Chris Young, Garrett Jones give the Yankees the power off the bench they’ve lacked since 2012

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

From 2013-14, the Yankees hardly qualified as the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees had their worst set of back-to-back offensive seasons since the early-1990s and a shortage of power was a main culprit. The team hit 200+ homers 12 times in 13 years from 2000-12 — including a franchise record 245 homers in 2012 — before falling to 144 homers in 2013 and 147 homers in 2014. The 101-homer drop from 2012-13 is the largest from one year to the next in baseball history.

The lack of power stemmed from a little of everything — injuries, roster construction, age, you name it. Mark Teixeira missed just about the entire 2013 season and Curtis Granderson was limited to only 61 games in 2013, for example. Ichiro Suzuki became a regular, Chris Stewart spent a year as the starting catcher, Robinson Cano left as a free agent, Alfonso Soriano went from great to done in an offseason, Alex Rodriguez was suspended … the decline in a power was the result of many things.

As much as the starting lineup was hurting for power the last two years, the bench provided no help whatsoever. The projected bench heading into last season was Frankie Cervelli, Ichiro, Brendan Ryan, and Eduardo Nunez, who lost the job to Yangervis Solarte in Spring Training. Those four combined to hit nine homers — six by Solarte — in 960 plate appearances in 2014. The 2012 projected bench (Stewart, Jayson Nix, Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch) hit only eleven homers in 746 plate appearances.

Power off the bench just wasn’t a thing the Yankees had on the roster the last two seasons after carrying players like Andruw Jones (27 HR in 491 PA from 2011-12), Eric Chavez (18 HR in 488 PA from 2011-12), Marcus Thames (12 HR in 237 PA in 2010), and Eric Hinske (7 HR in 98 PA in 2009) as reserve players in recent years. Go back to the late-1990s and the Yankees always had guys like Darryl Strawberry, Shane Spencer, Jim Leyritz, and Ruben Sierra on the roster. Someone who could come off the bench and be a threat to hit the ball out of the park.

After those two powerless years from 2013-14, the Yankees brought in some bench pop this offseason in Chris Young and Garrett Jones, who have already contributed four homers (all by Young) and ten extra-base hits off the bench through 14 games. Jones has yet to go deep but it’s only a matter of time until that happens as a lefty pull hitter playing his home games in Yankee Stadium. He’s shown throughout his career that he can hit the ball out of park. Young has been excellent since arriving in New York last September and has filled in more than capably when Brett Gardner (wrist) and Carlos Beltran (illness) missed time last week.

Young and Jones have both contributed off the bench in the early going but I don’t think that means they should get more playing time. Both are the type of player who would get exposed with more at-bats at this point of their careers. They have holes in their swings, can swing-and-miss with the best of ’em, and they do their very best work against fastballs. Give them more playing time and we’ll go from liking their contributions off the bench to wanting them out of the lineup in a hurry. They’re not regulars at this point of their careers.

So far in the early going, Young in particular has served the Yankees very well in his role as fourth outfielder. He’s hit and hit for power, something the team hasn’t gotten off the bench in recent years. Jones hasn’t had much of a chance to play yet, though he already has a three-hit game to his credit and has played first base as well as right field. After two years of getting little offense from their reserve players, Young and Jones have given the Yankees some nice early returns and have added an element of power off the bench the team sorely lacked from 2013-14.

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 Defense First, Power Second Bench [2015 Season Preview]

Murphy and the skipper. (Presswire)
Murphy and the skipper. (Presswire)

From 2009-12, the Yankees did a good job of having a functional bench, giving Joe Girardi options to pinch-hit or rest players without the lineup taking a huge hit. That hasn’t been the case the last two years due mostly to injuries — many projected bench guys were pushed into everyday roles. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

The importance of the bench in today’s game is obvious, especially for the Yankees, who have an older roster and plenty of players who need regular time off. Three of the four bench spots were filled with new players this winter, and every member of last season’s Opening Day bench has since been jettisoned. It’s an entirely new crop of players. Let’s look at the reserves and where these guys fit in the big picture.

