Learning curve, hard-hit ball tendencies point to offensive upswing for Didi Gregorius

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the winter the Yankees were tasked with finding a replacement at shortstop for Derek Jeter. Well, replacement isn’t really the right word. It’s not like they chose to move on from Jeter, he retired. Successor might be a better term here than replacement. Anyway, the search for a new shortstop led them to Didi Gregorius, who came over from the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade in early-December.

The Yankees had been trying to acquire Gregorius since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings, though they needed to wait until after his disappointing 2014 campaign for the price to drop low enough. Simply put, the Yankees bought low on Gregorius, at least relative to what they think he can become. They’re banking on a just turned 25-year-old improving in the coming years and becoming a no doubt starting shortstop down the road.

Gregorius was born in Amsterdam but grew up in Curacao, which has produced a bevy of talented young middle infielders in recent years. A bevy of talented young middle infielders who all initially struggled at the MLB level. Jurickson Profar started slow before his recent shoulder woes, and others like Gregorius, Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, and Jonathan Schoop have been below-average hitters early in their careers. They all have that in common.

“(Players from Curacao) are all highly educated, all speak four to seven languages,” said Rangers GM Jon Daniels to Peter Gammons in December. “They almost all come from very strong family backgrounds. So they have little issues adapting to the American society in the minor leagues, and are able to blow through on their natural skills. But in the Majors, when they have to make adjustments for the first time, they haven’t got the baseball backgrounds to make those adjustments. And because we have gotten so intrigued by them, we tend to be disappointed. It’s not fair.”

Current Giants hitting coach and ex-Yankees infield prospect Hensley Meulens, who grew up Curacao, agrees with Daniels. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Meulens to Gammons. “The kids on Aruba and Curacao don’t play a lot of baseball when they are young, and the level is very crude. They play like eleven games in a Little League season. If you’re a kid in the Dominican or Venezuela, you’re playing year round. Don’t lose patience.”

Gregorius doesn’t have the offensive potential of Profar or Bogaerts and he isn’t as gifted in the field as Simmons, but he was considered a potential two-way player coming up through the minors, someone with above-average defense and the ability to be a league average-ish or better hitter. Baseball America (subs. req’d) consistently lauded Didi’s glove during his prospect days and a few years ago noted his “combination of solid bat control, good pitch recognition and plus speed lead some scouts to project him as an above-average hitter.” That sounds promising.

Now, here’s the catch: we don’t know if Gregorius, Profar, Bogaerts, Schoop, and Simmons will be able to make the adjustments Daniels spoke about. Meulens sure didn’t during his days as a player. Others from Curacao like Wladimir Balentien and Roger Bernandina didn’t make the adjustments either. Andruw Jones is the best position player (and best player overall) to come from Curacao by a mile. The second best hitter is probably Randall Simon. It’s not a great collection of names.

That doesn’t mean Gregorius and those other guys won’t the make adjustments though. They haven’t had enough playing time in MLB to show us whether they can. What the Yankees do know about Gregorius is that he consistently hits the ball hard. Subjectively speaking, of course. ESPN stats guru Mark Simon detailed Didi’s tendency to sting the baseball back in December:

Inside Edge, a video-scouting service used by major league teams (including the Yankees) rates every at-bat by a stat known as “hard-hit rate.” The service employs video trackers who chart every batted ball as either hard-hit, medium-hit or soft-hit based on velocity and barrel contact (former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long used to track this on his own).

Gregorius had a hard-hit rate of 20.4 percent. He was one of 34 players to have at least 250 plate appearances this past season and a 20 percent hard-hit rate.

Gregorius registered 56 hard-hit balls this past season, 30 of which went for base hits, so he hit .536 when hitting the ball hard.

That’s an unusually low number. The average major leaguer hits around .700 on his hard-hit balls. And Gregorius has hit that mark before. In fact, in 2013, he recorded the same number of hard-hit balls. They resulted in 39 base hits.

Inside Edge’s hard-hit ball data is recorded by human stringers, so there will inevitably be some scorer bias, though until HitFX becomes public (which may never happen), this is the best data we have for measuring quality of contact. Three hundred and eleven players had at least 250 plate appearances last season, and Gregorius being one of 34 with a 20%+ hard-hit ball rate means he was in the 90th percentile, give or take. That’s encouraging.

