Rainout Notes: Gardner, Headley, Lineup, Tanaka, Miller

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Thanks to the yucky weather in New York, Opening Day was postponed earlier today. The game will be made up tomorrow at 1pm ET. Everything gets pushed back a day. That’s why they have the off-day after Opening Day each year. Here are some notes from the rained out game, via Erik Boland, Bryan Hoch, Brendan Kuty, and Chad Jennings.

  • Brett Gardner will sit in deference to Aaron Hicks against Dallas Keuchel. Joe Girardi told everyone involved that would be the case over the weekend. Gardner said he’s disappointed but understands why he’s sitting (so benching Jacoby Ellsbury won’t be another big thing, basically).
  • Chase Headley, who has been dealing with food poisoning the last few days, was good to go today. He was scheduled to play. Headley did not play in the final few exhibition games late last week because he was sick.
  • This was the scheduled lineup for today: Ellsbury, Hicks, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Headley, Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius. I assume it’ll be the same lineup tomorrow. At least Hicks is batting second and not Castro.
  • Masahiro Tanaka will make his second start of the season on normal rest this Sunday. The postponement means he won’t get the extra day of rest as originally scheduled. “He’s going to have to do it. It’s part of our schedule and part of what we’re going to have to deal with. He’s going to have to do it,” said Girardi.
  • Andrew Miller (wrist) will not wear any sort of brace during games. It digs into his skin and doesn’t allow him to move his hand comfortably during his delivery. He would need MLB approval for any brace anyway.

Yankees officially set 2016 Opening Day roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon — weather permitting — the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season against the same team and in the same place their 2015 season ended: at Yankee Stadium against the Astros. Opening Day is just another game in the grand scheme of things, but it absolutely has symbolic value, and besides, everyone wants to start the new year with a win.

Earlier today the Yankees officially announced their Opening Day roster. The deadline to file the roster with MLB was 12pm ET this afternoon. The Opening Day roster offers no surprises. There were no last minute trades or waiver claims. Nothing like that. The roster is exactly as expected following all the roster moves over the last week or two. Here is the club’s Opening Day roster:

CATCHERS (2)
C Brian McCann
C Austin Romine (No. 27)

INFIELDERS (6)
UTIL Dustin Ackley
2B Starlin Castro
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
1B Mark Teixeira
IF Ronald Torreyes (No. 17)

OUTFIELDERS (4)
RF Carlos Beltran
LF Brett Gardner
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
OF Aaron Hicks (No. 31)

DESIGNATED HITTERS (1)
DH Alex Rodriguez

STARTERS (5)
RHP Nathan Eovaldi
RHP Michael Pineda
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka

RELIEVERS (7)
RHP Johnny Barbato (No. 26)
RHP Dellin Betances
RHP Luis Cessa (No. 85)
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP Chasen Shreve
RHP Kirby Yates (No. 39)

MISCELLANY (4)
1B Greg Bird (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)
LHP Aroldis Chapman (restricted list, 30-game suspension)
RHP Bryan Mitchell (15-day DL retroactive to March 31st, broken toe)
OF Mason Williams (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)

Romine beat out Gary Sanchez and I guess Carlos Corporan for the backup catcher’s job. Torreyes beat out Pete Kozma and Rob Refsnyder for the backup infielder’s job, and Sabathia beat out Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Barbato, Cessa, and Yates beat out a small army of relievers for spots on the Opening Day roster. They’re on the shuttle though; they could be send down for a fresh arm in short order.

Tanaka will start his second straight Opening Day tomorrow — Sabathia started six straight Opening Days prior to last year — and be followed in the rotation by Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino, and Sabathia in that order. Miller is going to pitch through the chip fracture in his right wrist, which is both admirable and awesome. After spending all winter talking about the team’s super-bullpen, the Yankees were dangerously close to starting the season with only one of their three elite relievers.

