Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.

As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez

I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.

Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.

The Leadoff Man

This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.

The Two-Hole

An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.

An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.

Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.

There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.

The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.

2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.

That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.

The Bottom Third

I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.

In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.

Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.

So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:

  1. Ellsbury
  2. Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
  3. Rod
  4. Teixeira
  5. Beltran
  6. McCann
  7. Headley
  8. Gregorius
  9. Castro

Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.

Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.

The Importance of Being On Base

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

If you’re visiting this website and reading this article, chances are that I don’t need to tell you about the importance of getting on base. You already know that wasting outs is wasting the game and that, generally, the most valuable players in the league are the ones who are best at not making out. You know that the goal of a trip to the plate isn’t necessarily to get a hit, but rather to avoid making an out so you can extend the inning to your teammates and, ideally, extend the game. Allow me to hammer that point home as we examine the top of the order going into 2016.

Barring disastrous injury or some sort of unforeseen shift in philosophy or favor, the Yankees are likely to trot out Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner–in some order–at the top of their lineup in 2016. Even with the limitations both players have, they are probably the best two options for the one and two spots in the lineup. Gardner and Ellsbury are really carbon copies of each other and their skillsets lend to hitting high in the lineup, though hopefully each player is healthy enough in 2016 to return to his elite bag-swiping level. As important as the middle of the lineup may be and as much as those four players may carry the Yankee offense, the success of that group depends heavily on the success of Gardner and Ellsbury.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

To belabor our point from before, the importance of getting on base in baseball can’t be overstated; not only does it keep the game alive, but the effects thereof trickle down to the players below you in the order. For the Yankees, who lack the circular lineup of the 2009-2012 days, this is of most importance to the players hitting one through six. The better table the one-two hitters set, the better meal the four-six hitters will eat.

With the exception of Alex Rodriguez, each of the likely four-six hitters in the 2016 lineup fared better with runners on base in 2015. This is a trend the the league followed. League average OPS with the bases empty was .711 in 2015; with runners on, the league average OPS was .756. Generally, then, hitters OPSed .045 points better with runners on than they did with no runners on. Carlos Beltran (.793 empty to .828 on) was below that league average, but still showed improvement when hitters got on base ahead of him. Mark Teixeira weighed in at an .867 OPS with the bases empty–solid. But when runners were on for him, he jumped up to a .942 OPS, a full 30 OPS points above the league average improvement. The biggest winner of the group, though, was Brian McCann. When McCann came to the plate with nobody on, he hit just .209/.399/.376/.675. During his trips to the plate with men on, however, McCann became a completely different player: .265/.343/.507/.850. His OPS jumped up 175 points. Rodriguez, meanwhile, saw a decline in OPS-based production when runners were on, but that is likely due to the bat being taken out of his hand. In 338 plate appearances with the bases empty, Rodriguez walked 39 times; in 282 PA with men on, he walked 45 times.

The task for Gardner and Ellsbury–at least the task beyond hopefully staying healthy–is simple: do your job and get on base. This same edict will apply to Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro, other players who may get a shot at the top spots when platooning or when Gardner and Ellsbury get days off. Gardner and Ellsbury are good players, but they are not the ones that will carry a lineup, even at full tilt. The players immediately behind them in the order, that all important middle, will carry the Yankees in 2016. The load will be a lot easier to shoulder if and when Gardy and Taco are on the sacks.

Yankees may have to tap into outfield depth earlier than expected due to Gardner’s wrist, Williams’ shoulder

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

More than four months after the wildcard game, Brett Gardner is still dealing with a lingering bone bruise in his left wrist after crashing into the outfield wall making a catch against the Astros. The Yankees are being cautious and will limit Gardner’s work early in Spring Training.

Here’s the catch that caused the injury:

“I know he feels good, we are taking it slow,” said Brian Cashman to George King earlier today. “Spring Training is long enough, we don’t have to be rushing. The CT scan showed a bone bruise. The last (scan) showed significant improvement. It’s going in the right direction. At this point, taking the safe route.”

