Yankees finalize Opening Day roster; Holder, Mitchell, and Shreve make the bullpen

Holder. (Presswire)
Holder. (Presswire)

Earlier this morning, Joe Girardi informally announced the Yankees’ 25-man Opening Day roster. Aaron Judge will be the right fielder and Luis Severino will be the fourth starter, and the decision to option out Rob Refsnyder means Pete Kozma will be the utility infielder. Also, Girardi told Bryan Hoch that Bryan Mitchell, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve will be in the bullpen. Got all that?

The Yankees still need to open a 40-man roster spot for Kozma, though they have a few days to figure that out. The Opening Day roster itself doesn’t have to be finalized with the league until 12pm ET on Sunday, an hour before first pitch. Here’s the unofficial official roster:

CATCHERS (2)
Austin Romine
Gary Sanchez

INFIELDERS (6)
Chris Carter
Starlin Castro
Greg Bird
Chase Headley
Pete Kozma
Ronald Torreyes

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Jacoby Ellsbury
Brett Gardner
Aaron Hicks
Aaron Judge

DESIGNATED HITTER (1)
Matt Holliday

STARTING PITCHERS (4)
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Luis Severino
Masahiro Tanaka

RELIEF PITCHERS (8)
Dellin Betances
Aroldis Chapman
Tyler Clippard
Jonathan Holder
Tommy Layne
Bryan Mitchell
Chasen Shreve
Adam Warren

DISABLED LIST (2)
Tyler Austin (foot)
Didi Gregorius (shoulder)

The Yankees will carry eight relievers for the time being. The team has three off-days in the first ten days of the regular season, allowing them to skip their fifth starter the first two times through the rotation. They’ll do exactly that, then figure out the fifth starter later. They don’t need one until April 16th.

Rotation candidates Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Jordan Montgomery did not make the Opening Day roster, though it’s only a matter of time until we see those guys in the big leagues. The Yankees will need a fifth starter soon enough, and given his performance last year, I don’t think it’s a given Severino sticks in the rotation all season. Montgomery opened some eyes this spring and could be the first starter called up. We’ll see.

The Yankees open the regular season this Sunday, with a 1pm ET game against the Rays at Tropicana Field. They’ll start the season with a six-game road trip through Tampa and Baltimore before coming home. The home opener is Monday, April 10th. They’ll play the Rays again.

Sorting out the 35 players the Yankees still have in big league camp

Bird and Judge. (Presswire)
Bird and Judge. (Presswire)

Opening Day is now only six days away, and at this point the Yankees still have nearly a full 40-man roster worth of players in big league camp. They have 35 players in camp and the World Baseball Classic is part of the reason. Some players, like Donovan Solano, have been in camp without actually being in camp these last few weeks. The Yankees and every other team needed the extra bodies while players were away at the WBC.

All throughout this week the Yankees will cut down their roster as they prepare for Opening Day on Sunday. It’s late in camp, so not only will the big league players start playing a full nine innings and back-to-back days, the minor leagues need to do that too. There’s only so much playing time to go around, and at this point of the spring, it’s time for clubs to emphasize their MLB roster players.

Earlier today the Yankees reassigned Solano, Wilkin Castillo, and Ruben Tejada to minor league camp, meaning there are now 35 players remaining in the big league Spring Training. Let’s take stock of those 35 players and figure out where they fit into the Opening Day roster equation. Some will definitely make it, some definitely won’t, and a whole bunch of guys are on the bubble. Let’s get to it.

Definitely Making The Team (19)

Might as well start here since this is our easiest and largest roster group. These are the players we know will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity.

Any doubt about Bird making the Opening Day roster was erased when he was named the starting first baseman last week. It was plenty fair to wonder whether he’d need some time to Triple-A to regain his strength and/or timing after missing the entire 2016 season with shoulder surgery, but he’s crushing the ball this spring. No doubts about him now. Everyone else is pretty straightforward, right? Right.

Very Likely To Make The Team (3)

This group includes three players who are not a lock to make the Opening Day roster, but are in prime position to make the club out of Spring Training. The three players: Aaron Judge, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. Judge has had a strong camp to date. I’m not sure what else the Yankees could want to see from him, though I still don’t think the right field job is 100% his right now. Hicks has played well this spring. (Like he does every spring. Career .303/.365/.521 hitter in Spring Training!)

