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.

Update: Yankees agree to minor league deal with Jon Niese

(Getty)
(Getty)

Monday: Ken Davidoff has the financial details. The deal will pay Niese a $1.25M base salary at the big league level, with another $750,000 available in incentives. He has separate incentives based on whether he is a starter or reliever, though the max value of the contract remains $2M either way.

Sunday: The Yankees have added some veteran rotation depth. According to multiple reports, the club has agreed to a minor league contract with left-hander Jon Niese. He is reportedly in Tampa and either has taken his physical already, or will do so soon. Niese’s season ended in late-August due to knee surgery, so the physical isn’t necessarily routine.

Niese, who turned only 30 in October, had a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 121 innings spread across 20 starts and nine relief appearances for the Pirates and Mets last year. As I wrote in our Scouting the Market post a few weeks back, Niese pitched through knee pain for much of the season. He said it started bothering him in June, and, well:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
First 12 starts 71 3.93 5.10 15.8% 7.7% 55.0% 1.52
Last 17 games
50 7.74 6.35 16.5% 9.8% 45.8% 2.34

It’s impossible to know how the injury — Niese had a torn meniscus and had the knee scoped, so he should be good to go by now — affected Niese on the mound, though the timeline matches up. Niese said it started bothering him in June and that’s when his performance went in the tank. The minor league deal means it’ll cost the Yankees nothing to see if he can return to his 2012-15 form (3.79 ERA and 3.78 FIP) with a healthy knee.

The Yankees will reportedly look at Niese as both a starter and reliever, which makes sense. They have two openings in the rotation and a few more in the bullpen. The club has been looking for another lefty reliever pretty much all winter, and while Niese has spent most of his career as a starter, he has relieved in the past. He was in the bullpen for the Mets 2015 postseason run, for example.

I’m a fan of the move. I don’t expect Niese to come in and throw 180 innings far-above-average innings, but he’s been a ground ball lefty throughout his career, and those guys are always welcome at Yankee Stadium. The minor league deal is no risk. Healthy Niese could prove to be a nice little pickup.

Open Thread: February 20th Camp Notes

I missed this last week, but the Yankees have announced single-game tickets for the 2017 season go on sale next Monday, February 27th. The Mastercard pre-sale period begins this Wednesday, February 22nd. Baseball is coming, folks. Make sure you get your tickets. Here are the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Jon Niese passed his physical and his minor league deal is official, the Yankees announced. There are now 67 players in big league camp, though Richard Bleier remains in limbo after being designated for assignment. Niese said he was surprised he had to settle for a minor league deal, and added he signed with the Yankees because he sees a good opportunity to make the team. Joe Girardi said Niese is competing for a bullpen spot, not a rotation spot. [Jack Curry, Erik Boland]
  • One more note on Niese: he’s an Article XX(B) free agent because he has six years of service time and signed a minor league deal. That means two things. One, the Yankees have to pay him a $100,000 bonus at the end of Spring Training before sending him to the minors. And two, his contract automatically includes a June 1st opt-out if he is not on the big league roster.
  • Here, via Brendan Kuty, are the day’s pitching assignments, hitting groups, and fielding groups. Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa both threw simulated games while Michael Pineda, Tyler Clippard, Justus Sheffield, and Chance Adams were among those to throw live batting practice. Greg Bird took someone deep during a sim game (video).
  • Hensley Meulens, the former Yankee, said Didi Gregorius is going to play second, short, and third with the Netherlands during the World Baseball Classic. He’ll also get at-bats as the DH. Meulens is the team’s manager. The Netherlands has Jonathan Schoop at second, Andrelton Simmons at short, and Xander Bogaerts at third. [Jon Morosi]

This is the open thread for the evening. The NBA is still in their All-Star break and none of the local hockey teams are in action, so all you’ve got tonight are a handful of college basketball games. Talk about anything here as long as it’s not religion or politics.

False Alarm: Aaron Judge has not eliminated his leg kick

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It wasn’t until Saturday that position players were due to report to Tampa for Spring Training, though, like several others, outfielder Aaron Judge showed up to camp early. He spent the offseason working with hitting coach Alan Cockrell (and others?) on his lower half, and that work has presumably continued in Tampa in recent weeks.

A little more than a week ago videos hit Twitter showing Judge taking batting practice, and in those videos he had no leg kick whatsoever. Judge had a normal sized leg kick in 2015 and a much bigger leg kick in 2016. Now he was using no leg kick. I wrote an entire post about it. It seemed Judge had again tweaked his leg kick as part of his continued adjustments to big league pitching.

As it turns out, that was a false alarm. Judge has not changed his leg kick. Or at least he didn’t eliminate it completely, as the videos suggested. Here’s what Judge told Pete Caldera about his offseason work recently:

“Just kind of working on being consistent, repeat the swing, repeat the mechanics,’’ Judge said of his offseason work. And he’s not abandoning the left leg kick he adopted as a timing mechanism.

“Somebody posted a video about me that I was changing my stance,’’ Judge said of his flat-footed stance earlier in workouts. “That was just kind of warming up, making sure my swing feels right.’’

Well, so much for that, huh? Keep in mind this doesn’t necessarily mean Judge hasn’t changed his leg kick at all. It just means he hasn’t eliminated it completely. That would have been a pretty drastic change. I was pretty shocked to see no leg kick when I first saw the videos. It sure seemed like a pretty big deal. That’s what I get for jumping to conclusions.

Either way, leg kick or no leg kick, the goal for Judge remains the same. Win the right field job in Spring Training and keep it for the next six years. That’s what the Yankees want to happen and I’m guessing that’s what most fans want to happen. Judge, like every young player, is still figuring out what it takes to succeed at the big league level, and these continued lower half changes are part of that process.