The pressure’s on Didi Gregorius, but not because he’s replacing Derek Jeter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first few days of Spring Training have been predictably dominated by Alex Rodriguez. The focus on A-Rod has gone well beyond overboard. But, if there’s anything good to come out of the A-Rod attention, it’s that other players in camp have been able to get their work in and fly under the radar. That includes the team’s first new starting shortstop in two decades.

“People didn’t pay a lot of attention to (Didi Gregorius) the first few days of camp,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings over the weekend. “It could change as time goes on, but I’m sure it helped him to get comfortable a little bit earlier and get to know his teammates without having to answer a lot of questions.”

Gregorius is replacing Derek Jeter as the team’s starting shortstop but he’s not really replacing Jeter. It’s not like the Yankees picked between the two. Jeter retired and the Yankees needed to find a new shortstop no matter what. They could have taken the easy way out and signed a proven veteran like Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera, but instead they went young and traded for Gregorius. That’s all.

The “Didi replacing Derek” storyline is unavoidable the same way the same storyline was unavoidable when Tino Martinez replaced Don Mattingly, but so far Gregorius has said all the right things whenever the media has been able to tear themselves away from A-Rod. “I am going to play the game, that’s all. What Jeter did nobody else can do. If they compare me to Jeter, there is nothing I can do. It’s my choice if I want to get it in my head,” said Gregorius to Ken Davidoff.

Any pressure Gregorius feels this year should not come from being the guy who plays shortstop for the Yankees after Jeter. It should come from Gregorius himself because this season is a tremendous opportunity for him. He just turned 25 and he’s the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees (!) with no one coming from the farm system to breathe down his neck anytime soon. The job is his for the taking. He should be putting pressure on himself to capitalize.

Gregorius had a similar opportunity with the Diamondbacks two years ago — the opportunity to cement himself as an MLB regular — and he responded by hitting .252/.332/.373 (92 wRC+) in 404 plate appearances. That isn’t great by any stretch and I remain skeptical of Didi’s bat going forward, but I get the feeling the Yankees would be pretty happy with that kind of production from Gregorius this year. At least as long as he catches the ball and shows improvement against lefties at the same time. Besides, that would be a big upgrade over what Jeter gave them last season.

Being the shortstop that follows Jeter will not be easy. The microscope will be on Gregorius all year the same way it was on David Robertson when he replaced Mariano Rivera last year. There’s nothing Didi can do about that. That’s baseball. All he can go is play his game, the game the Yankees acquired, and work to develop into the best player he can be. Given the opportunity in front of him, Gregorius has a chance to cement his spot in the team’s long-term future, and that should be his goal. Not to make people forget the Cap’n.

“(Replacing Jeter) doesn’t bother me at all,” said Gregorius to Jennings. “I came here a little bit early so I could get to know everybody. I’m not worried about the attention. Of course I’m going to get interviewed no matter what I do, so it’s fine. When you guys come here, like right now, I’m going to answer you guys. Whenever you guys go talk to Alex, I’ll be waiting.”

2015 Season Preview: The Power, Defense, and Leadership of Brian McCann

Opening Day is five weeks from today. Between now and then, we’re going to preview the 2015 Yankees by looking at what the team needs from individual players and what they can realistically expect.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first year of Brian McCann‘s five-year contract did not go according to plan last season. The just turned 31-year-old backstop did lead the Yankees with 23 home runs and play solid to excellent defense, but he hit just .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) overall and had too many no impact games. Everyone kept waiting for McCann’s bat to come around but it never happened.

Year two will be different, we hope. McCann was coming over from a different league last season and had to learn basically everything. New pitchers on his staff, new opposing pitchers, new ballparks, new coaches, the whole nine. He also had to deal with the pressure of receiving the largest free agent catcher contract in baseball history. I can’t imagine that was not in the back of his mind.

“(Coming to the Yankees) was the best decision I’ve made. Just to be able to lace ’em up for this organization is amazing,” said McCann to Ken Davidoff last month. “I didn’t play as well as I should have (in 2014). I didn’t get off to a good start. I had some mechanical flaws in my swing, and it took me four months to get it ironed out. It really did.”

