Position Battles of Note [2016 Spring Training Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The long marathon that is the 2016 season will begin Thursday, when Yankees pitchers and catchers report to Tampa for Spring Training. Position players will follow next Wednesday. The first Grapefruit League game will be played March 2nd, two weeks from Wednesday. Real live baseball is coming soon.

This spring the Yankees will not have many position battles to follow. Their nine starting position player spots are set, the five rotation spots are pretty much set, the back-end of the bullpen is set, and two of four bench spots are set. It might even be three of four. You could argue as many as seven roster spots are up for grabs. In reality it’s probably more like four. Here are the three battles to watch.

The Backup Catcher

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years, from the defensive-minded Jose Molina to the occasionally great Frankie Cervelli to the solid all-around John Ryan Murphy. Murphy is now a Minnesota Twin, meaning the backup job will go to Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, or non-roster invitee Carlos Corporan. Sebastian Valle, another non-roster player, is the deep sleeper. He’s an outstanding defender and the Yankees value catcher defense highly.

Sanchez had a strong 2015 season in terms of production, development, and maturity, which helped make Murphy expendable. Brian Cashman said he would “like to unleash the Kraken” this year, referring to Sanchez, but there are big picture aspects to consider. Is Sanchez the best backup catcher candidate? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks a good idea? That answer is almost certainly yes as well.

A total of 35 days in the minors this season will delay Sanchez’s free agency another year. Thirty-five days in 2016 equals control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022. That’s a long time away and who knows whether Sanchez will be worth keeping around in 2022, but 35 days? That’s it? Sending him down for five weeks to gain control of his age 29 season is a no-brainer in my opinion. It’s a little 2016 pain for potentially a lot of 2022 gain.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Keep in mind five weeks for a backup catcher equals maybe six or seven starts. The Yankees have a ton of April off-days like they do every year — five in first four weeks! — so keeping Brian McCann in the lineup will be rather easy. Those six or seven starts might actually be more like four or five starts. Is sacrificing four or five Sanchez games in 2016 worth it to gain control of his age 29 season? Hell yes. The system makes this an obvious move.

Romine and Corporan, Sanchez’s two chief competitors, are in different situations. Corporan is on a minor league contract and can be easily stashed in Triple-A for depth this season. Romine is on the 40-man roster and out of options, meaning he can’t go to the minors without being exposed to waivers. That was the case last year, when Romine did slip through waivers unclaimed, but since this would be his second outright assignment, he could elect free agency.

If he doesn’t make the team, Romine in all likelihood would elect free agency and look to join a team that offers a greater big league opportunity. With McCann and Sanchez in tow, it’s hard to see how any upper level catcher gets MLB time in the Bronx without an injury. The position is locked down for at least three more seasons (the duration of McCann’s contract). I see four possible outcomes for the spring backup catcher competition:

  • The Best Team: Sanchez in MLB with Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the organization.
  • The Most Depth: Romine in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A.
  • The Eh I Get It Plan: Corporan in MLB with Sanchez in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.
  • The WTF Plan: Valle in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.

As best I can tell Corporan does actually have a minor league option remaining, so the Yankees could carry him as the backup catcher for some period of time, then send him down once Sanchez’s service time is in a good place. They would still presumably lose Romine, but at least they’d keep Corporan.

Now, if Corporan does not have an option left — that’s possible, this stuff can be difficult to pin down — then the Yankees would need to drop him from the 40-man roster when the time comes to promote Sanchez. Going with the Eh I Get It Plan means the team could be faced with the possibility of losing Romine and Corporan once Sanchez is called up.

Maybe that’s no big deal. Romine and Corporan aren’t great by any means, but I do think you need an extra catcher or two in the organization. The Yankees got really lucky with McCann and Murphy last season — those two combined to catch every inning of every game in 2015 — and I wouldn’t count on that kind of health again. It just doesn’t happen at catcher. It’s a brutal position.

Carrying Sanchez as McCann’s backup likely gives the Yankees the best possible team to start the season. The benefit of manipulating his service time — especially since we’re only talking about losing him for a handful of actual starts — means sending him to Triple-A to start the season is the best thing for the organization long-term. Rolling with Romine or Corporan for five weeks is the price to pay for Sanchez’s age 29 season, and that’s not bad at all.