Joe Girardi told Chad Jennings and Jack Curry there is “very little there, but there’s no reason for him to get started,” and the team is taking it slow with Gardner “because we can.” It’s worth noting this is not the wrist that bothered Gardner for much of last season. Last year it was his right wrist after being hit by a pair of pitches in April. This year it’s the left wrist. Gardner told Bryan Hoch he’s fine and will be ready for Opening Day, because of course. He always says he’s fine.

As we learned last season with Mark Teixeira, bone bruises can be very tricky, and even though it’s been four months, the Yankees don’t want to unnecessarily push Gardner in camp. It’s possible the wrist could have been an issue during offseason trade talks. The team has to disclose injuries — well, they don’t have to, but they kinda do — and the wrist may have pushed clubs to focus on other outfielders. There were lots available this winter.

In other injury news, Mason Williams told Jennings he expects to start the season on the DL because he is still rehabbing from shoulder surgery. He had his surgery in August and apparently the rehab timetable is something like 8-10 months. That puts Williams on target for a return hopefully sometime in April, but possibly as late as June. He hurt himself diving back into first base on a pickoff throw. Pretty fluky injury.

So with Gardner banged up and Williams likely to start the season on the DL, the Yankees are already faced with the possibility of dipping into their outfield depth. Good thing they have a lot of it. The outfield depth chart looks something like this right now:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury
2. Brett Gardner
3. Carlos Beltran
4. Aaron Hicks
5. Dustin Ackley
6. Slade Heathcott
7. Mason Williams
8. Ben Gamel

Those are on the 40-man options. We could even throw former outfielder Rob Refsnyder into the mix, though that’s unnecessary. Lane Adams is a non-40-man roster outfield option. So is top prospect Aaron Judge, but the Yankees want to give him regular at-bats in Triple-A this year, and they have the depth to do that even with Gardner already banged up and Williams hurt. They still might have to tap into their outfield depth earlier than expected.

The good news is the tests show Gardner’s bone bruise is improving — remember Teixeira’s bone bruise? his didn’t improve at all — and he was able to hit today. Sweeny Murti says he took 50 swings earlier today, though those were the first swings he’s taken since the wildcard game. Gardner, who usually starts hitting in December, is going to have to knock quite a bit of rust off this spring if he wants to be ready for Opening Day.

Joe Girardi’s Spring Press Conference: Chapman, Tanaka, Castro, Gardner, Ellsbury, More

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa for Spring Training today, meaning the first steps of the marathon that is the 2016 season have been taken. Joe Girardi met with reporters for his annual start-of-spring press conference this morning, and of course he was asked about all aspects of the team.

“Pretty much (quiet). I think it was evidence in the amount of time it took someone to ask a question this morning,” said Girardi when asked about this being a normal camp because they’re no huge stories. “We haven’t had the big story and that’s nice … It is a pretty regular Spring Training. I hope that doesn’t make it a boring Spring Training, but it is regular.”

Normal spring or not, Aroldis Chapman dominated this morning’s press conference, with questions about his pending suspension, the domestic dispute incident, and his role as closer. You can watch Girardi’s press conference right here (it’s chopped up into smaller clips.) Here’s a recap of the important stuff with some thoughts thrown in.

