The bullpen has been lights out, and a thin rotation means the Yankees need it to continue

So much bullpen. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
So much bullpen. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

Isn’t it funny how one thing can happen in Spring Training, then the exact opposite happens once the regular season begins? Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird tore the cover off the ball this spring, so of course they’re off to a combined 2-for-26 (.077) start during the regular season. Masahiro Tanaka was lights out in camp, then he couldn’t get out of the third inning on Opening Day. Chase Headley was invisible in March, and he’s been a one-man wrecking crew in April.

Through three games this season the offense has been at best inconsistent and at worst flat-out bad. Sanchez and Bird (and Matt Holliday) doing nothing in particular is the biggest culprit. No doubt about that. The rotation has been mostly poor too. Even in Tuesday’s win, CC Sabathia could only go five innings. None of this is surprising, of course. Young hitters have their ups and down, and the rotation looked questionable all offseason.

The only constant for the Yankees so far this season has been the bullpen. They’re carrying eight relievers and all eight have appeared in a game already, and they’re all tossing up zeroes. Here is the game-by-game bullpen work so far:

IP H R ER BB K GB/FB
Game One 5.1 5 0 0 1 7 8/6
Game Two 4 2 0 0 1 6 6/2
Game Three 4.1 0 0 0 2 4 5/4
Total 13.2 7 0 0 4 17 19/12

The bullpen has been phenomenal through three games, protecting the one lead they’ve been given and keeping the score close in the two games they were trailing. Adam Warren has been the super early pitching MVP so far. He’s faced 14 batters total in his two appearances, retired them all, and allowed only three balls out of the infield. Warren really should be in the rotation, but I digress.

The bullpen won’t be perfect all year, we know that, but the Yankees do figure to continue to rely on their relief crew heavily. Tanaka’s short start Sunday was an outlier. That was only the fourth time in his 76 starts with the Yankees that he failed to complete five innings. Sabathia might be a five-and-fly pitcher at this point of his career though. And who knows with Michael Pineda? Same with Luis Severino tomorrow and whoever ends up being the fifth starter.

“That has to change. You knew early on that you weren’t going to get a ton out of them, but you can’t live like that,” said Joe Girardi to Mike Mazzeo following last night’s game, referring to the two short starts within the first three games of the season. The problem is there’s no real reason to expect it to change. Last season the Yankees didn’t get many innings from their non-Tanaka starters — Tanaka averaged 6.44 innings per start in 2016 while all other Yankees starters averaged 5.47 innings per start — and the personnel is the same.

The Yankees are prepared for these short starts, at least early in the season, because they’re carrying two long men in Warren and Bryan Mitchell in the bullpen. Three off-days within the first ten days of the regular season will help too. As rough as Tanaka’s and Pineda’s short starts were this week, they pitching staff is fine. The Yankees are not in a “crap our bullpen is shot for the next few days” situation. They have eight relievers and the off-days.

For now, the Yankees can survive these short starts. Their bullpen has been dynamite, and while the result is one win in three games, you can’t blame the relievers. They’ve held up their end of the bargain. I expect the offense to come around at some point, sooner rather than later. I don’t expect the non-Tanaka starters to provide much length though. The bullpen has been great and the Yankees will need it to continue being great to stay in the race this season.

Yankees fall to the Rays 4-1, lose their first series of the year

Well, the Yankees dropped the first series played in the 2017 season. On a bright side, the last time Yankees had a season opener in the Trop, they got swept (2012) so, uh, improvement? It was not an ideal series but they got plenty more games to go. Their losing formula tonight was simple: Michael Pineda got knocked around and the bats went silent.

Michael Pineda, like a deja vu

Mike Pineda allowed 27 homers last year, which was a 1.38 HR/9 rate. It’s not exactly dreadful but you want to see many fewer gopher balls from the starter.  He started this season the way he left off. Three pitches in, Pineda left a fastball up against Corey Dickerson, and he drove the ball over the left-center wall. 1-0 Rays. At least it wasn’t after two outs, right?… alright that’s not really a consolation.

