Archive for 2013 Season Preview

(Star-Ledger)

(Star-Ledger)

The Yankees opened their regular season on Monday afternoon, and the club’s four full season minor league affiliates will do the same tomorrow night. Given the recent increase in long-term contract extensions for star players, the Yankees will need their farm system to start producing more big league players in the very near future. They pump out relievers and complementary players pretty much every year, but the need now is legitimate everyday guys.

On the eve of the minor league season, here is a look at the various affiliates and the dispersal of the team’s top 30 prospects (in my opinion).

Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (full roster)
Top 30 Prospects: RHP Mark Montgomery (#10), RHP Brett Marshall (#13), IF David Adams (#18), C Austin Romine (#19), IF Corban Joseph (#20), RHP Dellin Betances (#23), OF Melky Mesa (#26)
Other Notables: OF Zoilo Almonte, RHP Preston Claiborne, OF Cody Johnson, OF Thomas Neal, LHP Vidal Nuno

Armed with a newly renovated stadium and a new team nickname/logo, the Triple-A squad will return to Scranton after spending all of last season on the road. Montgomery and Marshall feel like mortal locks to wear pinstripes at some point in the second half while Mesa should be the first outfielder recalled in case of injury. Adams, who was recently released and re-signed, lags behind Joseph as the extra infielder since he’s no longer on the 40-man roster.

Marshall, Betances, and Nuno (the scheduled Opening Day starter) will anchor a rotation that will welcome Adam Warren (#17) back into the fold as soon as Phil Hughes rejoins the big league rotation. The fifth starter figures to be old buddy Chien-Ming Wang, who will spend some time getting himself into pitching shape in Tampa after after signing late. Looking at the roster, I’m not quite sure who the fifth starter in the meantime, maybe Chris Bootcheck or Ryan Pope? Either way, the Triple-A club is basically an extension of the 25-man roster, where the extra depth players reside.

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Categories : Minors
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Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.Manny Banuelos

The rarely seen Cesar Cabral. (Star-Ledger)

The rarely seen Cesar Cabral. (Star-Ledger)

Every team deals with injuries, but it feels like the Yankees have dealt with a full season’s worth of injuries just during Spring Training. They lost three of their best four hitters to new injuries or setbacks in the last few weeks on top of some carry-over injuries from last year and the offseason. All of the injuries have led to a whole bunch of scrap heaping, forcing the Yankees to grab guys like Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Lyle Overbay, and Vernon Wells these last few weeks.

Some of the team’s injured players will be back sooner than others, and some injuries figure to have more long-term impact that others. As always, expected return dates should be taken a grain of salt. Setbacks and lingering effects have a way of changing plans in a hurry. Let’s run down the team’s walking wounded heading into the 2013 campaign.

LHP Manny Banuelos
New York’s top prospect at this time last year, the 22-year-old Banuelos made just six starts for Triple-A Scranton last year due to a minor back issue and a major elbow issue. He was originally diagnosed with a bone bruise in that left elbow, but at some point during his rehab he wound up blowing out the ligament and requiring Tommy John surgery. Banuelos had the procedure in October and is expected to miss the entire season, meaning he’ll lose basically two full years to injury at a crucial age in his development. For shame.

LHP Cesar Cabral
It’s easy to forget that Cabral, 24, had all but won a job out of Spring Training last year before suffering a fractured elbow near the end of camp. He has been rehabbing for the last 12 months and in fact he faced hitters for the first time since the injury earlier this week, throwing a round of live batting practice. The Yankees have indicated he is expected to return sometime in May or June.

Because he’s a Rule 5 Draft pick who missed all of last season due to injury, the Yankees have to keep Cabral on their active 25-man roster for at least 90 days this year. That’s basically half the season. Once they satisfy that requirement, he’ll is theirs to keep (and option to Triple-A). I’m sure the team will take their time with his rehab and everything, but at some point it will be decision time.

RHP Phil Hughes
Joe Girardi announced yesterday that Hughes will indeed start the season on the DL after missing a few weeks with a bulging disk in his back. He’s been starting minor league games and has a few more outings to go before rejoining the rotation, possibly as soon as the second time through. The 26-year-old Hughes has a lengthy injury history, but the back issue appears to be in the rear-view mirror.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

SS Derek Jeter
The Cap’n played on a bone bruise in his left ankle last September and it wasn’t until Game One of the ALCS that the joint finally gave out and fractured. He had surgery in October and spent the winter rehabbing, but he was recently setback by some inflammation and soreness. He received a cortisone shot and will start the season on the DL, yet the targeted April 6th return date sure seem optimistic since he won’t resume baseball activity until at least Monday.

Given his age, position, and the nature of the injury, there’s a pretty good chance Jeter and the Yankees will have to deal with nagging soreness and tightness and all that all throughout the season. Players who suffered similar injuries (Stephen Drew, Jason Kendall, even Ravel Santana) needed months to get back to where they were before the injury, and time is a luxury the Yankees don’t have. They need Jeter in the lineup soon and if this thing lingers, it will be a huge problem. Eduardo Nunez has the chance of a lifetime in front of him and is suddenly an extremely important player for the 2013 Yankees. That is not ideal.

CF Curtis Granderson
The fifth pitch Granderson saw this spring broke his forearm. The 32-year-old is expected to be out until early-May, but anytime you have an arm or hand or wrist injury, there is the potential for it to linger. Granderson is the team’s top power hitter and he really doesn’t offer much else (besides walks), so anything that compromises his pop will severely impact his game. Everything is going well as far as the healing process, but I’m anxious to see how he returns and whether that forearm gives him trouble going forward.

RHP Michael Pineda
Even though he has yet to throw a single meaningful pitch in his 14 months as a Yankee, the 24-year-old Pineda is one of the most important players in the organization. The Yankees are in desperate need of a young impact player to build on going forward, and Pineda has the type of arm and power stuff to anchor a rotation. Or at least he had that type of stuff before blowing out his labrum last spring.

(Star-Ledger)

(Star-Ledger)

The long road back from shoulder surgery has Pineda to throw live batting practice in two weeks. It’ll be his first time facing hitters since having the procedure. So far he’s rehab has gone well — he’s throwing 45-pitch bullpens, including changeups and sliders — and everyone says he looks great, but what he looks like in the bullpen and how he performs against hitters are different matters entirely.