Catcher: John Ryan Murphy

Alternative: Austin Romine

Long-time backup Francisco Cervelli was traded away this winter for two (maybe three) reasons. One, the Yankees wanted to clear a spot for Murphy, who was impressive filling in during Cervelli’s hamstring injury last year. Two, they wanted to bolster their bullpen with Justin Wilson. (Three, they wanted to save a little cash.) The job is not Murphy’s just yet — he is competing with Romine in camp — but all signs point to him being the guy.

Murphy, 23, put up a .284/.318/.370 (93 wRC+) batting line in 32 big league games last year but his defense is his calling card. Anything he can do with the bat — he’s a year removed from a 117 wRC+ between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013, for what it’s worth — is a bonus. Murphy has ranked as a top shelf pitch-framer in his brief big league career and he’s considered a strong receiver who handles pitches in the dirt well.

The Yankees value catcher defense greatly. They wouldn’t clear the spot for Murphy if they didn’t believe he could excel defensively. Brian McCann is the clear cut number one catcher and will be asked to carry the majority of the workload behind the plate this year, so Murphy’s job is to get the pitching staff through the game whenever McCann needs a day off. That’s it. If he hits, wonderful. But that is secondary as far as the Yankees are concerned.

Infielder: Brendan Ryan

Alternative: Jose Pirela

Pirela. (Presswire)
Pirela. (Presswire)

Once again, the 32-year-old Ryan is dealing with a back injury in Spring Training. He started light workouts earlier this week but there’s no firm timetable for him to return to game action. That is opening the door for Pirela, just like last year’s back injury opened the door for Dean Anna. If Ryan has another setback — he’s already had one this spring — it’s hard to see how he’ll ready for Opening Day.

If healthy though, the backup infielder’s job is Ryan’s. The team owes him $2M this year and he’s still an above-average fielder at the hard to fill shortstop position. He can’t hit a lick — .167/.211/.202 (12 wRC+) in 124 plate appearances last year and that’s pretty much what you should expect going forward — but the Yankees are now a run prevention team and he fits the mold. Ryan is a guy who plays when someone else gets hurt or needs a day off, that’s it. He’s not a pinch-hitting option or even a pinch-running option.

Pirela is pretty much the exact opposite of Ryan. He can hit — or at least we think he can hit — but his glovework is very shaky. The 25-year-old hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with Triple-A Scranton last season and is off to an 8-for-15 (.533) start to Grapefruit League play, and that’s his calling card. Pirela’s a hitter. He’s not much of a defender but he can play just about every position other than pitcher or catcher. If Ryan can’t start the season on time, Pirela is the odds on favorite to start the year as the backup infielder.

Outfielder: Chris Young

Alternative: Pirela? Ramon Flores?

New York’s very first move of the offseason was re-signing Young to a one-year deal worth $2.5M. They grabbed him off the scrap heap last summer and he had a nice month of September in pinstripes (146 wRC+ with three homers), which earned him a new contract. Overall, the 31-year-old young hit .222/.299/.385 (95 wRC+) with the Mets and Yankees in 2014.

Young’s days as an everyday player are pretty much over. He’s a right-handed platoon bat because of his power, not his ability to hit for average, that’s what the Yankees need with two left-handed starting outfielders and a third who is a switch-hitter whose weak side is the right side. Young’s defense remains above-average — he can play all three outfield spots in a pinch — and he can even steal a base off the bench. He figures to be used most often as Carlos Beltran‘s defensive replacement in right field, though I’m sure he’ll get plenty of starts against southpaws as well.

The Yankees don’t have an obvious alternative to Young. Pirela is probably the best option and Flores is the most MLB ready of their upper level outfield prospects. Pirela is right-handed and Flores is left-handed, and that’s not insignificant given the makeup of the roster. Others like Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin need more minor league time before realistically being considered MLB options. If Young gets hurt, Pirela’s probably the guy. Assuming he isn’t filling in for Ryan, of course.

