Saturday Links: Otani, Spring Training Caps, A-Rod, Fowler

For the first time I can remember, a Steinbrenner has backed off the “World Series or bust” mantra. While speaking to David Lennon earlier this week, Hal Steinbrenner said the Yankees have the potential to be a postseason team in 2017. Not exactly a glowing endorsement, but hey, give Hal points for honesty. Here’s some stuff to check out as we wait for Spring Training to begin.

Otani won’t play in Arizona, WBC

Shohei Otani, the best non-MLB player in the world, will not play in Arizona with the Nippon Ham Fighters this month or the World Baseball Classic next month, reports the Kyodo News. Otani is nursing a nagging ankle injury. There was some hope he would be able to DH in the WBC, but nope. He’s being removed from Japan’s 28-man roster entirely. They don’t want to push it.

The (Ham) Fighters are scheduled to hold Spring Training in Arizona at the Padres’ complex for the second straight year. It was going to be a great chance for MLB clubs to get their eyes on Otani, even the Spring Training version of him, right in their own backyards. Now they’ll have to wait for the regular season, and, to be fair, they were going to scout him during the regular season anyway. They just won’t get an early start in camp or the WBC.

The biggest question remains whether Otani will actually come over to MLB next season. Reports indicate he will, but the new international hard cap means his earning potential will be severely limited. He could wait three years until he turns 25, make good money in Japan in the meantime, then come over when he’s no longer subject to the hard cap. We’ll see.

MLB unveils new Spring Training caps

Last week we got a sneak peak at the Yankees’ new Spring Training caps, and yesterday morning, MLB made it official. The pinstriped brim is part of this year’s Grapefruit League ensemble. Thankfully the team’s road cap is much more … normal.

2017-spring-training-hats

Well, I don’t think I’ll be running out to buy either one of those. Whatever. The jerseys, thankfully, look like normal Spring Training jerseys. You win some and you lose some.

A-Rod‘s coming to camp … twice

Earlier this week Steinbrenner confirmed Alex Rodriguez will serve not one, but two stints this spring as a guest instructor, according to Lennon. They haven’t yet mapped out a plan for the regular season, however. A-Rod’s official title is special advisor, though he’s really more like a special instructor, going around and working with various prospects. What are the chances Gleyber Torres will be Rodriguez’s pet project this year, 90%? I’ll take the over.

Fowler is Law’s sleeper prospect

Yesterday Keith Law (subs. req’d) wrapped up his annual prospect rankings package by naming one sleeper prospect for each team. He defines a sleeper as a prospect “not in the current top 100, but I think they have a good chance to take a big leap forward during 2017, ending up not just in the top 100 but also somewhere in the middle to upper reaches of it.” Outfielder Dustin Fowler is his pick for the Yankees.

Fowler has the right mix of ability, some performance and youth to end up squarely in the top 100 next winter. Teenage prospects such outfielder Estevan Florial or shortstop Wilkerman Garcia are probably a year from that kind of status.

Pretty much the only thing Fowler doesn’t do is walk, and while minor league walk rates aren’t very predictive, the scouting report says he is a bit of a free swinger. With a little more patience, Fowler could develop into a 20-20 center fielder with solid on-base percentages. And it’s not even clear he is one of the ten best prospects in the organization right now. Wild.

Sorting out the projected 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster

Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)
Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)

Over the last few seasons the Yankees and every other team in baseball have begun to use their Triple-A affiliate as an extension of their big league roster. They not only send relievers up and down whenever a fresh arm is needed, they’ll also shuttle platoon players in and out based on upcoming pitching matchups. Clubs look for every advantage possible, and these days that means having MLB and Triple-A roster flexibility.

The Yankees have built an exceptional farm system with many high-caliber prospects ticketed for Triple-A. They also have several big league roster openings with young players slated to compete in Spring Training. The refreshing emphasis on youth means projecting the 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster is damn near impossible, but that won’t stop me from trying. I do this every winter and I ain’t stoppin’ now.

Now that the non-roster invitees have been announced, let’s try to figure out what the RailRiders’ roster will look like on Opening Day. After all, these players are depth players for the Yankees, and inevitably we’re going to see many of them in MLB at some point. The top prospects get all the attention, understandably, but don’t sleep on the Chris Parmelees and Anthony Swarzaks of the world either. Those guys have a way of finding themselves in the Bronx.

Let’s begin by looking at position player candidates for the Triple-A Scranton roster. An asterisk (*) denotes the player is on the 40-man roster, which, in this situation, is kind of a big deal.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Kyle Higashioka* Greg Bird* Aaron Judge* Tyler Austin*
Wilkin Castillo Ronald Torreyes* Mason Williams* Rob Refsnyder*
Francisco Diaz Ji-Man Choi Jake Cave Tyler Wade
Kellin Deglan Cito Culver Dustin Fowler
Mike Ford Clint Frazier
Pete Kozma
Donovan Solano
Ruben Tejada

I have 20 position players in the table and these days Triple-A rosters run 25 players deep. As recent as 2011, Triple-A and Double-A teams fielded only 24-man rosters. For real. It is not at all uncommon for Triple-A clubs to carry eight-man bullpens, especially early in the season when pitchers are still getting in the swing of things and also having their workloads monitored. We need to pare that list of 20 players down to 13 or even 12.