All Things Aroldis

  • On an appropriate punishment: “I think that’s up to the commissioner to decide. That’s not my job. Obviously I wasn’t in the room when they put the (domestic violence) policy together. I have not reviewed the cases … I know it’s very serious and we have to take it very serious. To me, it’s very important when there’s an issue, it’s taken care of.”
  • On behavioral concerns: “Obviously you look at behavioral patterns to see if guys are maturing … We’ve all probably done things in our lives we wish we could do a little differently. I want to get to know him before I really form an opinion about his character. It’s unfortunate sometimes players get labeled before you a chance to know him.”
  • On conduct: “I think there’s an expectation of conduct and how you’re supposed to handle things. The court of law is different than the court of MLB or the MLBPA (or) the public’s opinion. I think we have a responsibility as athletes with the way we present ourselves on and off the field, and I’m okay with that.”
  • On Chapman’s decision to appeal any suspension: “I think it tells you he wants to question the suspension … Does it tell me maybe he (doesn’t think he did) something wrong? I don’t think it says that.”
  • On getting to know Chapman: “I think it’s really hard to form a really good opinion by talking on the phone. There’s some language issues there … He’s very thankful to be here … But until I really get around him it’s really hard to form an opinion.
  • On making Chapman the closer: “He’s been a closer most of his career. It’s (a role) he’s probably most comfortable with. Andrew Miller did a tremendous job … Andrew has been a reliever most of his career — setup guy, seventh inning guy, lefty specialist — I thought it would be (easier for him) to adjust to it better than Chapman.”
  • On the trade itself: “His name was brought up, then it kinda died, then it happened really fast. I had some information about it (but) I was not given much information.”

Girardi danced around any questions regarding Chapman’s domestic dispute incident, which was to be expected. Technically MLB’s investigation is still ongoing and he wasn’t going to say anything remotely controversial. Girardi deflected everything with “that’s up to MLB” and “I have to get to know him,” basically.

I hope commissioner Rob Manfred announces the suspension soon, however long it may be, so Chapman can file his appeal and go through the process. The longer this goes on, the more of a distraction it will be. Let’s rip the band-aid off, so to speak. The sooner we can begin focusing on nothing but baseball, the better. During the press conference you could tell Girardi felt the same way.

The Rotation

  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow: “We will watch him closely to see where he’s at … We’ll make sure that we put him in a situation where he’s ready to go pitch before he gets into a game. If it takes a little longer, it takes a little longer.”
  • On the fifth starter spot: “I think you have to let things work their way out in Spring Training. I know (CC Sabathia‘s) name has been brought up in that conversation, as well as Ivan Nova. Sometimes things have just a way of working out. The competition just goes way. A lot of times, unfortunately, that comes down to health … The big thing is that we have five healthy starters when we leave Spring Training. That’s my goal. We’ll take the five best starters.”
  • On managing workloads: “I thought putting an extra starter in there helped them … I think just watching them physically and watching their innings (is important). You have to be sensitive to your bullpen that it doesn’t get overworked. I think we were able to manage that because (the young relievers) were able to come up and be interchangeable.”
  • On Luis Severino‘s workload: “I think he’s a guy that can handle 200 innings.”

There were surprisingly few questions about the rotation. I guess that’s what happens when you have five pretty clearly established starters plus a sixth starter who’s been around the block. I don’t buy Sabathia being involved in any kind of fifth starter competition though. If he’s healthy, he’s going to be in the rotation. We all know that. As for Severino throwing 200 innings … we’ll see. I’d bet against it.

The Position Players

  • On Brett Gardner playing hurt: “He actually got hit (in the wrist) in April. This was something he dealt with all year long, and if you remember his July, it was an MVP type of month. Sometimes it’s hard to predict. Was it fatigue? Was it the wrist? Did he just get in a bad way? … Everyone plays beat up, that’s the bottom line. That’s what happens in our game … You hope players are honest enough with you that when it becomes too much, they come to you. He never felt it was too much and we didn’t either.”
  • On expecting veterans to produce again: “I think you can expect it. You have to manage them physically and their workload in a sense to make sure they’re strong at the end of the season. And that’s something when you’re fighting for that spot to get into the playoffs, it gets harder to manage that workload … I think the versatility of our club should help that.”
  • On mending fences with Jacoby Ellsbury: “I have talked to him over the winter … I had a tough decision. Brett Gardner has been pretty successful here too. Maybe he wasn’t as big a free agent signee as Jacoby Ellsbury, but Brett Gardner has been extremely productive in his career. That was a hard decision. I was going to disappoint someone immensely. I did what I thought was best for the team.”
  • On Starlin Castro at third base: “It’s something that I need to talk to him about to see where he is. I have not talked to him. I want to talk to him face-to-face about the possibility of what do we do if we need to give (Chase Headley) a day off. That’s something that will be important when we get to Spring Training to talk about.”
  • On A-Rod: “He is our DH and we expect him to be productive … He’ll be ready.”