G.I. Jones. (Presswire)
G.I. Jones. (Presswire)

Utility: Garrett Jones

Alternative: Pirela? Austin?

The Yankees have been after Jones for years — they first tried to acquire him from the Pirates in the A.J. Burnett trade — and they finally landed him in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade this offseason. He gives them a backup plan at three positions where they have players who have battled injuries in recent years: first base (Mark Teixeira), right field (Beltran), and DH (Alex Rodriguez).

Jones, 33, hit .246/.309/.411 (99 wRC+) with 15 homers last year, though Miami used him as their everyday first baseman, and he’s not an everyday player. He’s a left-handed platoon hitter, one who’s hit .260/.314/.475 (116 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers over the last three years with this spray chart:


Source: FanGraphs
Yeah, Jones is going to enjoy hitting in Yankee Stadium. And that’s going to be his job. Come off the bench and try to yank something over the wall. Jones has made a nice little career of doing just that and that’s all the Yankees want him to do in 2015. Play some right field, play some first base, see a few starts at DH, mash some taters. Very straight forward.

As with Young, there is no obvious alternative to Jones, so I guess Pirela is the guy by default. Austin can also play first base, right field, and DH, but he has yet to play above Double-A, so he needs to spend some time in Triple-A before helping the big league Yankees. Jones will likely see the most playing time of the projected four bench players and that makes him the most difficult to replace.

The Plan B’s: Sorting through the Yankees’ backup options at each position

A wild backup first baseman has appeared. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
A wild backup first baseman has appeared. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

We’ve spent, well, just about the entire offseason discussing rotation options should Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder), or whoever else get hurt during the 2015 season, but the pitching staff is only one piece of the team. The Yankees suffered several position player injuries last summer and didn’t always have an appropriate backup. Remember Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson at first? Zelous Wheeler at third? Martin Prado in right? It wasn’t pretty.

Thanks to their offseason machinations and improved farm system, the Yankees appear to be better prepared to handle the inevitable position player injury(ies) this coming season. And they are inevitable. Someone’s going to pull a hamstring, take a pitch to the hand, something like that. It takes way more than 25 players to win, remember. Teams put the entire 40-man roster to work each season and the Yankees have more position appropriate backup plans in place for 2015. Let’s run them down.

Catcher
Starter: Brian McCann
Backup Plan: John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine?, Eddy Rodriguez?

You’re not going to find a bigger SKJRM (Serial Killer John Ryan Murphy because his name sounds like a serial killer, for you newbies) fan than me, but even I am a little nervous about the idea of Murphy taking over as the everyday catcher if McCann gets hurt at some point this year. McCann’s a pretty damn important player to the Yankees* and losing him to injury would be a big blow. Romine is out of options and will probably be in a different organization come Opening Day, either via waivers or a minor trade, leaving Rodriguez as the likely third string catcher. He has two MLB games to his credit. In the worst case scenario, I think the Yankees would make a trade for a veteran stopgap backstop rather than call up Gary Sanchez for an extended period of time.

* The starting catcher is an important player for every team, this isn’t unique to New York.

First Base
Starter: Mark Teixeira
Backup Plan: Garrett Jones

Finally, a real live backup first baseman. Nine players played at least one game at first base for the Yankees last summer, including McCann, Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Brendan Ryan, Scott Sizemore, and Francisco Cervelli. The team’s approach to backing up Teixeira last year was basically “we’ll put anyone there,” but now they have Jones, a true first baseman with over 400 games of experience at the position in MLB and another 800 or so in the minors. He played 129 games at first for the Marlins just last year. Phew. When Teixeira needs a day off or gets hurt this coming season, the Yankees can stick Jones there and we all won’t have to hope for the best on ground balls to first or slightly off-line throws from other infielders. If both Teixeira and Jones get hurt at some point, I guess McCann would see time at first, or Kyle Roller could get the call from Triple-A if he mashes again.

