The Rest of MLB [2017 Season Review]

Trade both to Yankees pls. (Presswire)
Trade to Yankees pls. (Presswire)

Our annual season preview series comes to an end today, and on Sunday, the 2017 regular season will begin. The Yankees and Rays kick off the new campaign Sunday afternoon. It’ll be Chris Archer vs. Masahiro Tanaka. Every other team will be watching as they wait to play their first game of the year. The Yankees and Rays will be the only show in town for a few hours.

So, to wrap up our season preview, it’s time to take a jaunt through the rest of the baseball world. Yesterday we looked at the other four AL East teams, the teams the Yankees will compete with most of the season. Now let’s look at the remaining five divisions and 25 teams left in baseball. Come with me, won’t you?

NL East

Best Team: The Nationals, probably.
Worst Team: The Phillies.
Most Fun Team: The Marlins.

I hesitate to say the window is closing for the Nationals and Mets, but they both very clearly need to win right now and not focus on two or three years down the line. Bryce Harper will be a free agent in two years (yay!) and others like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon are in their primes. Same story with the Mets. Their rotation is starting to get expensive — all but Noah Syndergaard had some kind of arm surgery within the last year too — and offensive cornerstones like Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker won’t perform like this forever. The time is now for these two clubs.

Very quietly, last year was a bad year for the Phillies and their rebuild. Maikel Franco didn’t take the next step. Aaron Nola hurt his elbow and didn’t pitch after late-July. Top prospects J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams struggled in the minors. Yikes. They want to get things back on track this year. The Braves are getting closer to contending, and for the time being, they’re picking up low coast veterans. As for the Marlins, their rotation is really shaky, but their position player core is fun as hell (Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, etc.) and their bullpen can really bring it. They’re high on the watchability scale.

AL Central

Best Team: The Indians.
Worst Team: White Sox over the Twins. Or would that be under?
Most Fun Team: Indians again.

The window is closing for the Tigers and Royals — Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar will all be free agents after the season — while the White Sox and Twins are in the middle of deep rebuilds. The Indians went to the World Series last year and pushed the best team in baseball to extra innings in Game Seven despite not having their best all-around hitter (Michael Brantley) and two of their three best starters (Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar) in the postseason. Impressive despite the disappointing finish.

The Indians are again a World Series contender this year and I think they got better over the winter. Edwin Encarnacion is better than Mike Napoli, they’ll have full seasons of Andrew Miller and Brandon Guyer, and youngsters like Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and Salazar still have another level or two in their games. This team is really fun to watch too. Miller’s awesome, Lindor is a joy, and others like Jose Ramirez and Encarnacion are a blast. (I can say that now that the Yankees won’t see Encarnacion every other week.) The Indians play with a lot of energy and that makes them really exciting.

NL Central

Best Team: The Cubs, pretty easily too.
Worst Team: The Reds by a mile. Goodness.
Most Fun Team: The Cubs have a slight edge over the dinger happy Brewers.

The Cubs are annoyingly great and young too, so they’re going to continue to be great for the foreseeable future. However! I’m curious to see how things shake out with their pitching staff. Jake Arrieta will be a free agent after the season, and even if they re-sign him, he’ll be 32 next March. Hard to think there are many more ace-caliber years remaining. Jon Lester is 33 and will probably enter his late-career Sabathia phase at some point. John Lackey is 38. Is Kyle Hendricks really going to pitch this well going forward? The Cubbies will have to totally remake their rotation in the near future. Fortunately for them, they’re set on the position player side.

Did you realize the Pirates went from 98 wins in 2015 to 78 wins in 2016? True story. Only the awful Twins had a larger drop in win total from 2015 to 2016. Pittsburgh hasn’t done enough to capitalize on the Andrew McCutchen era. When they signed him long-term, the idea was being a bonafide World Series contender from 2016-18. Now they’re looking to trade him away. Eek. I mean, look at their rotation depth chart:

pirates-rotation-depth-chart

Egads. Gerrit Cole is great, and both Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow have a ton of upside, but is that a championship caliber rotation? I don’t think so. I’m not even sure that’s a playoff caliber rotation. The Yankees have a crummy rotation too, but at least they’ll admit they’re rebuilding transitioning. The Pirates front office has spent too much time planning for the future. Success is fleeting in baseball and you have to do what you can to maximize your opportunity when it arrives. That’s why the Indians signed Encarnacion. The Pirates have done no such thing.

AL West

Best Team: The Astros.
Worst Team: The A’s. Definitely the A’s.
Most Fun Team: The A’s.

Nice work by the Astros adding Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick over the winter. They have some great young talent (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer) but needed to fill in the roster around them, and they did it with some high-quality veterans. Now they just have to hope their rotation comes together. Dallas Keuchel won the Cy Young in 2015 then had a 4.55 ERA (3.87 FIP) in 2016. A shoulder injury ended his season in August. Lance McCullers can’t stay healthy, and others like Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton are meh. Just … meh.

Last season the Rangers had to be the worst 95-win team this century. They won 95 games with a +8 run differential. +8! They beat up on some bad AL West teams during the regular season, then got depantsed by the Blue Jays in the ALDS for the second straight year. Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish are a great one-two punch, and Adrian Beltre is still awesome, but when push comes to shove, this team folds. I’m guessing the Mariners finish second in the AL West this year, not Texas. The Angels don’t have much to offer fans other than Mike Trout. The A’s are really bad, but at least their teams are fun and the Oakland Coliseum fans are raucous. Win or lose, the fans are into it.

NL West

Best Team: The Dodgers
Worst Team: The Padres. Wow are they bad.
Most Fun Team: The Rockies.

Is this the year the Dodgers get over the hump? Last season they set a dubious record by failing to reach the World Series in their tenth consecutive trip to the postseason. Even when he was with the Rays, Andrew Friedman seemed averse to going all-in and making that big move that could put his team over the top. The 2010 Rays were set to lose Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and Rafael Soriano to free agency after the season, and their big trade deadline pickup was … Chad Qualls. Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Justin Turner are in their primes. Maybe time for a little more urgency?

The Giants are going to be good again because they’re always good, though I can’t believe they’re going into the season with a Mac Williamson/Jarrett Parker platoon in left field. My guess is they’ll be looking for outfield help by May. The Diamondbacks have to figure out why their pitchers keep going backwards. Patrick Corbin, Shelby Miller, Archie Bradley, and even Zack Greinke are not close to what they were two or three years ago. The Padres? They’ve ripped that team apart for rebuilding purposes. Their depth chart:

padres-depth-chart

Worst of all? Almost all of their top prospects are teenagers signed as international free agents last summer, so there’s not much immediate help coming. At least there are plenty of other things to do in San Diego. Seriously, if not for the great Tony Gwynn, the Padres would be the most nondescript franchise in American sports.

The Rockies were going to be my sleeper postseason team pick before they got hammered with injuries in Spring Training. David Dahl (rib), Ian Desmond (hand), and Tom Murphy (forearm) are all going to miss several weeks. Also, Chad Bettis is out indefinitely as he undergoes treatment for testicular cancer. Hoping for the best there. The Rockies have a lot of young talent, including the best collection of young starters in franchise history (Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, Jeff Hoffman), and Coors Field ensures plenty of runs are scored. If you like offense, the Rockies are must see television.

