Last year, the Yankees got close to zero help from their farm system. The only player to come up from the minors and establish himself as a big leaguer was Adam Warren, who spent the year as the swingman. Guys like David Adams, Preston Claiborne, and Zoilo Almonte got off to hot starts, but they all tailed off once they were pressed into regular playing time. Austin Romine also failed to impress as the backup catcher. The system offered close to no help as the injuries mounted and the poor stretches turned into poor seasons.
The Yankees were not oblivious to this — Hal Steinbrenner called a staff meeting and essentially had the scouting and player development staff audited to figure out why there were no internal solution. No major personnel changes were made, but some procedural changes were implemented and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. Turning around the system probably won’t happen overnight, but the team did take some steps in the right direction these last few months.
At some point this season, the Yankees will have to dip into their farm system for help. It’s inevitable. Injuries will strike and fringe players will play their way off the roster. When that happens, the first attempt at fixing the problem will come from within. The Yankees have shown they will be patient and not jump right into the trade market when they need help these last few years and I have no reason to think that will change in 2014. Here are the prospects who could come up and help the MLB team this summer.
Catcher: John Ryan Murphy
Murphy, 22, got his first taste of the big leagues late last year, but that was nothing more than a September cup of coffee following a breakout season in Double-A and Triple-A. He hit .269/.347/.426 with 29 doubles and 12 homers between the two levels and has improved so much defensively that he is now viewed as a no doubt catcher long-term. Had the Yankees not signed Brian McCann, the temptation to start Murphy in 2014 would have been be great. Instead, he figures to bide his time in Triple-A and await an injury after jumping Romine on the depth chart. Of course, he might be nothing more than trade bait. Sleeper: Eh, there really isn’t a sleeper behind the plate for 2014.
Infield: Dean Anna
Similar to Murphy, Anna figures to be the first called up whenever injury strikes the infield. The Yankees acquired the 27-year-old from the Padres in a minor offseason deal and he can do a little of everything except hit for power. He can get on base and play both second and short, where the offensive bar is pretty low. I’d say the chances of Anna coming up and being an impact player this summer are remote, but he does enough to potentially help the team both at the plate and in the field if pressed into duty. Sleeper: Jose Pirela, who’s hit .264/.334/.401 and played four positions (second, short, third, left) at Double-A the last three years.
Outfield: Zoilo Almonte
Technically, Almonte had his chance to help the MLB team last year. He came up in mid-June and had five pretty great games to start his career, but it went downhill fast and he finished the year with a .236/.274/.302 batting line in 113 big league plate appearances around an ankle injury. Almonte, 24, offers sound corner outfield defense and a switch-hitting bat, and there’s a case to be made that he’s a better fit for the bench than Ichiro Suzuki right now. Instead of making the Opening Day roster, Zoilo will have to settle for a trip to Triple-A, where he will be the first called up whenever an extra outfield body is needed. He’s the clear first in line. Sleeper: Ronnie Mustelier, who didn’t get a shot last year but could hit his way into the conversation again.
Right-handers: Dellin Betances, Mark Montgomery, Jose Ramirez
Of everyone in this post, the 25-year-old Betances probably has the best chance to crack the Opening Day roster. He finally found something resembling sustained success in the bullpen last year, pitching to a 2.06 ERA with a 93/28 K/BB in 65.2 innings after shifting into a relief role. It feels like a foregone conclusion that Betances will get a chance to not only stick in the big leagues this year, but also assume a high-profile, late-inning role. The time is now for Dellin.
Had Montgomery not gotten hurt last year, he probably would have been called up instead of Claiborne. Instead, the 23-year-old struggled to throw strikes while missing time with shoulder problems. Montgomery will likely have to show he’s back to being the guy he was from 2011-12 before getting a chance to help the MLB team with his wipeout slider. Ramirez, 24, has had trouble staying healthy over the years and sure enough, he’s already been sidelined with an oblique problem in camp. When right, his fastball-changeup combination is electric and could have a huge impact out of the bullpen, assuming the Yankees are ready to give up on him as a starter given his career-long lack of durability. Sleeper: Danny Burawa, assuming he can figure out how consistently throw strikes.