Brian Blanco/Getty Images
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Pineda got into another jam in the second inning. After allowing a leadoff single to Steven Souza, he allowed a loud single to Logan Morrison – it was a flyball that hit the third catwalk and was automatically called a single. Aaron Judge could’ve caught it if not for that (I think). Stupid Tropicana Field. Anyways, Pineda struck out Tim Beckham for the first out of the inning. They got the second out on a force out at the home plate. However, with two outs and runners on second and third, Derek Norris hit a single to bring both of them in. 3-1 Rays. Starlin Castro got a little glove on it, but the ball was hit too hard.

Big Mike had a nice bounceback inning in the 3rd. However, naturally, he got into another jam in the fourth. Pineda’s final line: 3.2 IP, 8 H, 4 R (3 ER), 0 BB and 6 K’s, good for a 7.36 ERA and a 0.99 xFIP. That is the quintessential frustrating Big Mike numbers right there. He also got a decent amount of whiffs, getting 13 overall (8 of them from his slider). He got hit hard many times yet he struck out Evan Longoria twice. Enigma!

It’s only Pineda’s first start of the year. With his talent and the upcoming free agency, I’m sure he knows that he should be better than what he showcased tonight.

Cobb got’em cold

Brian Blanco/Getty Images
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

After giving up a 1-0 lead, the Yankees answered right back. Jacoby Ellsbury, leading off the second inning, hit a 91 mph fastball middle-in into the right field seats for a solo homer.

Well, that ended up being the only run the Yankees scored all game. Alex Cobb, who made a comeback last year from Tommy John surgery, had an ugly 8.59 ERA in 22.0 IP in 2016. However, the dude is talented. Prior to the surgery, he had a solid 2014 season in which he marked a 2.87 ERA in 166.1 IP. 2017 may well become Cobb’s comeback year. Not a lot of shame in getting shut down by him. Yankee hitters got flummoxed by his offspeed pitches (changeup and curve generated 12 whiffs combined). New York also went 0-for-9 in RISP chances, including 0-for-4 combined from Greg Bird and Aaron Judge. You have bad games like this. It happens.

Ellsbury got a base hit off of Rays closer Alex Colome to try to start a ninth-inning rally. However, Castro promptly grounded out into a double play to immediately kill the momentum. Chase Headley hit a single to reach the base but Judge flew out to end the game.

Bullpen warriors 

Another game, another scoreless outing by the Yankee bullpen. Tonight, they went 4.1 IP scoreless thanks to Tommy Layne, Adam Warren and Chasen Shreve. That’s a major silver lining from this game, if you ask me. However, if the starters don’t get it together and Joe Girardi has to run the bullpen like this frequently… it could turn ugly.

Anyways, focusing on what happened today: Adam Warren, how about that guy? He’s looked pretty awesome as a “guy to burn some innings out of the bullpen when the team is losing.” It’s not the sexiest job but it’s pretty vital to the team. Tonight, he threw 2.1 perfect innings while striking out four. He generated 8 whiffs in 32 pitches (so, hitters swung and missed on one out of every four pitches he threw), which is great. I don’t think I was ever enamored with the idea of having Warren in the rotation but he’s a blast to watch in certain bullpen roles. I’m a fan.

Miscellaneous

Gary Sanchez and Bird are combined 2-for-26 to start the season. It’s not what you want but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just one series. Just so happens that it’s also the very first of the year, which means that that’s all the numbers we have to see in evaluating their (very, very young) 2017 season. They’ll be fine.

On the other hand, Chase Headley is pretty hot to start this season. He’s 7-for-11 so far with two extra base hits (a double and a homer). I don’t think he’ll have an All-Star worthy season but it’d be good to have a solid-hitting Headley all season — just a wishful thought.

Another guy off to a hot start? Jacoby Ellsbury. He went 3-for-4 tonight, bringing his average up to .455. It’s way too early to read into this but I recall the hitting coach Alan Cockrell wanting Ellsbury to move his hitting point up front. It is something to follow and see as the season goes on. Would be a cool thing if that adjustment makes Ellsbury’s contract someone bearable for 2017.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

Here’s a box score from ESPN, video highlights from MLB.com and WPA graph from Fangraphs. If you watched this game, you probably have the idea of what the graph looks like.


Source: FanGraphs


The Yankees get another off-day tomorrow prior to their weekend series in Baltimore. If you’re going to Camden Yards to see any games this weekend, I’m jealous of you.

