5/24 to 5/26 Series Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are back home from the West Coast but only temporarily. They’ll play three games against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium this week before heading back out on the road for a ten-game trip. Also of note: the Yankees will play their next four series against AL East rivals. Time to make up some ground in the division. The Yanks lost two of three to the Jays in Toronto last month.

What Have They Done Lately?

The Blue Jays took three of four from the lowly Twins over the weekend, but they were struggling pretty hard before that. Like five straight losses and eight losses in eleven games hard. Toronto is 22-24 with a +2 run differential overall in 2016. They occupy the AL East cellar at the moment, a spot the Yankees occupied for far too long this season.

Offense & Defense

Last season the Blue Jays scored more runs than any team since the 2009 Yankees. This year they’re averaging only 4.04 runs per game with a team 97 wRC+. Can’t say I saw that coming! The Blue Jays are still without 2B Devon Travis, who is currently on a minor league rehab assignment after having shoulder surgery last year. Over the weekend manager John Gibbons told Arden Zwelling he “wouldn’t expect” Travis to be back this series. Also, 1B Chris Colabello is currently out serving a performance-enhancing drug suspension.

Bautista. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Bautista. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Toronto has been struggling offensively so much this month that last week the players got together, held a team meeting to talk things out, and then made some lineup suggestions to Gibbons. As a result, RF Jose Bautista (139 wRC+) now bats leadoff. Yes, really. 3B Josh Donaldson (137 wRC+) and DH Edwin Encarnacion (106 wRC+) bat second and third with 1B Justin Smoak (132 wRC+) settling in as the cleanup hitter. SS Troy Tulowitzki (83 wRC+) and LF Michael Saunders (164 wRC+) follow as the five-six hitters.

The bottom of the lineup has been wholly unproductive for the Blue Jays. C Russell Martin (14 wRC+) is having a miserable season, which means he’s going to hit like five homers with a .750 OBP this series. CF Kevin Pillar (76 wRC+) and 2B Ryan Goins (12 wRC+) round out the regulars. C Josh Thole (30 wRC+), UTIL Jimmy Paredes (11 PA), IF Darwin Barney (127 wRC+), and OF Ezequiel Carrera (136 wRC+) are the four bench players, though they don’t play a whole lot. Gibbons tends to stick with his regulars.

The Blue Jays have a sneaky good team defense. That part of their game gets overlooked because their offense was so dynamic last season. Pillar, Martin, Donaldson, and Goins are all excellent defenders while Tulowitzki, Smoak, and Saunders are all above-average as well. Bautista doesn’t have much range these days but his arm is a cannon. He’ll shut down the running down without even having to make a throw a la Aaron Hicks.

Pitching Matchups

Tuesday (7:05pm ET): RHP Nathan Eovaldi (vs. TOR) vs. RHP R.A. Dickey (vs. NYY)
What better way to start the series than against the knuckleballer? (Note: There are many better ways to start a series.) Dickey, 41, has a 4.50 ERA (4.45 FIP) in nine starts and 54 innings this year. His peripherals look like the peripherals of every other knuckleballer in history: 17.5% strikeouts, 7.4% grounders, 45.0% grounders, and 1.33 HR/9. He’s also been hammered by lefties this year but historically has a small platoon split. Dickey’s knuckler sits in the mid-70s and he throws it roughly 90% of the time. Back in the day with the Mets he threw two knuckleballs, a hard one in the upper-70s and a softer one in the upper-60s, but that is no longer the case. A low-80s fastball is his get-me-over pitch. The Yankees did not see Dickey when these two clubs met in April.

