Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Position Players

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are in position to clinch a wildcard spot very soon, possibly tonight, so it’s time to start thinking about the wildcard game roster. Earlier today we sorted through the pitching staff, trying to figure out which ten or eleven pitchers the Yankees will carry in the wildcard game. It was easier said than done.

Ten or eleven pitchers — my guess is ten, but you never know — leaves 14-15 position player spots to fill. Joe Girardi will have a decent-sized bench at his disposal, but ideally it won’t come into play too much. The starting lineup will decide the game. As we did with the pitchers, let’s go through the position player group and try to figure out who will be on the wildcard game roster next Tuesday.

The Locks

This is the easy part …

Catcher: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy
First Base: Greg Bird
Second Base: ???
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Chase Headley
Outfield: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran
Designated Hitter: Alex Rodriguez

That’s nine of the 14-15 position player spots right there and they’re all self-explanatory right? Right. That is eighth-ninths of the starting lineup and the backup catcher. All easy calls. Next.

Second Base

For most of the summer, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan platooned at second base. That is no longer the case. Drew has been dealing with some dizziness/concussion issues that may end his season, but even before that Dustin Ackley wrestled the starting job away from him. Ackley got some playing time, hit right away, and he’s continued to play against right-handers.

Meanwhile, Rob Refsnyder has started each of the Yankees’ last four games against left-handed starters, not Ryan. Chances are Refsnyder will start against lefties Wade Miley, Rich Hill, and Wei-Yin Chen the next three days too. Like Ackley, he got a few at-bats, got some hits, and has received more playing time. That Drew/Ryan platoon was together for 140 games or so. The last 16 have gone to Ackley/Refsnyder.

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

At this point there is no doubt Ackley will be on the wildcard roster. The rest of the guys is where it gets tricky. Refsnyder is starting against lefties, but would the Yankees actually start him in the wildcard game if they face, say, Dallas Keuchel or Scott Kazmir or Cole Hamels? I get the sense Girardi would stick with Ackley in that situation and just roll with his best player.

If Refsnyder’s not going to start the game, then what’s his role? Pinch-hitter against a lefty reliever. That’s all. I guess he could pinch-run too, but there figure to be other guys on the roster to do that. Refsnyder’s not going to come in for defense. Pinch-hitter against a lefty is a big deal though! It could be the difference in the late-innings of a close game. Given the extra bench spots, I think Refsnyder’s in.

With Ackley and Refsnyder on the roster, the Yankees will need to carry a shortstop-capable backup infielder. Neither of those guys can play short. Not even in an emergency. That leaves a spot for Drew or Ryan. In a vacuum, I’d take Drew over Ryan eight days a week and twice on Sundays. But Drew isn’t healthy and we shouldn’t count on him getting healthy before the wildcard game. He’s still dealing with this dizziness/concussion stuff and has been for almost two weeks now. That puts Ryan on the wildcard game roster along with Ackley and Refsnyder.

The Pinch-Runner

Rico Noel will be on the wildcard game roster. I’m sure of it. One of the benefits of shrinking the pitching staff in the postseason is creating an open roster spot for someone just like Noel. A burner who can come off the bench to pinch-run in the late innings of a close game. Look at Rico run:

The kid can fly and his speed can potentially have a huge impact in the wildcard game. The Yankees brought Noel up this month strictly to pinch-run and I fully expect him to be on the postseason roster. Remember, they carried Freddy Guzman on the postseason roster in 2009 for this exact reason. Noel’s on the wildcard roster. I have no doubt about it.

(Since he wasn’t called up until September 1st, Noel will technically have to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have two position player injury spots available thanks to Mark Teixeira and Mason Williams.)

The Backup Outfielder

Noel will be on the wildcard game roster but he’s not really a backup outfielder. He’s a pinch-runner and that’s all. (The scouting reports indicate Noel is a pretty good defender, but the Yankees haven’t used him defensively all that much.) The Yankees will still need to carry a legitimate backup outfielder if for no other reason than to replace Beltran for defense in the late innings. Chris Young, who is the only righty hitting outfielder on the roster, held that job all season and I expect him to be on the wildcard roster. I know he’s stumped lately, but there’s no reason to think the Yankees won’t carry Young in October. In fact, I’m not sure how you can look at the 39-man active roster and saying Young doesn’t belong on the wildcard game roster. He’s in.

