Bullpen roles becoming clear just three weeks into 2015

Unofficially officially the closer. (Presswire)
Unofficially officially the closer. (Presswire)

It’s really fun when something goes exactly according to plan in baseball. Almost nothing goes as planned in this game, so on those rare occasions when things work out as intended, it’s cause for celebration. And so far this year, the Yankees’ bullpen is worth celebrating. The relief crew has been every bit as good as advertised coming into the new season.

With David Robertson leaving as a free agent and the Yankees not having a Proven Closer™ on the roster heading into Spring Training, we really had no idea how the bullpen would shake out. We had a pretty good idea who the team’s seven relievers would be — well, we had a good idea who four would be (five before Adam Warren was needed in the rotation) and who was in the running for the other three — we just didn’t know who would slot into what role. Three weeks into 2015, those roles are becoming clear.

Closer: Andrew Miller

For a number of reasons, the co-closers experiment never did get off the ground. It sounded great in theory, but Dellin Betances‘ sudden (and thankfully temporary) reversion to pre-2014 Dellin in Spring Training threw a wrench into things. For the first week, week and a half of the regular season, Betances had no idea where the ball was going and wasn’t exactly trustworthy in big spots.

That opened the door to the full-time ninth inning work for Miller. He got his first save in the second game of the season thanks to what appeared to be a matchup situation — Joe Girardi went to Betances to face the right-handed meat of the Blue Jays lineup (Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson) in the eighth inning and Miller got the final three outs against lesser hitters in the ninth. That’s all it took. His foot was in the door.

Closer is maybe the most unique job in baseball. Once a player has some success closing out games in the ninth inning, managers tend to stick with that guy going forward. Miller nailed down that first save, did it again five days later, and again four days after that, and boom. He is now very clearly the closer, recording eight of New York’s nine saves on the young season. Miller is the closer even if Girardi won’t admit it just yet.

“I still believe they both can do the job,” said the manager to Chad Jennings following Monday’s game. “It gives me a lot of options. It’s working the way we’re doing it. … (The plan is) just to stick with what we’re doing. I’m sure at some point one of them may be down and the other guy may have to do something else. Maybe they pitch a couple days in a row and I want to give one of them a day off. I still believe they’re really interchangeable.”

1996 Mariano/2014 Dellin: Dellin Betances

Boy this guy is some kind of luxury, isn’t he? Things got a little dicey for Betances at the end of Spring Training and the start of the regular season, but he’s turned it around and is back to being a multi-inning force at the end of games. It’s one thing to have a really great setup man like, say, Wade Davis or what the Yankees had with Robertson all those years. It’s another to have a guy who can do it for four or five outs fairly regularly.

Now, I don’t think we’ll Betances throw 90 innings again this season, that’s just not something a reliever can do year after year after year these days, but I definitely think we’ll see him get four or five outs on occasion. Heck, we’ve seen it already. Girardi used Betances to get five outs against the Rays eleven days ago then again to get four outs against the Tigers last week. It’s not necessarily something he should do every single time out, but Dellin gives Girardi the flexibility to pitch multiple innings if necessary.

With Miller locked into the closer’s job for the time being, Betances will remain in basically the same role he had last year, as Girardi’s go-to setup weapon. He’s settled into that role the last two weeks or so. The co-closers idea was fun. This works too. Dellin’s role is high-leverage outs-getter. That’s the most important thing.

Stop with the Coldplay jokes. (Presswire)
Stop with the Coldplay jokes. (Presswire)

Reliever Girardi Likes More Than We Realized: Chris Martin

So, Chris Martin. He had just an okay Spring Training, but Girardi and Brian Cashman and everyone else kept talking about how much they liked him, and now here he is at the end of April leading the Yankees with 12 relief appearances. I guess they weren’t joking around.

Martin started the year as the designated “only when losing” reliever — his first six appearances came with the Yankees trailing — but he’s gradually worked his way up the pecking order. Girardi used him for five outs in a two-run game Sunday night and then in a save situation when Miller was unavailable Tuesday. Considering the results (11 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 13 K), it’s hard to blame Girardi for giving Martin some more responsibility.

Previous members of the “Reliever Girardi Likes More Than We Realized” club include David Huff, Cody Eppley, Cory Wade, Luis Ayala, Sergio Mitre, and Brian Bruney. Martin was a scrap heap pickup — the Yankees got him in a cash trade with the Rockies after he’d been designated for assignment — who has already justified the minimal investment. He’s already worked his way into some important innings.

