The Milestone Watch [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With another Yankee season underway, let’s take a look at some statistical milestones that a few of our boys in pinstripes can reach this summer.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod, of course, is on the verge of becoming the fourth player in major-league history with 700 homers. His pursuit of the home run record is well-documented, as he is 28 homers shy of passing Babe Ruth for third place all-time.

He is at 342 homers with the Yankees, just 16 shy of tying Yogi Berra for fifth-most in franchise history. He has a good chance to move into the top-10 of a couple more lists in the Yankee record books, too. With 14 runs scored, he’ll pass Don Mattingly for 10th place there, and with 35 more RBI, he’ll also jump ahead of Mattingly and into 10th place on that leaderboard.

Carlos Beltran

Beltran is approaching a few nice round numbers this season. With eight more home runs, he’ll be the fourth switch hitter to reach the 400-homer milestone. Beltran can join an even more exclusive club, too, when he hits No. 400. He’d be just the fifth player in MLB history with at least 400 homers and 300 stolen bases in a career, joining A-Rod, Andre Dawson, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays.

If he stays healthy, he should also reach two more benchmarks: 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBI. He is at 2,454 hits and 1,443 RBI entering Tuesday’s season opener. The only switch hitters in baseball with 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBI are Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira is also nearing membership in the 400-homer club, and is just six away as he begins his 14th major-league season. The only other switch hitter to hit 400 homers that early into his career was Mickey Mantle. Eight other first baseman totaled 400 homers in their first 14 career seasons: Carlos Delgado, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Jeff Bagwell, Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire.

Starlin Castro
The 26-year-old enters 2016 needing nine hits to reach the 1,000-hit mark. His gap-to-gap power and ability to hit for average is underrated and rare for a player at his age and position. He would be just the seventh middle infielder to compile 1,000 hits, 175 doubles, 30 triples and 60 homers through his age-26 season. The others: Roberto Alomar, Robin Yount, Bobby Doerr, Arky Vaughan, Travis Jackson and Rogers Hornsby.

CC Sabathia
If Sabathia can hold onto his rotation spot, he can enjoy a few round-number milestones. First, he is just 11 1/3 innings pitched shy of 3,000 for his career. Only 10 other left-handers have gotten to that mark in their age-35 season or younger, as CC is about to do. And of that group of 10, only Steve Carlton and Mickey Lolich also had at least 2,500 strikeouts on their resume like Sabathia.

He’s also moving up the Yankee pitching lists. With two more starts, he’ll be the 17th guy to start 200 games for the Yankees, and he needs three wins to become the 17th pitcher with 100 wins for the franchise.

The Rest of MLB [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The new season is upon us. Opening Day is Monday, which means it’s time to wrap up our annual Season Preview series. As always, we’ll end the series with a quick look around the league. Some of this is serious, most of it isn’t. Enjoy.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Why They’ll Suck: The middle infield is a mess and their corner outfield defense is going to be pretty bad if Yasmany Tomas plays left everyday. Also, they’ll probably trade some good players to unload a bad contract again.
Bold Prediction: Shelby Miller actually pitches well. I have no idea why so many analysts think he’s bad.

Atlanta Braves
Why They’ll Suck: Because they are trying to suck. Rebuilding is just a nice way of saying tanking.
Bold Prediction: Nick Markakis beats his ZiPS projection and slugs .370.

Chicago Cubs
Why They’ll Suck: They’re going to strike out way too much. It’s also only a matter of time until someone gets bit by some wild animal Joe Maddon brings into the clubhouse.
Bold Prediction: Adam Warren is their best starter. Boom!

Chicago White Sox
Why They’ll Suck: They lost their leader, Drake LaRoche.
Bold Prediction: We find out Adam LaRoche was the one who complained about Drake LaRoche being in the clubhouse all the time.

Cincinnati Reds
Why They’ll Suck: Their rotation is Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen, Jon Moscot, and John Lamb. No, wait, that’s the list of their injured starters. Now they have to turn to the B-team.
Bold Prediction: Joey Votto finally loses his mind, but in a polite, Canadian way. He’s already doing this between pitches:

Joey Votto

Cleveland Indians
Why They’ll Suck: In all seriousness, their entire starting outfield is either hurt (Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall) or suspended (Abe Almonte). They’re a Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco injury away from 85 losses. Beware.
Bold Prediction: Francisco Lindor leads all shortstops in WAR.

Colorado Rockies
Why They’ll Suck: The Rockies exist in a perpetual state of suck. Fun Fact: They have never once won a division title. They’ve finished as high as second place only three times in their 23 years of existence.
Bold Prediction: They finally trade Carlos Gonzalez. I’m thinking … Orioles.

Detroit Tigers
Why They’ll Suck: They’ve punted defense at the four corner positions and, inevitably, the relievers they acquired this winter will stink.
Bold Prediction: Justin Verlander bounces back and finished in the top five of the Cy Young voting.

Houston Astros
Why They’ll Suck: Karma for doing very little in the offseason outside of adding a new closer and fifth starter. The rebuild is supposed to be over.
Bold Prediction: Carlos Correa is more Alex Gonzalez than Alex Rodriguez.

Kansas City Royals
Why They’ll Suck: They replaced Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist with Ian Kennedy and Christian Colon. Like, on purpose.
Bold Prediction: Kennedy wins 18 games and Colon hits .310. Eff the Royals, man.

Los Angeles Angels
Why They’ll Suck: The Angels have surrounded Mike Trout with as little position player talent as possible in an effort to make him look even greater by comparison.
Bold Prediction: Jered Weaver’s fastball hits 84 mph once or twice.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Why They’ll Suck: The Dodgers have surrounded Clayton Kershaw with as little pitching talent as possible in an effort to make him look even greater by comparison.
Bold Prediction: It becomes clear Yasiel Puig peaked early.

Miami Marlins
Why They’ll Suck: The fans and players are doomed to pay for Jeffrey Loria’s evil villian-ness. Fun Fact: They’ve never won a division title either. They’ve also never lost a postseason series.
Bold Prediction: Christian Yelich breaks out and puts up Andrew McCutchen numbers. I’m serious about that one.

Milwaukee Brewers
Why They’ll Suck: They’re another team that is going to suck on purpose. Before long they’re going to trade Jonathan Lucroy too.
Bold Prediction: Ramon Flores hits 15 dingers with a .350 OBP.

Minnesota Twins
Why They’ll Suck: I don’t know, but I’m sure Twins fans will blame it on Joe Mauer.
Bold Prediction: Miguel Sano plays right field better than Torii Hunter did last year.

New York Mets
Why They’ll Suck: They’re still the Mets. Case in point: the recent Matt Harvey bladder story. Last year’s pennant didn’t change anything in that regard.
Bold Prediction: They have to trade for a starting pitcher at the deadline.

