A-Rod makes Spring Training debut, goes 1-for-2 in first game since 2013

After nearly 18 months since his last game action, Alex Rodriguez returned to the field and made his Spring Training debut this afternoon. He started at DH and batted second, and went 1-for-2 with a single to left, a ground out to short, and a walk in the Yankees’ first home Grapefruit League game. Video of his afternoon is above.

“Yeah, (I was) a little nervous. It’s been a long time since I put on the pinstripes,” said A-Rod to Dan Barbarisi after the game. Joe Girardi was pleased, telling Bryan Hoch that “for this time of spring, they’re pretty good at-bats.” Girardi confirmed Alex will not play in tomorrow’s game. I’m sure he’ll be back in the lineup Friday.

A-Rod’s day got off to an ominous start as he swung through a pair of 91 mph Kevin Slowey sinkers in his first at-bat before hitting that soft line drive single. His third plate appearance was the best even though he didn’t do much besides take some borderline pitches. If nothing else, at least now we know Alex hasn’t gone blind.

From what I could tell, A-Rod’s reception was mostly cheers with some boos mixed in. That has been the case at Yankee Stadium for a few years now and I’m sure it’ll continue. He’ll be booed unmercifully on the road though. Anyway, the first day doesn’t tell us much. A-Rod’s going to need a few weeks to get his timing back, and today was just day one.

The Low Expectations for Stephen Drew [2015 Season Preview]

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

If he was two or three years older, the season Stephen Drew had last year might have been a career-ender. Players in their mid-30s don’t get to come back from that, at least not on a contract that guarantees them $5M. Seasons like that usually result in a minor league contract or a forced retirement.

Luckily for Drew, his 32nd birthday is still two weeks away, and his dreadful 2014 campaign comes with some built-in excuses. He turned down the qualifying offer and remained unemployed until the Red Sox mercy signed him in late-May, so he didn’t have a normal Spring Training at all. His minor league tune-up lasted only seven games as well.

Drew hit an unfathomable .176/.255/.328 (57 wRC+) in 145 plate appearances with the Red Sox, then, instead of getting his act together with some at-bats under his belt, he hit an even worse .150/.219/.271 (32 wRC+) in 155 plate appearances after being traded to the Yankees. The end result was a .162/.237/.299 (44 wRC+) batting line in exactly 300 plate appearances.

Before the Yankees traded for Didi Gregorius, it appeared Drew was the front-runner for the shortstop job since he would come super cheap and not require a long-term commitment. There were no perfect free agent shortstop solutions available, and if New York couldn’t trade for someone like Gregorius, they would stick with Drew, hope for a rebound, and keep the contract short.

But, even after acquiring Gregorius, the Yankees re-signed Drew because they had traded Martin Prado to get Nathan Eovaldi. Instead of playing short, Drew will play second, where he finished last season. It’s a classic one-year “prove yourself” contract, giving Drew a chance to show he’s better than last year in a favorable home ballpark. Time to look at the demand and supply.

Yankees Need: Catch The Damn Ball

It’s clear the Yankees prioritized improving their infield defense this offseason after last year’s disaster. They did that with Gregorius at short and Chase Headley at third, and they hope Drew can be the solution at second. Historically, guys like Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka are ground ball pitchers while Eovaldi is more or less a league average keep it on the ground pitcher. The Yankees want to support those guys with a strong infield defense, particularly up the middle.

Drew Can: Catch The Damn Ball, I Think

At the time of the trade last year, Drew had no experience at second base whatsoever. He had played shortstop his entire professional career and the Yankees more or less threw him to the wolves. Predictably, Drew struggled at first, especially turning double plays, but I thought he improved as the second half progressed. For what it’s worth, the Inside Edge data on Drew’s second base defense is promising, but we’re talking super small sample sizes.

The Yankees are not oblivious to Drew’s limited experience at second base (274 innings!). They understand he’s still a novice at the position and there will continue to be growing pains this year. But he is a legitimate big league shortstop defensively and they believe his skills and athleticism will translate to the other side of the bag. This is an experience thing, not a “lacking the tools” thing. There are several reasons to believe Drew can be a defensive asset at second.

Yankees Need: Something More Than Last Year Offensively

Including Drew, Yankees’ second basemen hit .227/.278/.357 (75 wRC+) in year one of the post-Robinson Cano era, which was somehow only the eighth worst production at the position in MLB. The bar has been set low. Really low. Really, really low. Just like expectations for Drew. The Yankees need as much offense as they can get but no one is realistically expecting Drew to be an impact hitter. They just need him to be something more than he was last summer.

Drew Can Provide: Maybe More Than Last Year?