Mitchell and Severino are both competing for a rotation spot, though I think they’re on the roster either way, starter or reliever. Mitchell won a bullpen spot in camp last year and he hasn’t really done anything to not deserve a roster spot since. I still think Severino is the odds on favorite to get one of the open rotation spots. I’m also not convinced he’ll go to Triple-A should he not get a starting spot. The chances of Severino making the Opening Day roster in some capacity sure seem pretty darn high to me. He’s not a lock, but the odds are in his favor.

Injured (2)

Baseball can be cruel. The Yankees lost both Didi Gregorius and Tyler Austin to injury this spring, and while neither suffered a severe long-term injury, they are going to miss the first several weeks of the regular season. Austin fouled a pitch off his foot and broke a bone. He could return to game action in mid-April. Gregorius strained his shoulder making a throw and could be out until May. Yuck. Both Austin and Didi are disabled list bound to begin the regular season.

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Most players in this group will be shuttle pitchers. Chad Green is competing with Severino and Mitchell (and Warren, I guess) for the two open rotation spots, and I feel the Yankees are much more willing to send him to Triple-A rather than stash him in the bullpen. Jordan Montgomery has impressed in camp, so much so that Joe Girardi is talking about him as a possible Opening Day roster option. Can’t say I expected to have him in this group at the outset of Spring Training.

Aside from Green and Montgomery, the other three pitchers in this group are all relievers: Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve. We will inevitably see those guys in the Bronx at some point this season, though I’d say it’s less than 50/50 they’re on the Opening Day roster. Heller probably has the best chance to win a job out of camp. He’s had a fine spring and is, in my opinion, the best bullpen prospect in the organization.

Rob Refsnyder, who has been mentioned as a trade candidate at times this spring, didn’t have much of a chance to make the Opening Day roster at coming into the spring. Then Austin and Gregorius got hurt which, if nothing else, opened the door for Refsnyder a little bit. His inability to play shortstop hurts him, obviously. The Yankees would have to be comfortable using Castro at shortstop.

An unexpected Opening Day roster candidate is Tyler Wade, who has played well this spring and could get a look at shortstop while Gregorius is sidelined. The question is whether the Yankees want to tie up a long-term 40-man roster spot — the veteran non-roster infielders in camp can be dropped off the 40-man roster as soon as Gregorius returns, but Wade will be on the 40-man for good — so Wade can fill-in for a month. I have him in this group for a reason though. I think it’s possible the Yankees go with him at short while Didi is out.

Oh Geez, They Might Actually Make The Team (3)

It happens every year, doesn’t it? Some random player you forgot the Yankees acquired shows up to camp, performs well, and before you know it, he’s on the Opening Day roster. Kirby Yates did it last year. Chris Martin the year before. Cody Eppley a few years before that. You never see it coming with these guys. Here are this year’s candidates, listed alphabetically:

  • Ernesto Frieri: The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal two weeks ago, which suggests they were impressed by the way he threw with Colombia during the WBC.
  • J.R. Graham: Graham recently had a three-run disaster outing, but eight of his ten Grapefruit League appearances have been scoreless. Ten strikeouts and two walks in 9.1 innings too.
  • Pete Kozma: Kozma’s chances of making the Opening Day roster improved with the news of the Gregorius injury as well as the Solano and Tejada demotions. He’s a candidate to help fill in either at shortstop or as the utility infielder.

With Gregorius hurt and two open bullpen spots, I’d put the chances of at least one of these five players making the Opening Day roster at: annoyingly high. My money is on Frieri making it. He’s looked pretty darn during the World Baseball Classic and with the Yankees, plus his experience as a Proven Closer™ will work in his favor.

Esmil Rog ... I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)
Esmil Rog … I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)

Long Shot To Make The Team (1)

The Yankees reassigned their very best prospects to minor league camp last week, which took some of the excitement out of the remaining Grapefruit League games. It was that time of the spring though. The kids have to go get ready for their seasons. The at-bats aren’t there any more in the big league camp. The regulars are going to play and play a lot this week.

The final player still in big league camp is catcher Kyle Higashioka. He is No. 3 on the catcher depth chart, which means he is heading to Triple-A Scranton until someone gets hurts or rosters expand in September, whichever comes first. Higashioka’s only chance to make the big league roster out of Spring Training involved and injury to Sanchez or Romine, and, thankfully, the Yankees have stayed healthy behind the plate.