Oakland Athletics
Why They’ll Suck: No joke, I can name only one A’s starter (Sonny Gray) and one A’s infielder (Marcus Semien). Is Bobby Crosby still playing?
Bold Prediction: Josh Reddick gets traded for a holy crap package at the trade deadline. I’m thinking … Royals.

Philadelphia Phillies
Why They’ll Suck: Still reeling from the 2009 World Series, obviously.
Bold Prediction: Someone not named Maikel Franco or Ryan Howard hits a home run.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Why They’ll Suck: The baseball gods will not let John Jaso’s hair go unpunished.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bold Prediction: Mark Melancon is traded at the deadline. I’m thinking … Dodgers.

St. Louis Cardinals
Why They’ll Suck: The Cardinals will never suck. The only thing they suck at is sucking. Their ace made four starts and their highest paid position player hit four home runs last season, and they still won 100 games. The Cardinals, man.
Bold Prediction: Three years after learning to play second base and one year after learning to hit for power, Matt Carpenter picks up pitching and saves 46 games.

San Diego Padres
Why They’ll Suck: I’m not entirely convinced the Padres exist at this point. Are we sure MLB still lets them into the league? What an amazingly nondescript franchise.
Bold Prediction: Someone throws the first no-hitter in franchise history. I’ll go with Colin Rea, who is a real player and definitely not someone I just made up.

San Francisco Giants
Why They’ll Suck: They buy into the “even year trend” a little too much and give Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner weeks off at a time this summer.
Bold Prediction: Bumgarner out-slugs the starting outfield.

Seattle Mariners
Why They’ll Suck: I don’t know how it will happen exactly, but they’ll suck. The Mariners are the Wile E. Coyote of MLB. Every time they looked poised for success, they crash into the mountain with a tunnel painted on the side of it.
Bold Prediction: Bob Cano mashes 30 taters and finishes in the top three of the MVP voting. I’m expecting a big year from Robbie.

Texas Rangers
Why They’ll Suck: They won’t suck. They’ll be just good enough to get thisclose to winning something meaningful before having it ripped away again. Think Game Six of the 2011 World Series, or the seventh inning of Game Five of last year’s ALDS. That’s how the Rangers roll.
Bold Prediction: Josh Hamilton leads the team in home runs.

Washington Nationals
Why They’ll Suck: They’re the NL version of the Red Sox. They have talent and everyone buys the hype. It should work! But it doesn’t.

Homer Simpson

Bold Prediction: Bryce Harper is even better this year.

The Rest of the AL East [2016 Season Preview]

Over the last six seasons, each of the five AL East teams has won at least one division title. The Yankees (2011, 2012) are the only club with multiple division titles in the last six years. The days of the AL East being dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox are long gone. The other three teams are no longer pushovers.

For what it’s worth, the projections at FanGraphs have the five AL East teams all winning between 79-88 games in 2016, a gap of only nine wins. Baseball Prospectus has them all in the 75-87 win range. If nothing else, the objective computers think the five clubs are pretty close in terms of talent level. You’re welcome to disagree, of course.

Because knowing your enemy is just as important as knowing yourself, let’s take some time to preview the upcoming season for the four non-Yankees teams in the AL East. This is nothing too in-depth. It’s just enough to give you an idea what the Yankees are up against in 2016.

Is the Showalter honeymoon over? (Presswire)
(Presswire)

Baltimore Orioles

Notable Additions: Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, Yovani Gallardo
Notable Losses: Wei-Yin Chen, Steve Pearce, Gerardo Parra

The Orioles went 81-81 last season, and they had to commit $207.8M to Chris Davis, Darren O’Day, and Matt Wieters this offseason just to keep their core intact. Also, Kevin Gausman is dealing with a shoulder issue and Miguel Gonzalez was released yesterday, so their rotation right now is:

  1. Chris Tillman
  2. Yovani Gallardo
  3. Ubaldo Jimenez
  4. ???
  5. ???

That seems less than ideal. O’Day and Zach Britton are a dynamite end-game tandem, but I’m not sure how manager Buck Showalter expects to get the ball to them. They’re counting on a big time bounceback from Tillman and consistency from Jimenez (lol), and for Gallardo to chew up innings better than he did last year. He completed six innings just twice in his final 16 starts of 2015.

The O’s are going to have to win a lot of 7-6 games to contend and they have the firepower to do so. Davis, Trumbo, Alvarez, Adam Jones, and Manny Machado are all legitimate 30 homer threats. Watch out for Jonathan Schoop too. He hit 15 homers in only 321 plate appearances last year. The Trumbo and Alvarez pickups don’t do anything to help the club’s OBP problem — the O’s were 26th in baseball with a .307 OBP in 2015 — so while they might hit 250 home runs this season, most of them will be solo shots.

Baltimore is the only AL East team that would really surprise me by winning the division. They’re going to hit a ton of homers, there’s no doubt about that, but they don’t get on base and the pitching staff is thin. I mean really, really thin. The O’s will be a headache to play this season. Over the course of 162 games though, I feel it’s only a matter of time until they fall behind the rest of the AL East.

A worthy foe. (Presswire)
A worthy foe. (Presswire)

Boston Red Sox

Notable Additions: David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith, Chris Young
Notable Losses: Wade Miley

For the third or fourth year in a row, the Red Sox changed philosophies this offseason, deciding to spend big after former GM Ben Cherington spent a few years preaching restraint and flexibility. New baseball operations chief Dave Dombrowski is all about big names, has been for years, hence the Price signing and Kimbrel trade. Those moves were right in his wheelhouse.

Price gives the BoSox the ace they so clearly lacked, but I think the bullpen additions are going to help them more than Price. Kimbrel and Smith are replacing Alexei Ogando and Craig Breslow, who combined to allow 62 runs in 130.1 innings in 2015. Those two will join Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa in the late innings. (Smith’s dealing with a flexor injury and will miss the start of the regular season.)

Offensively, the Red Sox have sneaky big questions in five spots: catcher (Blake Swihart), first base (Hanley Ramirez), third base (Pablo Sandoval), left field (Rusney Castillo), and center field (Jackie Bradley Jr.). They’re already talking about sending Castillo to Triple-A and playing a Young/Brock Holt platoon in left, and apparently now Travis Shaw is the starting third baseman. Everyone seems to be assuming Hanley and Bradley will have above-average seasons because … I don’t know why. At least Hanley has his track record to fall back on.

The Red Sox get the benefit of the doubt more than any chronically underachieving team deserves. They have talent, that much is clear, but they’ve had talent the last two years too, and they still finished in last place. The Red Sox are going to be tough to play against because they’re always tough to play against. Bet on them at your own risk though. No club has done less with more the last two seasons.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tampa Bay Rays

Notable Additions: Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, Hank Conger, Steve Pearce, Corey Dickerson
Notable Losses: Asdrubal Cabrera, John Jaso, Nate Karns, Jake McGee, James Loney

Only the White Sox scored fewer runs than the Rays among AL teams a year ago, so Tampa Bay set out to improve their offense by acquiring a bunch of guys who can be good if used in very specific ways. Dickerson is good as long as he never faces lefties and is your DH. Miller is good as long as he never faces lefties and the ball is never hit to him. That kinda thing. That’s what the Rays do. They find imperfect players and try to use them perfectly.

