Looking at the Yankee Offense via Steamer Projections

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

Insert cliche about anticipation here. As we’ve been over since the last out of the World Series was recorded, we’re ready for baseball to begin again, aren’t we? That snowstorm last week may have made us feel trapped in winter for a few days, but the calendar is ticking away and we’re getting closer to Opening Day. The end of the WBC this week will likely speed things up as well, as it feels like a hill that needs to be conquered before we speed to the real season (but definitely a fun hill at that!).

The Yankees this year are somewhat up in the air. No one’s really expecting them to do anything much in the way of competing–myself included–but you can’t help but dream with all the potential on the team. Frankly, this is a best-of-both-worlds scenario and part of why I’m so looking forward to this season. If the Yankees are ‘bad,’ well, so be it. At least there are a bunch of young, exciting guys to watch. If they happen to compete? Awesome! An unexpected surprise. Even though I’ll watch and listen to most every game and definitely care in the moment, on a macro level, this season is going to be the epitome of Joe’s old maxim of Zen Baseball: just relax and enjoy it.

Regardless of that, curiosity’s got the best of me, so I wanted to take a look at what we might be in store for in 2017. We’ve already taken a look at ZiPS, so let’s try our hand at the Steamer projections for the Yankees.

Leading things off, Gary Sanchez paces the team in fWAR projection. Steamer projects him for 3.6 fWAR this year. Didi Gregorius follows him at 2.2 and Chase Headley rounds out the top three at 2.0. I was a bit surprised to see Headley at the third position, but Steamer likes his defense a lot and pairing that with near average offense (96 wRC+) gives him a solid projection. I’d sign up for that from Headley in a heartbeat.

In terms of wRC+, Steamer gives the nod to Greg Bird, projecting him for a 123 mark, just a head of Matt Holliday at 121 and Sanchez at 118. All in all, Steamer projects six Yankees to be over 100 in terms of wRC+: those three as well as Brett Gardner (101), Aaron Judge (106), and Chris Carter (107). Last year, only Brian McCann (103), Carlos Beltran (135), and Sanchez (171) were above average for the team in a significant number of plate appearances. That, frankly, is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t mean this stuff will actually happen, but that would be a welcomed sight after last year’s mostly disappointing offense.

In terms of counting stats, Sanchez is projected to lead the team with 27 homers, then Bird at 23, followed by Carter at 22, though in limited playing time. Steamer also has Judge at “only” 17 homers, but also with under 400 PA. Adjusting him up to 500 PA gets him in the neighborhood of 22-23.

Regarding homers, there was one thing I wanted to touch on: Didi Gregorius’s total. It seems him dropping to 15 and, call it a silly gut feeling, but I think that’s about right. Didi did add some power last year, but I’m not sure 20 homers is going to be the norm for him. If he drops lower than 15, too, that’s fine, given his defense. I think 10-15 is more where he’s going to live, not 15-20, or even more.

Overall, Steamer seems to like the Yankee offense, at least as an improvement over last year’s team. ZiPS is definitely more bullish on Judge–projecting him to hit 30 homers–but Steamer seems to have the playing time distribution down better, excepting Judge being part-time. We’ve got to remember that projections aren’t predictions. We should use them to guide expectations, a starting point rather than an ending one. Regardless, things are looking up for the Yankees at the plate. It may not be a return to full on Bronx Bombers status, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Heyman: Yankees, Gary Sanchez agree to contract for 2017, avoid renewal

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees and Gary Sanchez have agreed to a contract for the 2017 season. Financial terms are unknown, though Heyman says the two sides agreed to a deal and the Yankees didn’t renew their budding star. As a pre-arbitration-eligible player, Sanchez’s salary will be something close to the $535,000 minimum salary.

As you may remember, the Yankees were unable to come to a contract agreement with Dellin Betances prior to the 2016 season, his final season as a pre-arbitration-eligible player, so they renewed him at the league minimum. Betances felt the team’s offer was too low, so they renewed him, which is their right. Dellin knew what would happen.