The Yankees have their own internal measure of quality of contact called exit velocity, according to Mark Feinsand. Brian Cashman mentioned the improvement of Chase Headley‘s “hit velo” after the trade last summer and assistant GM Billy Eppler told Feinsand their metric places Aaron Judge in the 90th percentile of MLB hitters when it comes to hitting the ball hard. The Yankees use Inside Edge data and have their own internal exit velocity metric, and I’m certain both were consulted before the Gregorius trade.

Beyond the stats, the Yankees also had a firsthand scouting perspective on Didi from Eric Chavez. Chavez played with Gregorius in Arizona from 2013-14 and now works in New York’s front office as a special assignment scout. “I was really high on him,” said Chavez to Bryan Hoch in December. “His defense is unbelievable, and hitting-wise, he has the potential to be a good hitter — a good .275, .280 hitter, 12 to 15 home runs. His swing plays perfect for Yankee Stadium, he’s kind of got that pull swing. Most of his home runs he hit, where he likes to hit them, I think he’ll be pretty successful there.”

I am generally a scouting report over stats guy when it comes to young players, but in this case I’m more inclined to believe the stats than the scouting report. For starters, I wouldn’t expect Chavez to say anything bad about Gregorius. Even if doesn’t like him all that much, he wouldn’t trash him while talking to the media. Secondly, the Inside Edge data is specifically measuring the quality of Gregorius’ contact, which ostensibly tells us more about his offensive potential going forward than, say, his batting average or wRC+ in 2014. Either way, both the stats and scouting report are positive, but I’m trusting the numbers over Chavez here.

The Yankees didn’t acquire a finished player in Gregorius, which is why he came so relatively cheap. Starting shortstops are really hard to find and the team believes Didi is an MLB caliber defender right now — based on what we’ve seen this spring, uh, yeah, he’s a good fielder — and has the potential to improve at the plate. Players from Curacao are slow-starters in general, and the hard-hit ball data suggests Gregorius got some unfortunate results at the plate in 2014. I am skeptical of Didi’s bat long-term, but there is reason to believe his offense will soon be on the upswing.

Update: Didi Gregorius okay after taking pitch to right leg

9:33pm: Gregorius told Erik Boland he’s fine. He was scheduled to come out of the game in the next half-inning anyway and they decided to play it safe. Exhale.

8:33pm: Didi Gregorius exited tonight’s Spring Training game after taking a pitch to the back of his right leg, right to the hamstring. Here’s the play:

Gregorius tried to walk it off and stay in the game before exiting. This is Spring Training so the Yankees didn’t take any chances. He was removed as a precaution so they could ice his hamstring down and get it taken care of. Hopefully it’s nothing more than a welt and Gregorius is back on the field in a day or two.

Didi legged out a triple in his first at-bat of the night but is otherwise off to a pretty slow start this spring, coming into tonight’s game 1-for-12 (.083). That’s no big deal though.

We’ll update this post if the Yankees pass any information about Gregorius along. I’m pretty sure this isn’t anything serious though. They’re just playing it safe.

Didi Gregorius and the Need for Defense and Development [2015 Season Preview]

Get off El Duque's lawn. (Presswire)
Get off El Duque’s lawn. (Presswire)

I don’t know if it was their top priority this winter, but finding a new starting shortstop was a very important item on the Yankees’ offseason shopping list. Derek Jeter retired and with no shortstop prospects on the cusp of MLB, that meant they had to go outside the organization. Free agency had some okay solutions and the trade market is always a bit of a mystery, so eh.

After reportedly making several trade offers for multiple shortstops earlier in the winter, the Yankees found their new shortstop in early-December, sending Shane Greene to the Tigers in a three-way trade that brought Didi Gregorius to New York. The Yankees had been trying to acquire Didi since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings, so it wasn’t a total surprise when they acquired him.