Left-handers: Cesar Cabral, Vidal Nuno
I wouldn’t be a complete shock if either Cabral or Nuno made the Opening Day roster, but, more likely, they figure to serve as up and down arms this season. The 25-year-old Cabral is a pure lefty specialist with a low-90s fastball and a sweepy slider, and his late-season cameo was impressive (nine lefties faced, six strikeouts). Nuno, 26, has a deep enough repertoire to start and we saw him do that last summer before his groin injury. In a perfect world, he’d turn into a left-handed 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed swingman who could come in for one batter or four innings without much of a problem. Sleeper: Fred Lewis, who lacks sexy numbers but has the fastball-slider combination to help as a specialist.
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The Yankees do not have a Xander Bogaerts or a Gregory Polanco in their farm system, that super high upside MLB ready prospect with a clear path to big league playing time in 2014. Any help they get from within this summer figures to come in small doses, from bench players or relievers. Sure, Murphy could take over as the starter if McCann gets hurt or Nuno could grab the fifth starter’s spot and run with it, but that would be a surprise. The system is not a position to provide an immediate impact right now unless it involves trading prospects for a big leaguer.
Six questions and six answers this week. The best way to send us anything is with the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.
Mark asks: After seeing the Giants end their brief mini-divorce with Barry Bonds this spring, do you think the Yankees should break the ice with Roger Clemens and invite him to an Old Timers’ Day? I would ask about inviting him to Spring Training as an instructor as well, but that looks to be impossible as long as he’s employed by the Astros.
I think these two situations are a little different. Bonds and the Giants were never on bad terms; he was at the ballpark all the time these last few years, and they’ve had him throw out the ceremonial first pitch and stuff like that. This spring is the first time he rejoined the team in an official capacity (special hitting instructor), but it’s far from the first time he’s been around the club since he was forced into retirement. Bonds still is and always has been beloved in San Francisco.
The Yankees have kept their distance from Clemens for whatever reason, maybe due to all the performance-enhancing drug stuff that went down after his career (which forced Andy Pettitte to testify). There was never any tension between the two sides, right? Maybe something happened that we don’t know about. I would like to see the team invite Clemens back for Old Timers’ Day — he did win two World Series, four pennants, and a Cy Young in pinstripes, after all — but it seems like he has been intentionally cast aside. I don’t get it. Am I forgetting something obvious? This feels like something that should have happened a while ago.
Dan asks: How aggressive are the Yankees being in moving Ichiro Suzuki? He’s a decent 4th outfielder, but it honestly seems like Zoilo Almonte is better at this point (and maybe you want to see if he can be an everyday player in the next few years). Would they be willing to eat more than half of Ichiro‘s contract to move him? Or in the alternative, move him for a similarly overpriced, underperforming player in a position of need?
The Yankees have been shopping Ichiro for weeks but I don’t know how aggressively they’ve been pushing him. We’ve heard they were open a trade involving a player making a similar salary (J.J. Putz, most notably) and I assume they’d be willing to eat part of his salary to facilitate a trade. Saving a few million bucks that could be put towards a reliever or a midseason pickup would be a net gain.
I think Almonte could step right in and do a comparable job to Ichiro, perhaps providing less on the bases and in the field but a little more at the plate (wouldn’t having a switch-hitter available off the bench be nice?). If Zoilo doesn’t cut it, maybe Russ Canzler or Dean Anna would. The Yankees have some options. Some team is going to lose an outfielder to injury at some point this spring (Cameron Maybin and Andy Dirks are already hurt) and that could result in more interest in Ichiro. At this point, I think they’re stuck starting the season with him on the bench.
Paul asks: The Yankees are hoping Michael Pineda gets the 5th starter spot. Let’s assume he does. Does that make the bullpen David Robertson, Matt Thornton, Shawn Kelley, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, Preston Claiborne? Maybe Nuno stays stretched out in AAA and Dellin Betances makes the team (though that leaves only one lefty in the ‘pen)? Any other potential BP arms I’m missing?
Joe Girardi has already confirmed both Phelps and Warren will make the team in some capacity, so if Pineda wins the fifth starter’s job, those two will be in the bullpen. In that case, I would think Nuno would go to Triple-A to remain stretched out as the sixth starter. Girardi has said they’re open to keeping him (and everyone else) as a reliever though. If Nuno goes to the minors, it would clear the path for Betances, Cesar Cabral, Matt Daley, Manny Banuelos, or whoever else in addition to Claiborne. Betances has performed well in camp so far but we still have more than three weeks to go before the last few spots in the bullpen need to be finalized. A lot can change.