Wednesday (7:05pm ET): RHP Ivan Nova (vs. TOR) vs. RHP Marco Estrada (vs. NYY)
I have to say, I did not expect Estrada to repeat the success he had last year at all. He didn’t add a new pitch, didn’t change his pitch selection, nothing. I don’t want to say his success was a fluke, but it didn’t seem repeatable. Boy was I wrong. The 32-year-old Estrada has a 2.61 ERA (3.24 FIP) in eight starts and 51.2 innings this year, which is actually better than what he did last year (3.13 ERA and 4.40 FIP). His strikeout (24.2%) and homer (0.70 HR/9) rates are strong while his walk (9.2%) and grounder (40.7%) rates leave something to be desired. Estrada is a proven FIP beater because he’s adept at getting pop-ups and weak fly balls. He does it with a dynamite upper-70s changeup that he throws with the same arm action as his upper-80s fastball. It’s impossible to tell the two pitches apart until it’s too late. Estrada screws up the hitter’s timing as well as any pitcher in the game. He also throws some upper-80s cutters and mid-70s curves, but the fastball/changeup combo is his bread and butter. Like Dickey, the Yankees did not face Estrada in the series last month.

Estrada. (Hannah Foslien/Getty)
Estrada. (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Thursday (4:05pm ET): LHP CC Sabathia (vs. TOR) vs. RHP Aaron Sanchez (vs. NYY)
Don’t ask me why this is a 4:05pm ET start. It just is. Anyway, it seems young Mr. Sanchez is starting to find his way as a starting pitcher in this league. The 23-year-old has a 3.20 ERA (3.30 FIP) in nine starts and 59 innings by pairing an above-average strikeout rate (21.4%) with an excellent ground ball rate (58.1%). He walks a few too many (8.6%) and keeps the ball in the park (0.61 HR/9) with his heavy mid-90 sinker. Sanchez backs the sinker up with an upper-70s curveball and an improving upper-80s changeup. The changeup is still a work in progress, but it is getting better. Lefties still give him trouble when he can’t keep the change down. Sanchez held the Yankees to two runs (one earned) in six innings last month.

Bullpen Status

The bullpen has been a big problem for the Blue Jays all season. Their relievers have a 3.79 ERA (4.29 FIP) overall and they’ve been extremely home run prone (1.32 HR/9). Who knows what will happen in any given game, but, generally speaking, this is not a shutdown bullpen. Here are the relievers Gibbons has at his disposal:

Closer: RHP Roberto Osuna (1.40 ERA/2.24 FIP)
Setup: RHP Gavin Floyd (3.05/3.84)
Middle: RHP Drew Storen (7.80/5.40), RHP Joe Biagini (0.59/2.80), LHP Chad Girodo (3.38/6.07)
Long: SwP Pat Venditte (4.50/4.57)

Toronto had an off-day yesterday, so everyone is fresh. Storen has had some rather big meltdowns this season (what else is new?) so these days he gets lower leverage innings rather than setup work. Floyd is handling eighth inning duties for the time being. It’s worth noting Girodo has been in the big leagues for about three weeks, so the Blue Jays don’t have an established left-on-left reliever.

The Yankees, like the Blue Jays, had an off-day yesterday, so their bullpen is as rested as it’s going to get. Check out our Bullpen Workload page either. I know the Blue Jays have not been tearing the cover off the ball like they did last year, but these intra-division games are never easy. The Yankees are going to need their bullpen to win them some games this week.

Change of Plans: A-Rod to begin rehab assignment tonight, not rejoin Yankees

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Turns out Alex Rodriguez will not rejoin the Yankees tonight after all. Earlier this morning the team announced A-Rod will play in a minor league rehab game with Double-A Trenton tonight. The Yankees had originally planned to activate him from the DL with no minor league time.

“We are not going to waste his at-bats in Triple-A,” said Joe Girardi to George King over the weekend when asked about bringing Alex back without a rehab stint. Joe didn’t say anything about Double-A, but yeah, the team obviously feels the best thing to do is let A-Rod see some live pitching being returning to the lineup.

Rodriguez has been out nearly three weeks now with a hamstring problem. He’s been running the bases and taking batting practice the last few days, but taking batting practice and facing live pitching is not the same thing. Three weeks (or close to it) is a long time to go without facing real pitching.