“They turned me down 10,000 ways over and I had to go through a third team,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings last week. “I went through a number of different teams who when I was dealing with them who told me, ‘I tried to get him, too.’ I tried to get him at the deadline. I obviously tried to get him over the winter. A number of failed attempts. And then other teams were conveying back to me their failed attempts.”

The Yankees also re-signed Stephen Drew to play second base this winter, and while he is a natural shortstop, he is not considered any sort of threat to Gregorius. The Yankees didn’t trade Shane Greene to get Gregorius only to pull the plug after his first slump. Didi will get a long look this year and have a chance to solidify himself as the club’s shortstop of the future. Let’s look at what the Yankees need from him and what he can realistically provide.

Yankees Need: Above-Average Defense

Let’s not kid ourselves here. Gregorius is a glove first player and the Yankees acquired him first and foremost because of his work in the field. Jeter was a tremendous player, but he stunk defensively, especially later in his career, and the Yankees clearly prioritized improving their infield defense over the winter. This is a pretty simple and straight forward request: Gregorius has to make all the plays he’s supposed to make plus some a Yankees’ shortstop hasn’t made in a long time.

Gregorius Can: Play Above-Average Defense, I Think

There’s a disconnect between the scouting reports and stats when it comes to Didi’s fielding ability. He came to the Yankees will a reputation for being a strong gloveman, but it could just be the infield version of Nichols Law, meaning he’s so bad at the plate his defensive reputation got inflated. Here are some scouting report tidbits from Baseball America (subs. req’d) over the years.

  • 2011: “He has a 65 arm on the 20-to-80 scouting scale that allows him to make any throw, often without needing to set his feet. His above-average speed and quick feet give him good range as well, though his hands are still somewhat erratic. Many of his errors come from a lack of focus and a tendency to rush plays.”
  • 2012: “Gregorius is a quality athlete whose best attribute is his arm, which rates a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale thanks to its strength and accuracy. He’s a plus defender with good range and a quick first step. His hands are his biggest drawback defensively and contributed to his 21 errors in 80 games in 2011.”
  • 2013: “He has smooth actions, plus range and a sniper rifle of an arm. His arm rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, allowing him to make plays from deep in the hole that other shortstops can’t.”

The scouting reports say Gregorius has defensive tools, yet UZR (-3.6), DRS (0), Total Zone (-7), and FRAA (-4.0) all say he’s been average or (mostly) worse in his 1,521.1 career innings at short. Inside Edge data shows Gregorius has been above-average at making difficult plays and below-average at making routine ones, which lends some credence to that whole “many of his errors come from a lack of focus and a tendency to rush plays” nugget from Baseball America’s 2011 scouting report.

When it comes to a player who has just about one year worth of MLB time at a position, I’m going to trust the scouting reports over the stats every time. Defensive stats are a wonderful tool but they are still very much a work in progress, and one year is not a big enough sample to say anything definitive. Gregorius might really be below-average! We’re going to find out this year. Until then, I’m sticking with the scouting reports that say he’s a strong defender.

Yankees Need: To See Some Improvement Against Lefties

In 724 career plate appearances, the 25-year-old Gregorius is a .243/.313/.366 (84 wRC+) hitter overall, including .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) against righties and .184/.257/.233 (33 wRC+) against lefties. If he performs like that against right-handed pitchers going forward, I think the Yankees would be thrilled. (His career spray charts against righties suggest Didi will benefit from Yankee Stadium.) They would be even more thrilled if Gregorius makes some strides against southpaws and shows he can be an everyday player long-term, not just the heavy side of a platoon as a left-handed hitter. Some sort of progress against lefties is a must in 2015.

Gregorius Can: Try To Improve Against Lefties

Didi has only 180 career plate appearances against southpaws at the MLB level and that’s not much, but those same scouting reports that praise his defense also note he’s struggled against left-handed pitchers throughout his career — “Being a lefthanded hitting shortstop is another positive in Gregorius’ favor, though he has struggled against lefties throughout his career,” said the 2012 write-up — so this isn’t a new trend.