T.J. asks: I know it is early, but with the close of Spring Training, there will be an inevitable roster crunch. Do you see some trades taking place for some relief, or do you think we will just have to risk losing some middle-tier prospects? No pun intended, but that relief, will probably turn out to be spots in the bullpen for non-roster pitchers.
The 40-man roster is really tight right now. Short of a trade that sends Ichiro or one of the catchers (Austin Romine? John Ryan Murphy?) away for a non-40-man piece, the Yankees are going to have cut someone who is potentially useful to clear a roster spot. Right now, the most likely candidates to me are Nik Turley, Ramon Flores, and Anna. That’s really it. There are no 60-day DL candidates right now either. The Yankees might have to clear 40-man spots for Scott Sizemore, Daley, or Canzler if they make the team, but otherwise they have enough 40-man pieces to fill out the roster. Eduardo Nunez could sit on the bench while Betances, Cabral, and/or Claiborne fill out the bullpen.
Spencer asks: Why did the Yankees not express interest in Chien-Ming Wang earlier before he signed with the Reds?
The Yankees had Wang in Triple-A for a few months last season, so they got a first hand look at him. He wasn’t very good (7.67 ERA and 5.42 FIP in 27 innings) with the Blue Jays after being released, and this winter he had to take yet another minor league contract. CMW will be 34 later this month and he has not been an effective pitcher since hurting his foot in Houston back in June 2008. Injuries completely ruined him. The Yankees gave him a shot last year but he proved not to be worth it. Time to move on, that’s all.
Bill asks: I’ve seen a lot of ink saying Masahiro Tanaka should be the third starter. Assuming CC Sabathia is 1 and Hiroki Kuroda is 2, shouldn’t the Yanks put someone between Tanaka and Kuroda because of the similarity of their pitching styles?
I honestly don’t think this is that big of the deal. The rotation will be thrown out of whack by off-days and rain outs and whatnot at some point in April, so it’s only a matter of time before Kuroda and Tanaka get separated. I think the whole “their style is too similar to pitch back-to-back” is a bigger deal within an individual game (replacing a fastball-slider pitcher with another fastball-slider pitcher, for example) and not necessarily day after day. Maybe it would be beneficial to split Kuroda and Tanaka up in the rotation, but I think that will happen organically at some point early in the season anyway. To be honest, I’m more focused on having Tanaka start one of the first three games of the season because I’d like to see him get off to a good start, which he is more likely to do against the terrible Astros than the slightly less terrible Blue Jays.
Following a 90-minute rain delay, the Yankees got back into the win column with a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Phillies this afternoon. Masahiro Tanaka made his second appearance (first start) of the spring, allowing a solo homer in three otherwise strong innings. He struck out one, walked zero, and recorded seven outs on the ground compared to one in the air. Pretty good day if you ask me.
In their first games of the spring, both Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Alfonso Soriano (flu) went 0-for-3. Soriano struck out all three times. Derek Jeter went 2-for-3 with a ground ball single and a line drive double, which were his first base hit and first ball hit in the air of the spring, respectively. Kelly Johnson had two more hits to continue his nice spring. Ramon Flores crushed a solo homer and had the go-ahead sac fly in the eighth, capping a rally created by Gary Sanchez (single) and Jose Pirela (double). Here’s the box score and here’s the rest from a rainy day in Tampa.
- Today was the first of the Yankees’ seven spring games with the expanded replay system, but there was some kind of electrical problem, so it wasn’t available. Go figure. The Phillies tried to challenge a play but couldn’t.