The Final Roster Spot

We still have one last roster spot to fill. The nine locks above plus Ackley, Refsnyder, Ryan, Noel, and Young gets us to 14 position players. I suppose the Yankees could carry eleven pitchers, but I doubt it. It was hard enough coming up with ten pitchers worth a spot on the wildcard roster. One last position player makes sense.

There’s no point in carrying three catchers, so Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are out. The remaining candidates are Jose Pirela and Slade Heathcott, assuming Drew is indeed done for the year. With Refsnyder on the roster, there’s no need for Pirela, another righty hitter. Yeah, Pirela can play the outfield if necessary, but he’s an emergency option out there only. Noel and Ackley are available as emergency outfielders. I also think Pirela would have played more this month if he was a serious wildcard game roster candidate.

Slade. (Presswire)
Slade. (Presswire)

That leaves it between Heathcott and a possibly but not likely healthy Drew. If Drew is not over high dizziness/concussion symptoms by next week, this questioned gets answered for us. In the unlikely event Drew is healthy though, would it make sense to carry another infielder or another outfielder? I think an extra outfielder makes more sense. Between Ackley, Refsnyder, and Ryan, you’ve got the second base starter and two backups. The only backup outfielder is Young considering Noel’s job is pinch-running.

Heathcott gives the Yankees another potential pinch-runner — he’s no Rico, but he’s faster than Young or Refsnyder — and another quality defender, as well as a left-handed bat on the bench. In fact, Drew and Slade are the only possible lefty bats off the bench, and one’s hurt. Besides, if Drew is healthy, it’s Ryan or Heathcott, not Drew or Heathcott. I’d take Heathcott over Ryan.

With Slade on the roster, the Yankees would have two backup infielders even without Drew (or Ryan), and Heathcott at least has a chance to contribute offensively and defensively. I mean, if Drew’s healthy and on the roster, what’s the point of Ryan? What does he offer in a winner-take-all game? I’d expect neither guy to actually play in the game, but, if pressed into action, it’s easy to see Slade having more potential impact than Ryan.

So after all of that, here’s the 25-man wildcard game roster we’ve kinda sorta pieced together today:

Catchers (2) Infielders (7) Outfielders (6) RHP (5) LHP (5)
McCann Bird Gardner Masahiro Tanaka (SP) Andrew Miller
Murphy Ackley Ellsbury Dellin Betances Justin Wilson
Gregorius Beltran Adam Warren Chasen Shreve
Headley Young Andrew Bailey Chris Capuano
A-Rod (DH) Heathcott Nova/Severino/Pineda CC Sabathia
Refsnyder Noel (PR)
Drew/Ryan

Remember, the Yankees can change their 25-man roster prior to the ALDS should they advance, and they’ll have to change it too. They’d need to get more starting pitchers on the roster. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. One thing at a time.

That appears to be the best 25-man roster the Yankees can carry in the wildcard game. Maybe not the most talented, but the most useful given the circumstances. We’re not planning for a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. It’s one game. One stupid little game where anything can happen. Hopefully Girardi won’t have to use anyone beyond the nine starting position players, Beltran’s defensive replacement, Tanaka, and the big three relievers. That’s the best case scenario. If the Yankees need to dip any deeper into their wildcard game roster than that, then, well, just hang on tight.

Game 138: Sabathia Returns

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When we last saw CC Sabathia, he pulled himself from a start due to ongoing trouble with his right knee. At one point it appeared he would not pitch again this season. Joe Girardi admitted that was a possibility. Instead, Sabathia is back on the mound tonight with a new knee brace after spending the minimum 15 days on the DL.

The Yankees have a firm hold on the top wildcard spot, but catching he Blue Jays for the top spot in the AL East will not be easy, even with all those head-to-head games remaining. They need Sabathia to pitch well and pitch often. Soak up some innings each time out. They need as many as they can get these days. Here is the O’s lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 1B Greg Bird
  7. LF Dustin Ackley (!)
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. 2B Stephen Drew
    LHP CC Sabathia

It is cloudy and humid in New York, and there is rain in the forecast tonight. It’s not supposed to start until 10pm ET or so, but it’ll then continue through the night. That could be a problem. Hopefully they get the game in before the sky opens up. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Brett Gardner (elbow) is feeling “much better” but has not yet played catch. He is available off the bench and is expected to play tomorrow … Sabathia (knee) has been activated off the DL, obviously. Rosters are expanded, so no other move was required.

