Game 150: The Final Stretch

(Brian Blanco/European Press)
(Brian Blanco/European Press)

Thirteen games in 13 days. That’s all the Yankees have left this season barring a damn near historic run to the postseason. For them to have any shot at the playoffs, this series against the last place Rays is a must-sweep. One game a time though. Get a win tonight and snap the five-game losing streak. Let’s start there. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Aaron Hicks
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Billy Butler
  5. 1B Mark Teixeira
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  8. 3B Donovan Solano
  9. CF Mason Williams
    RHP Michael Pineda

The internet tells me it’s cloudy and grossly humid in St. Petersburg, but it’ll be a cool 70-something degrees inside Tropicana Field. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:10pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Roster Move: As you can see from the lineup, Hicks (hamstring) was activated off the disabled list. He’d been out close to three weeks. No other move was required because rosters are expanded.

Injury Update: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) is still sore but he said he’s hopeful he will play tomorrow. He’s available to pinch-hit tonight … Chase Headley (back) is not available at all. His back locked up on him in Boston. The Yankees play their next seven games on turf, so if Headley does return to the lineup this week, it might only be as the DH. We’ll see.

News: The Yankees announced they will honor Teixeira with a pregame ceremony prior to the final game of the season, on Sunday, October 2nd.

9/20 to 9/22 Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Dome sweet dome. (Presswire)
Dome sweet dome. (Presswire)

Ugh, the Yankees are playing again? The last week hasn’t been all that pretty. I’m not sure I want to sit through any more heartbreaking losses. On the bright side, the Yankees are in Tampa to play the last place Rays this week, not in Boston to play the first place Red Sox. The Bombers are 9-7 against the Don’t Call Me Devil Rays this season, though they’re only 2-4 at Tropicana Field. That includes the three-game sweep in late-July that pushed ownership to sell at the trade deadline.

What Have They Done Lately?

The Rays have been playing spoiler lately. They took two of three from the Blue Jays last week and split four games with the Orioles in Camden Yards over the weekend. Overall, Tampa Bay is 64-85 with a -22 run differential this season. Believe it or not, they were 31-32 at one point. They’ve gone 33-53 since. Needless to say, this is a must sweep for the Yankees to have any shot at the postseason.

Offense & Defense

Last week the Rays set a new franchise single-season home run record. They’ve gone deep 205 times this year, breaking the old record of 199 set back in 2009. Despite that, they’re still averaging a below-average 4.24 runs per game with a team 100 wRC+. (The Yankees are at 4.21 and 92, respectively.) Since we last saw them, the Rays lost 1B Logan Morrison (wrist) and OF Steven Souza (hip) to season-ending surgery. Morrison hurt his wrist on a swing against the Yankees, as you may remember. SS Matt Duffy (Achilles) is done for the year too.

Longoria. (Cliff McBride/Getty)
Longoria. (Cliff McBride/Getty)

Manager Kevin Cash has a set top of the lineup nowadays: 2B Logan Forsythe (122 wRC+) leads off and is followed by CF Kevin Kiermaier (107 wRC+), 3B Evan Longoria (127 wRC+), and 1B Brad Miller (110 wRC+) in that order. Those four drive Tampa’s offense. When they get shut down, they don’t score. UTIL Nick Franklin (119 wRC+) and DH Corey Dickerson (98 wRC+) have been hitting fifth and sixth, respectively, in the wake of the Morrison and Souza injuries.

SS Alexei Ramirez (64 wRC+) is a stopgap and 1B Richie Shaffer (94 wRC+) has taken over at first base with Morrison hurt. C Bobby Wilson (88 wRC+), C Luke Maile (60 wRC+), and C Curt Casali (49 wRC+) have been rotating behind the plate in September. OF Jaff Decker (2 wRC+) and OF Mikie Mahtook (25 wRC+) are the Rays’ only extra players right now. They’re only carrying one extra bench player (a third catcher) even though rosters have expanded. I wonder if they’ll call someone else up following the recent injuries.