I though the Ellsbury question was pretty funny. Girardi was asked about saying he had to mend the fences with Ellsbury but quickly pointed out he never said that. He was asked whether he had to mend the fences at the end of last year, that’s it. He never thought much of it. Girardi spoke to Ellsbury this offseason and this seems like a whole bunch of nothing.

Girardi again made it clear the Yankees want to rest their veteran players as much as possible this season, and he indicated the Castro and Aaron Hicks pickups will allow them to do that. (He also said Castro and Didi Gregorius are young and don’t need as much rest.) He didn’t name names and didn’t explain how he intends to rest these guys, but I think we all have a pretty good idea. We’ll find out soon enough.

Miscellany

  • On goals for 2016: “Our goal is to win the World Series. Bottom line. I appreciate how hard our guys played all year, how they never gave up last year, but you know what? We didn’t get to where we wanted. We lost in the first round of the playoffs … Our goal is to win the World Series. That’s why we come to Spring Training.”
  • On getting over 2015: “It’s never easy … I really don’t get over it until baseball ends. Completely ends. There’s an emptiness inside that you should be there. You try to avoid that one-game playoff and be a division winner. Our first goal is win the division this year.”
  • On biggest spring concerns: “There’s some competition here. When you look at some spots in our bullpen, I think we have to iron that out. And I always have concerns about players trying to do too much. I will let them know you’re not going to impress me in your sides, you’re not going to impress me in the first week of games.”
  • On some new additions: “We added Castro, who gives us an everyday second baseman that has been productive in his career. (This) is a young man that has almost 1,000 hits and is only 25 years old … We added a switch-hitter as an outfielder, which gives us more of an opportunity to rest maybe our two left-handers out there against left-handers more often, in a sense. I think we’re deeper.”
  • On young players contributing again: “You might be a non-roster player, you might be in Double-A when you get sent down, but you may have a chance to contribute … That wasn’t an easy job for the relievers — I was honest with them, I told them what was going to happen — but be the guy what when we make another move, is throwing well … Anything can happen. If you’re in uniform, anything can happen, so give everything you’ve got.”
  • Are the Yankees better than last year? “I think so. I think on paper we are better. Paper doesn’t really mean anything until you go out and compete … I think there’s more depth. I think our younger players in the minor league system have gotten a taste (and are eager to contribute).”

There wasn’t as much talk about young players contributing this year. There’s been a lot of that the last few years. I guess that after last season — Girardi mentioned Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Rob Refsnyder (among others) by name when asked about who impressed him last season — and an offseason in which the Yankees signed zero big league free agents, it’s common knowledge they’re going to rely on young players again. That’s pretty cool. And kinda scary.

An Even Distribution

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

About a month ago, I wrote about some way too early lineup musings and as the report date for pitchers and catchers approaches, I’ve been thinking about the Yankees’ lineup again. This time, though, the thoughts aren’t about the hitters and their positions in the lineup, but rather their positions on the field.

Going back generations, the Yankees’ offense has always been buoyed by strong up-the-middle hitters, especially center fielders and catchers. Most organizations would be lucky enough to have had one or two players of the caliber the Yankees have trotted out across their history: Bill Dickey; Yogi Berra; Elston Howard; Thurman Munson; Jorge Posada; Earle Combs; Joe DiMaggio; Mickey Mantle; Bernie Williams. The four “worst” players in that collection are borderline Hall of Famers. Throw 20 years of Derek Jeter into the mix–as well as players like Willie Randolph and Robinson Cano at the keystone–and it’s easy to see why the Yankees have earned their “Bronx Bombers” moniker and have had so much offensive success. Of course, this isn’t to discount what the prolific hitters the Yankees have at the corners have done. From Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the Yankees have had legendary and elite players fill left, right, first, and third. Coming into the 2016 season, the Yankees are set up to have some balance in their lineup, with no position/position grouping dominating the lineup.