Injury News: Nathan Eovaldi, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira

And no one was ever healthy again. (Presswire)
And no one was ever healthy again. (Presswire)

Got a bunch of not particular good injury updates to pass along, which come from Brian Cashman via the plethora of beat reporters. Away we go:

  • It “sounds like” Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) will not be able to return during the regular season, said Cashman. That’s not good. Eovaldi could be in play for the postseason, however. He will be shut down two weeks, then begin a two-week throwing program. The regular season ends three weeks and five days from today.
  • As for replacing Eovaldi in the rotation, Cashman said Adam Warren will be stretched back and will soon make another start. Bryan Mitchell was mentioned as another option. A trade isn’t happening. “I think what you’re seeing is what we’ve got,” said the GM.
  • Brett Gardner has been trying to play through a jammed shoulder recently. He hurt himself crashing into a wall making a catch. Gardner, who is not in tonight’s lineup for the second straight day, received a platelet-rich plasma injection the Yankees hope will calm things down. He is available tonight if necessary.
  • Mark Teixeira (leg) received two injections to help relieve some nerve inflammation around the bone bruise in his shin. He’s still on crutches. Cashman admitted he “(does) wonder” whether Teixeira will be able to return this season. Well, at least the team has a viable fill-in at first base.

Brett Gardner is starting to come out of slump just in time for the Teixeira-less Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Thanks to the Braves, the Yankees averaged a healthy 4.71 runs per game in August, right in line with the 4.88 runs per game they averaged from April through July. We all know the offense wasn’t quite that good last month though. The Yankees scored 38 runs in three games against Atlanta over the weekend and only 94 runs in the other 25 games, or 3.76 per game.

The team-wide offensive malaise last month was not the result of any one thing. It was a combination of things. Lots of players slumped, perhaps none moreso than Brett Gardner. The first time All-Star hit a weak .208/.304/.257 (61 wRC+) in August, easily his worst month of the season. Easily. His second worst month was the .252/.322/.421 (105 wRC+) batting line he put up in May.

Gardner has always been a better first half player, but not to this extreme. He’s a career .283/.360/.421 (116 wRC+) hitter in the first half and .240/.330/.356 (90 wRC+) in the second half. That 26 wRC+ point difference is pretty huge. Brett’s a first half player, no doubt. This year though? This year he hit .302/.377/.484 (139 wRC+) in the first half and is at .212/.318/.291 (74 wRC+) in the second half. That’s a 65 wRC+ point gap.

Anecdotally, it seems as though Gardner has been striking out more in the second half, but that’s not really the case. He had a 19.8% strikeout rate in the first half and has a 22.5% strikeout rate in the second half. Basically three extra strikeouts per 100 plate appearances. No big deal. His 23.3% strikeout rate in August wasn’t much worse either. So yes, he is striking out more, but not that much more.

Gardner’s plate discipline was fine in August, at least in the sense that it didn’t deviate from his season averages a whole lot. He swung at 20.7% of pitches out of the zone last month. His season rate is 21.4%. Gardner didn’t start hitting more grounders (39.8%) or pop-ups (6.9%) in August either. His season averages are 45.4% and 6.0%, respectively. Too pull happy? Not enough hard contact?

Brett Gardner batted ball data

Eh. Not too much of a difference there. The 6.7 percentage point drop in hard contact from the first half to the second half is disconcerting, but most of it shifted over to medium contact, not weak contact. Is that enough to explain Gardner’s .274 BABIP in August, by far his lowest month of the season? Maybe! The admittedly imperfect data suggests he was not hitting the ball as hard in August as he had earlier this season.

The more important question is why. Why isn’t Gardner hitting the ball as hard as he did earlier this season? It’s impossible to answer. It could be as simple as scorer bias — Baseball Info Solutions uses human stringers for their contact data, so one scorer’s hard hit ball could be another’s medium hit ball — or sample size issues. Maybe he’s playing hurt again. Remember, Gardner played through an abdominal strain in the second half last year, which was severe enough that he needed offseason surgery. Maybe his swing is a mess. There could be a million reasons.

Regardless of what exactly is causing Gardner’s slump, Gardner’s slump has hurt the offense overall these last few weeks. The good news is he is starting to come out it. Brett went deep last night and is 6-for-22 (.273) on the road trip, which is a heck of a lot better than what he did the rest of August. You have to squint your eyes, but the signs are there. Gardner’s hit the ball with some more authority of late, even his outs, which suggests he’s getting better swings.