The Rest of the AL East [2017 Season Preview]

There has been an interesting bit of parity in the AL East this decade, as every team has won the division crown in the last seven years. The Red Sox appear to be the standard-bearer, with both ZiPS and PECOTA projecting them to repeat as division champs – but both also have at least four of the five teams sitting at .500 or better, and at least one team winning a Wild Card slot. While the smart money may be on the Red Sox, this division should be among the most competitive (and exciting) in the game once again.

(Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)
(Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)

Baltimore Orioles

2016 Record: 89-73

Notable Additions: Welington Castillo, Seth Smith

Notable Subtractions: Yovani Gallardo, Steve Pearce, Matt Wieters

Buck Showalter’s team is something of a perennial overachiever at this point, beating projection systems and milking middling talents for all their worth. They’ve made the playoffs in three of the last five years, and consistency within the organization may have something to do with that.

The 2016 Orioles were the epitome of a station-to-station team last year, finishing first in home runs by a comfortable margin (their 253 home runs were 28 ahead of the second-place Cardinals) and dead last with just 19 steals (16 fewer than the 29th place team, which happens to be those same Cardinals – it must be a bird thing). That doesn’t figure to change in 2017, as the team’s powerful core remains intact, and new additions Welington Castillo and Seth Smith combined for two stolen base attempts between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The offense will once again be headlined by Future Yankee Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Adam Jones; it may be worth noting that Jones is coming off of his worst season since his rookie year, and will turn 32 this summer.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Hyun Soo Kim, LF
  2. Manny Machado, 3B
  3. Chris Davis, 1B
  4. Mark Trumbo, DH
  5. Seth Smith, RF
  6. Adam Jones, F
  7. Jonathan Schoop, 2B
  8. Welington Castillo, C
  9. J.J. Hardy, SS

The Orioles pitching staff was surprisingly average last year (98 ERA-, 99 FIP-, 102 xFIP-), but much of that owes to the team’s extraordinary bullpen. Zach Britton and his 0.54 ERA led the way, but Brad Brach (2.05 ERA) and Mychal Givens (3.13 ERA) were great, as well, as the unit combined for a 79 ERA- (21% above-league-average). The rotation was mostly a mess, though, with only Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman posting ERAs under 4.50. There is some potential there, with former top prospect Dylan Bundy finally getting healthy and showing promise, but the bullpen will likely carry a heavy load once more.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Kevin Gausman
  2. Chris Tillman (currently injured)
  3. Dylan Bundy
  4. Wade Miley
  5. Ubaldo Jimenez
  6. Mike Wright

Closer: Zach Britton

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Boston Red Sox

2016 Record: 93-69

Notable Additions: Mitch Moreland, Chris Sale, Tyler Thornburg

Notable Subtractions: Clay Buchholz, Yoan Moncada, David Ortiz, Travis Shaw, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler

David Ortiz made his Red Sox debut fourteen years ago, in the team’s second game of the 2003 season. He started at first base and batted fifth, going 0-for-6 with 2 BB in a 16-inning affair against the then-Devil Rays. The rest is, and I apologize for the cliche, history. This year represents the beginning of a new era for the Red Sox, if not the division as a whole, and they still appear to be the team to beat, thanks to a strong farm system and a blockbuster deal.

The new face of the franchise might just be Mookie Betts, whose energy and big smile are reminiscent of Ortiz. Or it could be top prospect Andrew Benintendi, who looked right at home in 34 games in the Majors last year. Or it could be shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who just keeps getting better. Or it could simply be old standby Dustin Pedroia, who rebounded nicely from an injury plagued 2015. There’s no shortage of talent on offense, is what I’m getting at here – especially if the slimmed down Pablo Sandoval has figured things out.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Dustin Pedroia, SS
  2. Andrew Benintendi, LF
  3. Mookie Betts, RF
  4. Handley Ramirez, DH
  5. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  6. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
  7. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
  8. Mitch Moreland, 1B
  9. Sandy Leon, C

Rick Porcello had a brilliant 2016, and won a Cy Young for his efforts … and he just might be the third-best starting pitcher on this team, depending upon how well David Price’s rehab goes. Said rehab is the largest concern with the team right now, even though they do have a bit more depth than usual in the rotation. Price isn’t the only pitcher slated to open the season on the DL, either, as new set-up man Tyler Thornburg deals with shoulder and back soreness.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Rick Porcello
  2. David Price (currently injured)
  3. Chris Sale
  4. Drew Pomeranz
  5. Eduardo Rodriguez
  6. Steven Wright

Closer: Craig Kimbrel

(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Tampa Bay Rays

2016 Record: 68-94

Notable Additions: Jose De Leon, Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, Mallex Smith

Notable Subtractions: Logan Forsythe, Drew Smyly

A bit over a week ago, the Rays signed two-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier to a six-year contract extension worth a minimum of $53.5 MM. It was met with praise by the analytical community as a whole, due to his elite defense in center field and solid offensive production, and he’s still a few weeks shy of his 27th birthday. It seems that the team’s shrewd maneuvering with contracts of this nature did not leave with Andrew Friedman.

The Rays offense was a bit better on a rate basis than you probably remember last year, placing 12th in the Majors in wRC+. They still finished 24th in runs scored, but that may not have been reflective of the group as a whole. That may not mean a whole lot for 2017, though, as several of their best hitters (Steve Pearce and Brandon Guyer at the deadline, Logan Forsythe a few weeks ago) were traded away. Evan Longoria is still here though, the aforementioned Kiermaier managed 12 HR and 21 SB in just 105 games last year, and Brad Miller broke out in a big way; this won’t be a great group by any means, but there’s more than enough to build a competent lineup – particularly when Wilson Ramos and Colby Rasmus return from the DL. Their Opening Day lineup is in flux, so your guess is as good as mine as to who they’ll trot out there.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Corey Dickerson, DH
  2. Kevin Kiermaier, CF
  3. Evan Longoria, 3B
  4. Brad Miller, 2B
  5. Logan Morrison, 1B
  6. Steven Souza, RF
  7. Tim Beckham, SS
  8. Mallex Smith, LF
  9. Derek Norris, C

The Rays stand to open 2017 with one of the youngest rotations in baseball, with all five of their projected starters clocking in at between 24 and 29-years-old on Opening Day. Alex Cobb is battling lingering back soreness now, and if he were to miss the start of the season that average age would dip even further, as the 28-year-old Chris Archer would become the old man of the group. And, despite injuries and inconsistency, this unit has a great deal of potential from top to bottom, and that’s with top prospect Jose De Leon opening the season in the minors. The worst in the AL bullpen is another story entirely, though Alex Colome was terrific as the closer last year.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Chris Archer
  2. Jake Odorizzi
  3. Alex Cobb
  4. Blake Snell
  5. Matt Andriese

Closer: Alex Colome

(Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)
(Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Toronto Blue Jays

2016 Record: 89-73

Notable Additions: J.P. Howell, Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, Joe Smith

Notable Subtractions: Joaquin Benoit, Brett Cecil, R.A. Dickey, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders

On November 11, 2016, the Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 MM contract, seemingly moving away from at least one of Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion. A bit less than two months later, the Indians made that decision for them, signing Encarnacion to a 3-year, $60 MM deal (with a $25 MM team option for 2020). The difference in those deals isn’t insignificant, but their haste to lock-up an inferior 1B/DH has placed their offense under the microscope in the short term.

