pitcher. A pitcher pumped his fist after striking out two in a row to escape a bases loaded jam? Act you’ve been there before, buddy. MLB could learn a thing or two from the WBC. The league is trying hard to cultivate young fans, and guess what? No young fan is going to be attracted to a guy hitting a homer, putting his head down, and jogging around the bases. Let the players show emotion. Embrace it. The crusty old unwritten rules are doing more harm than good. They’re unwritten for a reason. Because if MLB sat down and wrote them out, everyone would see how stupid they are.

Open Thread: March 13th Camp Notes

The Yankees had an off-day today, their first of the spring, and it was a complete off-day. No workouts at the complex or anything. The team will be back at it tomorrow afternoon with a road game against the Rays. Luis Severino is the scheduled starter. The game won’t be televised. Lame. Here’s some news from Tampa:

  • The Yankees announced three more roster cuts this morning. Yefrey Ramirez, Ronald Herrera, and Domingo German were all optioned to Double-A Trenton. Reminder: the level doesn’t mean much in the spring. It’s just a workout group. This doesn’t mean all three will start with the regular season with the Thunder. Anyway, there are still 53 players in big league camp.
  • Joe Girardi said James Kaprielian will make his Grapefruit League debut later this week. “My guess is Thursday or Friday,” he said. The Yankees will be on the road both days. Friday’s game will be televised. Thursday’s will not. Hopefully Kaprielian pitches Friday. [Dan Martin]

Here is the open thread for the evening. MLB Network will have Italy vs. Venezuela live at 9pm ET. The winner of that game advances to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. The loser goes home. MLB Network will also have Cuba vs. Japan live at 6am ET tomorrow morning. The (hockey) Rangers and Islanders are both playing as well. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics. Get that outta here.