Reliever Girardi Doesn’t Seem To Trust: David Carpenter

Doesn’t it seem like Girardi still doesn’t fully trust Carpenter? He went to Martin for the save on Tuesday night instead of the more experienced Carpenter, then gave a weird answer when asked why he went Martin over Carpenter after the game. He basically said he was saving Carpenter for extra innings. Trust him in extra innings but not a save situation? Okay then.

Anyway, Girardi used Carpenter to get the final out of the seventh inning with a two-run lead Sunday night, then for a full inning in a tie game yesterday, but three of his four appearances prior to that came with the Yankees up by at least six runs. Two of them were with the Yankees up by nine runs. (Aside: Hooray for talking about the Yankees being up nine runs on occasion!)

Of those four appearances, the one Carpenter made with the score closer than six runs was the meltdown in Baltimore. Girardi brought him into the the sixth inning of a game the Yankees were leading by one, then Carpenter allowed three runs on two hits and a walk in one-third of an inning. Perhaps that blowup knocked the righty out of the Circle of Trust™ for the time being. That sure appears to be the case.

Lefty Specialist: Justin Wilson

One of the reasons Wilson was so interesting when he came over from the Pirates was his lack of a platoon split — from 2013-14 he held right-handed and left-handed batters to identical .268 wOBAs. And yet, Girardi has used Wilson as a left-on-left matchup reliever exclusively for nearly two weeks now. Here’s a real quick rundown of his recent appearances:

  • April 17th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Kevin Kiermaier. (strikeout looking)
  • April 19th: Brought in to face one batter, the lefty hitting David DeJesus, who was replaced by pinch-hitter Logan Forsythe. (fly out)
  • April 22nd: Faced five batters (two lefties, three righties) with the Yankees up six runs and then nine runs. Girardi was just counting down outs.
  • April 23rd: Brought in to face one batter, the lefty hitting Alex Avila, who was replaced by pinch-hitter James McCann. (ground out)
  • April 26th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Curtis Granderson. (pop-up)
  • April 27th: Faced three batters, two lefties (James Loney and Kiermaier) sandwiched around one righty (Brandon Guyer).
  • April 29th: Faced one batter, the lefty hitting Kiermaier. (line out)
(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So Girardi hasn’t been completely opposed to using Wilson against right-handers lately, but more often than not he’s been brought in for pure matchup work and not to throw a full inning. It could be that he has fallen out of the Circle of Trust™ — Wilson was charged with two runs in that Baltimore meltdown — and is now working his way back into favor.

Of course, Wilson’s strike-throwing issues are likely playing a role here as well. He’s always had a below-average walk rate — Wilson walked three of the first five and four of the first 13 batters he faced this year, and he’s walked five of 18 righties faced with only two strikeouts — and his early-season control issues may have scared Girardi off a bit. I can’t blame him. For now, Wilson is the middle innings lefty specialist and not someone we figure to see in real high-leverage spots anytime soon.

Long Man: Esmil Rogers

Coming into the regular season, this was the only bullpen role we could easily predict. We all knew Rogers was going to be the long man — he got stretched out as a starter in camp but Warren beat him out for the fifth starter’s job convincingly — and by and large he’s done a nice job. He’s got a 2.35 ERA (3.53 FIP) with 16 strikeouts and three walks in 15.1 innings. What more do you want from a long man? Rogers is a necessary evil — everyone seems to hate him but a veteran long man Girardi can run into the ground to spare the more important arms is a nice thing to have. Not all innings are pretty. Esmil’s hear to pick up the ugly ones.

The Last Spot: Chasen Shreve & Co.

As always, the last spot in the bullpen has been a revolving door early on in 2015. Shreve has held it down for the most part but he’s already been optioned once in favor of a fresh arm(s). Kyle Davies, Matt Tracy, Joel De La Cruz, and Branden Pinder have all seen big league time this year. Trust me, it won’t be the last time Shreve is sent down for a fresh arm this year.

Bullpens have to be flexible — what’s the point of having all those guys sitting and waiting in Triple-A if there’s no way to get them on the roster when they’re needed? — and this last spot gives the Yankees that flexibility. Shreve is good! But sometimes the furniture needs to be rearranged, and as the low man on the bullpen totem pole, he goes down to Triple-A when needed. If Shreve pitches well and Martin hits the skids at some point, it could be Martin who winds up in the minors whenever a fresh body is needed next. That’s just the way it goes.

* * *

For all the talk about the co-closers system coming into the season, Girardi has made it pretty clear over the years that he likes having relievers in set roles. He doesn’t need to say it, it shows in the way he uses his bullpen. Girardi has always had a set closer and preferred to have a set eighth inning guy as well. He’s even had a set seventh inning guy at times. The various relievers have settled into those various roles these last few weeks, and I’m sure that makes Girardi happy. It’s easier to manage when you already know who is going to pitch in what situation. At the beginning of the season, that wasn’t always clear. Now it is.