Chapman will return on May 9th, in the 31st game of the season. Bird is done for the season, Mitchell will miss a minimum of three months, and I’m not quite sure how long Williams will be sidelined. He’s been hitting and throwing at Tampa, so I assume his return is weeks away, not months. Chapman’s suspension means the Yankees have an open 40-man roster spot. Bird and Mitchell are 60-day DL candidates whenever more spots are needed.

Okay, that was entirely too many words about an Opening Day roster with zero surprises. Hooray for baseball being back. Go team.

Chase Headley’s Chances For A Rebound, Offensively & Defensively [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Here’s a weird, random fact: the Yankees have had four different Opening Day third basemen in the last four years. It was Alex Rodriguez in 2012, Jayson Nix in 2013, Kelly Johnson in 2014, and Chase Headley in 2015. This year Headley will become the first player to start consecutive Opening Days at the hot corner for New York since A-Rod started three straight from 2010-12.

The Yankees re-signed Headley last offseason because Rodriguez can’t play third base anymore. The Yankees didn’t even wait to find out if he could in Spring Trianing. He was coming off his suspension last winter and had another hip surgery in his recent past, plus he was pushing 40, so the Yankees needed someone else at third. They brought back Headley because he had been one of the better third baseman in the game over the previous few years. From 2012-14:

  1. Miguel Cabrera — 19.0 fWAR
  2. Adrian Beltre — 17.2
  3. Josh Donaldson — 15.6
  4. David Wright — 15.3
  5. Chase Headley — 15.3

If you prefer bWAR, it’s the same five names, only with Miggy and Beltre flipped. If you want to limit it to 2013-14 only to remove Headley’s career 2012 season, he’s still top ten among all third basemen. Headley played rather well after coming over at the 2014 trade deadline and he seemed to fit exactly what the Yankees needed, namely a switch-hitting bat and good defense.

Last season Headley fell short on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. He hit .259/.324/.369 (91 wRC+) with eleven homers overall, making it his worst offensive season as a full-time player. Headley also committed a career-high 23 errors — his previous career high was 13 — and seemed to develop the yips, which turned routine throws into adventures. Needless to say, the Yankees are hoping for a big bounce back from their third baseman in 2016.

Can He Throw?

Headley’s ten fielding errors were a career high last season, but the throws were far more worrisome. It wasn’t just the errors, it was the number of poor throws overall, many of which Mark Teixeira saved at first base with his scooping ability. The throws weren’t just off-line either. Headley looked very tentative:

Chase Headley error

That is a third baseman lacking confidence. This all came out of nowhere too. Headley has been one of the best defensive third basemen in the game throughout his career and he was fantastic in the field with the Yankees after the trade two years. You’re lying if you say you saw this coming.

“More than anything, it’s just footwork. Footwork related stuff,” said Headley to Jack Curry (video link) recently when asked about his defensive work with third base/infield coach Joe Espada this spring. “Trying to keep my feet going … Just trying to clean that up a little bit and that’ll help some of the throwing issues I have last year.”

Headley hasn’t had any defensive miscues this spring, though we are talking about only 21 total chances in 55 innings, which is not enough to say whether he’s back on track in the field. Especially since not all of those 55 innings have been broadcast somewhere for us to see. I guess no errors in 21 chances is better than a few errors, but it doesn’t help us much going forward.

Looking at Headley’s career, last season was the outlier. He’s been a very good defender throughout his career and he suddenly forgot how to throw in 2015. The goal this season isn’t to take a bad defender and make him good. The goal is to take a previously good defender and get him back on track after a down season. Defense is like everything else in baseball. Players have slumps and bad years.

There is definitely a mental side to this — Headley admitted to losing confidence in the field last year — and that can be tough to overcome. And if Headley can’t get over his throwing issues, that’s a big problem because the Yankees don’t have a true third base alternative. (Sorry, I don’t think 36 spring innings mean Rob Refsnyder‘s ready to play the position regularly at the MLB level.) Like it or not, the Yankees need Headley.

If the throwing issues persistent, it won’t be the result of a lack of effort. Headley has been putting in extra work since last summer to sort this out, and Curry said Headley and Espada are out on a back field working on his defense pretty much every day this spring. I have no idea if he can get his throwing in order. There’s no way to put a number on this. All you can do is hope 2015 was truly an aberration and Headley will go back to being the player he was prior to 2015.