The offense remains in relatively good shape nevertheless. 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson is a formidable presence in the middle of the lineup, a Steve Pearce/Justin Smoak platoon at first will maximize the production from the position, and the declining duo of Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki is still more than adequate. The lineup is top-heavy, but it stands to be decent in every slot.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Devon Travis, 2B
  2. Troy Tulowitzki, SS
  3. Josh Donaldson, 3B
  4. Jose Bautista, RF
  5. Kendrys Morales, DH
  6. Russell Martin, C
  7. Justin Smoak, 1B
  8. Kevin Pillar, CF
  9. Ezequiel Carrera, LF

The Blue Jays had a strong starting rotation last season, and that will be mostly intact in 2017 – R.A. Dickey will be replaced by Francisco Liriano, who was acquired by the team last summer. It will be difficult to replicate the health factor, as they had five pitchers make between 29 and 32 starts, but they have had that sort of luck a couple of years running. The rotation is backed-up by a mediocre bullpen, though off-season additions J.P. Howell and Joe Smith both come with strong track records.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Marco Estrada
  2. Aaron Sanchez
  3. Marcus Stroman
  4. J.A. Happ
  5. Francisco Liriano

Closer: Roberto Osuna

Brian Cashman and the 2017 trade deadline [2017 Season Preview]

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Welcome to another contract year for Brian Cashman.

Don’t worry: Cashman has enough job security that he isn’t about to trade the farm for some short-sighted fix that harms the Yankees’ future. He’s acquitted himself quite well over the last two decades and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the job right now. It doesn’t hurt that he has a healthy relationship with the Steinbrenner family and Hal in particular.

But this season won’t be without some drama for the 49-year-old general manager. There are two scenarios: the good and the bad, both coming with certain pitfalls and questions with which to deal come the trade deadline. Let’s dive in.

If the Yankees are winning…

This situation doesn’t pose problems so much as it forces choices. If the Yankees are middling at the deadline (near .500 like last year), then the Yankees may make a few minor moves, but they wouldn’t be about to trade away a boatload of prospects, particularly for a short-term asset. However, if the Yankees are able to get off to a positive start and build momentum towards the All-Star break, Cashman will be in a strong position to be a buyer.

It’s been a minute since the Yankees were really significant buyers at the break, but it’s been even longer since the team has had such a strong prospect core. The last time the Yankees’ farm system was booming like the present came before Cashman was in charge. Ideally, you want to see this group of prospects come to the majors and be the foundation for future success. But many prospects fail and sometimes you’re better off trading them before they’re exposed to the majors.

Mike brought up the upcoming 40-man roster crunch and that incentivizes a significant buying effort if the team’s major league success calls for it. What better way to solve the 40-man roster crunch than trade players on the 40-man or who need to be added after the season for 1-2 marquee players?

Identifying and prying those players in the right deal will be tough, but man, wouldn’t trading some prospects for Jose Quintana be a pretty sweet boost for the pennant race? Quintana may be an Astro by then, but that won’t limit the Yankees from being players in the trade market. The team could stand to upgrade multiple rotation spots mid-season, maybe even add a reliever. Plus there are always injuries that come up and force a creative solution to an unforeseen problem. No one thought the Yankees would have needed Bobby Abreu at the start of 2006, but Gary Sheffield was hurt and Cashman pounced at adding the high-OBP right fielder with multiple years of control. The Yankees could have a position of weakness pop up that we don’t expect.

The team has to balance the option to buy at the deadline with the plan to get under the luxury tax after next season in preparation for the robust free agent winter of 2018-19. The luxury tax for the 2018 season will be $197 million, but there is also a 50 percent tax for repeat offenders, which the Yankees certainly are until they can get under. Cashman utilized what was left in ownership’s budget for this season on Chris Carter‘s deal, so anything adding money would receive extra scrutiny from ownership. This will need special consideration if there is significant money added to the payroll beyond this season.

If the Yankees are losing…

This is what selling did to Cashman last time. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
This is what selling did to Cashman last time. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

This is where there are going to be some potential problems. If the Yankees are under .500 and hovering near the cellar of the AL East in July, the most obvious solution would be to sell. Give up on expiring assets that you don’t want to potentially retain and add to an already substantial farm system. It worked pretty darn well last season.

However, it’s not that simple. The team is not giving up on this season easily and refusing to call it’s current situation a rebuild: It’s a transition and one in which the team wants to be competitive. It’s understandable, too: The team wants to win games to keep fans in the seats.

So convincing ownership to sell for a second consecutive season is tough. On top of that, Cashman made two pretty remarkable deals for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, but unless the team wants to trade Dellin Betances, it’s harder to see any one player getting that large a return. Matt Holliday could fetch a minor piece or two. Michael Pineda could be dealt for a return similar to Ivan Nova. Brett Gardner could be attractive. Masahiro Tanaka is where it gets interesting, but his buy-out and elbow create complications.

All of this is to say another sell-it-all summer is unlikely. The team has enough expiring contracts (CC Sabathia, A-Rod, Holliday and possibly Tanaka) to get the payroll underneath the tax next season, but that would also involve relying even further on the young core or bringing in cheap replacements in free agency.

It’s pretty obvious that one hopes for the first scenario. It’s a lot cleaner and likely portends for future success as well, something Cashman has built towards with a tear down in 2016. It’s unlikely we see a repeat of that but ninja Cashman could come out and surprise. The Yankees’ front office often strikes when least expected. Expectations may be slightly less for the Yankees this season, but the job ahead is the same: Look for potential trades, scout for next season’s free agency and prepare for June’s draft.

Joe Girardi and the coaching staff [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

New year, same coaching staff. For the first time in a little while, the Yankees didn’t tinker with the staff surrounding Joe Girardi and will go into their second straight season with the same coaches.

That means Larry Rothschild is still the pitching coach, Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames handle the hitters, Mike Harkey is the bullpen coach, Tony Pena and Joe Espada man the bases and Rob Thomson returns as the bench coach.

This doesn’t mean the job will be easy for these guys just because they remain in their roles. Each of them may have their most challenging job yet with the Yankees promoting their youth throughout the roster.

Joe Girardi

Girardi is entering his 10th season as the Yankees manager. Only two managers — Mike Scioscia with the Angels and Bruce Bochy of the Giants — have been in their current jobs longer than Girardi, who was hired in October of 2007. Stability hasn’t always been a trademark for Yankees’ coaches, but this is the second straight manager to last at least a decade. Not bad.

This is a contract year for Girardi: his four-year deal ends after the season. As in past years, the team isn’t going to extend him early, which will lead to plenty of speculation that the Yankees will move on at manager. That seems unlikely: the Steinbrenners appear to be happy with Girardi’s performance thus far and that’s for good reason. Girardi has been solid as manager. Still, that storyline will play out this season, especially if the team gets out of the gates slow.

