Thoughts following the Opening Day loss

(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

I know I just did a thoughts post yesterday, but there’s a bunch of stuff going on after Opening Day and none of it is worth a full post. This is the worst time of the season because we know the samples are still way too small to mean anything, but what else are we supposed to talk about? Baseball, man. It can be cruel.

1. I’m really curious to know what adjustment CC Sabathia made after the second inning last night. There had to be something, he looked like a completely different pitcher in his last four innings than he did his first two. Joe Girardi told Dan Barbarisi his pitches were cutting early and Sabathia told Bryan Hoch he was too amped up, but that doesn’t help us any. If there was a tangible adjustment made, that’s good. You want to be able to point to something specific for the improvement, something real. Everything gets magnified on Opening Day, that’s just the way it is, and Sabathia was far from impressive on Tuesday. I am looking forward to seeing his next outing though. Something changed after that second inning.

2. The offense was mostly a no show on Opening Day, but I thought Mark Teixeira looked really good. He hit a ball to the warning track in his first at-bat, ripped a line drive to right that sliced just foul in his second time up, then slapped a single the other way later in the game. He also drew a walk and saw 18 total pitches in four trips to the plate. Teixeira said he is still a little apprehensive about his surgically repaired wrist at the end of camp, which is a concern for obvious reasons, but he didn’t show it last night. He swung hard, made some solid contact, and he’s seeing the bell wall. Does that mean he’ll be fine going forward? Who knows. This one game, those four at-bats, were encouraging.

3. I’m fully on board with batting Brett Gardner seventh after being on the fence about it at first. Yeah, he would serve as the second leadoff man by batting ninth, but I think batting him seventh does a better job of helping the middle of the order. Gardner’s whole thing is not making outs, and by batting him closer to the middle of the lineup, he’ll get more of an opportunity to extend rallies and cap them off. The middle of the order is the key to everything; Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson aren’t going to generate much offense no matter where they slot into the lineup. Batting Gardner two spots higher to get that one extra good hitter behind Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano gives them more of a chance to turn rallies into runs. Instead of being a leadoff guy, he’ll be expected to drive in some runs. Plus he might get an extra at-bat once in a while.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

4. I am wrong all the time, about everything, yet I’m still surprised at how wrong I’ve been about this last bench spot stuff. Literally every step of the way. I thought they’d take Scott Sizemore, then when it was clear he was out of the running, I thought they’d take Eduardo Nunez. When they didn’t take Nunez, I thought they’d keep him in Triple-A as insurance. Instead, he was designated for assignment yesterday to make room on the roster for Yangervis Solarte. Wrong, every step of the way. Even by my terrible standards, that’s amazing. The Yankees don’t have much shortstop depth now — Addison Maruszak figures to be the starter in Triple-A with Nunez gone — especially with Brendan Ryan out for a few weeks, so they’ll probably have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for an extra body.

5. Dellin Betances is going to be my favorite sidebar this season. He was great in relief last year, very good in Spring Training, and just electric last night. Betances has been in the farm system for an eternity and he’s had a ton of ups and downs, and we’ve watched them just about every step of the way. It’s great to finally see him find some sustained success and a niche in the bullpen. His stuff is obviously excellent, and now that he’s throwing strikes regularly, Betances can be a late-inning force. There is plenty of opportunity in the bullpen with a clear path to higher leverage seventh and eighth inning work, so this is a good time for everything to be clicking. Very much looking forward to seeing more.

6. As a team, the Yankees saw 138 pitches in last night’s game. That isn’t a huge number, but out of their 150 nine-inning games last year, they saw 138+ pitches only 72 times. Less than half the time. The 2014 offense had a bad day on Opening Day and yet they still saw pitches at a higher rate than last year’s squad. Roberts did the heavy lifting with 20 pitches in his four trips to the plate while Gardner, Teixeira, and Soriano saw 18 apiece. That was by far the worst part of the 2013 offense. They made a ton of outs and they were mostly quick outs, two or three pitch at-bats. This group isn’t like the 2004-12 lineups or anything, but they make the pitcher work for whatever he gets. It’s refreshing.

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Betances and Nuno win final spots as Yankees finalize bullpen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The bullpen for the start of the 2014 season is set. Joe Girardi announced that Dellin Betances and Vidal Nuno have won the last two spots and will join David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, David Phelps, and Adam Warren in the bullpen. Robertson, of course, is replacing Mariano Rivera as closer. The bench has not yet been finalized.

