The 2017-18 international free agent class and the Shohei Otani question

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

For years and years and years, the Yankees built their farm system through international free agency. They were in contention every year and forfeiting their low first round picks to sign top free agents all the time, though they were able to spend freely in international free agency to compensate. That’s why so many of their top prospects from 1998-2012 or so were international signees. Alfonso Soriano, Wily Mo Pena, Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, Melky Cabrera, Jesus Montero, and so on.

Nowadays teams can’t spend freely internationally. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement implemented a hard spending cap. Under the just completed CBA, each team was given a set bonus pool and punished harshly if they exceeded it. It was a soft cap. Three years ago the Yankees blew their bonus pool out of the water and signed many of the best available players. Four of my top 30 prospects were part of the 2014-15 international signing class.

As a result of that spending spree, the Yankees had to pay a 100% tax on every penny they spent over their bonus pool — the total payout between bonuses and taxes was north of $30M — plus they were unable to sign a player for more than $300,000 during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods. That restriction will be lifted when the 2017-18 international signing period begins July 2nd. Hooray for that.

Earlier this week Ben Badler (subs. req’d) reported the Yankees, who have a $4.75M international cap this year, have been connected to Venezuelan center fielder Everson Periera in advance of the 2017-18 signing period. I can’t find much on the kid at all, but apparently he’s a big deal. Here’s some video:

The Yankees and every other team have been scouting international players for years, and I’m certain there are some contract agreements already in place even though they aren’t allowed. It happens all the time. Badler is the best in the business, and if he says the Yankees are connected to Periera, I not only don’t doubt him one bit, I assume the two sides already have some kind of deal in place.

The international hard cap really stinks, especially for the kids, though at least the Yankees will be able to hand out large bonuses to talented kids like Periera again. Being limited to $300,000 bonuses the last two signing periods stunk. The big question to me right now is not necessarily who will the Yankee sign on July 2nd. It’s how are the Yankees planning for Shohei Otani, if at all?

Otani, as you surely know, is the best player in the world not under contract with an MLB team. He threw 140 innings with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts for the Nippon Ham Fighters last year while also hitting .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers. Most agree Otani’s long-term future lies on the mound because he has ace potential. For now, he’s a monster two-way player for the (Ham) Fighters.

Otani has expressed interest in coming over to MLB as soon as next offseason, though because he is only 22, he will be subject to the international hard cap. He’d have to wait three years until he’s 25 to be able to sign for any amount like a true free agent. Should Otani be posted after this coming season, all 30 clubs figure to shovel their remaining international cap space in front of him and hope it’s enough to sign him. What else could you do?

If you’re the Yankees — or any other team, for that matter — do you pass on Periera and everyone else on July 2nd and instead conserve your international cap space for Otani in the offseason? It’s awfully risky. Otani is not guaranteed to be posted. You’re walking away from the top international talent in July with no assurances Otani will be available after the season, and even if he is available, it’s far from a guarantee you’ll sign him. The odds of ending up with no talent and a bunch of international money burning a hole in your pocket is quite high.

At the same time, Otani is so insanely talented that you’d hate to take yourself out of the market for a big league ready impact player to sign a bunch of 16-year-old kids who are years away from reaching MLB. (The Yankees signed Gary Sanchez, a top international prospect, in July 2009 and it wasn’t until August 2016 that he reached the show for good, so yeah.) Otani would fit New York’s youth movement so well. He’d be the young rotation cornerstone they need going forward.

There’s always a chance the (Ham) Fighters will announce in advance they’re going to post Otani after the season, but I can’t remember that ever happening. If anything, it’s usually the opposite. We wait weeks and weeks in the offseason waiting for the team to decide whether to post the player. That’s what happened with Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish. We didn’t know for sure they would be posted until their teams actually posted them.

I can’t imagine the (Ham) Fighters want to announce they’re moving their best player after the season ahead of time. That won’t sit well with fans. Then again, perhaps they could make a great event out of it and have a big farewell tour. That’d be kinda cool. Point is, it’s far from certain Otani will be available after the season. He may decide to wait out the next three years, make good money in Japan, then come over to MLB when he’s 25 and no longer subject to the international hard cap.

That the Yankees are already connected to a guy like Periera indicates they plan on approaching the 2017-18 international free agency period as if it’s business as usual. Badler’s report says eleven other clubs, including traditional big international spenders like the Red Sox, Mariners, and Blue Jays, are also connected to Latin American players for the 2017-18 signing period, so the Yankees aren’t the only team taking this approach.