Is He Going to Hit?

Twenty third basemen qualified for the batting title last season, and among those 20, Headley ranked 15th in AVG (.259), 12th in OBP (.324), 19th in SLG (.369), 18th in ISO (.110), and 19th in wRC+ (91). He was among the worst offensive regulars at the position a year ago. The lack of power was a big part of it too. Here is his ISO over the years (Headley became a regular in 2009):


Source: FanGraphsChase Headley

No one in their right mind expected Headley to repeat his career 2012 season after re-signing with the Yankees. But something close to his 2013-14 performance (108 wRC+) was reasonable. Earlier in his career Headley’s lack of power could be blamed on Petco Park, at least in theory. From 2009-11, those pre-peak years, he had a .101 ISO at home and a .133 ISO on the road, so the split wasn’t huge.

Headley now calls Yankee Stadium his home park, and Yankee Stadium is a great place to hit for power, especially if you’re left-handed. Headley hit six of his eleven homers in the Bronx last season, and five of the six came as a left-handed hitter. Overall though, he was actually a better hitter on the road (98 wRC+) than at home (84 wRC+), which is pretty weird. Maybe that’s a reason to expect a rebound offensively. It’s tough for a hitter to be average-ish on the road and bad at home in Yankee Stadium two years in a row.

The power is what it is, especially since Headley has never been a great power hitter and he’s now over 30. More interesting to me are his strikeout and walk rates. Last season he had his lowest walk rate (7.9%) since becoming a regular, but also his second lowest strikeout rate (21.0%). (His previous low was 20.6% in 2010.) The PitchFX data shows Headley is not chasing more pitches or anything like that. He’s just making more contact nowadays.

Chase Headley plate discipline

Headley’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) was actually a career low last season, so no, the career-low walk rate was not the result of chasing more pitches. His contact rate, both overall (Contact%) and on pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%) were the highest they’ve been in years, so he was putting the ball in play more often. When you put the ball in play, you don’t walk or strike out as much.

The problem was the quality of Headley’s contact wasn’t great last summer. His 27.8% hard contact rate exactly matched the league average in 2015, but it was down from the 35.6% hard contact rate he posted from 2012-14. The real problem: Headley’s soft contact rate was 17.4%, which is still better than the league average (18.6%), but was way up from is 12.6% soft contact rate from 2012-14. (He had a 35.3% hard contact rate and a 12.2% soft contact rate from 2013-14, if you want to remove his career year.)

As with his throwing and defense, 2015 was an outlier for Headley offensively compared to his recent seasons. Maybe it was an adjustment year? A year ago at this time we were all talking about Brian McCann possibly rebounding after his adjustment period. Yeah, Headley spent some time with the Yankees in 2014, but not that much time. Who knows. You can’t rule anything out when trying to figure out how a player will perform going forward.

* * *

My guess is Headley rebounds with the glove but not so much with the bat this year. Perhaps he can get back to being a league average-ish hitter. I’m not sure will happen without the power though. I can’t say I’m supremely confident, but I do feel pretty good about Headley bouncing back on defense. He’s worked hard at it, he looks okay in camp, and his track record is pretty long. Like I said, this is a good defender who had a bad year, not a true talent bad defender. I think the glovework will be there, and the Yankees are going to need it to be there, because they don’t have any great alternatives.

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.

So far, so good with Headley’s throwing in Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Coming into Spring Training, one of the most important storylines in Yankees’ camp was Chase Headley‘s throwing. The team’s third baseman really struggled on defense last season, particularly when it came to making routine throws, and it’s something he needs to iron out before the regular season. “I’m not panicked that all of a sudden I forgot how to catch and throw a baseball,” he said after reporting to camp last month while also acknowledging a need to work on his throwing.