The Yankees have already mentioned platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan, but that’s just silly. (Ryan has a 56 wRC+ against lefties the last three years!) If the club wants to shelter Gregorius and sit him against the toughest of lefties, the David Prices and Chris Sales of the world, then fine. But it shouldn’t be an outright platoon. The only way Gregorius is going to improve against lefties is by facing them. If he rides the pine against good but not great southpaws like Mark Buehrle, Wei-Yin Chen, and Wade Miley, then what the hell is the point?

Yankees Need: Some Excitement

The Yankees are a pretty boring team, wouldn’t you say? Masahiro Tanaka starts, Michael Pineda starts, and Dellin Betances appearances were by far the most exciting part of last year’s team. By far. Every once in a while Frankie Cervelli would pump his fist or do something goofy, but that was it. We couldn’t even laugh at Eduardo Nunez‘s helmet falling off every damn time he ran to first because he had been sent packing. So Didi, the Yankees and everyone else beg you to please inject some life in this group.

Gregorius Can: Play With Energy

Gregorius has a reputation of being a high-energy player though I’m not sure how true that really is because I haven’t seen him play all that much. Hopefully it is true. Everyone can play with energy though, especially a 25-year-old shortstop, so hopefully Gregorius is the kind of exciting, fun to watch player the Yankees have sorely lacked in recent years. If the Yankees are going to miss the postseason again, I would at least like them to be watchable.

(Just FYI: My alternate title was “In Which Didi Stands For Di-fense and Di-velopment.”)

The pressure’s on Didi Gregorius, but not because he’s replacing Derek Jeter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first few days of Spring Training have been predictably dominated by Alex Rodriguez. The focus on A-Rod has gone well beyond overboard. But, if there’s anything good to come out of the A-Rod attention, it’s that other players in camp have been able to get their work in and fly under the radar. That includes the team’s first new starting shortstop in two decades.

“People didn’t pay a lot of attention to (Didi Gregorius) the first few days of camp,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings over the weekend. “It could change as time goes on, but I’m sure it helped him to get comfortable a little bit earlier and get to know his teammates without having to answer a lot of questions.”

Gregorius is replacing Derek Jeter as the team’s starting shortstop but he’s not really replacing Jeter. It’s not like the Yankees picked between the two. Jeter retired and the Yankees needed to find a new shortstop no matter what. They could have taken the easy way out and signed a proven veteran like Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera, but instead they went young and traded for Gregorius. That’s all.

The “Didi replacing Derek” storyline is unavoidable the same way the same storyline was unavoidable when Tino Martinez replaced Don Mattingly, but so far Gregorius has said all the right things whenever the media has been able to tear themselves away from A-Rod. “I am going to play the game, that’s all. What Jeter did nobody else can do. If they compare me to Jeter, there is nothing I can do. It’s my choice if I want to get it in my head,” said Gregorius to Ken Davidoff.

Any pressure Gregorius feels this year should not come from being the guy who plays shortstop for the Yankees after Jeter. It should come from Gregorius himself because this season is a tremendous opportunity for him. He just turned 25 and he’s the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees (!) with no one coming from the farm system to breathe down his neck anytime soon. The job is his for the taking. He should be putting pressure on himself to capitalize.

Gregorius had a similar opportunity with the Diamondbacks two years ago — the opportunity to cement himself as an MLB regular — and he responded by hitting .252/.332/.373 (92 wRC+) in 404 plate appearances. That isn’t great by any stretch and I remain skeptical of Didi’s bat going forward, but I get the feeling the Yankees would be pretty happy with that kind of production from Gregorius this year. At least as long as he catches the ball and shows improvement against lefties at the same time. Besides, that would be a big upgrade over what Jeter gave them last season.

Being the shortstop that follows Jeter will not be easy. The microscope will be on Gregorius all year the same way it was on David Robertson when he replaced Mariano Rivera last year. There’s nothing Didi can do about that. That’s baseball. All he can go is play his game, the game the Yankees acquired, and work to develop into the best player he can be. Given the opportunity in front of him, Gregorius has a chance to cement his spot in the team’s long-term future, and that should be his goal. Not to make people forget the Cap’n.

