Another Spring Training, another new leg kick for Aaron Judge

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last year Yankees fans got their first glimpse of Aaron Judge at the big league level, and it started out great with a home run off the top the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field. Things went downhill after that. Judge struck out 42 times in his 95 big league plate appearances before an oblique strain ended his season in September. The occasional dinger was nice. The strikeouts were not.

Earlier this offseason, Brian Cashman confirmed Judge was working with hitting coach Alan Cockrell on some adjustments, particularly with his lower half. “Alan Cockrell was working with him on his lower half, and continuing the efforts and adjustments they started last year,” said the GM. “The lower half is the final adjustment that they’re working through — his front side and staying calm and trying to stay balanced — and so I think that’ll help.”

Judge has made a lot of changes with his lower half over the last two years, specifically with his leg kick. He had a relatively small leg kick two years ago, then came to camp with a much bigger leg kick last spring, after working with the organization’s hitting coaches over the winter. Now Judge has no leg kick. Here’s a clip of Judge in the batting cage last week, via Bryan Hoch:

It’s only batting practice and we should be careful not to read too much into it, but there’s no leg kick there. None at all. Considering he’s been working on his lower half since at least last offseason, I don’t think Judge is just messing around there. It’s pretty safe to assume the lack of a leg kick is a result of whatever he and Cockrell (and others?) worked on earlier this offseason.

In theory, eliminating a leg kick increases contact and reduces power. Dumping the extra pre-swing movement makes it easier to get the bat on the ball. At the same time, the leg kick generates momentum. Fortunately, Judge is so damn big and strong he has power to spare. “I try not to think of myself as a power hitter. I try to be — honestly — a contact hitter. I feel like with my strength and size, it allows me to drive balls out of the park,” said Judge to Dan Martin last week.

If nothing else, all these lower half changes — small leg kick in 2015, big leg kick in 2016, no leg kick in 2017 — tell us Judge is willing and able to make adjustments. He struggled in his first taste of Triple-A in 2015, added the bigger leg kick over the winter, then had success in Triple-A in 2016. Judge then struggled in his first taste of MLB last year, and now he’s making another adjustment.

“I don’t want to strike out. Nobody does. It’s just something I’ve got to work at,” said Judge to Martin last week. “I went out there and a lot of times didn’t get the job done. You have to handle failure. I’ve got plenty of that. My first year at Fresno State, in freshman fall ball, I think I hit .190. It’s frustrating. You deal with it and make the right adjustment.”

I can understand why all the tinkering would make someone nervous about Judge going forward. He and the Yankees keep changing his swing mechanics — he also lowered his hands a bunch last year too — and at some point it might be too much. They risk breaking something that didn’t need to be fixed, you know? I don’t see it that way though. Judge has shown the ability to make adjustments in the past. He did it just last year to conquer Triple-A. This is a positive.

Now Judge is working to conquer big league pitching, and that’s a never-ending battle. He came up last year, pitchers took his lunch money, and now he’s working to fight back. Having the baseball aptitude and the willingness to made significant changes — what Judge has done with his leg kick the last two years qualifies as significant to me — is in no way a bad thing.

“Failure always gives you an opportunity to see something you need to improve on. It’s a learning experience,” added Judge while talking to Martin. “I got a chance in the Major Leagues. It was kind of like a practice test in school: You get a feel for it, so next year coming in I kind of know what to expect and prepare for.”

Will the no leg kick approach work? Who knows. The right field job is there for the taking this year and long-term, and you know the Yankees want Judge to hold the job for the next six years. If he needs more time to adjust to MLB pitching the way he needed time to adjust to Triple-A pitching, so be it. Judge is trying though, and that’s really all you could ask for.

Embracing the reality (and beauty) of a prospect-laden Yankees

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The recent Yankees’ Winter Warmup was a nice touch to the offseason. Deep within the monotony of the winter when you’re mostly refreshing Didi GregoriusInstagram, the Yankees gave fans a chance to interact with their players. Yet, at the same time, fans also got a glimpse of a completely different version of the Bronx Bombers.

If this type of event had been held six years ago, the headliners would have been obvious. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, CC Sabathia, etc. The veteran stalwarts you know and love. The guys you’ve watched win titles and know exactly what to expect when they hit the field come that spring.

But those weren’t the guys put front and center (yes, CC took part on the Thursday of the event). How about a lineup of Chance Adams, Clint Frazier, James Kaprielian, Justus Sheffield, Gleyber Torres? Readers of River Avenue Blues are no doubt familiar with the next wave of the ‘Baby Bombers’ but they are far from household names for the average Yankees fan at the moment.