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Yankees finalize Opening Day roster with latest round of roster moves

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3:25pm: The Yankees have officially announced their Opening Day roster. It is exactly as presented below. No surprises.

10:00am: The Opening Day roster has been slowly coming together over the last several weeks, and yesterday afternoon the Yankees made the roster all but official with their latest round of moves, including Austin Romine being designated for assignment. Here is the 25-man roster the Yankees will take into the regular season tomorrow:

CATCHERS (2)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy

INFIELDERS (7)
Stephen Drew
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Garrett Jones
Gregorio Petit
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Carlos Beltran
Brett Gardner
Jacoby Ellsbury
Chris Young

STARTERS (5)
Nathan Eovaldi
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Masahiro Tanaka
Adam Warren

RELIEVERS (7)
Dellin Betances
David Carpenter
Chris Martin
Andrew Miller
Esmil Rogers
Chasen Shreve
Justin Wilson

DISABLED LIST (4)
Chris Capuano (quad) — retroactive to March 27th
Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — retroactive to March 27th
Jose Pirela (concussion) — retroactive to April 2nd
Brendan Ryan (calf) — retroactive to April 1st

Pirela was placed on the 7-day concussion DL while Capuano, Nova, and Ryan were all placed on the regular old 15-day DL. Petit takes Romine’s spot on the 40-man roster, which is full. The Yankees can transfer Nova to the 60-day DL whenever they need another 40-man spot since he’s not expected to return until June. Romine, Petit, and the DL assignments were the moves announced yesterday.

Despite those injuries, the Yankees made it through Spring Training as the healthiest team in the AL East, just as we all expected. The rest of the roster is pretty straight forward. Warren was named the fifth starter a few days ago and it was clear Shreve and Martin were going to make the Opening Day roster once Chase Whitley was optioned to Triple-A. Joe Girardi is planning to use Betances and Miller as co-closers to start the season, which is pretty cool. Hopefully it works as planned. Carpenter and Wilson figure to be the sixth and seventh inning guys.

As always, the 25-man roster is going to change throughout the course of the season. Quite a bit too. Petit figures to be replaced by Pirela or Ryan, whoever gets healthy first, and those bullpen spots belonging to Shreve and Martin could be revolving doors given the team’s relief pitcher depth. That includes Capuano, who could wind up working in relief if Warren fares well as the fifth starter. For now, this is the group of Yankees to start the new season.

The Two Fifth Starter Candidates with Different Bullpen Roles [2015 Season Preview]

It’s no secret the Yankees are heading into the regular season with some significant health concerns in the rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda have all made it through Spring Training just fine up to this point, though that could change in an instant, either now in March or at some point during the season. On top of that, Chris Capuano will be out several weeks with a quad strain. One of the starters who wasn’t supposed to get hurt got hurt.

Capuano’s injury has forced the Yankees to hold a fifth starter competition in camp. While guys like Bryan Mitchell, Chase Whitley, and Scott Baker are being stretched out and throwing multiple innings per appearance during Grapefruit League play, the fifth starter competition is basically a two-horse race between Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers. Those two were supposed to compete for the sixth starter’s job — the Yankees have indicated they want to use a strategic sixth starter on occasion this year to rest the other starters — but now they’re fighting for the fifth spot.

Either way, starter or reliever, Warren and Rogers are locks to make the Opening Day roster. Their roles as relievers would be very different, however. Let’s preview New York’s two sixth-turned-fifth starter candidates.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Warren In The Rotation: Uncharted Territory

All signs point to Warren being the favorite for the fifth starter’s job right now. He’s performed better than Rogers during Grapefruit League play and it seems like the Yankees want him to be the fifth starter, at least until Capuano gets healthy. They haven’t come out and said that, but we can read between the lines. Warren appears to be the heavy favorite.

Warren is about to enter his third full season with the Yankees, though his track record as a big league starter is very short. He’s made three career starts in pinstripes:

  1. June 29th, 2012: Six runs on eight hits and two walks in 2.1 innings against the White Sox. Warren’s big league debut was ugly.
  2. August 21st, 2013: Two runs on four hits and two walks in three innings against the Blue Jays. He was on a strict pitch count (60 pitches) during the spot start.
  3. September 27th, 2013: Two hits in five scoreless innings against the Astros in Game 160. Both teams had been eliminated from the postseason and Houston’s players checked out for the season in, like, June.

That doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Warren can do as a starter in 2015. It doesn’t tell us anything, really. Warren was a starter all throughout college and in the minor leagues, though he gained experience and presumably confidence while working in the bullpen these last two years. He’s a different pitcher now, and while I think that increases Warren’s chances of success as a starter, it doesn’t guarantee it.