In his 10th season, Girardi has perhaps his toughest days ahead of him. In the past, he’s been surrounded by veteran players who know the “Yankee way” and can indoctrinate the few young players moving onto the roster. But now Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are all gone in one fell swoop. The Baby Bomber movement has taken over with plenty of rookies, or at least inexperienced, players taking key spots on the roster. Girardi’s main job is making sure that all gels in the clubhouse.

He has some veteran help with Matt Holliday‘s addition or the continued presence of guys like Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and co., but it’s still a challenge. For Girardi (and I guess Thomson), making sure inexperience doesn’t topple this team will be paramount to success. The one positive of having a younger roster is a lot less rest needed all around. Starlin Castro, for example, has played 151 games or more in five of the last six seasons. Fewer achy vets like A-Rod and Tex means more days with the team’s optimal lineup, whatever that may be.

Another change to the job will be instant replay. MLB has mandated that teams are quicker in requesting replays this season, so there will be less of the manager holding up play while the team’s replay people check it out. The Yankees’ guy, Brett Weber,  will have a tougher job this year (NY Times profiled him last year) and the team may need Girardi to go with his gut on challenges. The Yankees were the second-best team at getting calls overturned percentage-wise last year (Royals), but they also requested the fewest challenges (just 28). Maybe Girardi takes more chances with it and risks being quite as efficient in 2017.

Finally, Girardi’s job comes down to the bullpen. He once again has a strong back-end with Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. I expect Chapman will have the 9th, Betances usually just the 8th and Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren would then be dispensed for the middle innings along with maybe Ernesto Frieri? Don’t forget Tommy Layne as a LOOGY! Girardi loves to get the platoon advantage.

And that’s not a knock on Girardi. His bullpen management is his best trait and is likely why the Yankees consistently outperform their Pythagorean record. He both has strong relievers to utilize and then actually utilizes them well. I don’t expect anything different in 2017.

Hitting, hitting and more hitting

Cockrell and Thames return, but many of their disciples do not. The two have been handed some interesting projects this season. They won’t have to worry too much about the veterans like Matt Holliday. Instead, they’ll have to work with 6-foot-7 rookie Aaron Judge to keep his strikeouts down or with Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez to make sure their rookie performances aren’t just mirages.

It’s tough to ever pinpoint exactly where a hitting coach makes his mark — best example for the Yanks in recent memory is Kevin Long working to correct Curtis Granderson‘s swing in the summer of 2010 — but any breakouts this year could come from Cockrell and Thames’ tutelage. Let’s hope they can make plenty happen.

Handling the pitching

(Getty Images)
Rothschild and Tanaka (Getty Images)

This season will be Rothschild’s seventh with the Yankees. Wow, feels like it’s been fewer but then you remember him working with big Bart in 2011 and others in the early 2010s. For the most part, Rothschild doesn’t have a new pitcher to work with this season. There are three veterans returning to the rotation, most of the bullpen was there at some point last season and even the guys fighting for the last rotation spot have big league experience (except Jordan Montgomery).

Rothschild will be judged on his ability to coax some solid seasons out of those back-end starters. Whether it’s Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino or Chad Green and Montgomery, there’s a lot of work ahead for the Yankees’ pitching guru. Rothschild has been known to get pitchers to increase strikeout totals, but getting a guy like Severino or Mitchell to improve their command will be much tougher. It isn’t even necessarily on Rothschild if they fail. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes with young pitchers.

And the rest

What can you really say about the rest of the staff? If you have a hard time accessing the performances of the hitting and pitching coaches, it’s even tougher with the bench or bullpen coach. Harkey begins the second season of his second stint with the Yankees. Seems like he never left for the desert, eh?

Meanwhile, Thomson has been with the Yankees since Girardi came aboard and has been the bench coach in two stints sandwiched around his time as the third-base coach. The bench coach seems like both another person for the manager to bounce ideas off of and another voice to work with the 25 personalities populating the Yankees’ clubhouse. Either way, Thomson has been solid enough in his role to stick around for 10 years.

Tony Pena has been here even longer. This will be his 12th season as a Yankees coach, now the first base coach after fulfilling other roles under Girardi and Joe Torre. Pena seemed to do a solid job as the Dominican Republic’s manager during the WBC and one has to wonder if he’ll be in consideration for another managerial gig (previously with the Royals) in the near future. Pena has a new full-time guy in Sanchez to work with behind the plate, which surely has him excited.

And then there’s Espada. He’s been perfectly fine as the third base coach. Like anyone in that position, he gets a ton of notice when he makes a bad send but otherwise has been left alone. He served a similar role for Puerto Rico at the WBC. If anything has changed for him, it’s that there are fewer base-clogging veterans like McCann or Teixeira and maybe a little more speed in the Yankees’ everyday lineup. Not much, but some. May be to Espada’s advantage in sending runners.

The Year Ahead in the Farm System [2017 Season Preview]

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

This is still a weird and awesome and completely true statement: the Yankees are loaded with exciting up-and-coming young talent. Last year’s trade deadline activity combined with breakouts from incumbent prospects give New York the game’s consensus No. 2 farm system behind the Braves. The 2016 draft helped too. That was cool.

The Yankees are, in their words, a team in transition. They’re trying to get younger while remaining competitive, which is both an excellent goal and difficult to do. Young players tend to come with growing pains. Even the most talented ones. Not everyone hits the ground running like Gary Sanchez. Usually they hit some bumps in the road, like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino.

The “remaining competitive” stuff is a topic for another time. This entry into our season preview series is dedicated to all the ladies out there the great farm system the Yankees have built. Let’s preview the upcoming season in the minors. Here is my top 30 prospects list, if you’ve somehow missed it.

Top Prospects Who Could Help In 2017

Depending on the scouting publication, the Yankees have anywhere between six (Keith Law) and nine (Baseball Prospectus) top 100 caliber prospects in the farm system. One of those players is Judge, who we previewed two weeks ago. As always, top 100 prospects are not all created equal. Some are much closer to the big leagues than others. The Yankees have a little of everything with their top 100 guys.

The best prospect in the farm system and one of the very best in all of baseball is, as you know, SS Gleyber Torres. He came over in last summer’s Aroldis Chapman trade and blew everyone away in Spring Training. Torres hit .448/.469/.931 with six doubles and two homers in 32 Grapefruit League plate appearances, which was enough for folks to want him to replace the injured Didi Gregorius. That won’t happen. The Yankees have already sent Gleyber to minor league camp and he’ll open the season in Double-A.

That said, I definitely believe the 20-year-old Torres has a chance to help the Yankees later this year, likely in the second half. Similar prospects have made their MLB debuts at age 20 after starting the season in Double-A. Some things will have to happen first — Torres has to hit, the Yankees have to need him, etc. — but there’s a chance Gleyber will force the issue at some point and make the team think about calling him up. Special talents have accelerated timetables.

OF Clint Frazier, who would be the No. 1 prospect for many other teams, is the No. 2 prospect in the farm system. He came over in the Andrew Miller trade. Frazier, 22, reached Triple-A last season and will return there to start this season. (He hit .308/.300/.487 in camp. I do love silly AVG > OBP lines.) Given his proximity to MLB, Frazier is much more likely to reach the show this season than Torres. The Yankees will have to make room for him somehow, but they’ll figure it out. Frazier is a potential impact bat and lineup cornerstone, and we’ll see him in the Bronx at some point this summer. I’m sure of it.