Game Three: Big Mike and the Rays

BIG MIKE IS HERE

I’m feeling optimistic today, so I decided to bring back the whole Big Mike Is Here shtick. If you’re not going to be optimistic about a guy prior to his first start of the season, when will you? Michael Pineda has a lot on the line this year, specifically money. It’s his contract year. I know I’m rooting for him to have a big walk year. It’ll help the Yankees win and help Pineda secure a nice contract in free agency.

The Yankees and Rays have split the first two games of this three-game series, and the two games were close to polar opposites. Masahiro Tanaka got knocked around on Opening Day, then yesterday CC Sabathia and various relievers held Tampa to five singles — four of which did not leave the infield — in the shutout win. Winning series is the name of the game. Keep winning series and you’ll be in a good place come September. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. 1B Greg Bird
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Michael Pineda

It’s another clear, warm, and humid night in St. Petersburg. The weather inside Tropicana Field is always pleasant though. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:10pm ET and you can watch on FOX Sports 1. There’s no YES broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Didi Gregorius (shoulder) started his throwing program today, not yesterday. The program runs two weeks. After that he’ll go on a minor league rehab assignment.

Wednesday Notes: Minor League Rosters, Payroll, Betances

Andujar. (Presswire)
Andujar. (Presswire)

The Yankees will wrap up their first series of the season later today, then enjoy yet another off-day tomorrow. Two off-days in a series at a domed ballpark. Not the best move by the schedule makers. Anyway, here are some bits of news and notes to check out.

Minor league rosters announced

The minor league regular season begins tomorrow and, over the last few days, the Yankees’ full season affiliates have started releasing their Opening Day rosters. The farm system is loaded, so the rosters are pretty exciting. Here are links to the rosters and the top 30 prospects at each level:

There’s always one roster holdout and that is High-A Tampa this year. They haven’t announced their roster yet. We can figure out which top 30 prospects are likely to be on the roster through the process of elimination though: RHP Domingo Acevedo, LHP Ian Clarkin, SS Kyle Holder, RHP James Kaprielian, SS/OF Jorge Mateo, LHP Josh Rogers, and RHP Dillon Tate. That’s a hell of a rotation.

3B Dermis Garcia is not on the Charleston roster and will instead start the season back in Extended Spring Training. Even without him, the RiverDogs are stacked. Non-top 30 prospects like IF Oswaldo Cabrera, SS Diego Castillo, OF Isiah Gilliam, RHP Nick Green, RHP Nick Nelson, RHP Freicer Perez, and C Donny Sands are all on the roster and worth knowing. Cabrera, Castillo, Nelson, Perez, and especially Sands could be top 30 prospects next year.

I should note that while Montgomery and Green are on the Triple-A and Double-A rosters, respectively, both will pitch for High-A Tampa tomorrow. The weather in the Northeast isn’t looking too good and the Yankees want to make sure those two get their work in and stay lined up for the fifth starter’s spot.

Yankees rank third in Opening Day payroll

According to the Ronald Blum, the Yankees opened the 2017 season with a $195M payroll, third highest in MLB. That’s down from $225M last year. The Dodgers (duh) rank first in payroll this year at $225M while the Tigers are second at $199.75M. This is the first time since 1993 that the Yankees are not among the top two teams in Opening Day payroll. Been a while, huh?

Keep in mind this payroll number reflects the Opening Day active roster and disabled list only, so the Yankees aren’t getting dinged for the $21M they have to pay Alex Rodriguez this season. Or the $5.5M they’re paying Brian McCann. Their payroll for luxury tax purposes is much higher. The Yankees are looking to get under the luxury tax threshold soon and the 2018 season will be their best chance to do it. A-Rod and CC Sabathia will be off the books, possibly Masahiro Tanaka as well.

Yankees, Betances discussed two-year deal

Dellin and Larry Rothschild. (Presswire)
Dellin and Larry Rothschild. (Presswire)

At some point prior to their arbitration hearing, the Yankees and Dellin Betances briefly discussed a two-year contract, reports Jon Heyman. We heard the two sides talked about a multiyear deal a few weeks ago, though now we know the term. It was a two-year deal, not a longer contract that would have bought out free agent years. The Yankees beat Betances in arbitration and will pay him $3M this season, not the $5M he was seeking.