But they are the ones that the Yankees put front and center. That’s startling. For 20 years, it’s been essentially one core, a high-priced roster of aging stars with a rotating cast around them. The farm system has had its ups and downs, mostly downs, and filled in a few roster spots, producing a star (Robinson Cano), trade chips and some regulars since the turn of the century.

Cano or Brett Gardner were able to ease into the lineup to an extent, finding their footing while the veterans were the ones relied upon to produce wins. Sure, a Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain came with extraordinary expectations, but that was primarily once they put up big numbers. Jesus Montero would have been hyped to no end in 2012 after one month of beautiful home runs and general hitting promise, but he was instead one of the aforementioned trade chips.

Now it’s the prospects that are in the spotlight. Not just Gary Sanchez or Aaron Judge, guys who at least have received their first cups of coffee. Frazier, Sheffield and Torres have been in the organization for six months. Adams has been a starter for one year. Kaprielian threw 18 innings before the Arizona Fall League last year. Those five players, all among MLB.com’s top-100 prospects besides Adams, have played 30 combined games above Double-A, all by Frazier. Besides Judge, the Yankees’ other members of the top-100 are Jorge Mateo, who is still in Tampa, and Blake Rutherford, perhaps the prospect with the most upside but one who was drafted less than a year ago.

I know I’m not alone in feeling weird. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited beyond belief to see the development that will come in 2017, whether it’s from highlight packages or Down on the Farm posts. But where there’s excitement is also the dread. Because there will be growing pains … a lot of them. There are going to be times when we will shake our heads. At the big league level, Sanchez likely won’t be on a 60-homer pace in 2017. Judge is going to keep striking out as he has done at every level early on before he fully adjusts if he even can make that next step with his biggest challenge yet. Greg Bird is not going to be Mark Teixeira defensively and that shoulder surgery is a concern for him offensively.

In the minors, there will be even more growing pains. Torres faces the challenge of a pitcher-friendly Eastern League and Waterfront Park. Frazier continues to try and overcome his strikeout woes as he plays his first full season in Triple-A. Adams, Kaprielian and Sheffield (as well as Jordan Montgomery, Ian Clarkin and others) will need to prove themselves at new levels.

It’s important to keep in mind with all of these guys that development for a prospect is almost never a straight path. Sanchez is a great example with his early promise, his setbacks with questions of maturity and then having everything come together all at once last year. Judge seemingly struggles at the start of each new level before finding his footing and learning how to excel.

But we also can’t get too high when one of the guys in the minors has a hot week or two. The second Didi Gregorius makes an error or goes into a prolonged slump that coincides with a losing stretch, there will be a clamor from some to call up Torres all the way from Trenton. There needs to be plenty of patience, even if someone hits the way people hope Torres will hit.

There are also going to be the guys who take steps back – or at least sideways – like Mateo did last year, but with so many top prospects, some guys are also bound to take that next step, realize their potential and get us more excited than we are now. This season will be about embracing those big steps and even the little ones. To borrow a phrase from another franchise on the ride, it’s time to “trust the process.”

And that brings me back to the Winter Warmup. Sure, Adams and Kaprielian aren’t guys who the average fan might know right now. Many might only know Frazier or Torres by the head shots put on TV broadcasts explaining what the Yankees got back for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. But this season will be about embracing those fresh faces, warts and all, the Yankees put front and center at the Winter Warmup, with the hope that they’ll be front and center for the next championship runs.

Attempting to “Optimize” the Lineup

Using one of these guys probably won't help much nowadays.
(Using one of these guys probably won’t help much nowadays.)

Even though it’s something we will never have control over, and even though it’s something that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, we as fans love to obsess over lineup construction. I’ve probably written as many posts about it in my illustrious writing career as I have about any other topic. Forgive me for dipping into that shallow pool again, but in the days leading up to the pitchers and catchers report date and Spring Training proper, most of the other pools have been completely drained.

The new conventional wisdom says that the most important spots in your lineup are numbers 1, 2, and 4, so your best hitters ought to go there. I don’t think I’m taking a big leap of faith here when I assume that the Yankees’ three best hitters this year will be some combination of Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez, and probably Brett Gardner. To be fair, I’m getting an assist from ZiPS on this one, which projects those three to have the highest wOBAs on the team at .329; .342; and .321 respectively. A note: Aaron Judge is also projected for a .329 wOBA, but we’ll get to him later.

For lineup spot one, you want your best OBP guy who’s also fast, so that obviously goes to Brett Gardner. No need to consider anyone else, really, as he’s got the best on-base skills on the team and is still fast, even if he doesn’t steal as much. He can use his speed to take extra base when the hitters behind him–who are more powerful–knock the ball into the gaps, and that has just as much value as steals.

