Hicks, Ackley, and Sanchez poised to give the Yankees a strong bench in 2016

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Over the last few seasons benches have become a critical piece of a baseball team. Platoons are widespread, and with amphetamines (“greenies”) now on the banned substances list, players need a little more rest throughout the season. The bench used to be full of guys who only played when the starters got hurt. Now they’re full of players with strategic roles.

Quality benches can be hard to build, especially for a big market team like the Yankees, who have a roster loaded with big name (and big contract) players. No free agent bench player wants to sign with New York because they’re worried they won’t get much playing time. I don’t blame them. Look at Garrett Jones last season. He never played because Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were healthy and productive.

The Yankees have had to grow their own reserve players or acquire them in trades over the last two decades or so. Either that or pick up reclamation project veterans and hope for the best. Think Darryl Strawberry and Eric Chavez. Same idea, just 16 years apart. Bench players are like relievers though. They do their work in inherently small samples, and their performance is very volatile from one year to the next.

Next season, the Yankees figure to carry three players capable of providing some thump off the bench in Gary Sanchez, Dustin Ackley, and Aaron Hicks. Sanchez is homegrown and the other two guys came over in the trades. The Yankees still have an open bench spot too, and depending how they feel about Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third, they could go in one of several different directions with that spot.

All three players will serve specific roles next season. Sanchez, who I must point out is not a lock for the backup catcher’s job, will likely give Brian McCann a rest against tough lefties thanks to his right-handed power. John Ryan Murphy was really awesome last season, but he doesn’t have Sanchez’s power. Sanchez is a threat to hit the ball out of the park every time he steps to the plate against a southpaw.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Ackley showed the kind of left-handed pull power that plays well in Yankee Stadium following the trade last year — he pulled six of his ten homers last summer, including all four with the Yankees (three at Yankee Stadium) — and his versatility means he’s an option in the outfield as well as at first and second bases. As we saw with Jones though, Ackley could wind up getting less playing time than expected if the veteran starters produce.

Hicks is the new addition to the bench after coming over from the Twins in the Murphy trade. He’s a switch-hitter and a high-end athlete with excellent defensive chops. Chris Young was an awesome fourth outfielder last season, though I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect him to repeat that performance. Hicks is a better defender and he hit southpaws hard himself last year (139 wRC+), and there are signs he may be on the verge of a breakout.

“I think Hicks has a chance to help (the veterans) in spelling them and keeping them healthy and strong,” said Joe Girardi in the Winter Meetings last month. Girardi and Brian Cashman have both indicated they see Hicks as an everyday type player who will play a lot going forward. (Young batted 356 times last year, remember. The fourth outfielder gets a lot of work.) He’s going to start against lefties and play defense in the late innings at a minimum.

Last year the Yankees appeared to have a very strong and powerful bench thanks to Young and Jones, two veterans with pop. Young worked out, Jones didn’t. So it goes. Hicks and Ackley add much more athleticism to the roster and more versatility as well, without sacrificing much offensive production, if any. I think there’s a chance going from Murphy to Sanchez will be a step down next year, but Sanchez at least offers big upside. Growing pains are part of development.

The trio of Sanchez, Ackley, and Hicks are poised the give the Yankees a very strong bench with power, speed, athleticism, and defense. (For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects them for 4.4 WAR combined.) There’s some real upside with this group, which is usually not the case with bench guys. That doesn’t mean they’ll all work out, benches are weird like that, but the Yankees are in the middle of this quasi-rebuild, and part of it is upgrading the reserves. It’s not often the Bombers have carried bench players with this sort of potential.

Yankees need Michael Pineda and his improved changeup to emerge as rotation anchor in 2016

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

When the Yankees acquired Michael Pineda from the Mariners four years ago, he was a 22-year-old kid coming off a very good rookie season who also had room for improvement. Pineda possessed a rare combination of power and precision. He had mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider, both of which he commanded very well. The command is what separated him from other young hurlers.

Shoulder surgery put Pineda’s career and development on hold. He didn’t pitch at all in 2012 and barely pitched in 2013. It wasn’t until 2014 that Big Mike actually appeared in a game for the Yankees. (He pitched in the minors in 2013.) Everything the Yankees wanted to work on with Pineda was put on the back burner, specifically his changeup. He wasn’t healthy and he didn’t pitch for almost two years. How could he work on developing a pitch?