The Yankees are scheduled to face R.A. Dickey tonight, and a knuckleballer is pretty much the last thing you want a player who hasn’t seen live pitching in nearly three weeks to face. The knuckler could screw up his timing even more. It’s unclear how many rehab games A-Rod will play, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was only one. We’ll see.

Thoughts following Monday’s off-day

(Stephen Lam/Getty)
(Stephen Lam/Getty)

The Yankees start up another 20 games in 20 days stretch today — it was supposed to be 19 games in 20 days, but the makeup game of the rainout in Detroit wiped away the off-day — and 12 of their next 13 games are against AL East rivals. Pretty important stretch of the season coming up, I’d say. Here are some thoughts.

1. Gosh the offense looks so much better when Jacoby Ellsbury is hitting, doesn’t it? He had a dynamite road trip and has gone 10-for-31 (.323) with four walks (.417 OBP) and four strikeouts in nine games since coming back from that little hip injury. Brett Gardner is running a .370 OBP on the season, and when he and Ellsbury are both getting on base at the top of the lineup, it changes the entire dynamic of the offense. Those two don’t steal bases like they once did, but they still draw attention and create some headaches for the defense. Ellsbury and Gardner are, without question in my opinion, the two most important players on the team offensively. When they’re going well, the Yankees tend to score a lot of runs.

2. Didi Gregorius has some pretty weird splits so far this season. He’s hitting .333/.368/.417 (119 wRC+) against lefties but only .232/.245/.354 (58 wRC+) against righties, which is basically the opposite of what he’s done his entire career. Some of this is definitely sample size noise — Didi has 102 plate appearances against righties and only 40 against lefties — though I do think it’s worth noting Gregorius hit .308/.368/.397 against southpaws in the second half last season. He’s struck out only 14.1% of the time against lefties since last year’s All-Star break too. My guess is that as the season progresses, his numbers against righties will improve while his numbers against lefties slip back a bit. I do think Didi has made legitimate improvement against southpaws since the start of the last season though. He looked hopeless against lefties early last year. Now he puts up a fight.

3. Good gravy does Mark Teixeira look awful at the plate right now. Especially from the left side. I thought he showed some signs of life in Arizona — Teixeira hit a few hard hit balls right at defenders for outs — but nope. Didn’t last and didn’t carry over into Oakland. Teixeira is hitting .159/.227/.203 (16 wRC+) in May and he hasn’t hit a home run since the seventh game of the season. Woof. The Yankees can’t take him out of the lineup for a few reasons though. One, he’s not going to snap out of his slump sitting on the bench. Two, his defense is way too valuable. His glove is a game-changer. Three, who replaces him? Dustin Ackley? Maybe once in a while, but not everyday. Alex Rodriguez‘s return today means the Yankees can drop Teixeira down in the lineup a little further and they should absolutely do that. He’s been dreadful. The rest of the offense has really picked him up the last two or three weeks.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

4. The last turn through the rotation was very good — four of the five starters allowed one run or less — and you can kinda talk yourself into believing the Yankees have four reliable starting pitchers at the moment. Masahiro Tanaka is very good even if some folks seem to want to pretend otherwise. Nathan Eovaldi has dominated of late, Ivan Nova has been rock solid since moving into the rotation, and CC Sabathia looks like a new pitcher with his new cutter (and new knee brace?). I can’t fully buy in just yet because Eovaldi is still so inconsistent and Sabathia’s knee is still a mess and Nova is still Nova, but I feel better about the rotation right now than I did a month ago. If nothing else, I feel like those four at least have a chance to give the Yankees a quality outing each time out. The non-Tanaka starters were pretty shaky in April. I don’t think that is the case anymore.