Taking a rather general and broad view–the forest, not the trees–let’s look at the position groups of the Yankees’ likely starters and see what we can find. For organizational purposes, I’m placing A-Rod in the “corner” category, since DH is more like a corner position anyway.

On the corners, we have the aforementioned Tex and A-Rod, as well as Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, and Carlos Beltran. Four of these players are going to be a key part of the offense, as, together, they’ll occupy some combination of spots one/two and some combination of spots three-five or six. The other is Headley, who’ll be a bottom of the order guy regardless. On the negative side of things, Tex, Rodriguez, and Beltran are all old and could break down at any time in the season. Headley is coming off a career worst year. Gardner had an abysmal second half. On the positive side of things, Tex, Al, and Carlos are all capable of great power that can help carry the team. Almost anything Headley does will be an improvement. Gardner tends to have good first halves and will (hopefully) be healthy again.

 (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Up the middle, returning players Brian McCann, Didi Gregorius, and Jacoby Ellsbury are joined by newcomer Starlin Castro. Castro and Ellsbury, like Headley, are coming off of forgettable years. Brian McCann isn’t getting any younger and Didi’s offensive ceiling probably isn’t much higher than his production was last year. On the plus side, Castro and Ellsbury, like Headley, likely can’t be any worse than they were last year and there is tons of room for improvement for both of them, especially for Castro if he doesn’t have to be a mainstay of the offense. Despite aging, McCann was solid last year and is likely to provide similar power. If things go the way they should–hell, even if they mirror last year–Didi doesn’t need to be much more than he is on offense, especially given his glove.

The 2016 Yankee offense is essentially the opposite of its pitching staff, the latter dominated by one position grouping: relievers. While the Yankee rotation mirrors the lineup with a healthy blend of risk and reward, the bullpen is clearly where the reliability and elite performance lie. At the plate, the Yankees are in a position of balance, with no group the clear focus or the clear carrier. Despite some risks, the hitters are set to compliment each other, with those recovering offsetting those who may be declining. This team may not have any hitters of the same caliber as the ones listed before–even if A-Rod and Tex are still around, they’re not necessarily what they used to be–but it can still be successful.

Recent free agent signings clear up trade possibilities for Brett Gardner

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Over the last week, the two best unsigned free agent outfielders came off the board when Justin Upton signed with the Tigers and Yoenis Cespedes agreed to return to the Mets. Others like Alex Gordon and Denard Span signed a few weeks back, so, with Spring Training a little less than a month away, Dexter Fowler (tied to draft pick compensation) and Austin Jackson are the top available free agent outfielders.

The Upton and Cespedes signings took away two potential trade partners for Brett Gardner, though a trade with the Mets was never all that likely. I think Brian Cashman and Sandy Alderson would do a deal if they felt it improved their teams, but a crosstown trade might make the ownership groups a little queasy. No one wants to lose a trade to their geographic rival.

Anyway, with Upton and Cespedes (and Gordon and Span) off the board, the trade market for Gardner has become a little more clear. Gardner has been on the market all winter as the Yankees look for ways to land a young pitcher, though the crowded free agent outfield class complicated things. Now the free agent market isn’t so crowded. Here are the teams that could be in play for Gardner.

Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles did bring back Chris Davis recently, yet their outfield situation remains Adam Jones and some combination of Hyun-Soo Kim, Nolan Reimold, L.J. Hoes, and Rule 5 Draft pick Joey Rickard. And I guess Mark Trumbo too. There’s a clear fit for Gardner in Baltimore — the O’s could bat him leadoff and drop Manny Machado into a run-producing lineup spot — but the chances of a major Yankees-Orioles trade are tiny.