Who knows whether the contract renewal created bad blood between Betances and the Yankees, but the fact the two sides went to an arbitration hearing a few weeks ago sure makes it seem like that’s the case. (Randy Levine didn’t help matters either.) Thankfully, the Yankees were able to avoid similar animosity with Sanchez this year.

Sanchez, 24, hit .299/.376/.657 (171 wRC+) with 20 homers in 53 games last season (lol), his first extended taste of the big leagues. Many teams, including the Yankees, have a sliding salary scale for pre-arbitration-eligible players based on service time, with escalators for All-Star Games and major awards, things like that.

Because he will enter 2017 with only 86 days of service time, the Yankees still have all six years of contractual control over Sanchez. He won’t even qualify as a Super Two player. Sanchez will make something close to the league minimum from 2017-19 before making decent bucks through arbitration from 2020-22.

It’s unclear whether the Yankees have reached contract agreements with their other pre-arbitration-eligible players. That stuff usually isn’t widely reported. The Yankees have 22 pre-arbitration-eligible players on the 40-man roster, including Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Ronald Torreyes.

The New Face of the Franchise [2017 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last few years, really since Derek Jeter retired, the Yankees have sorely lacked a franchise cornerstone player. Robinson Cano would have been that guy had he not left as a free agent. Late career Alex Rodriguez didn’t do it for many folks. (Heck, many didn’t like peak A-Rod.) Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and even Masahiro Tanaka lack that marquee value. Jeter was the face of the franchise.

Now, for the first time since Jeter called it a career, the Yankees have a worthy heir to that face of the franchise title. It’s Gary Sanchez, the team’s just turned 24-year-old budding superstar catcher, the one with the rocket arm and easy power. Sanchez took over behind the plate last year and was an instant success, smashing 20 homers in one-third of a season and establishing himself as a core player going forward.

The Yankees are so committed to Sanchez and their youth movement that they traded Brian McCann for a pair of lower level pitching prospects over the winter, even eating some money to make it happen. It would have been pretty easy — and smart, I’d argue — to keep McCann around as a high-end backup, someone to mentor Sanchez in his first full season as a big leaguer while getting at-bats behind the plate and at designated hitter. Instead, McCann is now an Astro.

Truth be told, the Yankees are asking a lot from Sanchez this season. They want him to lead their pitching staff, be a force in the middle of the lineup, and continue to develop into that marquee homegrown player they’ve lacked since Jeter retired. Catcher is a tough position. Even the most talented young backstops struggle early in their big league careers because there’s so much responsibility. Not everyone can transition to MLB seamlessly like Buster Posey.

Then again, Sanchez is much closer to Posey than most catchers. He is the most promising young catcher in baseball and I don’t think I’m being a raging homer when I say that. Aside from maybe Cubs backstop Willson Contreras, I don’t see any catcher under the age of, say, 25 who comes close to matching Sanchez’s offensive potential and defensive aptitude. Here are a few key storylines heading in Sanchez’s first full MLB season.

No, he won’t do that again.

What Sanchez did down the stretch last season was truly historic. He became the fastest player in history to hit 20 home runs, doing so in his first 51 career games, and he did it despite the physical demands associated with being a full-time catcher. (Between Triple-A and MLB, Sanchez caught exactly 100 games in 2016.) It was remarkable. We’ve never seen a young player come up have that level of success. Like, ever.

Of course, it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect Sanchez to sustain that pace this coming season. He’s a great young player, but basically no one can keep that up, especially as a catcher. Outliers do exist. Guys like Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez came up, mashed right away, and basically didn’t stop hitting until they reached their 30s. Posey hasn’t stopped hitting either. Great players don’t follow typical developmental paths. Perhaps Sanchez can do the same.