The New School (as if this theory is still new) generally states your best overall hitter should go second. By ZiPS projected wOBA, that’s Gary Sanchez. However, he also has the highest projected slugging at .490 and the second highest ISO at .235. Those signs point to him being in the number four slot to take better advantage of his power. This leaves Matt Holliday–who also comes withe some pop–and his slightly better on base skills (his projected OBP beats Sanchez’s .325 to .313) to take up the two spot and Sanchez for the clean up spot.

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

That leaves the three spot for someone like Aaron Judge, a slugger who’s not likely to be a high OBP guy, but will also come up with the bases empty and two outs quite often. Given that, putting his power at the third spot in the lineup–he’s projected for the highest ISO on the team at .244 and a .473 SLG, second highest on the team.

This old post has a rather vague description for the fifth spot in the lineup:

The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

The only guy who really fits this bill is the returning Greg Bird. Of the remaining players, he’s got the most power and probably the best batting eye. The only other option for this could be Chase Headley, but his power has waned enough that his on-base skills wouldn’t quite make up for it.

Spots six through nine are also a little broadly defined, with a stolen base threat occupying the six spot so he can be driven in by singles hitters behind him. Of the players left, Jacoby Ellsbury is the only stolen base threat. Behind him, you can slot one of Starlin Castro, then Didi Gregorius to avoid stacking the lefties too much. These guys bring a potential bonus because both did show some power last year. Chase Headley can bring up the rear, a switch hitter at the bottom to avoid any platoon snarls.

So our “optimized” lineup?

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Matt Holliday, DH
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Gary Sanchez, C
  5. Greg Bird, 1B
  6. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
  7. Starlin Castro, 2B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Chase Headley, 3B

It’ll never happen this way, but I think that’s a pretty okay looking, if top heavy lineup. If you really wanted, you could swap Ellsbury and Gardner without too much difference and the same goes for Judge and Bird, probably. We’ve gotta remember, though, that little lineup adjustments like this don’t make a ton of difference over the course of the season and as long as the guys at the top aren’t at the bottom, everything’ll end up about the same. Still, on the even of the preseason, it’s fun to talk about.

Sorting out the projected 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster

Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)
Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)

Over the last few seasons the Yankees and every other team in baseball have begun to use their Triple-A affiliate as an extension of their big league roster. They not only send relievers up and down whenever a fresh arm is needed, they’ll also shuttle platoon players in and out based on upcoming pitching matchups. Clubs look for every advantage possible, and these days that means having MLB and Triple-A roster flexibility.

The Yankees have built an exceptional farm system with many high-caliber prospects ticketed for Triple-A. They also have several big league roster openings with young players slated to compete in Spring Training. The refreshing emphasis on youth means projecting the 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster is damn near impossible, but that won’t stop me from trying. I do this every winter and I ain’t stoppin’ now.

Now that the non-roster invitees have been announced, let’s try to figure out what the RailRiders’ roster will look like on Opening Day. After all, these players are depth players for the Yankees, and inevitably we’re going to see many of them in MLB at some point. The top prospects get all the attention, understandably, but don’t sleep on the Chris Parmelees and Anthony Swarzaks of the world either. Those guys have a way of finding themselves in the Bronx.

Let’s begin by looking at position player candidates for the Triple-A Scranton roster. An asterisk (*) denotes the player is on the 40-man roster, which, in this situation, is kind of a big deal.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Kyle Higashioka* Greg Bird* Aaron Judge* Tyler Austin*
Wilkin Castillo Ronald Torreyes* Mason Williams* Rob Refsnyder*
Francisco Diaz Ji-Man Choi Jake Cave Tyler Wade
Kellin Deglan Cito Culver Dustin Fowler
Mike Ford Clint Frazier
Pete Kozma
Donovan Solano
Ruben Tejada

I have 20 position players in the table and these days Triple-A rosters run 25 players deep. As recent as 2011, Triple-A and Double-A teams fielded only 24-man rosters. For real. It is not at all uncommon for Triple-A clubs to carry eight-man bullpens, especially early in the season when pitchers are still getting in the swing of things and also having their workloads monitored. We need to pare that list of 20 players down to 13 or even 12.

Catchers: Barring injury, the Yankees are set with Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine behind the plate at the big league level. Romine did an okay job as the full-time backup last year, and while I wouldn’t completely rule out Higashioka winning the job in camp, it would surprise me. Remember, Romine is out of minor league options, which means if he’s not the backup catcher, he’s out of the organization. (Even if he clears waivers, he’d likely elect free agency and look for a big league opportunity elsewhere.)