As encouraging as it is to know his rehab is going well, we have absolutely no idea what Pineda will be capable of when he gets back on a mound in a competitive game. It was a major injury and although there are some notable success stories — Curt Schilling, Rogers Clemens, Anibal Sanchez — there are countless guys who never got back to their previous form. The Yankees need Pineda and need him to be very good going forward. He’s expected to return sometime in late-May or June, and I bet they option him to Triple-A Scranton for a few weeks just to delay his free agency a year (after losing an entire pre-arbitration year to injury in 2012).

LHP Clay Rapada
A bout of shoulder bursitis has landed the 32-year-old Rapada on the DL to start the season and there is no timetable for him return. He’s been sidelined for about three weeks now and has yet to resume throwing in the bullpen, so it’s safe to say his return is not imminent. Rapada is the team’s most effective left-on-left reliever, but as a true specialist, he isn’t the most critical or irreplaceable part in the world. The Yankees are a worse team without him, but not much worse.

3B Alex Rodriguez
The second hip surgery — this one the left after hurting the right in 2009 — of A-Rod‘s career will have him out of action until at least the All-Star break. He has a cyst removed, a bone impingement corrected, and a torn labrum repaired in January and has yet to resume baseball activities. He’s not even close to resuming baseball activities.

The Yankees knew A-Rod, now 37, would miss a big chunk of the season back in December, which is why they dropped $12M on Kevin Youkilis. Alex was both the healthier (529 vs. 509 plate appearances) and more productive (114 vs. 102 wRC+) player last season, so the Yankees downgraded this winter. No one has any idea what A-Rod will be able to do after the surgery, so there’s really no point in speculating. He could be an all-arms hitter incapable of using his lower half, he could be healthier than ever and see his performance rebound, he could be something else entirely. Either way, the lineup will miss his bat from the right side.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

1B Mark Teixeira
Teixeira, 32, hurt the tendon sheath in his right wrist while taking batting practice with Team USA in advance of the World Baseball Classic, so if nothing else the Yankees won’t have to pay his salary while he’s on the DL — the WBC’s insurance covers that. The wrist injury is expected to keep him out until late-May/early-June, but wrist injuries have a knack for lingering. In fact, Brian Cashman acknowledged there’s a 30% chance he will need season-ending surgery at some point.

Even if he comes back healthy, Teixeira has become increasingly injury prone in recent years after being an iron man earlier in his career. He suffered a major hamstring strain during the 2010 postseason, and last year he battled a cough, a minor wrist issue, and a calf strain (plus a setback). The right wrist is his power wrist as a left-handed batter, which could be a problem because power is his primary source of value. Teixeira has declined as a hitter these last few years because he’s become increasingly pull happy, so anything that hurts his ability to hit the ball out of park could be a production killer.

Categories : Injuries
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Mar
27

2013 Season Preview: The Bench

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Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Previewing the bench will not be easy because we still — four days before Opening Day — have basically no idea who will fill these four spots. Sure, either Frankie Cervelli or Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher, but we don’t know which one yet. I’m guessing Joe Girardi has some kind of convoluted personal catcher situation planned; I feel like having two backup catchers on the roster is his managerial dream.

As for the backup outfield and infield spots … who knows right now? There are a lot of candidates for a few spots and the Yankees continue to look outside the organization for help. Given their massive 40-man roster logjam, a multi-player trade shouldn’t be ruled out at this point either.

Catcher
It’ll be either Stewart or Cervelli and the Yankees have indicated a pretty even playing time split (maybe more like 60/40), I think it’ll only be a matter of time before Frankie grabs the job outright. His throwing has been greatly improved and he’s a far better hitter (but still nothing special), the two things that stand out most about a catcher. If they start the year with a 55/45 or 60/40 split, I think sometime in mid-May it’ll be slanted about 75/25 in favor of Cervelli. The Yankees love Stewart but they love winning more, and playing a guy with a legit chance to post a .200s across the board slash line will only last so long given how much offense they lost elsewhere.

Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Backup Infielder
Derek Jeter‘s nagging ankle issues cleared up the backup infield situation quite a bit. Eduardo Nunez will open the season as the starter and that paves the way for Jayson Nix to make the team as his backup. There really isn’t much competition for this spot — veteran Gil Velazquez is the only other guy in camp who could play a passable shortstop at the big league level. Again, we shouldn’t rule out a trade, but Nix seems like a lock for a bench spot right now.

The real question is whether the Yankees want to carry two backup infielders like they have the last two years, Nix and a corner infield guy like Eric Chavez. The only real candidates for that Chavez role are Dan Johnson — who seems to have little chance of making the team at this point — and Ronnie Mustelier. The 28-year-old Cuban defector has had a good spring — mostly against Triple-A caliber pitching according to B-Ref’s OppQual stat — and has seen a bunch of time at third base lately, so he’s at least earning consideration from the team. I guess we shouldn’t rule about a two-headed first base platoon with Juan Rivera and Lyle Overbay, which would soak up that second infielder’s spot.

Backup Outfielder
Assuming Vernon Wells is penciled in as the everyday left fielder, the fourth outfielder’s spot is down to Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Melky Mesa, Thomas Neal, and I guess Mustelier. Depending on whether they take a second backup infielder, it’s possible two of these guys will make the team. Mustelier makes the most sense really, since he could backup both the corner infield and corner outfield spots.

Boesch and Francisco presumably have a leg up on Mesa and Neal given their big league experience, and again, both could make the team. The Yankees were planning to open the season with three left-handed outfielders and a right-handed backup, and Boesch would give them that third lefty. He also has minor league options remaining and could be stashed in Triple-A. I’m not sure if Francisco has an out clause in his contract before the end of Spring Training, so sending him to the minors might not be an option. The Yankees will want to retain as much depth as possible given their rash of injuries.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Knocking on the Door
In addition to the guys mentioned above — Velazquez, Johnson, Mesa, Neal, etc. — the Yankees will have a handful of other bench options waiting in Triple-A Scranton. That is what the level is there for, after all. Austin Romine is the clear third catcher but would probably need an injury to earn a shot in the big leagues. He’s missed a lot of time these last two years with back problems and needs to play everyday.

Corban Joseph gives the team depth at second and third bases, though they had more before releasing David Adams yesterday. Zoilo Almonte is another warm body for the outfield mix, but he has never played above Double-A and will need some Triple-A time before coming to the show. He’s pretty much at the bottom of the outfield depth chart at the moment. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t win a bench spot will open the year in Triple-A as a backup plan. That’s who’s knocking on the door.