This summer Sanchez will have to contend with, possibly for the first time in his career, opposing teams game planning for him. He saw 55.4% fastballs and 44.6% soft stuff in August last year. It was 53.0% and 47.0%, respectively, in September. Not a big difference there. By time pitchers stopped throwing him pitches in the zone, the season was over.

gary-sanchez-plate-discipline

To Sanchez’s credit, once pitchers stopped throwing him so many pitches in the zone, and he did adjust and stop swinging at stuff off the plate (O-Swing%). But again, by time this all happened, the season came to an end. This coming season we’ll get to see the constant cycle of pitchers adjusting to Sanchez and Sanchez adjusting back, over and over again.

So, in addition to the statistical improbability of Sanchez maintaining last year’s home run pace (40.0 HR/FB% in 2016!), he’ll also have to contend with being the “we can’t let this guy beat us” guy. The book is out on him. Teams will prepare for him more carefully because Gary has shown he can punish big league pitchers and has established himself as his club’s best hitter. He’s going to get more attention now and he’ll have to adjust. There’s a learning curve.

What would a successful 2017 season for Sanchez look like? I’d be pretty happy with, say, .270/.330/.450 and 25 homers or so. That is both a big step down from last year and pretty awesome for a 24-year-old catcher in his first full season as a big leaguer. Don’t believe me? Here are the last five catchers to spend their first full season in MLB at age 24 or younger:

  • J.T. Realmuto, Marlins, in 2015: .259/.290/.406 (92 OPS+) with ten homers
  • Matt Wieters, Orioles, in 2010: .249/.319/.377 (90 OPS+) with eleven homers
  • Kurt Suzuki, Athletics, in 2008: .279/.346/.370 (96 OPS+) with seven homers
  • Russell Martin, Dodgers, in 2006: .292/.355/.436 (101 OPS+) with ten homers
  • John Buck, Royals, in 2005: .242/.287/.389 (79 OPS+) with 12 homers

Baseball is hard, especially for young catchers. It’s difficult to temper expectations with Sanchez given what he did last year, I know it is, but you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you’re expecting to see that again. The smart money is on Sanchez being both very productive in 2017 and not repeating his 2016 numbers. That debut was almost too good to be true.

Will he continue to make progress with his glove?

There are no questions about Sanchez’s throwing arm. It’s one of the best arms I’ve ever seen and that’s not hyperbole. Sanchez threw out 13 of 32 attempted basestealers last year, or 41%. The league average was 29%. Furthermore, Sanchez threw out 13 of 26 attempted basestealers when anyone other than Dellin Betances was on the mound. No offense to Dellin, but he does his catchers no favors when it comes to holding runners. (Sanchez has thrown out five of seven attempted basestealers this spring.)

Sanchez’s arm is a game-changer. It shuts the other team’s running game right down. His arm is so good he won’t even have to use it. Many runners won’t even dare test him. (The Yankees do have some pitchers who are slow to the plate, like Betances, so Gary’s arm will still get a workout.) Sanchez does, however, need to make progress in the other defensive aspects of his position, such as receiving and blocking balls in the dirt. His framing numbers were average in limited time last season and the scouting reports tout him as a work in progress in that department.

Also, Sanchez allowed 21 passed pitches (six passed balls and 15 wild pitches) in 316 innings behind the plate last year. The league average was 16 passed pitches (three passed balls and 13 wild pitches) per 316 innings. We saw a little too much of this last season:

gary-sanchez-passed-ball

That’s a pitch that has to be caught, you know? The pitcher missed his spot (by a lot) but that’s catchable. The Yankees have some tough to catch pitchers (Michael Pineda and his wipeout slider, Tanaka and his diving splitter, Betances and his everything, etc.) so I’m inclined to cut Sanchez some slack here, but clearly, overall receiving and blocking is something that can be improved going forward.