Second Base
Starter: Stephen Drew
Backup Plan: Rob Refsnyder, Brendan Ryan

Shortstop
Starter: Didi Gregorius
Backup Plan: Stephen Drew, Brendan Ryan

Refsnyder. (Scranton Times-Tribune)
Refsnyder. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

I’m going to lump the two middle infield spots together because I think if either Drew or Gregorius misses time this year, Refsnyder is going to step into the lineup as the replacement. He’ll take over second if Drew gets hurt, and if Gregorius gets hurt, Drew will slide over to short and Refsnyder will take over at second. Ryan is there for the day-to-day stuff. Gregorius sitting against a tough lefty or Drew needing a day off after starting 15 straight, something like that. If there’s an extended absence though, I believe Refsnyder’s the guy. Ahead of Ryan and ahead of Jose Pirela.

Third Base
Starter: Chase Headley
Backup Plan: Alex Rodriguez?, Brendan Ryan?

Third base is a potential problem area should injury strike. There is no obvious fill-in candidate until A-Rod shows he can handle the position at least somewhat regularly, say two or three times a week, and that might not ever happen. Ryan’s played a handful of games at the hot corner in his career, Gregorius has ten career innings at third, and Drew has never played there as a pro. Even Pirela just has a handful of games at third in his career.

The Yankees did add some minor league infield depth in Jonathan Galvez, Nick Noonan, and Cole Figueroa, none of whom we want to see in the Bronx playing regularly next year. They’re emergency options, and if A-Rod can’t play third, it might be an emergency the instant Headley gets hurt. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.

This all depends on Alex. If he can play third base some, they’ll have an okay backup plan. If he can’t, the Yankees will probably have to go outside the organization should Headley go down for an extended period of time.

Left Field
Starter: Brett Gardner
Backup Plan: Chris Young, Jones?

Center Field
Starter: Jacoby Ellsbury
Backup Plan: Gardner, Young

Right Field
Starter: Carlos Beltran
Backup Plan: Young and Jones

The outfield is pretty straight forward so I’m going to lump the three positions together. The backup plan should any of the starters go down is a Young/Jones platoon. (Jones has some left field experience but not much, though I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to throw him out there if necessary.) If either Gardner or Beltran gets hurt, the Young/Jones platoon takes over in either left or right. If Ellsbury gets hurt, Gardner takes over in center and the Young/Jones platoon steps into left. Simple, right?

Young has been a center fielder his entire career and is still a quality defender, so he’s the third option there. Pirela logged a decent amount of time in left in the minors and is probably the sixth outfielder — behind the starting three, Young, and Jones — by default. Ramon Flores had a nice run in Triple-A last summer (116 wRC+) before hurting his ankle and is next in line behind Pirela. As of this very moment, I think Flores would get the call over Tyler Austin, who is also on the 40-man roster and slated to open the year with the RailRiders. That could change if Austin straight up mashes.

* * *

Aside from third base and the always vulnerable catcher position, the Yankee have clearly defined backup plans all over the field. Young and Jones have the outfield covered, Refsnyder is backing up the middle infield in case of a long-term absence, and Jones is a true backup first baseman behind Teixeira. The Yankees had to scramble for help whenever a position player got hurt the last few years, particularly on the infield, but they have more protection now. Hopefully they won’t need to use these backup plans, but you know as well as I do that it’s inevitable. The 162-game schedule is cruel like that.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 32-40

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

Outside of some minor tinkering here and there, it appears the Yankees are done with their major offseason moves and are basically set heading into Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers report in a little less than five weeks now. Barring a surprise big move, there’s not much left on the agenda other than adding pitching depth. Someone like Johan Santana, maybe.

Anyway, with Spring Training on the horizon, we’re going to rank and analyze the roles of everyone on the 40-man roster these next two weeks. The rankings are based on the player’s importance to the 2015 Yankees as well as their importance to the team long-term, and we’ve lumped the players into ten easy to post tiers. Needless to say, these rankings are completely subjective (and more difficult than you think) and you’re going to disagree with them at some point. Something like this has no right answer.