One week into the Grapefruit League campaign, Headley has played four games and 21 innings at third base, and all four games have been televised. He’s had nine defensive chances — one pop-up and eight grounders — and he handled all nine with no problems. The stats are totally meaningless though. I’m more interested to see Headley’s throwing mechanics and his body language this spring since those were obvious issues a year ago, when he looked tentative and short on confidence.

So far this spring Headley’s throwing looks … well … it looks normal. He looks like a normal third baseman who steps into the throw and fires across the diamond. Here’s one play from over the weekend, for example:

Chase Headley throw

The ground ball was right to Headley, so it was as routine as it gets. He scooped the ball, checked the runner at second, then threw a dart over to first base. There’s conviction behind the throw. That was lacking at times last season, sometimes very much so. It was an obvious problem. Headley lacked confidence in his throwing.

“The mental side of the game is as important or more important, so when things are going well it’s easy to be confident, easy to just kind of let things happen,” said Headley last month. “And when things aren’t going well, our natural instinct is to correct it and focus even more but sometimes that’s not the way to fix it. I wouldn’t say I was overly mental about it but certainly when you’re playing well and you’re confident, it’s much easier to be confident.”

Does the one random play I decided to GIF plus seven others not shown here mean Headley is over his throwing issues? Of course not. He’s going to have to work to get his throwing back on track all spring and probably continue working on it into the season too. For now, I’m encouraged because I’ve seen throws with conviction and a player who’s simply reacting, not thinking. That’s the way it should be.

The Five Most Important Storylines of the Spring [2016 Spring Training Preview]

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Each and every year, Spring Training around the Yankees is pretty hectic with important storylines to watch, regardless of whether they just won the World Series or missed the postseason. Last year we had the Alex Rodriguez circus and I’m not sure anything can compare to that. All things considered, it went pretty well, mostly because A-Rod showed he could still play.

This spring there are many things to keep an eye on as the Yankees prepare for the upcoming season, most of which involve health. That’s the buzzword this spring: health. The Yankees have some injury risk — I think it’s fair to say more than other teams — so that’s something to watch these next few weeks. Is it the only think to watch? Hardly. Here are five of the most important storylines to monitor in Spring Training this year, roughly in order of importance.

Tanaka’s Timetable

Masahiro Tanaka did indeed have elbow surgery this offseason, but it wasn’t the Tommy John surgery that is widely considered inevitable. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow, a spur that reportedly dates back to his time playing in Japan. Tanaka is already in Tampa working out and he’s thrown off a mound, so his rehab is going well. He threw some gas on the fire by saying he might not be ready for Opening Day, however.

“I can’t really say (whether I’ll be ready for Opening Day). I’ll take it day by day. I just want to see myself go into the bullpen, get the innings and see how I feel. I feel perfectly healthy,” said Tanaka to reporters the other day. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Tanaka has had no trouble with his throwing program and that the team’s ace will “get to where he needs to get to as time progresses.”

Brian Cashman hedged a bit, saying Tanaka will “enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons,” even though he is physically fine. CC Sabathia had the same surgery following the 2012 season and the Yankees took it easy on him in Spring Training. He was a few days behind the other starters in camp, and he made most of his early spring starts in controlled simulated games before getting into Grapefruit League action.

Every pitcher is different, though I suspect the Yankees will follow a similar plan with Tanaka this year. Simulated games early — that allows the team to control the action; they can end a inning if it goes too long, stuff like that — then a few tune-up Grapefruit League appearances late. (Sabathia made only two official Grapefruit League starts in 2013.) Is it ideal? No. But neither is offseason elbow surgery, even for something as relatively minor as a bone spur.

We should be able to get a pretty good idea whether Tanaka will be ready for the start of the regular season early in camp. Opening Day is April 4th, so give him four weeks of prep and we’re talking about a March 7th target date for game action, even if it’s only a simulated game. If Tanaka’s not able to pitch in some kind of game and get his pitch count into the 40-45 range that week of March 7th, the odds of him being ready for the season fall big time.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Teixeira’s Leg

Greg Bird‘s shoulder surgery has made it easy to forget Mark Teixeira is coming back from a pretty substantial injury himself. He suffered a small fracture in his shin last August, then was shut down in mid-September with a three-month rehab timetable. The last Teixeira update came in mid-December and all indications were his rehab was going well, though he had not yet started running. That was scheduled for sometime in January.

