Sorting through the 45 players the Yankees still have on their Spring Training roster

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Two weeks from today, the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season at home against the Astros. There are a 14 exhibition games to be played between now and then, and several roster decisions have to be made as well. The Yankees have made two rounds of roster cuts so far, paring the number of players in big league camp from 70 down to 45. Another 20 still must go.

It goes without saying some of those 45 players have a much better chance to make the Opening Day roster than others. You’d be surprised to see how few have close to no chance to make the team though. The Yankees have only a few open roster spots but an awful lot of candidates to fill them. Let’s look over the 45 players still in big league camp and figure out where they fit going forward.

Definitely Making The Team (20)

These are the easiest calls, so we might as well start here. These 20 players will definitely be on the Opening Day roster:

Coming into the spring I would not have considered Shreve a lock for the bullpen, but it’s pretty safe to say he’s in right now. He’s been phenomenal in camp, he was awesome most of last year, and Joe Girardi is talking about him like one of his regular relievers. Shreve’s going to break camp with the Yankees.

The Yankees insist they are having a true competition for the fifth starter’s spot, though sending Sabathia to the bullpen so Nova can start is one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” things. Maybe the Yankees will figure out a way to stick Sabathia on the DL rather than send him to the bullpen, though that would surprise me. I’m sticking with what I said last week: I don’t believe Sabathia is truly competing for a rotation spot. He’s in.

Very Likely To Make The Team (2)

In Bryan Mitchell and Rob Refsnyder, the Yankees have two young players who are forcing the issue with their Spring Training performances. Both saw time in the show last year and both came to camp on the roster bubble. Mitchell keeps throwing fire and getting outs while Refsnyder has shown he can actually handle third base, a position he never played prior to this spring.

“(Refsnyder at third base) been better than I expected, to be honest. He’s never been over to that side of the infield. His reactions are really good. His arm’s good,” said Brian Cashman to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). The Yankees need a backup third baseman now that Castro will stick to second, and Refsnyder has taken to the position quickly. He hit in his limited time last year and he adds some balance as a righty hitter.

As for Mitchell, the Yankees do have three open bullpens, and none of the shuttle relievers have impressed this spring. He’s been by far the best of the team’s bullpen candidates, and Girardi has mentioned him as a potential Adam Warren replacement, meaning a multi-inning reliever. Mitchell pitched pretty well in relief last year before taking that line drive to the nose. I wouldn’t call him or Refsnyder locks for the Opening Day roster, but they sure look like strong candidates right now.

Hurt Or Suspended (3)

Three of the 45 players still in camp will not be on the active 25-man roster when the season begins. Aroldis Chapman has to serve his 30-game suspension, and both Greg Bird and Mason Williams will start the season on the DL following shoulder surgery. Bird’s going to be out for the year. We know that already. Williams is doing pretty much everything — throwing, hitting, etc. — but still needs more time to finish up his rehab.

There are some 40-man roster implications here. Chapman will be on the restricted list and will not count towards the 40-man roster while suspended. Bird can also be placed on the 60-day DL whenever a 40-man spot is needed. The 60-day DL is kinda weird though. Teams can only use it when they need it, meaning another player has to placed on the 40-man right away. Bird will likely start the season on the 15-day DL, then be transferred over whenever a 40-man spot is inevitably needed.

Pazos. (Presswire)
Pazos. (Presswire)

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

This might as well be the shuttle reliever category. Johnny Barbato, Nick Goody, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow are all still in camp and they’re all on the 40-man roster. All but Barbato pitched in the big leagues last year too. Barbato has pitched the best during Grapefruit League play so far, which won’t hurt his case for the Opening Day roster. Then again, none of these guys have thrown more than seven innings this spring.

Based on everything I have above, five of the seven bullpen spots are claimed: Miller, Betances, Shreve, Mitchell, and Nova (or Sabathia). I honestly have no idea how those last two spots will shake out. I don’t even have an inkling which way the Yankees are leaning. Barbato has pitched well so far, though that doesn’t mean much. He’s got two weeks to make some mistakes. At the same time, the other guys have a chance to step up their game. The best way to describe the bullpen situation right now is: developing.

Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are also in the mix for a roster spot. They’re competing for the backup catcher’s job, and right now I’d say it’s advantage Romine. Sanchez has not had a good spring (1-for-17) and over the weekend Girardi said he seems to be pressing. There’s also the service time issue (35 days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year) and the fact that Sanchez probably could use some more Triple-A time to work on his defense.

