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).

Same All-Star reliever but with minor concerns [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the last three years, I have essentially marked games as wins in my mind whenever Dellin Betances comes in. Sure, there have been a few blown saves here and there, but for the most part, the Yankees win when Dellin comes into the game whether they lead or are tied.

And it isn’t just his pure performance. He’s fun to watch, too. That nasty breaking pitch surely haunts the dreams of every hitter in the AL East and sends Yankee fans home happy. That’s even before you get to his fastball.

What does Betances — who turns 29 on Thursday — have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look.

All-Star stuff with some concern

Betances, when he gets to utilize his stuff to the best of his ability, is unhittable and it’s memorizing. He walks a few too many batters (3.5 per 9 career and in 2016) and his hits rose to 6.7 per 9 last year, but his pure stuff is still beautiful.

His fastball averaged 98.42 mph in 2016, which is just silly good. It doesn’t hurt that he has an above-average 2509 RPM spin rate. It’s surprising considering his September struggles, but his velocity actually jumped higher from August to September. Same for his curveball. When Betances really needs to hit another gear, he can. That 100 mph strikeout of Miguel Cabrera from 2014 is perhaps the best example. Or perhaps the 2016 All-Star Game.

And then there’s his curveball. It’s genuinely my favorite pitch going these days with all respect to Andrew Miller‘s slider. It sits in the mid-80s and just falls off the table. Even the best hitters in baseball — like Giancarlo Stanton — have zero idea what to do with it.

As he displayed in the WBC this spring, he’s among the best relievers in the game when he’s on. The Yankees’ AL East rivals know this all too well.

He throws his four-seamer (39.3) and his curve (55.3) about 95 percent of the time, occasionally mixing in a cutter. His curveball remained a behemoth in 2016, holding batters to a .371 OPS (14 wRC+) and accounting for 103 of his 124 strikeouts.

Hitters actually got to his fastball pretty well last year. They batted .350/.447/.563 (184 wRC+) against it, a mark much higher than previous years (124 wRC+ against in 2015 and 95 in 2014). He peaked as a pitcher in 2014 (his -21 wRC+ against for the curveball says more than enough), but the trend with his fastball is a bit concerning. It began in the later months of 2015 and continued throughout 2016. Luckily, he still has a dynamite curveball, yet it’s worth monitoring how hitters do against Betances’ normally overwhelming velocity in 2017.

One quick aside: If you want to see how dominant Betances can truly be, check out the ISO power against him, especially right-handed batters. On pitches on the inner third of the plate, righties literally had a .000 ISO. All singles and outs. Here’s the chart via Baseball Savant.

dellin-betances-1

Workload

If there’s one chief concern for Betances, it’s his workload. In his three full big league seasons, he’s pitched in at least 70 games and thrown at least 73 innings. His innings have decreased year-by-year (90 to 84 to 73) and his ERA has increased year over year, including more than doubling from 2015 to 2016 (1.50 to 3.08). There have certainly been times when Betances, cursed in part by his own success, has been overused as the Yankees try to sneak out close victories.

There is no better example than this past September. After Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were dealt at the trade deadline, the closer role fell to Betances, a role which he is more than capable of filling. He may be more valuable as the stopper in the 7th and 8th innings, yet I think there are few people (maybe outside the front office) that believe Betances can handle the 9th. He surely has the stuff.

But the Yankees were in the midst of a playoff chase and they needed to hand him the ball as much as possible with plenty of save chances. Therefore, Joe Girardi used him on three straight days twice within an 11-day span. It started out just fine but ended with two straight losses, one because he couldn’t field the ball and the other simply because he was exhausted. That five-run ninth in Boston essentially finished the Yankees and also showed that Betances needed a rest. For the month, hitters were getting to not only his fastball but also hit curveball.

With Chapman’s return, Betances is obviously back in the middle innings, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get much of a reprieve from important spots. He consistently comes in during the highest leverage situations, sometimes for more than one inning, and now has 217 games in the last three seasons in his recent past. Hopefully, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and the rest of the ‘pen will be able to handle some big innings because the big man needs a rest.

World Baseball Classic

Wasn’t it fun to watch Betances pitch in the WBC? He seemed to really enjoy himself while dominating hitters during the tournament. It was even better than when he takes down a set of National League All-Stars in the Midsummer Classic.