The Rays did sacrifice some defense for offense this winter. Morrison is unquestionably worse at first base than Loney. (Loney was told he won’t make the team yesterday.) Remember how shaky and goof prone Didi Gregorius was early last year? That’s Miller all the time. Asdrubal is no great shakes in the field, but he is sure-handed. Conger, meanwhile, is the worst throwing catcher in baseball. He went 1-for-43 throwing out base-stealers last year. That is not a typo. 1-for-43. o n e f o r f o r t y t h r e e

To their credit, the Rays ostensibly improved their weaknesses without sacrificing too much from their strengths. They still have a solid rotation even without Karns and their defense is not atrocious. The bullpen is a little up in the air because McGee is gone and Brad Boxberger will miss a few weeks following core muscle surgery, so that’s their big question right now. Manager Kevin Cash usually doesn’t let his non-Chris Archer starters go through the lineup a third time, and those middle innings are rather treacherous.

For Tampa Bay to contend this year, they’ll need Evan Longoria to get back to where he was earlier in his career, and I’m not sure how possible that is. He’s now 30 and his power is starting to vanish; he went from being a consistent .230+ ISO guy to a .150 ISO guy the last two seasons. That’s bad news for the Rays, especially since his six-year, $100M extension kicks in next year. The Rays will be in the hunt this year, but, as always, they’ll need a lot to go right to beat out division rivals with more resources.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Toronto Blue Jays

Notable Additions: Jesse Chavez, J.A. Happ, Drew Storen, Gavin Floyd
Notable Losses: David Price, Mark Buehrle, Mark Lowe, Liam Hendriks, Ben Revere

You’d think going to the postseason for the first time in two decades would be enough to keep the GM around, but apparently not. The Blue Jays named former Indians president Mark Shapiro their new president last year, replacing the retired Paul Beeston, and GM Alex Anthopoulos felt his authority would be undermined, so he rejected an extension offer and walked away over the winter. Crazy, huh?

The Blue Jays have never been huge spenders and Shapiro himself has a history of steering clear of big free agents, so the team never made much of an effort to keep Price. They instead opted to replace him (and Buehrle) with Happ, Chavez, and a full year of Marcus Stroman. It … might work? They only had Price for eleven starts in 2015, after all. Buehrle was close to toast by the end of the season too.

Toronto still has their powerhouse lineup — they scored 891 runs last season, 127 more than the second highest scoring team (Yankees!) and the most by any team since the 2009 Yankees (915) — and now they’ll have a full year of Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop. Even if he spends time on the DL, 100 games of Tulo and 62 games of a replacement level player is still one of the best shortstops in the game.

As I said this morning, I am of the belief the Blue Jays will outscore any pitching problems. The Yankees did that for years in the mid-2000s. I’m an offense first guy. I’ll always bet on the team with a juggernaut offense coming out ahead over the course of a 162-game season. The Blue Jays may not be quite as imposing as they were in the second half last season, but they’re still very good. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion will be free agents next offseason, so this might be the club’s last chance to win with this core.

The Farm System [2016 Season Preview]

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

The Yankees ignored their farm system for a number of years in the early and mid-2000s. They forfeited first round picks left and right to sign free agents, and they traded the few prospects they had for big leaguers every chance they got. I don’t think that’s automatically a bad thing! There’s a time and a place to go for it, and when you’re winning 90+ games every year, you go for it.

Things changed not too long ago. The Yankees decided to scale back the “go for it” mentality and instead focus on getting younger and building from within. Draft picks are precious, especially now that it’s harder to get extra ones, and top prospects are off limits in trades. Or at least the team says they are. Last summer the Yankees dipped into their farm system to fill a number of holes, most notably by sticking Luis Severino in the second half rotation.

The Yankees doubled down on their farm system this offseason. They signed zero Major League free agents for the first time in franchise history (as far as I can tell), and they didn’t go bonkers with trades either. They added a new second baseman, a new fourth outfielder, and a new closer. That’s about it. Any additional help is going to come from within in 2016. Let’s preview the farm system.

The Top Prospects

The Yankees have four prospects who are clearly a notch above everyone else in the system: OF Aaron Judge, C Gary Sanchez, SS Jorge Mateo, and RHP James Kaprielian. Put them in any order you want. I won’t argue (much). Those are the four guys though. They’re the cream of the farm system crop. And cool part is all four could play in MLB in 2016. I wouldn’t call it likely, but it’s not completely impossible.

Judge is a behemoth — he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 275 lbs. — with the kind of raw power you’d expect from that frame, though he doesn’t fit the one-dimensional slugger stereotype because he has a good hit tool and can play quality right field defense. Triple-A pitchers beat him with soft stuff away last year, so he’ll focus on the outer half this year. He’s already made some adjustments. Judge is not on the 40-man roster and the Yankees do have a lot of Triple-A outfield depth, but he will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next offseason, so the team could add him to the 40-man ahead of time and bring him up in September. Perhaps even sooner.

As soon as John Ryan Murphy was traded, Sanchez became the favorite for the backup catcher’s job. Over time it became clear sending him down was the right move, and not only because he went 1-for-21 (.048) in Spring Training. Five weeks in the minors equals an extra year of team control down the line and that is too good to pass up. Sanchez will continue to work on his defense in Triple-A for the time being. It’s only a matter of time until he takes over as Brian McCann‘s backup.

Mateo and Kaprielian are both going to start the season in High-A and they could conceivably reach MLB late in the season. Kaprielian, a polished college arm, could follow the Ian Kennedy path and zoom up the ladder, capping off his season with a few big league starts. Mateo, a speedster who can do a little of everything, could be the team’s designated pinch-runner in September. He’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, so the Yankees could add him to the 40-man roster a few weeks early and put those legs to good use.

Judge, Sanchez, Mateo, and Kaprielian are the club’s tippy top prospects, and even if they don’t help at the MLB level this season, they’re all big parts of the future. Judge is the obvious long-term replacement for Carlos Beltran. Sanchez is McCann’s long-term replacement. The Yankees have one big league starter under team control beyond 2017 (Severino), so Kaprielian’s place is obvious. Mateo? They’ll figure that out when the time comes. For now, these four will continue to hone their skills and inch closer to an MLB job.

Ready To Help

In addition to the four top prospects, the Yankees have a few minor leaguers on the cusp of helping at the MLB level right now. First and foremost, they have about a dozen arms for the bullpen shuttle, and frankly I’m kinda sick of talking about them. We know the names, right? LHP Jacob Lindgren, RHP Nick Rumbelow, RHP Nick Goody, RHP Branden Pinder, LHP James Pazos, on and on the list goes. We’re going to see them all at some point in 2016. I’m sure of it.