One thing we do know about Warren is his repertoire and pitch selection. Even as a reliever the last two seasons he regularly used five pitches, so he has the arsenal to start. Here are his pitch usage percentages since breaking into MLB (via Brooks Baseball):

Adam Warren pitch selection

Ignore 2012. That is only one game worth of data. As a long reliever in 2013, Warren used all five pitches at least 10% of the time and four of his five pitches at least 18% of the time. He used everything. In a short relief role last year, he scaled back on his sinker and curveball and stuck mostly with his four-seamer and slider. Warren emphasized his two best pitches in last season’s short reliever role like most short relievers.

As a starter I would expect Warren to scale up the usage of his sinker and curve, though that experience factor I discussed earlier could come into play here. Warren may feel the sinker isn’t worth the trouble — it had a below average 42.5% ground ball rate from 2012-13 (MLB average for a sinker is 49.5%) — and stick with his four-seamer as his main fastball, making him a four-pitch pitcher. That’s not automatically a bad thing! The sinker has been his least effective pitch as a big leaguer, so pushing that aside in favor of his better pitches may equal a more effective Warren overall.

We’re basically just guessing here. Warren has no meaningful track record as a starter in MLB and it’s close to impossible to know what he can do taking a regular turn in the rotation. We do know he’s a big league caliber pitcher though, at least in relief, and he has a deep enough repertoire to turn a lineup over two or three times even without the sinker. The question is whether Warren can be effective while pacing himself as a starter rather than airing it out as a reliever.

Warren In The Bullpen: Setup Reliever

Should the unexpected happen and Warren start the season in the bullpen, he figures to move right back into the role he held last year, that late-inning setup guy. He’d probably be Joe Girardi‘s number two righty behind Dellin Betances since David Carpenter hasn’t yet had the opportunity to enter the Circle of Trust™. There’s even an off chance Warren could close — Girardi has mentioned that as a possibility this spring.

Warren was outstanding last year, throwing 78.2 innings with a 2.97 ERA (2.89 FIP) and good to great strikeout (8.69 K/9 and 23.5 K%), walk (2.75 BB/9 and 7.4 BB%), and ground ball (45.4%) rates. His velocity also ticked up noticeably, averaging 95.2 mph in short relief in 2014 after averaging 93.9 mph in long relief in 2013. With the caveat that relievers can start sucking at any time for no apparent reason, I would expect Warren to match if not improve upon last season’s performance this year if he again fills a setup role.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Rogers In The Rotation: Ugly Track Record

Unlike Warren, Rogers has spent time as a regular MLB starter, making 43 starts with the Rockies, Blue Jays, and Yankees in his career. (He made that one spot start soon after being acquired last August.) Twenty-two of those 43 starts came with the Rockies and seven of those 22 came in Coors Field. Here are Esmil’s career numbers as a starter and reliever:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB%
as SP 225.2 5.50 4.72 16.5% 8.6% 48.2% 14.4%
as RP 195.1 5.58 4.10 21.2% 8.9% 43.6% 11.5%

That’s not very good! Rogers has been less bad as a reliever when you look at strikeout rate, home run rate, and … well, that’s about it. There’s not much to like here, though these are career stats, and I’d put more value in what Rogers did from 2012-14 (4.91 ERA and 4.35 FIP) than what he did from 2009-11 (6.57 ERA and 4.57 FIP). That doesn’t really help things, I guess.

The Yankees clearly like something about Rogers. He has good stuff — his fastball has sat north of 93 mph his entire career and his slider has had at least a 17.2% swing-and-miss rate every year since 2010, better than the 15.2% league average — and he’s a converted position player who may be a late blooper. (Rogers is an ex-shortstop who didn’t start pitching until 2007.) The club has had some success with starters exceeding expectations under pitching coach Larry Rothschild in recent years and perhaps they’re banking on that with Rogers.

Rogers In The Bullpen: Swingman

Again, unlike Warren, Rogers would not step into some sort of setup role should he fail to win the fifth starter’s spot. He’s stretched out and his greatest value to the team comes as a swingman, someone who can spot start if needed or throw five innings out of the bullpen. Rogers has had success as a one-inning reliever — 3.06 ERA (3.13 FIP) in that role with the Indians in 2012 — but this is a “what have you done for me lately” business. Warren was excellent in a setup role last year. Rogers hasn’t done that for the Yankees. He’s a swingman all the way, assuming he loses the fifth starter’s spot to Warren.