The odds are strongly in favor of Romine backing up Sanchez with Higashioka biding his time as the third string catcher in Triple-A. The real question is who will back up Higashioka? Castillo seems like the safe bet considering he’s a 32-year-old journeyman with (a little) big league experience and a ton of Triple-A experience. Diaz has two games of Triple-A experience and that’s it. Deglan has barely played above Single-A. Those two figure to be the Double-A Trenton catching tandem with Higashioka and Castillo in Scranton. That’s two of our 12 position player roster spots.

Infielders: Austin, Bird, and Refsnyder are essentially competing for two big league roster spots: the first base job and a bench job. Everyone wants Bird to win the first base job, including the Yankees themselves. But, if he needs more time to shake off the rust following shoulder surgery, a return trip to Scranton could very well be in the cards. Either way, one of these three players figures to start the season with the RailRiders while the other two are with the Yankees. My guess is Refsnyder winds up in Triple-A, but who knows. Three of our 12 Triple-A roster spots are now taken.

Back to Triple-A for Mr. Refsnyder? (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

Solano, Tejada, and Torreyes will all compete for the big league reserve infielder’s job in Spring Training, or at least appear to compete for the job. Maybe even Kozma too. Torreyes not only filled the role admirably last season, he’s also on the 40-man roster and the other three are not. That’s one heck of a tiebreaker. Torreyes can be sent to Triple-A, he has options remaining, it’s just hard to think he could lose the bench job in Spring Training. Lil’ Ronnie in the show with the other three in Scranton seems to be the most likely outcome here. That’s six Triple-A roster spots accounted for now.

Choi has big league time and while I suppose it’s not completely impossible he wins the big league first base job should Bird need more time in Triple-A, I’d bet against it. The big league service time all but ensures Choi will start the season in Scranton, not Double-A Trenton. That figures to spell bad news for Ford, who has played only 42 career games at the Double-A level. Hard to think the Yankees would send two pure first basemen to Scranton. Choi is position player number seven.

Before we found out the Yankees re-signed Kozma, the final Triple-A infield spot came down to Culver or Ford. Now neither of them figures to get a Triple-A roster spot. They’ll likely have to go back to Double-A to begin the season. Either that, or the RailRiders will carry a six-man bullpen, and there’s no chance of that happening.

Outfield: In a roundabout way, Judge and Williams are competing for one big league roster spot. Judge will be given every opportunity to win the starting right field job, but if the Yankees determine he’s not ready for it, he could wind up back in Triple-A. In that case, Aaron Hicks would presumably take over in right field and Williams would get the fourth outfielder’s job. I suppose it could go to Refsnyder or Austin, but I think the Yankees would want an actual outfielder on the bench. There’s the eighth position player. (Hicks, by the way, is out of options and can’t be sent to Triple-A.)

Frazier is a Triple-A lock because he reached the level last season and is a priority guy as a top prospect. The Yankees aren’t going to send him to Double-A to clear a roster spot because Culver has tenure in the organization or anything like that. Fowler is another high-end prospect who had a successful season at Double-A in 2016, so an assignment to Triple-A is the natural order of things. Cave is a Triple-A veteran and the logical candidate for the fourth outfield spot. Frazier, Fowler, and Cave are position players nine, ten, and eleven.

Utility: I listed Austin and Refsnyder as utility players only because they can play the infield and outfield. They were already covered in the infield section. Wade, who is primarily an infielder but started working out in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, had a solid Double-A season a year ago, so, like Fowler, an assignment to Triple-A makes sense. Wade is out 12th and final Triple-A position player.

Let’s quickly recap everything we just went through:

  • Catchers (2): Higashioka and Castillo
  • Infielders (4): Choi, Kozma, Solano, and Tejada
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and either Judge or Williams
  • Utility (2): Wade, and one of Bird, Austin, or Refsnyder

That’s a dozen position players right there, and I suppose if the RailRiders open the season with a normal seven-man bullpen, either Culver or Ford would make the team as the 13th position player. Probably Culver. I still expect an eight-man bullpen, at least initially.

The perfect world scenario for the Yankees is Bird and Judge winning the first base and right field jobs, respectively, and Austin beating out Refsnyder for a bench spot. So, assuming that happens, here are the projected Triple-A position players, with a batting order written out because why not?