Gamel. (Presswire)
Gamel. (Presswire)

Beyond the bullpen shuttle, the Yankees have a small army of Triple-A outfielders who can help at a moment’s notice. Need a bat? OF Ben Gamel is there. Need defense? OF Mason Williams is the best bet once he fully recovers from shoulder surgery. Need a little of both? There’s OF Slade Heathcott. 2B Rob Refsnyder provides infield depth, or at least he will once he spends more time at third base. IF Ronald Torreyes, who will open the season in the show, is another infield candidate.

RHP Bryan Mitchell is also going to open to season in MLB, though he’s still a piece of rotation depth. If he’s the best man for the job, the Yankees will pull him out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation whenever a starter is needed. RHP Luis Cessa, who came over in the Justin Wilson trade, looked very good this spring and is probably next in line for a call-up. RHP Brady Lail and RHP Chad Green are behind him. Cessa is on the 40-man. Lail and Green are not.

Unlike last season, the Yankees don’t have a Severino waiting in the wings. They don’t have that prospect who can come up and provide immediate impact. Well, I should rephrase that. They don’t have a prospect you would reasonably project to come up and have an impact right away. Cessa could come up and throw 60 innings with a sub-2.00 ERA, but no one expects that. Either way, the Yankees have depth pieces in Triple-A. Expect them to dip into their farm system for short-term help again this year, regardless of what they need at the MLB level.

The Next Top Prospects

A year ago at this time Mateo looked like a prospect who was ready to explode onto the scene and become a top tier prospect. Two years ago it was Severino. This summer, the best candidate for such a breakout is SS Wilkerman Garcia, who was part of that massive international spending spree two years ago. He’s a switch-hitter with good defense and I swear, every scouting report I read about him is better than the last. I’m excited to see what Wilkerman does this year.

Beyond Wilkerman, OF Dustin Fowler and C Luis Torrens have a chance to become top prospects this year. Fowler is a do-it-all outfielder and Torrens is a defense-first catcher with a promising bat. He’s coming back from shoulder surgery though, so maybe expecting a breakout after missing the entire 2015 season is too much to ask. 3B Miguel Andujar has high-end tools. We’re just waiting for the performance to match. SS Hoy Jun Park is another toolsy shortstop like Garcia.

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system, though they do have some pitching prospects poised to break out this summer. RHP Drew Finley is the No. 1 guy. He’s got three pitches and he locates. I feel like he’s going to sneak up on people this year. RHP Domingo Acevedo is the quintessential huge fastball guy. He just has to figure everything else out. LHP Jeff Degano needs to develop a changeup but already has the fastball and breaking ball.

Then, of course, there’s whoever the Yankees take with their first round pick (18th overall) in this June’s amateur draft. That player — the smart money is on a college player based on the team’s recent draft tendencies — figures to be one of their better prospects a year from now. Wilkerman, Fowler, and Finley are my picks. Those are the guys I see having big 2016 seasons developmentally and becoming true top prospects year from now.

Returning From Injury

Torrens missed all of last season with his injury, but man, he’s not the only one. LHP Ian Clarkin missed the regular season with elbow inflammation, which stinks. The good news is he did not need surgery and was able to throw some innings in the Arizona Fall League. RHP Ty Hensley, RHP Austin DeCarr, and RHP Domingo German all had Tommy John surgery last spring and are still working their way back. Lindgren (elbow), Heathcott (quad), and Williams (shoulder) all missed big chunks of the season too. That’s a lot of talent coming back. Hopefully all of them come back at full strength, or at least something close to it.

Sladerunner. (Presswire)
Sladerunner. (Presswire)

Last Chance?

Prospects are fun and everyone loves them, but they will break your heart. Over and over again. Some players are entering make or break years, and I don’t mean 2015 Gary Sanchez make or break years. I mean real make or break years. 1B/OF Tyler Austin is the most obvious last chance guy. He’s battled injuries and ineffectiveness the last few years, and he lost his 40-man roster spot in September. The 2016 season is his last chance to show the Yankees he’s worth keeping around.

Heathcott’s another make or break player for me. The Yankees gave him a second chance last year and he rewarded them with his big September home run against the Rays. That said, he again missed a bunch of time due to injury, and when healthy he didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball in Triple-A. Another year like that might spell the end of Slade’s time in the organization, especially since he will be out of options following the season.

I’m also inclined to include RHP Vicente Campos in the make or break category. He’s had a lot of injuries over the years, most notably missing the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery, which has really cut into his development time. This is his final minor league option year, and if he doesn’t show the Yankees he can help as soon next year, it may be time to move on. Baseball is cruel, man.

The Deep Sleepers

Remember that “The Next Top Prospects” section? Consider this the Next Next Top Prospects section. These are the deepest sleepers in the farm system. They’re way off the beaten path. The new hotness right now is OF Estevan Florial, an ulta-tooled up 18-year-old the Yankees got on the cheap because identity issues — he used a relative’s identity to enroll in school in the Dominican Republic — put him in purgatory before signing. He’s going to make his stateside debut this year and jump onto the prospect map in a big way.

SS Diego Castillo and OF Brayan Emery were part of the 2014-15 international spending spree, and both possess tools that far exceed their six-figure bonuses. Castillo in particular already looks like a steal at $750,000. He should come to the U.S. this year and is in line to follow Mateo and Wilkerman as the next great Yankees shortstop prospect. RHP Luis Medina, who signed last July, is already running his fastball up to 98-100 mph. And then there’s OF Leonardo Molina, who is still only 18. It feels like he’s been around forever. Florial is the big name to know here, but Castillo’s not far behind. Expect to hear a lot about those two in 2016 and beyond.

The Best of the Rest

There is nothing sexy about being a mid-range prospect, but you know what? Mid-range prospects are often the difference between good teams and great teams. They provide depth and they’re valuable trade chips. Guys like Adam Warren and Brett Gardner don’t grow on trees, you know. You’d rather draft and develop them yourself than have to go out and buy them from someone else.

SS Tyler Wade, SS Kyle Holder, LHP Jordan Montgomery, IF Thairo Estrada, IF Abi Avelino, OF Carlos Vidal, 1B Chris Gittens, RHP Cale Coshow, RHP Chance Adams, OF Trey Amburgey, and OF Jhalan Jackson all fit into this group. They’re good prospects, not great prospects, and they all project to be big leaguers of varying usefulness. I’m not sure if we’ll see any of these players in the show this year, but I bet several pop-up in trade rumors, and one or two could be moved for help at the MLB level. That’s what the farm system is for, after all. Call-ups and trades.

The Coaching Staff [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once again, the Yankees made some changes to their coaching staff this past offseason. Not huge changes, but changes nonetheless. Two years ago Gary Tuck replaced Mike Harkey as bullpen coach. Last year the duo of Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell replaced Kevin Long at hitting coach, and Joe Espada took over as third base coach with Rob Thomson moving to bench coach and Tony Pena moving to first base coach.