He threw five innings for the Dominican Republic, giving up six baserunners while striking out five batters. Basically normal Dellin. If you add in his two innings with the Yankees earlier in the spring, he’s only thrown two more innings than Aroldis Chapman and is just as ready for the season. Perhaps more?

This is just to say that the WBC doesn’t seem to have hurt Betances going into April and may even have him more prepared for opening day. Maybe have high-ish leverage innings earlier will benefit him early in the season but help wear him down later in the season. It remains to be seen.

Contract welp and minor flaws

Things really got ugly between Betances and the Yankees front office after his arbitration hearing in February. Randy Levine made some really boneheaded comments about Betances in an unnecessary conference call and created some significant tension between Betances and the club. That shouldn’t affect his performance on the field — baseball is a business after all — but it may make Betances think twice before re-signing long-term.

As for the arbitration hearing itself, the Yankees brought up Betances’ struggles fielding the ball and holding runners. These are legitimate issues for the big righty. He’s allowed extra runs to score because he’s been unable to throw the ball to the bases or prevent runners from stealing. Even Gary Sanchez with his laser from behind the plate was unable to throw out runners with Betances’ deliberate delivery.

Good news is that Betances is working on his flaws. He made a basic fielding play during the WBC (nothing major) and Sanchez did throw out a runner during one of Dellin’s early spring outings. If Betances could improve on those two flaws, it’d make him that much more dominant, both at preventing runners from getting on base and then from scoring.

He may not throw 105 mph, but Betances is pretty much everything you want in a reliever. High velocity, killer breaking pitch and general fantastic performance. The guy literally struck out over 15 batters per nine innings last season. However, he may not be quite as good as his out-of-this-world 2014-15 in 2017 and there are reasons to doubt him after a lesser 2016. Still, expect Betances to be an essential part of the Yankees’ bullpen in this season.

Chapman Returns [2017 Season Preview]

(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)
(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)

On the off-chance that you missed it, the Yankees gave Aroldis Chapman the largest contract ever handed out to a reliever back in December, re-solidifying the back of the bullpen that they had gutted (for the best of reasons) a handful of months prior. There’s something poetic about the fact that the team dealt its closer for a player that would become its best prospect, only to have those two on the same roster less than a year later. It makes a great trade look even better, regardless of the fact that re-signing Chapman shouldn’t influence one’s thoughts on the deal. But I digress.

An argument can be made that Chapman is the best reliever in baseball, which may well be stating the obvious. He finished 4th in the Majors in fWAR and 9th in RA9-WAR despite not throwing a pitch until May 9 (due to his suspension for domestic violence), ranking among the top-five in K%, K-BB%, ERA-, and FIP-. And this is nothing new for Chapman, either, as the southpaw leads all relievers in fWAR and RA9-WAR over the last five years. It’s telling that his 13.97 K/9 and 40.5 K% are his lowest marks since he took over for Francisco Cordero as the Reds closer following the 2011 season.

How does he do it?

Consistency Is Key

Chapman has not had anything short of a brilliant season since becoming a closer, with the only real variations being degrees of excellence. In the last five seasons he hasn’t struck out fewer than 40.5% of batters, nor has he allowed an ERA higher than 2.54 – and his averages in that stretch are 44.2% and 1.84, respectively. And this past season, when he posted that measly 40.5% strikeout rate, he offset it by posting a career-low walk rate of 8.1% (the first above-average mark of his career). I’ll take that trade-off.

It isn’t just consistency with his statistics, either. Take a look at his velocity:

chapman-velo

All of his offerings have remained steady since 2010 – his first full-season in the Majors, and they actually ticked up a bit last season. In fact, he showcased the second-best fastball velocity of his career in 2016 per Brooks Baseball, clocking in at 101.08 MPH. His slider and change-up velocity have been similarly metronomic, which is a great sign.

The movement on his pitches is consistent, as well, even if there are a few sections that stand out a bit more:

 

chapman-horizontal-movement chapman-vertical-movement

It is worth noting that he barely utilizes his change-up (less than 3% of his pitches were change-ups last year, per Brooks Baseball), so it makes some sense that it would be something of an outlier. He has tinkered with different grips, too.