Betances, 26, moved into the bullpen full-time last May and his career took off after years of command issues. He pitched to a 2.08 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 28 walks in 65 total relief innings between Triple-A and MLB last season, and this spring he’s allowed only one run with eleven strikeouts and four walks in 12.1 innings. Betances, who lives and dies with his mid-90s fastball and hard curveball, figures to cut his teeth in middle relief before possibly assuming greater responsibility.

The 26-year-old Nuno had a 2.25 ERA in 20 big league innings last summer before suffering a season-ending groin injury. He allowed three runs in eight innings this spring, walking one and striking out eight. Girardi could use Nuno as a matchup left-hander or a multi-inning guy, so the bullpen has some added flexibility. I think the best case scenario for Nuno is a lefty version of 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed reliever who can face one batter or throw four innings if need be.

The Yankees start the season with 13 games in 13 days, so having three stretched out relievers in Phelps, Warren, and Nuno allows them to take it easy on Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda out of the gate. Tanaka is transitioning from a seven-day schedule to a five-day schedule while Pineda is returning from shoulder surgery. Girardi, who is very good at getting the most out of his relievers, has insisted they would take the 12 best arms for the bullpen and that’s pretty much exactly what they’ve done.

Betances and Cabral standing out early in spring bullpen competition

Depending on what happens with the fifth starter spot, the Yankees have either two or three bullpen spots up for grabs in camp. There are something like eight or nine relievers competing for those spots, though some obviously have a better chance than others. Dellin Betances and Cesar Cabral, both of whom pitched with the team last September, have already emerged as the early favorites for big league jobs just two weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule.

Betances, who turns 26 in less than two weeks, continued his strong spring yesterday by pitching around a one out double in an inning of work. He didn’t just pitch around the double, he did it by throwing six straight curveballs to big leaguers Matt Joyce (strikeout) and Wil Myers (ground out). That’s not something Betances would have been able to do in the past. Emphasizing his offspeed stuff is something he’s been working on this spring.

“I feel good right now. I feel good with where my offspeed is. I feel like I can throw it for strikes. It’s been working for me. I’m just trying to better myself with each outing,” said Betances to Bryan Hoch. “I know my offspeed was one of the things that helped me out when I got in trouble with my fastball. I would try to use that to keep myself a little calm with my mechanics. I just tried to take that into this spring, mix my pitches. In the big leagues, everybody can hit fastballs, no matter how hard you throw. I’m just trying to use all my pitches the best way I can.”

Betances is up to 6.1 scoreless innings in camp, striking out five against two walks and two hits. The opponent quality stat at Baseball Reference says he’s been facing mostly big leaguers, which isn’t surprising. He’s been the first guy out of the bullpen in most games. Betances has the size and power stuff the Yankees love, so maybe a roster spot was his to lose coming to camp following last season’s bullpen breakout. If it was, he’s done nothing to lose the spot. If it wasn’t, he’s pushed himself towards the top of the depth chart.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

With Cabral, on the other hand, it always felt like he was on the outside of the bullpen competition looking in. At least it did to me. Carrying a second lefty specialist is a luxury, and with Matt Thornton already on board to be the primary guy, passing on Cabral to take a more versatile right-hander makes some sense. It still does, actually. Then again, the best pitchers are the best pitchers, and if another southpaw is one of the seven best relievers in the organization, he should be on the roster come Opening Day.

In 4.1 innings across four appearances this spring, the just-turned-25-year-old Cabral has allowed one hit and two walks, striking out four. Lefties are 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a walk against him. Cabral has not faced the best competition however, basically Double-A level according to that opponent quality metric at B-Ref. He can only face the guys he’s put out there against though, and if he keeps getting outs and handling lefties, he’ll get a longer look and more serious consideration as camp progresses.

So far, after only a handful of Grapefruit League appearances, both Betances and Cabral have done everything they’ve needed to do to secure a big league bullpen job. Neither guy has a spot locked up of course, but they have moved to the front of the pack. Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley, and Fred Lewis have pitched well too, so they’re not alone, but others like Robert Coello and Brian Gordon have already managed to pitch themselves out of bullpen consideration. Both Betances and Cabral have made a nice little statement early on and put themselves in good position for a big league job when roster decision time comes.