The Rays are more or less punting defense these days, though Kiermaier is excellent in center and Forsythe, Ramirez, and Longoria are all good to great on the infield. The corner outfield spots and first base are a problem. The three catchers are all cut from the all-glove/no-bat cloth. Kinda weird to see a Tampa team that isn’t fantastic defensively, isn’t it?

Pitching Matchups

Tuesday (7:10pm ET): RHP Michael Pineda (vs. TB) vs. LHP Drew Smyly (vs. NYY)
Smyly, 27, was the centerpiece of the David Price trade a few years ago, and he has a 4.98 ERA (4.53 FIP) in 28 starts and 164.1 innings this season, so that’s not working out as hoped. His strikeout (23.0%) and walk (6.7%) rates are very good, though his home run (1.70 HR/9) and ground ball (30.9%) numbers are really scary. That’s bad. His platoon split is tiny thanks to his mid-80s cutter and mid-70s curveball. Smyly does a good job keeping righties off balance with the cutter. His four-seam fastball sits right around 90 mph and he doesn’t have a changeup. The Yankees have faced Smyly twice this season. They scored one run in seven innings in April and two runs in six innings in July. I remember neither of those games.

Wednesday (7:10pm ET): RHP Masahiro Tanaka (vs. TB) vs. RHP Alex Cobb (vs. NYY)
Three starts into his return from Tommy John surgery, the 28-year-old Cobb has a 3.06 ERA (3.93 FIP) in 17.2 total innings. His has start was his best; he held the Blue Jays to one run and two hits in 6.2 innings. Cobb has 12 strikeouts and four walks in those 17.2 innings, plus a very good ground ball rate (55.6%). Lefties have had much more success against him than righties so far. Cobb’s sinker has sat right around 90 mph in his three starts while his splitter has sat in the mid-80s. He also has a hard low-80s curveball. Everything is down 2-3 mph across the board. That can be scary coming off elbow reconstruction, though Cobb could still be building arm strength. The Yankees scored four runs (three earned) in six innings against the veteran righty last week.

Snell. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Snell. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Thursday (7:10pm ET): RHP Luis Cessa (vs. TB) vs. LHP Blake Snell (vs. NYY)
Poor Blake Snell. I watched his last two starts, which included one against the Yankees, and the kid looks completely out of gas. I guess that’s not a surprise. He’s thrown a career high 144.1 innings. Snell has a 3.87 ERA (3.51 FIP) in 17 starts and 81.1 innings with the big league team. Good strikeout rate (23.9%), good homer rate (0.55 HR/9), bad walk rate (12.7%), bad ground ball rate (36.8%). His platoon split is pretty significant, so Joe Girardi should fill the lineup with righties. Snell sits in the mid-90s with his heater, and his array of offspeed pitches includes a mid-80s changeup, a low-80s slider, and an upper-70s curveball. The Yankees have seen the 23-year-old southpaw three times this year and they’ve had progressively more success each time: one run in five innings in April, two runs in 5.1 innings in July, and three runs in 2.2 innings last week. They forced Snell to throw 88 pitches in those 2.2 innings.

Bullpen Status

The Rays may not be carrying many bench players, but they sure have loaded up the bullpen. Cash has 13 relievers at his disposal at the moment. Here is his bullpen:

Closer: RHP Alex Colome (1.93 ERA/3.80 FIP)
Setup: RHP Brad Boxberger (3.72/5.21), LHP Xavier Cedeno (3.70/2.63)
Middle: RHP Danny Farquhar (3.16/4.86), RHP Kevin Jepsen (), LHP Enny Romero (5.74/4.42)
Long: RHP Erasmo Ramirez (3.71/4.77)
Extra: LHP Dana Eveland, RHP Eddie Gamboa, RHP Ryan Garton, RHP Steve Geltz, LHP Justin Marks, RHP Chase Whitley

Not the most intimidating bullpen, I’d say. Colome is very good in the ninth and Boxberger and Cedeno have their moments, but that’s a relief corps you can’t wait to get into. The Rays had an off-day yesterday like the Yankees, so those 13 guys are as fresh as they’re going to get. Check out our Bullpen Workload page for the status of Girardi’s relief crew.