Protecting His Elbow

Pitchers that throw hard and pitchers that throw a high percentage of sliders seem to be more prone to elbow injuries, if only anecdotally, and Chapman does both. Or, perhaps more accurately, he used to throw a high percentage of sliders.

chapman-pitch-selection

In 2014, nearly a quarter of Chapman’s pitches were sliders – and that appears to be the outlier in his time as a closer. Around 15% of his offerings were sliders last year, which placed him 72nd among the 130 relievers that threw at least 50 IP. And, to be fair, his slider usage ranked him 50th among 138 in 2014, so our perception of him as a slider-happy pitcher may be a bit of cognitive dissonance due to the wipe-out nature of the pitch.

That premium velocity has almost undoubtedly taken its toll, but focusing on fastballs could play a roll in Chapman remaining healthy. Whether that is a conscious decision or a matter of him sticking with what works is another question entirely.

What About The Playoffs?

Chapman came perilously close to adding his name to the list of curses that had plagued the Cubs franchise for over a century when he blew the save in Game 7 of the World Series, allowing a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was his third blown save of a postseason in which he posted an uncharacteristically high 3.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP (and, no, the fact that those numbers would be good for most relievers isn’t lost on me).

The Cubs won the World Series, so all was forgiven. Does that mean that we should forget about Chapman’s intermittent struggles? Yes. Yes it does.

Between the regular season and playoffs, Chapman nearly matched his career-high in IP, doing so despite his shortened season. He pitched 13 times in 27 days in the playoffs, including three times in four days leading into Game 7. Despite this, his velocity was as steady as ever:

chapman-playoff-velo

The Cubs utilized Chapman exactly how they should have, and he may have been worn down somewhat in the process. That may give the Yankees a reason to be gentle with him early in the season, but it does not give much of a reason to be concerned about his abilities going forward.


The projection systems largely forecast the status quo for Chapman, albeit with what would be his highest ERA since 2013 (2.33 for Steamer, 2.34 for ZiPS, and 2.45 for PECOTA). That represents the safe route, factoring in a full season in a hitter’s park in a division full of potent offenses. Nevertheless, I expect Chapman to continue to be an elite closer in 2017.

The Four Young Rotation Candidates [2017 Season Preview]

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Anyone with doubts about the Yankees and their commitment to the youth movement need not look beyond the rotation. Rather than bring in outside help over the winter, even a innings eating veteran on a one-year contract, the Yankees are planning to go with their young starting pitchers in 2017. They’re taking a leap of faith.

Four young starters are vying for two rotation spots this spring: Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. We still don’t know which way the team is leaning — “I would say (no one is ahead). I think we’re going to have some long meetings about this,” said Joe Girardi over the weekend — though I get the feeling Severino came into Spring Training as a favorite for one spot.

Regardless of who gets the two rotation spots on Opening Day, history suggests the Yankees will need all four of these guys to make starts at some point. The Yankees haven’t used fewer than eight starters in a season since the strike-shortened 1994 season, when they used seven. They’ve averaged slightly more than ten starters per season the last three years. So yeah, the depth is good. Let’s preview these four young arms.

Luis Cessa

What does he have the others don’t? A fourth pitch and a ton of athleticism. Cessa, 25 in April, is a former shortstop and his athleticism is evident in his easy, repeatable delivery. More importantly, Cessa throws four distinct pitches. We saw all of them last season during his big league debut. Setting aside his eight relief outings last season, here are the numbers from Cessa’s nine starts (MLB averages in parentheses):

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Fastball 48.6% 95.0 (92.1) 5.7% (6.9%) 35.0% (37.9%)
Slider 30.3% 85.4 (84.3) 21.8% (15.2%) 66.0% (43.9%)
Curveball 11.1% 80.2 (77.1) 4.8% (11.1%) 50.0% (48.7%)
Changeup 9.9% 85.0 (93.7) 13.3% (14.9%) 40.0% (47.8%)

The slider was Cessa’s go-to secondary pitch, but he also threw his curveball and changeup roughly 10% of the time each, so the four-pitch mix is there. As a result, his platoon split was relatively small: lefty batters had a .324 wOBA against him while righties had a .311 wOBA. None of the other rotation candidates threw four pitches as often as Cessa, and I don’t think any of them are as consistently in sync with their delivery as well.