The series starts today with the bottom of the list, Nos. 32-40. Tier ten. These are the spare part players. Up-and-down bullpen arms, bench players on one-year contracts, guys like that. The fringe players who will inevitably see time with the big league team this year but aren’t expected to play a major role, either in 2015 or down the line. Let’s get to it.

No. 40: Chris Martin

2015 Role: Up-and-down arm. The Yankees acquired Martin from the Rockies for cash last week because they felt he was a minor upgrade over Gonzalez Germen, who they felt was a minor upgrade over Preston Claiborne earlier this offseason. Martin will get a look in Spring Training and, if he impresses, he’ll put himself in position for a call-up later this year.

Long-Term Role: Really doesn’t have one. Martin is a big dude — he’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 215 lbs. — with a mid-90s fastball, a low-80s curve, and a history of missing bats in Triple-A (9.6 K/9 and 24.9 K% in 77 innings), so he could always have instant success and carve out a place in middle relief. If that happens, Martin could stick around all year and be part of the bullpen mix in 2016, but that’s the best case scenario.

No. 39: Chase Whitley

Whitley. (Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

2015 Role: Another up-and-down arm, except Whitley at least has the ability to contribute as an emergency rotation option if necessary. He’s not strictly a bullpen arm like Martin. The Yankees more or less know what they have in Whitley and he’ll head to Triple-A Scranton when the season begins, biding his time until reinforcements are inevitably needed.

Long-Term Role: A spare arm until he runs out of minor league options or an upgrade comes along, whichever comes first. Whitley did not use an option last season — he was only sent down for ten days in late-August and it takes 20 days to burn an option — so he has all three remaining, meaning he can go up and down in 2015, 2016, and 2017. If he shows the ability to contribute as a spot starter, Whitley will stick around.

No. 38: Jose DePaula

2015 Role: Again, up-and-down arm. DePaula is a legitimate starter, not a pure reliever like Martin or a career reliever recently converted into a starter like Whitley, and he gets bonus points for being left-handed. The Yankees like DePaula enough that they gave him a big league contract as a minor league free agent this offseason even though he’s yet to reach MLB.

Long-Term Role: DePaula only has one minor league option remaining, which means his time in the organization might not extend beyond the 2015 season. A trip to Triple-A Scranton is in the cards to start the year, and if DePaula gets called up at some point, he’ll have to impress enough to stick around next year, even if it’s as nothing more than a long man. In a nutshell, DePaula has replaced Vidal Nuno on the 40-man roster. Similar pitchers, same sort of role.

No. 37: Austin Romine

2015 Role: Considering he is out of minor league options and can not go to Triple-A without first passing through waivers, there’s a good chance Romine will no longer be with the organization come Opening Day. Catchers are hard to find, so the Yankees figure to keep Romine through Spring Training in case Brian McCann or John Ryan Murphy gets hurt. His 2015 role is emergency extra catcher.

Long-Term Role: Nothing more than being the emergency catcher at this point. Romine’s career stalled out the last few seasons and being out of options means decision time has come. If the Yankees don’t need him to start the season as an injury replacement, Romine will probably be traded — in a small trade for a small return — to a catcher-needy team rather than go on waivers. It would be a surprise if he clears waivers and is able to go to Triple-A to back up Gary Sanchez.

No. 36: Chris Young

2015 Role: Fourth outfielder who will see most of his time against left-handed pitchers. Young might also replace Carlos Beltran for defense in the late innings of close games. He had a strong September cameo in pinstripes and returned to the team on a one-year, $2.5M contract with nearly $4M in incentives.

Long-Term Role: Young’s days as an everyday player are over, and since he’s on a one-year contract, the Yankees have no real ties to him. They can cut him loose if he doesn’t produce during the season or walk away if a better option comes along next offseason. And, of course, they’ll always have the option of re-signing Young if he excels in his part-time role this summer.