This past offseason the Yankees replaced Tuck with Harkey — Tuck was reportedly let go due to a disagreement with the front office about the use of analytics — and promoted Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Marcus Thames to replace Pentland. Well, technically Cockrell was promoted to replace Pentland as the main hitting coach, with Thames replacing Cockrell as the assistant. Got all that?

It’s tough to preview or review the coaching staff because so much of what they do happens behind the scenes. Sometimes we can see the results of their work — Thames helped Ben Gamel add a leg kick last year, for example — but oftentimes we’re talking about adjustments the untrained eye won’t see. So rather than provide a rigorous analysis of the coaching staff, here is a more casual preview of the upcoming season.

The Manager

Can you believe this will be Joe Girardi‘s ninth season as manager? The Yankees have had two managers over the last two decades. They had eleven managers in the two decades before that, not counting the guys who were hired multiple times. I was still very young when George Steinbrenner was in his hiring and firing heyday, so I can’t really appreciate the continuity the Yankees have had the last 20 years.

Anyway, I have long believed the manager’s most important work takes place is in the clubhouse, where he has to manage 25 personalities (way more than that, really) day in and day out for eight months a year. That can’t be easy. The Yankees seem to have a very cohesive clubhouse — Alex Rodriguez referred to the veteran players as the “Board of Trustees” because of the way they oversee things — and that surely helps Girardi. Over the last few seasons the team has been largely distraction free and that’s a good thing. Girardi keeps the chaos to a minimum.

On the field, I think Girardi has two key responsibilities this year. One, don’t screw up the laughably great bullpen he’s been given. And he won’t. Girardi’s very good with his relievers. Yes, he makes moves that sometime backfire. That makes him like every other manager. We now have eight years worth of data telling us Girardi is good at a) turning marginal relievers into assets by putting them in good positions to succeed, and b) keeping his bullpeners fresh.

Managing this bullpen with the lead will be easy. Are the Yankees up in the late innings? Bring in Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, or Aroldis Chapman. Any of three will do. That’s the easy part of managing this bullpen. The tough part is all the other innings, when you’re trailing or deep into extra innings and the three big guys have been used. The Yankees are going to shuttle relievers in and out all year again, and it’ll be up to Girardi to get the most out of them.

The second key on-field responsibility this season is resting the regulars. Girardi and the Yankees seem to be all-in on this. They’ve been talking about it since the end of last season. They want to rest the veterans and try to avoid another second half offensive collapse. The versatile Aaron Hicks will make resting the outfielders easy. He can play any outfield position and he’s a switch-hitter. Hooray for that. The infield? Eh, things are a little up in the air there. Either way, keeping players fresh and productive will be very important in 2016.

Beyond all that, I’d like to see Girardi try a few more Hail Mary instant replay challenges this summer, which I discussed a few months ago. The team’s replay success rate may dip, but who cares? They don’t give out a prize for that. Girardi has to navigate this weird transition period as the “get younger and trim payroll but remain competitive” thing continues. I don’t think his job will be (or should be) in jeopardy if they miss the postseason, but who knows. After eight years, it’s pretty clear Girardi is an asset and one of the game’s better managers.

Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)
Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)

The Hitting Coaches

The Yankees are on their third hitting coach(es) in three years. They scored the second most runs in baseball last season, and outside of Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury, pretty much everyone in the lineup met or exceeded expectations. That seems to be the criteria by which fans judge hitting coaches. Did the team score a lot of runs? Did the players meet expectations? If the answers are yes, the hitting coach is doing a good job.

This summer the Cockrell/Thames tandem will be tasked not so much with keeping the veterans productive, though that’s obviously important. Given the team’s direction, the more important goal is helping the young players, specifically guys like Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro. We could also lump Hicks and Gary Sanchez in there as well. The Yankee have put aside the present for the future, that couldn’t be any more clear, which is why the young guys are the priority. That’s … pretty much all I have to say about the hitting coaches. Go team.

The Pitching Coach

This year the Yankees did not give Larry Rothschild a project. Last season they dropped a shiny new Nathan Eovaldi into his lap and told Rothschild to turn him into a better pitcher. And he did! Rothschild taught Eovaldi a splitter and he was way more effective with that pitch. Based on that, the project was successful in the short-term. We’ll see what happens in the long-term.

In 2016, Rothschild’s pet project will be Luis Severino and perhaps Bryan Mitchell, assuming he’s in the Opening Day bullpen. Severino is very refined for a kid his age, but the Yankees do need to monitor his workload, and Rothschild is in charge of mapping that out. Mitchell has to improve his control and command and gosh, that’s a tough one. Rothschild can only do so much there. Baseball history is full of live arms who washed out because they couldn’t locate.

Rothschild is about to begin his sixth season as pitching coach — how the hell did that happen? didn’t they just hire him? — and in those five years the Yankees have had plenty of pitchers exceed expectations, and I’m talking about both veterans (Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda) and young pitchers (Betances, Adam Warren, even Ivan Nova). Most of their pitching failures have been injury related. How much credit does Rothschild deserve? We can’t say, exactly. After five years, I feel pretty good with him running the show.

The Other Coaches

Harkey left the Yankees two years ago to take over as the Diamondbacks pitching coach. Arizona canned him at the end of last season, which was inevitable. He was a holdover from the previous regime and it was only a matter of time until GM Dave Stewart and head baseball operations hocho Tony La Russa brought in their own guy. They gave Harkey a year, then moved on, so now he’s back with the Yankees as bullpen coach. It’s like he never left.

Thompson returns as bench coach and I have no opinion about that whatsoever. Pena returns as first base coach — his is Pena’s 11th season on the coaching staff, by the way — and I also have no opinion about that. Both guys have been around forever and they wouldn’t continue to be around if they weren’t quality baseball minds. All bench and first base coaches are cool with me because I’m don’t really know what they do or how much influence they have. Pena works with the catchers. I know that much.

Third base coaches generally get a bad rap. They’re either hated or unnoticed. Espada was conservative sending runners last year and at least part of that was out of necessity. The Yankees are not a fast team aside from Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. Also, the Yankees scored a lot of runs last year, and when you can hit for power like they did, it makes sense to hold a runner if you think there may be a play at the plate. Teams that struggle to score runs have to really push it. The Yankees aren’t one of those teams.

That said, Espada did appear to be overly conservative at times, perhaps due to poor reads or not knowing the scouting reports on the outfielder’s arm. (Guessing it was the former, not the latter.) That’s something that has to be cleaned up. Espada’s not a rookie third base coach — he was the Marlins third base coach from 2010-13 — so he has experience. Hopefully his second year in New York goes a bit more smoothly now that he’s seen the league and is more familiar with his personnel.