Pineda, who will turn 27 in less than two weeks, was able to stay reasonably healthy this past season, throwing 160.2 innings in 27 starts. The results were disappointing (4.37 ERA and 90 ERA+) but Pineda did show flashes of brilliance, such as the 16-strikeout game and his 3.34 FIP. His strikeout (23.4%) and walk (3.1%) rates were excellent, and, for the first time in his career, his ground ball rate (48.2%) was above-average.

Back in 2011 Pineda generated a ground ball on only 36.3% of balls in play, which is very low. It was 39.1% during his brief big league stint in 2014. Pineda’s improved changeup appears to be the key to all those ground balls in 2015 — he threw the pitch only 6.2% of the time in 2011. Last year it was 11.4%. This is the changeup Pineda takes to the mound with him these days:

Michael Pineda changeup

That one randomly selected changeup was elevated a bit, but the hitter was way out in front, and that’s kinda the point of a changeup. Pineda has definitely gained consistency with the pitch and it appears he has more confidence in it as well. That confidence part is really important. Remember how Nathan Eovaldi took off once he began to feel comfortable with his splitter and use it regularly? It makes a big difference.

Last season the ball ended up on the ground 60.7% of the time when batters put Pineda’s changeup in play. Back in 2011 that number was only 42.9%. The league average for changeups has hovered around 47% the last few years. Pineda rarely threw his changeup four years ago, and when he did throw it, he didn’t get ground balls. Now he throws the pitch fairly regularly and it gets grounders. It’s no wonder why his overall ground ball rate spiked.

Pineda credits Felix Hernandez for helping improve his changeup — “I have learned a lot from (Felix). He has treated me very well, which I appreciate a lot,” he said to Geoff Baker back in 2011 — but it was the Yankees who got him to refine the pitch and have more confidence in it. After all, Pineda and Felix haven’t been teammates for five years now. Hernandez helped him early in the process. The Yankees did the rest of the work.

Adding ground balls to Pineda’s strikeout and walk rates is really exciting, though, as we saw last year, it doesn’t always lead to the best results. Big Mike was pretty hittable and I think at least part of that is due to him being around the plate so much. Pineda might be one of those guys who throws too many strikes. He could benefit from throwing some more two-strike waste pitches. Not everything needs to be over the plate, you know?

Anyway, even with all those hits allowed last season (176 hits in 160.2 innings), I’ll take my chances with Pineda if he continues to limit walks while racking up strikeouts and ground balls like he did last summer. The changeup helps him keep the ball on the ground, which is huge in Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general. And now that he’s developed that third pitch, the Yankees really need Pineda to emerge as a rotation anchor.

It’s no secret the Yankees have a bunch of health risks in their rotation — Pineda’s one of them! — and they don’t have much quality depth either, not with Adam Warren now on Chicago’s north side. Pineda is the only guy in the rotation who really stands out as having the potential to be much better in 2016 than he was in 2015. He’s creeping up on free agency too, remember. Big Mike has a chance to make himself some big bucks the next two years.

The Yankees acquired Pineda hoped he’d be at the front of their rotation by now. The shoulder injury threw a big wrench into everything, but right now he’s as healthy as he’s going to get, and he’s developed that changeup into a legitimate third pitch. The Yankees need Pineda to use that changeup to step up and become a rotation leader next season. It’s time.

Gordon’s deal a reminder the Yankees have Gardner on very favorable terms

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Yesterday morning, the first of the still unsigned big name free agent outfielders came off the board. The Royals re-signed Alex Gordon, their longest tenured player, to a four-year contract worth $72M. The deal includes a mutual option for a fifth year and deferrals to help the team add some more pieces this offseason.

I thought Gordon had a chance to get $100M this offseason, though his age (32 in February) and the fact he’s not a big time power producer hurt his case for nine figures. Gordon’s simply a very good all-around player who does a little of everything. He’s something of an icon in Kansas City and going back to the Royals made sense for both sides.

The Yankees have their own version of Gordon in Brett Gardner, at least in terms of on-field ability. Gardner does not have the same kind of marquee value as Gordon, who is more or less the face of the Royals’ recent revival. The two are similar on-field players though. They both do a little of everything and have their greatest impact defensively.

Here’s a real quick side-by-side comparison of Gardner and Gordon from 2013-15. They’re both 32-ish — Gardner turned 32 in August and is six months older than Gordon — and they’re both left fielders, so this is a nice apples to apples comparison.