Betances, 29, will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season. A two-year contract would have given him a nice little guaranteed payday and the team cost certainty over his next two seasons. These two-year “bridge” deals that buy out arbitration years but not free agent years are becoming quite popular around baseball. Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson, A.J. Pollock, Eric Hosmer, Todd Frazier, and Bryce Harper are among those who have signed one within the last few years. As good as Betances is, I’m totally cool with going year-to-year given his history of command issues.

Tiebreaker rules officially added in low minors

The extra inning tiebreaker rules have officially been approved for the low minors, according to Josh Norris. Extra innings in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, Arizona League, and Dominican Summer League will begin with a runner on second base. (The Yankees have affiliates in the GCL and DSL.) The rules will be in effect for the regular season only. Not the postseason. Also, the automatic intentional walk rule has been implemented at every level of the minors.

The extra inning tiebreaker rules were used during the World Baseball Classic and my gosh, they were terrible. Thankfully commissioner Rob Manfred said they are not being considered for MLB. They’re using the tiebreaker rules in the low minors to avoid overworking young pitchers, which is totally cool with me. Those games don’t mean anything — the crowds are basically friends and family at that level, so it’s not like there are many paying customers in attendance — and protecting the young players is the smart move. I’m guessing it’ll be only a matter of time until the tiebreaker rules make their way to other levels of the minors.

Reviewing Yankee Stadium’s new features

More food, more fun? (Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
More food, more fun?
(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

On Tuesday, the Yankees gave media members, including yours truly, a tour of the new features of Yankee Stadium and a tasting of the new menu items coming to the ballpark starting on Monday. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get right to it.

Above the Bullpens

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
View from Toyota Terrace area in right field (Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

The biggest thing to happen to the stadium this offseason was easily the ripping out of the bleacher seats closest to the centerfield batter’s eye. Many of the seats were obstructed view and the organization decided to go for more areas to socialize and walk around rather than need these seats, which were among the cheapest at the park.

What replaced it are multiple rows of standing room with table tops for food, bags, scorecards, etc in the Toyota Terrace (right field) and Frank’s RedHot Terrace (left field). It reminds me a lot of the area down the right field line at Progressive Field in Cleveland if you’ve ever visited that park. The first of these rows gets a really nice view of the bullpen, just like the old bleacher seats did, which makes it a prime spot to get to, whether you want to watch the Yankees’ guys warmup or to heckle the opposing relievers, if that’s something in which you’d like to partake.

If you’re further back in the terraces, you’ll still deal with some obstructed view of the rest of the outfield, but this also won’t be your ticketed seat, so you’re not necessarily tied down to a poor view as some would be in the past.

Perhaps the best feature of this new area is outlets. Beautiful, wonderful electricity! I’m sure the Yankees got plenty of complaints about the lack of places to charge your phone and they delivered with an area where you can both watch the live game and plug in, whether via a normal outlet or USB. I imagine there may be a day where there’s some sort of plug near all seats at ballparks, but that’s probably way off in the future. This is a pretty cool step though.

The batter’s eye area itself, now called the Masterpass Batter’s Eye Deck, has been expanded with more open space, charging stations and food. The view over the drink railings in centerfield is very pretty. There’s also plenty of new food in the terraces with new structures that include a bar and open space next to the new standing room sections.

New Food!

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
New Lobel’s (Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

I can’t say I’m a professional food critic, but I did have the opportunity to try a lot of the new food. There are signature foods to each new area, both the Masterpass deck and each terrace. The Frank’s RedHot Terrace in left field features the Yankee Dingers (which the chef joked were called that because they’re a real home run) and a sandwich with, you guessed it, Frank’s RedHot sauce. The Dingers are solid mini-burgers. Yay mini-burgers. The Toyota Terrace has four non-traditional kinds of baos. The vegetarian one, the cauliflower buffalo one, was a nice small treat.

The batter’s eye deck features new items, including a really tasty hand-pulled mozzarella sandwich. One of the better things I tried Tuesday.

Then, in section 134, there’s new Lobel’s food. I didn’t try their new burger/sandwich, which both appeared delicious, but I did go for their steak and potato fries. Those, seen above, look incredibly fattening but are really really good. Don’t know if the latter offsets the former, but hey, ballpark food!