McCann did indeed finish strong, hitting eight of his 23 homers in September, but he still only had a .222 AVG and a .281 OBP that month. That doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t iron out his swing, of course. Either way, McCann is being paid to be an impact player — on both sides of the ball at that — and the Yankees will need him to be one in 2015 to return to the postseason. Time to break down what the team needs from McCann and what he can actually provide.

Yankees Need: Offensive Impact

This goes without saying. McCann is going to hit in the middle order this coming season because he is the team’s top power threat — if not overall than at least left-handed — and has a history of being an above-average producer at the plate. He was a very consistent hitter from 2008-11 before hurting his shoulder in 2012, though he then rebounded to 2008-11 levels in 2013 following surgery. Then last year happened.


Source: FanGraphsBrian McCann

The Yankees don’t need McCann to put up huge numbers like Buster Posey. (Would be cool if he did though.) They just want the Braves version of McCann, the guy who hit .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+) as recently as 2013, and with some consistency. Day-to-day consistency in baseball is a myth — no .300 hitter gets exactly three hits every ten at-bats for example, or even hits .300 every month — but they want to see McCann not be invisible for weeks at a time again. McCann is healthy and not yet all the way over the hill in catcher years. An offensive rebound is not totally out of the question.

McCann Can Provide: Power

We do know McCann can still hit the ball out of the park. He’s hit at least 20 homers every year since 2008 — only five others can say that — and his pull happy swing is tailored for Yankee Stadium. In fact, 19 of his 23 homers came at home last year. Yeah, road production was a major problem. McCann’s late season homer binge was, if nothing else, encouraging because it did indicate something had clicked. He was hitting the ball with more authority.

The problem is McCann might not be able to provide much offensively aside from power. He’s a left-handed pull hitter and one of the most shifted players in the game. But, as I wrote in our Season Review last year, McCann went the other way more often in 2014 than he had in any season since 2008. He was trying to beat the shift last year and the result was a lot of average-killing weak contact — his 45.1% fly ball rate was the second highest of his career and 11.1% of those fly balls were infield pop-ups, a career high. Lots of lazy fly balls last year.

At this point of his career hitting for a decent average probably is never happening again. Teams aren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he bunts or sneaks a few singles through the left side. They’re going to take away his strength and they effectively did that last year because McCann seemed to make such an effort to go the other way. I’d like to see him pull the ball more in 2015. Stick to his strengths and try to rip it through or (preferably) over the shift. A full season of trying to go the other way had disastrous results.

McCann’s walk rate plummeted to a career low 5.9% last season but I’m not too concerned about that, to be honest. His in (28.3%) and out (59.4%) of the zone swing rates were actually below his career averages (29.4% and 62.2%), and his strikeout rate (14.3%) and pitches per plate appearance rate (3.83) were both his lowest since 2008. McCann put a lot of balls in play early in the count last year, hence the low walk rate. It could also be a sign he was pressing last year and not being as patient as usual. I think McCann’s walk rate has a much better chance of returning to his career rate (9.1%) than his batting average (.272) in 2015.

Yankees Need: Quality Defense Behind The Plate

The Yankees very clearly place a high priority on catcher defense. The only below-average defender they’ve had behind the plate over the last seven or eight years was Jorge Posada. Everyone else was regarded as a strong defender and the available stats backed that up. McCann is no different.

Last season, McCann threw out a career best (by friggin’ far) 37.1% of attempted base-stealers and that ranked third among regular catchers behind only Yadier Molina (47.8%) and Russell Martin (38.5%). He also rated well at blocking pitches in the dirt and pitch framing according to the various metrics. McCann has been one of the best defensive catchers in the game in recent years and he took it to another level last season thanks to the improved throw-out rate. The Yankees expect more of the same this summer.

McCann Can Provide: Quality Defense Behind The Plate!