Chicago Cubs
The Cubbies have been after Gardner for a while — they originally wanted Gardner in the Starlin Castro trade — and they could still use a true center fielder and leadoff hitter. Chicago does have a full outfield at the moment (Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Jorge Soler), though Soler’s name has popped up trade rumors, so a Gardner deal could rekindle those efforts. But, again, the problem with a Cubs trade all winter has been their lack of young pitching to offer. I’d argue the Yankees should focus on getting the best possible talent for Gardner regardless of position, but they’re focused on arms.

Chicago White Sox
Reports indicate the White Sox were in on both Upton and Cespedes in recent weeks, though they were not willing to extend their offer beyond three years. The ChiSox have added both Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie this offseason in an effort to fix one of MLB’s least productive infields, and they shouldn’t stop there. They’re not good enough to be AL Central favorites and not bad enough to rebuild. With Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Jose Abreu in their primes, the White Sox should continue adding in an effort to contend, and Gardner would be a massive upgrade over Avisail Garcia. Quintana or Carlos Rodon for Gardner isn’t happening, but could Erik Johnson? That’s the extent of Chicago’s pitching depth.

Cleveland Indians
The Indians, again. They talked to the Yankees about an outfielder for pitcher trade earlier this winter, though obviously nothing came of it. Cleveland has plenty of pitching to spare and they need outfield help — Michael Brantley will be out until at least May following shoulder surgery, so their outfield mix right now is Rajai Davis, Abe Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Collin Cowgill — so it seems like there should be a match. The problem? The Indians operate with a very strict budget and don’t have room for a $13M a year outfielder. The Yankees would have to pay down some of Gardner’s salary, which of course means they should expect more in return. The Tribe likely have their eyes on cheaper outfield options.

Los Angeles Angels
It never seemed like the Angels were going to make a serious run at Cespedes or Upton. They have a clear need for a left fielder — the currently have a Daniel Nava/Craig Gentry platoon planned, and yikes — and some pitching depth to spare, namely Nick Tropeano, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, and Matt Shoemaker. Some are more available than others, obviously. (Heaney’s close to untouchable, I think.)

Calhoun. (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
Calhoun. (Stephen Dunn/Getty)

I think there’s a real possibility for an Angels trade right now. Angels GM Billy Eppler is said to be a big Gardner fan and the Halos really need both a leadoff hitter and another lefty bat. Gardner would push Kole Calhoun into a middle of the lineup spot. He’s a great fit for them, assuming it works financially. (The Angels want to stay under the luxury tax threshold and have about $12M in wiggle room.) I don’t think I would call a trade likely, but I do think if Gardner is dealt, the Angels are the favorite to land him.

St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have a lot of outfielders (Matt Holliday, Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Brandon Moss) but no true center fielder. Grichuk’s the most athletic of the group so he has the center field job by default. St. Louis doesn’t strike me as the kind of organization to make a knee-jerk reactionary move, but it’s tough to ignore all the improvements the Cubs made this winter, so the Cardinals could feel some pressure to keep pace. Gardner would solve a clear roster problem and the Cards have some young pitching to offer (Marco Gonzales, Tim Cooney). Money is no issue either — St. Louis bid big for Heyward and David Price, and were in the market for Chris Davis, yet they’ve only walked away with Mike Leake this offseason.

Washington Nationals
I’m not sure the Nationals are a possibility for Gardner following the Ben Revere trade. Yes, they made a run at Cespedes, so they’re still willing to add an outfielder, but Gardner and Cespedes are very different types of players. Washington might not want another left-handed hitting leadoff type with Revere on board. Never say never, but it appears the Nationals are no longer a match for Gardner following the Revere trade.

* * *

Keep in mind the Yankees are not the only team with a spare outfielder at the moment. The Dodgers would probably love to move Andre Ethier before he gains ten-and-five rights in April, plus the Rockies have four outfielders for three spots (Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, Gerardo Parra). The outfield trade market is not limited solely to Gardner. Outfield needy teams have options.