(The Athletics, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Reds, and Royals will all be limited to $300,000 bonuses during the 2017-18 international free agency period as a result of past spending, so that’s the max they could offer Otani next offseason.)

My guess right now is that, despite the rumblings, Otani will not be posted next winter. The max bonus he can receive under the international hard cap is only a touch more than his projected salary with the (Ham) Fighters in 2018. He could remain in Japan until 2019, make close to what he’d make in MLB in the meantime, then come over when he can sign a monster contract at 25. The Yankees and plenty of other clubs seem to be proceeding as if that will be the case.

Clint Frazier’s possible paths to the big leagues in 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the Yankees went about their trade deadline business last summer, they appeared to focus on acquiring the best possible talent rather than addressing specific needs. That’s why they acquired Gleyber Torres despite a farm system already loaded with shortstops, and Clint Frazier despite a farm system with more than a few upper level outfielders. They were the best players, so the Yankees took them. Figure out the rest later.

Aside from Ben Heller, a one-inning reliever, Frazier is closest to big league ready among the prospects the Yankees acquired last July. He had been promoted to Triple-A about a week before the trade and he spent the rest of the season at that level. Frazier struggled, hitting .229/.285/.359 (83 wRC+) in his first exposure to the highest level of the minors. He’s not the first kid to have a hard time when he first reached Triple-A and he won’t be the last.

The various prospect rankings tell us the 22-year-old Frazier is highly regarded. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, and MLB.com all ranked him somewhere between the 16th and 39th best prospect in baseball in their recent top 100 lists. His average rank on the top 100 lists was 26.5. Frazier is really good and he’s going to start the season back in Triple-A, which means a big league call-up isn’t far away at all.

“I want to play in the big leagues, and I’ve got to go out there and prove myself,” said Frazier to Randy Miller earlier this month. “I’ve got to be a good teammate and a good player and stay healthy, so when all three of those things come together I think I’ve got a good chance to accomplish the dream.”

Getting to the big leagues is one thing. Staying in the big leagues and carving out a defined role is another, and with young players, those two things can be pretty tough. With that in mind, let’s look at some possible paths Frazier could take to reach the show this summer, using some recent Yankees as examples. These are listed in order of what I think is most likely to happen.

The Aaron Judge Path

Similar to Frazier this year, Judge reported to Spring Training last year after a tough finish in Triple-A the prior season. He got a long look in camp before being sent back to Triple-A for a few hundred plate appearances (410, to be exact). Once he sufficiently mastered Triple-A, the Yankees called Judge up in the second half last season and played him everyday in right field.

It seems very possible Frazier will follow a similar path this year. Go back to Triple-A for a few hundred at-bats, then join the big league team in the second half for an extended audition. Judge’s playing time was created by the Carlos Beltran trade, and the Yankees will have to do something similar for Frazier. Brett Gardner has been on the trade block all winter and he is most likely to go. We’ll see. (We could also call this the Greg Bird path.)

The Robinson Cano Path

The 2005 Yankees and 2017 Yankees are in very different places on the contention curve. The 2005 Yankees were very much a win-now team, and they were coming off their embarrassing ALCS collapse in 2004. The 2017 Yankees are a team in transition, which is YankeeSpeak for rebuild, and the emphasis is on young players. Do they want to win? Sure. But the kids are the priority right now.

In May 2005, the Yankees overhauled their lineup by moving Tony Womack to left field, sliding Hideki Matsui to center, reducing Bernie Williams‘ playing time, and calling Cano up from Triple-A to play second base. Robbie spent the second half of the 2004 season in Triple-A and he destroyed the level early in 2005, hitting .333/.368/.574 with eight doubles and four homers in 24 games. The Yankees needed a spark and Cano provided it.

Frazier has the talent to go to Triple-A this year and completely destroy the competition, a la Cano in 2005. And if the Yankees are in need of offense at the MLB level a few weeks into the season, calling him up will be awfully tempting in that case. Doing so would require clearing playing time. Maybe Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury goes to the bench, or Judge strikes out his way back to the minors. Point is, an early season call-up can’t be ruled out should Frazier rake.