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
Mighty Quinn’s (Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

The highlight of the new food was probably the addition of Mighty Quinn’s and Bareburger in section 132 (left field). The BBQ Mighty Quinn’s is serving up is legit and I can’t recommend the brisket sandwich enough. Bareburger has both a solid sandwich called El Matador (it features bison!) and a quality turkey burger. There are also new Jersey Mike’s and Ben & Jerry’s spots located in assorted sections throughout the park.

As always, the price for each new food item will be key. Each of the new food items, even the ones I didn’t try, look appetizing, but the price — which we’ll find out on Monday — will decide whether they are worthwhile fanfare. The tour emphasized that all of the food will be available to anyone going to the park and so it will depend not on your ticket but on your wallet whether you can go for the new treats.

Kid’s Clubhouse

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

Whether it’s with the Legends Seats restricting the ability of young fans to get autographs/interact with players or just the general vibe at times from the stadium, there was a feeling that the stadium isn’t kid/family friendly enough. That may still be true, but the team has taken a step towards fixing that with the creation of the Sunrun Kid’s Clubhouse (yes, there’s a corporate name on all of these new areas).

The space, which is on the first-base side of the 300 level, is 2,800 square feet or so of space for young children. A spot to throw wiffle balls at a player. A mock field. Essentially, a baseball-themed playground for young kids. There’s also a mother’s nursing station there, too.

It’s a good step for the park. There’s plenty of times where the Yankees seem to take themselves too seriously, but this area was most reminiscent of similar constructs at minor league parks. You’re not going to sustain a fanbase without young fans and there has to be a way to keep them entertained at the park. Not everyone is a crazy baseball fanatic from age three onwards.

AT&T Sports Lounge/Budweiser Party Decks

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

I’ll group these together because they’re both new areas featuring a bar and tables/seats near the normal concession area. The AT&T sports lounge in section 134 has plenty of large screen TVs that will be tuned to Yankees and non-Yankees games going on. It’s right next to all the new food selections, so it could be an area to sit and each.

Meanwhile, the Budweiser Party Decks are on the first base and third base sides of the 300 level. Some of the carts on the 300 level create these two stand-alone bars. Once again, more gathering areas. That definitely seems like it was a mandate from up above to create and this version of the stadium certainly has more than when originally constructed.

The new seating/standing room areas were certainly well designed and I expect them to be sought-after places to meet in the park. Whether someone buys the new Pinstripe Pass or has a regular seated ticket, they should be nice, particularly if you’re towards the front of the terrace area. The kid’s clubhouse and the assorted charging stations show that the team is at least making an effort to listen to fans, so it will be interesting to see the reception to those new amenities. If you get to the park this season, make sure to try these out and form your own opinions.

(Here are all my photos from yesterday’s trip to Yankee Stadium.)

The Yankees will need to find a new leadoff hitter soon, and they have plenty of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the past four seasons the Yankees have been set at the leadoff position thanks to Brett Gardner. He hit .262/.341/.400 (104 OPS+) as New York’s primary No. 1 hitter from 2013-16 compared to the .269/.330/.402 (102 OPS+) league average leadoff hitter. Through two games this season Gardner remains the leadoff hitter. There’s not much of a reason to expect that to change anytime soon.

In a perfect world either Jacoby Ellsbury, who is now hitting fifth rather than atop the lineup, or Gardner would continue to hit leadoff through 2020. Gardner’s contract is up following the 2018 season, though Ellsbury is signed another two years beyond that, and the Yankees would love to see him reemerge as a top of the lineup hell-raiser. The Yankees have only seen that guy in a Red Sox uniform. Not pinstripes.

Of course, players age, and both Gardner and Ellsbury will turn 34 later this year. Neither figures to be a legitimate leadoff caliber hitter much longer — heck, you could argue they aren’t worthy of hitting leadoff right now — the same way neither figures to be a legitimate center field option much longer. Players age, their skills diminish, and their roles are reduced. It’s the circle of baseball life.

At some point, perhaps as soon as later this year or as late as 2021, the Yankees will need to find someone else to hit leadoff. The smart money is on them needing to do so sooner rather than later. Within a year or two. The farm system is loaded, which is an obvious plus. Even if the Yankees can’t develop their next leadoff hitter, they’ll have the pieces to go out and make a trade. Or the cash to sign one because young MLB players are cheap and keep payroll down.

The way I see it, the Yankees have five possible paths to filling the leadoff spot for the foreseeable future. This of course means they’ll find a completely different way to fill the leadoff spot when the time comes, because that’s usually how things work out. Anyway, here are the five options to finding the next leadoff hitter.