- CC Sabathia threw his simulated game as scheduled, presumably indoors given the weather. He unveiled a new cutter during the session, a pitch he learned from Andy Pettitte. “He showed me the grip for the cutter. I used it [Thursday] and I am going to take it into the game.,” said Sabathia. [George King]
- Manny Banuelos will throw an inning in Saturday’s game. It will be his first real game action in about 20 months due to elbow problems. Tyler Austin (wrist) hit off a tee as he works his way back from lingering soreness. [Chad Jennings]
- And, just in case you were worried, Joe Girardi confirmed that Carlos Beltran was scratched from this afternoon’s game because of the weather. He’s not hurt, they just don’t want him and knees on the wet outfield. [Bryan Hoch]
This is your open thread for the night. This afternoon’s Yankees game will not re-air anywhere, but MLB Network is showing Dodgers-Angels on tape delay later tonight, if you’re interested. The Nets are playing as well. Talk about whatever here. Go nuts.
The Yankees relied on international free agents as the backbone of their farm system for years and years, but the new spending restrictions severely limit the team’s ability to build through Latin America. Two years ago they were capped at $2.9M — a touch less than they gave C Gary Sanchez alone back in 2009 — and last summer it was only $1.88M, the third smallest bonus pool in the game. Tough to stick to that number and add impact players.
According to Ben Badler (subs. req’d), the Yankees used that $1.88M pool to sign 45 (!) players last year. Well, kinda. All of that money and then some went to Dominican OF Leonardo Molina ($1.4M) and Dominican SS Yonauris Rodriguez ($570k). The Yankees exceeded their pool by roughly $93k on those two players alone, almost exactly a 5% overage. That results in a $70k tax, or 75% of the overage. Four other players signed for the $50k exemption (each team gets six) and the other 39 signed for no more than the $7,500 exemption (unlimited). Most of those guys are roster fillers and not serious prospects.
The 16-year-old Molina (no relation to the catching brothers) is now listed at 6-foot-2 and 180 lbs. and was one of the top available players on the international market. “Molina set himself apart with some of the best raw tools and athleticism in Latin America last year,” wrote Badler while noting Molina’s strong arm and defensive skills. “He has plus bat speed and a level stroke with good swing path, but he has an unorthodox load that causes his hands to get started a little early. Molina showed the ability to backspin a ball with gap power when he signed, but with added weight and strength since then, his power has already started to tick up significantly, taking balls over the center-field batter’s eye in batting practice.”
Rodriguez, 16, is considered a no doubt shortstop who has some work to be before becoming a real threat at the plate. “With a wiry 6-foot-1, 155-pound frame, Rodriguez projects to stay at the position with good hands and an above-average arm … (his) defense is ahead of his righthanded bat. He will hit some doubles but doesn’t have much power, so he’ll have to focus on line drives and getting on base,” wrote Badler. Here’s video. Both Rodriguez and Molina have a chance to make their pro debuts with one of the team’s two Rookie Gulf Coast League affiliates later this year.
In addition to their two big money signings, the Yankees also landed 19-year-old Dominican LHP Orby Taveras, who signed for one of the $50k exemptions. He already stands 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs. and “throws 88-91 mph, scrapes 92 and complements it with feel for a changeup that’s ahead of his three-quarters breaking ball,” according to Balder, who says Taveras also has a good plan on the mound despite his lack of experience. Dominican OF Frank Frias ($7,500) and Dominican RHP Jhon Morban ($3,000) both stood out for their performances in the Dominican Summer League after signing.
The Yankees are said to be planning a huge international spending spree this year, one that may reportedly cost upwards of $30M between signing bonuses and the taxes excised for exceeding their spending pool. That would help cover for the three top draft picks the team surrendered as free agent compensation this winter. The Yankees will face spending restrictions in future years if they go on such a spree, but the general belief is that an international draft is on the horizon. If so, this summer may be New York’s last chance to target and sign any available international player.
This afternoon’s Grapefruit League game against the Phillies is no ordinary Spring Training game. Not even close. There is be a lot going on for the Yankees this afternoon, with Masahiro Tanaka‘s first start (second appearance) being the headliner. He is starting on a normal five-day schedule, his first time doing so, and because he’s starting, he’ll see mostly big leaguers. That’s kind of a big deal.
That’s not it, though. Mark Teixeira will also be playing in his first spring game after missing nearly all of last year due to a tendon sheath problem in his right wrist. He had surgery in early-July and has been slowly working his way back. With no obvious first base alternative in camp, Teixeira’s health and production is very important to the Yankees this season. Alfonso Soriano, who has been battling the flu, will also play his first spring game today.