Out of these seven players, all but Romine will go to Triple-A if they don’t make the team. Romine’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll go on waivers. And even if he clears, he can elect free agency. The Yankees can’t expect to keep him based on those conditions. That’s probably another reason Romine seems to be the favorite to back up McCann right now.

Oh Gosh, They Might Actually Make The Team (5)

Remember Chris Martin? He was that random offseason pickup no one really paid attention to last year, then bam, he was on the Opening Day roster. The five guys in this group are candidates to be this year’s Chris Martin. Here’s how they can make the team out of camp:

  • Chris Denorfia: Unlike most of the team’s depth outfielders, Denorfia hits right-handed and he has a lot of MLB experience. He strikes me as the top bench candidate should Ellsbury’s wrist injury linger.
  • Pete Kozma: What if the Yankees want to give Refsnyder some more Triple-A time to continue working at third? Kozma, a veteran utility man, is the annoyingly obvious alternative.
  • Tyler Olson: Having a very good spring and could fill one of the open bullpen spots. Olson is a true lefty specialist and Girardi sure does love his matchups.
  • Anthony Swarzak: Swarzak has been solid overall, and he’s another guy with MLB experience. The fact he can throw multiple innings may land him in the bullpen.
  • Kirby Yates: Quietly shoving this spring (4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and he has big league time under his belt. With none of the shuttle guys standing put, Yates could grab a bullpen spot.

Yeah, you don’t have to try real hard to see one or two (or three) of these guys making the team, do you? It’s surprisingly easy, in fact. I swear, these guys just sneak up on you. You overlook them as cast-offs when they’re acquired, and before you know, they’re standing on the foul line and being introduced on Opening Day. Baseball, man.

Long Shots To Make The Team (8)

Never say never, but I am comfortable saying these last eight players are very unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. Catchers Carlos Corporan and Eddy Rodriguez remain in camp, though Girardi has dismissed them as backup catcher candidates. They’re still around so McCann, Romine, and Sanchez don’t have to catch every inning of every spring game. That’s all.

Chris Parmelee was signed to replace Bird as the Triple-A first baseman, so he’s going to Triple-A. The only way he makes the Opening Day roster is if Teixeira gets hurt. (I don’t think he’d make it if A-Rod got hurt. They’d use Beltran at DH in that case.) Ronald Torreyes had gotten a look at third base this spring and he’s been fine overall. At this point I think he’s behind Refsnyder and Kozma on the backup infield depth chart.

Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)
Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)

In addition to Denorfia, Slade Heathcott and Cesar Puello are the last remaining spare outfielders in camp. Heathcott has been brutal during Grapefruit League play (1-for-22!), and while that isn’t everything, I think it puts him behind Denorfia on the depth chart should Ellsbury stay hurt. Puello’s been great in camp, but this is a guy who played one game last season due to a back injury. I can’t see him sticking even if Ellsbury’s wrist problem lingers.

The last two arms in camp are Diego Moreno and Luis Cessa. The Yankees really like Cessa — Cashman in particular has talked him up — and he’s looked pretty good in his limited action. Those are the key words there, limited action. He’s appeared in only three Spring Training games, and if the Yankees were seriously considering Cessa for the roster, he’d get more looks. Pitching two innings once a week suggests he’s on the outside looking in. That’s fine. He could use more Triple-A time anyway.

The Yankees seem to like Moreno more than we realize — he’s been mentioned as a call-up candidate for two or three years now — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again this summer. He is not on the 40-man roster right now, and he hasn’t pitched well in camp (six runs in 5.1 innings), so it seems safe to say Diego is way down on the Opening Day bullpen depth chart at the moment. The Yankees have too many other candidates.

* * *

With Opening Day two weeks away, it appears the Yankees have 22 of their 25 roster spots figured out. They need to pick a backup catcher and decide who will hold down the last two bullpen spots on a temporary basis. I assume those will be shuttle spots, with new guys cycling in and out as necessary, especially early in the season. The next round of roster cuts should be coming next weekend, and that may lend some clarity to the bullpen situation.

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.

The Middle

Good seats behind the dugout still available. (Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last week, I wrote about how the Yankees’ lineup won’t be dominated by any one position group, but that only applies to the hitters as they appear on the field. As they appear in the lineup, there is certainly a group that will carry the Yankees on offense: the middle of the order.