Capuano injury, plan for Tanaka could change way Yanks build early-season bullpen

Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be far-fetched. (Presswire)
Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be so far-fetched. (Presswire)

Last week the Yankees lost projected fifth starter Chris Capuano for several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. Capuano is the team’s most replaceable starter but that doesn’t mean the loss is insignificant. Someone else has to fill that rotation spot now and chances are it will be someone who was slated to open the year in the bullpen, either Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers, most likely. The loss will be felt somewhere.

The Yankees have also been discussing using a six-man rotation early in the season — not necessarily a strict six-man rotation, but rather strategically using a sixth starter on occasion to give the other guys rest. That makes sense considering Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all have some kind of health concern. In fact, the team is planning to use Tanaka specifically every sixth day early in the season, according to Kevin Kernan.

The Yankees have a plan to keep Masahiro Tanaka as healthy as possible, and that means giving him an extra day of rest now and during the season so he pitches every sixth day.

“It’s something we’d like to do,’’ one Yankees official told The Post on Friday of keeping the rotation on a six-day spin.

Tanaka worked on a six-day schedule in Japan until signing with the Yankees last winter, and given his elbow situation, the extra day could be beneficial both short and long-term. April off-days and a strategic sixth starter will help the Yankees accomplish their goal of starting Tanaka every sixth day, though Capuano’s injury complicates things a little bit because it changes the bullpen construction.

Assuming Warren or Rogers replaces Capuano in the rotation — I think it’ll be Warren personally, but there are still three weeks of Spring Training to go — five of the seven bullpen spots are set:

  1. Dellin Betances
  2. Andrew Miller
  3. David Carpenter
  4. Justin Wilson
  5. Warren or Rogers
  6. ?
  7. ?

There are no shortage of candidates for those last two spots. Finding bodies won’t be difficult. The Yankees have the luxury of filling those spots any way they want because of all the available options. And with Capuano hurt and the Yankees wanting to start Tanaka every sixth day, the most practical way to fill both spots may be with long men. At least temporarily.

Baker. (Presswire)
Baker. (Presswire)

The thinking is one of those two long men — it would really be three long men in the bullpen when you include the Warren/Rogers spot — could step in as the sixth starter as needed to spell Tanaka (and the other starters) every so often. That would leave at least one more long man for other days, in case Warren/Rogers or any of the other starters go short. This isn’t rocket science, the more relievers in the bullpen who can throw multiple innings, the better.

Planning to carry multiple long men is one thing, but actually having multiple viable long men is another. The Yankees started last season with three relievers who could have been considered long relievers (Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno), but that was a bit of an outlier. You don’t see many teams break camp with three guys like that. (I thought the Yankees would sent at least one to Triple-A to stay stretched out as the sixth starter, but nope.)

Here are the club’s long man candidates still in big league camp (listed alphabetically), assuming Warren and Rogers will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity no matter what:

  • Scott Baker: Veteran guy who threw 80.2 generally ineffective innings (5.47 ERA and 4.78 FIP) for the Rangers last year. He’s thrown four innings across a pair of appearances this spring.
  • Kyle Davies: Threw 154.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year and hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2011. He’s thrown four innings in three appearances during Grapefruit League play.
  • Jose DePaula: DePaula has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years and was limited to 51.1 innings in Triple-A last year. He’s made just one appearance this spring, throwing two innings.
  • Bryan Mitchell: Eleven innings in MLB last year and another 103 in the minors. He threw 145.1 minor league innings back in 2013. Mitchell has thrown four innings in two appearances this spring.
  • Chase Whitley: Made the conversion from bullpen to rotation last year and threw a career high 107 innings, including 75.2 in MLB. He’s thrown seven innings this spring, appearing in three games.

We can group these five guys into three different … well, groups. The Yankees have nothing invested in Baker and Davies long-term. They’re older pitchers trying to hang on and the team will not hesitate to run them into the ground, then designate them for assignment. It sounds rough but that’s baseball. Baker and Davies aren’t stupid, they know where they are at this stage of their careers.

Mitchell is an actual prospect and the Yankees do have reason to protect him with an eye towards the future. Mitchell will turn 24 next month and he’s also the least MLB ready of the bunch despite making his debut last season. He could use some more Triple-A time for fine-tuning. DePaula and Whitley are somewhere in the middle. Not really potential pieces of the long-term puzzle like Mitchell but probably not guys the Yankees would abuse a la Baker and Davies either.

The Yankees don’t have to decide on those final bullpen spots for a few weeks and by then they should have a better idea of Capuano’s timetable. If he’s expected back relatively soon, within the first week or two of the regular season, they could opt to take a short reliever who can be optioned down when Capuano’s healthy to make life easy. If he’ll miss a few weeks and not return until closer May, carrying two long relievers like, say, Baker and Whitley early on could make sense if the Yankees intend to stick to their strategic sixth starter plan.