The Jesus Montero Path

Unlike Judge in 2016 and Cano in 2005, Montero already had a full Triple-A season under his belt when he returned to the level in 2011. Montero hit .289/.353/.517 (133 wRC+) with 21 homers in 123 Triple-A games in 2010, his age 20 season. He was seven years younger than the average International League player. Montero was so highly regarded at the time that Baseball America ranked him as the game’s third best prospect prior to the 2011 season.

montero

Sigh. Anyway, Montero returned to Triple-A in 2011 and spent almost the entire season at the level again. He hit .288/.348/.467 (121 wRC+) with 18 homers in 109 games with the RailRiders that year. The Yankees then called Montero up that September and he took over as their regular DH, and gosh, it was glorious. Montero hit .328/.406/.590 (166 wRC+) with four homers in 18 games that September. He also went 2-for-2 in the postseason.

Keeping Frazier in Triple-A all summer before bringing him to the show as a September call-up and installing him as a lineup regular is definitely a possibility in 2017. The Yankees wouldn’t need to clear a roster spot, and it’s easier to give veterans like Gardner and Ellsbury and Matt Holliday days off in September, when they’re feeling the effects of the long season. The September call-up plan is probably the cleanest way to incorporate Frazier into the MLB lineup this year, barring injury.

The Brett Gardner Path

Following a 45-game cameo at Triple-A in 2007, Gardner opened the 2008 season back at that level, then made a few shuttle trips over the summer. Here’s how his 2008 season played out:

  • Opening Day: Sent down to Triple-A.
  • June 30th: Called up to MLB for the first time.
  • July 26th: Send back down to Triple-A.
  • August 15th: Called back up to MLB for good.

Gardner was first called up because both Matsui and Johnny Damon were banged up, and the Yankees needed another outfielder. He was sent back down after the Xavier Nady trade. Gardner was then called back up in August because the Yankees had gotten tired of waiting for Melky Cabrera to turn it around. Melky was sent down with his batting line sitting at .242/.296/.337 (65 wRC+).

The Yankees used Gardner first as an injury fill-in, then as a permanent replacement when a regular wasn’t performing well. Should injuries strike this summer, the Yankees could very well call up Frazier as a fill-in, even if it’s only temporary. He’d be a shuttle player, basically. And up-and-down player who comes and goes as needed. I don’t think it’s likely Frazier will be used in that way, but we shouldn’t rule it out completely.

The Melky Cabrera Path

A few months after calling up Cano, the Yankees determined Womack was unplayable and shifted Matsui back to his natural left field. They made the ill-advised decision to promote Melky, who had only a handful of Triple-A games under his belt at the time, and insert him into the lineup as their regular center fielder. Cabrera went 4-for-19 (.211) at the plate in six games and was demoted after a defensive miscue that resulted in a Trot Nixon inside-the-park homer. It was not pretty.

The parallels here aren’t perfect. Melky started that 2005 season in Double-A before being promoted to Triple-A, and he only played a handful of games at that level before being called up. Frazier already has 38 Triple-A games under his belt and will return there to start the season. More than anything, the Melky plan means calling Frazier up before he’s big league ready and throwing him right into the fire. I don’t think this will happen, which is why this plan is last in this post. Still though, the Yankees have done this sort of thing before, and you can’t rule out doing it again.

Open Thread: February 21st Camp Notes

This completely slipped my mind, but yesterday was RAB’s tenth birthday. That is pretty crazy. Ben, Joe, and I started the site as a hobby and it’s grown into … this. RAB has been around for a World Series championship and more historic moments than I care to count. But best of all, RAB has led to some great friendships, and that’s what I value most. The site has been a life changer. Thanks to all of you for reading. It’s been a hell of a ride these last ten years.

Okay, so now that the mushy stuff is out of the way, let’s get to today’s notes from Tampa, shall we?