Catchers: Barring injury, the Yankees are set with Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine behind the plate at the big league level. Romine did an okay job as the full-time backup last year, and while I wouldn’t completely rule out Higashioka winning the job in camp, it would surprise me. Remember, Romine is out of minor league options, which means if he’s not the backup catcher, he’s out of the organization. (Even if he clears waivers, he’d likely elect free agency and look for a big league opportunity elsewhere.)

The odds are strongly in favor of Romine backing up Sanchez with Higashioka biding his time as the third string catcher in Triple-A. The real question is who will back up Higashioka? Castillo seems like the safe bet considering he’s a 32-year-old journeyman with (a little) big league experience and a ton of Triple-A experience. Diaz has two games of Triple-A experience and that’s it. Deglan has barely played above Single-A. Those two figure to be the Double-A Trenton catching tandem with Higashioka and Castillo in Scranton. That’s two of our 12 position player roster spots.

Infielders: Austin, Bird, and Refsnyder are essentially competing for two big league roster spots: the first base job and a bench job. Everyone wants Bird to win the first base job, including the Yankees themselves. But, if he needs more time to shake off the rust following shoulder surgery, a return trip to Scranton could very well be in the cards. Either way, one of these three players figures to start the season with the RailRiders while the other two are with the Yankees. My guess is Refsnyder winds up in Triple-A, but who knows. Three of our 12 Triple-A roster spots are now taken.

Back to Triple-A for Mr. Refsnyder? (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

Solano, Tejada, and Torreyes will all compete for the big league reserve infielder’s job in Spring Training, or at least appear to compete for the job. Maybe even Kozma too. Torreyes not only filled the role admirably last season, he’s also on the 40-man roster and the other three are not. That’s one heck of a tiebreaker. Torreyes can be sent to Triple-A, he has options remaining, it’s just hard to think he could lose the bench job in Spring Training. Lil’ Ronnie in the show with the other three in Scranton seems to be the most likely outcome here. That’s six Triple-A roster spots accounted for now.

Choi has big league time and while I suppose it’s not completely impossible he wins the big league first base job should Bird need more time in Triple-A, I’d bet against it. The big league service time all but ensures Choi will start the season in Scranton, not Double-A Trenton. That figures to spell bad news for Ford, who has played only 42 career games at the Double-A level. Hard to think the Yankees would send two pure first basemen to Scranton. Choi is position player number seven.

Before we found out the Yankees re-signed Kozma, the final Triple-A infield spot came down to Culver or Ford. Now neither of them figures to get a Triple-A roster spot. They’ll likely have to go back to Double-A to begin the season. Either that, or the RailRiders will carry a six-man bullpen, and there’s no chance of that happening.

Outfield: In a roundabout way, Judge and Williams are competing for one big league roster spot. Judge will be given every opportunity to win the starting right field job, but if the Yankees determine he’s not ready for it, he could wind up back in Triple-A. In that case, Aaron Hicks would presumably take over in right field and Williams would get the fourth outfielder’s job. I suppose it could go to Refsnyder or Austin, but I think the Yankees would want an actual outfielder on the bench. There’s the eighth position player. (Hicks, by the way, is out of options and can’t be sent to Triple-A.)

Frazier is a Triple-A lock because he reached the level last season and is a priority guy as a top prospect. The Yankees aren’t going to send him to Double-A to clear a roster spot because Culver has tenure in the organization or anything like that. Fowler is another high-end prospect who had a successful season at Double-A in 2016, so an assignment to Triple-A is the natural order of things. Cave is a Triple-A veteran and the logical candidate for the fourth outfield spot. Frazier, Fowler, and Cave are position players nine, ten, and eleven.

Utility: I listed Austin and Refsnyder as utility players only because they can play the infield and outfield. They were already covered in the infield section. Wade, who is primarily an infielder but started working out in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, had a solid Double-A season a year ago, so, like Fowler, an assignment to Triple-A makes sense. Wade is out 12th and final Triple-A position player.

Let’s quickly recap everything we just went through:

  • Catchers (2): Higashioka and Castillo
  • Infielders (4): Choi, Kozma, Solano, and Tejada
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and either Judge or Williams
  • Utility (2): Wade, and one of Bird, Austin, or Refsnyder

That’s a dozen position players right there, and I suppose if the RailRiders open the season with a normal seven-man bullpen, either Culver or Ford would make the team as the 13th position player. Probably Culver. I still expect an eight-man bullpen, at least initially.

The perfect world scenario for the Yankees is Bird and Judge winning the first base and right field jobs, respectively, and Austin beating out Refsnyder for a bench spot. So, assuming that happens, here are the projected Triple-A position players, with a batting order written out because why not?

1. SS Tyler Wade
2. CF Dustin Fowler
3. LF Clint Frazier
4. DH Rob Refsnyder
5. C Kyle Higashioka
6. 3B Donovan Solano
7. 1B Ji-Man Choi
8. 2B Ruben Tejada
9. RF Mason Williams

Bench: C Wilkin Castillo, IF Pete Kozma, OF Jake Cave

The batting order is just for fun. Don’t take it to heart. Remember, players are going move around. Refsnyder won’t always DH. Wade will undoubtedly see some time in the outfield. Frazier and Williams will probably see time in all three outfield spots. Heck, Solano and Tejada will probably roam around the infield too. These things are very fluid. That, however, is the projected Triple-A Scranton group of position players based on everything we know at the moment. Now let’s get to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Luis Cessa* Johnny Barbato* Richard Bleier*
Dietrich Enns* Gio Gallegos* Chasen Shreve*
Chad Green* Ben Heller* Joe Mantiply
Ronald Herrera* Jonathan Holder* Jason Gurka
Bryan Mitchell* J.P. Feyereisen Evan Rutckyj
Luis Severino* Mark Montgomery
Chance Adams Matt Wotherspoon
Daniel Camarena
Kyle Haynes
Brady Lail
Jordan Montgomery

Lots of pitchers. Lots and lots of pitchers. There are 23 of ’em in the table, and if that sounds like a lot, consider the RailRiders used 37 different pitchers last season, including 22 different starters. They used 45 pitchers and 24 different starters in 2015. So yeah, 23 pitches in the table seems like a lot, but it’s maybe half as many as Scranton will need to get through the season. Before you know it they’ll be signing Phil Coke out of an independent league again. That’s baseball, yo.