Joe Girardi will hold his annual start of Spring Training press conference tomorrow and I’m sure we’ll get an update on Teixeira at that time. It goes without saying how important he is to the Yankees. Teixeira is arguably the team’s best two-way player and he is their best power hitter, and now Bird is not around as a backup plan. The Yankees could keep Teixeira off his feet and give him a bunch of DH at-bats in spring, but that is A-Rod’s position now, so it’s not so simple. Both guys need at-bats to get ready for the season.

Castro At Third

The Yankees have made it clear they plan to try Starlin Castro at third base this spring — “We’re not going to force it … but we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks,” said Cashman — and his ability to handle the hot corner will have huge roster implications. If he can play third, the Yankees can use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door, which is their plan. If he can’t play third, they’ll need to use that spot to carry a backup third baseman.

Not only will watching Castro physically play the position be important, but I’m also curious to see exactly how much time the Yankees give him there. Remember, Starlin is relatively new to second base as well. He only started playing second last August. He’s going to need reps at that position as well. The Yankees can’t have Castro focus solely on the hot corner in Spring Training. He’s got to work out at second too. Will that leave enough time for him to pick up third base? There are reasons to believe Castro can handle the third, but it is still going to be a new experience, and he won’t have much time to learn the position.

Headley’s Throwing

I’m not sure any aspect of the 2015 Yankees surprised me more than Chase Headley‘s sudden inability to make routine throws. He made a career high 23 errors last year, including 12 throwing errors, fourth most of any non-first base infielder in baseball. Only Marcus Semien (18), Jean Segura (15), and Josh Donaldson (13) threw more balls away. That doesn’t include all the errors Teixeira saved Headley as well*. There was too much of this last summer:

Chase Headley error

The routine plays gave Headley trouble, yet his throws on difficult plays (those with minimal reaction time) were largely perfect. That suggests a mental issue, not a physical issue, and to be fair he did cut down on the errors as the season progressed. He made 16 errors in the first half and only seven in the second half, which is still a lot, but not nearly as much as earlier in the season. “There are some balls there is nothing you can do about but I worked on recognizing. Hopefully it’s behind me and hopefully it makes me mentally stronger,” he said at midseason.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone would say Headley is over his throwing problems based on his second half error total, including the Yankees and Headley himself. That’s why his throwing will be a focal point this spring. The goal isn’t to get Headley to do something he’s never done before, like it is with Castro playing third. The goal is to get him back to where he was his entire pre-2015 career.

* For what it’s worth, the fancy Baseball Info Solutions data I have access to through CBS says Headley ranked middle of the pack among third basemen in the number of errors saved by “good scoops” at first.

Dellin’s Workload

Last spring was a new experience for Dellin Betances. It was the first time in his career he reported to Spring Training with a big league job locked up, and relievers who are locked into big league spots have light schedules. They throw only a handful of innings and rarely travel. It’s a sweet gig if you can get it. Last spring Dellin threw 8.1 innings across nine appearances. In 2014 it was 12.1 innings across ten appearances.

Four innings doesn’t sound like a huge difference, and it probably isn’t, but Betances did struggle in Spring Training last year. His control was awful and even his velocity was down. It wasn’t until a week or two into the regular season that he started to look like the 2014 version of himself. Betances has said he’s a guy who likes regular work because it helps him stay sharp, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest the reduced spring workload led to his early season problems. He simply didn’t have enough time to get ready.

I’m curious to see how the Yankees handle Betances this spring. Do they give him a few more Grapefruit League innings to prepare for the season, or do they keep him on the typical reliever plan and expect him to adjust? Maybe the solution is more bullpen work, not necessarily game action. A balance has to be struck between enough work to prepare and too much work. That doesn’t seem like an easy thing to do, especially with a pitcher as unique as Dellin.