2014 Season Preview: Help From Within

It's Dellin's time to shine. (Presswire)
It’s Dellin’s time to shine. (Presswire)

Last year, the Yankees got close to zero help from their farm system. The only player to come up from the minors and establish himself as a big leaguer was Adam Warren, who spent the year as the swingman. Guys like David Adams, Preston Claiborne, and Zoilo Almonte got off to hot starts, but they all tailed off once they were pressed into regular playing time. Austin Romine also failed to impress as the backup catcher. The system offered close to no help as the injuries mounted and the poor stretches turned into poor seasons.

The Yankees were not oblivious to this — Hal Steinbrenner called a staff meeting and essentially had the scouting and player development staff audited to figure out why there were no internal solution. No major personnel changes were made, but some procedural changes were implemented and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. Turning around the system probably won’t happen overnight, but the team did take some steps in the right direction these last few months.

At some point this season, the Yankees will have to dip into their farm system for help. It’s inevitable. Injuries will strike and fringe players will play their way off the roster. When that happens, the first attempt at fixing the problem will come from within. The Yankees have shown they will be patient and not jump right into the trade market when they need help these last few years and I have no reason to think that will change in 2014. Here are the prospects who could come up and help the MLB team this summer.

Catcher: John Ryan Murphy
Murphy, 22, got his first taste of the big leagues late last year, but that was nothing more than a September cup of coffee following a breakout season in Double-A and Triple-A. He hit .269/.347/.426 with 29 doubles and 12 homers between the two levels and has improved so much defensively that he is now viewed as a no doubt catcher long-term. Had the Yankees not signed Brian McCann, the temptation to start Murphy in 2014 would have been be great. Instead, he figures to bide his time in Triple-A and await an injury after jumping Romine on the depth chart. Of course, he might be nothing more than trade bait. Sleeper: Eh, there really isn’t a sleeper behind the plate for 2014.

Anna. (Getty)
Anna. (Getty)

Infield: Dean Anna
Similar to Murphy, Anna figures to be the first called up whenever injury strikes the infield. The Yankees acquired the 27-year-old from the Padres in a minor offseason deal and he can do a little of everything except hit for power. He can get on base and play both second and short, where the offensive bar is pretty low. I’d say the chances of Anna coming up and being an impact player  this summer are remote, but he does enough to potentially help the team both at the plate and in the field if pressed into duty. Sleeper: Jose Pirela, who’s hit .264/.334/.401 and played four positions (second, short, third, left) at Double-A the last three years.

Outfield: Zoilo Almonte
Technically, Almonte had his chance to help the MLB team last year. He came up in mid-June and had five pretty great games to start his career, but it went downhill fast and he finished the year with a .236/.274/.302 batting line in 113 big league plate appearances around an ankle injury. Almonte, 24, offers sound corner outfield defense and a switch-hitting bat, and there’s a case to be made that he’s a better fit for the bench than Ichiro Suzuki right now. Instead of making the Opening Day roster, Zoilo will have to settle for a trip to Triple-A, where he will be the first called up whenever an extra outfield body is needed. He’s the clear first in line. Sleeper: Ronnie Mustelier, who didn’t get a shot last year but could hit his way into the conversation again.

Right-handers: Dellin Betances, Mark Montgomery, Jose Ramirez
Of everyone in this post, the 25-year-old Betances probably has the best chance to crack the Opening Day roster. He finally found something resembling sustained success in the bullpen last year, pitching to a 2.06 ERA with a 93/28 K/BB in 65.2 innings after shifting into a relief role. It feels like a foregone conclusion that Betances will get a chance to not only stick in the big leagues this year, but also assume a high-profile, late-inning role. The time is now for Dellin.

Had Montgomery not gotten hurt last year, he probably would have been called up instead of Claiborne. Instead, the 23-year-old struggled to throw strikes while missing time with shoulder problems. Montgomery will likely have to show he’s back to being the guy he was from 2011-12 before getting a chance to help the MLB team with his wipeout slider. Ramirez, 24, has had trouble staying healthy over the years and sure enough, he’s already been sidelined with an oblique problem in camp. When right, his fastball-changeup combination is electric and could have a huge impact out of the bullpen, assuming the Yankees are ready to give up on him as a starter given his career-long lack of durability. Sleeper: Danny Burawa, assuming he can figure out how consistently throw strikes.