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR-SB BB% K% BsR fWAR bWAR
Gardner 1,901 .262/.338/.412 109 41-65 9.3% 20.8% 14.9 9.4 11.6
Gordon 1,765 .267/.348/.428 115 52-25 9.4% 20.3% 12.2 13.1 13.6

Gordon’s the better player and I’m not sure anyone would argue otherwise. They are pretty darn similar though, right? Gordon has been the slightly better hitter and Gardner the slightly better base-runner. If you’re still hung up on Gardner’s second half, well, Gordon had an 89 wRC+ in the second half last year and missed time with a groin injury. Heck, Gordon’s injury opened the door for Gardner to make the All-Star Team.

If you’re focusing on the WAR totals, the difference between Gordon and Gardner the last three years basically amounts to whatever the defensive stats are spitting out, and we know how sketchy those can be. Gordon is undeniably great in the field. Gardner’s pretty awesome too though. For whatever reason UZR has been hating on Yankees outfielders since the new Yankee Stadium opened. It is what it is.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Anyway, yes, Gordon is the better player but Gardner is pretty good too, and Gordon’s new contract helps give us an idea of what Gardner is worth these days. He has three years and $37.5M left on his contract. It’s four years and $50M if his option is exercised. Gordon just received $72M over four years, so the total guaranteed money left on his contract is nearly double what’s left on Gardner’s deal.

Is Gordon twice as good as Gardner? No, of course not. That’s what happens when one player signs his contract as a free agent and the other signs his contract as an extension a year before he hits the open market. Lots of teams out there need outfield help — the Tigers, Giants, Orioles, and Nationals jump to mind — and if they want a player comparable to Gardner, they’ll have to commit almost twice as much money as the Yankees owe the actual Brett Gardner.

The Yankees have been listening to offers for Gardner all offseason because in this market he is, absolutely, a bargain. He’s budget friendly relatively to what it would cost to get similar production on the open market. The Yankees have a lot of outfield depth and it makes sense to see what Gardner can fetch in a trade. So far they haven’t received any offers to their liking, so Brett remains with the team. That’s fine with me.

It’s become clear the market — what teams are willing (and able) to pay for talent — is ahead of where most of us think it is as fans. Players like Gordon and Gardner, the solid above-average guys who aren’t true stars, are getting close to $17M or $18M a year in free agency. The Yankees have Gardner on really favorable terms, and I see that as reason to both keep him and explore the trade market.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, new Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro posted a little something on The Players’ Tribune. It’s mostly a goodbye and a thank you to the Cubs, but its also a bit of an introduction for Yankees fans. Make sure you check it out. Really cool stuff.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are all playing, plus there’s some college hoops on the scheduled too. Talk about those games, Castro’s post, or anything else here.

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza elected to Hall of Fame

(Getty)
(Getty)

The 2016 Hall of Fame ballot was announced Wednesday night, and two new players are heading to Cooperstown: Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza. Jeff Bagwell fell a handful of votes short of induction. Griffey was on the ballot for the first time, Piazza the fourth time. Both are super duper deserving of Cooperstown. The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s website.

Griffey appeared on 99.3% of the ballots, a new record. Tom Seaver held the previous record at 98.8%. Piazza received 83.0% of the vote. Players need 75% for induction. Interestingly, Piazza received 19 fewer votes than last year, but his voting percentage increased because the BBWAA eliminated 109 legacy voters. Those are voters who have not actively covered baseball for ten years.

Believe it or not, Griffey is the first No. 1 overall pick to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He was the top pick in 1987. Reggie Jackson had been the highest drafted Hall of Famer (No. 2 in 1966). Piazza, on the other hand, is now the lowest drafted Hall of Famer ever. He was a 62nd round pick in 1988. John Smoltz had previously been the lowest drafted Hall of Famer (22nd round in 1985).

As for the former Yankees, Tim Raines received the highest voting percentage at 69.8%. Next year is his final year on the ballot and I think he’ll get in. Mike Mussina received a nice bump from 24.6% to 43.0%. Lee Smith (34.1%), Gary Sheffield (11.6%), Mike Lowell (0.0%), and Randy Winn (0.0%) all fell well short of induction. So did Barry Bonds (44.3%) and Rogers Clemens (45.2%). Blah.

Among the notable players joining the Hall of Fame ballot next year are Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Vlad Guerrero, and Jorge Posada. Posada is the first member of the Core Four to hit the Hall of Fame ballot and that’s pretty cool. Hip hip!