Rotation: At the moment, the Yankees have to two open big league rotation spots, which Brian Cashman & Co. insist will go to two young pitchers. Cashman has specifically singled out Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino as the candidates for those jobs. (Adam Warren too, but I don’t think he’ll actually open the season in the rotation unless all hell breaks loose in camp.) My money is on Severino and Cessa getting the rotation spots. We’ll see.

In theory, the Yankees would send the two losers of the rotation competition to Triple-A, where they would bide their time until they need another starter in the Bronx. Sounds simple enough. That’s not necessarily how it will work though. In 2014 the Yankees held a three-way competition for the long reliever job — not even a rotation spot, the long reliever spot — between Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno. The Yankees ended up carrying all three on the Opening Day roster because they were the best men for the job.

Who’s to say that, if Cessa and Severino were to win the two rotation spots, that Green and Mitchell wouldn’t be in the bullpen? That really complicates things and is why I included guys like Haynes and Lail in this exercise. More than a few of those 40-man roster Triple-A rotation candidates could wind up in the big league bullpen, creating a need for starters in Scranton. Geez, that’s a mouthful.

Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)
Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)

Anyway, this is what I think will happen: two of the Cessa/Green/Mitchell/Severino quartet get big league rotation spots and a third winds up in the bullpen as the long man. The fourth goes to Scranton as the de facto sixth starter. That means, based our table, we’re left with seven candidates for the four remaining Triple-A rotation spots: Adams, Camarena, Enns, Haynes, Herrera, Lail, and Montgomery.

Two of the four spots are easy. They’ll go to Adams and Montgomery, two of the better pitching prospects in the organization, both of whom are ready for Triple-A. (Montgomery thrived there in his brief stint last year.) Enns and Herrera are on the 40-man roster, which could give them a leg up for the final two Triple-A rotation spots. I do wonder whether the Yankees will move Enns to the bullpen since that’s likely his ultimate destination.

For now, I’m guessing Enns remains a starter, meaning Scranton’s five-man rotation to start the season will be, in whatever order, Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green Mitchell, or Severino. That leaves Camarena, Haynes, and Lail out in the cold. The projected Double-A rotation is pretty stacked (Ian Clarkin, Josh Rogers, Justus Sheffield, etc.) so it’s not as simple as bumping them down a level. Hmmm.

Bullpen: Right now, the Yankees have five big league bullpen spots accounted for: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, and Warren. Layne is out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league bullpen, he’s probably out of the organization. No Triple-A for him. I assumed in the previous section one of the four young starters winds up in the bullpen, which means six of seven big league bullpen spots are accounted for in this little exercise.

I have 12 relievers in the table plus Camarena, Haynes, and Lail to consider, so that’s 15 pitchers total. One of those 15 is going to get the final big league bullpen spot, so it’s really 14 pitchers for eight Triple-A bullpen spots. In all likelihood one of the 40-man roster guys will get that last bullpen job with the Yankees. It doesn’t really matter which one, specifically. My money is on Bleier because the Yankees really seem to like him, but ultimately the name doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because there are six 40-man relievers in that table, and whichever ones don’t get that final MLB bullpen spot will wind up in Triple-A, no questions asked. None of ’em are going to Double-A. That’s five Triple-A bullpen spots accounted for already, which leaves us nine pitchers for the final two or three bullpen spots (depending whether they carry a seven or eight-man bullpen): Camarena, Feyereisen, Gurka, Haynes, Lail, Mantiply, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon.

The Yankees signed Gurka as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason and he has some big league bullpen time with the Rockies, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot. Cashman talked up Mantiply at the town hall two weeks ago and he has a tiny little bit of big league time too, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot as well. If the RailRiders employ an eight-man bullpen — and to be clear, the Yankees make that decision, not the RailRiders — I think it would be Feyereisen. Just a hunch. Camarena, Haynes, Lail, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon end up in Double-A for the time being. (One or two might even get released.)

Alright, so after all of that, my projected 13-man Triple-A Scranton pitching staff shakes out like this:

  • Rotation (5): Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green, Mitchell, or Severino.
  • Bullpen (8): Feyereisen, Gurka, Mantiply, and five of Barbato, Bleier, Gallegos, Heller, Holder, or Shreve.

After going through all of that, I must point out the odds are strongly in favor of this post being a complete waste of time. Guys are going to get hurt in Spring Training, released before the end of camp, whatever. These things change and they change a lot. Trying to project the Triple-A Opening Day roster in late January is a fool’s errand, so I guess that makes me a fool.

I still think it can be instructive to go through this exercise each year, even though it’s prone to blowing up in my face. It’s good to get an idea of how the Triple-A roster will shake out, see where the Yankees have depth, and who the call-up candidates are at any given moment. I have a tendency to forget about Herrera, personally. Laying this all out is a good reminder that hey, he’s probably going to be in the Scranton rotation. So even though this is all very subject to change, I think we get a good grasp of what the Triple-A roster may look like come April.