“(Replacing Jeter) doesn’t bother me at all,” said Gregorius to Jennings. “I came here a little bit early so I could get to know everybody. I’m not worried about the attention. Of course I’m going to get interviewed no matter what I do, so it’s fine. When you guys come here, like right now, I’m going to answer you guys. Whenever you guys go talk to Alex, I’ll be waiting.”

Poll: The Most Important Addition of the Offseason

Miller appears to be 95% arms and legs. (Presswire)
Miller appears to be 95% arms and legs. (Presswire)

Spring Training has begun and the offseason is over. The Yankees made a lot of transactions this winter — I count eleven trades and free agent signings involving actual MLB players — and accomplished their goals of getting younger and more flexible. It was a different winter in the sense that there were no massive free agent contracts handed out.

Some offseason pickups are more important to the Yankees than others, obviously. More important not just for the success of the 2015 Yankees, but for the 2016 and beyond Yankees as well. Which offseason addition was most important both short and long-term? That’s what we’re here to decide. With all due respect to one-year guys like Stephen Drew and Garrett Jones, and fringe roster guys like Chasen Shreve and Chris Martin, here are the team’s six biggest offseason pickups.

RHP David Carpenter

Acquired from the Braves in the Manny Banuelos trade, the 29-year-old Carpenter is going to step right into some sort of setup role this year. Shawn Kelley’s old role, basically, which is fitting because they are similar fastball-slider pitchers. It’s hard to consider any non-elite reliever like Carpenter a long-term piece — he’s been traded four times and claimed off waivers once already in his career — but he is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2017. If he performs well, he’ll stick around in the bullpen for a few years.

RHP Nathan Eovaldi

Eovaldi, who just turned 25 ten days ago, was New York’s big rotation addition this winter. He had a shaky year with the Marlins in 2014 (4.37 ERA in 199.2 innings) but there are signs of growth, specifically his continually improving walk rate (2011-14: 13.7 BB%, 8.9 BB%, 8.9 BB%, 5.0 BB%) and FIP (2011-14: 4.35, 4.13, 3.59, 3.37). The Yankees acquired Eovaldi because of what they believe he will become, not what he has been, and his raw tools — specifically one of the hardest fastballs in the game — suggest major upside. Upside, of course, means he’s not there quite yet. Like Carpenter, Eovaldi is under control through the 2017 season as an arbitration-eligible player and the team envisions him fronting the rotation by time he qualifies for free agency.

SS Didi Gregorius

(Ralph Freso/Getty)
(Ralph Freso/Getty)

Needless to say, a starting shortstop is a pretty big deal. The Yankees had to find a new starting shortstop this winter for the first time in two decades and Gregorius, who turned 25 last Wednesday, gets the first crack at being Derek Jeter‘s long-term replacement. He’s basically the polar opposite of Jeter as an above-average defender and below-average hitter. It’ll be a shock to the system for many Yankees fans initially. Gregorius came over in the Shane Greene three-team trade and he’s under team control for five more years, including the last four as a Super Two arbitration-eligible player. He’s never going to be a guy who hits in the middle (or even at the top) of the order, but shortstop is a damn important position.

3B Chase Headley

The Yankees acquired the 30-year-old Headley at the trade deadline last year and saw firsthand how well he fit both in the clubhouse and on the field. A switch-hitter with patience and some pop to go with excellent defense at the hot corner is the kind of player every team could use. The Yankees re-signed Headley this offseason to a four-year contract worth $52M to take over as their starting third baseman, A-Rod or no A-Rod. He probably won’t be asked to hit in the middle of the order at the outset of 2015, but honestly, I could see him hitting second or third before long if the guys expected to hit in the middle of the order repeat their 2014 efforts.

LHP Andrew Miller

Although he’s a lefty, Miller replaced David Robertson on the roster. They’re both top notch late-inning relievers. Handedness doesn’t matter. The Yankees gave Miller a four-year, $36M deal over the winter and it remains to be seen if he’ll be the team’s closer or setup man this season. Either way, the team expects him to be a force in eighth and/or ninth inning. This isn’t your garden variety lefty reliever. Miller, 29, will be counted on to be a late-inning force during the life of his new contract.