The Bullpen Shuttle [2016 Season Preview]

Shreve. (Presswire)
Shreve. (Presswire)

Over the last few years the Yankees have done a good job finding interesting bullpen prospects in different places. The late rounds of the draft, waivers, minor league free agency, whatever. These guys are not future ace closers or anything like that, but they look like serviceable bullpen options, so the Yankees put them to work last year. They cycled relievers in and out as part of their bullpen shuttle. They called someone up, got a few innings out of him, then sent him down for a fresh arm. Over and over again.

The Yankees will again employ a bullpen shuttle in 2016, perhaps even moreso than last year. They have multiple open bullpen spots and a small army of relievers with options, so they can send these guys up and down as much as they want this summer. And they will. We’re going to see pitchers come up, throw in a game or two, then get sent down. Big league stints will be measured in days, not weeks. Here are the main bullpen shuttle candidates for the coming season, presented alphabetically.

The Spring Standout

An offseason ago the Yankees flipped Shawn Kelley to the Padres in what was widely believed to be a cost-cutting move. Kelley was solid, not great, and he figured to be a key piece of the 2015 bullpen. Instead, the Yankees traded him for a Double-A relief prospect with a balky elbow. That prospect: Johnny Barbato. And one year after the trade, Barbato is in position to make the bullpen.

“Definitely came in trying to open some eyes,” said Barbato to Chad Jennings over the weekend. “Just worked my butt off this offseason to get ready, and I think I did. I think coming in here feeling confident, feeling comfortable — I lost a bunch of weight — just came in feeling good, and I think I’ve done well enough to open some eyes.”

Barbato, 23, had a 3.19 ERA (3.45 FIP) with a 24.8% strikeout rate and a 9.2% walk rate in 67.2 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A last year. The concerns about his elbow blew over. He’s been healthy since the trade. This spring he’s allowed two runs (both in the same game) in 8.2 innings with an 11/1 K/BB. Barbato’s done it with a low-to-mid-90s fastball, his trademark curveball …

Johnny Barbato curveball

… and a little slider/cutter thing. The Yankees added Barbato to the 40-man roster over the winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and while taking Grapefruit League numbers to heart is a fool’s errand, Barbato has clearly opened some eyes in camp. With most of the other shuttle relievers struggling, he has put himself in very good position to be on the Opening Day roster. Either way, Opening Day roster or not, we’ll see Barbato in the big leagues this summer.

The Offseason Pickup

It’s funny how history repeats itself, isn’t it? Last offseason this Yankees traded someone we all thought would be a big part of their 2015 bullpen (Kelley) for a prospect, and everyone said they were doing it to save money. Now that prospect looks pretty good. They did the same thing this past offseason, sending Justin Wilson to the Tigers for two Triple-A starting pitcher prospects, one of which is righty Luis Cessa.

Cessa, a former shortstop, has been traded twice in the past eight months. The Mets sent him to the Tigers in the Yoenis Cespedes deal, then the Tigers sent to the Yankees for Wilson. The 23-year-old Cessa has been solid in limited action this spring (7 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K) and Brian Cashman has praised his work thus far. The GM could just be pumping up a recent addition, though ultimately the words do not matter. What matters is what happens on the mound.

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

In all likelihood Cessa, who is starting tonight’s game against the Tigers, will open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation. Don’t think that’s significant? Four of the five pitchers who opened last season in the Triple-A rotation ended up in the big leagues at some point. (Bryan Mitchell, Chase Whitley, Kyle Davies, Danny Burawa. Jaron Long was the exception.) Cessa, who is on the 40-man roster, is a fastball/slider/changeup pitcher with surprisingly good command for a converted position player, though he still needs some fine-tuning.

After Ivan Nova, Cessa could very well be the first pitcher to brought up from the minors to make a spot start in 2016. Mitchell started last season in the Triple-A rotation before getting some extended time in the MLB bullpen, and a similar path is a definite possibility for Cessa, though I think the Yankees really believe in him as a future starter. I’m sure he’ll reach the show at some point this year anyway. Similar to Barbato at the time of his trade, Cessa’s true coming out party may be a year away.

The Minor League Stats Guy

You’re not going to find a shuttle reliever with better minor league numbers than Nick Goody. The 24-year-old righty missed most of the 2013 and 2014 seasons due to Tommy John surgery, then, in his first full season with his rebuilt elbow, Goody had a 1.59 ERA (2.06 FIP) with a 33.2% strikeout rate and an 8.3% walk rate in 62.1 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2015. He also threw 5.2 innings in the show.

Goody was on the shuttle last year and he’ll be on the it again this year. He hasn’t had a great Spring Training (8.1 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) but the Yankees have not yet reassigned him to minor league camp, so his Opening Day roster hopes are still alive. Goody is a low-90s fastball/low-80s slider guy, so since he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, his presently shaky command probably isn’t good enough for high-leverage work. Perhaps his command can improve the way David Robertson‘s did. For the timing being, he’s the quintessential up-and-down middle reliever.

The Former Top Pick

Less than a year after being the Yankees’ top selection (second round) in the 2014 draft, left-hander Jacob Lindgren was in the big leagues, getting a chance to show he belonged long-term. (When they needed a roster spot, the Yankees cut the veteran David Carpenter and kept Lindgren.) Lindgren struggled in his seven MLB innings and eventually had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, ending his season.

Lindgren, 23, was the very first 40-man roster player and Opening Day bullpen hopeful reassigned to minor league camp this spring. His numbers were not great, though it was basically one disaster outing in three appearances:

Jacob Lindgren stats

Joe Girardi said the Yankees felt Lindgren was pressing because he was trying to make the team, so they sent him down to clear his head and get regular work. Lindgren’s calling card is his wipeout slider, though he lacks command, lacks a big fastball (mostly 89-91 in pro ball), and has just good enough control to make it work. That’s the recipe for a frustrating reliever.

That slider gives Lindgren the best chance to be a late-inning reliever among the shuttle guys, though he’s going to have to throw more strikes going forward. That’s the goal this season with elbow surgery in the rear-view mirror: more strikes. A wipeout breaking ball is no good if you’re behind in the count. Lindgren is definitely a shuttle candidate, but I wonder if the Yankees will leave him in Triple-A for an extended period of time to iron out that control.

The Starter Turned Reliever

Real Talk: If the fifth starter competition was a real thing, Bryan Mitchell would be winning in a landslide. He’s been fantastic this spring (14.2 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 11 K) and he was very good out of the bullpen for the Yankees last year before taking a line drive to the nose. At this point it’s hard to believe Mitchell won’t be on the Opening Day roster. How could he not be?

The stuff as never been in question. Mitchell, who will turn 25 next month, has a mid-90s heater and a knockout curveball, and his third pitch is a cutter. He’s never been able to pick up a changeup, so he has to use the cutter against lefties. That lack of a changeup and career long command issues are Mitchell’s biggest flaws. One of those will have to improve — ideally both — for Mitchell to hack it as a starter at the next level.