* * *

My opinion changes by the day/hour, but if the season started today I believe the Yankees would go with a four-man bench of Stewvelli, Nix, Mustelier, and Boesch with Francisco & Co. heading to Triple-A for the time being. The club could play finagle Phil Hughes‘ expected DL stint into a fifth bench player — Francisco would be the guy for that one, I assume — for the first few games of the season, but I don’t see that happening.

That four-man bench pretty much stinks. There is no speed to pinch-run — that would have been Nunez’s job before he forced into playing short everyday — and basically no versatility outside of Nix. Carrying Mesa over Boesch would address the speed issue while Mustelier is the only one who could offer real versatility. Barring an unexpected trade(s) these next few days, the bench figures to be a work in progress pretty much all season.

Categories : Bench
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Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

(J. Meric/Getty)

(J. Meric/Getty)

Mariano Rivera is worthy of his own post, but he is just one of many when it comes to the bullpen. The Yankees used 17 different relievers last season, including ten for at least ten appearances. That is pretty much par for the course these days — they used 26 (!) different relievers in 2011 and 18 in 2010 — since no team ever makes it through the season without injuries or underperformance. In fact, the Yankees have already lost one reliever (Clay Rapada) to the DL and the season hasn’t even started yet. He is the first injured bullpener, but he won’t be the last.

The Setup Man
Over the last two seasons, soon-to-be 28-year-old David Robertson has emerged as one of the very best relievers in all of baseball. He’s pitched to a 1.84 ERA (2.15 FIP) with a 12.79 K/9 (34.8 K%) since 2011, all of which are top five marks among big league relievers. Robertson managed to curtail his career-long walk issue last season — career-best 2.82 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%, including just five walks in his last 33 innings — but I’m going to need to see him do it again before I buy that as real improvement. His track record of iffy command is too long to be washed away in one (half) season.

With Rivera back and Rafael Soriano gone, Robertson is the unquestioned Eighth Inning Guy™ and backup closer whenever Mo needs a day to rest. That means we’re unlikely to see him brought into mid-to-late-inning jams to clean up the mess, which is where he and his strikeout-heavy ways are best deployed. Regardless, Robertson is an extremely valuable reliever who will see a ton of high-leverage work. Outside of Rivera, he’s the most important pitcher in the bullpen.

The Lefty Specialist
The Yankees have had enough injury problems this spring, but one player who seems to have survived the bug is Boone Logan. The 28-year-old dealt with a barking elbow for a few weeks and didn’t get into a game until last week, but he appears to be on track for Opening Day. Logan threw a career-high 55.1 innings in a league-leading 80 appearances last summer, which may or may not have contributed to the elbow issue. Given his extremely slider usage — 51.4% (!) last year, the third straight year his usage increased — it would be foolish to think the workload didn’t contribute to the elbow problem somewhat.

Anyway, Logan has quietly emerged as a high strikeout left-hander these last two years, posting a 10.58 K/9 and 26.9 K% since the start of 2011. Despite the strikeouts, he hasn’t been especially effective against same-side hitters, limiting them to a .240/.309/.413 (.314 wOBA) line over the last two years. That’s nothing special for a primary lefty specialist — Rapada has been far more effective against left-handers — but he redeems himself (somewhat) by being more than a true specialist. Righties have hit just .243/.355/.386 (.315 wOBA) against him these last two years, so Girardi can run Logan out there for a full inning if need be. He’s definitely useful, though perhaps miscast as a late-inning guy.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Middle Men
It has been two years since either Joba Chamberlain or David Aardsma has had a full, healthy season. Both had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and both had another major injury as well — Joba his ankle and Aardsma his hip —  and both were pretty darn effective before the injuries. The Yankees will count on both as their pre-eighth inning righties this year, mixing and matching with Logan and Rapada (when healthy).

All of the team’s relievers are cut from a similar cloth and these two are no different. Both Joba and Aardsma are high strikeout guys with swing-and-miss offspeed pitches, the question is just how effective they will be following the injuries. Chamberlain, 27, was pretty bad in the second half last year before finishing strong while the 31-year-old Aardsma made one late-September appearance and nothing more. They could be awesome, they could be awful, they could be something in-between. I’m guessing we’ll see a bit of all three at times this summer.

Rapada, 32, will start the season on the DL due to shoulder bursitis and there is no timetable for his return. He’s been crazy effective against lefties in his relatively short big league career (.231 wOBA against), though righties have hit him hard (.453 wOBA). As a soft-tossing, low-arm slot guy with a funky delivery, he’s a true specialist. But damn is he good at what he does.

The Long Man
When Spring Training started, it was assumed the loser of the Ivan Nova/David Phelps fifth starter competition would move to the bullpen and serve as the long man. Phil Hughes‘ back injury is likely to land him on the DL coming Opening Day, meaning both Nova and Phelps will be in the rotation to start the year. Long man replacements include 25-year-old right-hander Adam Warren and 25-year-old left-hander Vidal Nuno, the latter of whom has gotten talked up as a potential Rapada placement. He’s been, by far, the more impressive pitcher in Grapefruit League play. Either way, the long reliever job will go to Nova or Phelps whenever Hughes returns, which could be as soon as the second turn through the rotation.

Knocking on the Door
Beyond Warren and Nuno — starters by trade who are relief candidates by default — the Yankees have a number of legit bullpen backup plans slated for Triple-A. The two most obvious candidates are right-handers Shawn Kelley, 28, and Cody Eppley, 27, both of whom are on the 40-man roster, have big league experience, and have minor league options. Kelley is a traditional fastball/slider/strikeout guy while Eppley is low-slot sinker/slider/ground ball righty specialist. There’s a good chance one of these two — likely Kelley because Eppley was been terrible in camp — will crack the Opening Day roster as a Hughes/Rapada replacement. Right-hander David Herndon, 27, will be in the big league mix once he finishes rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at midseason.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Among the bullpen prospects scheduled to open the season with Triple-A Scranton are 22-year-old slider machine Mark Montgomery, the team’s top relief prospect. He ranked tenth on my preseason top 30 prospects list and should make his big league debut at some point this season. Montgomery gets compared to Robertson but that isn’t particularly fair even though he’s also an undersized strikeout fiend with a trademark breaking ball. No need to set yourself up for disappointment like that. Remember, it took Robertson two years before he finally stuck in the show and three before he became truly dominant.