Cashman says young players have to earn roster spots in 2017 because of course they do

Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

To no surprise, Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees will not simply hand their top young players roster spots next season. They’ll have to earn it. “May the best man win,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty recently when asked specifically about first base in the wake of Mark Teixeira‘s retirement.

At this point it’s safe to say that yes, Gary Sanchez has earned his place on the 2017 Yankees. Not exactly going out on a limb here. He’s the only young guy who has forced the issue this season though. First base and right field are another matter, ditto the pitching staff. And the bench too, I suppose. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it all down.

1. Competition is good! There seems to be this sense that when you’re a rebuilding transitioning team, the best thing to do is throw the kids out there and let them sink or swim. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, there comes a point when you have to run a young player out there everyday to help him develop, but handing players jobs? Nah. That should be reserved for the best of the best.

Besides, competition between young players is good and healthy. They push each other to get better and it helps foster that “be the best player you can be” mentality. That’s a good thing. “We want a team full of good players. That’s how we’re going to win games,” said Greg Bird to Kuty. “And that’s us competing or other people competing with each other makes us all better, than that’s what we want.”

2. There’s a wide range of outcomes at first base. A year ago at this time we were all thrilled about the future at first base, the same way we’re thrilled about the future at catcher right now. Bird burst onto the scene and played very well down the stretch last season. He wasn’t Sanchez, but he was pretty awesome. The Yankees really missed Bird this year. He would have helped at first base and DH big time.

Bird’s shoulder injury has created some questions about next season. How healthy will he be? How quickly will he be back at full strength? Will he ever get back to full strength? Bird told Kuty his shoulder feels great — “It’s stronger than what it was and it’s structurally sound now,” he said — and he’ll soon face live pitching in Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League, but until he gets out there everyday, we just can’t know what he’s capable of. This was a major injury.

With any luck, Bird will come back and pick up right where he left off last season, giving the Yankees a no-doubt answer at first base. There’s a chance he may need time at Triple-A to shake off the rust, however, in which case Tyler Austin becomes Plan A at first base. I guess? Austin or Rob Refsnyder. Maybe Brian McCann or Austin Romine? First base could be really good or really bad next season. Bird could rake or the Yankees could end up cycling through players all year in an effort to find a solution.

Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

3. Right field seems wide open. Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m guessing they’d tell you they want Aaron Judge to take the right field job in Spring Training and run with it. Of their in-house options, he has the best chance to become a middle of the order bat one day. “He will have to earn his way on to next year’s roster. There are no absolutes. Without question, he’ll be better for the experience,” said Cashman to Andrew Marchand.

Judge struggled to make contact this season and he’s losing reps now due to the oblique injury, which stinks. That’s valuable development time, even if it is only three weeks. His primary competition figures to be Austin, Refsnyder, Aaron Hicks, and Mason Williams. And you know what? The right field job could fall on two players via platoon or some kind of time share. It would be awesome if Judge won the job. I feel like anything could happen in right field though. Hicks everyday, a Williams/Austin platoon, whatever.

4. A veteran backup plan feels like a must. The Yankees have brought in a veteran bench player to cover first base and right field the last two years, and it didn’t work either time. Garrett Jones didn’t hit last year and Dustin Ackley blew out his shoulder this year. Neither played all that much either because the Yankees had pricey veterans in the lineup. It was a smart use of a roster spot that didn’t work out.

Since the Yankees are poised to go young at first base and in right field next year, bringing in a veteran backup plan for depth again makes sense, and this time at-bats should be easier to come by. Veterans like Teixeira and Carlos Beltran get the benefit of the doubt and stay in the lineup no matter what. A struggling kid could see a little more time in the bench just to get a mental break now and then.