Stay the Course

As always, doing nothing is an option. The Yankees could stick with Gardner and/or Ellsbury at the top of the lineup and hope it works. Ellsbury is signed another four seasons, after all. He’s going to be around whether the Yankees like it or not. The Yankees were willing to live with an unproductive Derek Jeter as their No. 2 hitter in 2014, so they’re not above suboptimal lineups, but obviously circumstances are a wee bit different. Neither Gardner nor Ellsbury have Jeter’s clout and standing in the organization. But still, the Yankees could stick with those two atop the batting order. Always an option.

Rely on the Farm System

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

The Yankees sure are relying on their farm system a lot these days, huh? Gary Sanchez is the starting catcher with no veteran safety net. Greg Bird is the everyday first baseman despite missing the entire 2016 season with shoulder surgery. The rotation? The Yankees are going to sink or swim with the kids. They have a lot of rotation options and are probably going to end up cycling through all of them at some point.

Among their top 30 prospects, the Yankees have three potential leadoff hitters: shortstop Jorge Mateo, shortstop/supersub Tyler Wade, and center fielder Dustin Fowler. You could squint your eyes and see someone like, say, Wilkerman Garcia as a future leadoff hitter, but he’s a very long way from the big leagues. Wade and Fowler will open the season in Triple-A and Mateo will be back at High-A with a chance for a quick promotion to Double-A.

Going from leadoff hitter prospect to actual big league leadoff hitter is a process with several steps. Remember, Gardner made his big league debut in 2008 and didn’t take over as the full-time leadoff hitter until 2013. Wade and Fowler have to perform at Triple-A and show the requisite skills for promotion, get called up, have enough success to stay in the lineup, and then have enough success to bat near the top of the lineup. Mateo is even further away than those two.

Now, that all said, every player has a different timetable. Gardner had to wait a few years before becoming a leadoff hitter, in part because the Yankees had some quality veterans to hit leadoff in the meantime. Those 2009-12 lineups were pretty awesome. Ellsbury, on the other hand, was a September call-up in 2007 who hit well enough to take over the leadoff hitter in 2008. Who’s to say Wade or Fowler won’t do the same next year? Either way, the Yankees have some potential leadoff options in the farm system, including at the upper levels.

An Unconventional Solution

Baseball is evolving. We’re not only starting to see sluggers like Sanchez hit second in the lineup, but some teams are even using players like that to hit leadoff. Kyle Schwarber is hitting leadoff for the Cubs. Corey Dickerson, who hit 24 home runs with a .293 OBP in 2016, is batting leadoff for the Rays. Curtis Granderson has hit leadoff for the Mets for much of the last three years. Adam Jones hit leadoff last year. Those guys don’t have traditional leadoff hitter skill sets, but they’re all good hitters, so their clubs decided to give them the most at-bats.

The Yankees could pursue something similar. Batting Sanchez leadoff probably won’t happen because he’s a slow catcher and teams still like their leadoff hitter to have some speed, but what about, say, Aaron Judge? Or even Bird? He projects to be a high on-base player and he can run a little too. What about Didi Gregorius as an Adam Jones-esque “he’ll sock some dingers but won’t have a high OBP” leadoff hitter? I suppose Starlin Castro fits that mold too. I’m not saying the Yankees should do something like this. I’m just saying it’s an option.

Free Agency

We’ve seen the Yankees dip into free agency for leadoff hitters a few times already. Example one: Ellsbury! Example two: Johnny Damon. Go back even further and you have example three: Wade Boggs. He hit leadoff for a while for both the Red Sox and Yankees. The Yankees seem to have a thing for ex-Red Sox leadoff hitters, huh? I guess that means we should expect them to one day sign … looks up Boston’s current leadoff hitter … oh geez not Dustin Pedroia.

Anyway, in all seriousness, acquiring a new leadoff hitter via free agency is always an option. Sometimes is works out (Boggs and Damon) and sometimes it doesn’t (Ellsbury). That’s free agency (and baseball in general) in a nutshell. Here’s a quick run down of leadoff types scheduled to hit free agency the next two years:

  • After 2017: Rajai Davis, Jarrod Dyson, Jon Jay, Yunel Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, Ben Revere, Jose Reyes
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, D.J. LeMahieu, A.J. Pollock, Jean Segura

The 2017-18 free agent class looks much more promising on the leadoff front. The 2017-18 class is basically Escobar and Nunez, and a bunch of part-timers who would in no way be upgrades over Gardner and Ellsbury.