No. 35: Brendan Ryan

2015 Role: It appears Ryan will again be on the bench as New York’s extra infielder this coming season, though I suppose there’s a chance he could get pushed out by someone like Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder in Spring Training. There’s definite value in Ryan’s ability to play above-average defense at shortstop and that will keep him in the organization and on the roster, in my opinion.

Long-Term Role: Ryan is entering the second year of his two-year contract, though the deal includes a $2M club option and a $1M player option for 2016. (If the Yankees decline the club option, Ryan can still exercise the player option.) The Yankees don’t have any upper level shortstop prospects capable of replacing Ryan next year, so right now it looks like he has a decent chance to stick around as a bench player beyond the 2015 season.

No. 34: Stephen Drew

2015 Role: Everyday second baseman or close to it — Drew could sit against tough lefties or be pushed into a straight platoon role if, say, Refsnyder forces the issue in camp. I do expect him to at least start the season as the regular second baseman though. Drew will hit in the bottom third of the lineup and hopefully produce like he did in 2013, not 2014. His left-handed swing fits well in Yankee Stadium.

Long-Term Role: Drew doesn’t have a long-term spot with the team. He’s on a one-year contract worth $5M with some incentives, but Refsnyder is coming and the Yankees seem to be making a concerted effort to get younger. Bringing Drew back was about adding depth, not blocking Refsnyder. It’s always possible the Yankees will bring Drew back after the season if he plays well, but it’s hard to think he’ll be penciled in as a regular again. He’s a stopgap, plain and simple.

Hooray for a lefty throwing first baseman. (Presswire)
Hooray for a lefty throwing first baseman. (Presswire)

No. 33: Garrett Jones

2015 Role: Oft-used bench player who will provide backup at first base, right field, and DH, three positions where the Yankees have major injury risks in Mark Teixeira, Beltran, and Alex Rodriguez. I think the health concerns of those three guys give Jones a clear path to 400 or so plate appearances in 2015, which might be just enough to expose his weaknesses. That said, his left-handed power is a great fit for Yankee Stadium.

Long-Term Role: Jones, who came over from the Marlins in the five-player Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade a few weeks ago, will earn $5M in 2015 before becoming a free agent. Given his lefty pop and ability to positions where the Yankees need depth, the team could look to bring Jones back in 2016 if he contributes as hoped this summer. He fits the roster very well.

No. 32: Esmil Rogers

2015 Role: Swingman. Rogers has worked as both a starter and reliever in his career — including last season, when he made eight starts and 38 relief appearances between Triple-A/MLB and Yankees/Blue Jays — and he steps right into David Phelps‘ old role. He actual made three starts in winter ball this offseason and will presumably come to camp stretched out just so the team has options to cover for the risky rotation.

Long-Term Role: The Yankees somewhat surprisingly kept Rogers this offseason. He was a prime non-tender candidate, but they instead cut his salary the maximum allowed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement and kept him around as depth. Rogers will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2016 as well and could definitely return to the team, especially if he fills that swingman role as well as Phelps did.

Coming Tuesday: Nos. 26-31. A collection of prospects who could help in limited roles in 2015.

New additions will help Yankees against pitches down in the zone

Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)
Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)

As first explained by Jon Roegele last January and revisited by Jeff Sullivan in September, the strike zone has been expanding in recent years. It is expanding downward, specifically. There are more called strikes at the knees and below nowadays than there were a few years ago for whatever reason. Pitchers have been taught to keep the ball down for decades, and now there is even more of an incentive to do so. It’s hard to do anything with pitches down in the zone.

As a result, some teams have started seeking out low-ball hitters to counter the expanding strike zone. Josh Donaldson, who went from the Athletics to the Blue Jays this offseason, is one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, putting up a .273 AVG and .180 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below the last two years. The MLB averages were .230 and .103, respectively. The best low-ball hitter in baseball the last three seasons has been (who else?) Mike Trout, with a .343 AVG and .229 ISO.