Chris Capuano’s injury complicates pitching situation and creates an opportunity

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two batters into yesterday afternoon’s game, the Yankees lost left-hander Chris Capuano for what is expected to be several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. It was a fluke injury — Capuano was covering first base on a ground ball and landed awkwardly on the bag. That’s all. Not exactly an uncommon baseball injury.

The big problem here is Capuano was supposed to be one of the starters who didn’t get hurt. We were all supposed to start the year waiting for Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow to give or CC Sabathia‘s knee to crumble while complaining about Capuano slopballing is way through five or six innings every fifth day. Capuano was supposed to be the guy who stayed healthy.

“We’ll look at everyone, that’s the bottom line. Because we need to fill a spot now,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings following yesterday’s game. The Yankees will now dip into their pitching reserves to bolster the rotation early in the season, something we expected to happen pretty much all winter. We just didn’t think they’d be replacing Capuano. Here’s a look at the team’s options at the moment.

Internal Options: Warren, Rogers, Mitchell, Whitley

Adam Warren, Esmil Rogers, Bryan Mitchell, and Chase Whitley are all working as starters in camp for this exact reason: to be ready to step into the rotation if needed. Others like Luis Severino, Jose DePaula, and Scott Baker are in camp as non-roster players and yeah, I guess that makes them rotation candidates, but I get the sense they are deep depth options, not guys being seriously considered for the Opening Day rotation.

Warren was mentioned as a rotation candidate every time a starter got hurt last season and for whatever reason I get the sense this spring he’s the guy the Yankees want to use as a starter if necessary, and it is necessary now thanks to Capuano’s quad. Warren’s been successful as a reliever these last two years but he has enough pitches to start, came up through the system as a starter, and it seems like the Yankees believe he can be an effective MLB starter.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the same time, both Girardi and Brian Cashman recently went out of their way to praise Rogers, who spent a few years floundering as a starter with the Rockies earlier in his career. “(Rogers has) thrown the ball really well. Larry (Rothschild) worked with him long and hard last year during some bullpen sessions about changing a few things … He’s been really good this spring. He’ll be one of the guys we’re really looking at,” said Girardi to Jennings yesterday, for example.

Mitchell probably has the best raw arm of the group but is the most green of the bunch. He could use some more time in Triple-A to iron a few things out, particularly his fastball location. Whitley had a nice little run as a starter last year before the league figured him out, though he has three pitches, and as long as he has three pitches, the Yankees might as well keep working him as a starter.

The Yankees have only played a week’s worth of Grapefruit League games, so none of these guys have had a chance to jump to the front of the pack yet. Besides, Spring Training performance isn’t — or shouldn’t be, anyway — the only factor in this decision. My hunch is this four-man race is really a two-man race between Warren and Rogers. It’s their job to lose, not someone else’s to win.

External Options? Probably Not Happening

When Yu Darvish blew out his elbow a few days ago, Rangers GM Jon Daniels said they will fill his rotation spot internally. When Marcus Stroman tore his ACL earlier this week, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said they will replace him internally. That’s the standard operation procedure time of year. Everyone says they will replace injured players internally because saying “we’re going to make a trade” just isn’t smart business. It makes you look desperate.

Like it or not, the Yankees are not going to trade for Cole Hamels because Capuano got hurt. (Hamels is the kind of move that gets made regardless of the status of guys like Capuano.) They’re probably not going to take on $5.3M in salary and give up a prospect to get Dillon Gee either. The Yankees might scour the scrap heap for an out of options arm — Mariners changeup specialist Erasmo Ramirez is also out of minor league options and another name to keep in mind — these next few weeks, but I don’t expect a move to bring in a no-doubt big leaguer.

Remember, when starters were dropping like flies early last year, the Yankees cycled through their internal options to make sure they did need to go outside the organization for help before actually doing so. I expect the same this year. They might pluck someone off waivers or make a minor trade for depth, but a significant move isn’t happening. At least not right now. Their M.O. in recent years has been to try internal options first.

The Schedule

Thanks to the usual slate of early-season off-days, the Yankees only need their fifth starter three times in April. Opening Day is April 6th, so based on the above calendar they will need their fifth starter on April 12th, 21st, and 26th. They won’t need him again until May 5th either. So only three times in the first 26 games of the season. Capuano might be ready to return by then.

Now, that said, the Yankees have already been talking about occasionally using a sixth starter early in the season to give guys like Tanaka, Sabathia, and Michael Pineda extra rest. I’m guessing they aren’t too enthusiastic about the idea of riding their top four starters hard in April and skipping the fifth spot whenever possible. They could do it, sure, but they have to think big picture here. A few more starts by the fifth (and sixth?) starter in April could mean many more Tanaka, Sabathia, and Pineda starts in August and September.