This guy is good at baseball. (Jeff Haynes/AP Photo)
This guy is good at baseball. (Jeff Haynes/AP Photo)

While the league has mostly moved away from take-and-rake as an offensive philosophy, power and patience still dominate the middle of the Yankee order, which will be populated by some combination of Brian McCann, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran. These stars don’t shine as brightly as they once did, but all four put up–at the very least–respectable seasons in 2015, despite battling their own ages and their own bodies for portions thereof. Given their ages and the shift in offenses across MLB, it’s not likely that we’re going to see these guys put up the monster numbers they were capable of in the past. However, even as more senior players, their skillsets position them well for success. Just as importantly, those skills and their general levels of talent make it possible that they can be distributed in any number of ways that would help the team.

Carlos Beltran-001

All four hitters are capable of hitting in any of the all important middle spots in the lineup and for different reasons. If you want to go by the traditional book that says to put your best overall hitter third, you could slot Beltran in there, since he’s likely to have best combination of average, power, and patience among the three. If you want to go by the other Book, your three hitter can be a lowish-OBP/high-power guy. Of the three non-Beltran hitters, that best fits McCann; he may not be the most powerful, but he doesn’t have the on-base skills of Tex or A-Rod and can definitely knock some extra bases to extend rallies or start them, even with two out and none on.

(Steven Ryan/Getty)
(Steven Ryan/Getty)

Platooning these players in the lineup won’t be difficult either. Two of them–Tex and Beltran–are switch hitters and the other two–McCann and A-Rod–hit with the opposite hands. Rare will be the time when an opposing manager can call on a pitcher who will have the platoon advantage all the way through the middle of the Yankees’ lineup.

Ironically enough, these players are the ones with which the Yankees seem to have the least flexibility. All four of them will need time at DH quite frequently and all four of them are likely to miss time due to injury thanks to their advanced ages. Despite that, though, when healthy and in the lineup, they provide flexibility for manager Joe Girardi, who likes to tinker with lineups to get his team any advantage possible. When we look at these four hitters, we see guys who definitely need things to break right. But we also see four players who can easily carry a lineup. Like I’ve said in the past, I’m optimistic about this team, despite its warts. The middle of the lineup is one part of this team where I think we can count on production if health is a given. With an offseason of rest for these players, let’s hope everything (everything) will be alright in 2016.

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.

Spring Notes: Tanaka, Sabathia, A-Rod, Castro, Nova, Davis

Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)
Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)

Pitchers and catchers are due to report to Spring Training in just six days. Many — or most, it seems — are already in Tampa though, so some early camp notes are starting to trickle in. This is good. I am ready for baseball. Here’s a roundup of recent news and notes from Tampa.

Tanaka begins throwing, may be behind other starters in camp

Masahiro Tanaka has gotten back on a mound after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow in October. According to Ronald Blum, Tanaka threw a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium last week in front of pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Bryan Hoch says Tanaka played catch in Tampa today. Afterwards he said he needs to “get innings in (to) see how I feel” before knowing whether he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Dan Martin Tanaka’s “throwing program was right on target,” though Brian Cashman was a bit more conservative. “He will enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons. He may be behind going off the bullpen from the beginning, but he is healthy. There are no issues, there are no hiccups,” said the GM to George King.

CC Sabathia was behind the other starters in Spring Training 2013 after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow early during the 2012 offseason. He was ready to start the season on time; the club limited his bullpen work early in camp, and had him make his first few spring starts in controlled minor league games rather than regular Grapefruit League games. Tanaka could do the same this spring. We’ll see.

“When you pitch a good game, you’re the hero,” said Tanaka, who worked out with his former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates in Japan this offseason, to Brad Lefton. “When you have a bad game, everyone says, ‘Something’s wrong with the elbow.’ There’s no way to handle it other than to just accept that’s the way it’s going to be. If you want to stop such talk, then you just have to go out and keep winning ballgames.”

Sabathia and his knee are feeling great

You can file this in the classic early Spring Training everything is awesome category: CC Sabathia’s knee feels great and he’s doing very well following his stint in an alcohol treatment center, he told Laura Albanese and Mark Feinsand. “I feel great and I’ve been working hard for the last three months and I’m ready to go,” said Sabathia. “I’m excited … This is the best I’ve felt in three years.”

Sabathia, now 35, usually throws year round, but he took a month off from throwing a baseball while in rehab. He’s been throwing off a mound for three weeks now. “I’m definitely in a good place. You’ve never got this thing beat; it’s always there and I’m always going to be a recovering alcoholic, but I’m in a good place,” he said. “This is my 16th year in the big leagues and you can take it for granted. This whole experience has put a new lease on my career and the way I’m viewing it.”