Unless Gardner is playing hurt and we don’t know about it, I expect him to climb out of his slump soon enough. I have a hard time believing Brett is simply a bad hitter now. Great in the first half to zero in the second half? Not impossible, just unlikely. The Yankees will be without Mark Teixeira for the foreseeable future, so getting Gardner back on track as the No. 2 hitter is imperative. Runs are harder to come by these days, even moreso with Brett struggling.

RAB on CBS: More aggressive approach helps Gardner become an All-Star

With an assist from Alex Gordon’s groin injury, Brett Gardner was selected to his first All-Star Game last month. He was the only player in the AL with at least ten home runs and 15 stolen bases at the break.

Gardner has been one of the most productive Yankees since he became a full-time player in 2010, back when he was a speedy leadoff type. He still is that speedy leadoff type, but over the last few years Gardner has added more power to his game. He set a career high with eight home runs in 2013, more than doubled it with 17 last year, and he’s hit eleven so far this year.

Despite being a hitter who always sees a ton of pitches and works deep counts, 14 of Gardner’s 36 home runs since 2013 have come on the first or second pitch of the at-bat, and all 14 of those have come on fastballs. He hit just one homer within the first two pitches of the at-bat prior to 2013. Simply put, Gardner started ambushing more fastballs early in the count, leading to the increased power production.

Thanks to the wonders of BBWAA membership, I spoke to Gardner about his newfound aggressiveness and power spike, and while he downplayed the new approach, he did acknowledge making an effort to be more aggressive early in the count. He changed the scouting report, basically. Gardner no longer wanted to be known as a guy who will sit back and take hittable fastballs early in the count.

You can read about Gardner’s newfound aggressiveness at CBS’s Eye on Baseball. You are forewarned: there is an autoplay video in the post. Not my call. Sorry.

Other RAB on CBS posts: Eovaldi shuts down the running game

Saturday Links: A-Rod, Best Tools, 810 River Ave., CLEAR

(Tom Pennington/Getty)
(Tom Pennington/Getty)

The Yankees and Blue Jays resume their three-game series early this afternoon. Until then, check out these stray links and news items to help you pass the time.

Pre-game ceremony for A-Rod‘s 3,000th hit

This is rich. The Yankees will hold a special on-field pre-game ceremony for Alex Rodriguez‘s 3,000th career hit later this season, the team announced. It’ll be held Sunday, September 13th, before the team’s 1pm ET game against the Blue Jays. They ask you to be in your seats by 12:30pm ET. So just a few weeks after refusing to pay A-Rod his $6M home run milestone bonus because they claimed it was unmarketable, the Yankees are honoring Alex for his 3,000th hit. Guess they’re hoping for a late-season attendance bump.

MLB.com’s farm system rankings

Jim Callis posted his updated ranking of the top ten farm systems this week, and the Yankees placed tenth. I’m not sure where Callis had the Yankees coming into the season, but most other publications had them in the 18-25 range. “New York has position prospects at every spot on the diamond, including speedy shortstop Jorge Mateo (No. 99), sweet-swinging second baseman Robert Refsnyder and slugging catcher Gary Sanchez,” wrote Callis. I don’t know if the Yankees truly have a top ten system yet — this is just one person’s rankings, of course — but the system is clearly on the rise, even if Severino graduates to the big leagues before the end of the season.

Baseball America’s Best Tools

Baseball America published their annual Best Tools survey this week, in which they poll managers, coaches, scouts … basically everyone about the best players and best tools in their individual leagues. Several Yankees players and prospects appeared throughout the survey, so here’s a quick rundown:

All of the surveys are free, you don’t need a subscription, so click the links and you can read through each category and each league. Obviously this is all very subjective — I can’t imagine there are many Yankee fans who consider Gardner the best bunter in the AL — but I’ve always found it interesting and fun to see who coaches and scouts feel have the best skills.

(6sqft)
(6sqft)

New apartment tower being built next old Yankee Stadium site

According to Ondel Hylton, a new 17-story apartment building is being built on River Ave. between 157th and 158th Streets, on the old Ball Park Lanes site. (The bowling alley closed years ago.) The 134-unit building at 810 River Ave. is right across the street from the old Yankee Stadium site and is a few blocks away from the new Stadium. The neighborhood was re-zoned for buildings up to 30 stories back in 2009, and this is the first new high-rise going up in the area. Construction started in May.