Last bench spot, Triple-A depth among remaining items for Yankees this offseason

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

A new year is upon us. We’re now in 2016, the holidays are in the rear-view mirror, and Spring Training is less than seven weeks away. There are a lot of really good free agents still available, so January figures to be busier than usual. Will the Yankees be among those who make is busy? We’ll find out soon enough.

The Yankees right now are not a finished product because there is no such thing as a finished product in baseball. There are always upgrades to be made, with every roster. Even the 1998 Yankees had room for improvement. (Do you remember Mike Stanton had a 5.47 ERA that year? I totally forgot.) The 2015 Yankees are certainly no different.

So far this offseason the Yankees have upgraded at second base (Starlin Castro), on the bench (Aaron Hicks), and in the bullpen (Aroldis Chapman). They’ve also added some Triple-A rotation depth (Luis Cessa and Chad Green), which is not insignificant. What’s left on the offseason? These four items, in no particular order.

The Last Bench Spot

Assuming the Yankees go with a normal four-man bench and don’t try to get fancy with an eight-man bullpen or six-man rotation, the bench right now figures to be Hicks, Dustin Ackley, the backup catcher, and a fourth player. Gary Sanchez or Austin Romine or someone else entirely will be the backup catcher. For now we’re only interested in that fourth player.

The Yankees’ willingness to play Castro at third base — as well as Castro’s ability to play third base — will have a big impact on that fourth bench player. Castro hasn’t played third since rookie ball, and even that was only a handful of games. If he’s comfortable at the hot corner, the fourth player can be pretty much anything. An infielder, an outfielder, a third catcher, whatever. Every position would be covered.

But, if Castro is not capable of playing third on occasion, the Yankees will need to use that fourth bench spot on a player capable of backing up third. (Ackley doesn’t have the arm for third at all.) That player should not be limited to third — that’d be a real waste of a bench spot — but he’d have to be able to play it. Someone who can play the infield corners and maybe a little left field in a pinch would be ideal, I guess.

With any luck, Castro will be willing and able to play third whenever Chase Headley needs a day off or has to be lifted for a pinch-runner. The fourth bench spot could then be almost something of a revolving door — Rob Refsnyder when some lefty starters are coming up, Slade Heathcott when an outfielder is banged up, stuff like that. Determining the backup third baseman is pretty important.

Rumblin' Rumbelow. (Al Bello/Getty)
Rumblin’ Rumbelow. (Al Bello/Getty)

The Middle Innings

The Yankees have a great end-game bullpen (Chapman, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances) and a few long man candidates. With any luck everyone will get through camp in one piece and Ivan Nova can assume the swingman role. Those three middle reliever spots are wide open and the Yankees have no shortage of candidates. Here’s a list:

Righties: Nick Rumbelow, Branden Pinder, Nick Goody, Bryan Mitchell, Vicente Campos, Johnny Barbato, Cessa, Green

Lefties: Chasen Shreve, Jacob Lindgren, James Pazos

Every single one of those guys except Green is on the 40-man roster. Surely the Yankees can cobble together three reliable middle relievers from that group, right? You’d think so, but who knows. None of the shuttle relievers impressed last summer and Shreve seemed to wear down big time late in the season. And yet, he’s the most established of this group.

The Yankees showed an awful lot of faith in their young players last year and that figures to carry over to next season, so it’s entirely possible they’ll stick with in-house options for that final bullpen spot. Minor league signings and waiver claims could factor into the equation, but generally speaking, that’s the list of candidates. If the Yankees prefer a more established player, they could swoop in to sign a free agent.

Either way, the Chapman/Miller/Betances three-headed monster is going to cure a lot of bullpen ills next season, especially since Joe Girardi can now be a little more liberal with the way he uses Dellin. The Yankees have been very good at building bullpens in recent years and regardless of which direction they decide to go with those three open spots, I’m sure they’ll find some quality arms.

Third Base Depth

This is kind of a big deal. Right now the Yankees have a Grade-A backup plan for Mark Teixeira at first base in Greg Bird, and behind Castro at second is Ackley and Refsnyder. Castro is backing up Didi Gregorius at short and Pete Kozma was signed to a minor league deal for middle infield depth. The first base, second base, and shortstop depth charts looks solid.

Third base is where it gets a little tricky. Eric Jagielo, who was slated to start the season at the hot corner for Triple-A Scranton, was included in the Chapman trade last week. That leaves Rob Segedin and Dante Bichette Jr. as third base candidates for the RailRiders, and, well, no. The Yankees don’t have a true backup third baseman — maybe Castro can handle it, but that’s nothing more than a maybe right now — and don’t have a Triple-A third baseman.