Right-hander Chase Whitley, 23, and left-hander Francisco Rondon, 24, will both be in the Triple-A bullpen and one phone call away as well. Whitley is a three-pitch guy who projects more as a middle reliever than a late-inning arm, but he’s a very high probability guy. Rondon opened some eyes in camp by flashing a knockout slider after being added to the 40-man roster in November. He needs to work on his command and get some Triple-A experience before being a big league option, however. Whitley is pretty much ready to go.

The Top Prospects
Montgomery is New York’s top relief prospect at the moment, but right-handers Nick Goody and Corey Black deserve a mention as well. The 21-year-old Goody posted a 1.12 ERA (~0.89 FIP) with 52 strikeouts and just nine walks in 32 innings after signing as the team’s sixth round pick last year. The 21-year-old Black pitched to a 3.08 ERA (~2.70 FIP) in 52.2 innings after being the team’s fourth rounder last summer, but the Yankees have him working as a starter at the moment. He is expected to move into a relief role in due time if he doesn’t firm up his offspeed pitches. Both Goody (#21) and Black (#24) cracked my preseason top 30 and both are expected to open the year with High-A Tampa.

* * *

The Yankees have had consistently strong bullpens during the Girardi era, due in part to his willingness to spread the workload around rather than overwork one or two guys. The front office has (mostly) gotten away from big money relievers and focused on adding depth and power arms. Girardi got away from his strength last year because of injury (Rivera, Joba, Robertson for a month) and ineffectiveness (Cory Wade), instead relying heavily on his primary late-inning guys. That will hopefully change this year and the team will get back to having a deep and diverse bullpen, something they’ll need given the diminished offense.

Categories : Death by Bullpen
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Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

(J. Meric/Getty)

(J. Meric/Getty)

At this time last year, we all had a sneaking suspicion Mariano Rivera was about the begin the final season of his Hall of Fame career. He played coy all through Spring Training and never did announce his true intentions before a fluke knee injury ended his season in early-May. It wasn’t until this winter we learned he likely would have retired had he gotten healthy in time for postseason, and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago we learned he was definitely planning to retire following the 2012 campaign before the knee injury changed things.

We found that out 16 days ago, when Rivera held a press conference to officially announce his intention to retire after the upcoming 2013 season. “It’s official now. After this year I will be retired … I have to give everything and the tank is almost empty. The little gas that I have left is everything for this year. After this year I am empty,” said the closer, when he made it pretty clear he would not be changing his mind and returning for 2014. This is it, the Summer of Mo.

* * *

Last summer, the Yankees overcame the loss of Rivera thanks to Rafael Soriano, who stepped in and went 42-for-46 in save chances as the fill-in closer. His 2.26 ERA (3.31 FIP) with 57 strikeouts and 16 walks in 57 appearances and 55.2 innings weren’t just adequate, he was arguably the best closer in the league. That said, Soriano is no Rivera. Mo hasn’t posted a FIP that high since 1998 or a K/BB that low (3.56) since 2004. By bWAR (2.6) and fWAR (1.2), Soriano just had the 13th and 16th best seasons of Rivera’s career, respectively. He’s just on another level.

The safety net is gone this season, at least in theory. David Aardsma has closed in the past and David Robertson could probably do the job without a problem, but neither is as accomplished as Soriano. That makes the now 43-year-old Rivera that much more important, which is a little scary because he is coming off the major knee injury. It wasn’t until a week or two into camp that he first felt 100%, but any lingering effects from the knee haven’t shown up in his Grapefruit League performance: no runs with seven strikeouts and one walk in five innings.

As far as his expected performance … does anyone expect anything other than vintage Mo? The rational part of my brain says a 43-year-old coming off a major injury and what amounts to an 11-month layoff should see his performance suffer, or at least need a few weeks to shake off the rust. Every other part of me expects those same cutters on the corners. Seriously, look at Rivera’s called pitch strike zone over the last three years (courtesy of Texas Leaguers)…

Mariano Rivera heat map

That’s three years worth of called balls and strikes. Look at how many pitches are on the corners compared to how many are over the middle of the plate. It’s ridiculous. He’s not human. He’s a robot. A strike-throwing cutter machine.

I honestly don’t know what Rivera will do this summer. He’s earned every benefit of the doubt despite the knee injury — remember, this is a guy who had shoulder surgery in October 2008 and pitched to a 1.76 ERA (2.89 FIP) in 66.1 innings in 2009 — and if he struggles, then he struggles. They’ll deal with it when the time comes. I expect Mo to have his typical one bad week in April and one bad week in August, and otherwise dominate the league like few others.

* * *

The Summer of Mo won’t just be about on-field performance, though. Rivera is expected to enjoy a Chipper Jones-esque farewell tour, receiving gifts and recognition from other clubs as he plays his final series in other AL cities. Despite all the great players to come through the Bronx in recent years, the farewell tour will be like nothing we’ve seen before. As bittersweet as the impending retirement is, it will be fun to watch Rivera get celebrated time and time again this summer.

This is the beginning of the end of an era for the Yankees. We’re never going to see a player like Mariano again, someone who is so brutally effective on the field while carrying himself with such class and dignity off it. It’s lazy and cliche, but Rivera truly is someone we’ll all sit around and tell the grandkids about when the time comes. He’s an all-time great and an icon as a person, a player, and a Yankee. It’s been a privilege and on honor to watch him these last 18 years.

Categories : Players
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Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Number four starters are the black sheep of the rotation. The top three guys are important for obvious reasons, they’re the ones who will be expected the carry the team in the regular season and (especially) in the postseason. Fifth starters tend to be eminently replaceable and inconsequential. Fourth starters are just … there. Necessary, but not good enough to grab headlines and usually not bad enough to make teams seek a replacement.

St. Philip of Hughes
Phil Hughes is no kid anymore. He’s entering his seventh big league season and will qualify for free agency next winter. The 26-year-old has thrown 635 innings across 152 career games, so it wouldn’t be wrong to call him a veteran at this point. He’s been a top prospect, a rookie starter, an elite setup man, injured, an All-Star starting pitcher, a World Champion … you name it and it seems like Hughes has done it already.