Predictions by Position

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

After today, the next time you read a post from me, the Yankees will be three hours away from their first pitch of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays (while we’re on it, how silly is it that even in a dome, the Yankees have an off day after their Opening Day? Isn’t the point of the dome to avoid that? Ugh.). That’s pretty damn cool, huh? It also means you’re in for a flurry of prediction posts, so allow me to be near the top of the list. When September ends, we can all look back at this and laugh at how absurdly wrong I was.

Catcher

Gary Sanchez will struggle at the plate to start the year and a certain segment of fans–the talk radio set–will become frustrated, though his defense is mostly fine. By early June, though, Sanchez will find his stroke and finish the year with about 20 homers and a caught stealing percentage near the top of the league.

Austin Romine will remain the backup all year, turning in a very typical backup season. But, for him, it’s a coup as it lands him a two-year contract after the season to stay on as Sanchez’s reserve.

Carter. (Presswire)
Carter. (Presswire)

First Base

I don’t know exactly what the combination will be or how it will break down to a man, but Greg Bird and Chris Carter will combine for 40 homers.

Shortstop and Second Base

I’m combing these thanks to the Didi Gregorius injury. Ruben Tejada will start the year at short. By mid-April, though, his bat will not be worth the defensive contribution and he’ll be let go. Starlin Castro will slide over to short and “everyone” will get their wish as Rob Refsnyder will be called up to play second, the team willing to live with his defense since his offense will be needed more. He’ll have a hot first week, then cool down just in time for Didi to return and send Castro back to second.

Didi will take a slight step back offensively this year, as will Castro. However, they’ll be able to buoy it with solid defense, becoming one of the top double play combinations in the league.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Third Base

Chase Headley continues his ‘bounce back’ that started after his terrible beginning to 2016. He ends the year around a 100 wRC+, but his defense begins to show a little bit of wear before he heads into the last year of his contract.

Outfield

Brett Gardner bounces back offensively. The power doesn’t come back totally, but he reaches double digits in homers again and regains some of his base-stealing prowess. Jacoby Ellsbury hovers around where he was last year and his steals stay flat as he’s not apt to run in front of Sanchez or Matt Holliday, whoever occupies the three spot.

Aaron Judge struggles through the first month and is sent down to Scranton and Aaron Hicks takes over in right for a bit. Judge is eventually recalled and put in a platoon to start, but earns his way back into the starting role, promising better things for 2018.

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

Designated Hitter

Holliday shows flashes of his Colorado self, but is generally more like the player he was in St. Louis last year. He surprises, though, with a fair amount of opposite field homers and winds up leading the team in that category.

Starting Rotation

Michael Pineda comes out of the gates like a bat out of hell. He pushes his way into the All Star Game, but falters down the stretch, reminding us more of 2016 than the early part of 2017.

CC Sabathia pitches like a number two for half his starts and a number five for the other half. Masahiro Tanaka again competes for the Cy Young Award, putting up an even better case this year than last year.

Adam loves it. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Bullpen

Adam Warren becomes the new Dellin Betances. No, he won’t be as dominant as Dellin, but he’ll move into the multi-inning, high-leverage spot, allowing Betances to join Tyler Clippard and Aroldis Chapman as a more traditional one-inning reliever when Warren is fresh.

Team

What will all this add up to? Somehow, someway, I’m thinking…84 wins. That sounds right, no? What wild, crazy, or boring predictions do you have? If we’re gonna laugh at me in September, let’s laugh at you, too.

Play ball.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.

Which Yankees would make the best two-way players?

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

For the first time in what feels like forever, MLB is on the verge of having a true two-way player.

That’s right, the same person as a pitcher and position player on a semi-regular basis. Christian Bethancourt, to this point almost exclusively a catcher for the Padres, is in spring training splitting his time between catcher and pitcher and is set to pitch Wednesday. He did pitch twice last season and threw 96 mph, so his stuff is there, and he began to fulfill more of a utility role last season, a hint towards his versatility/athleticism.

One of my favorite things to see is when position players pitch or pitchers rake. Remember Brendan Ryan tossing two shutout innings in 2015? It made attending a 15-1 loss a ton of fun.

Anyway, with Bethancourt and Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Otani in the news, I thought we could take a gander at which current Yankees would make the best potential two-way player, even if there is approximately a zero percent chance any of them actually become one. First up, the outfielder with the rocket arm.