But wait, there’s more. For the first time this spring, the Yankees will get a chance to try out the new expanded replay system. Each team will play a handful of “test” games with the new system — not every park has the proper equipment, so they can’t do it every game — and Joe Girardi said he plans to use the system as much as possible to get familiar with it. They’re going to have people checking replays and relaying information like they will during the season.
No, the bad news: it’s pouring in Florida. Pretty much the entire state, but especially the Tampa area. The Yankees are on the road to play the Phillies, but their complex in Clearwater is like, 15 minutes away. The weather will be a problem and there’s a good chance this afternoon’s game will not be played. I suppose they could wait it out, but it is Spring Training. They tend to pull the plug on these games quickly. The Yankees have bused over the stadium though, so here’s the starting lineup:
- LF Brett Gardner
- SS Derek Jeter
- 1B Mark Teixeira
- RF Carlos Beltran
- C Brian McCann
- DH Alfonso Soriano
- 3B Kelly Johnson
- 2B Brian Roberts
- CF Mason Williams
And on the mound is Tanaka for the second time this spring. His first outing was rather impressive and I think we all want to see some more.
Available Pitchers: RHP Bruce Billings, RHP Chris Leroux, RHP Mark Montgomery, RHP Danny Burawa, and LHP Fred Lewis are all scheduled to pitch. RHP Preston Claiborne, LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Brian Gordon, and RHP Chase Whitley also made the trip and are available if needed.
Available Position Players: C John Ryan Murphy, 1B Corban Joseph, 2B Yangervis Solarte, SS Brendan Ryan, 3B Scott Sizemore, LF Ramon Flores, CF Antoan Richardson, and RF Adonis Garcia will come off the bench. C Francisco Arcia, 1B/C Jose Gil, C Gary Sanchez, C Peter O’Brien, and UTIL Jose Pirela are also available.
There is no YES broadcast of this afternoon’s game. The network usually doesn’t travel. The game can be seen live on both MLB Network and MLB.tv though, so if they do play, make sure you tune in. First pitch is scheduled for a little after 1pm ET. Enjoy.
Update (1:05pm): I haven’t seen an official announcement yet, but the game is very obviously in a delay right now. A cancellation is sure to follow at some point.
Update (1:27pm): First pitch is currently scheduled for 2:30pm ET. How about that?
Update (1:58pm): Carlos Beltran has been scratched from the game. Ramon Flores will take his place in right field. I assume the Yankees don’t want him playing on the wet outfield.
Update (2:30pm): Game on! They have started played, which seemed impossible not too long ago.
Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.
RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).
The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.
Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.
That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.
LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.
Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:
|ERA||FIP||K%||HR/FB%||FB velocity||RHB wOBA||LHB wOBA|
Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.
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Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.
Sounds the alarms, the Yankees have lost two games in a row. Oh, wait, it’s still Spring Training? Disregard. They lost 5-4 to the Rays this afternoon mostly because Robert Coello allowed four runs (two homers) in his one-third of an inning of work. That dude’s having a brutal spring (48.60 ERA). Adam Warren allowed a run in 2.1 innings while Dellin Betances chucked 1.2 scoreless frames. He’s up to 5.1 scoreless innings in camp, which is pretty much exactly what he needs to do to win a bullpen spot.
Here’s the box score. Eduardo Nunez had a big day at the plate, going 3-for-3 with a double. Brett Gardner (1-for-3), Ichiro Suzuki (1-for-3), Kelly Johnson (0-for-2), Austin Romine (0-for-3), and J.R. Murphy (0-for-3) also played. Yangervis Solarte went 1-for-3 and lowered his spring batting average to .667. The Yankees didn’t send many regulars down to Port Charlotte for the game at all. Here is the rest from a slow day in Tampa.
- Mark Teixeira took some live batting practice but only saw five pitches and was pretty annoyed. Yesterday’s session was cancelled because no one was available pitch. “I thought I was going to get a lot more work the last few days, but I just do what I am told,” he said. [Chad Jennings, Andrew Marchand]
- Alfonso Soriano has a first base mitt and he’s been working out at the position. He doesn’t expect to play much there, it’s more about increasing his versatility in case of emergency. [Jennings]
This is your nightly open thread. This afternoon’s game will not be replayed anywhere but MLB Network will show the Dodgers and Reds live later tonight. The Knicks and Nets are both playing as well, ditto the (hockey) Rangers and trade deadline pickup Martin St. Louis. Talk about anything and everything right here. Enjoy.