Cabral. (Getty)
Cabral. (Getty)

Left-handers: Cesar Cabral, Vidal Nuno
I wouldn’t be a complete shock if either Cabral or Nuno made the Opening Day roster, but, more likely, they figure to serve as up and down arms this season. The 25-year-old Cabral is a pure lefty specialist with a low-90s fastball and a sweepy slider, and his late-season cameo was impressive (nine lefties faced, six strikeouts). Nuno, 26, has a deep enough repertoire to start and we saw him do that last summer before his groin injury. In a perfect world, he’d turn into a left-handed 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed swingman who could come in for one batter or four innings without much of a problem. Sleeper: Fred Lewis, who lacks sexy numbers but has the fastball-slider combination to help as a specialist.

* * *

The Yankees do not have a Xander Bogaerts or a Gregory Polanco in their farm system, that super high upside MLB ready prospect with a clear path to big league playing time in 2014. Any help they get from within this summer figures to come in small doses, from bench players or relievers. Sure, Murphy could take over as the starter if McCann gets hurt or Nuno could grab the fifth starter’s spot and run with it, but that would be a surprise. The system is not a position to provide an immediate impact right now unless it involves trading prospects for a big leaguer.

Dellin Betances’ Big Chance

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I swear, it still feels like the 2006 draft was just yesterday, but the 2014 season will be Dellin Betances‘ eighth (!) full season in the organization. The Yankees gave the towering right-hander from Washington Heights a $1M bonus as their eighth round pick back in ’06 and hoped he would develop into a frontline starter. That has not happened but the team has not given up on his enormous potential.

Last May, following six ugly starts with Triple-A Scranton, the Yankees moved the soon-to-be 26-year-old Betances to the bullpen full-time and the improvement was immediate. He struck out 43 of the next 136 batters he faced (31.6%) while allowing only eight runs and 12 walks in 34 innings. The Yankees called him up briefly in mid-August and then again as an extra arm when rosters expanded in September. Betances finished the year with a 2.06 ERA and 93 strikeouts (35.3%) in 65.2  total relief innings.

“I just feel like, confidence wise, I feel good,” said Betances to Anthony McCarron last August when asked about moving into a relief role. “I get to pitch more often, instead of going every five days. I get to go two or three times in that span, so I think the more time I get on the mound has helped me be more consistent … I think it’s just being more aggressive, attack the strike zone right away, where if you’re a starter, you kind gradually get aggressive as the game goes on.”

Repeating his delivery and keeping his long limbs in check has always been a struggle for the 6-foot-8 Betances, but apparently working more often out of the bullpen helped him stay in control even though he threw fewer total pitches. There’s nothing particularly impressive about a 10.6% walk rate (his walk rate as a reliever in 2013), but it’s substantially better than the 14.3% walk rate he posted from the start of 2011 through the conversion last May, when he looked close to a lost cause.

Betances struck out eight and walked one in 4.1 innings last September and barring some last minute additions, he’ll head to Spring Training as part of a wide open bullpen competition. The only relievers guaranteed to be on the roster come Opening Day are David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton, so that is potentially four open spots. I count as many as ten guys competing for those four spots, including potential fifth starters like David Phelps and Adam Warren and minor league free agents like Robert Coello and Brian Gordon.

Brian Cashman confirmed that, for whatever reason, Betances qualifies for a fourth option and can be sent to the minors this season without having to pass through waivers. Had he not qualified for the fourth option and instead required waivers to go to back to Triple-A, he might have won a bullpen spot almost by default. Now Betances will have to not only earn a big league job in camp, but he’ll have to continue to pitch well in the regular season to keep it. Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day.

For the first time in his nearly nine full years as a pro, there is a clear path for Betances to make the Yankees out of camp and play a rather significant role this coming season. Nothing in the bullpen is set aside from Robertson being the closer and Thornton being the lefty specialist, so if Betances shows last summer’s success was a true indication of his ability and not just a fluke, he could assume an important late-inning role rather quickly. This is his chance to justify that seven-figure signing bonus and more than a half-decade’s worth of patience.

“I’m thrilled to just come out here and whatever situation I need to be used in,” added Betances while talking to McCarron. “I’m ready for that.”