Regardless of whether the Yankees go with Castro as their backup third baseman at the MLB level, bringing in someone to handle the position in Triple-A is almost a necessity. Cole Figueroa did the job just fine last season. It doesn’t need to be a star. A minor league free agent like Conor Gillaspie would work. The Yankees have basically zero third base depth right now, not even in the minors. That has to be rectified.

A Young Starter, If They Can Find One

This isn’t really an offseason item. It’s an always item. Teams are always looking for young pitching and the Yankees are looking extra hard right now because of the state of their rotation. Five of their six starters can become free agents within the next two years, assuming their current injury concerns don’t throw a wrench into things first.

It’s much less likely now the Yankees will obtain a young starter than it was at the start of the offseason. I’d be surprised if they landed one now, but hey, you never really know. If that is indeed the case, the search for a young starter will carry over into the regular season, which means Miller and Brett Gardner aren’t going anywhere for the time being, and we’ll have several more weeks of rumors to deal with.

Murphy trade, Sanchez’s hamstring give Romine another opportunity with the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last two seasons Austin Romine has become a forgotten man in the Yankees organization. He spent almost the entire 2013 season as Chris Stewart’s backup (what a sentence) before falling behind John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez on the catching depth chart in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The Yankees removed Romine from the 40-man roster last spring.

Now, with Spring Training less than seven weeks away, Romine finds himself in a surprisingly good spot. Relatively speaking, of course. Murphy has been traded and Sanchez may or may not need additional time in Triple-A, so the backup catcher’s position is potentially up for grabs. I definitely wouldn’t call Romine the favorite for the job, though he is a legitimate candidate for it, and that’s something we couldn’t say a few months ago.

“You look at the two catchers that we have. Sanchez is very talented, had a very good Fall League. Austin Romine I think made some huge strides last year in Triple-A and we feel good about our catching,” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings, a few weeks after the Murphy trade. Girardi and Brian Cashman have both been careful not to anoint Sanchez the backup catcher, and I think it’s easy to understand why. It gives the players involved some extra motivation.

Romine turned 27 last month and the 2015 season was close to a make or break year for him. He’s a catcher and catchers are always in demand, so he had that going for him, but once he was dropped from the 40-man roster, he was going to have to earn his way back, whether he was still with the Yankees or in another organization. Romine had a solid summer with the RailRiders (99 wRC+) and found himself back in the show in September.

Of course, Romine was only back in the big leagues because Sanchez got hurt. Sanchez pulled a hamstring running the bases about a week before rosters expanded, and when he still wasn’t healthy on September 1st, the Yankees called up Romine to be the third catcher. They dropped Tyler Austin from the 40-man roster to make room for him. Hey, in an organization with Murphy and Sanchez, it was going to take a break like that for Romine to get back to the Bronx.

Sanchez’s relatively minor hamstring injury has extended Romine’s tenure with the Yankees. Had Sanchez stayed healthy, he would have come up as the third catcher on September 1st, and Romine would not have been re-added to the 40-man roster. He would have then become a minor league free agent after the season and gone looking for a better opportunity. Perhaps losing Romine as a depth piece means Murphy is never traded. Seems unlikely but who knows.

The Sanchez injury and the Murphy trade have given Romine a pretty big opportunity. He’ll come to camp with a chance to win a big league job and that does not necessarily mean with the Yankees either. Yes, Romine will physically be in camp with the Yankees, but he’ll be working to show the other 29 teams he has something to offer too. If Sanchez gets the job, Romine wants another team to want him in a trade or on waivers.

Because he’s out of minor league options and has already been outrighted off the 40-man once before, it seems as though Romine is either going to make the team or leave the organization at the end of Spring Training. The Yankees can’t send Romine to the minors without first passing him through waivers, and if he clears, he can elect free agency, which he would likely do simply to get a fresh start in a different organization. I wouldn’t blame him.

Baseball is cruel. There was a time when Romine looked to be on track to become the catcher of the future — assuming he beat out Jesus Montero for the job, of course — but others have since jumped over him on the depth chart. A unique set of circumstances — Sanchez’s injury and Murphy’s trade — have kept Romine in the organization longer than expected. The result could very be a big league job in 2016, either in New York or elsewhere.