Realistically, the Angels and Cardinals appear to be the best possible fits for Gardner. The White Sox, Cubs, and Indians are also potential suitors to a lesser extent. I still don’t expect the Yankees to trade Gardner before Spring Training, but at least now the trade market is a bit more clear with the big name free agents off the board. That also means there are fewer suitors, though there are still several clubs out there in need of outfield help.

Way Too Early Lineup Musings

2015 Wild Card Game Lineups

Spring Training may still be about a month away and, despite their relative quietness this Hot Stove season, the Yankees may not be done adding to or tinkering with their team. However, it’s never too early to start dreaming on the lineups we’ll see throughout the year, even with the general knowledge that lineup construction doesn’t always have a big effect on the macro level.

Over the last few seasons, the Yankees have a had a good deal of year-to-year lineup turnover due to players leaving the team or leaving the game altogether–or returning to it in Alex Rodriguez‘s case. Before this three year stretch of 2013-2015, we’d usually see the Yankees cycle out a DH or a random position here or there, but things were generally consistent and well-balanced. That hasn’t been the case for the last few years, though we could see a return to that in 2016.

The return of Mark Teixeria will help restore some needed right-handed power to the lineup, and Aaron Hicks will look to replicate what Chris Young did. Hicks also joins two other switch hitters, Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley. Starlin Castro gives the Yankees a dedicated righty hitter in their infield who can hopefully fit into the lineup in a variety of ways.

There is no shortage of ways the Yankees could deploy their hitters against right handed pitchers. Joe Girardi could stack lefty/switch hitters in the first four spots of the lineup and not give the other team a platoon advantage until fifth, or even sixth if he really wanted to:

1. Brett Gardner
2. Jacoby Ellsbury
3. Carlos Beltran
4. Mark Teixeira
5. Brian McCann
6. Alex Rodriguez
7. Chase Headley
8. Didi Gregorius
9. Starlin Castro

You could flip Didi and Castro if you’d like, but I imagine Girardi would want to break up the lefties at the turn of the lineup. Of course, swapping Ellsbury and Gardner is possible as well. Given Gardner’s slight power advantage over Ellsbury, that might make some sense, provided Ellsbury returns to his non-2015 form. The 3-4-5-6 spots are also fairly interchangeable; at their best, any of those players can carry a team offensively and having them anchor the lineup, even at their advanced age, is an okay thing.

Against lefties, there’s an opportunity for Girardi to really shake things up and get pretty frisky. It all hinges on just how much he plans on platooning Gardner/Ellsbury/Hicks. It’s very likely that Aaron Hicks winds up playing in a ton of games–like Chris Young did this year–just as a defensive replacement for Carlos Beltran late in games. But he’s also here to hit lefties, something Ellsbury struggled with in 2015, leading to a benching in the Wild Card game. If we assume Ellsbury sits a fair amount against lefties, we could see something like this:

1. Gardner
2. Hicks
3. Beltran
4. Teixeira
5. Rodriguez
6. McCann
7. Castro
8. Headley
9. Gregorius

If it’s Gardner who ends up sitting against lefties, it’s likely that Ellsbury would still hit at the top of the lineup. After all, he’s got the name and he’s got the big contract. But, in a more “just” world, perhaps this lineup could be trotted out:

1. Castro
2. Hicks
3. Beltran
4. Tex
5. A-Rod
6. McCann
7. Ellsbury
8. Headley
9. Gregorius

Regardless of who sits and who doesn’t, the Yankees will likely feature a more balanced attack against lefties than they did in the second half and the Wild Card game last year. Their inability to hit lefties consistently certainly cost them and the front office seems to have recognized that with the acquisitions of Hicks and Castro. There are a ton of other permutations for each lineup, but I’m choosing to stay positive and assume some health for the Yankees (trust me, I know this could all fall apart very, very quickly).  What lineup combinations do you favor? Which ones did I forget? What are you dying to see, even if you know it’s probably a bit unrealistic? Even if we know they don’t make much of a difference, it’s still fun to play manager and adjust a lineup to our own liking. And at this time of year, when we’re all optimists, it’s easy to dream.