Yankees have no plans to put Cito Culver on the mound

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It has been six years since the Yankees selected shortstop and Rochester native Cito Culver with their first round pick in the 2010 draft (32nd overall), and since then he’s lost his prospect status because he’s been unable to develop offensively. Culver is a career .228/.306/.313 (80 wRC+) hitter in over 2,600 minor league plate appearances. Baseball is hard.

There has been some speculation — from fans, mostly — the Yankees may soon try Culver on the mound since his has a strong arm and the bat isn’t developing. The team has no plans to do so, however. Here’s what farm system head Gary Denbo told Chad Jennings earlier this week:

“No,” Denbo said (when asked about moving Culver to the mound), without hesitation. “No, he’s a valuable guy. It’s difficult to find guys with his defensive abilities, so he’s got value as a player that can move around the field and play defense for us. Overall, his value eventually will be determined by how well he makes these offensive adjustments.”

Culver, now 23, did pitch back in high school. In fact, I remember when the Yankees drafted him, his MLB.com draft video was him pitching, not playing shortstop. I can’t find the video now, unfortunately. (UPDATE: Commenter ZachA found the video. Here it is.) Here’s a snippet of Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report (subs. req’d):

Culver’s best tool is his arm, which rates as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Some scouts report seeing him up to 94 mph off the mound, but he has no interest in pitching.

The hitter-to-pitcher conversion is fairly common — current Yankees farmhand Luis Cessa and ex-Yankee Esmil Rogers are converted shortstops — and it’s really never too late to make the transition. Former outfielder Jason Lane made the transition at 35 and actually reached the big leagues as a pitcher, so there’s no such thing as too late.

The Yankees have a full infield at Triple-A Scranton, so it seems like the best case scenario for Culver this year is being Tyler Wade’s double play partner at Double-A Trenton. That will only happen if the team decides to give Abi Avelino more time in High-A, however. Denbo called Culver an “Infield 5 player,” which sounds like a nice way to say utility infielder.

Culver will be a minor league free agent after the season, and middle infielders are always in demand, so I’m sure he’ll find another job somewhere around the league next winter. Can he reach the show as an infielder? It seems unlikely. I wonder if Cito will decide at some point to give pitching a try in hopes of reaching the show. Right now though, that is not the plan, so another year on the infield it is.

A Full Season of Nasty Nate? [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees saw two versions of Nathan Eovaldi last season. They saw the frustrating, hit prone version with good stuff and bad results. Then they saw the guy with swing and miss stuff and the ability to dominate a lineup. The difference was the splitter and the numbers do not lie: Eovaldi had a 4.95 ERA (3.95 FIP) with a 15.8% strikeout rate without the splitter and a 3.46 ERA (2.90 FIP) with a 20.2% strikeout rate with it.

Elbow inflammation ended Eovaldi’s season in early-September last year, though he healed up and was ready to go as a reliever had the Yankees advanced to the ALDS. (He didn’t have time to stretch out to start.) Eovaldi has been throwing 98-99 mph in his two Grapefruit League starts, so the elbow’s healthy. Now the Yankees can look forward to having a full season of the good version of Eovaldi, the guy with an out-pitch splitter. Here are three questions I have for 2016.

Can He Pitch Deeper Into Games?

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild had Eovaldi start the season with a true forkball so he could get used to having his fingers so far apart on the baseball. After a while he shortened him up to the splitter grip, which is when he took off. With the forkball grip, Nate averaged 3.78 pitches per plate appearance. With the splitter grip, he averaged … 4.06 pitches per plate appearance. The split didn’t make him more efficient.

Right now, it’s more than fair to say Eovaldi is a five and fly pitcher. He made 27 starts last year and he completed six full innings only eleven times. Nasty Nate was a drain on the bullpen. He was able to give some more length after learning the splitter, but not much more. That’s the next item on the development checklist. Learn how to pitch deep into games and become a 200-inning horse.