Torres, Frazier, Kaprielian, and other prospects headline 2017 Spring Training invitees

Soon. (Presswire)
Soon. (Presswire)

Two weeks from today the Yankees will open Spring Training when pitchers and catchers report to Tampa. And earlier today, the Yankees officially announced this year’s list of non-roster invitees. The 23 non-roster players include several of the team’s best prospects. Here’s the list:

Pitchers (11)
RHP Chance Adams
LHP Daniel Camarena
RHP J.P. Feyereisen
LHP Jason Gurka
RHP James Kaprielian
RHP Brady Lail
LHP Joe Mantiply
RHP Jordan Montgomery
RHP Nick Rumbelow
LHP Evan Rutckyj
LHP Justus Sheffield

Catchers (4)
Wilkin Castillo
Kellin Deglan
Francisco Diaz
Jorge Saez

Infielders (6)
Ji-Man Choi
Pete Kozma
Donovan Solano
Ruben Tejada
Gleyber Torres
Tyler Wade

Outfielders (2)
Dustin Fowler
Clint Frazier

As a reminder, all players on the 40-man roster will be in big league camp automatically. That includes prospects like Miguel Andujar, Dietrich Enns, Domingo German, Ronald Herrera, Kyle Higashioka, Jorge Mateo, and Yefrey Ramirez. Those guys have yet to make their MLB debuts, but they’ll be in Spring Training since they’re on the 40-man roster.

As for the list of non-roster players, first things first: the Yankees have apparently re-signed Kozma. He spent all of last season with Triple-A Scranton, where he hit .209/.268/.265 (52 wRC+) in 488 plate appearances before becoming a minor league free agent. The Yankees obviously then re-signed him as a depth player at some point. Welcome back, Pete.

Secondly, good gravy is that a lot of top prospects. Torres, the crown jewel of last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade, is one of the very best prospects in all of baseball, and we’ll get to see him in a Yankees uniform for the first time this spring. Frazier, Kaprielian, and Sheffield are consensus top 100 prospects as well. They’re all going to be in camp.

Adams and Montgomery are not on the 40-man roster and chances are we won’t see either of them on a top 100 prospects list this spring, but they’re two of New York’s best pitching prospects, and both will begin 2017 at Triple-A. Bringing them to big league camp as non-roster players is a no-brainer.

The one top prospect who will not be in camp is Blake Rutherford, last year’s first round pick. That’s not surprising though. The kid is only 19 and he’s yet to play a full season of pro ball. Prior to Kaprielian last year, the Yankees hadn’t brought a first round pick to big league camp for his first Spring Training in at least a decade. Not even Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain got invites their first year.

It’s worth pointing out this list is not necessarily final. The Yankees can still add players as non-roster invitees and they very well may do so. (Mark Montgomery was a late add last year, for example.) This is a World Baseball Classic year, and the Yankees will have some playing time to fill while Dellin Betances and Didi Gregorius are away from the team.

Two weeks ago I put together a non-roster preview and came up with 24 possible names. Twenty of the 24 received non-roster invites this year, so hooray for that. Go me.

Prospect Profile: Dustin Fowler

(The Times-Tribune)
(The Times-Tribune)

Dustin Fowler | OF

Background

The 22-year-old Fowler was born and raised in Cadwell, Georgia, a town with a population of under 500 during his formative years. He attended West Laurens High School a few miles down the road, where he split his time between baseball, wrestling, and football through his junior season. His high school career took off once he focused on the best sport of the three, and he won the All-Middle Georgia GHSA Baseball Player of the Year Award in his senior season. He batted .598 that year, with 8 home runs and 39 RBI.

Baseball America ranked Fowler as the 22nd best prospect from Georgia heading into the 2013 draft (a class headlined by Clint Frazier), though he did not crack the BA 500. The Yankees took him in the 18th round (554th overall), and gave him a well over-slot $278,000 signing bonus to buy him out of a commitment to Georgia State University.

Pro Career

Fowler kicked-off his professional career in the GCL, where he hit just .241/.274/.384 with zero homers and three steals in 117 PA (89 wRC+). He would then spend the entirety of an injury-abbreviated 2014 at Charleston, where he hit .257/.292/.459 with 9 HR and 3 SB in 272 PA (104 wRC+). The uptick power jumps off the page, as does the modest bump in OBP, thanks to Fowler’s walk rate jumping from 3.4% in 2013 to 4.8% in 2014.

Fowler broke out in 2015, batting .307/.340/.419 (114 wRC+ with 4 HR and 18 SB in 256 PA) in a return engagement with Charleston, and earning a promotion to High-A Tampa on June 22. His power sagged a bit in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, but he still batted .289/.328/.370 with a home run and 12 steals (111 wRC+) in 262 PA. His walk rate ticked up once at High-A, from 4.3% to 5.7%, which helped to mask the slip in power.

He earned a ticket to the Arizona Fall League after the 2015 season, and it was more of the same in the desert, as he slashed .279/.313/.410 with 2 HR and 7 SB in 65 PA. It’s an offense-happy environment, so his 96 wRC+ was actually a bit below-average, but he impressed nevertheless.

The 22-year-old’s ascent up the Yankees prospect list continued in 2016, as he performed admirably in a full season at Double-A. Fowler batted .281/.311/.458 for Trenton, with 12 HR and 25 SB (109 wRC+) in 574 PA, and drew praise for his continued refinement. His walk rate sagged dramatically, dipping to 3.8%, but it was mitigated a bit by his career-best 15.0% strikeout rate and well above-average .177 ISO.