Also, in the age of pitch counts, I should note Cessa was incredibly pitch efficient last year. He averaged only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.69 pitches per plate appearance as a starter in 2016. The MLB averages are 16.8 and 3.95, respectively. Cessa managed to complete at least five innings in all nine of his starts while throwing 85+ pitches only three times.

What’s holding him back? A lack of strikeouts and #toomanyhomers, more than anything. Even with a slider that rated as well-above-average in swing-and-miss rate and ground ball rate, Cessa had a mere 17.1% strikeout rate and a 45.0% ground ball rate in his 51.2 innings as a starter last year. Hitters tagged him for a 1.92 HR/9 (19.3 HR/FB%) and that’s way too high. Can’t do that and stay in the rotation.

Cessa has long had a reputation for being a strike-thrower and we saw it last season. He had a 3.9% walk rate in his nine starts. I wonder whether he’s someone who could benefit from throwing a few more pitches out of the zone, especially in two-strike counts. Not everything needs to be over the plate, you know. That could lead to more strikeouts and fewer homers allowed. Just an idea. But yeah, too few strikeouts and too many homers. Those are the two things Cessa will look to improve this summer.

Chad Green

Green. (Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Good question! I’m not sure, exactly. Possibly an overpowering fastball? Green, who turns 26 in May, is one of several pitchers who added velocity after joining the Yankees within the last few years, and last season his heater averaged 95.4 mph and topped out at 99.2 mph. His four-seamer generated a swing and a miss a whopping 16.2% of the time, which is nearly triple the league average rate. Green’s fastball: it’s good. (Bet you didn’t realize he had a 26.3% strikeout rate last season, did you? )

I’d also argue that among the four pitchers in this post, no one improved their stock more over the last 12 months than Green. He’s trending in the right direction. He added some oomph to his fastball, improved the quality of his slider with help from pitching coach Larry Rothschild last spring, and he added a cutter while down in Triple-A. Green came to New York with a fastball and an okay slider. Now he has a bigger fastball, a better slider, and a brand new cutter. Neat.

What’s holding him back? The complete lack of a changeup. Green has tried both splitter and changeup grips and so far he’s been unable to find something that works. Because of that, he has nothing to combat left-handers aside from cutters in on the hands. Last summer lefties hit .287/.351/.663 (.421 wOBA) with nine homers in 95 plate appearances again Green. Yikes. That’s a 3.74 HR/9 (34.6 HR/FB%). Yikes.

Clearly, the goal for Green this season will be improving his changeup. Or his splitter. Either one works. He needs something to keep left-handed hitters off balance, because busting them inside with cutters only works so much. Green needs that soft offspeed pitch to keep them guessing. I’m not sure he has much of a chance to be a big league starter without one. His fastball and slider are good enough that, at worse, Green should be a pretty nice reliever. Obviously the Yankees hope he can be something more than that.

Bryan Mitchell

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? The potential for a truly dominant pitch. Mitchell’s curveball is arguably the best curveball in the organization. It’s a power bender that averaged 81.9 mph last season with a well-above-average spin rate, which points to the potential for swings and misses and grounders. Don’t sleep on Mitchell’s mid-90s four-seamer and low-90s cutter either. His raw stuff is very impressive.

Also, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Mitchell has performed the best among the rotation candidates, both this spring and last season. I get the sense that’s going to factor into the team’s decision. So far this spring Mitchell has struck out 12 and walked three in 14.1 innings. He’s allowed no more than one run in three of his four appearances. Last year Mitchell threw 25 innings across five starts with the Yankees, during which he had a 3.24 ERA (4.23 FIP). I don’t think the Yankees will base their decision on those numbers, but I do think they’ll be considered.

Of course, Mitchell walked more batters (12) than he struck out (11) during his relatively brief big league cameo last year, so perhaps don’t read too much into the shiny ERA. Point is, Mitchell performed well from a “didn’t allow many runs” perspective, and it sure is easy to dream on his fastball/cutter/curveball combination.

What’s holding him back? Both command and a changeup, or the lack thereof. Mitchell doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d expect and he’s more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe because his command is so poor. Throwing in the mid-90s is great! But if it’s over the plate, it’s going to get hit. And as pretty as his curveball is, it’s had a below-average swing and miss rate in all three of his MLB seasons. There’s a big disconnect between Mitchell’s stuff and his results, and that disconnect is due to poor command.