5. I’m actually a little surprised Luis Severino is going to start a minor league rehab assignment this weekend. (Well, that assumes today’s bullpen session goes a-okay.) I didn’t think it would happen that soon. I figured the Yankees would be ultra-conservative with Severino given his long-term importance to the franchise. I guess the triceps injury really was mild. Severino was shut down for a week, he threw on flat ground over the weekend, and today he’ll throw in the bullpen. I’m very curious to see what the Yankees do with him once healthy. Brian Cashman & Co. have said Severino is not guaranteed to step right back into the rotation once he’s ready to be activated. Does that mean Triple-A? Or would they use him as a true long man and let him work out his command issues in three or four-inning bursts out of the bullpen? That can be tough to pull off but it’s not a crazy idea.

6. You know who has been sneaky good this year? Nick Goody. Granted, it is only eleven innings, but in those eleven innings he has a 1.64 ERA (2.62 FIP) with 12 strikeouts and one walk. He’s thrown multiple innings in four of his seven outings as well. I’m not saying Goody should suddenly be trusted in high-leverage spots. I’m just saying that for the sixth guy in the bullpen — Luis Cessa is the seventh guy right now, and, to be honest, I had completely forgotten he’s on the roster — he’s been really solid soaking up innings when necessary. This is the kind of performance the Yankees didn’t get from any of the shuttle relievers last year. Goody has a chance to stick — partly because most of the other shuttle guys are hurt — and he’s making the most of it. He’s carved out a spot in the bullpen.

7. What do you think of the new strobe lights at Yankee Stadium when a Yankee hits a home run? You can see them as Carlos Beltran rounds the bases in this video:

I applaud the Yankees for trying to do something to inject some life into the Stadium, especially after their slow start to the season, but I’m not sure I’m a fan of the strobe lights. The first time I saw them in person I found them distracting and I wanted to look away. Not great. Maybe I’m just old with bad eyes. Maybe they’ll grow on me. I guess I need to see them after a huge walk-off home run or something like that to fully appreciate it. But for a regular ol’ home run, I could do without the strobe lights.

DotF: Holder extends hitting streak in Charleston’s win

Chad Jennings spoke to farm system head Gary Denbo about a bunch of minor league pitchers and position players, so make sure you check that out. Here are some other notes to pass along:

  • IF Billy Fleming has been promoted to Double-A Trenton and IF Thairo Estrada has been moved up to High-A Tampa, the Tampa Yankees announced. With Estrada joining Tampa, it leads me to believe SS Jorge Mateo won’t be there much longer. Estrada, Mateo, 3B Miguel Andujar, and IF Abi Avelino are all at that level now.
  • The Yankees have released OF Jared Mitchell and signed LHP Zak Wasserman out of the independent Frontier League, reports Matt Eddy. Mitchell’s a former first rounder who fizzled out and the Yankees picked up as a minor league free agent over the winter. Wasserman, 25, was a position player at Louisville before converting to the mound in indy ball a few years ago.
  • Following his strong outing last night, RHP Vicente Campos made an appearance in today’s Prospect Report, so check that out. It’s not behind the paywall. Also, LHP Nestor Cortes was named the Low-A South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week. Congrats to him.

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off-day.

Double-A Trenton (7-6 win over New Hampshire)

  • CF Dustin Fowler: 0-5, 2 K
  • LF Mark Payton: 1-4, 2 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
  • DH Tyler Austin: 2-2, 2 R, 1 RBI, 3 BB, 1 SB — got picked off first … he had three walks total in his previous eleven games
  • 2B Billy Fleming: 1-3,1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — he was up here for a few games last season, so this is not his Double-A debut
  • SS Cito Culver: 2-4, 1 R — his excellent month of May continues
  • RHP Cale Coshow: 4 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 5 BB, 3 K, 6/1 GB/FB — 51 of 91 pitches were strikes (56%) … 32/27 K/BB in 49 innings this year after 97/28 K/BB in 114 innings last year

[Read more…]

Monday Night Open Thread

I know the Yankees have won five straight and 12 of their last 17 games, but today is a much-needed off-day, I’d say. The Yankees just wrapped up a 20 games in 20 days stretch, and they start another one tomorrow because the makeup game of the rainout in Detroit wiped out an off-day. Enjoy the time away from the Yankees while it lasts.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Mets are playing tonight and there are both NHL and NBA playoff games on as well. Talk about any of those games right here.