All told, Fowler is a .279/.313/.429 hitter in 1,546 professional plate appearances.

Scouting Report

Most any report that you read on Fowler revolves around two things: his rawness, and his athleticism. The former is largely a product of his amateur career, as he was a three sport athlete for a few years, and played for a small school in a small division. And the latter is simply something that he oozes, with his 6’0″, 185-pound frame (he’s added about 15 pounds of muscle since signing with the Yankees) and well above-average to plus speed.

It isn’t just about athleticism for Fowler, though. He’s a left-handed hitter and thrower, with above-average to plus bat speed and the ability to barrel the ball anywhere in the strike zone. He also has average to above-average raw power, particularly to the pull side (hello, short porch), and he has been able to actualize that power in-game more often than many expected. Fowler’s approach at the plate may be best described as controlled aggression, and his ability to work the count remains his most glaring flaw as a prospect.

Defense is where Fowler truly shines, owing to his aforementioned speed and athleticism. He takes good routes in the outfield, accelerates quickly, and has the arm strength to stay in center long-term.

That speed and acceleration should make him an asset on the basepaths, as well. It has not as of yet, though, as he has been successful on just over 71% of his 95 career attempts, or right around the break-even mark. Fowler’s still just 22 (and a young 22, as his birthday was on December 29), so there is reason to hope that he’ll figure it out.

Baseball America ranked him ninth on the Yankees’ top-ten back in October, which says quite a bit given the team’s extraordinary farm system.

2017 Outlook

Fowler is set to open this coming season at Triple-A, where he’ll bounce between left and center. He’s not on the 40-man roster at this point, but he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft next off-season, so this is an important year in his development. I expect to see him in Spring Training this season, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent a significant amount of time in the Majors this season (perhaps in some sort of carousel with Mason Williams and Jake Cave).

My Take

The walk rates are a red flag, as I worry that Fowler will be too easily exploited by pitchers who are more capable of painting the corners (as well as umpires who call more consistent strike zones). His tools are so obvious, though, and the praise is so universal that I hold out hope that he could be a league-average regular in center. There’s a great deal of work to be done, but he’s already at Triple-A, and it’s clear that the Yankees believe in him.

Previewing the Yankees’ potential Spring Training invitees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Four weeks from yesterday, pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa and the Yankees will open Spring Training. It’s the best non-news day of the year. Nothing really happens that day, but hey, it’s the start of Spring Training, and that’s exciting. The offseason is boring. This one especially so.

At some point in these next three weeks and six days the Yankees will announce their Spring Training non-roster invitees. There are usually 20-something of them. The number varies year to year. The 20-something non-roster players plus the 40-man roster means 60-something players in big league camp. This is a World Baseball Classic year though, so the Yankees might bring a few extra bodies to camp to cover for the guys who leave to play for their country.

Non-roster players take on all shapes and sizes. Some are veteran journeymen trying to hang on. Others are top prospects. Heck, some are middling prospects. Very few of them actually have a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Most non-roster players are hoping to open eyes in camp and earn an early-season call-up whenever reinforcements are inevitably needed. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years back. He pitched well in camp and made himself a name to remember.

This spring should be extra exciting because the Yankees have such a robust farm system, and so many of their top prospects are close to the big leagues. Spring Training is a great time of year for prospect watchers. The Yankees will surely bring a bunch of their top youngsters to camp, even if only for a few weeks, just to expose them to big league life. So, with all of that in mind, let’s preview this year’s crop of potential non-roster players. Let’s call this … educated speculation.

Catchers

The Yankees, like every other team, invite a ton of non-roster catchers to Spring Training. Why? Well, who else is supposed to catch all those bullpen sessions? That’s really all it is. Teams need lots of catchers in camp because there are lots of pitchers in camp, and someone has to behind the plate for those guys. Last year the Yankees brought six non-roster catchers to camp. The year before it was five.

New York is pretty devoid of catching prospects at the moment, now that Luis Torrens is (temporarily?) a member of the Padres. Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, and Kyle Higashioka are all on the 40-man roster, so they’ll be in camp. Donny Sands and Miguel Flames, the team’s two best catching prospects, are rookie ball kids still transitioning behind the plate, so they won’t be in big league Spring Training. Too soon. Their time will come. That means an unexciting crop of minor league signees and journeyman roster fillers behind the plate.

Mike’s Prediction: Wilkin Castillo, Kellin Deglan, Francisco Diaz, Jorge Saez, plus one or two others yet to be signed. Diaz was in camp as a non-roster player last year and re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason. Castillo and Deglan signed as minor league free agents over the winter. Saez, 26, was a minor league Rule 5 Draft pick from the Blue Jays. The Yankees brought Santiago Nessy to camp last spring after picking him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. I’m guessing Saez gets the same treatment.

Infielders

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Alright, now we’re talking. Gleyber Torres, the best prospect in the system and one of the best prospects in all of baseball, is a lock to be invited to big league camp, I believe. The Yankees have historically brought their tippy top prospects to camp — Jorge Mateo was there last year, remember — and Gleyber is the best they have to offer. Torres could hang around until mid-to-late March too, depending on how much playing time is available.