I mean, Drew can’t possibly be that bad again, right? He hit .253/.333/.443 (109 wRC+) with 13 homers as an everyday player as recently as 2013. It’s not like he’s never been good at the plate. And besides, Drew is a dead pull left-handed hitter who should benefit from Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch:


Source: FanGraphs
From 2011-13, Drew hit .263/.348/.431 (112 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers and .204/.263/.340 (59 wRC+) against lefties, so he is a platoon player, but the Yankees don’t have a good platoon partner. (Brendan Ryan doesn’t really count.) The Yankees will live with automatic outs against lefties as long as Drew produces against righties. At this point, everyone seems to be in “he can’t possibly be that bad again” mode with Drew’s bat. I mean, he can’t, right?

Yankees Need: A Backup Plan At Shortstop

Make no mistake, the Yankees didn’t give up Shane Greene to get Gregorius only to bench the young shortstop as soon as he falls into his first slump. They’re going to give him a chance to sink or swim. So, in reality, Drew is shortstop insurance in case of injury or if Gregorius is sitting on, say, a 50 wRC+ come the All-Star break. The Yankees won’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — pull the plug on Didi at short if he has a rough April. Drew is a deep level backup plan, not someone who will make Gregorius look over his shoulder.

Drew Can: Be That Backup Plan

You could make a good argument Drew is the best shortstop on the roster right now. But he has no real future with the organization. Gregorius might. So Gregorius will play shortstop everyday and Drew will be that just in case guy. He’s perfectly capable of doing that.

Spring Training Game Thread: A-Rod Returns

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It has been almost a year and a half since Alex Rodriguez last played in any sort of baseball game. Today, after sitting out all of last year with his suspension, A-Rod returns to the field and will make his Grapefruit League debut. It is only Spring Training, but Alex admitted yesterday he was nervous, and how could he not be? This is an awkward situation for everyone, including A-Rod.

Needless to say, way too much will be made of Rodriguez’s performance today. At least if he does poorly. If he goes 0-for-3, it’s because he’s washed up and can’t help the Yankees. But if he goes 3-for-3 with a homer, well it’s only Spring Training so who cares. Doesn’t mean anything. Feel free to build your own narrative around his performance. That’s what everyone else will do.

Today’s reason to watch: Aside from A-Rod, we’ll also get our first look at newcomers Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi is scheduled to throw two innings and 30 pitches or so. He and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have been working on elevating his fastball in strikeout situations, so I want to see if he does that today. Andrew Miller will also make his spring debut this afternoon.

Here is the starting lineup for this afternoon’s spring home opener at George M. Steinbrenner Field:

  1. SS Didi Gregorius
  2. DH Alex Rodriguez
  3. C Brian McCann
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. 2B Stephen Drew
  7. RF Tyler Austin
  8. LF Ramon Flores
  9. CF Mason Williams
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

Available Position Players: C Gary Sanchez, 1B Francisco Arcia, 2B Nick Noonan, SS Cito Culver, 3B Cole Figueroa, LF Jake Cave, CF Slade Heathcott, and RF Aaron Judge are all scheduled to come off the bench. C Eddy Rodriguez, C Trent Garrison, C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Greg Bird, 1B Kyle Roller, UTIL Jose Pirela, UTIL Jonathan Galvez, and 2B Rob Refsnyder are all available as well.

Available Pitchers: LHP Andrew Miller, RHP Kyle Davies, RHP Danny Burawa, RHP Wilking Rodriguez, LHP James Pazos, and LHP Tyler Webb are all scheduled to pitch. RHP Nick Rumbelow, RHP Jose Ramirez, and RHP Scott Baker are the extra arms.

Gorgeous weather in Tampa this afternoon. Nice and sunny with temperatures in the mid-80s. Perfect for some spring baseball. This afternoon’s game will begin just after 1pm ET and there are all sorts of ways to watch: YES locally and both MLB Network and MLB.tv nationally. The game will not air on MLB Network in the New York market, however. You’re stuck with YES or MLB.tv in market. Enjoy the game.

Thoughts following the first Grapefruit League game

Dread Judge. (Presswire)
Dread Judge. (Presswire)

The Yankees played their first Grapefruit League game of the year yesterday afternoon and boy was it great to see baseball back. Yeah, the game ended in a tie, but who cares. Here are some thoughts after the first organized game of 2015.

1. First things first: I already love the new pace of play rules. I thought the game was more crisp with batters required to keep one foot in the box after taking a pitch — a few players, including Edwin Encarnacion, forgot the new rules and stepped out of the box, but that’s why they’re using Spring Training as an opportunity to adjust — though the whole “two minutes and 25 seconds between innings” thing is very much a work in progress. There were more than a few occasions when pitchers weren’t ready to pitch when the clock struck zero, particularly when a reliever came out of the bullpen. I guess jogging in from the outfield and warming up in that short a time takes some hustle. They’re going to have to adjust though. The rules aren’t changing. Based on that one game, I’m a fan of hitters keeping their foot in the box. There was noticeably less downtime between pitches.