I’d be lying if I said I have even medium high hopes for Sabathia this coming season — I’ve done the “overly optimistic about CC” thing a few times these last three years — but I’m glad he feels great and his alcoholism recovery is going well. That goes beyond baseball and he’ll be fighting it the rest of his life. On the field, if the new knee brace allows Sabathia to give the Yankees, say, 180 league average innings in 2016, that would be an enormous upgrade over what he gave them from 2013-15.

Cashman reiterates A-Rod will be a DH only

As if it was not already clear, Cashman reiterated the Yankees see Alex Rodriguez as a DH and a DH only going forward. “You’ve got to stop asking Alex questions,” said Cashman to Billy Witz. “He’s not playing any position anymore. He’s a DH. He’s a very productive DH. For us to get maximum value out of Alex Rodriguez, he’s going to only DH. If we have to put him in the field somewhere, we’re in trouble.”

I wish the Yankees would at least entertain the idea of giving Alex some time at first base in Spring Training, but obviously that’s not going to happen. Greg Bird is done for the season, leaving Dustin Ackley as the backup first baseman. It would be nice if A-Rod were at least capable of being an emergency fill-in at first base for a few innings. Alas. The DH spot is his and his alone.

Castro will play some third base in Spring Training

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

As expected, the Yankees will have Starlin Castro play some third base in Spring Training this year, Cashman told Ryan Hatch. Castro has not played third since rookie ball years and years ago, and that was only a handful of games. He’s played shortstop most of his career, so he is familiar with being on the left side of the infield. Castro moved to second base last August, and I’m not sure giving him another new position to learn right now is the best idea, but we’ll see.

“It’s too early to tell (if he can handle third), so we’ll take the time in Spring Training,” said Cashman. “If (he) can swing over and play some third for us and spell Chase (Headley), that’s a huge benefit for roster flexibility, but if he can’t, we’re not going to force it … If it’s something he’s not comfortable with we’re certainly not going to force that either. But we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks.”

Nova wants to start, because duh

Ivan Nova, who is currently sixth on the rotation depth chart, told Martin he wants to start this year but will pitch out of the bullpen if necessary. “I’m a starting pitcher. I’m not a reliever, but if that’s what they tell me to do, that’s what I’ve got to do,” he said. “If I feel bad going to the bullpen, what’s that going to change?”

The Yankees sent Nova to the bullpen briefly last September, but he never did make a relief appearance and instead moved back into the rotation when Tanaka pulled his hamstring. I firmly believe Nova is going to end up making something like 20-25 starts this year. One or three of the other starters will get hurt and he’ll be the guy to step in. The sixth starter always works more than expected, it seems.

Nova, now 29, had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery last year. He didn’t blame his struggles on the elbow — “Whatever happened last year wasn’t because of the Tommy John. I just didn’t pitch good. If I didn’t feel good, I would have said it,” he said — but I do think it’s fair to expect him to improve as he gets further away from the procedure. That’s common. This is also Ivan’s contract year too. I’m sure he’s extra motivated to pitch well, and the Yankees will happily take it if he does.

Beltran, McCann do not want to play first base

Although both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have briefly played first base for the Yankees, neither wants to do it going forward, they told Anthony McCarron and Brendan Kuty. “No, no, no. I would do anything. Except (play first). It’s a different animal,” said Beltran. McCann added “I don’t think they want me over there. I don’t move too good. I don’t think they want that.”

Both Beltran and McCann have played some first base in pinstripes, so they’re clearly not opposed to the idea, but they don’t want to do it regularly. I understand that. The Yankees shouldn’t want Beltran or McCann to do it at all. Ideally Mark Teixeira stays healthy at first base and mashes taters all season with Ackley backing him up. If it gets to the point where Beltran has to play first, something very bad has happened. By the way, Beltran told Hatch he dropped ten pounds this offseason and joked he “might try and steal some bases this year.”

Cashman confirms Yankees have spoken to Davis

In the wake of Bird’s injury, the Yankees have indeed spoken to free agent Ike Davis, Cashman confirmed to Anthony Rieber. “We’ve talked to Ike Davis. That’s all I can tell you, really. We’ve talked to a lot of people,” said the GM. “Again, in terms of the Greg Bird scenario, we clearly have a need for an everyday first baseman at Scranton. So anybody that we feel is of quality and can fit that bill and is interested and willing to play in Scranton, then we’re going to have those conversations with a number of different people. But we have talked to Ike as well.”