  • Alex Rodriguez arrived today for his first stint as a guest instructor. He’ll be in Tampa for 4-5 days, and is expected to return for another stint next month. A-Rod also confirmed he’s retired. He doesn’t want to play anymore. A few teams called him last year after he was released, but Alex says the tank is empty. [Jack Curry, Ken Davidoff]
  • Bryan Hoch has the day’s pitching assignments, hitting groups, and fielding groups. Adam Warren and Luis Severino threw simulated games while Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Chad Green, and Aroldis Chapman all threw bullpen sessions. Still no word on a starter for the Grapefruit League opener Friday.
  • Two relatively minor injuries: righty Ronald Herrera with miss two weeks with shoulder inflammation and lefty James Reeves will miss up to four weeks with an elbow sprain. Herrera is on the 40-man roster and could be part of the shuttle this season. [Hoch]
  • The Yankees are emphasizing pitchers’ fielding practice this spring. The drills are shorter and more intense, which better simulates game action. “It has been a focus of ours because we were not good, and that’s something we are focusing on in Spring Training,” said Joe Girardi. [Billy Witz]
  • Greg Bird feels great and not just hitting, but throwing as well. “It feels like I have something behind the ball. Not that I didn’t, but it’s nice to go out and throw the ball again,” he said. Bird was limited to DH duty in the Arizona Fall League as he returned from shoulder surgery. [George King]
  • Jorge Mateo said he expects to play several games in center field this spring. I kinda figured that was coming. “I like it. It’s not too hard,” he said. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Mateo is a full-time center fielder by the end of the season. [Brendan Kuty]
  • And finally, Jacoby Ellsbury was in camp for the first time today. He reported late because his wife gave birth to their second child over the weekend. [Mike Mazzeo]

This is tonight’s open thread. The NBA is still in the middle of their All-Star break, though all three local hockey teams are in action tonight, plus there’s a bunch of college basketball games on as well. Talk about that stuff or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics. Thanks in advance.

Yankees trade Richard Bleier to the Orioles

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier today the Yankees announced they have traded lefty Richard Bleier to the Orioles for cash or a player to be named later. There are now 66 players in big league camp. Bleier was designated for assignment last week to make room on the 40-man roster for Chris Carter.

Bleier, 29, joined the Yankees as a minor league free agent last winter and he made his MLB debut last summer. He threw 23 relief innings with a 1.96 ERA (2.76 FIP) for New York while spending most of the season in Triple-A. I’m surprised he stayed on the 40-man as long as he did. Soon-to-be 30-year-old rookies usually don’t stick around long.

I wouldn’t spend much time thinking about the player to be named later. It won’t be an actual prospect. It never is in these situations. Chances are the Yankees will end up taking the cash anyway. That’s usually how it goes. At least they were able to get something in return for Bleier rather than lose him on waivers for nothing.

Now that he’s with the Orioles, expect Bleier to get a big out against the Yankees at some point this season. Folks will then complain they let him go. “Why can’t the Yankees get pitchers like that?” they’ll say. Thank you for your time.

Tyler Austin’s injury opens a door a bit for Rob Refsnyder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees suffered their first major injury of the year last week, when Tyler Austin fouled a pitch into his left foot during batting practice and suffered a fracture. He’ll be out at least six weeks. His chances of making the Opening Day roster weren’t great to begin with following the Chris Carter signing. Now Austin has no chance to break camp with the team.

The injury somewhat clarified the first base position battle, a position battle that includes both first base as well as one bench spot. Carter signed a guaranteed big league contract and was always going to be part of the Opening Day roster. Nothing changed there. Here’s the rest of the pecking order for this position battle:

  1. Greg Bird
  2. Tyler Austin
  3. Rob Refsnyder
  4. Ji-Man Choi

Austin was next in line behind Bird. That seemed pretty clear. Refsnyder figures to be ahead of Choi simply because he’s already on the 40-man roster, and also because he’s a little more versatile. Choi has outfield experience, though he really should be limited to first base only. You can stick Refsnyder in right and he won’t kill you defensively, plus he can handle second base in a pinch. That gives him an edge over Choi.

It’s no secret the Yankees want Bird to take that first base job and run with it. Carter gives the club a viable platoon partner for all those tough AL East lefties (Chris Sale, David Price, etc.) and also some insurance in case Bird does need more time to get his swing back. That insurance is already proving useful thanks to Austin’s injury. I told you these things have a way of working themselves out, right? Right.

Austin’s injury opens the door for Refsnyder a little bit. He’s now next in line for a call-up, whether that’s due to an injury early in the season or even on Opening Day should the Yankees not deem Bird big league ready. Austin was first in line for any roster opening. Now it’s Refsnyder, at least until Austin is healthy. (Mason Williams is out with an inflamed patella, which also works in Refsnyder’s favor.)