Among New York’s other top 100 prospects, the only other one I could see reaching the big leagues this season is RHP James Kaprielian, and that’s a long shot. Kaprielian is healthy after missing nearly the entire 2016 regular season with a flexor strain, though the Yankees are going to take it slow with him early in the season. He threw nothing but simulated games the first few weeks of Spring Training before finally getting into a Grapefruit League two weeks ago. Kaprielian threw two innings and was sent to minor league camp the same day.

What needs to happen for Kaprielian to reach MLB in 2017? He has to stay healthy, for starters. Secondly, he’s going to have to pitch well enough to climb from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A to MLB. Climbing three levels in one year isn’t easy, but it has been done before. Both Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain did it in 2007. And third, the Yankees have to believe Kaprielian is one of their best rotation options. They won’t call him up for the hell of it. There are 40-man and service time considerations in play.

My guess right now is no, Kaprielian will not make his MLB debut this season. Sorry to be a buzzkill. As long as he stays healthy, I expect Kaprielian to pitch very well — he should carve up High-A hitters — and reach Triple-A late in the season. We’ll then complain the Yankees aren’t calling him because he is clearly better than one of the starters the Yankees are running out there every five days, right? That’s usually how it goes.

Top Prospects Who Probably Won’t Help In 2017

Sheffield. (Presswire)
Sheffield. (Presswire)

The Yankees have three consensus top 100 prospects who are unlikely to play in the big leagues this year, at least not in a meaningful way. LHP Justus Sheffield, another part of the Miller trade, is a three-pitch southpaw with good velocity. He is still only 20 and is ticketed for Double-A. I expect him to spend just about the entire season there. He might make a late-season Triple-A cameo, but that’s about it. Besides being so young, Sheffield needs to improve his command before being an MLB option.

SS Jorge Mateo might soon be CF Jorge Mateo. The Yankees have been moving their shortstop prospects around — Torres has played second base and has worked out at third, for example — in an effort to increase their versatility. Mateo is a good defender at short, though center field would better allow him to use his elite speed on the defensive side of the ball. Either way, shortstop or center field, Mateo has to do more with the bat. He didn’t hit much last season and hitting coach Alan Cockrell is working with him to widen his stance this spring.

Now, that all said, I do think Mateo has a chance to make his MLB debut in 2017. He was added to the 40-man roster over the winter to avoid Rule 5 Draft exposure, which means the Yankees could turn to him as their annual September designated pinch-runner. They very much believe in that role — they picked up Eric Young Jr. and Rico Noel at midseason to fill that role the last two years — and Mateo is an 80 runner, so it’s hard to think they’ll drum up a better option at some point.

There are two things to keep in mind though. One, Mateo wasn’t a great basestealer last season — he went 36-for-51 (71%) in steal attempts in 2016 — and the Yankees are said to be working with him to improve his reads and things like that. And two, being in the big leagues is a privilege and something a player has to earn. If Mateo has another disappointing season, the Yankees could very well turn to another pinch-runner option rather than reward Mateo will a month in MLB. I think it’s possible we’ll see him as the September pinch-runner, but it’s far from certain.

The best top 100 caliber prospect in farm system we 100% will not see in the big leagues this coming season is OF Blake Rutherford, last year’s first round pick. Rutherford was a consensus top ten talent in the draft class — Keith Law (6th), MLB.com (8th), and Baseball America (9th) all ranked him highly among draft prospects — who slipped to the Yankees with the 18th pick for kinda dopey reasons. One, he turned 19 in May and was a few months older than most high school draftees. And two, he wanted a large bonus. Those seem like not great reasons to pass on him, but whatever.

Rutherford projects as a classic No. 3 hitter who can hit for average and power, and also draw a healthy amount of walks. His placement in the various top 100 lists tells you how highly he’s regarded. He didn’t just sneak onto the back of those lists. He was in the top half. At the same time, Rutherford will spent most of the season at age 20 and he’s going to start at Low-A. Not a big league option. A very talented prospect? Hell yes. But not a big league option in 2017. Not close.

Two consensus non-top 100 prospects who I consider among New York’s better prospects are RHP Albert Abreu and 3B Miguel Andujar. Abreu came over in the Brian McCann deal and he might have the highest upside of any pitcher in the farm system. He’s got mid-90s gas and both his slider and changeup look like out pitches on their best days. At the same time, Abreu is a 21-year-old with only 11.2 High-A innings under his belt. He’s going to spend the majority of this season at that level. An MLB call-up ain’t happening. Not this year.

Andujar is a personal fave and I feel like he gets lost in the depth of the farm system. His best tools are his raw power and throwing arm, and last year he started to make some real strides with his approach at the plate. Andujar wasn’t a big time hacker or anything, but he makes easy contact and had a tendency to swing at anything in the zone. He did a better job recognizing which pitches he could hammer and which he should let go last year. I’m expecting big things in 2017. A September call-up isn’t out of the question because Andujar is on the 40-man roster, though I would be surprised if helped the Yankees in a more substantial way this summer.

The Secondary Prospects Likely To Help In 2017

Montgomery. (Presswire)
Montgomery. (Presswire)

The depth of the farm system is on display when you look at the second and third tier prospects who figure to help the Yankees in 2017. LHP Jordan Montgomery has already put himself in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot with a strong spring. SS Tyler Wade added the outfield to his skill set in the Arizona Fall League and he’s now being considered as Gregorius’ replacement at short. I’m not sure that’ll happen, but the fact he’s being considered shows the Yankees think he’s at least close to MLB.

OF Dustin Fowler and RHP Chance Adams are both slated to open the season in Triple-A — Wade and Montgomery will be there as well if they don’t make the Opening Day roster — and are coming off very strong 2016 seasons. Breakout seasons, really. (Definitely in Adams’ case.) The odds of the Yankees needing a pitcher are much greater than the odds of them needing an outfielder for obvious reasons — besides, Frazier and OF Mason Williams figure to be ahead of Fowler on the call-up depth chart — but the fact these two are starting in Triple-A makes them big league possibilities. Once you get to that level, everyone is a call-up candidate.

Other prospects we could see in the Bronx this year include Williams, C Kyle Higashioka, RHP Ben Heller, RHP Jonathan Holder, LHP Dietrich Enns, RHP Ronald Herrera, RHP Gio Gallegos, and RHP J.P. Feyereisen. All except Feyereisen are on the 40-man roster. Heller is the best bullpen prospect in the farm system in my opinion, though Holder, Enns, and Gallegos all have great minor league numbers. Those dudes will all be part of the bullpen shuttle this summer. No doubt about it. Higashioka will, at worst, be a September call-up. He’s the third catcher.

Breakout Candidates

Abreu has already been mentioned and he’s the biggest breakout candidate in the farm system, I think, at least among pitchers. He’s already got four pitches — well, the makings of four pitches, I should say — and is in need of more refinement than anything. Better command, get more consistently with the delivery, things like that. Abreu doesn’t have to learn a changeup or anything like that. The pieces are there for him to become no-doubt top 100 prospect next spring.