Ken Davidoff says Davis is expected to sign a minor league contract — not necessarily with the Yankees — at some point soon. Davis, 28, hit .229/.301/.350 (83 wRC+) with three homers in 74 games for the A’s last season. He is a year removed from a 109 wRC+ season, however. Davis is a dead pull lefty hitter with power, making him a very good third string first base candidate for the Yankees. At this point of the offseason, he’s the best option to replace Bird in Scranton. Steve Simineri explained why the Yankees should side Davis in a guest post recently.

McCann wants to improve his batting average, but it may not be possible at this point

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Like many of his teammates, Brian McCann had a tremendous first half last season before fading down the stretch. He hit .259/.331/.471 (117 wRC+) in the first half, but only .200/.306/.395 (91 wRC+) in the second half. The end result was a still solid .232/.320/.437 (105 wRC+) batting line.

McCann has been a Yankee for two full seasons now, and during that time he’s hit .232/.303/.421 (99 wRC+) in 1,073 plate appearances. That’s not great overall, but that 99 wRC+ ranks 11th among the 31 catchers with at least 600 plate appearances over the last two years, and his 49 homers are eight more anyone else. (Buster Posey is second with 41.)

The 2014 season seemed to be something of an adjustment period for McCann, who joined a new team in a new city and a new league, and had to learn a new pitching staff. It was a lot to take in. He appeared more comfortable last season, and his offensive production ticked up. Now McCann wants to take it up another notch. Here’s something he told Steven Marcus over the weekend:

But McCann wasn’t satisfied with his .232 batting average. “I don’t like looking up there and seeing I’m hitting around .230,’’ he said Friday from Orlando, Florida, where he was participating in a charity golf tournament. “I’ve got to get better. I’d like to hit .300 with 30 [homers]. I’m searching. That’s my mindset.’’

It’s great McCann isn’t satisfied and wants to perform better next season. That’s the mindset every player should have. McCann’s been a Yankee for two seasons, and during those two seasons he’s been a great hitter for about four months total. The rest were just okay or flat out bad.

Improving the batting average might not be possible at this point of McCann’s career, however. For starters, the vast majority of players see their batting average decline as they get older. That’s natural. Reversing the aging process ain’t easy, especially for a catcher. Secondly, McCann is an extreme fly ball and pull hitter. He has been for a few years now.

AVG BABIP FB% Pull% Hard% Soft%
2012 .230 .234 41.2% 47.5% 32.5% 16.9%
2013 .256 .261 42.3% 48.6% 35.3% 12.7%
2014 .232 .231 45.1% 44.1% 31.0% 15.2%
2015 .232 .235 47.2% 50.1% 31.5% 15.2%
2012-15 .236 .239 44.1% 47.4% 32.4% 15.1%
MLB AVG
.254 .299 45.3% 39.1% 28.6% 18.6%

McCann is a .236 hitter with a .239 BABIP over his last 1,962 plate appearances. His fly ball rate has increased in each of the last three seasons and it’s now higher than the league average. His pull rate has been way higher than the league average for years now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — McCann still hits the ball very hard, and when you pull the ball hard in the air, extra-base hits tend to happen. McCann’s .187 ISO from 2012-15 is way higher than the .150 league average.

At the same time, hitting the ball in the air so often can be a BABIP killer. Most fly balls are easy outs. Don’t believe me? The league average BABIP on fly balls was .073 in 2015. .073! Pulling the ball as a left-handed hitter means lots of shifts, and we’ve seen plenty of those when McCann is at the plate in recent years. It’s wrong to attribute his batting average decline solely to the shift, but it is absolutely a big factor. So are the fly balls.

Outside of some good ol’ ball in play luck, McCann would have to overhaul his swing and approach to improve his batting average. He’d have to cut down on all the fly balls and start using the left side of the field a little more. That’s not Brian McCann. That’s asking him to be something he is not. We’re talking about a guy on the wrong side of 30 who is already dealing with some age-related decline. Not to mention all the wear-and-tear of catching.

I’m glad McCann is not satisfied hitting in .230s. I also hope he doesn’t try to change his swing and approach. That can lead to even more problems. McCann is what he is at this point of his career, and that’s the best power hitting catcher in baseball. It’s not impossible for him to improve his batting average going forward, just really unlikely, and the Yankees can’t afford to have McCann tinker and be something less than his absolute best.