We can sort through potential candidates for this role in the offseason — I’ll be beating the Steve Pearce drum this winter, so get ready for it (yes I know he’s having elbow surgery) — though it’s worth noting the Yankees have some options for this role themselves. Perfect world scenario is what, Bird at first and Judge in right with Austin and/or Refsnyder backing up both positions? I guess so, but a little veteran depth to protect against a Bird setback/Judge whiff-fest would be nice.

5. Severino shouldn’t be guaranteed anything. Competition for a rotation spot or a few bullpen spots is nothing new. I can’t remember the last time the Yankees didn’t have some pitching spots up for grabs in camp. I’m sure that’ll be true next year as well. Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Bryan Mitchell could all wind up competing for the fifth starter’s job, for example. That would be ideal, really.

Luis Severino presents an interesting case. He got hammered as a starter this season in two separate stints, but he’s also dominated out of the bullpen. The Yankees insist they don’t want to give up on him as a starter because he’s still so young and I believe them. But, because he was so bad a starter this season and lost feel for his changeup, Severino shouldn’t come to camp with a rotation spot locked up like he did this year. He should have to earn it like everyone else.

Severino is in the bullpen right now because he gives the Yankees the best chance to win. That’s all there is to it. He hasn’t thrown his changeup much in relief — seven of his 200 pitches this month have been changeups, so yeah — and that’s kind of a problem. His development as a starting pitcher should be the priority in 2017. If that means more time in Triple-A, so be it. Severino shouldn’t be handed a spot just because. That would be a mistake.

Thoughts following the final off-day of the 2016 season

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

Thirteen games in 13 days. That’s all the Yankees have left this year barring a miraculous run to the postseason. That seemed slightly less insane about a week ago. Now? Forget it. They’re as close to done as it gets without actually being done. Took a lot longer to get to this point than I expected, so that’s cool. Anyway, I have some thoughts on things and stuff.

1. In terms of on-field decisions, this has been a really bad season for Joe Girardi. The worst in his nine years as manager. That series in Fenway Park was maybe his worst in pinstripes. Between Austin Romine rather than Brian McCann facing Craig Kimbrel and James Pazos facing David Ortiz in a one-run game and CC Sabathia being hung out to dry, Girardi made a lot of really bad moves over the weekend. I’m not talking about moves that just didn’t work out. Every manager makes a ton of those throughout the season. I mean moves that didn’t make sense at the time. The “this doesn’t put the Yankees in the best position to succeed” moves that will occasionally get good outcomes. Overall, I think Girardi has done very well with the Yankees. They seem to overachieve each year and it’s not his fault they’re likely to miss the postseason this season. I just feel like there’s been no adjustments on his part. He manages the same way now that he did in 2008. Platoon matchups reign supreme and his bullpen management doesn’t extend much beyond assigning innings. I firmly believe managers have a shelf life. After a while their style and message get stale and it’s time for a new voice. I was on the fence about Girardi last year and, after this season, I’m at the point now where I think bringing in a new clubhouse leader would be best, especially as the Yankees embark on this “transition.”

2. Trading for a starting pitcher feels imperative this offseason, doesn’t it? A good starter, I mean. Not a fourth or fifth guy to chew up innings. They need someone to fill the role they hoped Michael Pineda (and Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino) would fill. Right now the rotation is one bonafide ace and four back-end starters. (At best.) The Yankees need more bulk innings and more quality innings from the rotation next season to have any chance at contention. None of their top pitching prospects, specifically Justus Sheffield and James Kaprielian, are all that close to the big leagues at the moment. This is a roster hole the Yankees will have to address from outside the organization. They have the prospects to do something big too. Clint Frazier and/or Jorge Mateo could be trade bait. Pitchers break, yes, but you need them too.