1. SS Tyler Wade
2. CF Dustin Fowler
3. LF Clint Frazier
4. DH Rob Refsnyder
5. C Kyle Higashioka
6. 3B Donovan Solano
7. 1B Ji-Man Choi
8. 2B Ruben Tejada
9. RF Mason Williams

Bench: C Wilkin Castillo, IF Pete Kozma, OF Jake Cave

The batting order is just for fun. Don’t take it to heart. Remember, players are going move around. Refsnyder won’t always DH. Wade will undoubtedly see some time in the outfield. Frazier and Williams will probably see time in all three outfield spots. Heck, Solano and Tejada will probably roam around the infield too. These things are very fluid. That, however, is the projected Triple-A Scranton group of position players based on everything we know at the moment. Now let’s get to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Luis Cessa* Johnny Barbato* Richard Bleier*
Dietrich Enns* Gio Gallegos* Chasen Shreve*
Chad Green* Ben Heller* Joe Mantiply
Ronald Herrera* Jonathan Holder* Jason Gurka
Bryan Mitchell* J.P. Feyereisen Evan Rutckyj
Luis Severino* Mark Montgomery
Chance Adams Matt Wotherspoon
Daniel Camarena
Kyle Haynes
Brady Lail
Jordan Montgomery

Lots of pitchers. Lots and lots of pitchers. There are 23 of ’em in the table, and if that sounds like a lot, consider the RailRiders used 37 different pitchers last season, including 22 different starters. They used 45 pitchers and 24 different starters in 2015. So yeah, 23 pitches in the table seems like a lot, but it’s maybe half as many as Scranton will need to get through the season. Before you know it they’ll be signing Phil Coke out of an independent league again. That’s baseball, yo.

Rotation: At the moment, the Yankees have to two open big league rotation spots, which Brian Cashman & Co. insist will go to two young pitchers. Cashman has specifically singled out Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino as the candidates for those jobs. (Adam Warren too, but I don’t think he’ll actually open the season in the rotation unless all hell breaks loose in camp.) My money is on Severino and Cessa getting the rotation spots. We’ll see.

In theory, the Yankees would send the two losers of the rotation competition to Triple-A, where they would bide their time until they need another starter in the Bronx. Sounds simple enough. That’s not necessarily how it will work though. In 2014 the Yankees held a three-way competition for the long reliever job — not even a rotation spot, the long reliever spot — between Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno. The Yankees ended up carrying all three on the Opening Day roster because they were the best men for the job.

Who’s to say that, if Cessa and Severino were to win the two rotation spots, that Green and Mitchell wouldn’t be in the bullpen? That really complicates things and is why I included guys like Haynes and Lail in this exercise. More than a few of those 40-man roster Triple-A rotation candidates could wind up in the big league bullpen, creating a need for starters in Scranton. Geez, that’s a mouthful.

Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)
Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)

Anyway, this is what I think will happen: two of the Cessa/Green/Mitchell/Severino quartet get big league rotation spots and a third winds up in the bullpen as the long man. The fourth goes to Scranton as the de facto sixth starter. That means, based our table, we’re left with seven candidates for the four remaining Triple-A rotation spots: Adams, Camarena, Enns, Haynes, Herrera, Lail, and Montgomery.

Two of the four spots are easy. They’ll go to Adams and Montgomery, two of the better pitching prospects in the organization, both of whom are ready for Triple-A. (Montgomery thrived there in his brief stint last year.) Enns and Herrera are on the 40-man roster, which could give them a leg up for the final two Triple-A rotation spots. I do wonder whether the Yankees will move Enns to the bullpen since that’s likely his ultimate destination.

For now, I’m guessing Enns remains a starter, meaning Scranton’s five-man rotation to start the season will be, in whatever order, Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green Mitchell, or Severino. That leaves Camarena, Haynes, and Lail out in the cold. The projected Double-A rotation is pretty stacked (Ian Clarkin, Josh Rogers, Justus Sheffield, etc.) so it’s not as simple as bumping them down a level. Hmmm.

Bullpen: Right now, the Yankees have five big league bullpen spots accounted for: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, and Warren. Layne is out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league bullpen, he’s probably out of the organization. No Triple-A for him. I assumed in the previous section one of the four young starters winds up in the bullpen, which means six of seven big league bullpen spots are accounted for in this little exercise.

I have 12 relievers in the table plus Camarena, Haynes, and Lail to consider, so that’s 15 pitchers total. One of those 15 is going to get the final big league bullpen spot, so it’s really 14 pitchers for eight Triple-A bullpen spots. In all likelihood one of the 40-man roster guys will get that last bullpen job with the Yankees. It doesn’t really matter which one, specifically. My money is on Bleier because the Yankees really seem to like him, but ultimately the name doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because there are six 40-man relievers in that table, and whichever ones don’t get that final MLB bullpen spot will wind up in Triple-A, no questions asked. None of ’em are going to Double-A. That’s five Triple-A bullpen spots accounted for already, which leaves us nine pitchers for the final two or three bullpen spots (depending whether they carry a seven or eight-man bullpen): Camarena, Feyereisen, Gurka, Haynes, Lail, Mantiply, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon.