Last season, the Yankees as a team hit .229 with a .101 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below, the 17th and 15th best rates in baseball, respectively. The MLB averages in 2014 were a .232 AVG and .103 ISO. Keep in mind those are raw AVG and ISO numbers, unadjusted for ballpark or anything like that. The Yankees were a below-average hitting team on pitches down in the zone despite playing home games in hitter happy Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees have remade their lineup a bit this offseason, at least compared to the Opening Day lineup a year ago. They have a new projected starters at the three non-first base infield positions plus a new primary DH regardless of whether Alex Rodriguez or Garrett Jones gets the majority of the at-bats. Let’s look at how the current roster has performed on pitches down in the zone the last three seasons, with an enormous thanks to the indispensable Baseball Savant.

The Infielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
C Brian McCann .219 .148 .236 18.5%
1B Mark Teixeira .193 .147 .225 23.4%
2B Stephen Drew .179 .072 .276 33.7%
SS Didi Gregorius .245 .115 .286 17.5%
3B Chase Headley .225 .098 .318 28.5%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

I was curious to see Teixeira’s down in the zone stats before looking them up because, anecdotally, it seems like he’s a high-ball hitter based on what I’ve seen during his first six years in pinstripes. Sure enough, the data backs it up. Teixeira hit .193 with a .147 ISO on pitches down in the zone these last three years while hitting .268 with a .266 ISO on all other pitches. The MLB averages for pitches not down in the zone since 2012 are .273 AVG and .175 ISO, for reference.

Both Teixeira and McCann are power-before-average hitters, which is why they have a better than league average ISO but a below-average batting average on pitches in the bottom third of the zone and below. Headley has been below-average on low pitches but not by much, just a few points in both AVG and ISO. Remember, AVG and ISO are unadjusted and Headley spent most of the last three years in cavernous Petco Park. I expect these numbers to come up going forward. Drew … yikes. Let’s leave it at that.

Gregorius is interesting because he has actually been slightly above-average on hitting pitches low in the strike zone, though only slightly. On the other hand, he has hit .244 with a .134 ISO on pitches not down in the zone, below those .273 AVG and .175 ISO league averages. Seven of his 13 big league homers have come on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below — one of those seven is his first career homer (video), which came at Yankee Stadium off Phil Hughes in April 2013 — so it seems like Gregorius has some golf in his swing. That’s useful.

The Outfielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
LF Brett Gardner .229 .106 .306 25.6%
CF Jacoby Ellsbury .257 .108 .308 18.8%
RF Carlos Beltran .230 .121 .279 22.1%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

Ellsbury is a high contact hitter who consistently gets the fat part of the bat on the ball, so it’s no surprise he’s fared well on pitches down in the zone. The power production is only league average, but that’s not really his game. Gardner has been so close to being perfectly average on low pitches these last three years that it’s kinda freaky. He’s off the MLB average by one point of AVG, one point of ISO, and three-tenths of a percentage point in strikeout rate.

Beltran has been above-average low-ball hitter by virtue of having an average AVG with better than average ISO and strikeout rates. That said, the Beltran we saw last year was not the same Beltran the Cardinals had from 2012-13. During his two years in St. Louis, Beltran hit .237 with a .133 ISO on low pitches. Last year it was a .211 AVG with a .092 ISO. Hopefully that is just a function of playing through an elbow injury for most of the summer rather than a decline in skills. If that is the case, healthy Beltran is a real weapon against pitches down in the zone.

The Bench

AVG ISO BABIP K%
DH Alex Rodriguez .263 .180 .321 24.8%
C John Ryan Murphy .256 .070 .367 28.3%
IF Brendan Ryan .160 .050 .231 30.0%
OF Chris Young .158 .131 .210 31.0%
UTIL Garrett Jones .244 .157 .290 22.2%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

First things first, let’s just ignore Murphy’s numbers. He has only 112 plate appearances in the big leagues and fewer than 50 of them (46, to be exact) have ended on pitches down in the zone, so it’s a very small sample. Everyone else’s stats are based on a few hundred plate appearances that ended on low pitches.