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Given his reputation and skill set, the only reason to think McCann will not again be a top notch defensive catcher in 2015 is sudden age-related decline. He might not throw out 37.1% of attempted base-stealers again, that’s a really big number, but other catchers have improved their throwing under Joe Girardi and Tony Pena (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and McCann is now two full years removed from shoulder surgery. There’s reason to believe the throwing improvement is real. Otherwise available data has consistently rated him as excellent at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Defense is the one aspect of McCann’s game we don’t need to worry about.

Yankees Need: Leadership

Let’s face it, with Derek Jeter gone, the Yankees are going to have a leadership void this year. Maybe not all year, maybe someone will emerge as the new leader early in April, but right now there’s no Jeter in the clubhouse and that’s not negligible. Derek always seemed to be a lead by example type, not an in your face type, but leadership is leadership, and Jeter was undoubtedly a leader.

No one player is going to be able to replace Jeter’s intangible qualities. It’s just not going to happen and basically everyone in camp who has been asked about it has acknowledged that this year. Girardi, Brian Cashman, everyone. That includes McCann, who will be asked to fill some of the leadership void. He’s a catcher and catchers are expected to be leaders by default, but he’s also a veteran guy signed to a huge deal. Being asked to be a leader comes with the territory.

McCann Can Provide: Leadership, Probably

As outsiders, we usually know next to nothing about a player’s leadership ability. We all saw McCann stand up to Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez after they pimped some homers two years ago and that’s a leadership-y thing, but did anyone talk about him as a leader before that? We have no idea how popular McCann is with teammates or anything like that. I have no reason to doubt his ability as a leader, I’m sure he’ll step in to help fill some of the void with Jeter gone, though ultimately I have no idea how effective McCann is as a leader. That make sense? Intangibles are difficult to gauge and very easy to overstate. Without being around the team day in, day out, we can’t understand this stuff with any certainty.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 2nd, 2015

Spring Training Opponents This Week: @ Phillies (Tues. on MLB.tv), vs. Phillies (Weds. on YES, MLBN, MLB.tv), @ Pirates (Thurs.), @ Phillies (Fri. split squad on MLBN, MLB.tv), vs. Pirates (Fri. split squad on MLBN), @ Astros (Sat.), vs. Nationals (Sun. on YES, MLB.tv)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the “Features” tab in nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Open Thread: 3/1 Camp Notes

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Only one more day of workouts until actual Spring Training games start. Here are the day’s notes from Tampa:

Here is your open thread for the evening. None of the local hockey or basketball teams are in action and there’s no college hoops either. Slow night. Talk about whatever you want here.

Open Thread: 2/28 Camp Notes

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Mother Nature got in the way of Spring Training today. Rain across Florida forced many teams to either cancel or move their workouts indoors, including the Yankees. Here’s what happened down in Tampa:

  • Michael Pineda and Chasen Shreve were among the notables scheduled to throw live batting practice, but the rain canceled it. Adam Warren, Justin Wilson, and Jose Ramirez were among those to throw bullpen sessions inside. [Chad Jennings, Brendan Kuty]
  • Because of the rain, Joe Girardi did not announce his early Grapefruit League rotation as expected. He and pitching coach Larry Rothschild need to sit down and map things out again. Warren is still likely to start Tuesday’s opener though. [Jennings]
  • As expected, Girardi said he will get Stephen Drew some work at shortstop this spring. He still hasn’t decided when Alex Rodriguez will play first base in an actual game. Girardi said he needs to talk to A-Rod to see if he’s ready first. [Kuty]
  • And finally, the Yankees had a special guest motivational speaker in camp today: Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. [Erik Boland]

This is your open thread for the night. The Islanders and Devils are in action right now and the Rangers are playing later tonight. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing tonight too, and there’s a ton of college hoops on as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Update: Yankees have $7.885M bonus pool for 2015 draft

This year it’ll be Rob Manfred at the podium. (Getty)

February 28th: The Yankees will have a $7,885,000 spending pool for the 2015 draft, according to John Manuel. That’s slowly lower than the estimations Mayo dug up earlier this month. The team still has the sixth largest bonus pool for this year’s draft thanks to their extra pick for Robertson. We still don’t know the individual slot values for the top ten rounds and those are pretty important.