For now, Mitchell is certain to open the season in the bullpen, and Girardi has talked about using him in the Adam Warren role. That versatile reliever who can go multiple innings and even pitch in the late innings on occasion. The Yankees shouldn’t close the door on Mitchell as a starter and I don’t think they will. For now, they need him in the bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the big leagues for good. Mitchell may be too good to shuttle up and down.

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

The Lefty Specialist

Every year the Yankees (and every other team) make a series of small pickups in the offseason, and those small pickups can be easy to overlook. Left-hander Tyler Olson, who came over in a minor trade with the Dodgers, was one of those easy to overlook pickups this winter. He’s a pure left-on-left matchup guy with a funky delivery, a mid-to-upper-80s heater, and a loopy breaking ball, so his usefulness is limited.

Olson, 26, has had a pretty strong spring up until his last appearance or two. Having a spare lefty specialist you can bring up whenever you’re getting set to face a lefty heavy lineup is nice, but of all the shuttle relievers, I think Olson is most in danger of losing his 40-man roster spot. The Yankees have other lefties and they have other relievers who can throw full innings. Chances are we’ll see Olson at some point this summer. I would be surprised if he carved out a role and stuck around long-term, however.

The Other Lefty Specialist

The Yankees really seem to like James Pazos. He was reportedly on their list of untouchable prospects at the trade deadline — I refuse to believe that. It can’t possibly be true, can it? — and the club called him up last September before he had to be added to the 40-man roster. Pazos is a hard-thrower — PitchFX clocked his average fastball at 94.5 mph last September — though he lacks consistency with his slider and seems to be prone to bouncing pitches in the dirt.

Pazos was sent to minor league camp this past weekend, taking him out of the running for an Opening Day bullpen spot. But, like I said, the Yankees really seem to like him, and I have little doubt we’ll see him this season. Improving that slider will be his focus in Triple-A for the time being. Pazos seems to be the middle man between Olson (short-term fill-in) and Lindgren (potential long-term solution) among the shuttle lefties. Regardless, he’s going to get an awful lot of chances in this game because he’s a lefty and he throws hard.

The Shuttle Veteran

None of the shuttle relievers threw more big league innings (27.2) or made more up-and-down trips (six!) than 27-year-old Branden Pinder last season. The fastball-slider right-hander was called up at least once each month last season, so he’s a pro at this by now. He is well-versed in this shuttle reliever thing after only one year and that’s good, because he’ll be riding that shuttle again in 2016.

Pinder has had an steady but unspectacular spring (6.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 6 K) and he remains in big league camp, giving him a chance to make the Opening Day roster. That said, even if he makes the Opening Day roster, he’s a candidate to be sent to Triple-A whenever a fresh arm is needed. Pinder lacks a reliable weapon against lefties and he’s prone to missing over the plate, limiting his ceiling. Still, his stuff is good, and I feel like he’s going to carve out a lengthy career as a journeyman middle reliever. A Chad Qualls/Jason Frasor type.

Rumblin’ Rumbelow

Aside from Lindgren, no minor league reliever climbed the ladder as quickly as Nick Rumbelow in recent seasons. Rumbelow went from Low-A Charleston to Triple-A Scranton in 2014, then he made his big league debut in 2015. He threw 15.2 mostly forgettable innings with the Yankees a year ago, and over the weekend he was reassigned to minor league camp, meaning he’s not going to be on the MLB roster to start the new season next week.

Rumbelow, 24, has three pitches, unlike most of the other shuttle bullpeners. PitchFX had his average fastball at 93.3 mph last year, and he also throws a low-80s curveball and a mid-80s changeup. The curveball was Rumbelow’s go-to secondary pitch when he first signed as the team’s seventh round pick in 2013, but nowadays he prefers the changeup. He’ll double up on the change and throw it to righties.

Three pitches, a funky delivery, and good enough control are a nice recipe for a big league career. Rumbelow has fine-tuning to do before he sticks long-term — anecdotally, he seems prone to overthrowing and leaving pitches up in the zone — but the tools are there, and he’ll surely get plenty of chances to show what he can do this year. Rumbelow figures to see lots and lots of shuttle time this year. He might supplant Pinder and be the top shuttle guy in 2016.

The (Temporary) Seventh Inning Guy

I’m not sure anyone in camp needed a good spring more than Chasen Shreve. Shreve, who is still only 25, was very good for the first four and a half months of 2015, but he crashed hard down the stretch, and no one really knew why. There was talk he was tipping his pitches, talk the league figured him out, stuff like that. Most with the Yankees said they believe it was fatigue, which sounds like a cop-out, but it was a plausible explanation.

So far this spring Shreve has been untouchable: 8 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K. The only base-runner against him came on an error. The numbers are great, but, more importantly, Shreve looks comfortable on the mound and he’s throwing with conviction. His body language wasn’t so great late last year and that was understandable. Opponents made him pay for every mistake. Shreve looks rested and he’s been aggressive. It’s been a good spring.

At the outset of camp, Girardi talked about Shreve like one of his regular relievers, as if he had a bullpen spot locked up. Fans were understandably skeptical given his finish last season, but if the Yankees felt the same way, they weren’t showing it. Shreve is not only a lock for the Opening Day bullpen at this point, it seems likely he will assume seventh inning work while Aroldis Chapman serves his suspension. Shreve held that role last when Andrew Miller was on the DL.

It’s probably unfair to lump Shreve in with the other shuttle relievers at this point given what he did last year. He wasn’t just pretty good, remember. He was dominant from April through mid-August, using his low-90s fastball/low-80s splitter combination to neutralize both righties and lefties. If the Yankees have to send Shreve down to Triple-A at some point in 2016, something went wrong. I think he’s up for good.

The Darkhorse

Similar to Olson, right-hander Kirby Yates was a nondescript offseason pickup who was easy to overlook coming into camp. Now, with Opening Day a week away, the 29-year-old Yates appears to have a legitimate chance to make the team, especially since so many of the other shuttle guys haven’t had good Grapefruit League seasons. He’s been very good in camp (6.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K) and he has big league experience, throwing 56.1 innings with the Rays the last two seasons.

Yates is a generic low-to-mid-90s fastball/mid-80s slider guy, so lefties give him a problem, which limits his ceiling. That fine though. We’re talking about a possible low-leverage middle reliever who gets shipped in and out whenever the team needs a fresh arm. If nothing else, Yates opened some eyes this spring and cemented himself as a shuttle candidate. Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’s put himself in position to be among the first called up.

Yates. (Presswire)
Yates. (Presswire)

The Non-40-Man Roster Options

In addition to all the 40-man guys, the Yankees have several non-40-man roster pitchers who could see time on the shuttle this season. Remember, guys like Kyle Davies and Matt Tracy and Joel De La Cruz went from afterthoughts to big leaguers a year ago, simply because they were available. Journeymen like lefty Richard Bleier and righties Anthony Swarzak, Vinnie Pestano, Tyler Cloyd, and Diego Moreno could all be temporary call-ups in 2016.