(Presswire)
Lindgren. (Presswire)

At Least Three, Likely Four, Maybe Five Bullpen Spots

At some point soon we’re going to hear something about Aroldis Chapman‘s seemingly inevitable suspension. Rumor has it commissioner Rob Manfred will hand down the suspension before Spring Training, meaning it could be any day now. Chapman will not be charged with a crime stemming from his October domestic dispute incident but that’s irrelevant. The collectively bargained Domestic Violence Policy explicitly says no arrests or charges are necessary for a suspension.

It seems very likely Chapman will be suspended for some length of time. How long? Your guess is as good as mine. (I’ve seen a few reporters suggest a 15-game ban is coming.) Either way, any sort of suspension opens a bullpen spot come Opening Day. Right now the Yankees have Chapman, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Ivan Nova locked into spots, leaving three open three bullpen spots. Chapman’s suspension would make it four open spots and an injury to a starter would make it five since Nova would have to jump into the rotation.

For the purposes of this post, let’s just assume the rotation stays healthy and Nova is indeed the long man come Opening Day. A reach? Eh, maybe. We’ll deal with the injuries as they come. Regardless of the number of open bullpen spots, the Yankees have no shortage of relief options this year. Check out the list of bullpen candidates coming to camp this spring:

Some of those guys are more likely to land a big league job than others — Kaprielian won’t be breaking camp with the Yankees, for example — but they’ll all be in Spring Training and therefore theoretically capable of winning a roster spot.

The Yankees have relievers of all shapes and sizes. Righties, lefties, strikeout guys, ground ball guys, guys with big league experience, guys who has yet to pitch above Single-A … you name it and the Yankees will have it in camp this year. And here’s the thing: aside from Shreve, who was so excellent the first four and a half months last season, I’m not sure anyone has a leg up on a spot.

It’s great the Yankees have so many bullpen options, because they’re inevitably going to need them. This is a position battle that won’t ever end. The Yankees once again figure to employ a bullpen shuttle this year to ensure Joe Girardi always has a fresh arm or two available, meaning whoever wins a spot on the Opening Day roster may only be there short-term. I can’t imagine that’s comfortable for the players, but that’s life. That’s the way the roster is built.

My guess is Shreve will get one of the open bullpen spots barring a catastrophic showing in camp. The other open spots could be decided by Spring Training performance (as silly as that may be) and roster considerations. The Yankees may not want to free up 40-man space just yet, for example. They open the season against the Astros and could opt to carry an extra lefty (for Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, Jason Castro, etc.) before going with an extra righty for the second series of the season against the Tigers (almost their entire lineup is right-handed). We’ll see.

Spring Training will be an audition for all of those pitchers. Even Kaprielian, who wants to make a strong impression as he prepares for his first full pro season. If you don’t win a bullpen job in camp, you still want to put yourself in position for an early call-up. Make the Yankees remember you. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years ago. Someone like Campos could do the same this year.

Kozma. (Presswire)
Kozma. (Presswire)

The 25th Man

Cashman is on record saying the Yankees hope to use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door depending on their need at the time. If they need an extra reliever, they’ll use that spot for an extra reliever. If they need a position player, they’ll call up a position player. So on and so forth. Good idea in theory. How will it work in the real world? We’re going to find out soon enough.

The Yankees have three off-days within the first two full weeks of the season, so using that 25th roster spot on an eighth reliever out of Spring Training qualifies as overkill. I understand the starters are still getting stretched all the way out and whatnot, but eight relievers with all those off-days? Nah. Carrying an extra bench player early on makes the most sense, and the Yankees have plenty of infield (Jonathan Diaz, Donovan Solano, Pete Kozma, Ronald Torreyes, Rob Refsnyder) and outfield (Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel) options.

The 25th man decision is going to depend entirely on Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third base, because if he can’t do it, the Yankees will need to carry a backup third baseman. So moreso than the backup catcher and bullpen battles, the 25th man competition is going to be influenced by outside factors. Castro’s the big one, but health with be a factor too, as will 40-man roster considerations. Is it worth designating someone for assignment to carry Kozma for two weeks? Maybe it is. That’s up to the Yankees.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 15th, 2016

2015 Season Record: 87-75 (764 RS, 698 RA, 88-74 pythag. record), lost wildcard game

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Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Heyman: Rangers sign Ike Davis to minor league deal

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

According to Jon Heyman, the Rangers have signed first baseman Ike Davis to a minor league contract. Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees talked to Davis’ camp in the wake of Greg Bird‘s shoulder injury, but obviously they couldn’t work out a deal, so Texas it is.