February 11th: Now that James Shields has signed, the 2015 draft order is more or less finalized. The 12 competitive balance lottery picks can still be traded before the draft, but unless the Yankees somehow acquire one of those picks, it won’t change their draft situation at all. New York has two first rounders this year: 16th overall and 30th overall. The 30th pick is compensation for losing David Robertson. The entire draft order is right here.

On Tuesday, Jonathan Mayo got his hands on estimated bonus pool numbers for the 2015 draft. The Astros, by virtue of having two of the top five picks (they failed to sign first overall pick Brady Aiken last year and get the second overall pick as compensation this year), have the largest bonus pool at $17.37M. The Rockies are a distant second at $14.06M. The Mets are dead last $3.6M after forfeiting their first rounder to sign Michael Cuddyer.

The Yankees have the sixth largest bonus pool for the 2015 draft thanks to the extra pick for Robertson. The Astros, Rockies, and Braves are the only teams that will pick twice before New York, which is a nice change of pace from previous years. Here is the club’s draft pool situation according to Mayo:

16th overall: $2,555,200
30th overall: $1,923,900
Total Bonus Pool: $7,922,200

As a reminder, the bonus pool covers the top ten rounds only. If a team pays one of those picks a below-slot bonus, they can use the savings elsewhere. Anything over $100,000 paid to a player drafted after the tenth round counts against the pool, but teams can’t save pool space with picks after the tenth round. Got it? Good.

The Yankees had a measly $3.2M bonus pool last year after forfeiting their top three picks to sign free agents. A nearly $8M bonus pool is a ton of money, especially since the Yankees tend to take cheap college seniors in the eighth, ninth, and tenth rounds as a way to save pool space for other picks. They have enough pool space to land big bonus guys not only at 16 and 30, but also at 57 (second rounder) and maybe even 92 (third rounder) as well.

Here are MLB.com’s top 50 draft prospects. I’m telling you though, it is way too early to get an idea of who will be available or who the Yankees might target with those 16th and 30th picks. The college and high school seasons are just now getting underway. The draft runs from June 8-10 this year.

Open Thread: 2/27 Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Happy Friday, everyone. This is the last Friday without some sort of baseball game — Spring Training, regular season, or postseason — until November. Isn’t that grand? Here is the latest from camp:

  • We have our first Spring Training injury: Brendan Ryan suffered a mid-back strain lifting weights and will miss five days or so, the Yankees announced. He went for an MRI and everything. Ryan missed most of camp and the first few weeks of the regular season last year with back issues.
  • CC Sabathia threw a 41-pitch bullpen session and will wear a brace on his knee going forward. “There is a maintenance program that I am going through. I put the brace on and there is nothing out of the ordinary … I definitely like where I am at. I am not feeling pain and moving forward. I feel great,” he said. [George King]
  • In addition to Sabathia, Andrew Bailey, Esmil Rogers, and Ivan Nova all threw bullpens. Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, Jacob Lindgren, Chris Capuano, David Carpenter, and Dellin Betances were among those to throw live batting practice. There was the usual full slate of batting practice, infield practice, and outfield practice for the position players as well. [Chad Jennings]
  • Alex Rodriguez worked out at first base for the first time, though he didn’t do a whole lot. Fielded some grounders, took some throws, and covered the bag a few times. He has to learn positioning more than anything. Alex knows how to field a grounder and catch the ball. [Jennings]
  • It’s not official yet, but Adam Warren is likely to start the team’s Grapefruit League opener against the Phillies on Tuesday. Joe Girardi will announce his early spring rotation tomorrow. [Marly Rivera, Jennings]
  • And finally, today was photo day. You can look through all the team photos right here. They didn’t take them in the restroom this year. Not sure why they did that a few years ago. Weird.

Here is your open thread for the evening. All the local basketball and hockey clubs are in action except the Rangers, and there’s some college hoops on as well. You folks know how these things work by now, so go nuts.