Barring injury or a trade, 12 of the 13 position player spots are already set. Joe Girardi made it clear Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson will be the starting second and third basemen, respectively, leaving Brendan Ryan on the bench with Frankie Cervelli and Ichiro Suzuki. The fourth and final bench spot is up for grabs in Spring Training and the Yankees have indicated it will go to an infielder. More than a few players are competing for the job.
IF Dean Anna
Acquired in a minor November trade with the Padres, Anna had a big year in Triple-A (.331/.410/.482) but was unable to land a 40-man roster spot with San Diego. They flipped him to the Yankees for a Single-A reliever rather than lose him for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft. The 27-year-old lefty hitter has a ton of experience on the middle infield and a little at third, making him prime backup infielder fodder.
Anna lacks a standout tool but he’s okay at everything. His plate discipline is his strongest skill but there is more to life than minor league strikeout and walk rates. Last year was the first year in which he hit higher than .280 and he’s never been much of a power guy or base-stealer. His defense is generally regarded as solid even though last Saturday’s play in the hole makes you think he’s the best defender ever. It’s a classic backup infielder’s profile and a strong spring could push Anna onto the Opening Day roster.
1B/OF Russ Canzler
As of right now, Johnson is the backup first baseman according to Girardi even though he only has 18 career innings at the position. The 27-year-old Canzler is the only other true first baseman in camp, though he has a good amount of left field experience as well. The Yankees had him working out at third base earlier in camp in an attempt to increase his versatility. Canzler is a pure right-handed platoon bat, hitting .307/.390/.531 against lefties in Triple-A over the years compared to .267/.346/.442 against righties. He only has 102 career big league plate appearances to his credit. Canzler is a long shot for the bench despite his ability to play first, so he’s likely ticketed for Triple-A.
IF Corban Joseph
CoJo, 25, made his very brief big league debut last season before needing season-ending shoulder surgery. They Yankees dumped him off the 40-man roster over the winter and he went unclaimed on waivers, giving you an idea of how he’s regarded around the league. Joseph had a big 2012 season split between Double-A and Triple-A (.276/.375/.465 with 15 HR) and while he’s versatile in that he can fake first, second, and third bases, he’s a liability everywhere. If he shows he can hit like he did two years ago, Joseph might have value as a bench player. If not, well there’s really nothing he can offer. He seems to be well behind the rest of the pack in the race for the final bench spot.
IF Eduardo Nunez
Boy did Nunez blow a golden opportunity last summer. Rather than cement his place in the future of the team by playing well at shortstop during Derek Jeter‘s various leg injuries, he got hurt himself and showed little improvement at the plate or in the field. Nunez had a strong September as the (almost) everyday third baseman, but one good month wasn’t enough to salvage his season, nor should it be.
Nunez, 26, came to camp as the incumbent backup infielder but that doesn’t guarantee him anything. The Yankees could have very easily handed him the job and been done with it — they really seem to like Nunez, don’t they? — but instead they brought in several players as legitimate competition. It definitely appears as though he fell out of favor with last summer’s continued lack of progress. I don’t think they would bring in so many infielders if they were comfortable with him.
We all know what Nunez can do at this point, right? He is a high contact hitter who can run but doesn’t have much power — he did say he spent most of the winter trying to bulk up and add strength, for what it’s worth — and his defense is a complete wildcard. He’ll make a stunning play one inning and botch a routine one later in the game. Unfortunately the bad plays outweigh the good ones. Nunez is not being handed a bench job and if he doesn’t make a strong case for one in camp, he has a minor league option left and can go to Triple-A.
2B/3B Scott Sizemore
After missing all but two games over the last two years due to back-to-back torn ACLs, the 29-year-old Sizemore signed a minor league contract and got into his first post-surgery Grapefruit League game last night. He had a nice half-season with the Athletics in 2011 (.249/.345/.433 with 11 HR) but given the sample size and the long layoff, I don’t think we can say that’s the real Sizemore. Healthy or not, he’s a tough guy to predict for the upcoming season.