Among the other prospects, Tyler Wade is the other non-roster lock in my opinion. He’s not a Torres-caliber prospect, but he’s pretty darn good himself, and he’s slated to open the 2017 season in Triple-A. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League last year, so they’re starting to groom him for a big league utility job. Getting him in camp so he can work with the big league instructors is the next logical step.

The Yankees have a small army of infield prospects in the low minors, guys who are better served going to minor league camp. Wilkerman Garcia, Hoy Jun Park, Kyle Holder, and Thairo Estrada fit into this group. I thought maybe the Yankees would bring Mike Ford to camp as an extra first baseman, but the recent Ji-Man Choi signing takes care of that. Choi will “compete” with Greg Bird and Tyler Austin (and Rob Refsnyder?) for the first base job.

Mike’s Prediction: Choi, Torres, Wade, Cito Culver, Donovan Solano, and Ruben Tejada. Solano and Tejada are big league veterans on minor league deals, so yeah, they’ll be in camp. Culver gets the call because both Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro could end up playing in the WBC, meaning the Yankees will need infielders. Cito re-signed with New York as a minor league free agent a few weeks ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if an invite to Spring Training was part of the deal. Keep in mind Mateo and Miguel Andujar are on the 40-man roster and will be in Spring Training automatically.

Outfielders

Remember last spring, when the Yankees had both Mateo and Aaron Judge in camp as non-roster players? That was so fun. They even hit home runs in the same game (against the Red Sox!). To the very necessary action footage:

Ah yes, that’s the good stuff. Anyway, I bring this up because Torres and Clint Frazier and going to be this year’s Mateo and Judge. The top prospect infielder-outfielder tandem we all tune in to see every Spring Training broadcast. Frazier is one of the Yankees’ best prospects and he’s already played in Triple-A, making a non-roster invitation to Spring Training is a no-brainer.

One top outfield prospect I don’t expect to see in big league camp is Blake Rutherford. The Yankees bought James Kaprielian to camp last year and that was a rarity — Kaprielian was the first first round pick the Yankees brought to Spring Training as a non-roster player one year after the draft in at least a decade. Not even Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain got non-roster invites in 2007. Rutherford is fresh out of high school. Big league camp isn’t the appropriate place for him. Lame, but it is what it is.

Mike’s Prediction: Frazier, Dustin Fowler, Mark Payton, and Jake Cave. I’m going to go against the grain and say Payton over the more heralded Billy McKinney. Payton is not a top prospect by any stretch, but he can do a little of everything and is a performer. He’s going to carve out a career as a fourth outfielder, and I think the Yankees will want to get him in camp at least once before he becomes Rule 5 Draft eligible next winter. Cave is a Triple-A vet, hence the non-roster invite. Fowler is one of the team’s top prospects and he’ll be in Triple-A this year, so I expect to see him too. Mason Williams (and Judge) is already on the 40-man.

Right-handers

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

We’re going to see some nice prospects arms in camp this year, me thinks. Kaprielian, Chance Adams, and Dillon Tate are the three big names. Kaprielian was in Spring Training last season, and since he was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, I don’t think the Yankees will hesitate to bring him to camp this year. Adams broke out last year and is going to start the season in Triple-A. Prime non-roster fodder.

Tate is the interesting one and I don’t think a non-roster invite is a lock, but I do think it’s likely. He regained velocity after the trade last year and threw well in the AzFL. Tate is going back to starting this season and I think the Yankees will look to move him quickly. And you know what? I think the Yankees want to show him off too. Tate was the fourth overall pick in the draft two years ago and one of the big name prospects they acquired at the deadline last summer. They’ll strut him out there and let him air it out for a few Grapefruit League innings because hey, why not?

Other big name prospects, like Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu, seem unlikely to get an invite to big league Spring Training this year. There are only so many innings to go around, and the Yankees will need them to a) decide the fourth and fifth starter race, and b) sort through a bunch of candidates for the remaining bullpen spots. This might be a year ahead of schedule for Acevedo and Abreu. I’m open to being wrong. We’ll see.

Mike’s Prediction: Adams, Kaprielian, Tate, J.P. Feyereisen, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, plus two or three others yet to be signed. At some point soon the Yankees will sign some pitchers to minor league deals for depth and Triple-A roster filler. The Anthony Swarzaks of the world we all love to hate. Feyereisen is a reliever with a chance to pitch in the show next year, hence the invite. Pinder and Rumbelow are still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, so they won’t actually pitch this spring, but they have big league service time and the non-roster invite is basically a courtesy. They’ll get big league meal money and lodging. It’s better than rehabbing in minor league camp.

Left-handers

As with the righties, I think we’ll see some good left-handed pitching prospects in Spring Training, most notably Jordan Montgomery and Justus Sheffield. Montgomery pitched very well at Double-A and Triple-A last summer, and the odds are strongly in favor of him making his MLB debut at some point in 2017. Spring Training is a chance for Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild to get their eyes on him. Giving Montgomery a non-roster invite makes all the sense in the world.

Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)
Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)

As for Sheffield, I do think he’ll get the invite to big league camp even though the odds of him pitching in the show this year are extremely small. Sheffield is a top prospect who reached Double-A last year, and he’s going to spend much of 2017 there as well, which could be enough to make him a non-roster candidate. And like Tate, I think the Yankees are going to want to show him off a bit. Sheffield could be one of those guys who makes one Grapefruit League appearance before being sent to minor league camp.

Mike’s Prediction: Montgomery, Sheffield, Jason Gurka, Joe Mantiply, plus one yet to be signed. Gurka signed a minor league deal a few weeks ago and has big league time with the Rockies, so he’ll get the non-roster invite. Mantiply is in a similar situation. Other southpaw prospects like Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, Stephen Tarpley, and Josh Rogers will have to settle for minor league camp and a possible one-day call-up for a split squad game or something.