The Yankees signed Gurka as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason and he has some big league bullpen time with the Rockies, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot. Cashman talked up Mantiply at the town hall two weeks ago and he has a tiny little bit of big league time too, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot as well. If the RailRiders employ an eight-man bullpen — and to be clear, the Yankees make that decision, not the RailRiders — I think it would be Feyereisen. Just a hunch. Camarena, Haynes, Lail, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon end up in Double-A for the time being. (One or two might even get released.)

Alright, so after all of that, my projected 13-man Triple-A Scranton pitching staff shakes out like this:

  • Rotation (5): Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green, Mitchell, or Severino.
  • Bullpen (8): Feyereisen, Gurka, Mantiply, and five of Barbato, Bleier, Gallegos, Heller, Holder, or Shreve.

After going through all of that, I must point out the odds are strongly in favor of this post being a complete waste of time. Guys are going to get hurt in Spring Training, released before the end of camp, whatever. These things change and they change a lot. Trying to project the Triple-A Opening Day roster in late January is a fool’s errand, so I guess that makes me a fool.

I still think it can be instructive to go through this exercise each year, even though it’s prone to blowing up in my face. It’s good to get an idea of how the Triple-A roster will shake out, see where the Yankees have depth, and who the call-up candidates are at any given moment. I have a tendency to forget about Herrera, personally. Laying this all out is a good reminder that hey, he’s probably going to be in the Scranton rotation. So even though this is all very subject to change, I think we get a good grasp of what the Triple-A roster may look like come April.

Thoughts on Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Last Friday, Keith Law released his annual top 100 prospects list, which included six Yankees. This week ESPN is publishing Law’s individual team reports, and those include not only the top ten prospects in each organization, but guys beyond that as well. It’s a crazy deep dive for each club.

Here is Law’s organizational report for the Yankees. This is all behind the Insider paywall, so I can’t give away too much. These are the top ten prospects, which are the six top 100 prospects plus four new names (duh):

  1. SS Gleyber Torres (No. 4 on top 100)
  2. OF Blake Rutherford (No. 22)
  3. OF Clint Frazier (No. 27)
  4. RHP James Kaprielian (No. 28)
  5. OF Aaron Judge (No. 44)
  6. LHP Justus Sheffield (No. 88)
  7. SS Jorge Mateo
  8. SS Tyler Wade
  9. RHP Chance Adams
  10. 3B Miguel Andujar

In all, Law goes through and lists his top 24 Yankees prospects. I won’t list all 24, but Brendan Kuty has you covered. I have some thoughts on the non-top 100 guys.

1. The gap between Mateo and Wade is small. It’s no secret Mateo had a disappointing 2016 season. He didn’t just perform poorly, he also got himself suspended for two weeks for violating an unknown team policy. It was a tough year for Jorge. No doubt. In the write-up, Law calls Wade a superior shortstop and hitter, though there is still “enough industry faith in Mateo’s speed and body” that he gets the higher ranking. We know Law’s rankings do not reflect the consensus — Baseball Prospectus ranked Mateo third and Wade ninth in the system while Baseball America had Mateo fourth and Wade outside the top ten, so those sites had a much larger gap between the two — and the story here should be the positive report on Wade, not Mateo’s tumble down Law’s rankings. The Yankees had Wade play the outfield in the Arizona Fall League because they’re clearing a path for him to get to the big leagues. He may not offer the upside of Mateo (or Torres), but Wade is a damn good prospect himself.

2. Law has the good Clarkin scouting report. Scouting reports on LHP Ian Clarkin were all over the place last season. On his best days, he’d sit in the low-90s with a hammer curveball and a quality changeup. On his worst days, he was in the upper-80s with a loopy breaking ball. Law gives the positive scouting report on Clarkin, saying he spent last season “pitching in the low 90s with a good curveball.” Now that he’s a full year removed from the elbow injury that sidelined him for all of 2016, I’m hopeful we’ll see more of the good version of Clarkin this year. He’s going to be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, remember. This is a big year for him. “Double-A will be a good test of his ability to use his two above-average pitches to get guys on both sides of the plate, as hitters there will lay off the curveball if he can’t locate it,” added Law’s write-up.

3. McKinney’s stock is tumbling. Last season was a tough one for OF Billy McKinney, who came over from the Cubs in the Aroldis Chapman trade. He was a first round pick back in 2013, though the combination of a knee injury and poor performance have him slipping down the rankings. Law says McKinney, who he dubbed the system’s falling prospect, has a sound swing and a plan at the plate, but the “projections from high school that had him getting to average power aren’t coming to fruition.” The Yankees got McKinney as the third piece in the Chapman trade — Torres was the headliner (duh) and Adam Warren was the second piece, right? that how I’ve always seen it — and it was only a year ago that Law ranked him 69th on his top 100 list, so the kid has talent. As Brian Cashman likes to say, McKinney is an asset in distress. The Yankees have to build him back up.