How does that happen? Eovaldi’s walk and overall strike rates are fine, so he’s not a guy who nibbles. He’s just a guy who gives up a lot of foul balls, and I’m not sure how to correct that. Change in pitch selection? Again, Eovaldi’s first pitch strike rate was good, so he has no trouble getting ahead in the count. He has to figure out how to finish hitters off in a timely fashion. This is something for Eovaldi and Rothschild to figure out. I’m just the messenger, you guys.

Is He Going To Use His Curveball?

When he reported to Spring Training, Eovaldi said he intends to work on his curveball in camp, though we haven’t really seen it yet. (Only two starts though.) I’m not sure working on a fourth pitch is worth the effort, but hey, if it’s something he can improve, great. The curve could be the key to getting some quicker outs and pitching deeper into games.

Eovaldi has two good pitches already in his fastball and splitter, and his slider is effective now that it’s his third pitch and not his second pitch. Spring Training is the time to mess around, though I feel like any time spent on the curveball would be better spent on the slider. The curve has been that bad all throughout his career, dating back to high school. Meh, I guess there’s no harm in trying. Maybe Rothschild can figure something else. Four-pitch Eovaldi would be something. I’d be happy with three good pitches Eovaldi.

Can He Keep The Ball In The Park Again?

Last summer Eovaldi allowed only ten homers in 154.1 innings, which is nutso. He allowed one more homer than Luis Severino in 92 more innings. Eovaldi had a 0.58 HR/9 and a 7.8 HR/FB% last year, which seems totally unsustainable in Yankee Stadium, except his career rates are 0.63 HR/9 and 7.1 HR/FB%. His home/road split was non-existent too:

Home: 0.57 HR/9 and 8.1 HR/FB%
Road: 0.59 HR/9 and 7.5 HR/FB%

Eovaldi’s ground ball rate was well-above-average last year (52.2%) but not insanely so. He’s not Dallas Keuchel or anything like that. (Keuchel in 2015: 61.7 GB%, 0.66 HR/9, 13.6 HR/FB%.) It’s weird. For all the hits he can give up, hitters rarely square Eovaldi up and hit the ball in the air with authority. His career homer numbers are fantastic, and we’re talking about a guy with over 600 career innings.

Would it be a surprise if Eovaldi’s home rate jumped this season simply because of Yankee Stadium? Of course not. A windy night could turn two lazy fly ball outs into two cheap short porch homers. Clearly though, Eovaldi has some kind of homer suppressing skill. Maybe it’s just the pure velocity; hitters can’t get around on Eovaldi’s fastball quick enough to really square him up. After all, most rallies against him look like this:

Nathan Eovaldi Red Sox rally2

Single after single, grounder with eyes after grounder with eyes. It almost seems like hitters get just enough of the pitch to find a hole, but not enough to do major damage. Even while pitching his home games in Yankee Stadium, Eovaldi held opponents to a .093 ISO last summer. Here is the full list of pitchers who held hitters to a sub-.100 ISO in 2015 (min. 150 IP):

  1. Jake Arrieta – .086
  2. Zack Greinke – .089
  3. Clayton Kershaw – .089
  4. Tyson Ross – .092
  5. Nathan Eovaldi – .093
  6. Gerrit Cole – .097
  7. Dallas Keuchel – .097
  8. Sonny Gray – .099

That is some company, eh? Keep doing that, Nate. This pitching thing will work out for you.

* * *

The Yankees have all sorts of injury questions in their rotation, so Eovaldi is one of their healthier starters by default. Masahiro Tanaka has the partial ligament tear in his elbow, CC Sabathia‘s knee is bone-on-bone, and Michael Pineda‘s shoulder was cut open not too long ago. Eovaldi is almost a decade removed from Tommy John surgery, and since then he’s only had a little inflammation here and there.