CLEAR comes to Yankee Stadium

As you know, MLB mandated all 30 ballparks must have metal detectors at the entrances this season, which is a total pain. Couldn’t be any less convenient and, frankly, it doesn’t make me feel any safer. (Not that I’ve ever felt unsafe at a game, but that’s besides the point.) The Yankees recently partnered up with CLEAR to expedite the process, the team announced. It’s the same biometrics technology they use at airports for TSA pre-check. You can sign up at Gate 4, and, if approved, you’ll be able to simply scan your finger at a designated fast access lane and skip the whole metal detector process. Yankee Stadium is the third stadium with CLEAR technology, joining AT&T Park and Coors Field. So if you’ve ever wanted that airport experience at a ball park, this is your lucky day!

End of offensive slump has to start at the top of the lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By know you know the numbers. The Yankees were held to one run during their three-game series against the Blue Jays — that run was scored on a cheap Yankee Stadium homer too — leading to back-to-back shutouts on Saturday and Sunday. They were held to three singles in each of those two games. It was ugly. The offense scored 90 runs in ten games and then four runs in their next five games. Baseball, man.

The slump won’t last forever, we all know that, but the Yankees need it to end sooner rather than later to hold off the Blue Jays. The entire team stunk at the plate over the weekend, you can’t really point your finger at one or two culprits, but it’s clear who the Yankees need to get going the most: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. We saw it earlier this year. Those two are game-changers atop the lineup.

The numbers are not pretty. Ellsbury went 0-for-12 with a walk in the series against the Blue Jays while Gardner went 2-for-8 (.250) with a walk. (Gardner sat in favor of Chris Young against David Price.) You’re usually not going to score many runs when the top two hitters in your lineup combine to reach base four times in a three-game series. The numbers since the All-Star break aren’t much better.

Ellsbury: .170/.216/.330 (43 wRC+) with 22.2 K% and 5.1 BB% in 99 plate appearances
Gardner: .206/.329/.265 (74 wRC+) with 20.2 K% and 13.1 BB% in 84 plate appearances

That’s a combined 183 plate appearances of gross from the two table-setters in the second half. Ellsbury and Gardner haven’t even attempted a stolen base since the break — that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is notable — and even with Gardner’s nice walk rate, No. 3 hitter Alex Rodriguez has batted with a runner on base in just 34 of his 92 plate appearances in the second half, or 37%. It was 167 of 348 in the first half (48%). The AL average this year is 42%.

Gardner has a history of performing better in the first half — he’s a career .283/.360/.421 (116 wRC+) hitter before the All-Star break and .242/.332/.359 (91 wRC+) after — though his second half performance this year is more of slump than a “this guy really sucks in the second half” thing. The chances of him hitting .206 with a .265 SLG the rest of the way are pretty damn small. Yes, he is a better hitter in the first half, and no, his performance these last few weeks is not his true talent level.

Ellsbury’s second half performance is a little more concerning just because he’s hasn’t really hit since coming back from his knee injury. It’s more of a “he hasn’t hit since coming off the DL” thing as opposed to a “he hasn’t hit in the second half” thing. The All-Star break is a convenient reference point but it is pretty arbitrary. Coming back from an injury isn’t really arbitrary. We’re talk about a player being physically compromised. Gardner’s been bad since the All-Star break. Ellsbury’s been bad since coming off the DL. There’s a difference.

It’s impossible to know whether the knee injury is having an impact on Ellsbury right now. It could just be a slump! Who knows? Ellsbury is not necessarily injury prone, but he does have a history of getting hurt and staying hurt longer than expected. Perhaps the knee injury is lingering and hurting him at the plate. It might even be a mental thing. The knee is healthy but he’s changed his hitting mechanics to protect it. Something like that. It happens all the time, often subconsciously.

If the knee is behind Ellsbury’s slump, well that could be either good or bad depending on how you want to look at it. It would be good in the sense that he has not lost any skills and will eventually get over the injury. We know what to point to. It would be bad in the sense that, uh, when will get over it? Injuries have a way of explaining things and making them more scary at the same time, especially a leg injury for a speed guy.

Regardless of whether Ellsbury’s knee is causing his current slump, he and Gardner have not produced in the second half, and that’s something that needs to change for the offense to get back on track. The Yankees dominated offensively for a few weeks earlier this season because those two guys were on base every other inning, it seemed. The sooner they get back on track — even just one of them getting on track would help — the sooner the offense gets back to normal.