Anyway, look at A-Rod! He flat out mashed low pitches from 2012-14, which really means he mashed low pitches from 2012-13 because he didn’t play last year. On the other side of the coin, he put up a .267 AVG with a .142 ISO against non-low pitches the last three seasons, both below-average rates. We have no idea what Alex can do next year at age 39 with two surgically repaired hips after missing all of 2014. If he puts up anything close to the 113 wRC+ he had from 2012-13, it would be a major win, low-ball hitter or not.

Jones has been a real threat against pitches down in the strike zone. His AVG, ISO and strikeout rate have been better than average the last three seasons. By comfortable margins too. I guess that’s not surprising — take a few minutes to watch this highlight video and it’s obvious Jones can go down to get a pitch and lift it a long way. Young has some pop on low pitches but is generally well-below-average. Ryan isn’t much of a hitter, low pitches or otherwise.

The additions of Gregorius and Jones figure to help the Yankees against pitches down in the zone in an age when more low strikes are being called and even more pitches are at the knees or below. Headley should also help now that he’s in a much more favorable park, and A-Rod is a wildcard. Maybe he’ll help but probably not. The Yankees weren’t a very good low-ball hitting team in 2014 and their additions this winter appear likely to help improve the situation this coming season.

Yankees trade Martin Prado and David Phelps for Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Jones

According to Jack Curry, the Yankees have traded Martin Prado the Marlins for RHP Nathan Eovaldi. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reports that the deal will also send David Phelps to the Marlins and 1B/OF Garrett Jones to the Yankees. The Yankees will also get RHP prospect Domingo German. The 40-man roster is now full.

The trade comes as something of a surprise. With the re-signing of Chase Headley, it appeared that the Yankees had a solid infield of Headley, Prado, Didi Gregorius, and Mark Teixeira. Moving Prado opens up a spot for Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder, or perhaps another second baseman in a trade. Would the Phillies make Chase Utley available?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The main return in the trade, Eovaldi is a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher who turns 25 in February. Yet he’s already arbitration eligible this year, so the Yankees will have his rights through the 2017 season.

Although Eovaldi has three years’ service time, he’s thrown only 460 MLB innings. Last season was the first in which he made more than 30 starts. His injury history isn’t long, but it certainly concerning. In 2013 he missed the first 69 games of the season with shoulder inflammation, although it didn’t seem to affect him for the rest of the season or in 2014. His only other major injury is Tommy John surgery in 2007.

While he throws very hard, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball in 2014, Eovaldi doesn’t strike out many hitters. Even as his fastball increased in velocity with his move from LA to Miami, he still stuck around 6.5 K/9, which is far below average right now. The idea, it seems, is to get him with Larry Rothschild and Gil Patterson, hoping that they can turn his plus-velocity into swings and misses.

Eovaldi will presumably take Phelps’s spot in the rotation, giving the Yankees their starting five. They could still make a move, given the injury risk, but that would necessarily bump one of the guys they just brought in. It’s no big loss to move Capuano to the bullpen, but why do that after spending $5 million on him?

German is at least interesting, a hard-thrower who performed well in the Sally league last year. Mike should have more on him later.

Garrett Jones is a prototypical platoon player, though he’s on the strong side. For the past two years he’s been a .250/.300/.400 guy, but .267/.333/.479 career against right-handers. He can back up Mark Teixeira at first base and Carlos Beltran in right field, while also taking reps at DH. In other words, he’s more reason to believe the Yankees have absolutely no plans for Alex Rodriguez.

At first I wasn’t thrilled with the trade, but if the Yankees can help Eovaldi harness his stuff they could make out well. Prado provided them with flexibility, but it’s easy to unfairly weigh his performance in the second half last year. He’s had a rough couple of years. Additionally, if the Yankees can get 75 percent of Prado’s performance from Refsnyder or Pirela, with the potential for improvement in the future, that might be a worthwhile bet. I still feel that they could be better served starting in AAA, but it’s not as though it’s going to make a huge difference.

My only problem is that Eovaldi hasn’t been very good. It’s a big bet for the Yankees to make that they can turn him around.