That’s fine though. The Yankees are trying to get under the luxury tax threshold next season, so spending on a free agent leadoff guy might not make much sense anyway. They can stay in-house for the time being with Gardner and Ellsbury (and Wade and Fowler), then reevaluate things after the luxury tax rate has been reset for the 2018-19 offseason. So, long story short, free agency doesn’t offer any immediate leadoff help.

Future Yankee A.J. Pollock? (Presswire)
Future Yankee A.J. Pollock? (Presswire)

What About Trades?

I keep saying this and it bears repeating: the Yankees are going to have to trade some of their prospects, and fairly soon too. If they don’t, they’re going to start losing players for nothing on waivers or in the Rule 5 Draft. The great prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will remain with the Yankees for sure. The lesser prospects still have value though, and the Yankees surely want to maximize it.

Trying to figure out which teams could put their leadoff man on the trade block in the future is damn near impossible. Who would have guessed Segura would be made available after the season he had last year, and that the Mariners would give up Taijuan Walker to get him? I suppose Arizona could make Pollock available before he becomes a free agent, though would the Yankees make that move? They balked at three years of Chris Sale. We’re talking about fewer than two of Pollock.

The point is trading for a leadoff type is always an option, and because the Yankees are so deep in prospects, they’ll be able to get pretty much anyone they want. Should someone like, say, Manuel Margot break out with the Padres over the next year or two, he could be someone the Yankees target as a long-term leadoff hitter and center fielder. Same with the Twins and Byron Buxton. (That would be fun, wouldn’t it?)

* * *

I haven’t mentioned Torres as a leadoff option yet but I definitely should. Long-term, he projects as more of a true No. 2 or No. 3 hitter, someone who can hit for power and drive in runs. Many players with that profile started their careers as leadoff hitters though. Christian Yelich hit leadoff for the Marlins for a while. So did Manny Machado for the Orioles. Mookie Betts made the transition from leadoff hitter to No. 3 hitter last year. Gleyber has the skills to do the same.

Right now the center field position and leadoff spot are intertwined for the Yankees because of their personnel. It doesn’t have to — and won’t — stay that way forever. The Yankees have close to a clean slate when you think about it. Ellsbury is only long-term contract on the position player side. They’re in position to pursue a leadoff type at nearly any position. Gardner (and Ellsbury) can hold things down for the time being. Soon enough though, the Yankees will have to find a new table-setter.

Yankees 5, Rays 0: Torreyes and Headley lead Yankees to first win of 2017

The Opening Day losing streak may be at six years, but you know what? The Game Two winning streak is now at three years. Boom! The Yankees picked up their first win of the 2017 season Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. They beat the Rays 5-0.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Sabathia’s Resurgence Continues
Masahiro Tanaka was damn near perfect in Spring Training. He almost made it through the entire Grapefruit League season with a 0.00 ERA. Then, of course, he couldn’t make it out of the third inning on Opening Day. CC Sabathia, meanwhile, got knocked around all spring, then went out and tossed five scoreless innings in his first regular season start Tuesday night. Go figure.

The Rays, as teams tend to do, stacked their lineup with right-handed batters against Sabathia. Kevin Kiermaier and Brad Miller were the only lefties in the starting lineup, and you can understand why. Two years ago righties hit .304/.363/.502 (.370 wOBA) against Sabathia. Goodness. Adrian Beltre hit .300/.358/.521 (.371 wOBA) last season, for reference. The big man has a big platoon split late in his career.

As of past of last year’s renaissance, Sabathia picked up a cut fastball, which he used to bust righties in on the hands. That helped him hold opposite side batters to a .258/.325/.400 (.316 wOBA) batting line. That’s still not great, but it is a heck of a lot better than two years ago. Sabathia used the cutter to limit Tampa’s righty hitters to three hits and two walks in 14 plate appearances Tuesday, with two of three hits being infield singles. Here’s how Sabathia pitched those righties, via Brooks Baseball:

cc-sabathia-vs-rhb

Cutters inside — the new Trackman system is classifying them as four-seam fastballs for some reason, but watching the game, they sure looked like cutters — and everything else away. Sabathia struck out two and got eight ground ball outs, the latter of which is more important. At this point of his career Sabathia can’t blow hitters away. But if he can keep the ball on the ground, he’ll be in good shape. Nice work, CC. A fine season debut, this was.