As for actual prospects, lefty Tyler Webb and righties Chad Green and Brady Lail seem most likely to be called up this summer. Maybe Mark Montgomery too. Green, the other prospect acquired in the Wilson/Cessa trade, and Lail are ticketed for the Triple-A rotation. Webb is going to return to the RailRiders’ bullpen. Depending on their Triple-A performance and the big league team’s needs, those guys could see the show this year.

Calling up someone like Bleier or Pestano is no big deal because the Yankees could drop them from the roster no questions asked. Call him up, get whatever innings you need, then move on. You can’t really do that with someone like Green or Lail because they’re actual prospects and you can’t simply drop them from the 40-man roster when a spot is needed. That’s a serious roster consideration. Is it worth clogging up a 40-man spot (and burning an option year) to get, say, two innings from Lail on a random June afternoon because you played 15 innings the night before? Probably not.

For now the Yankees appear to have plenty of bullpen shuttle candidates on the 40-man roster. I have ten 40-man relievers listed in this post even without counting Shreve. The Yankees are going to cycle through those pitchers all year, and with any luck, one or two will stand out from the pack and earn extended opportunities in the big leagues. With the Yankees unlikely to get much length from their starters, the extra bullpen arms will again be very important in 2016.

Spring Competitions: The Backup Catcher & Final Bench Spot [2016 Season Preview]

Romine. (Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

Coming into the spring, half of the bench was set. We knew Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks would occupy two of the four spots and nothing’s changed. The last two spots were up for grabs. One will go to the backup catcher, and because the plan to play Starlin Castro at third base didn’t work out, the other has to go to a backup third baseman. The Yankees don’t have much of a choice with those last two spots, positionally. Let’s preview those last two bench players, whoever they may be.

The Backup Catcher (For Now)

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years. At the very least, they were strong defenders. The Yankees place a lot of emphasis on catcher defense. Some of those backups even hit too, like Frankie Cervelli a few years back and John Ryan Murphy last year. Murphy was traded for Hicks over the winter, leaving the backup spot to a spring competition.

The two main competitors: actual prospect Gary Sanchez and former prospect Austin Romine. The Yankees brought in veteran journeyman Carlos Corporan for depth, but Joe Girardi quickly ruled him out of the race, surprisingly. Others like Eddy Rodriguez and Sebastian Valle didn’t get much of a look in camp at all. It was either Sanchez or Romine. Anyone else would be a surprise.

It’s not yet official, but all signs point to Romine getting that backup catcher job to start the regular season. The Yankees optioned Sanchez to Triple-A last night, which effectively takes him out of the running. If he was still being considered for the job, the Yankees would keep Sanchez in big league camp so he could continue working with the big league pitchers. Instead, they sent him to minor league camp for at-bats and regular reps.

Sanchez and Romine are very different players. Sanchez hit 25 home runs in 500 total plate appearances a year ago. Romine hit 25 home runs from 2011-15. Sanchez is an outstanding thrower and an adequate receiver. Romine is an adequate thrower and a very good receiver. They’re pretty close to polar opposites, really. Sanchez was miserable during Grapefruit League play (1-for-21!) though, and Girardi said he felt he was pressing in an effort to make the team.

Sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks is totally justifiable given his still rough around the edges defense. The service time aspect can’t be ignored either. Thirty-five days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year. That’s potentially huge. If he turns into the type of player his tools suggest he can become, gaining control of his age 29 season in 2022 would be enormous. It’s a no-brainer, really. How do you not send him down to delay free agency?

The Yankees have gone young at almost every opportunity over the last 18 months, and replacing Murphy with Sanchez seems like the logical move. Remember, Romine was pretty close to out of the organization last year. The team designated him for assignment at the end of Spring Training, he slipped through waivers, and they stashed him in Triple-A. He was added to the 40-man roster and called back up in September only because Sanchez was dealing with a hamstring issue and the Yankees wanted a third catcher when rosters expanded.

So, for now, Romine is in line to be the backup catcher. The key words there are “for now.” There is zero doubt Sanchez is in the club’s long-term catching picture. Ideally, he would spend some time as Brian McCann‘s understudy before taking over the starting job. That apprenticeship is still likely to begin this year, I think. Once his free agency is delayed and once the Yankees are comfortable with his defense, Sanchez will be in the show. Romine is a placeholder more than anything.

Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)
Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)

Open Tryouts At Third Base

Eight different players have played third base for the Yankees during Grapefruit League play this spring. Eight! It would have been nine had the team not pulled the plug on the Castro experiment. One of the eight is the starter (Chase Headley) and another is a prospect (Miguel Andujar) who was up from minor league camp for a day to help out during a set of split squad games. The other six: Jonathan Diaz, Pete Kozma, Rob Refsnyder, Deibinson Romero, Donovan Solano, and Ronald Torreyes.

Diaz, Romero, and Solano have all already been assigned to minor league camp, taking them out of the running for the final bench spot. The remaining three candidates hit the bench guy stereotype trifecta:

  • Kozma: Veteran utility man who’s played for some pretty good teams in the past.
  • Refsnyder: Prospect with no clear path to playing time, so he’s trying to improve his versatility.
  • Torreyes: Third tier prospect with just enough tools to potentially force the issue.

Kozma is a known quantity at this point. He’s not going to hit, but he can play some pretty good defense at the three non-first base infield positions. Refsnyder has handled himself quite well at third base this spring despite being thrown into the fire. Give him some props. Learning a new position and trying to make the team at the same time isn’t easy. Torreyes? Well, I learned his name is pronounced “to-reyes” and not “torre-eyes” like I had been saying in my head. That about sums up his spring.

I get the feeling Refsnyder has the inside track for the final bench spot right now, though cases could be made for Kozma and Torreyes. Remember, this is a part-time gig. The Yankees could want Refsnyder playing everyday in Triple-A — and working on his third base defense — rather than sitting on the bench and playing maybe twice a week in the big leagues. Two months (55 days to be exact) in the minors delays his free agency a year. Like Sanchez, is it worth keeping Refsnyder up to play only a handful of times in those two months when he could instead play everyday in Triple-A and push his free agency back? That’s a question worth asking.

Kozma could be buried on the bench for weeks at a time a la Brendan Ryan and no one would care. Torreyes does not have Refsnyder’s offensive upside but he’s a contact machine with some speed and solid defensive chops. He truly may be a better bench option than Refsnyder because he does more things well. Refsnyder’s all bat. Torreyes is more well-rounded and his development isn’t a huge priority. If he sits on the bench and plays once every ten days, so be it.

The Yankees say they want to rest their regulars more often this season, but Girardi also acknowledged Didi Gregorius and Castro don’t need as much rest as everyone else because they’re so young. Whoever gets this last bench spot will be responsible for backing up Headley, first and foremost. Didi and Starlin don’t need as many days on the bench. I think Refsnyder will get the job. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees go with the “safer” bet in Kozma or the more well-rounded option in Torreyes.