I don’t think Refsnyder’s chances of making the Opening Day roster are all that good, not unless there’s an injury, but now he could be the first call-up option when help is needed. Austin is going to miss at least six weeks, the Yankees say. It could be longer. And once he’s healthy, he’ll essentially have to go through Spring Training to get ready for the season. He won’t pick up a bat and be ready to go.

Six weeks from the time of the injury is basically Opening Day. The Yankees are fortunate it happened at the very start of camp and not near the end. Austin could be healthy come the start of the season, and then after a few weeks of minor league at-bats to get game ready, he’ll again be a big league option. With any luck, that will all happen in April. Until then, Refsnyder is Plan A among New York’s minor league depth players.

I’m not quite sure where Refsnyder fits in the big picture long-term, and it’s entirely possible he doesn’t fit anywhere. This is his final minor league option year, so keeping him as depth is a no-brainer. The Yankees will be able to send him up and down as many times as they want. He offers a little versatility and, if nothing else, will grind out an at-bat offensively. Refsnyder may not have an inside track on an Opening Day roster spot, but the Austin injury does improve his chances of seeing the Bronx early in the season.

Yankees smart to look at Niese as a reliever, but they should keep an open mind about starting

(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

The Yankees made what will likely be their final free agent signing before Opening Day this weekend, inking veteran southpaw Jon Niese to a minor league contract. He pitched with a bad knee for much of last season and it showed in his numbers. A healthy Niese — he passed his physical yesterday, so he’s healthy — could be a nice little pickup. The minor league deal means there’s no risk anyway.

Niese, who is still only 30 and will spend the entire 2017 season at that age, has been a starting pitcher most of his career, though he’s also pitched in relief. The Mets used him out of the bullpen during the 2015 postseason, and last year the Pirates moved him into a relief role because he pitched so poorly as a starter they had no other choice. Point is, Niese has experience as a starter and reliever, and versatility is always appreciated.

The Yankees, however, are looking at Niese strictly as a bullpen option in Spring Training, Joe Girardi confirmed yesterday. Despite the wide open fourth and fifth starter spots, the veteran Niese isn’t a consideration for the rotation. That surprised me. Here’s what Girardi said, via George King:

“(The bullpen is) how we envision using him,’’ Girardi said. “He’s one of those guys, if he’s in the bullpen, he can do left on left or he can give you distance. As of right now, we aren’t looking at him as a starter. We have the five guys vying for the two spots. We would look at him more long and short.’’

On one hand, I’m glad the Yankees are sticking with the youth movement and prioritizing the young pitchers in the rotation race. On the other hand, why wouldn’t you at least see what Niese looks like in Spring Training games before ruling him out for a starting job? What if he comes out firing BBs with a healthy knee and forces the issue? No one thought Bartolo Colon would throw well in Spring Training 2011, then his first pitch was 95 mph.

Ultimately, Girardi’s words don’t matter that much. They don’t lock the Yankees into anything. If Niese comes out and looks fantastic in camp, the Yankees always have the option of re-evaluating things and looking at him as a starting pitcher. Plans change. For what it’s worth, Niese is willing to do whatever. “I’m here to pitch to the best of my ability and make the team … Whatever the role, I want to make the ballclub,” he said to King.

I’m excited to see the young pitchers this year — and let’s be realistic, all those guys will get chances this season, that’s the way the pitching cookie often crumbles — though I also think the Yankees should keep an open mind about using Niese as a starter. If he’s healthy, he could be pretty useful in that role given his ground ball tendencies. Also, he is only 30, so if he has success as a starter, the Yankees could look to keep him around in 2018 (and beyond?).

Furthermore, the young guys are all going to be on some sort of workload limit. I don’t know what the exact innings number will be — Luis Cessa let the kids with 147.1 innings in 2016 — but the number definitely exists. For all of them. The Yankees will have to monitor their workloads all summer, and not everyone will be able to follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint. Niese could help manage those workloads by making spot starts and whatnot.

My guess is Niese is going to be have to blow people away to get rotation duty at any point this year. If you’re expecting him and the kids to give you similar production, the kids should be the priority. And they will be with the Yankees. I’m pretty sure about that. I do think the Yankees should keep an open mind about Niese as a starter this year, but for now, looking at him as a bullpen option is an okay move. Development of the young arms is more important long-term.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardner and Ellsbury bounce back at the plate

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

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

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

Severino pulls a Danny Salazar

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

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

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

Pineda has a big contract year

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

At least one of the young relievers breaks through

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

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

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