LHP Justin Wilson

Like Miller, Wilson is no typical lefty reliever. He has power stuff — averaged 96.3 mph with his fastball last year — and is able to face both lefties and righties. Walks have been an issue for the 27-year-old Wilson in his two years and one month as a big leaguer (career 10.6 BB%) but he has missed plenty of bats (career 22.0 K%) and gets plenty of ground balls (50.9 GB%). He’s basically a left-handed complement to Carpenter. Wilson has four years of team control remaining. He can’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season.

* * *

As a reminder, this poll is trying to balance short and long-term importance. That isn’t necessarily easy. Veteran players like Headley and Miller figure to have their best years in 2015 and gradually decline during their four year contracts. And, if all goes according to plan, younger guys like Gregorius and Eovaldi will get better each year, so 2015 will hopefully be the worst years of their time in pinstripes. Make sense? Anyway, let’s get to the poll.

Who was NYY's most important pickup of the winter?

The five most interesting Yankees ZiPS projections

2015 ZiPS

Early last week, as part of his annual series at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski released his ZiPS projections for the 2015 Yankees. As always, projections don’t mean a whole lot of anything. They aren’t predictions — projections are an estimate of current talent level — and while ZiPS has historically been accurate on a macro level, there are always individual outliers. Projections are a completely objective look at a player and a conversation starter, that’s all.

The graphic above shows the rough WAR projections for the Yankees’ regulars. The team’s full ZiPS projections are right here, so check them out at your own convenience. I want to focus on five players with projections that stood out as interesting to me, either for good reasons or bad reasons. Let’s get to it …

Brian McCann: +3.0 WAR

Catcher defense is still very difficult to quantify and ZiPS doesn’t handle it well, so there’s no point in looking at McCann’s projected WAR. The most important thing is ZiPS sees him as a .249/.316/.431 (.325 wOBA) hitter this coming season, which is way better than the .232/.286/.406 (.306 wOBA) line he put up last year. It’s down slightly from his .252/.329/.441 (.332 wOBA) line with the Braves from 2011-13 but still in the same ballpark. That’s encouraging.

Remember, ZiPS knows all about McCann’s heavy career workload and catcher aging curves and all that. It knows that catchers McCann’s age tend to continue declining once they’ve started declining, yet it still expects him to bounce back in 2015. That’s because it sees his .231 BABIP last summer and knows it was out of line with his .283 career mark. That said, it only has him getting back to .260 BABIP. This 100% objective computer system doesn’t expect McCann to slide into uselessness just yet and for some reason I find that reassuring.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Didi Gregorius: +1.6 WAR

Defensive stats are sketchy and defensive projections are even sketchier. ZiPS pegs Gregorius as a +1 defender, which is actually better than his career UZR (-3.6) and DRS (0) numbers at short, but not in line with his reputation. Is it possible Didi’s defensive skills have been overstated? Oh hell yeah. It happens all the time, especially with players who can’t hit. But, as I explained a few weeks ago, the scouting reports and Inside Edge data make it seem Gregorius is a standout defender with a knack for the occasional mental mistake on routine plays. That is something that can be improved with experience, in theory.

Anyway, aside from the defense, ZiPS has Didi as a .251/.307/.369 (.295 wOBA) hitter and that sorta stinks. The league average shortstop put up a .251/.306/.363 (.297 wOBA) line last year though, so Gregorius is projected as almost a perfectly league average hitting shortstop. There’s nothing sexy about that, but Derek Jeter did hit .256/.304/.313 (.279 wOBA) last season, and that’s really really bad. Even at the league shortstop average, Didi will be a big upgrade at the plate. Add in even +1 defense, and he’s an even bigger upgrade. The Yankees got -2.3 WAR from their shortstops a year ago, easily the worst in baseball. Gregorius is looking very much like a multi-win upgrade even with the modest ZiPS projections.