Eovaldi just turned 26 years old and he’s two years away from free agency. This is a big year for him. It’s the year to establish himself as a big time pitcher, someone who can use his splitter to get above-average results and throw a lot of innings. The Yankees go to great lengths to give their starters extra rest, so they’re doing their part. Now it’s time to see if the splitter really is the cure-all it seemed to be.

Spring Training Game Thread: McCann Returns

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Four days after taking a foul tip to the knee, Brian McCann returns to action this afternoon and will indeed squat behind the plate. He’s not easing back into things as the DH. This seems like one of those injuries McCann would have played through during the regular season, but because it’s Spring Training, the Yankees gave him a few days. No reason to push it.

On other news, Masahiro Tanaka is on the mound this afternoon, making his third start of Grapefruit League play. I imagine he’s scheduled for something like four innings and 60 pitches. Tanaka has two more spring starts after this one and he remains on track to start Opening Day. All good news so far. Here is the Pirates’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. SS Starlin Castro
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. C Brian McCann
  4. 3B Chase Headley
  5. 1B Dustin Ackley
  6. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  7. LF Chris Denorfia
  8. DH Carlos Corporan
  9. CF Slade Heathcott
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Available Pitchers: RHP Luis Severino, according to Chad Jennings. With Tanaka going four innings and Severino presumably ready to go five innings, those two might be the only pitchers the Yankees use this afternoon.

Available Position Players: Not sure, sorry. None of the reporters in Florida have tweeted out photos of the lineup card the last few days, so we’re in the dark. Surprises are fun anyway. It’s like Christmas morning.

It’s a nice Florida spring afternoon in Bradenton, meaning sunny, temperatures in the 80s, and just enough humidity to make fans stick to their seats. There is no YES broadcast or live MLB Network broadcast of today’s game. If you’re in the Pirates’ home market, you can watch on ROOT Sports. Otherwise your only option is MLB.tv. MLB Network will show the game on tape delay at 6am ET tomorrow morning. Yeesh. I love baseball, but I’m not waking up that early to watch it. Enjoy the game.

Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.

As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez

I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.

Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.

The Leadoff Man

This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.

The Two-Hole

An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.

An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.

Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.

There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.

The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.

2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.

That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.

The Bottom Third

I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.

In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.

Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.

So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:

  1. Ellsbury
  2. Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
  3. Rod
  4. Teixeira
  5. Beltran
  6. McCann
  7. Headley
  8. Gregorius
  9. Castro

Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.

Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.

March 16th Camp Notes: Gardner, McCann, Relievers

The Yankees beat the Blue Jays by the score of 2-1 earlier tonight. Brett Gardner went 0-for-2 in his spring debut after dealing with a wrist problem earlier in camp. He told Jack Curry everything went well and he’s scheduled to play again Friday. Starlin Castro hit a two-run homer while Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rodriguez, and Chase Headley each had one hit.

Nathan Eovaldi started and did not allow a hit or a run, but he reached his pitch count (45-ish) after only two innings. He struck out two and walked two. Aroldis Chapman, Diego Moreno, and Branden Pinder each struck out a pair in a scoreless inning. The Yankees struck out 13 batters total in the game. Here is the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the little bit of notes from Tampa:

  • Brian McCann is feeling better after taking that foul tip to the knee the other day. “I still might wait one more day,” said Joe Girardi. “He was much better today and he was talking about playing (Wednesday), but I said, ‘Let’s just see.’ If you feel it at all, it’s kind of silly in Spring Training to send you out there.” [Mark Feinsand]
  • Now that Grapefruit League play is two weeks old, Girardi said he will begin to evaluate the shuttle relievers and determine who will make the club. “This is the time when they have to start showing us what they can do and try to make the club,” he said. [Bryan Hoch]
  • Following Goose Gossage’s latest nonsensical tirade, Brian Cashman said the Yankees won’t waste time talking to him again. Girardi pointed out Gossage has freedom of speech, but not “freedom of consequences.” Joe gets it. [Brendan Kuty, Jared Diamond]

The Yankees will be on the road to play the Pirates tomorrow afternoon. Day game on the road after a night game? Guessing we won’t see many regulars. Masahiro Tanaka is lined up for that start. There will be no YES or live MLB Network broadcast of the game. You’ll be able to watch on MLB.tv though.