Three Runs On A Role Reversal
You know, Matt Holliday is supposed to be the one launching home runs while Ronald Torreyes gets the BABIP luck, not the other way around. Naturally, Torreyes smacked the Yankees’ first home run of the season, a loud two-run shot in the third inning. He hit two homers in Spring Training, remember. Maybe he’s growing into some power. Then again, when Jake Odorizzi leaves an 86 mph cutter here …

ronald-torreyes-jake-odorizzi

… most hitters will drive the ball with authority. Torreyes did exactly that and the Yankees took a 2-0 lead, their first lead of the season. (Aaron Judge laced a line drive single back up in the middle as a previous batter despite being down in the count 0-2. Judge is looking pretty comfortable at the plate so far this year, at least compared to last year.)

Brett Gardner followed the Torreyes home run with a double into the right field corner — that was three straight hard-hit balls for the Yankees — so the Yankees were again in business. Then Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird struck out to put the rally on life support. Womp womp. Holliday picked them up by strategically lifting a pop-up into the catwalks in left field, which caused Peter Bourjos to lose sight of the ball. It bounced in for a run-scoring double. Smart move by Holliday. You can’t teach that kind of veteran experience. The Yankees were up 3-0 in the third.

Four Innings From The Bullpen
Sabathia escaped a little two-out jam in the fifth inning — he walked Bourjos and gave up an infield single to Steven Souza, then got Kiermaier to hit a tapper back to the mound — and Chase Headley gave the Yankees an insurance run in the next half inning. He smacked a solo home run off whatever the hell that thing is in center field at the Trop. Last season Headley didn’t hit his first home run until May 12th. He got it out of the way early this year.

With a 4-0 lead and off-days galore these first ten days of the season, Joe Girardi went to his top relievers to close out the game. Bryan Mitchell needed nine pitches to cut through the middle of the Rays lineup in the sixth inning. Tyler Clippard struck out two in a perfect seventh inning. Headley was nice enough to drive in another insurance run in the eighth, this time with a shift-beating ground ball single. That’s four shift-beaters in two games. Headley also stole a base. He’s sneaky good at that. It was the Yankees’ first steal of the year.

Once the lead was stretched to 5-0, Girardi went to Jonathan Holder for the eighth, not Dellin Betances. Holder allowed two dinky infield singles — the Rays had five hits on the night, four of which were infield singles — before giving way to Betances, who walked Longoria to load the bases with one out. Never easy. Betances escaped the jam with a strikeout (Rickie Weeks) and a weak grounder to first (Logan Morrison). Aroldis Chapman cruised through the ninth with ease. Five relievers, four scoreless innings.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Leftovers
Sanchez went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and is now 0-for-10 with three strikeouts on the season. Bust! Back to Scranton he goes. In all seriousness, Sanchez had a double taken away by Longoria, who made a nice play at the line, and he also smashed a line drive right at the shortstop. This isn’t one of those “he’s flailing at everything!” slumps. This is one of those “bah, he’s hitting into some bad luck” slumps. It’s not even a slump. It’s two games! He’ll be fine.

Everyone in the starting lineup had a hit except Sanchez and Starlin Castro. Jacoby Ellsbury had two hits, the first a hard-hit grounder that hit Odorizzi and deflected away from the defenders, and the second a ground ball double down the line. Holliday hit what I thought was his first home run of the season in the eighth inning. He hit it hard, but the ball just died and was caught at the warning track. Too much topspin, I guess.

Judge’s wingspan turned a double into a single in the first inning. Longoria stroked a line drive single to right field — it was Tampa’s only hit to leave the infield — and Judge was able to run over and reach out to grab the ball before it rolled to the wall, limiting Longoria to one base. Being nine feet tall has its advantages.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Go to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. Don’t miss our Bullpen Workload page either. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The first rubber game of the season. The Yankees and Rays will close out this three-game series Wednesday night. Michael Pineda and Alex Cobb are the scheduled starters.