4. The 2016 draft gets some love. The Yankees had a very good 2016 draft thanks to Rutherford all by himself. He was one of the best prospects in the draft class. Unfortunately, the current draft pool system doesn’t allow teams to spend freely, so the Yankees had to skimp elsewhere to pay Rutherford. Eight of their top ten picks received below-slot bonuses. The team’s draft haul was top heavy, but two other 2016 draftees still made Law’s top 24 Yankees prospects. RHP Nolan Martinez placed 21st because he “throws 88-93 mph with a huge spin rate on his fastball and good depth on his curve,” though he’s still working to develop his changeup. RHP Nick Nelson, who Law seems to love based on what he’s written dating back to the draft, ranked 22nd after “pumping 96-97 mph in instructional league with a big curveball.” Hmmm. Anyway, point is, the Yankees landed some other nice prospects in last summer’s draft. It wasn’t only Rutherford.

5. A few lesser known prospects make the top 24. Lesser known probably isn’t the correct term. Less thought about? Maybe that’s better. Anyway, among the players to pop up on Law’s farm system deep dive are SS Kyle Holder (“at least a 70 defender”), RHP Freicer Perez (“6-foot-8 and throws up to 98 mph already with good angle”), SS Oswaldo Cabrera (“an average defender with a promising hit tool”), and RHP Jorge Guzman (“has hit 103 mph and will sit at 99-100”). Guzman is the other guy the Yankees got from the Astros in the Brian McCann trade. We all focus on the top prospects and understandably so. They’re the headliners, and there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to see several of them in the big leagues this summer. Further down in the minors, it’s guys like Cabrera and Guzman that separate New York’s farm system from the rest of the pack. Talented players like those two don’t even crack the top 20 prospects in the farm system — Cabrera ranks 23rd and Guzman ranked 24th in the system, per Law — yet they’d be top ten in more than a few other organizations.

Thoughts on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects

Frazier. (Presswire)
Frazier. (Presswire)

Last week, Keith Law released his annual top 100 prospects list, which included six Yankees. Then, on Saturday, the crew at MLB.com released their top 100 list as well. Law and MLB.com agree on one thing: Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi is the best prospect in baseball. The lists diverge after that.

A total of seven Yankees made MLB.com’s top 100 list, which is pretty awesome. As always, MLB.com’s list and scouting reports are completely free. It’s a fantastic resource. Here are the seven Yankees on the list:

3. SS Gleyber Torres
24. OF Clint Frazier
37. OF Blake Rutherford
45. OF Aaron Judge
47. SS Jorge Mateo
58. RHP James Kaprielian
79. LHP Justus Sheffield

Five top 50 prospects and six top 60 prospects is pretty great. No other team can make that claim. The White Sox and Pirates are the only other teams with as many as four top 50 prospects, and Pittsburgh is the only other team with five top 60 prospects. The Yankees and Braves lead the way with seven top 100 prospects apiece. Some quick thoughts:

1. Torres could be the No. 1 prospect very soon. The only reason Benintendi is still prospect-eligible is a minor knee injury that sidelined him three weeks in August and September. He finished the season with 105 at-bats, only 25 away from the rookie limit of 130. Once Benintendi clears 130 at-bats, he’ll drop off the list, and it’s not crazy to think Torres could surpass Moncada in prospect status in the first half of this season. Also, Braves SS Dansby Swanson, MLB.com’s No. 4 prospect, is literally one at-bat away from losing prospect status, so one of Gleyber’s primary competitors for the top spot will drop off the list on Opening Day. The Yankees have never had the No. 1 prospect according to MLB.com, though, to be fair, MLB.com hasn’t been producing top 100 lists all that long. According to Baseball America, the last time the Yankees had the No. 1 prospect in baseball was way back in 1992, when LHP Brien Taylor sat in the top spot.

2. Mateo is still highly regarded. Despite a poor statistical season and a two-week suspension for violating team rules, MLB.com still considers Mateo one of the best prospects in the game. (Law dropped Mateo out of the top 100 entirely.) He did slip in the rankings — last year Mateo was No. 30 on MLB.com’s original top 100 list — which is understandable, but the MLB.com folks still believe in the tools. And that’s most important. Not the numbers. Mateo won’t turn 22 until the end of June and he still has the incredible quick twitch athleticism that landed him on top 100 lists last year. Remember, Baseball Prospectus ranked Mateo as the third best prospect in the system behind Torres and Frazier. Law may have cut bait, but others still clearly believe in the kid.