Davis, 28, hit .229/.301/.350 (83 wRC+) with three homers in 74 games for the Athletics last season. He is one year removed from a .233/.344/.378 (109 wRC+) line with eleven homers in 143 games, however. As a lefty pull hitter with power, Davis would have been a fine Bird replacement for Triple-A.

It is sorta weird Davis went with the Rangers over the Yankees. With New York, Mark Teixeira is his only obstacle to MLB playing time, and Teixeira hasn’t played a full season since 2011. With the Rangers, both Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder are ahead of him on the first base depth chart. Eh, whatever.

The Yankees do still need to dig up a Triple-A first baseman at some point. Deibinson Romero is one candidate, and there’s always Tyler Austin, but Cashman said they don’t consider him as candidate for the job at this point. Chris Parmelee and Matt Clark are still unsigned. They could do the job.

Weekend Open Thread

This is the final weekend open thread of the offseason (!) and I feel kinda bad I don’t have any links to pass along, but I was out of town these last few days and didn’t have much time to read. Instead I’ll pass along this Dave Cameron post explaining why the Yankees are the most underrated team in baseball heading into the 2016 season. Health is a significant question. No doubt about it. But the Yankees have a chance to be very good this year, even if some fans don’t seem to want to admit it.

Friday: Here is tonight’s open thread. The NBA is in their All-Star break and tonight is the Rising Stars Challenge (9pm ET on TNT), if you’re interested. The Rangers are playing and there’s some college hoops on the schedule as well, so talk about whatever you like right here.

Saturday: This is the open thread again. The NBA All-Star skills competition (slam dunk contest, three point contest, etc.) is on tonight (8pm ET on TNT), plus the Islanders are playing and there’s a ton of college hoops on the schedule too. Have at it.

Sunday: For the last time this offseason, this is the final night of the weekend open thread. Hooray for that. The NBA All-Star Game is on tonight (8pm ET on TNT), plus the Rangers are playing and there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about all that right here.

An Even Distribution

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

About a month ago, I wrote about some way too early lineup musings and as the report date for pitchers and catchers approaches, I’ve been thinking about the Yankees’ lineup again. This time, though, the thoughts aren’t about the hitters and their positions in the lineup, but rather their positions on the field.

Going back generations, the Yankees’ offense has always been buoyed by strong up-the-middle hitters, especially center fielders and catchers. Most organizations would be lucky enough to have had one or two players of the caliber the Yankees have trotted out across their history: Bill Dickey; Yogi Berra; Elston Howard; Thurman Munson; Jorge Posada; Earle Combs; Joe DiMaggio; Mickey Mantle; Bernie Williams. The four “worst” players in that collection are borderline Hall of Famers. Throw 20 years of Derek Jeter into the mix–as well as players like Willie Randolph and Robinson Cano at the keystone–and it’s easy to see why the Yankees have earned their “Bronx Bombers” moniker and have had so much offensive success. Of course, this isn’t to discount what the prolific hitters the Yankees have at the corners have done. From Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the Yankees have had legendary and elite players fill left, right, first, and third. Coming into the 2016 season, the Yankees are set up to have some balance in their lineup, with no position/position grouping dominating the lineup.

Taking a rather general and broad view–the forest, not the trees–let’s look at the position groups of the Yankees’ likely starters and see what we can find. For organizational purposes, I’m placing A-Rod in the “corner” category, since DH is more like a corner position anyway.

On the corners, we have the aforementioned Tex and A-Rod, as well as Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, and Carlos Beltran. Four of these players are going to be a key part of the offense, as, together, they’ll occupy some combination of spots one/two and some combination of spots three-five or six. The other is Headley, who’ll be a bottom of the order guy regardless. On the negative side of things, Tex, Rodriguez, and Beltran are all old and could break down at any time in the season. Headley is coming off a career worst year. Gardner had an abysmal second half. On the positive side of things, Tex, Al, and Carlos are all capable of great power that can help carry the team. Almost anything Headley does will be an improvement. Gardner tends to have good first halves and will (hopefully) be healthy again.