Aaron Hicks

Hicks is the obvious choice here because he has a freaking cannon. It isn’t always on the money and it doesn’t always get a baserunner out, but it surely makes any runner think twice about taking the extra base. His 105.5 mph throw last April is the fastest recorded throw in the Statcast era and even tops the fastest pitch of Aroldis Chapman. Granted, it’s different heaving the ball with a running start on a lazy fly ball vs. what a pitcher does, but it’s a perfect display of what Hicks is capable.

Hicks also still has my favorite outfield assist ever, even though it came when he was with the Twins against the Yankees. Indulge me and re-watch this masterpiece that really shows off how strong Hicks’ arm really is.

With all that in mind, it should come as little surprise that Hicks was also a pitcher when he was drafted 1st round, 14th overall, out of high school. Baseball America mentions it in their blurb about Hicks in multiple prospect handbooks back in his Twins days, including right off the bat when he was Minnesota’s No. 4 prospect in 2012. Here’s what they said about him in 2011, when he was the Twins’ No. 2 prospect.

“Some teams liked him more as a pitcher coming out of high school, thanks to his athleticism and a fastball that reached 97 mph at times, and he retains excellent arm strength, his best present tool.”

It’s still his best tool and Hicks still has that top-notch velocity. Hicks threw a near no-hitter in high school and after the game mentioned his curveball as one of his top pitches. At the 2007 Perfect Game Showcase, Hicks hit and pitched. You can catch a glimpse of his pitching at 2:38, 6:13 and 11:30 of the showcase video, in which Hicks says he had been told he had “starter stuff” but indicated he wanted to be a position player. In a world where the Yankees now asked him to be a pitcher in addition to his hitting, they’d have to build back up his off-speed offerings.

CC Sabathia

Of the players I’ll list, this is more a dream than anything. CC Sabathia isn’t going to start playing a position in 2017. At most, he’ll get an extra chance or two to swing away compared to other Yankees’ pitchers in interleague play.

But back in the day, CC was a capable hitter. From 2002 to 2008, he hit .261 (22-for-84), having his ‘breakout’ offensive season in 2008 when he switched leagues for the second half of the season and carried the Brewers to the playoffs. That year, he hit two mammoth home runs, one with the Indians and one with the Brewers, including this moon shot at Dodger Stadium.

Sabathia didn’t ever have the speed and athleticism to man anything other than maybe first base and a corner outfield spot. If you put him in a corner, you know he’d have a good arm, even if he lacked range. As a Yankee, he has only two hits, none for extra bases, in 27 at-bats while laying down just one sacrifice hit.

Didi Gregorius

Gregorius would make a much more realistic two-way player than Sabathia, although his role as the everyday shortstop makes it a true impossibility. His arm is the entire argument. Watching him throughout the season, he fires some lasers to first base and has some solid accuracy as well. No word on how hard he throws off a mound or even if he ever has. Baseball America rated his arm as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale when he was a prospect in the Reds system.

While Didi doesn’t have a history of pitching like Hicks, there is evidence of possible aspirations. The YES Network posted a video of Gregorius pitching on flat ground to a teammate in warmups before a game last season.

The Yankees wouldn’t risk injury to Gregorius, but I have a feeling he’d go out to the mound with the same infectious zeal that Ryan had when he got his opportunity in a game.

Quick Hits

Aaron Judge on the mound would be a spectacle to behold. He is perhaps the most unlikely person to be a two-way player because working out mechanics for a 6-foot-7 pitcher is tough enough as it is but especially from scratch. He’s another guy with a strong arm in the outfield, but yeah, this one’s a pipe dream.

Gary Sanchez, like Sabathia, doesn’t quite have the athleticism to pull off the two-way life, but he’s got the arm. While Hicks had the fastest recorded throw on Statcast, Sanchez had the quickest for a catcher throwing out a base stealer. We’ll see plenty more attempted base stealers thrown out as long as he’s the Yankees’ backstop.

In the minor leagues, Cito Culver seems like an obvious choice. Like Didi, he’s a middle infielder with a strong arm, but Culver actually had experience on the mound in high school. BA said he hit 94 mph. They said the same thing for Jake Cave, who had 17 outfield assists last season across three outfield positions.

The Long-Term Future in Center Field

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

This is an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. The big league team might not be any good this season, and frankly they haven’t been all that good over the last four years anyway, but at least now the farm system is loaded and there are a ton of quality young players in the organization. Soon young guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will join Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in the Bronx.

At some point in the near future, perhaps sooner than anyone realizes, the Yankees will have to figure out their center field situation. The two best center fielders on the roster, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, will both turn 34 later this year. Over the last ten years there has been one full-time center fielder age 34 or older: Mike Cameron, who continued to play center full-time from ages 34-36 in 2007-09. No one else has done it.