So yes, the schedule does give the Yankees the flexibility to skip their fifth starter a few times in April. That doesn’t mean it would be a good idea, however. The Yankees have played it very cautiously with Tanaka and Sabathia so far this spring and I don’t expect them to change course just because Capuano got hurt. The fifth starter, whoever it ends up being, is probably going to end up taking a regular rotation turn early in the season.

What About The Bullpen?

If the Yankees do end up using Warren or Rogers to replace Capuano in the rotation, it opens up another spot in the bullpen. They already had one open coming into Spring Training. This is no big deal though. If there’s one thing the Yankees have in spades, it’s relievers. They have about a dozen candidates for those last bullpen spots: Jacob Lindgren, Branden Pinder, Andrew Bailey, Danny Burawa, Chris Martin, Chasen Shreve, Jose Ramirez, Jose DePaula, Jared Burton, Nick Rumbelow, Tyler Webb, Wilking Rodriguez … on and on it goes. They’ll find someone to fill the necessary bullpen spots. No worries here.

* * *

Capuano’s injury is unfortunate, though the silver lining is that he is the team’s most replaceable starter. The Yankees also don’t have to replace him today. Spring Training doesn’t end for another three and a half weeks. It’s not like they need to come up with his replacement in time for his start next week or something like that. They can take their time, see how every looks with some more innings under their belt, then make a decision.

The majority of RAB readers believe Warren will get the call to replace Capuano based on yesterday’s poll and I agree. I just feel like he’s the guy. I do expect the Yankees to keep an eye on any pitchers who may become available before Opening Day — they were going to do that anyway, Capuano injury or not — but I would be surprised if they made anything more than a minor move. That just hasn’t been the way they’ve operated in recent years. Capuano’s injury means someone who is already with the Yankees is about to get a big opportunity in the rotation.

Previewing the Yanks’ few Spring Training position battles

Sixth starter or setup man? (Presswire)
Sixth starter or setup man? (Presswire)

Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Spring Training this Friday, though several Yankees players are already in Tampa preparing for the season according to reporters on site. It’s the guys you’d expect to show up to camp early — rehabbing players (Ivan Nova), players new to the organization (Nathan Eovaldi), and players trying to win a job in camp.

The Yankees don’t have many open roster spots, at least not on paper, but that doesn’t mean jobs aren’t up for grabs in Spring Training. Sometimes the job on the line is being the first guy called up when the inevitable injury strikes. Just look at Preston Claiborne two years ago. He didn’t win a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he put himself on the call-up map with a strong showing in camp. So, with Spring Training set to start later this week, let’s preview New York’s position battles.

Sixth Starter
Candidates: Adam Warren, Esmil Rogers, Bryan Mitchell

Every team needs a sixth and seventh and occasionally even eighth starter during the season, and the Yankees are more likely to need spare starters than most teams because of the injury risk in the rotation. Warren and Rogers were both told to come to Spring Training ready to work as starting pitchers and Mitchell has been a starter his entire minor league career. You don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which one of these guys is in the rotation come Opening Day.

Warren did very nice work as a short reliever last year but came up through the minors as a starter. Rogers has both started and relieved in the past, and he worked as a swingman last year. Mitchell is a rookie with just a big league cup of coffee under his belt. Warren and Rogers are all but certain to open the season on the 25-man roster in some capacity and I’m sure the Yankees want both to be relievers. That means everyone in the rotation is healthy. Mitchell would go back to Triple-A to bide his time in that scenario.

If someone does get hurt in Spring Training and the Yankees do need a replacement starter, I think it would come down to who has the best camp. Not necessarily statistically, but who shows the Yankees they have the best chance of turning over a lineup three times. My guess is Warren would get the first chance to start if necessary, but I’m not all that confident in that pick. I am confident these guys are ahead of scrap heap signings Scott Baker and Kyle Davies on the rotation depth chart, however.

Seventh Reliever
Candidates: Lots

Whitley. (Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

In a perfect world, Warren and Rogers would be in the Opening Day bullpen alongside Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, David Carpenter, and Justin Wilson. (Rogers would presumably be the long man in that scenario.) The seventh bullpen spot is wide open and the Yankees have no shortage of candidates on the 40-man roster: Danny Burawa, Jose DePaula, Chris Martin, Branden Pinder, Jose Ramirez, Chasen Shreve, and Chase Whitley. We should probably include Mitchell in there as well. Non-40-man roster candidates include Jacob Lindgren and Andrew Bailey.