Last summer, Phil followed up an awful April (7.88 ERA and 6.53 FIP) with five pretty strong months (3.90 ERA and ~4.32 FIP), with the end result being 32 starts and 191.1 innings that were almost exactly league average (4.23 ERA and 4.56 FIP). Hughes was maddeningly homer prone (1.65 HR/9) and that’s something that didn’t change all year. Even at his best he’d give up homers, they just happened to be solo homers because he never walked anyone (2.16 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%). Hughes quietly posted the tenth best K/BB ratio in the league (3.59), better than Hiroki Kuroda, Jered Weaver, and reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

A minor back injury forced Hughes out of his Game Three start in the ALCS, and another back issue (maybe related, maybe not) sidelined him for several weeks in camp. He threw a simulated game earlier this week and the next step could involve a minor league start, but the bottom line is that he may not be ready in time for the start of the season. If not, he’ll open the year on the DL and presumably rejoin the rotation in the second or third turn through. Barring no setbacks, of course.

Hughes is a bit of a polarizing figure in Yankeeland. Some see a failed prospect, others see a useful fourth starter, others see a guy about to enter the prime of his career. Who’s right? Probably all three to some extent. It’s extremely unlikely Hughes will ever develop into the frontline pitcher he was projected to become a few years ago, but at the same time it’s obvious he’s a big league caliber starter right now. At 26 and going on 27 this summer, taking a step forward isn’t out of the question at all. He fits all of that criteria.

As far as the Yankees are concerned, the Yankees will need Hughes to be better this season than he was last year. They lost a lot of offense and will rely on their pitching to carry them, so Phil needs to take that step forward and put together six strong months instead of just five. He’ll have to curb the homer problem a bit — won’t be easy in Yankee Stadium and the other offense-happy AL East parks, obviously — and most importantly, stay on the field. Whenever he gets back from the DL, he has to stay healthy and make every start the rest of the way.

As far as his impending free agency, all Hughes needs to do to ensure a fat contract is repeat his 2012 effort. Guys who are still three years away from their 30th birthday and have had three league average seasons in the last four years tend to get paid well, especially when they do it in the AL East and have a strong playoff track record*. Will the Yankees be the team to give him his next contract? I’m pretty convinced the answer is no given the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. It’s one thing to let guys like Nick Swisher and Russell Martin leave as free agents, but it’s another to let homegrown players like Hughes walk, especially at his age. I wouldn’t be too happy if that happens.

* Hughes got crushed in the 2010 ALCS (11 runs in 8.2 IP), but otherwise he’s been nails in the postseason. We’re talking a 2.61 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 31 innings. Doesn’t mean much, but it’s better than the alternative.

(Star-Ledger)

(Star-Ledger)

Knocking on the Door
The Yankees have a few back-end types slated for Triple-A Scranton, with the best of the bunch being 25-year-old Adam Warren. The right-hander got pounded in his big league debut (and only career MLB game to date) last summer, allowing six runs and ten of the 17 men he faced to reach base in 2.1 innings, but he was much more effective in Triple-A (3.71 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 152.2 IP). I ranked him 17th on my preseason top 30 prospects list in part because a little of his prospect shine has come off in the last year, mostly because he repeated Triple-A and didn’t take much of a step forward (if any) in his performance. Warren has the tools to start — specifically a five-pitch fix and an aggressive, bulldog approach — but will need something else to click to reach that number four starter ceiling. I like him best as a short reliever, where he can scrap some of the miscellaneous pitches and attack hitters with his two best offerings.

The Top Prospect
It’s Warren, but for the sake of variety I’m also going to mention left-hander Matt Tracy. The 24-year-old southpaw has just one season as a full-time pitcher under his belt, yet he still managed a 3.18 ERA (3.63 FIP) in 99 innings for High-A Tampa last year. He uses his big — listed at 6–foot-3 and 215 lbs. — frame to pitch downhill with a low-90s fastball and a fading changeup. The Yankees also have him working on a big-breaking curveball. Tracy signed as a college senior in the 24th round of the 2011 draft, so he’s a older than typical High-A prospects in terms of age but quite a bit younger in terms of pitching experience. I’m a fan and I ranked him 22nd on my preseason top 30, just a handful of spots behind Warren. The Yankees will aggressively bump Tracy up to Double-A Trenton this summer and he could force his way into the big league picture by the second half of 2014.

The Deep Sleeper
Probably going a little too far off the board here, but 21-year-old right-hander Cesar Vargas has the three-pitch mix and solid enough command to wind up near the back of a big league rotation. He pitched to a 3.13 ERA (2.96 FIP) in 46 innings with the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate and Short Season Staten Island last year, his first in the United States after three in the Dominican Summer League. Vargas obviously has a very, very long way to go, but all the tools are there for him to become a number four starter down the road. He just has to learn how to use them.

* * *

The Yankees and Hughes are in a very weird place this season. They obviously need him to be very good this summer, but the better he pitches the less likely it is he re-signs with the team after the year. Not exactly what we’re all used to, but such is life. Warren and Tracy give the team some decent back-end depth, plus they could serve as trade bait if the team needs to make a move or three. Cheap starters are always a hot commodity.

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Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

In the lexicon of numbered rotation slots, number three starters probably generate the least amount of conversation. We argue whether numbers twos are really aces (and vice versa), whether number fives are really numbers fours, but number threes are just kinda there. Since they’re right smack in the middle of the five-man rotation, you’d think a league-average starter qualifies as a number three. That’s not really the case though, the distribution of talent is not balanced. There are way more back-end guys than aces, so a number three should really be an above-average starter.

Ol’ Reliable
I can’t believe I’m writing a season preview post about Andy Pettitte in 2013. His comeback from a one-year retirement was a smashing success in 2012, at least when he was actually on the mound — a hard-hit ground ball fractured his leg in late-June and it kept him on the shelf until mid-September. Pettitte was stellar in the 12 starts he did make though, pitching to a 2.87 ERA (3.48 FIP) in 75.1 innings with career-highs in strikeout (22.8%) and ground ball (56.3%) rates. Andy pitched like an ace when healthy.