Center field is a young man’s position because it involves lots and lots of running, day after day after day. The Yankees had Johnny Damon begin the process of moving to left field at age 33 because Melky Cabrera was the superior defensive option, remember. By center fielder standards, Gardner and Ellsbury are pretty darn old, and it stands to reason they won’t be viable options at the position much longer. Speed usually doesn’t age all that well.

This creates two questions for the Yankees. One, who plays center field long-term? And two, what do the Yankees do with Gardner and/or Ellsbury? I’ll answer the second one first: they’re probably going to trade Gardner at some point. Would they prefer to trade Ellsbury? Yeah, I’m sure of it. But that’s not happening, so Gardner it is. They’ve been listening on him for over a year, and it feels like only a matter of time until a trade goes down.

I get the feeling the eventual outcome here is Gardner gets traded away, then Ellsbury slides over to left field for the tail end of his contract, similar to Damon back in the day. (Or worse, to designated hitter full-time.) That creates an opening in center field, and as good as the farm system is these days, the Yankees don’t have an elite center field prospect. Torres is a shortstop, Frazier and Aaron Judge are corner outfielders, and so on.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees lack potential center field options, however. Not at all. They actually have quite a few, both short-term and long-term. That’s good. Multiple options are good. As much as we all love the prospects, the reality is they won’t all work out, and you’d hate to pin your hopes on that one guy to take over a position long-term. Here, in no particular order, are the club’s various long-term center field options.

The Almost Ready Option

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

When the 2017 regular season begins, Dustin Fowler figures to roam center field for Triple-A Scranton. Fowler is New York’s best pure center field prospect — I ranked him as the 12th best prospect in the system overall — and last year he hit .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in Double-A. He really fills up the box score. Fowler is also a very good defender with plenty of range.

There are two glaring weaknesses to Fowler’s game. One, he doesn’t have much of a throwing arm. And two, he’s pretty undisciplined at the plate. Minor league walk rates aren’t everything, though his career 4.4% walk rate in over 1,500 minor league plate appearances is emblematic of his approach. Those are negatives, clearly, but Fowler also offers enough positives to be an everyday player. He makes contact, has some pop, steals bases, and defends well. Similar skill set to peak Ellsbury now that I think about it.

For all intents and purposes, Fowler is a call-up candidate right now. He’s going to start the season in Triple-A and will be added to the 40-man roster no later than next winter (when he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible), and any time those combination of things exist, there’s a chance for the player to wind up in the show. Fowler is, by far, the Yankees’ best close to MLB ready center field prospect. He is easily the favorite to take over the position in the short-term.

The Square Peg, Round Hole Option

Although his tools point to a long-term future in left field, Frazier has enough speed and athleticism to handle center field right now, if necessary. He has plenty of experience at the position — he’s played more minor league games in center (260) than he has in left and right combined (117) — and still possesses enough speed to cover the gaps. Would Frazier be a perfect fit in center? No, but it’s doable. The question is whether mid-30s Ellsbury in left and Frazier in center is a better defensive alignment than mid-30s Ellsbury in center and Frazier in left. It’s not so cut and dried.

The Conversion Candidates

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The Yankees are loaded with shortstop prospects at the moment, so much so that they’ve had Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo get acquainted with the outfield. Wade played all three outfield spots in the Arizona Fall League last year and he’s been out there this spring as well. Mateo worked out in center field in Instructional League and is doing the same this spring. He’s yet to play an actual game out there, however.

Wade, like Fowler, will open this season in Triple-A, though he’s not an immediate center field option given his inexperience at the position. He’s not someone the Yankees could call up and stick in center for two weeks in May to cover for injuries, you know? That’s a little too soon. Besides, it seems the Yankees are looking to make Wade a super utility player, not a full-time outfielder. He’s too good defensively on the infield to throw that away entirely.

As for Mateo, I am pretty intrigued with the idea of putting him in center field full-time. He’s a good defender at shortstop, that’s not much of a problem, but his truly elite speed may be put to better use in center. Mateo is a good defender at short. He might be a great defender in center. Either way, Mateo is not close to the big leagues like Fowler, Frazier, and Wade. He’s yet to play above High-A and has to answer some questions about his bat before we can start to think about him as a realistic center field option. (And, you know, he has to actually play some games in center too.)