3. Second base in the wake of the Starlin Castro injury should be … interesting. Girardi said he plans to use Ronald Torreyes and Donovan Solano there, though the Yankees are probably best off using Rob Refsnyder at second. Torreyes is what he is and that’s a nice utility player. Solano’s a goner after the season. The Yankees are still trying to figure out what they have in Refsnyder, especially defensively. He’s fine in right. Not great, not a disaster. The infield is still a question. Once Aaron Hicks returns, which could be as soon as tonight, the Yankees will be free to move Refsnyder from right field to second base. Will it happen? Nothing suggests it will. The Yankees have been hesitant to play him at second everyday even when presented with the opportunity. It just seems like Refsnyder is a better use of those at-bats than Torreyes and Solano. That’s just me.

4. Is it bad that as soon as Jacoby Ellsbury got hurt, I worried about his trade value? I have no reason to believe the Yankees will move Ellsbury — he has a full no-trade clause anyway — but even the tiniest little chance they will trade him could take a hit with that injury. Ellsbury has played well the last few weeks and losing him hurts the team’s chances to make the postseason, however microscopic they may be, but that doesn’t change the fact his contract is a massive albatross. One of the worst in the game. If the Yankees can move him this winter, they should. Hopefully the knee injury doesn’t scary anyone away. There are enough reasons to steer clear of Ellsbury as it is.

5. There’s no reason for Billy Butler to play over Tyler Austin. The Yankees signed Butler to help against lefties and he’s done that, but with the Yankees falling out of the race, Austin should be the priority. He didn’t play any of the final three games of the Red Sox series, which included two games against lefties. Butler, meanwhile, played first base twice. Nope. Nope nope nope. Give me Austin over Butler at first eight days a week and twice on Sunday. If that means Butler has to sit the days Gary Sanchez serves as the DH, so be it. Butler’s a mercenary. He won’t be around much longer — the Yankees can do better at DH next season, re-signing Butler wouldn’t make too much sense — but Austin might be. The kids should be the priority. Playing Butler over Austin is an “old” Yankees move.

Layne. (Ed Zurga/Getty)
Layne. (Ed Zurga/Getty)

6. What do you think, is there any chance Tommy Layne and Blake Parker last the offseason and stick with the Yankees into next year? The upcoming 40-man roster crunch is so severe that my guess is no. The Yankees will need the roster spots for younger players. The fact keeping those two is even a conversation worth having is pretty unexpected though. Maybe they’ll survive the first round of roster cuts the day after the end of the World Series but be on the block later in the winter once space gets tight. We’ll see. The Yankees need to do something about their bullpen. Really the entire pitching staff behind Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances. The other ten pitching roster spots can all be improved.

7. Speaking of the 40-man roster, Johnny Barbato‘s spot can’t be too safe right now, huh? He didn’t get a September call-up this year despite being on the Opening Day roster. Maybe they’ll call him up after Scranton plays in the Triple-A Championship Game tonight, though given the way the Yankees called up everyone as soon as possible without regard for the RailRiders’ postseason roster, I’m guessing no. They haven’t even given Barbato a courtesy call-up to evaluate him across a handful of innings or anything like that. I like Barbato though. He’s got a lively fastball and two breaking balls. That’ll work in middle relief as long as you throw strikes, which is a question with pretty much every young pitcher. Barbato wouldn’t be among the first guys I’d drop from the 40-man roster this offseason, but it seems the Yankees disagree. No September call-up doesn’t bode well for his future with the organization.

8. I will admit to looking over the list of upcoming free agents in an effort to find the inevitable ex-Red Sox player the Yankees will sign this offseason. They seem to do it every year. Even after signing zero free agents last winter, the Yankees made up for it by plucked Layne off the scrap heap after he was released by Boston. Ellsbury, Andrew Miller, Matt Thornton, Kevin Youkilis, Johnny Damon … this goes back a long way. The BoSox don’t have a ton of players scheduled to become free agents after the season, so the Yankees won’t have much to choose from. There’s Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler, Aaron Hill, and Clay Buchholz if his option is declined, which I don’t think it will be. Meh. Tazawa’s the best of the bunch — in terms of expected future performance that is, not current performance — almost by default. I could totally see the Yankee signing him to help shore up their middle innings too. Sigh. This feels inevitable.