On the position player side, 3B Dermis Garcia is a dude I’m very excited to follow this summer. He has 80 raw power on the 20-80 scouting scale — 80 raw power and 80 game power are different things! — and is a better pure hitter than his .206/.326/.454 (114 wRC+) batting line and 34.3% strikeout rate with rookie Pulaski last year would lead you believe. Garcia turned only 19 in January and it’s looking like he’ll spend the season at Low-A. Some progress with his approach, meaning not swinging out of his shoes each time he deems a pitch hittable, could turn Dermis into a top 100 guy. That’s a lot to ask, but the talent is there.

Other recent international signees like SS Hoy Jun Park, RHP Domingo Acevedo, SS Wilkerman Garcia, SS Diego Castillo, OF Leonardo Molina, and especially OF Estevan Florial are potential breakout candidates this year. Acevedo needs to continue to improve his breaking ball if he wants to remain in the rotation long-term. Florial has outrageous tools. His power, speed, and throwing arm all rate near the top of he scale. He just needs to tone down his ultra aggressive approach. Florial can swing-and-miss with the best of ’em.

It’s odd to consider a former fourth overall pick a breakout candidate, but RHP Dillon Tate qualifies. He came over from the Rangers in the Carlos Beltran trade after Texas soured on him. Tate, who was drafted in 2015, hurt his hamstring early last season and had difficulty adjusting to some mechanical changes the Rangers asked him to incorporate. The Yankees told him to forget about that and go back to his old mechanics, and by time the AzFL rolled around, his fastball was averaging 98.0 mph and topping out at 99.6 mph, per PitchFX. Yeah.

Of course, that 98.0 mph average heater came in a short burst and no one expects him to sit there as a starter. The Yankees will return Tate to the rotation this year — he worked multi-inning stints out of the bullpen after the trade last year so they could work on his mechanics — though it should be noted that even at his best, there was some thought Tate would wind up in the bullpen long-term because his fastball is straight and his changeup is still a work in progress. Point is, the Yankees bought low on Tate and are working to get him back to his fourth overall pick form, and he looked better in the AzFL than he did at any point with the Rangers before the trade.

If you’re looking for an Adams caliber breakout candidate, that reliever-turned-starter prospect, don’t. Seriously. What Adams did last year was best case scenario stuff. Hard to expect that again, though I’d happily welcome it. The best reliever-turned-starter prospect candidate in the system is Tate, though that’s not a true reliever-to-starter conversion. In that case, RHP Taylor Widener is the best bet. He was the team’s 12th round pick in last year’s draft.

Widener is the latest in a string of Yankees prospects to gain velocity in pro ball — Kaprielian, Montgomery, and Adams all did that — and he has a good slider, albeit an inconsistent one. His changeup has been a point of emphasis since the draft. I’m not sure Widener can make the transition to the rotation as seamlessly as Adams, though then again I never thought Adams would take to the role as easily as he did. Widener is more of a sleeper than a true breakout prospect.

Bounceback Candidates

McKinney. (Presswire)
McKinney. (Presswire)

Last year was a great year for the farm system, though it wasn’t perfect. A few players had disappointing seasons, most notably Mateo. The Yankees are hoping he bounces back in a big way this summer. Kaprielian too following the elbow injury. Tate is another bounceback candidate. Can a player be a bounceback candidate and a breakout candidate in the same season? I guess so. Garcia (Wilkerman, not Dermis) is a bounceback candidate despite being 18. He was great in 2015 and looked like a potential top 100 guy. He then battled through a shoulder issue and had a poor statistical season in 2016.

Aside from Mateo, I think the biggest bounceback candidate in the farm system on the position player side is OF Billy McKinney, who put together an impressive Grapefruit League showing (.417/.517/.917 with four walks and one strikeout in 29 plate appearances) before being reassigned to minor league camp. McKinney came over in the Chapman trade and was better with the Yankees than the Cubs, though his overall 2016 season was underwhelming. The former first rounder hit .256/.349/.363 (107 wRC+) at Double-A. Meh.

The spring performance was nice, though that’s not the reason McKinney is a bounceback candidate. He hit .300/.371/.454 (135 wRC+) between High-A and Double-A two years ago, and was ranked as a top 100 prospect prior to both 2015 (Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus) and 2016 (MLB.com, Keith Law, BP). McKinney’s 2015 season ended early because he fouled a pitch into his knee and suffered a hairline fracture, and there’s some belief it took him longer to get over the injury than expected, hence last year’s performance. With his sweet lefty swing and innate hitting ability, a healthy McKinney could regain significant prospect stock in 2017.

LHP Ian Clarkin was not bad by any means last season — he threw 98 innings with a 3.31 ERA (3.26 FIP) in High-A — though he finished the season hurt (knee) after missing the entire 2015 regular season (elbow). Reports on his stuff were mixed last season, so the Yankees haven’t really seen the supplemental first round pick version of Clarkin since 2014. This isn’t a make or break year for Clarkin (he just turned 22!) though the Yankees very much want him to stay healthy and regain his former top prospect status in 2017.

Prospects I Am Irrationally Excited About

I was originally planning to call this section sleepers or something, but I figured I might as well be straightforward about it. I’ve been waxing poetic about IF Thairo Estrada for two years now, and the just turned 21-year-old could reach Double-A in the second half of the season. RHP Zack Littell is kind of the anti-Yankees pitching prospect. He’s not physically huge with a big fastball. He’s a pitchability guy with three pitches who puts in an insane amount of work studying opposing hitters.

The Yankees are short on catching prospects at the moment — I still expect C Luis Torrens to be returned from the Padres as a Rule 5 Draft pick at some point soon — and their best backstop prospect is C Donny Sands, a converted third baseman. He’s a great bat-to-ball hitter with some power potential. Sands is still new to catching and is rough around the edges, but he’s attacked the transition and has already made some big strides defensively. He should be a top 30 organizational prospect at this time next year. (Some say he is right now.)

IF Oswaldo Cabrera had a ridiculous statistical season last summer — he hit .345/.396/.523 (163 wRC+) in 52 rookie ball games as a 17-year-old — and comes with interesting offensive upside. It seems likely he’s destined for second base rather than shortstop though. That’s okay. OF Rashad Crawford was the fourth piece in the Chapman trade and he’s loaded with tools and athletic ability, and is just now starting to figure out how to translate those tools into baseball skills. OF Isiah Gilliam is a switch-hitter with pop from both sides of the plate. He quietly finished fourth in the rookie Appalachian League with ten homers as a 19-year-old in 2016.

On the mound, I’m really looking forward to a full, healthy season of RHP Domingo German. He’s kind of a forgotten prospect given the Tommy John surgery. German is basically an older, shorter version of Acevedo in that he’s a righty with a big fastball and a very good changeup. Unlike Acevedo, German is on the 40-man roster. The Yankees will have him work as a starter this season, though I think we might see him pitch out of the big league bullpen at some point, likely as a September call-up. German can still bring it.