The Reclamation Candidate(s)

Earlier I mentioned Gardner and Ellsbury are the two best center fielders on the roster, which is true when taking all things into account. The best defensive center fielder on the roster is Aaron Hicks (despite a few funky routes last season). He’s got top notch closing speed and a rocket arm. Right now, in the year 2017, Hicks is a better gloveman than either Gardner or Ellsbury in center.

The best defensive outfielder in the entire organization is another reclamation project: Mason Williams. He’s a premium runner who gets great reads, and while his arm isn’t Hicks caliber, it is comfortably above average. Even after shoulder surgery two years ago. It’s unclear whether Williams will ever hit enough to play regularly, but his glove is unquestioned. The Yankees could play him everyday in center and he could handle it defensively.

That “will he ever hit?” question is a big one though, and it applies to Hicks as well. Hicks and Williams are so talented that you can never rule out things coming together, especially at their ages, but for them to have any shot at replacing Ellsbury in center field full-time, they’re going to have to do more at the plate. No doubt. (To be fair to Williams, he’s been hurt more than ineffective the last two seasons.)

The Far Away Options

Fowler and Frazier (and Wade) are knocking on the door. Mateo is a little further away. Ever further away are Blake Rutherford and Estevan Florial, two high-upside center field prospects. Both figure to start the season at Low-A Charleston. They were teammates with Rookie Pulaski last year, where Rutherford played center field and Florial manned left. (First rounder gets priority.)

It goes without saying there is a lot of risk involved with players this far away from the big leagues. There’s so much that can go wrong these next few years. The obstacles facing Rutherford and Florial are very different too. The expectation is Rutherford will shift to a corner spot at some point as he fills out and adds some bulk. Florial is a graceful defender who happens to be a total hacker at the plate. He might not make enough contact to reach MLB.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Rutherford to be their long-term center fielder. Frazier, Rutherford, and Judge from left to right would be the perfect world long-term outfield picture. The odds are against that actually happening though, mostly because prospects have a way of breaking hearts. Rutherford and Florial are definitely long-term center field candidates. They’re just far away and carry a lot of risk relative to the other guys in this post.

The External Options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

These are the Yankees, and even though they’re trying to scale back spending to get under the luxury tax threshold, you can never really rule them out going outside the organization for help. I, personally, am hoping for a Rob Refsnyder for Mike Trout trade. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t happen, here are some potential free agent center fielders:

  • After 2017: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen (if option is declined)
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen (if option is exercised)

A few of those guys would look pretty good in pinstripes, no? Cain is pretty damn awesome. He’s a fun player and I am pro-fun. Blackmon hit .324/.381/.552 (130 wRC+) with 29 homers and 17 steals last season, you know. Pollock missed a bunch of time with an elbow injury last year, but he’s quietly been one of the best players in baseball the last three or four years.

There’s also Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent following the 2018 season, when he’ll still be only 26 years old. He’s a really good athlete and has played center field for the Nationals at times. Could the Yankees view him as a potential center fielder? That’d be interesting. It’s not like he’d be over the hill or anything. Perhaps Harper in center could work for a few years. Frazier in left, Harper in center, Judge in right? Sign me up.

Anyway, the problem with the non-Harper free agents is the same problem that currently exists with Ellsbury. The Yankees would be paying big money to someone over 30 and in their decline years. Before you know it, we’d be talking about moving Cain or Blackmon or Pollock or whoever to left in favor of a better defensive center fielder. Signing a free agent center fielder is definitely possible. It just seems unlikely given the team’s direction at this point.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is going to sound mean, but the worst case scenario would be keeping Ellsbury in center field through the end of his contract. Maybe he can make it work defensively in his mid-30s like Cameron did once upon a time. He’d be an outlier in that case, but hey, stranger things have happened. I’m sure the Yankees would prefer to keep Ellsbury in center as long as possible too. That’s where he’s most valuable. History suggests his days in center are numbered, however. There simply aren’t many players age 34 and over roaming center nowadays.

* * *

The center field situation is not a pressing matter, fortunately. The Yankees don’t need to figure this out right now. They can let the season play out, see how Ellsbury handles it defensively and how the kids progress in the minors, then figure out what’s next. And maybe nothing is next. Maybe keeping Ellsbury in center through the end of his contract is plausible. The Yankees do have some center field options, both short and long-term, just in case things don’t work out. Sooner or later the team will have to go in a new direction in center field, and odds are it’ll be before the end of Ellsbury’s contract.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

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