2013 Season Preview: The Number Fours

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.

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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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2013 Season Preview: The Number Threes

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.

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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.

2013 Season Preview: The Number Twos

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.

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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.

2013 Season Preview: The Aces

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.

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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.

2013 Season Preview: The Designated Hitters

(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.

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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