LHP Daniel Camarena has long been a personal favorite, and he bounced back well from elbow surgery last season. Because he’s left-handed and breathing, and also likely to open the season in Triple-A, he has to be considered a potential call-up candidate. RHP Jorge Guzman came over in the McCann trade and will live in the 98-100 mph range as a starter. He’ll be a Big Deal in a few months. RHP Drew Finley and RHP Nolan Martinez are lower level pitchability guys I am excited about. Also, RHP Nick Nelson. The post-draft scouting reports last year were almost too good to be true. Plus fastball, plus curveball, potentially plus command? Sign me up.

Will They Trade Any Of These Guys?

Yeah, probably. The question is who and for what? The Yankees have a lot of quality prospects coming up on Rule 5 Draft eligibility after the season. A lot. They can either try to keep everyone by adding the guys they really like to the 40-man roster and hoping everyone else gets passed over in the Rule 5 Draft, or trade a few of them to ensure some kind of return. You don’t want to lose someone like, say, Estrada or Littell for nothing more than the $100,000 Rule 5 Draft fee.

Aside from the Rule 5 Draft concerns, I have to imagine the Yankees are at least tempted to dip into their prospect base to land a pitcher with long-term control. They could really use one of those. Jose Quintana is the big name right now, though who knows who will be available at the trade deadline? Maybe the Phillies will put Jerad Eickoff or Vince Velasquez on the market, or the Diamondbacks will float Robbie Ray and Archie Bradley in trade talks. I get the Yankees want to build from within, but they’d be foolish to not consider available trades.

Either way, the Yankees figure to do some farm system shuffling this year. Not necessarily blockbuster trades, but asset management. Last year the Yankees traded Ben Gamel and James Pazos, two fringe big league players, for lower level prospects to make the 40-man situation a little better. I think we’ll see some deals like that this year, perhaps involving Rule 5 Draft eligible prospects not yet on the 40-man. Trades are coming. They’re inevitable. And given the depth of the farm system, I don’t think we can rule out a blockbuster, however unlikely it may seem right now.

Where Does The System Go From Here?

I believe the likelihood of the following two statements being true in eight months is quite high:

  1. The Yankees will have a worse farm system than they do right now.
  2. The Yankees will still have one of the game’s best farm systems.

As it stands, the Yankees are likely to graduate two of my top 30 prospects to the big leagues (Judge, Chad Green) and potentially a handful of others as well (Frazier, Wade, Montgomery,  Williams, Tyler Austin). Inevitably a few pitchers will get hurt and other players will stall out. That’s baseball and that’s why you want as many prospects as possible. It’s hard to see how, after this season, the farm system can be even better than it right now.

That said, the chances New York will still have one of the game’s better farm systems are pretty darn good. They’ll still have Torres and Rutherford (and Sheffield and Mateo), hopefully a healthy Kaprielian, plus whoever the 2017 draft brings in. Others like Andujar, Adams, and Acevedo all have the potential to be top 100 caliber prospects. Unless the Yankees gut the system to make some trades or they experience a catastrophically bad season in the minors, the club will still be loaded with prospects year from now.

The farm system right now is the focal point of the organization. We’re used to looking at a star-laden big league roster around these parts, and while the Yankees figure to be an entertaining team this season (if nothing else), everyone is talking about the farm system. Even the Yankees themselves. Their Winter Warm-Up event was built around prospects and the commercials feature kids, not veterans. This is a new era for the Yankees and that’s pretty exciting.

Going beyond the top relievers [2017 Season Preview]

(Gett Images)
Layne. (Getty Images)

Over the last few days, we’ve covered the four key cogs in the Yankees’ bullpen machine: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard. If healthy, each will take up the main roles in Joe Girardi‘s ‘pen and be called upon for the most important innings this season.

But the bullpen features far more than four guys. There will be at least seven on opening day. The Yankees had 20 different relievers pitch in at least one game last season. They had 26 the year before (24 if you take out position players).

So let’s take a look at the rest of the bullpen. Chances are, far more than the guys listed below will log time in relief, but these are the ones that jump out with a chance right now.

The veteran pick-up

Frieri circa 2014. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Frieri. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Last week, the Yankees added Ernesto Frieri on a minor league deal. Frieri didn’t pitch at all in 2016 after an awful spring with the Phillies, but he played for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. While there, he tossed two shutout innings against the Dominican Republic, even striking out Nelson Cruz.

Frieri, just 31 years old, was a pretty solid reliever from 2010-13, highlighted by a 2.32 ERA and 23 saves with the Padres and Angels in 2012. However, he was barely usable in 2014-15 with the Angels, Pirates and Rays with his ERA ballooning as high as 7.34 in 2014. At his best, he utilizes his mid-90s fastball to get hitters out, mixing in a slider and the occasional change or curve.

He’s a real wild card for the Yankees’ pen. There’s a solid chance he’ll make the team (seven batters into spring, he has six strikeouts and one HR allowed) but what he does from there is anyone’s guess. His velocity seems to have returned after falling a bit in 2014-15 and could be the secret to an improved Frieri.

The lefties

Girardi loves his southpaws, so one has to figure there will be at least one on the roster at all times, if not two. That’s not including Chapman, who won’t be used as a matchup lefty and is the definitive closer.

First up is Tommy Layne. Layne, 32, is a classic LOOGY, much better against lefties than righties. He tosses a lot variations of fastballs alongside a slider and curveball to produce some strikeouts. He was perfectly fine in 29 games for the Yankees in 2016 and it’s not outlandish to expect him to have another mid-3.00 ERA with a few too many walks and struggles against righties. Again, classic LOOGY.

Behind him lie a few different options, namely Chasen Shreve and Jon Niese. Niese, 30, has started most of his career and has succeeded at primarily keeping the ball on the ground. He’d provide a solid option as both another lefty and as a long man, two roles Girardi has said he sees Niese filling. He is coming back from a knee injury that he struggled with last season, so a healthy Niese would be an interesting piece.

We all know about Shreve. He was dominant for a couple months in 2015 with his low-90s fastball and changeup before becoming a liability late in ’15 and shuffling between the bullpen and the minors in 2016. The 26-year-old southpaw isn’t a LOOGY with the changeup as an out-pitch, but hitters appeared to figure out his off-speed offerings over the last couple seasons.

Two pitchers who reached Triple A last season are also in the mix for roles this summer, if not earlier. Jordan Montgomery and Dietrich Enns each played roles in Scranton’s success last fall and looked solid in Double A Trenton before that. Enns was added to the 40-man roster this winter. Lefties hit Enns slightly better than righties last season and the soft-tossing southpaw may not be best suited for a role as a LOOGY.

Montgomery — who is potentially in play for a spot in the rotation on opening day, let alone a relief spot — isn’t on the 40-man roster yet. Similar to Enns, Montgomery had a reverse split last year, although neither lefties or righties hit him well. He throws from a high arm slot and has a solid change-up and would be a solid long reliever if he isn’t a starter.

Righties with a taste

Heller (Getty Images)
Heller. (Getty Images)

Both Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder got chances last September to help the Yankees bullpen and neither particularly impressed. Heller, a 25 year old who came over in the Andrew Miller trade, throws in the upper 90s with his fastball and mixes in an effective slider. Despite his 6.43 ERA in seven big league innings, he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on because he has the stuff to be effective. He’s posted strong strikeout numbers everywhere in the minors, solid enough to mask occasional issues with walks. I’d expect him to be one of the first relievers called up this spring, if not someone on the roster opening day after a lights-out spring (one run, 8 ks in 9 2/3 innings with 6 BB).