Nathan Eovaldi: +1.1 WAR

To me, Eovaldi is the perfect example of a pitcher poised to exceed projections. ZiPS only knows the stats, remember. It doesn’t know Masahiro Tanaka has a tiny tear in his UCL, for example. It doesn’t know Chasen Shreve decided to throw harder last year. And it doesn’t know Eovaldi appeared to improve his changeup late last season or that he is going from an atrocious pitch-framer (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) to an elite one (McCann) or that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a long history of improving strikeout rates. Those are three ZiPS ignored factors that could have a major impact going forward. Eovaldi is projected for a 4.51 ERA (4.16 FIP) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperforms that by a full run this coming season. Okay, fine, let’s say half-a-run instead. Either way, I like Eovaldi’s chances of exceeding ZiPS.

Justin Wilson: -0.1 WAR

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So ZiPS isn’t a fan of New York’s new lefty middle reliever. Wilson has a 2.99 ERA (3.45 FIP) in 138.1 career innings and the projection system has him as a true talent 4.31 ERA (4.54 FIP) pitcher in 2015. His strikeout and walk rate projections (23.6 K% and 12.8 K%) are right in line with his 2014 performance (23.8 K% and 11.7 BB%), so the difference is all in home run rate. After allowing eight homers in his first 138.1 big league innings, ZiPS sees Wilson as an eight homers in 64.2 innings guy right now. That … seems weird.

Yes, Wilson is moving into a much more hitter friendly ballpark. Yankee Stadium had a 111 HR Park Factor last summer — that means it inflated homer production to 11% more than the league average — while PNC Park had an 88 HR Park Factor, so that’s a big difference. Enough to go from a 0.52 HR/9 from 2012-14 to 1.11 HR/9 in 2015? Maybe! That just seems like an exorbitant spike in homer rate, especially for a pitcher with a career 50.9% ground ball rate.

Reliever homer rates can be pretty volatile year to year because they inherently work in small samples, maybe 60-70 innings per year. One single homer results in a pretty big change in a reliever’s homer rate. Five dingers in 50 innings is 0.90 HR/9. Four is 0.72. Six is 1.08. Those are pretty big swings that result from one swing of the bat, one gust of wind, a couple degrees of temperature, stuff like that. ZiPS sees Wilson being replacement level because it expects him to start serving up long balls, but reliever homer rates are really volatile. The computer is being pretty pessimistic.

Bryan Mitchell: -1.3 WAR

Yikes. ZiPS pegs Mitchell for a 5.92 ERA (5.68 FIP) with mediocre strikeout (15.0 K%) and walk (11.5 BB%) rates, which isn’t good at all but not completely unexpected for a non-elite 23-year-old pitching prospect. The problem is Mitchell is more or less the team’s sixth starter. Maybe he’s more like the eighth starter behind Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers, but the point is he’s not all that far down the depth chart. ZiPS won’t have any impact on Mitchell’s real life performance, but geez, it would have been nice to see the system be a little more optimistic heading into the season.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 3-5

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’ll inevitably disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 6-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

Dellin. (Elsa/Getty)
Dellin. (Elsa/Getty)

We are now in the home stretch of our 40-man roster rankings and about to enter the top five. These guys are the cream of the crop. The impact players for both today and tomorrow. The guys who will hopefully be at the center of the next great Yankees team. Simply put, these are the players the Yankees need to excel to get back to being contenders.

Today we’re going to cover players three, four, and five. Two pitchers and an everyday up-the-middle player. The weird thing is we don’t quite know what to expect from two of the three just yet because one has injury concerns and the other hasn’t even played a game in pinstripes yet. So let’s get on with it. Here is the next batch of players in our 40-man rankings.

No. 5: Dellin Betances

2015 Role: High-leverage reliever. Betances emerged as one of the top relievers in the world last season and the Yankees are asking him to do it again. Well, I’m sure they understand he might not be that good again, but they are counting on Betances to dominate late in the game, and for multiple innings on occasion. I don’t think he’ll throw another 90 innings in 2015 — the two-inning appearances might not come as often only to keep him fresh and healthy.

Long-Term Role: Closer, and it could happen as soon as next year. It seems obvious to me Betances is being groomed for the ninth inning, and all the bullpen depth they added this winter means it’ll be easier for Joe Girardi & Co. to navigate the seventh and eighth innings without Dellin. There is a question of whether Betances is best used as a setup man or being pigeon-holed into the ninth inning, but teams tend to use their best relievers in the ninth inning, and Betances is the team’s best reliever even after the addition of Andrew Miller.