If you’re a believer in uniform numbers being an indicator of a player’s roster chances, then Sizemore is sitting pretty after being issued Robinson Cano‘s old #24. Everyone else in this post other than Nunez has a number north of 70. Maybe that’s a sign the team considers Sizemore the favorite for the job as long as he’s healthy. Who knows. Either way, he has a lot to prove after missing two full years. I believe Sizemore has a best chance of being a league average player (that’s very valuable!) out of everyone in this post but making the team is not a given.
UTIL Yangervis Solarte
I didn’t expect to include the 26-year-old Solarte in this post initially, but he’s hit the snot out of the ball early in camp (.778/.800/1.444) and is very versatile, spending a bunch of time at the three non-first base infield positions as well as both corner outfield spots in his career. That would be nice to have off the bench. The switch-hitting Solarte has hit .282/.332/.404 in 1,145 Triple-A plate appearances the last two years, which is pretty underwhelming considering how hitter friendly the Pacific Coast League is.
The Yankees have shown a willingness to give roster spots to big Spring Training performers in recent years (2009 Ramiro Pena and 2012 David Phelps, most notably), so it’s not completely out of the question that Solarte could sneak onto the Opening Day roster if he keeps raking. A versatile switch-hitter would be nice to have. Then again, nothing in his track record suggests he’s some kind of hidden gem or in the middle of an early spring breakout.
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Others like Zelous Wheeler and Jose Pirela have utility man profiles and are technically competing for that bench job in camp, but they are clear long shots to me. Solarte really belongs in that group as well, hot spring start notwithstanding. Because of the questionable starting infield arrangement and various injury risks, whoever gets that final bench spot may wind up playing a larger role than expected. Despite being the 24th or 25th spot on the roster, this bench spot offers quite a bit of opportunity.
According to George King, the Mariners had a scout on hand to watch David Phelps‘ second spring start last night. He got hit around pretty hard but held the Orioles to only one run in 2.2 innings, striking out two and walking one. Phelps is currently competing for the fifth starter spot, though Joe Girardi confirmed he will make the team in some capacity.
The Mariners have been hit hard by injuries this spring. Co-ace Hisashi Iwakuma is sidelined with a finger sprain and top prospect Taijuan Walker is dealing with a shoulder problem. Manager Lloyd McClendon confirmed both guys will open the season on the DL, leaving the team with Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, and Scott Baker behind Felix Hernandez. Their need for another arm is obvious.
Seattle’s top trade chip is infielder Nick Franklin, who was pushed into trade chip status by the Robinson Cano signing. The 23-year-old switch-hitter hit .225/.303/.382 (90 wRC+) with 12 homers, six steals, and a 27.4% strikeout rate in his 412 plate appearance MLB debut last season. His defense is shaky — he’s already moved off short and is error prone at second — and more than a few people think he’ll have to drop switch-hitting and stick to batting lefty down the road. Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he “profiles as a solid regular who could play in a few All-Star Games” before last season.
The Yankees desperately need a young infielder and Franklin certainly fits the bill even though I’m not his biggest fan. I’d trade
four five years of Phelps for six years of Franklin in a heartbeat, but I suspect the Mariners are going to want another piece or two. Both the Mets and Rays have been talking to Seattle about Franklin — Tampa was reportedly on the verge of the deal, but then Jeremy Hellickson got hurt and they were reluctant to sacrifice pitching depth — so there is plenty of competition.
Of the various fifth starter candidates, the 27-year-old Phelps feels like the safest bet to be a productive big leaguer in 2014. In order to deal him, I think the Yankees would have to feel pretty good about Michael Pineda heading into the season and/or be open to signing a low-cost pitcher (Jeff Niemann? Jeff Karstens?) to replace the depth. Given their pitching situation, I’m guessing the Mariners would like to get a deal done sooner rather than later. That could work to New York’s advantage in trade talks.
In other news, King says both the White Sox and Brewers also had scouts on hand for last night’s game. Both clubs are looking for catching depth, something the Yankees can spare. Chicago has some infield depth to offer and we’ve already heard the Yankees will monitor Rickie Weeks this spring. Given the infield situation, the Yankees could swap Phelps+ for Franklin and a catcher for Weeks or one of the ChiSox infielders (or one of the Diamondbacks infielders). It doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other.