Less than three months from his 41st birthday, Pettitte returns again for what the Yankees hope will be his first full season in four years. Injuries limited him to 21 starts and 129 innings in 2010, so he hasn’t made 30 starts or thrown even 150 innings since helping the club win the 2009 World Series. We all know Pettitte has the stuff, the command, and the pitching smarts to navigate a full season, but the question is his durability. That doesn’t necessarily mean staying off the DL either, he could simply run out of gas in say, mid-August. It’s going to be something the team will have to constantly monitor.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

As amazing as those 12 starts were last year, I don’t think it’s at all reasonable to expect a similar performance in 2013. I’d take it in a heartbeat obviously, but I’m not expecting it. What I am expecting is regular ol’ Andy Pettitte, which means a low-4.00s ERA — maybe less because of the decreased offensive environment — and lots of wiggling out of jams. If he manages to hold up and take the ball every five days, he should be among the best number three starters in baseball. Pettitte entered “you know what you’re going to get” territory a long time ago, which of course is something that doesn’t really exist. It just feels like we know exactly what he’ll do over the course of the season.

Since the Yankees do have six viable big league starters, I do think they should be cognizant of Pettitte’s workload during the course of the summer. That could mean using an off-day to skip his turn or giving him an extra day of rest between starts with some kind of modified six-man rotation. It’s a tough thing to do because you want him to make as many starts as possible but not burn him out before things heat up late in the season. You also don’t want to keep him from finding a rhythm. There’s also the train of thought that all the time off from 2011-2012 did Pettitte’s arm and body some good and he’s as fresh as ever. Who knows. I’ll be keeping an eye on the workload though, that’s for sure.

Knocking on the Door
I’m not the biggest Brett Marshall fan in the world — ranked him 13th on my preseason top 30 prospects list — but the 22-year-old right-hander is slated to open the season with Triple-A Scranton and he has the tools to be a number three-type starter down the road. That includes a true four-pitch mix highlighted by the best sinker in the organization, a heavy low-90s offering that bores into right-handed hitters. A low-80s changeup is Marshall’s second best pitch, and he’ll also throw sliders and curveballs. My biggest concern is that he has struggled to miss bats as a professional, with a career 6.97 K/9 (18.3 K%) in full season ball and 6.82 K/9 (18.1 K%) in Double-A last year. Marshall would have to boost the strikeout rate a bit to reach that number three starter ceiling, which is something he could do as he further refines the two breaking balls. Either way, he hasn’t missed a start since having Tommy John surgery in 2009 and has the workhorse part down pat. Marshall is on the 40-man roster and there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see him in the big leagues at some point this summer, but he does have a few guys ahead of him on the depth chart.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Top Prospect
Two spots before Marshall on my preseason top 30 was left-hander Nik Turley, who is expected to open the season with Double-A Trenton. The 23-year-old has climbed the ladder deliberately since being a 50th round pick in 2008, though he has since emerged as one of the organization’s better pitching prospects. Turley resides in the upper-80s/low-90s with his fastball even though his frame — listed at 6-foot-6 and 240 lbs. — makes you think he could crank it up into the mid-90s. A big overhand curveball is his most consistent offspeed pitch, but his changeup is solid and flashes more out-pitch potential. Unlike Marshall, Turley has had no trouble missing bats since getting to full season ball (8.88 K/9 and 23.5 K%). The Yankees added the big southpaw to the 40-man roster this past winter, though I do expect him to spend pretty much the entire year with the Thunder. If he makes his MLB debut in 2013, it means something has gone either unexpectedly excellent or horribly wrong.

The Deep Sleeper
I’m a very big fan (almost certainly too big) of 20-year-old left-hander Daniel Camarena. The Yankees bought him away from a commitment to San Diego with a $335k bonus as their 20th round pick in 2011, but a minor arm issue limited him to 17.2 rookie ball innings during his pro debut last summer. They were 17.2 really awesome innings — 15 strikeouts and no walks — but my fandom is based on his ability to throw strikes with three pitches. Camarena sits in the upper-80s/low-90s with his fastball and backs it up with a curveball and changeup, plus it all plays up because he commands everything well and knows how to set hitters up. When the Yankees drafted him, I half-jokingly said they were getting a college pitcher (in terms of polish) in a high school pitcher’s body. He obviously has a long way to go before having a big league impact, but Camarena has everything needed to fill a mid-rotation slot down the road.

* * *

Pettitte is the number three starter in terms of where he expect him to slot into the rotation, though I think most fans consider him something more than that in terms of expected performance. I’m hedging my bets a bit because he hasn’t thrown a full season in a while, but I wouldn’t put repeating last year’s performance past him. Pettitte has a knack for exceeding expectations and like the rest of his rotation-mates, he will be counted on heavily this summer. Youngsters like Marshall and Turley give the Yankees some nearly big league ready arms who project to fill a mid-rotation slot in the long-term.

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Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Number two starters don’t garner the attention of aces nor generate the same kind of rosterbation as back-end guys, but they’re obviously very important to a team’s success. The Yankees are lucky to have two pitchers who would qualify as a number two in most rotations, though the club figures to slot in a right-hander behind CC Sabathia to break up the lefties.

#HIROK
It’s funny to look back and remember that at this time last year, Hiroki Kuroda was considered a question mark. He was an older pitcher moving from a big park in the NL to a small park in the AL, and that is usually the recipe for a disaster. Instead, the 38-year-old right-hander was the team’s most consistently excellent starter from Opening Day through the postseason, pitching to a 3.32 ERA (3.86 FIP) in a career-high 219.2 innings. Kuroda liked his time in New York so much that he turned down more lucrative offers from other clubs this winter to take a one-year deal worth $15M from the Yankees.

Despite that performance, the combination of age and career-high workload — 236.2 innings between the regular season and postseason — make Kuroda a bit of a question mark going into the season. He battled fatigue last September, so much so that he had to stop throwing his regular between-starts bullpen to stay fresh. Kuroda modified his offseason routine in an effort to stay fresher later into the season, but it remains to be seen how much good that will actually do. Heck, it might even do bad for all we know.

One thing we do know is Kuroda is tough as nails — this story is still mind-blowing — and incredibly savvy on the mound. He battles every time out and his dud starts have nothing to do with a lack of effort of preparation. I do wonder how being away from Russell Martin will impact Kuroda — his worst full season in terms of ground ball and homer rate came the year Martin didn’t catch him, which could just be a coincidence but is obviously something no one wants to repeat — given all the time the two worked together both last year and with the Dodgers. There will have to be some adjustments there on both the pitcher’s and catcher’s part, hopefully a seamless one.

As was the case last summer, the Yankees are going to rely on Kuroda as their number two starter behind Sabathia and will expect the same kind of reliable, consistent performances. He’s a year older with a few more miles on the arm, but he’s not carrying those NL-to-AL, big park-to-small park transition questions. Frankly I think the transition stuff is a greater concern than age, but that’s just me. Kuroda’s smarts and deep arsenal make me feel really good about his chances to repeat last season’s success.