Although it feels like he’s been around forever, Betances is still under team control for five more years, the next two as a dirt cheap pre-arbitration player. He’s not all that young anymore — he’ll turn 27 in March — so by the end of his five years, he’ll already be 31 and heading into his age 32 season. That’s too far away to think about though. Betances earned a lot of responsibility last season and it’s only a matter of time until he gets the glory of the ninth inning.

Didi. (Presswire)
Didi. (Presswire)

No. 4: Didi Gregorius

2015 Role: Starting shortstop. The Yankees have discussed platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan but that seems sort of silly. Ryan has hit lefties worse than Didi these last two years (31 vs. 25 wRC+). I do think the team will sit Gregorius against tough lefties, the David Prices and Chris Sales of the world, but I think he’ll get a chance to sink or swim against guys like Mark Buehrle and Wei-Yin Chen, the non-overpowering lefties.

As the starting shortstop, Gregorius’ first responsibility comes in the field on defense. He is a massive upgrade over Derek Jeter defensively and the team is trying to compensate for their lack of offense with great defense, so catching the ball at short is imperative. Didi is a standout gloveman with a knack for highlight plays and that’s what the Yankees want to see. Anything he contributes at the plate is a bonus, though it is worth noting he’s a left-handed hitter with a career .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) line against righties. He could help more than expected offensively, especially in Yankee Stadium.

Long-Term Role: Gregorius will turn 25 next month and the long-term shortstop position is his for the taking. The Yankees clearly like Didi, they’ve been trying to get him since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings and they traded away a valuable young player in Shane Greene to get him, so I fully expect him to get an extended opportunity at the position this summer. Five-hundred something at-bats. They want him to be their shortstop of the future.

Gregorius has five years of team control remaining. He’ll make something near the minimum this season and will be arbitration-eligible four times as a Super Two. The Yankees want him to spend all five of those years reeling in balls at short and contributing at the plate from the bottom of the lineup. Gregorius is not Jeter, neither he nor anyone else ever will be, though he has a chance to be a shortstop in this league for a very long time, and the team wants him to have that career in pinstripes. I have no doubt about it.

No. 3: Michael Pineda

Big Mike. (Presswire)
Big Mike. (Presswire)

2015 Role: Ace. Ace-ish, really. Pineda finally made it to the mound for the Yankees last year and the little bit of time he did spend in the rotation was dominant: 1.89 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 13 starts and 76.1 innings. He was the team’s best starter last season on a rate basis and the Yankees want to see more of the same this coming season. Lots more. When he’s healthy, Big Mike showed he can be a difference-maker.

Pineda’s battled shoulder trouble since coming over to New York in the January 2012 trade with the Mariners, and last year he missed more than three months with a muscle strain in his shoulder. Durability is a major concern for Pineda. You can’t realistically expect him to maintain his 2014 performance over a full season, but the Yankees would happily take something like a 3.50-ish ERA in 2015 if it meant getting 180+ innings out Pineda.

Long-Term Role: Ace! Pineda is No. 3 on this list for a reason: because he is capable of domination and ace-caliber performance. The health concerns are never really going to go away — guys who have shoulder surgery tend to continue having on-and-off problems in their careers — but they can be alleviated somewhat with a healthy year in 2015.

Maybe Pineda’s long-term outlook is Al Leiter? Leiter had major shoulder surgery at age 23 — the same age as Pineda — and threw only nine big league innings from 1990-92 before finally settling in as a workhorse starter with occasional ace-level domination in his late 20s. Pineda turned 26 less than two weeks ago and will soon be three full years out from shoulder surgery.

Either way, the Yankees have Pineda for another three seasons as an arbitration-eligible player. At the time of the trade, they were hoping he would have risen to the top of rotation by now, but that didn’t happen. That’s baseball. We saw last year that Pineda is still capable of being excellent and it was encouraging. Now that he’s beyond the shoulder surgery, the goal is keeping him healthy and seeing more of that top of the rotation ability.

Coming Thursday: No. 2. The two-way threat with the most remaining guaranteed contract years on the roster.