2. First thing I noticed about Aaron Judge: good gravy is he massive. Tall and thick but not fat. He’s a massive human being. Second thing I noticed: he stands really far off the plate. Take a look (screen cap via Pinstripe Alley):

Aaron Judge

I suppose that makes sense because Judge is huge and has those long arms, so he can stand a mile off the plate and still cover the outer half. It should also allow him to better cover the inner half. Teams will undoubtedly try to bust him inside because he’s so tall — they don’t want him to extend those arms because bad things will happen — and this seems to put him in a better position to get around on inside pitches. I do want to see what happens when Judge gets to the upper levels and pitchers are better able to locate fastballs on the outer half. That’s a lot of real estate to cover in a short amount of time.

3. Luis Severino‘s first inning of work could not have gone any better if you were a Yankees fan looking to be impressed. He struck out the first two batters — one looking, one swinging — then shattered a bat to get a weak ground ball for the final out. Severino’s second inning didn’t go as well but it wasn’t like he got knocked around. He allowed two ground ball singles back up the middle then two bloops to the shallow outfield, leading to a run. Just one of those innings. At least one scout was impressed — “Love his changeup … very high ceiling,” said the scout to Erik Boland while noting Severino sat 94-96 — and I’m guessing we’ll see Severino another few times before camp lets out. The first inning was drool worthy. The second wasn’t as good but those are the types of innings Severino will have to learn to battle through to limit the damage. It’s part of growing.

4. Jacob Lindgren‘s inning of work (actually 0.2 innings of work) didn’t go nearly as smoothly as Severino’s first inning thanks in part to a Rob Refsnyder throwing error. He allowed two soft hits and struck out one around Refsnyder’s error. Here’s a GIF of Lindgren’s much ballyhooed slider:

Jacob Lindgren slider

That pitch actually went through John Ryan Murphy‘s legs behind the plate and to the backstop. Murphy bobbled a few pitches and seemed to have a lot of trouble catching Lindgren’s slider. He’s not alone — Lindgren threw 18 wild pitches in 55.1 college innings last year and nine wild pitches in 25 pro innings. No, wild pitches are not passed balls, but they’re functionally the same thing. Lindgren’s slider appears to be hard to catch because it moves so much and so sharply. Also, yesterday’s look made it seem like Lindgren throws two sliders. One he buries in the dirt for swings and misses (like the one in the GIF) and a shorter slider he throws for strikes, almost like a cutter. He’ll be an interesting guy to look at once he gets to MLB and we get some PitchFX data.

5. And finally, this is Spring Training and these games aren’t all that important, but one thing that always seems to mean something is bullpen usage. The high priority guys — MLB pitchers, top prospects, etc. — always work on set schedules while the lower priority guys are the extra arms who may or may not be used that day depending on what happens in the game. The guys who serve as extra arms are usually those ticketed for the minors. Yesterday, lefty Chasen Shreve was one of those extra arms. He got into the game in the ninth after Judge’s game-tying homer but wasn’t scheduled like Severino, Lindgren, Nick Goody, and Branden Pinder. That makes me wonder if he is on the outside of the Opening Day roster picture at the moment. That could always change in the coming weeks, there’s plenty of Spring Training left, though this is something I will keep an eye on these next few weeks. Maybe the Yankees think three lefties in the bullpen is one too many even though Shreve — who looked pretty good yesterday — Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson can all get righties out.

Open Thread: March 3rd Camp Notes

The Yankees opened Grapefruit League play with a 5-5 tie with the Phillies today. They were one strike away from a 5-2 loss when top prospect Aaron Judge hit a two-out, two-strike, game-tying three-run homer off actual big leaguer Mario Hollands in the top of the ninth. Jose Pirela also plated a run with a Baltimore chop single in the first and Jake Cave infield singled in a run in the ninth. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury both went 0-for-3.

Adam Warren started and allowed one hit in two otherwise perfect innings. Luis Severino had a dominant first inning of work (two strikeouts, broken bat ground out) then got dinked and dunked to death in his second inning. Lots of weak hits, but that’s baseball. Diego Moreno balked in a run and Jacob Lindgren allowed two unearned runs thanks to Rob Refsnyder‘s throwing error. Here’s the box score, here are the video highlights, and here’s the rest from Tampa:

This is your open thread for the night. This afternoon’s game will be rebroadcast on MLB Network at 9pm ET tonight, if you’re interested. Otherwise the Devils, Islanders, and Knicks are all playing, and there’s the usual slate of college basketball as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Update: Luis Torrens to miss 2015 due to shoulder surgery

(MLBpipeline.com)
(MLBpipeline.com)

Tuesday: Torrens was diagnosed with a torn right labrum and will have surgery tomorrow, the Yankees announced. He will miss the entire 2015 season. Dr. David Altchek at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York will perform the surgery. Bummer.