Knocking on the Door
Just like with the ace-caliber guys yesterday, the Yankees won’t have a projected future number two starter in Triple-A this summer. Left-hander Manny Banuelos would have been that guy had he not blown out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery, but he won’t be a factor until 2014 at the earliest. Then again, durability is one of the things keeping from that frontline starter ceiling. I guess that means if he was healthy, Banuelos wouldn’t have projected as a number two, but instead something more. Anyway, the Yankees definitely have some future number twos in the system, but none of them are in the upper minors. Bummer.

(BaseballLife365.com)

(BaseballLife365.com)

The Top Prospect
New York’s top number two starter prospect outside of the injured Banuelos is last summer’s first rounder, righty Ty Hensley. He ranked eighth on my preseason top 30 prospects list. The 19-year-old from Oklahoma has a dominant fastball-curveball mix and the size — listed at 6-foor-4 and 220 lbs. — that suggests future durability, but he lacks command and a third pitch. He needs the latter more than the former to reach his ceiling, both figuring out both in the next few seasons would give him true ace potential. For now he’s someone you close your eyes and see a future number two starter without having to try real hard.

The Deep Sleeper
I’m a big fan of right-hander Gio Gallegos, who didn’t crack my preseason top 30 but did make the not top 30 list as a prospect who could jump into next year’s top 30. His top atrribute is his command and control of a solid fastball-curveball mix, but he needs to work on his third pitch and show he can hold up while starting every five days across a full season. I might be stretching a bit with the “future number two starter” stuff here, but like I said, I’m a big fan of Gallegos. Forgive me for being a little extra optimistic.

* * *

Kuroda is among the best number two starters in the game, a proven veteran with a great package of stuff, savvy, and command. His importance to the Yankees is easy to understate given the bigger names on the roster, but the club needs him to be as strong and reliable as he was a year ago. It’s imperative thanks to the depleted offense. The minor league system offers a few prospects who project as number two type starters down the road, but none at the upper levels of the minors or capable of making an immediate impact.

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Mar
18

2013 Season Preview: The Aces

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Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

The term “ace” gets thrown around far too liberally these days. Technically every team has an ace in the sense that someone has to start Opening Day, but very few pitchers are true, bonafide number one starters. Those are the guys who provide both quality and quantity — they take the ball every five days and pitch deep into the game. Just as importantly, they do it every single year. It’s possible for a pitcher to have an ace-like year in any given season (coughEstebanLoiazacough), but the guys who do it year after year stand out from the pack. Those are the true aces.

The Horse
CC Sabathia is a true ace. Despite two DL stints — including the first arm injury of his career — the 32-year-old still rattled off his sixth consecutive year of 200+ innings with a sub-3.40 ERA in 2012. The number of other big leaguers who have done that: zero. Raise the bar to a sub-3.60 ERA and it’s still zero. Sabathia was the difference in the ALDS against the Orioles, allowing just three runs in an LDS round record 17.2 innings. That’s an 8.2-inning start in Game One and a complete-game in Game Five. The Yankees and Orioles played five very tight games, but the difference was Sabathia shoving it in the first and last games of the series.

Going into 2013, CC is more of a question mark than he has been at any other point as a Yankee. He had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow in late-October, which slowed his pace in Spring Training ever so slightly. The good news is Sabathia has been throwing with no complications or pain or even unexpected soreness in recent weeks, so he remains on target to start Opening Day. That said, his fastball velocity did drop more than one mile an hour from 2012 to 2013. It’s a concern because of his age and all the mileage on his arm, if nothing else.

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Despite the DL stints and reduced fastball, Sabathia was excellent last season — 3.38 ERA and 3.31 FIP — so excellent that his strikeout (8.87 K/9 and 23.7 K%) and walk (1.98 BB/9 and 5.3 BB%) rates were the second best of his career behind his monster 2008 campaign with the Indians and Brewers. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild came to New York with a reputation for increasing strikeout rates and reducing walk rates, and sure enough Sabathia has posted a 8.79 K/9 (23.5 K%) and a 2.16 BB/9 (5.8 BB%) during his two years under Rothschild after managing a 7.59 K/9 (20.6 K%) and 2.71 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) during his first two years in pinstripes. One year is a fluke but two years are a trend, as they say.

The Yankees have internally discussed scaling back Sabathia’s workload going forward in an effort to keep him healthy and just fresher late into the season. That could mean treating him as a 200-inning pitcher rather than a 230-inning pitcher — one fewer inning per start, basically — but that’s much easier said than done. Sabathia is, by his own admission, a rhythm pitcher who is at his best with more work, not less. Finding the balance between lightening the overall workload and remaining super-effective will be difficult.

Either way, Sabathia is a benefit of the doubt guy. I assume he’ll remain a workhorse of the first order and highly effective until he isn’t. The elbow surgery and reduced velocity are red flags, but they have yet to manifest themselves in a meaningful way. I still expect CC to strike out a ton of batters in his 200-something innings while keeping his ERA under 3.50. He’s been doing it nearly a decade now and I’m not going to doubt him. At some point Sabathia will decline, but I don’t expect it to happen just yet.

Knocking on the Door
There are only a handful of minor league prospects who project as future aces — don’t confuse ace stuff with being a projected ace — and the Yankees don’t have any of them, especially not at the Triple-A level. The only pitcher who is slated to open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation with ace-caliber stuff is Dellin Betances, who lacks everything else a pitcher needs to be an ace: command, durability, etc. Brian Cashman already acknowledged the club will start the 24-year-old Betances in the Triple-A rotation despite his miserable season a year ago, but this is his final minor league option year and I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to move the big right-hander into the bullpen if he doesn’t show improvement within the first few weeks of the season.

The Top Prospect
The Bombers have a farm system that is top heavy in position players — the top five prospects on my preseason top 30 list were all position players — especially since their best pitching prospects all seem to be coming off injury. The best combination of ace-caliber stuff and command in the system belongs to 22-year-old Manny Banuelos, who will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. His command started to waver in 2011 though, maybe due to the elbow problem.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Right-hander Jose Campos lacks a defined breaking ball while right-hander Ty Hensley lacks command in addition to having basically zero professional experience. Righty Bryan Mitchell has nasty stuff, missing bats with a mid-90s fastballs and a knockout curveball, but he lacks command as well. Perhaps the best current ace package in the system belongs to 23-year-old Jose Ramirez, who is organization’s consistently hardest thrower with a swing-and-miss changeup and a promising slider. That said, he’s battled arm injuries and command throughout his five-year career. The Yankees don’t have a minor league pitcher who clear projects as an ace, but Ramirez is probably the closest. He’s a long way from that ceiling, however. A very long way.