Like Heller, Holder couldn’t seem to have his strikeout numbers translate in his short big league stint (8 1/3 innings). He also uncharacteristically struggled with control. Still, his fantastic strikeout rates (101 Ks in 65 1/3 innings last year over three levels) are the reason he was added to the 40-man roster early at 23 years old. He’s likely behind Heller but still a solid option this spring/summer.

Long man

The Yankees’ have a series of young pitchers competing for the final rotation spots right now and only two will walk away with said spots. Therefore, the rest will be relegated to Triple A or to spots in the bullpen. Frieri’s addition to the team makes it less likely the team brings two of those losing out north — or actually south 20 miles from Steinbrenner Field to Tropicana Field — for opening day.

Still, there is likely one spot, if not two, for those who lose out. Let’s say Luis Severino and Bryan Mitchell get the rotation spots. It’s easy to see Luis Cessa take the long-man role while Chad Green and Montgomery go to Triple A. The latter two would still be likely to see time in the majors and could be see it quickly considering the bullpen shuttle of recent years.

40-man roster and beyond

Barbato (Getty Images)
Barbato. (Getty Images)

There is a gaggle of relievers that got opportunities to show off their stuff this spring with the Yankees, way too many to go through in detail. Johnny Barbato and Gio Gallegos are both on the 40-man and closest to the majors.

Further down the 40-man, Yefrey Ramirez and Domingo German both have strikeout worthy stuff, but they’re starters at the moment and haven’t pitched above Single A. Ronald Herrera, acquired for Jose Pirela a couple years ago, has all of five innings above Double A.

Off the 40-man roster, it’s worth paying attention to a few names. Nick Rumbelow, outrighted off the 40, is coming off Tommy John surgery and once showed promise for a middle relief role. Joe Mantiply — a southpaw who was claimed off waivers, DFA’d and then re-signed to a minor league deal this winter — has solid strikeout rates in the minors but hasn’t thrown much above Double A. Finally, J.P Feyereisen was acquired in the Miller deal with Heller and co. and was solid as a fireman for Double A Trenton in the MiLB playoffs last year. Could be something down the road and I wouldn’t be shocked if he is seen in the majors for a stint this summer.

The Middle Relief Duo [2017 Season Preview]

Clippard. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)
(Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)

The Yankees have had an elite bullpen most every year for what feels like an eternity at this point, owing largely to the incomparable Mariano Rivera, and the ability to churn out high-end relievers that would close for most teams (particularly David Robertson and Dellin Betances, who spent most of their time with the team pitching in the 7th or 8th inning). A willingness to open up the checkbook helps, too, as Rafael Soriano, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman all thrived. It isn’t just the 8th and 9th inning guys, though.

A sizable portion of the team’s success in building strong bullpens lay in its middle relief core. We’re all familiar with the Scranton Shuttle, and oftentimes discuss the top-heavy nature of the bullpen – but that’s not quite fair to the pitchers that handle the 6th and 7th, if only for a season or two. Joe Girardi loves having defined roles for his relievers, and having dependable arms to bridge the gap between the starter and Betances/Chapman will be vital this season (lest we forget that two of the five starters will essentially be rookies).

Luckily, the Yankees have two reliable arms to lean on in that role.

Tyler Clippard

Here’s your semi-regular reminder that the Yankees traded Clippard straight-up for Jonathan Albaladejo in 2007, who would go on to throw a grand total of 59.1 IP in parts of three season with the team, pitching to a 4.70 ERA (5.21 FIP).

Clippard has been a dominant reliever for the better part of a decade now, posting a 2.77 ERA (144 ERA+) in 587.2 IP out of the bullpen, while serving as a Bizarro World version of Michael Pineda. That is, his FIP in that time (3.59) is significantly higher than his ERA, which leads to his bWAR (12.3) being much stronger than his fWAR (7.1). He has accomplished this by maintaining consistently low BABIPs (.234 as a reliever), ridiculously high infield flyball rates (16.2%, against a league-average that tends to fall between 9.5% and 10%), and plenty of strikeouts (27.7 K%).

The 32-year-old was in the midst of what may have been his worst season prior to being acquired by the Yankees last year, which raises some red flags. There are reasonable explanations for that, though, including the sheer incompetence of the Arizona Diamondbacks; and not just in a general sense, either, as they may’ve asked Clippard to shelve his slider. It was far from his best offering (though, he had excellent results with it in 2015), as he’s always been a fastball/change-up pitcher – but not having that show-me pitch in his pocket could have led to hitters being better able to sit on straighter stuff. The increased use stands out quite a bit:

clippard-slider

It also bears noting that his fastball velocity dropped with the Diamondbacks, leading to less separation against his bread and butter change-up:

clippard-velocity

That increase, depending upon the tracker, is between 0.6 MPH and 0.8 MPH, which is noteworthy. As per PITCHf/x, Clippard’s fastball velocity was 90.8 with the Diamondbacks and 91.5 following the trade (which is close to his career velocity of 91.8). Combining the increased slider usage, increased velocity, and competent coaching staff, Clippard’s peripherals in his time with the Yankees were right in-line with his career norms.

Adam Warren

(Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America)
(Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America)

Calling Warren’s time with the Cubs a disaster might be putting it far too lightly. He posted a 5.91 ERA (5.83 FIP) in 35.0 IP with Chicago, posting career-worsts in K% (17.8), BB% (12.5), GB% (43.3), HR/FB (16.7%), ERA, and FIP, earning a trip to the minors in doing so. And the most frustrating part of it all may be that there’s nothing on the page that screams bad luck (his BABIP was a career-low .242, and that HR/FB wasn’t absurdly high), nor did his pitch selection or velocity change all that much. To wit:

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

The only thing that stands out here is the dip in the use of his slider, which has been an effective pitch throughout his career. It isn’t as though he stopped using the pitch, though, and the fact that he went deeper into counts more often than ever last year may have reduced his use of the pitch as he attempted to avoid walks.

As was the case with Clippard, however, Warren bounced back in the Bronx, with all of his peripherals gravitating to within spitting distance of his career norms, and his ERA dropping to 3.26 (4.30 FIP). It may be a simple matter of an extended slump coincidentally ending when he went back to the Bronx (he allowed 12 ER in his last five appearances with Chicago, and then reeled off nine straight scoreless outings with the Yankees), or it could be some combination of comfort and coaching. There may not be a genuine explanation, in short – but it’s comforting that the Yankees received the Warren of old.


When the season begins, I suspect that Clippard will serve as the designated 7th inning arm, with Warren acting as a fireman, of sorts. Girardi used Clippard to record more than three outs just once in 29 appearances, whereas Warren went more than an inning nine times (including four times in a row in late September). And given their ages and recent patterns of use, that makes sense.

As for what to expect statistically, the projection systems see Clippard essentially duplicating his 2016 season, and Warren splitting the difference between 2016 and his career norms. I think both will be better than that, due to Girardi’s ability to manage the bullpen (as well as my irrational attachment to both pitchers).