The changeup, I’d argue, is a bigger issue. You can carve out a successful career with below-average command, even as a starter. It’s doable. A.J. Burnett spent 17 years in the big leagues, won a pair of World Series rings, and banked over $140M with below-average command. Mitchell doesn’t have Burnett stuff, but he has pretty darn good stuff, and that should be enough to enjoy a big league career even without improving his command.

Without a changeup, however, Mitchell has to rely on his cutter to neutralize lefties, and his command isn’t good enough to rely on that one pitch consistently. Lefties hit .270/.372/.378 (.334 wOBA) against Mitchell last year and .274/.379/.415 (.350 wOBA) in his big league career overall. A right-hander who can’t get lefties out doesn’t have much of a chance to be a starter in Yankee Stadium. Mitchell has been working on his changeup for years — he’s tried a splitter as well — and so far nothing has taken. I wonder how much longer the Yankees will keep waiting before sticking him in the bullpen for good.

Luis Severino

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Former top prospect status and, in theory, the most upside. That’s going to buy the just turned 23-year-old Severino plenty of opportunities and that’s why I think he’s favored to land a rotation spot right now. Now, to be fair, that’s not the only thing Severino has going for him. He’s got the big fastball, he’s got the wipeout slider, and at one point in time he had a very nice changeup as well. There was a reason Severino was a top prospect.

There’s also this: Severino has had, by far, the best stretch in the big leagues among these four players. Back in 2015 the Yankees called Severino up in the second half, and he had a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in eleven starts and 62.1 innings for a team in a postseason race. He had his issues with walks (8.6%) and strikeouts (1.30 HR/9), but what rookie pitcher doesn’t? Besides, Severino’s strikeout (22.0%) and grounder (50.3%) rates were impressive. Remember this guy?

That guy is really good! The Yankees remember that guy. They want him back. Severino, unlike Cessa and Mitchell and Green, has shown the ability to dominate big league hitters as a starting pitcher, albeit in 60-something innings two years ago. It’s more than the other guys have shown, however, and that’s going to work in Severino’s favor come decision time. He’s a former top prospect who gave everyone a taste of his upside in 2015. That can’t be ignored.

What’s holding him back? Once again, it’s command and a changeup, though unlike Green and Mitchell, Severino does actually have a changeup. Watch that video. There are more than a few in there. Severino lost confidence and/or feel for his changeup last season — he threw 12 changeups total in his final four starts after averaging 12 changeups per start in 2015 — and he’s working to get it back this spring. Not enough of his starts have been televised for us to get an idea of how he’s progressing, unfortunately.

As for the command, Severino’s location with his secondary stuff last year was a bigger issue than with his fastball. His fastball is so overpowering that he doesn’t need to be precise with it. He just needs to be close enough. With his slider, however, Severino left too may up in the zone and out over the plate early last season, which earned him a demotion back to Triple-A. The same was true with his changeup before he stopped throwing it all together.

This spring Severino made some slight changes to his mechanics — he’s breaking his hands closer to his body (GIF) — in an effort to improve his command and changeup. His issues aren’t a mystery. The Yankees and Rothschild have been working to get Severino back on track, and heck, he even spent some time with Pedro Martinez in the offseason. With the changeup, it’s about getting Severino back to where he was two years ago. Concerns about his command have existed for a while though, and ultimately his ability to improve that will determine whether he stays in the rotation long-term or winds up back in the bullpen, where he dominated last season.

* * *

We have to acknowledge these four pitchers are not necessarily in a rotation competition this spring. They’re in a pitching staff competition. It’s entirely possible one or more of them will wind up in the bullpen should they fail to secure a rotation spot. Like I said earlier though, I’d bet on all four guys making starts at some point during the summer. That’s usually how these things play out.

Assuming Masahiro Tanaka stays healthy and opts out, the Yankees have no established pitching under control beyond 2017. The hope is one or two or all four of these young starters emerge as viable long-term big league rotation options this coming season. They don’t need to become aces to have value. (Have you seen what average-ish mid-rotation guys are getting in free agency?) These four pitchers could help solve a lot of problems this season, though each of them has to figure some things out to make it happen.