9. As of yesterday, the Yankees are on track to pick 16th overall in the 2017 draft. The absolute lowest they can fall — this means losing every single game the rest of the way — is seventh overall. Realistically, they’d have to go something like 2-11 the rest of the season to get a protected top ten pick, and I have a very hard time believing that’ll happen. Call me an optimist. I’m not sure there will be any free agents worth forfeiting a draft pick to sign anyway. Yoenis Cespedes, Edwin Encarnacion, and Kenley Jansen. That’s about it. I don’t see the Yankees spending for Cespedes or Encarnacion, and I think they’d go for Aroldis Chapman before Jansen. They know Chapman and he won’t cost a draft pick after being traded midseason. In all likelihood New York’s first round pick will be in the 13th to 18th overall range, which is where it’s been the last two years.

Monday Night Open Thread

The Yankees have an off-day today, their final off-day of the regular season, and thank goodness for that. I need a night away from baseball after that disaster of the series in Boston. So, with no Yankees game tonight, I command you read Mark Teixeira’s Q&A with Ken Rosenthal and Andrew Marchand’s story on Gary Sanchez. Teixeira spoke about his career at length. Marchand wrote about Sanchez’s rise from immature minor leaguer to rookie sensation. Make sure you check ’em out.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Mets are playing tonight and MLB Network is airing a regional game. There’s also Monday Night Football (Eagles vs. Bears) and the World Cup of Hockey. Talk about those games, the Teixeira and Sanchez stories, or anything else here. Have at it.

Rosenthal: Rangers made last minute push for Ivan Nova

(Andy Lyons/Getty)
(Andy Lyons/Getty)

According to Ken Rosenthal (video link), the Rangers made a last minute push for Ivan Nova prior to the August 1st trade deadline. The two sides exchanged proposals, and Rosenthal says talks occurred so late they might not have had time to review medical information before the deadline. Nova was instead traded to the Pirates for two prospects.

Nova, 29, had a tough start yesterday but has generally been very good for Pittsburgh. He has a 2.93 ERA (2.67 FIP) in nine starts and 55.1 innings since the trade deadline. Nine starts since the deadline? Was it really that long ago? Geez. Anyway, I’m guessing more than one team made a run at Nova before the deadline given the general need for pitching around the league. I have a few thoughts on this.

1. What would have been a comparable package from Texas? The Yankees received two players to be named later for Nova and they were legitimate prospects: outfielder Tito Polo and lefty Stephen Tarpley. They’re not high-end prospects — the Yankees traded Ivan Nova, not Greg Maddux — but they’re bonafide prospects with a chance to help the Yankees at the big league level or as trade chips at some point.

Both Tarpley and Polo were at High-A at the time of the trade. Tarpley’s a bit of a ‘tweener in that he has quality stuff but may lack the command to start long-term, while Polo is a toolsy player who may profile best as a fourth outfielder. Using MLB.com’s top 30 Rangers prospects list, here’s a list of comparable Rangers prospects:

  • RHP Pedro Payano: “Payano may lack a plus pitch, but he has three effective offerings and knows how to use them.”
  • RHP Jonathan Hernandez: “Hernandez may not have more of a ceiling than No. 4 starter, he’s a safe bet to remain in the rotation and could advance quickly.”
  • RHP Tyler Ferguson: “The bullpen might be the best destination for him anyway, because he’ll never have fine command and has yet to show aptitude for throwing an offspeed pitch.”
  • OF Jose Almonte: “Almonte’s below-average speed and quickness precipitated his move from third base but shouldn’t prevent him from becoming a competent right fielder.”

This isn’t an apples to apples comparison, of course. I was just looking for Single-A players who fit the “maybe a starter, likely a reliever” and “toolsy fourth outfielder” profiles. The Rangers system isn’t all that deep in those types of players. They have a lot of teenage infielders in the back of their top 30 prospects list.