2016 Draft: Zack Collins

Zack Collins | C

Background
Collins, 21, is a Florida kid from the Miami area who now plays for the Hurricanes. He’s a career .321/.470/.591 hitter at Miami, including a .381/.552/.645 batting line with eleven homers, 62 walks, and 39 strikeouts in 51 games this spring. Collins turned down the Reds as the 27th round pick out of high school in 2013.

Scouting Report
Collins is very much a bat first prospect. He’s a left-handed hitter with arguably the best approach in college baseball, one that not only allows him to get on base at a high rate, but also do damage against both righties and lefties. Collins has 20+ homer power in addition to the potential for hit for average, though there is some question whether pro pitchers will be able to beat him inside with fastballs. Right now he can fight those pitches off with metal bats. Behind the plate Collins has a barely average arm and he moves just okay with his 6-foot-3, 220 lb. frame. The Miami pitching staff is always loaded with pro prospects, so he has experience catching high-end stuff, but the fact there’s already talk about moving him to first base is not good. Collins is going to get drafted because of his bat, not his glove. Plain and simple.

Miscellany
In their most recent draft rankings, Baseball America ranked Collins as the 16th best draft prospect in the country, while Keith Law (subs. req’d) and MLB.com had him 18th and 20th, respectively. The Yankees pick 18th. Left-handed hitters with power and patience are a Yankee trademark, and for what it’s worth, the team has had some success developing iffy catchers into strong defenders. Francisco Cervelli and John Ryan Murphy developed into great defenders, Luis Torrens took the position quickly, and even Gary Sanchez has improved a lot over the years. Collins may not be salvageable behind the plate though. As long as the bat works out, he’ll be fine anywhere.

2016 Draft: MLB.com Mock Draft v2.0

Late last week Jim Callis posted MLB.com’s second mock draft of the season. He and Jonathan Mayo seem to be alternating weeks. Anyway, Callis has the Phillies taking Florida LHP A.J. Puk with the top pick. That appears to be the most likely outcome at the moment. Figuring out what happens after the Phillies take Puk is where it gets interesting.

As for the Yankees, Callis has them selecting Vanderbilt RHP Jordan Sheffield with their first round pick, No. 18 overall. The Yankees were connected to Sheffield in Baseball America’s most recent mock draft as well. These mock drafts aren’t guesswork. They’re a reflection of what Callis and Baseball America (and Keith Law) are hearing. They’re informed speculation. Chances are the Yankees are indeed in on Sheffield. Here’s a piece of MLB.com’s scouting report:

Of all the pitching prospects in the 2016 Draft, Sheffield may have the best chance to develop three plus offerings. His fastball can sit at 94-96 mph and reach 98, and he has maintained his velocity in the late innings of his starts. Both Sheffield’s hard three-quarters breaking ball (which is more likely to become a slider than a curveball) and his circle changeup can be out pitches at times.

Within the write-up Callis seems to indicate the Yankees are targeting a high school arm first and foremost. We’ve heard them connected to California HS RHP Kevin Gowdy more than anyone these last few weeks — here’s my write-up on Gowdy — though he’s far from the only first round caliber prep arm. Last year the Yankees reportedly grabbed RHP James Kaprielian only after all the high school bats they wanted were off the board.

The 2016 draft begins two weeks from Thursday, so at this point teams have their boards pretty well established. They’re now getting their final looks at players and tweaking their preference lists, not overhauling them. It’ll take an injury to change things significantly at this point.