At least one of those extra guys is going to make the roster as the seventh reliever. If Warren and/or Rogers are needed in the rotation, several of the extra arms will make the Opening Day roster to fill out the bullpen. And since there are so many viable seventh reliever candidates, I think it will come down to Spring Training performance. I don’t think handedness will matter one bit. And remember, just because someone wins a job in Spring Training, it doesn’t mean they keep it forever. If, say, Martin wins the last bullpen spot but has a 6.00 ERA two weeks into the season, the Yankees will swap him out for someone else. The seventh bullpen spot is always a revolving door.

Backup Catcher
Candidates: Austin Romine, John Ryan Murphy

Technically, this is a competition since nothing is final, but it’s widely believed Murphy will be the backup catcher come Opening Day. Everything points in that direction. Romine wasn’t all that impressive during his extended stint as Chris Stewart’s backup in 2013, and when the team needed a long-term fill-in for Frankie Cervelli last summer, Murphy got the call ahead of Romine. And, when they needed a third catcher after rosters expanded it September, it was again Murphy over Romine. That doesn’t mean Romine has nothing to play for in camp, of course.

“I want it. I want to go out there and prove to them that I want it. That’s why I’m here early and I just want to hit the ground running and go after it and bust my ass to make the team,” said Romine to Mark Feinsand last week. “(There are) a little more doors opening up with Cervelli gone now. Whatever happens, happens. I’m going to show them I want this.”

Romine is out of options, meaning he can’t go to Triple-A without first passing through waivers. That could happen but the Yankees have to proceed as if it won’t. That’s why they signed Eddy Rodriguez to a minor league deal. Even if he can’t beat out Murphy for the backup job, Romine is auditioning himself for other teams this spring, teams that could claim him off waivers before the start of the season or look to acquire him in a minor trade. This is the definition of a healthy competition, even if the job is basically Murphy’s to lose.

Ryan. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Ryan. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Last Bench Player
Candidates: Brendan Ryan, Jose Pirela, Rob Refsnyder

This is basically a “can either Pirela or Refsnyder convince the Yankees they’re better off paying Ryan his $2M salary to not play for them?” competition. I’m guessing no — Ryan’s ability to play shortstop is a hard to find skill with real value — but you know how it goes. Stranger things have happened. For what it’s worth, Brian Cashman insists Refsnyder will get a chance to win a job in camp.

“I can’t tell you he’s not Major League ready just yet,” said Cashman in a radio interview earlier month, according to Brendan Kuty. “The bottom line is, he’ll go into camp, and he’ll compete, and he’ll have a chance to potentially earn a spot on the roster … We’re all going to see that develop in Spring Training.”

The Yankees could opt for Pirela’s versatility or Refsnyder’s bat over Ryan’s defense, especially since Stephen Drew can cover Didi Gregorius at shortstop. There is a legitimate baseball reason to keep Ryan though. We can’t forget that. Depth at shortstop is necessary. Either way, we’re talking about the 25th man on the roster. This isn’t a decision that will make or break the season.

Eppler confirms Esmil Rogers is coming to Spring Training as a starter

Call me Esmil. (Presswire)
Call me Esmil. (Presswire)

This isn’t surprising: assistant GM Billy Eppler has confirmed right-hander Esmil Rogers will report to Spring Training stretched out and prepared to work as a starting pitcher. “I don’t know, I think you just walk into it with an open mind and just see. I think you just let it all play out. You usually don’t have to end up making the call. Situations and the players will make the call for you,” said Eppler to Chad Jennings.

Rogers, 29, worked as a starter in winter ball this offseason, allowing six runs in 11.2 innings (4.63 ERA) while striking out 18 and walking four. He has a 5.50 ERA (4.72 FIP) in 225.2 career innings as a starter at the MLB level, though most of that damage came when he was stuck pitching for the Rockies in Coors Field from 2019-12 (6.24 ERA and 4.87 FIP in 114 innings). Still, his track record as a big league starter isn’t very good.

Rogers did make one fine spot start for the Yankees last season (one run in five innings) and there’s really no reason not to bring him to camp as a starter. New York has a lot of injury risk in their rotation and it’s better to have Rogers stretched out and ready to go just in case. He can always slide back into the bullpen if need be. At best, I think Esmil is the team’s seventh starter behind the regular five and Adam Warren.

Eppler also reiterated Warren is coming to camp as a starter as well. David Phelps was scheduled to come to camp as a starter before he was traded to the Marlins in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi swap. Minor league righty Bryan Mitchell is another rotation candidate and the Yankees recently signed veteran righties Scott Baker and Kyle Davies to add some extra rotation depth.