3. Yet again, Kaprielian climbed big time. I’m still amazed at where Kaprielian is landing on these top 100 lists given his relatively serious arm injury last season. (Miss as much time as he did and it qualifies as a serious injury in my book.) He jumped 59 spots on Law’s top 100. Kaprielian didn’t even make MLB.com’s top 100 list last year and now he’s 58th. How impressive must he have been before and especially after the injury to earn so much support on the various prospects lists? Also, how much higher would he have ranked had he stayed completely healthy last season? Are we talking about a potential top five pitching prospect? As it stands, Kaprielian is already the 21st ranked pitcher on the top 100. A full season of healthy Kaprielian in 2017 could mean a) reaching the big leagues in September, and b) being ranked as a tippy top prospect next spring. Exciting!

4. Adams was really close to the top 100 too. On Twitter, Jim Callis said RHP Chance Adams very nearly made the top 100 as well. He fell in the 101-115 range. So, for all intents and purposes, the Yankees currently have five top 50 and eight top 115 prospects in all of baseball according to MLB.com. That’s pretty great. I don’t think Adams is a top 100 caliber prospect myself, but I understand why some think and hope he’ll slip into the back half. Just the fact he’s even in the conversation is great. I’m guessing others like RHP Albert Abreu and 3B Miguel Andujar were in the top 100 conversation too. Know what I’d really love to see? A top 500 prospect list. That’s the best way to measure the depth and strength of the farm system. We all focus on the top five or ten prospects and I get it. But compare each team’s 30th best prospect. That’s a better indicator of farm system depth.

Judge a Key to Lengthening Lineup

(AP)
(AP)

It’s pretty damn difficult for a guy who’s over six and a half feet tall to get lost in the proverbial shuffle, but it seems that’s what’s happened to Aaron Judge during this offseason. Most of the focus has been on just about anyone and anything but him. Even guys yet to make their Major League debuts, like Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres, have gotten more attention than Judge has during this Hot Stove season. Despite the relative lack of chatter about the big outfielder, his role in 2017 is nonetheless strikingly important.

On a macro level, Judge, along with the other young players on the team, represents the future, the success or failure of this recent rebuild. Fairly or unfairly, he and Gary Sanchez will be under a lot of pressure to perform; and if they don’t, I foresee a lot of fans (though not necessarily those reading this site, who tend to be a bit more even tempered about these things) questioning the wisdom of abandoning ‘SPEND SPEND SPEND’ as a team building strategy in favor of rebuild/reload.

On a micro level, Judge’s presence in the lineup, even if he’s at a lower position in the batting order, will go along way in determining how strong the Yankees are at the plate. The top of the order seems fairly predictable, reliable, even; we pretty much know what we’re going to see from Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as Matt Holliday. Sanchez’s bat is also a question, but not in terms of talent; we just need to see if he can keep up the power. In the middle and bottom of the order, Greg Bird‘s shoulder health is a question, as are the statuses of Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius; they both had great years (relatively speaking) in 2016 and repeating those isn’t a guarantee. Which Chase Headley will show up? With improvement from last year, Judge can be a steadying presence in the bottom of the lineup, adding value with power and patience.

Both of those things were on display last year. Judge socked four homers in his 95 plate appearances and posted a .167 ISO. Those aren’t horribly impressive numbers, but they’re not close to what his true talent level is. With adjustments, we’re likely to see those numbers climb. Additionally, he walked 9.5% of the time in 2016, a solid mark for anyone, let alone a rookie with a big strikeout problem.

Aside from those whiffs, Judge will need to improve against lefties, who exploited him big time last year. He hit just .067/.222/.067 against them last year with a 55.6% (!!!!) strikeout rate. The 16.7% walk rate is all well and good, but when it comes with nearly 60% strikeouts and literally zero power, it doesn’t mean too much. And how did they do it? Changeups.

Against that pitch, Judge whiffed on 81.82% (!!!!!) of the swings he took. Unsurprisingly, he hit .000 with a .000 slugging against left-handed changeups. If we take a look at this image from Mike’s post reviewing Judge’s year, we can see a pictorial representation of Judge’s struggles when pitchers pulled the string.

Aaron Judge whiffs

Improvement in general and improvement against lefties are the goals for Judge in 2017. Any progress on those fronts obviously means something good for him, but it also lends credence to a lineup with a lot of questions. Even if he’s in the seven, eight, or nine spot, a big year from Judge can make a big difference in the Yankees’ offensive production.