The Deep Sleeper
The Yankees were very, very patient when it came to signing soon-to-be 22-year-old Rafael DePaula. They originally agreed to sign him for $500k back in November 2010, but it wasn’t until March 2012 that the right-hander was approved for a visa and the contract became official. Because he wasn’t allowed to play in actual games while waiting for his visa, DePaula lost a lot of crucial development time these last two years. With command of a mid-90s fastball and low-80s curveball, he’s the best bet in the organization to emerge with the “future ace” label over the next 12 months. DePaula figures to start with High-A Tampa this year, but the Yankees could opt to hold him back with Low-A Charleston given the lack of experience.

* * *

Sabathia is one of the game’s ten best pitchers and pretty clearly the second most important Yankee heading into the 2013 season. He’s truly irreplaceable. The Bombers don’t have any clear-cut ace-caliber pitching prospects in the minors — just a collection of guys with good stuff or good command or good health, but not all three. It’s a problem going going forward given the team’s plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 (and beyond), so they’ll have to get creative to pull it off. Either that or hope for good luck.

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

The Yankees will open 2013 with their fifth different primary DH in the last five seasons, and that is completely by design. Hideki Matsui‘s knees relegated him to almost exclusive DH duty in 2008 and 2009, creating roster and lineup inflexibility. The team dealt with a similar issue in 2010 with Jorge Posada.

Otherwise, New York has tried to use that DH spot as a revolving door, which is a trend spreading throughout the league. Rather than have one set everyday DH, they’ve picked up a low-cost left-handed hitter to platoon with their older players at the position. Brett Gardner‘s injury forced Raul Ibanez — who was signed to be that low-cost left-handed half of the DH platoon — in the outfield more than expected last season, which is why ten different players started games at DH last year. Only one (Alex Rodriguez) started more than 25 games there.

The Starter(s)
This summer’s low-cost left-handed DH is long-time Cleveland Indian Travis Hafner, who signed a one-year contract with a $2M base salary in early-February. The 35-year-old hit .228/.346/.438 (118 wRC+) with 12 homers in 263 plate appearances last season, including .241/.361/.437 (123 wRC+) against righties. Over the last three seasons, Pronk has hit .267/.363/.447 (124 wRC+) overall and .278/.385/.470 (136 wRC+) against right-handers, which is exactly what the Yankees want him to do in 2013. It’s a very simple job, just hit right-handers and take advantage of the short porch.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees have already admitted their plan to use Derek Jeter as their full-time DH against left-handers, at least early in the season. The move has more to do with getting him off his feet following late-October ankle surgery than his ability to mash southpaws — .364/.399/.542 (157 wRC+) in 2012 and .344/.403/.515 (150 wRC+) since 2010 — which is completely understandable. Jeter, 38, could use the regular rest following surgery even if serving as the DH is only a half-day off, so to speak. That will presumably force Eduardo Nunez into the field as shortstop on a fairly regular basis.

There are two concerns with a Hafner-led DH platoon. One, he doesn’t play a position at all. He hasn’t played first base regularly since 2005 or at all since 2007, so unlike Ibanez last year, he won’t be able to fill-in anywhere in case of injury. That’s already a problem in the wake of Mark Teixeira‘s wrist injury. Second, Hafner himself is an injury risk. He had right shoulder surgery in October 2008 and has been on the DL six times in the four years since, including two times in both 2011 and 2012. Ailments have ranged from shoulder soreness to an oblique strain to knee surgery to a bulging disk in his back. Hafner is a very important part of the lineup early in the season with Teixeira and Curtis Granderson hurt, but he’s unlikely to make it through the entire season unscathed himself.

The Backup
No team carries a backup DH. The position doesn’t exist. If and when Hafner gets hurt, the Yankees will do what they did last year. They’ll rotate players in and out of the position to rest them, with a bench player like Nunez or the right-handed hitting outfielder to be named later seeing more playing time in the field. Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, A-Rod, Kevin Youkilis, Robinson Cano … all of them would see time at DH should anything happen to Hafner.

Knocking on the Door
Again, no team stashes a backup DH in the minors. The obvious answer for the Yankees here would be first baseman Dan Johnson, who looks poised to open the season as Teixeira’s temporary replacement. Outfielders Thomas Neal and Zoilo Almonte, first baseman Luke Murton, and infielders Corban Joseph and David Adams could all be called up if Hafner goes down and see playing time in some capacity. DH depth isn’t clearly defined like it is for other positions, it won’t be one set guy to come off the bench or up from Triple-A if the DH spot becomes suddenly vacant.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Top Prospect
I didn’t rank a single DH prospect in my preseason top 30 list because DH prospects don’t exist. The closest we’ve seen to one is Jesus Montero, who is being given every opportunity to catch in the big leagues. It’s the ultimate last resort position. I guess Ronnie Mustelier could be considered the team’s top DH prospect given his good bat and poor defense, but he won’t be moving there anytime soon. Below-average defense is better than zero defense in some instances, especially since most hitters see their offensive production decline when serving as the DH. It’s not an easy thing to do, sitting around between at-bats.

The Deep Sleeper
The Yankees don’t have a true DH prospect at all, nevermind in the lower minors. If someone is stuck playing DH semi-regularly in a short season league, they ain’t no prospect. I’ll take Yeicok Calderon, who I mentioned yesterday in the right field write-up. He can hit a little but stinks defensively, so maybe he winds up a DH down the line. Otherwise, nothing to see here.

* * *

The Yankees will rely on Hafner and Jeter at DH this year, especially early in the season. Others like Youkilis and Cano will see some time at the position as well, just to get a day away from the field, and guys like Almonte and Mustelier provide some depth in Triple-A. Hafner is very important to the Yankees though, especially while Teixeira and Granderson are out. It’s not at all a stretch to call him their second best offensive player at the moment.

Other Previews: Catchers, First Basemen, Second Basemen, Shortstops, Third Basemen, Left Fielders, Center Fielders, Right Fielders

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