Anyway, the point is the Yankees probably weren’t missing out on anything great by trading Nova to the Pirates instead of the Rangers. Some Single-A prospects with iffy profiles work out. Most don’t. That’s baseball.

2. The Yankees had to trade Nova. I have a hard time believing anyone would think otherwise. The Yankees sat 5.5 games back of a wildcard spot and they were coming off four straight losses the morning of the trade deadline. They had just been swept by the last place Rays. There was no reason to think they would miraculously storm back into the race, even temporarily.

Nova is an impending free agent and he was not a qualifying offer candidate because he’d pitched to a 4.99 ERA (4.98 FIP) in 191.1 innings following Tommy John surgery. They could either keep him, get another 12-13 mediocre starts, then lose him for nothing after the season, or they could trade him for some lottery tickets. Regardless of whether Nova went to the Rangers or Pirates or some other team, the Yankees were smart to move him.

3. No, the Yankees shouldn’t try to re-sign Nova. Nova’s the big winner here because there seems to be a belief that the Pirates are magicians and can fix any pitcher — why did they have to trade for Nova in the first place if that’s true? — and Nova is the latest example. Someone’s going to pay him good money in the weak free agent class, the same way J.A. Happ and Edinson Volquez made more than expected after leaving Pittsburgh.

Does that mean the Yankees should try to re-sign Nova? That’s an easy no for me. I’m not convinced his recent success is the result of anything more than a favorable schedule — he’s faced the Reds, Brewers, and Phillies six times in his nine starts — and a friendly home ballpark in the non-DH league. Nova might only be fixed the same way Phil Hughes was fixed with the Twins in 2014. Ivan’s going to get paid this winter and good for him. The 700-something innings in pinstripes far outweigh the 50-something innings with the Pirates in my opinion.

Rob Refsnyder isn’t hitting for any power and he wants to change that next season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since the trade deadline the Yankees have started a legitimate youth movement by calling up top prospects Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, as well as others like Tyler Austin and Ben Heller. Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell are in the rotation as well, though that’s largely due to necessity.

The one young player who predates all those guys is Rob Refsnyder, who was up briefly last season and has spent much of this year on the big league roster. He’s appeared in 54 games with the Yankees this season and figures to be a lineup regular the rest of the way thanks to the Starlin Castro and Jacoby Ellsbury injuries.

The 25-year-old Refsnyder has not had much of an impact at the plate this year, hitting .248/.334/.309 (70 wRC+) with zero home runs and only nine doubles in 171 plate appearances. He will work a walk (9.9%) and make contact (16.4% strikeouts), but not much more than that. For a bat-first (bat-only?) player, that’s not enough to stick around.

Refsnyder wants to change that. He wants to add some power to his game this offseason and he’s got a plan to make that happen. Here’s what Refsnyder told David Laurila over the weekend:

“I’m going to try to hit home runs next year,” Refsnyder told me on Friday. “I’ve had a lot of good conversations with people and I’m going to try to completely change my game. I think it will help my career.”

“I’m going to go back to the drawing board and watch a lot of video,” said Refsnyder. “I’ll probably watch a lot of (Brian) Dozier video. Dozier doesn’t have too long of a swing — he’s pretty short and compact — and his pull rate is really high. I’ll look at Daniel Murphy, too. He changed his game from being more of a contact guy — trying to put the barrel on the ball — to pulling the ball in the air.

“I’m never going to be one of those guys who hits for opposite-field power. That’s OK. Mookie Betts pulls the ball with the best of them. He goes the other way, but not for opposite-field home runs. Mookie and Dozier are the type of guys I need to look at.”

It’s an interesting thought, a non-power hitter trying to become a power hitter, and it’s not unprecedented. Refsnyder has identified the right guys to study — Dozier and Betts have both hit for far more power in the show than they were expected to in the minors — though as a right-handed hitter, he won’t benefit from the short porch by adopting their pull heavy approach. That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth trying though. I have some thoughts.