Monday: Luis Torrens‘ shoulder is acting up again. George King reported late last week that the young backstop was heading for tests on his right shoulder, and today assistant GM Billy Eppler told Chad Jennings the team is still gathering information and will know more in the next 24 hours. Earlier today reports were floating around that Torrens needs surgery and will miss the season, but the Yankees aren’t ready to commit to that yet.

Torrens, 18, missed two months last season with a right shoulder strain. He returned from the injury in mid-June and hit .270/.327/.405 (115 wRC+) with two homers in 48 games for Short Season Staten Island as one of the youngest players in the NY-Penn League, so if the shoulder was still bothering him, it didn’t show in his performance at the plate.

In 109 games across two minor league seasons, Torrens has thrown out 50 of 122 attempted base-stealers (41%), which is excellent. Especially considering he did not become a full-time catcher until the Yankees signed him out of Venezuela for $1.3M during the 2012-13 international signing period. Hopefully the injury does not compromise his arm behind the plate, because it is a weapon.

I ranked Torrens as New York’s sixth best prospect two weeks ago because he’s taken to the catcher position extremely well and shows offensive promise. Losing an entire season at age 18 (he turns 19 in May) or even just a chunk of it would be pretty serious though. He’s at a crucial stage in his development. Yeah, Torrens is still very young and will have time to recover, but this is crummy news. No other way to put it.

Armed with new mechanics, Masahiro Tanaka looks to be the exception after elbow injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since the very first day of Spring Training, Alex Rodriguez has dominated the headlines from Yankees’ camp. They’re inescapable. Hopefully that will start to change now that Grapefruit League play has begun, but I’m guessing that’s not the case. C’est la vie.

Despite A-Rod‘s presence, the single most important story in camp this year is the status of Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow. He faced hitters in live batting practice for the first time yesterday and so far everything is going well. Tanaka feels great and the coaching staff is pleased with how he is throwing. Can’t ask for much more at this point. So far, so good.

Tanaka admitted to slightly altering his throwing program over the winter — he threw with less intensity, basically — following last season’s elbow injury, but that’s not the only change he made. Jeff Passan recently managed to tear himself away from A-Rod long enough to learn Tanaka has altered his mechanics in hopes of keeping his elbow healthy. That … seems like a pretty big deal. From Passan:

“I don’t think (my mechanics) were solid (before the injury),” Tanaka told Yahoo Sports through interpreter Shingo Horie recently. “With the right mechanics, the right form, the right balance, you’re able to throw a solid pitch. It’s not about how much power you can put on the throw. It’s more about the mechanics. That’s what I believe.

“I’m never really satisfied. Your body is different every day. You’ve got to talk with your body and make small or, sometimes, big adjustments to get that pitch form right. It’s hard to get to a point where you’re completely satisfied with your mechanics.”

Passan doesn’t give many details about the mechanical adjustments but does say they “mostly (have) to do with ensuring his arm is in sync with the rest of his delivery, preventing excessive stress on the elbow.” It sounds not like some sort of mechanical overhaul, but minor tweaks to be more efficient and maybe incorporate his lower half more.

So will the new mechanics a) keep Tanaka healthy, and b) impact his performance in any way? There’s no possible way I could answer that and I’m guessing Tanaka and the Yankees wouldn’t be able to tell you with any certainty either. They clearly think these adjustments at least have a chance to help him stay healthy without hurting performance. Otherwise the adjustments wouldn’t have been made.

It’s easy to say Tanaka’s injury is the result of throwing so many splitters, and while that may very be true, it’s worth noting pitchers in Japan use the splitter a ton and have a way lower rate of Tommy John surgery than their MLB counterparts. Tanaka’s elbow may have started barking because his mechanics were a bit out of whack, which is what he is aiming to fix. Or maybe he hurt his elbow because sometimes pitchers just break. Who knows? Pitching ain’t natural.

Many pitchers have suffered partially torn UCLs like Tanaka and very few have been able to significantly delay surgery. Even fewer have been able to avoid it all together. Tanaka is trying to become one of those exceptions and stay healthy after getting hurt, and these mechanical changes are part of his efforts to stay on the mound. Everything in camp has gone well so far, and while I’m not sure I’ll ever truly feel confident in that elbow going forward, Tanaka seems to be, and that is important.