Spring Training Game Thread: Gardner’s Debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this spring, Brett Gardner is in the Yankees’ lineup. Gardner is making his Grapefruit League debut tonight after nursing a bone bruise in his left wrist earlier in camp. He originally hurt himself crashing into the wall to make a catch in the wildcard game. Gardner has been taking batting practice and all that the last few weeks. Now it’s time to get into a game. He’s scheduled for three at-bats.

Nathan Eovaldi will make his second spring start tonight after being slowed by a minor groin pull. He looked really sharp in his first outing — Eovaldi was already hitting 99 in early-March — and hopefully that carries over tonight. The starters have been quietly excellent this spring. They have a 2.48 ERA in 32.2 innings even with Luis Severino getting rocked in his first start. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup, which looks awfully close to the lineup they figure to send out there on Opening Day:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

Available Pitchers & Position Players: No idea, sorry. None of the reporters in Tampa posted the lineup card anywhere. Seems like Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are both lined up to pitch today though. We’ll see.

Not a bad night for baseball in Tampa. A tad cloudy and cool, but not rainy or windy or anything. Tonight’s game will begin at 6:30pm ET and you can watch on YES and MLB.tv. MLB Network is not showing the game live, but they will show it on tape delay at 12:30am ET later tonight. Enjoy the game.

Ivan Nova is showing off a slightly new delivery in Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any measure, the 2015 season was close to a disaster for Ivan Nova. He returned from Tommy John surgery at midseason and had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings, which temporarily cost him his rotation spot in September. His strikeouts were down and lefties crushed him. It was not a good year at all.

After a season like that, a pitcher and his pitching coach are going to look for answers. It’s reasonable to expect Nova to improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery, sure, but that can’t be the only solution. Nova and pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to figure something out, and it appears that something is a slightly revamped delivery. Here is 2015 Nova (on the left) vs. 2016 Nova (right):

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016

Nova is no longer going over his head during his delivery. I can’t tell if that’s the only difference, but it is the most obvious difference. Nova was not bringing his hands over his head in last Wednesday’s start against the Mets, his only other televised outing of the spring, so this has been going on for a while now. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing last night.

As far as I can tell, neither Nova nor Rothschild has talked about the reworked delivery with reporters this spring, so we’re stuck guessing why the changes were made. How exactly does keeping his hands at his chest during his delivery help Nova? In my totally amateur opinion, this right here looks like the biggest benefit of Nova’s new mechanics:

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016 head

When Ivan brought his hands over his head, he turned his head down toward the ground for a few moments. With his new mechanics, Nova is able to keep his head forward and his eyes on the target the entire time. Before he would pick up his target, begin his delivery, look at the ground, then pick up the target again. Now he never takes his eyes off the catcher.

That … seems like kind of a big deal? We’ve all played catch before. When you focus on your target you tend to be more accurate. At least I do. I don’t know if this is the reason behind the mechanical change, but it does seem like a benefit. Nova no longer has to pick up his target in the middle of his delivery. And considering the majority of his issues are command related (fat pitches over the middle of the plate) and not stuff related, this might be a big help.

We’ll see. We’ll see if it helps and we’ll see if Nova sticks with it. Nova and Rothschild have clearly identified this as some kind of potential solution. Remember, Ivan had been bringing his hands over his head his entire career. Now he’s no longer doing it and that’s a big deal. There’s a lot of muscle memory that has to be changed. Making an adjustment like this is not as easy as it looks.

Nova has thrown well so far this spring (two runs in nine innings), and while he may not have a rotation spot come Opening Day, he’ll inevitably get a chance to start this summer. If these new mechanics help him be effective, Nova stands to make himself a lot of money as a free agent next winter.