* * *

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the chances of me being wrong (very wrong) here are quite high. This is all nothing more than guesswork based on the farm system and New York’s recent non-roster tendencies. Okay, so after all of that, I came up with 30 possible non-roster invitees:

  • Catchers (6): Castillo, Deglan, Diaz, Saez, plus up to two others yet to be signed.
  • Infielders (6): Choi, Culver, Solano, Tejada, Torres, and Wade.
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and Payton.
  • Pitchers (14): Adams, Feyereisen, Gurka, Kaprielian, Mantiply, Montgomery, Pinder, Rumbelow, Sheffield, Tate, plus as many as four yet to be signed.

Last year the Yankees brought 25 non-roster players to camp. The year before it was 26 and the year before that it was also 26, so my total of 30 is in ballpark when you consider each team will probably bring a few more players to camp to help cover for the WBC. If anything, 30 might be a little light since Pinder and Rumbelow won’t actually pitch. (The Yankees brought 44 players to camp in 2013, the last WBC year, which was insane.)

The Yankees announced their non-roster invitees on February 5th each of the last two years. Three years ago it was January 29th. They tend to do it very late in the offseason, so we still have a few weeks to go before things are made official. Either way, this promises to be a very prospect filled Spring Training. Guys like Torres, Frazier, Kaprielian, Montgomery, Fowler, and Wade will all be in camp, plus all the 40-man guys like Mateo, Andujar, Judge, and Bird. Should be fun.

2017 Rule 5 Draft status suggests the Yankees will have to trade some prospects this year

Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)
Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)

The busiest day for the Yankees this offseason — and most teams, for that matter — was November 18th, the day clubs had to finalize their 40-man roster for the Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees made 12 transactions involving 13 players that day. The team’s deep farm system meant six players were added to the 40-man roster. Even then, the Yankees still lost four players in the MLB phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

The Rule 5 Draft and 40-man roster crunch was pretty significant this offseason. The Yankees lost several potentially useful players, most notably Jacob Lindgren and Nick Goody, simply because there was no room for them. Having a great farm system comes with a cost. The Rule 5 Draft crunch is poised to be even more severe next offseason too. Check out the (partial) list of prospects who will have to be added to the 40-man after the 2017 season:

Catchers: None
Infielders: Abi Avelino, Thairo Estrada, Gleyber Torres, Tyler Wade
Outfielders: Rashad Crawford, Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Billy McKinney, Leonardo Molina, Tito Polo
Pitchers: Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, J.P. Feyereisen, Zack Littell, Jordan Montgomery, Eric Swanson, Stephen Tarpley

That list doesn’t include outfielder Jake Cave, righty Nick Rumbelow, and lefties Daniel Camarena and Chaz Hebert, all of whom will become minor league free agents after the 2017 season. I know those guys are easy to overlook, but who knows what’ll happen this summer. Who would have guessed Kyle Higashioka would play his way on to the 40-man last year?

Also, that “none” under catchers may only be temporary. If Luis Torrens doesn’t stick with the Padres as a Rule 5 Draft pick, he’ll come back to the Yankees and have to be added to the 40-man roster after the season. That’s a must. If Torrens is picked in the Rule 5 Draft again in December, he’ll be able to elect free agency rather than come back to New York. Can’t let that happen. If Torrens does come back, he’ll land on the 40-man in November.

Okay, so anyway, that’s an awful lot of quality prospects, huh? Torres and Frazier are in a league of their own as top 100 prospects, but many of the other guys figure to be worth protecting too. Wade and Fowler are slated to spend 2017 with Triple-A Scranton. A successful season there means they’re a lock to be picked in the Rule 5 Draft. Others like Abreu and Acevedo have considerable upside, and those guys are always worth protecting.

The Yankees had to make compromises in November because 40-man roster spots are a finite resource. Would they have liked to protect, say, Torrens and Tyler Webb, and keep Lindgren? Yeah, probably, but there’s only so much space to go around. The Yankees will run into a similar problem next offseason, only to a much greater degree. They not only have more prospects eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, they have more high-end prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The solution is simple though, isn’t it? Just trade some of them. It’s basically impossible to protect them all, so rather than lose them for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft, just trade them. Package three or four together for one player, preferably a young starting pitcher with several years of control. Boom, problem solved. Two problems solved, really. The Yankees clear up the Rule 5 Draft logjam and add the young pitcher they’ve seemingly been craving for months. It’s perfect!

Except it’s not that easy. It never is. For starters, you have to find another team with the available 40-man roster space to make such a trade. No team is going to trade for these prospects only to expose them to the Rule 5 Draft. The other team’s 40-man situation is an obstacle. Prospects are like kids, teams always love their own more than they love everyone else’s. Not many clubs may be willing to cut one or two of their own players to make room for your players in a hypothetical four-for-one trade. There’s a reason trades like this are rare.

More realistically, we may see the Yankees make a series of smaller moves. One-for-one, two-for-one trades. Trades that swap a Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect for a non-Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect. That’s similar to the James Pazos-for-Zack Littell trade. The Yankees needed the 40-man space, so they sent Pazos to the Mariners for Littell, who is a year away from Rule 5 Draft eligibility. It bought them some time, basically. Not the sexiest move, but necessary.