1. He needs to do more offensively to stick around. Simply put, Refsnyder will never be much of an asset in the field. He’s worked hard to pick up first and third base this season and that’s good. We haven’t seen him at third yet, but at least now Refsnyder’s an emergency option here. He’s spent plenty of time at first and second bases with the Yankees, and in the corner outfield.

The versatility is nice, but Refsnyder’s overall defense isn’t very good. It’s not even average, really. For him to have value and staying power in the big leagues, he’s going to have to hit and hit big. A bad defensive utility man with a .600-something OPS is not the most valuable player in the world, you know? No one expects Refsnyder to become a 40-homer guy like Dozier (seriously, wtf?), but getting to 15-20 homers would be huge.

2. He can cover the plate and drive inside pitches. There’s more to being a pull hitter than looking for a pitch inside and yanking it down the line. Pitchers aren’t stupid, they know when hitters are trying to pull the ball, which is why they’re going to stay on the outer half of the plate. For all their warts, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann have been really good at punishing outside pitches the last few years.

As you might expect given his strikeout and contact (83.8%) rates, Refsnyder does a really nice job covering the plate. He can reach outside pitches and put them in the play. At the same time, he does his most damage on inside pitches, when he can whip the bat around and pull the ball to left. Here are some strike zone heat maps. Contact rate is on the left and ISO is on the right. You can click the image for a larger view and I recommend doing that so you can actually read it.

Rob Refsnyder contact and ISOThe brighter the red the better, the brighter the blue the … worser? Anyway, the contact heat map (left) shows Refsnyder can get the bat on the ball no matter where it is in the strike zone, inside or outside, up or down. Down-and-in is his one glaring hole and that’s not uncommon at all. The ISO heat map (left) shows that while Refsnyder can make contact all around the strike zone, the inside pitch is the only one he’s been able to drive in his MLB career.

Plate coverage is good! That’s a nice skill to have. Refsnyder’s ability to become a power hitter and hit more home runs is going to depend largely on whether he’ll be able to make consistent hard contact on pitches on the outer half. He had handle the inside pitch. The up-and-in pitch, to be more specific. Anything down and on the outer half of the plate is a different matter.

3. He needs to get the ball in the air more often. You’re not going to hit for power if you don’t hit the ball in the air, and so far this season Refsnyder has a 52.4% ground ball rate in the big leagues. It was 66.7% (!) last year. Here are his recent Triple-A ground ball rates:

2016: 53.9% in 230 plate appearances
2015: 59.2% in 522 plate appearances
2014: 53.2% in 333 plate appearances

Geez, that’s a lot of ground balls, huh? It’s no wonder Refsnyder hit only 35 home runs in just over 2,000 minor league plate appearances. He’s no Greg Bird when it comes to hitting the ball in the air. That’s for sure.

Moreso than driving outside pitches, figuring out how to get the ball in the air is going to be Refsnyder’s top priority as he works to hit for more power. This is a must. Only four players have a .170+ ISO and a 50%+ ground ball rate over the last three years: Ryan Braun, David Peralta, A.J. Pollock, and Hunter Pence. Step one to hitting more homers is getting the ball airborne. Refsnyder knows that, I’m sure.

4. The upside outweighs the downside. The thought of a hitter revamping his hitting style and approach in an effort to hit more home runs can be scary. There’s a lot of muscle memory in Refsnyder’s swing and he’s going to have to alter it. What if the power hitting fails and he screws up his normal swing? It could be a career-ender.

It’s easy for me to say this because it’s not my livelihood on the line, but I think this is worth a shot. The upside is greater than the downside. As it stands, Refsnyder is basically a utility guy who might not be average on either side of the ball, and that’s a tough profile. Hitting for more power can help keep him in the big leagues longer. He doesn’t have to turn into Brian Dozier, he just has to do more than he has been. His current skill set may not be built to last.