 (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Up the middle, returning players Brian McCann, Didi Gregorius, and Jacoby Ellsbury are joined by newcomer Starlin Castro. Castro and Ellsbury, like Headley, are coming off of forgettable years. Brian McCann isn’t getting any younger and Didi’s offensive ceiling probably isn’t much higher than his production was last year. On the plus side, Castro and Ellsbury, like Headley, likely can’t be any worse than they were last year and there is tons of room for improvement for both of them, especially for Castro if he doesn’t have to be a mainstay of the offense. Despite aging, McCann was solid last year and is likely to provide similar power. If things go the way they should–hell, even if they mirror last year–Didi doesn’t need to be much more than he is on offense, especially given his glove.

The 2016 Yankee offense is essentially the opposite of its pitching staff, the latter dominated by one position grouping: relievers. While the Yankee rotation mirrors the lineup with a healthy blend of risk and reward, the bullpen is clearly where the reliability and elite performance lie. At the plate, the Yankees are in a position of balance, with no group the clear focus or the clear carrier. Despite some risks, the hitters are set to compliment each other, with those recovering offsetting those who may be declining. This team may not have any hitters of the same caliber as the ones listed before–even if A-Rod and Tex are still around, they’re not necessarily what they used to be–but it can still be successful.

Mateo, Sanchez, Judge rank among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects

Mateo. (Presswire)
Mateo. (Presswire)

Prospect season continued last night as Baseball America announced their annual top 100 prospects list. Dodgers SS Corey Seager sat in the top spot — he was the No. 1 prospect on every top 100 list this year — with Twins OF Byron Buxton and Red Sox 2B Yoan Moncada behind him in the top three.

The Yankees landed three players on Baseball America’s list: SS Jorge Mateo (No. 26), C Gary Sanchez (No. 36), and OF Aaron Judge (No. 76). Mateo is the highest ranked Yankees prospect* since Jesus Montero ranked third behind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in 2011. Yes, that was a thing that happened.

* I’m not counting Masahiro Tanaka, who ranked fourth on the 2014 list. Tanaka was no prospect. C’mon.

Anyway, here is some really hardcore analysis of this year’s various top 100 prospect lists. You’re not going to find in-depth analysis like this anywhere else. Prepare to have your mind blown.

Baseball America Baseball Prospectus MLB.com Keith Law Average
Judge 76 18 31 36 40
Mateo 26 65 30 55 44
Sanchez 36 92 59 57 61

The Yankees have three top 60-ish prospects according to the consensus rankings and that’s pretty cool, especially since Judge and Sanchez are in Triple-A and knocking on the door of the big leagues. Give me upper level prospects over kids in the low minors eight days a week and twice on Sundays.

In addition to the top 100, Baseball America also posted their farm system rankings a few days ago. The Yankees ranked 17th overall, up from 18th last year. They were 18th the year before that too. Considering Luis Severino and Greg Bird graduated to MLB in 2015, I’d say 17th is a nice step up.

Rosenthal: Yankees, Aroldis Chapman avoid arbitration with $11.325M deal

(Joe Robbins/Getty)
(Joe Robbins/Getty)

6:43pm ET: The Yankees have announced the one-year deal with Chapman, so it’s official.

6:39pm ET: The Yankees and Aroldis Chapman have avoided arbitration with a one-year contract worth $11.325M, reports Ken Rosenthal. The two sides were scheduled to go to a hearing next Friday. Chapman filed for $13.1M while the team countered with $9M, so they settled a bit above the midpoint.

I have to say, I’m pretty surprised Chapman’s camp settled. It appeared he had a very good chance to win an arbitration hearing since the Yankees were offering less than a $1M raise. (He made $8.05M in 2015.) Other closers with similar service time like Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon received raises north of $2.5M earlier this winter.

Chapman, 28 later this month, had a 1.63 ERA (1.94 FIP) and 116 strikeouts in 66.1 innings last season. He will become a free agent next offseason and this feels like it will be a one-year marriage. It seems likely the Yankees will make Chapman the qualifying offer and walk away after the season rather than sign another huge reliever deal.

With Chapman signed, the Yankees have now resolved all of their arbitration cases. They previously settled with Nathan Eovaldi ($5.6M), Michael Pineda ($4.3M), Ivan Nova ($4.1M), Dustin Ackley ($3.2M), and Didi Gregorius ($2.425M).