There’s eleven months between now and the deadline to set the 40-man roster for the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, so this is hardly a pressing issue. It is something the Yankees have to plan for, obviously, and you can be sure it’ll affect their decision-making over the summer. In fact, Brian Cashman even admitted Rule 5 Draft status was a consideration when making trades last summer. How could it not be?

The Yankees did some great work rebuilding their farm system over the last few months and it’s set them up for sustainable success in the near future. Baseball doesn’t allow teams to keep prospects forever though, and rightfully so. There comes a time when you have to ether commit to the player (add him to the 40-man) or give him a chance to reach MLB with another organization (Rule 5 Draft). The Yankees will reach that point with several of their best prospects next winter, and since they can’t protect everyone, they figure to move a few in trades to clear the logjam.

Thoughts on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects

The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)
The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)

I totally missed this two weeks ago, but the crew at Baseball Prospectus posted their annual look at the top ten prospects in the Yankees’ farm system. The list is available for everyone. The rest of the piece is behind the paywall, unfortunately. Here’s the top ten with some thoughts:

  1. SS Gleyber Torres
  2. OF Clint Frazier
  3. SS Jorge Mateo
  4. OF Blake Rutherford
  5. LHP Justus Sheffield
  6. RHP James Kaprielian
  7. OF Aaron Judge
  8. RHP Albert Abreu
  9. SS Tyler Wade
  10. RHP Chance Adams

1. Still high on Mateo. It’s very easy to be down on Mateo these days. He didn’t have a great regular season, he was suspended two weeks for an undisclosed violation of team policy, and he hasn’t done much in winter ball either. There’s no other way to slice it, 2016 has been really disappointing for Mateo. At the same time, he just turned 21 in June and is immensely talented. He has the most exciting tools in the farm system, I think, even moreso than Gleyber. Development isn’t always linear. There are often bumps in the road and hopefully that’s all Mateo experienced this year, a bump(s) in the road. Something he can learn from and use as a development tool going forward. Baseball Prospectus still has Mateo very high on their top ten list and it’s not in any way unreasonable given his tools.

2. Down on Judge. On the other hand, the Baseball Prospectus crew is down on Judge, who they ranked as the 18th best prospect in baseball prior to 2016. Based on their preseason rankings, both Mateo (No. 65) and Kaprielian (not ranked) managed to jump Judge despite a disappointing season and an injury-marred season, respectively. I get why folks are down on Judge. He struggled in his brief big league cameo and there have long been concerns about whether big league pitchers would exploit his massive strike zone. We saw a 95 plate appearance manifestation of those concerns. Unless Judge shrinks about five inches, there’s not much he can do about the strike zone. That’s life. But he has a history of starting slow at each new level before making the necessary adjustments, and until he shows otherwise, I feel like we have to assume the same is happening at the MLB level. The biggest difference between Judge and other prospects on this list, like Mateo and Kaprielian and Gleyber, is that he’s had a chance to fail at the big league level. Everyone else is getting the benefit of the doubt because they haven’t had that same opportunity.

3. Wade gets some love. I’m a pretty big Tyler Wade fan and it seems I’m not alone. Ranking him ninth in this system is pretty lofty. “Wade is a favorite of many scouts and evaluators because of his energy, playing style, and instincts. He’ll grow on you the more you see him,” said the write-up. Wade is not a future star or anything, and that’s kind of a problem in a system with this many shortstops. Torres and Mateo, two guys with star-caliber tools, are right behind him climbing the minor league ladder. Others like Hoy Jun Park and Wilkerman Garcia have higher ceilings too. Unseating Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro at the MLB level won’t be easy either. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League to prepare him for a utility role, which is by far his best path to MLB playing time with New York. If I were another team with a long-term need a shortstop (coughPadrescough), I’d be all over the Yankees trying to get Wade in a deal. He hits for no power and won’t wow you with big OPS or wRC+ numbers, but a lefty hitter who can hit for average, draw walks and get on base, steal bases, and play good defense at shortstop is a nifty little player.

Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)
Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)

4. Others of note. Each year the Baseball Prospectus farm system write-ups include information on players beyond the top ten. Among the other Yankees singled out: 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jordan Montgomery, OF Dustin Fowler, OF Billy McKinney, RHP Dillon Tate, and RHP Erik Swanson. Swanson’s an interesting guy who is easy to overlook in this system. He came over in the Carlos Beltran trade. “Swanson touched as high as 98 in a June viewing, regularly sitting 91-96. He also flashed a hard slider and a more usable change than one often sees from a power profile at the Low-A level,” said the write-up. Swanson turned 23 in September and he missed most of 2015 with a forearm issue, but he’s healthy now and has enough stuff to possibly start long-term. If not, don’t be shocked if he moves very quickly as a fastball/slider reliever.

5. The top ten 25-and-under talents. My favorite part of Baseball Prospectus’ annual system write-ups is their list of the top ten talents age 25 and under in the organization. For the Yankees, the 25-and-under list is essentially the same as top ten above, except with C Gary Sanchez at the top, 1B Greg Bird sixth (between Rutherford and Sheffield), and RHP Luis Severino tenth (behind Judge). A year ago Judge and Severino were first and second. Now they’re ninth and tenth. Part of that is Judge’s strikeouts and Severino’s inability to pitch well as a starter, but it also speaks to how the Yankees’ long-term outlook has improved over the last 12 months. Sanchez emerged as a force and so many young players — five of the team’s top eight prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus — have been added to the system within the last six months or so. It’s really hard to read these prospect lists and not get very, very excited about where the Yankees are heading.