To Sanchez’s credit, he’s made a ton of progress with his defense over the years. He was never Jesus Montero bad, though it wasn’t crystal clear he’d remain behind the plate long-term either. Sanchez has improved as he progressed through the minors, and now he’ll go through first base coach Tony Pena‘s brutal season-long catching boot camp. Pena is out there smacking baseballs at his catchers in the early afternoon most days throughout the season. He doesn’t take it easy on them.

Sanchez is always going to be a bat first player and that’s perfectly fine. His defense isn’t terrible either, it should be noted. He’s not late career Jorge Posada bad or anything like that. Sanchez is an adequate defender now, probably a bit better than that, and he’s still so young that there’s reason to believe his receiving will get even better with experience and more coaching.

No. 2 in the lineup, No. 1 in our hearts.

The Yankees called Sanchez up for good on August 3rd last year, and by August 19th, he was their regular No. 3 hitter. About two weeks is all it took for Gary to establish himself as the most dangerous hitter in the lineup. It stands to reason Sanchez will hit third against this year, though Joe Girardi has indicated he might hit him second instead. From Mike Mazzeo:

“I’m going to look at it,” Girardi said of the potential batting order. “In the first inning, I think I’d prefer to have two guys in front of my best hitter. But then you start going through the other three times through the lineup and you get a few more at-bats over the course of the season, so I can see it both ways.”

Managers around the league have started to embrace batting their best hitter second, which is an old school sabermetric credo at this point. The No. 2 hitter gets more at-bats than the No. 3 hitter across the full 162-game season, and he’ll also bat with more men on base than the leadoff hitter. The days of a bat control, hit-and-run guy hitting second are slowly fading away.

Sanchez is New York’s best hitter — I wouldn’t be completely shocked if, say, Matt Holliday or Greg Bird outhits him this year, but right now Gary is the guy — and batting him second would be a smart move despite his lack of speed. The Yankees have been toying with the idea of splitting up Gardner and Ellsbury atop the lineup. Rather than shoehorn someone like Didi Gregorius or Starlin Castro in the two-hole, Girardi could simply bat Sanchez second. This lineup looks good, no?

  1. Brett Gardner
  2. Gary Sanchez
  3. Greg Bird
  4. Matt Holliday
  5. Didi Gregorius
  6. Starlin Castro
  7. Jacoby Ellsbury
  8. Chase Headley
  9. Aaron Judge

I like it. Moreso than hitting Ellsbury or Headley or Castro or whoever second and Sanchez third. Simply put, the Yankees would be bunching their best hitters atop the lineup to give them the most at-bats rather than adhering to the old “your best hitter should bat third” way of thinking. Hooray open-mindedness! Now we’ll see whether Girardi actually goes through with it.

* * *

Sanchez is going to be front and center as the Yankees move forward with this transition. He plays a crucial position and has already shown he can be an impact hitter. That’s a building block player. The kind of franchise player the Yankees have lacked since Jeter walked away. Sanchez is, at the moment, the obvious candidate to be the next great homegrown Yankee, and my goodness is that exciting.

Which Yankees would make the best two-way players?

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

For the first time in what feels like forever, MLB is on the verge of having a true two-way player.

That’s right, the same person as a pitcher and position player on a semi-regular basis. Christian Bethancourt, to this point almost exclusively a catcher for the Padres, is in spring training splitting his time between catcher and pitcher and is set to pitch Wednesday. He did pitch twice last season and threw 96 mph, so his stuff is there, and he began to fulfill more of a utility role last season, a hint towards his versatility/athleticism.

One of my favorite things to see is when position players pitch or pitchers rake. Remember Brendan Ryan tossing two shutout innings in 2015? It made attending a 15-1 loss a ton of fun.

Anyway, with Bethancourt and Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Otani in the news, I thought we could take a gander at which current Yankees would make the best potential two-way player, even if there is approximately a zero percent chance any of them actually become one. First up, the outfielder with the rocket arm.

Aaron Hicks

Hicks is the obvious choice here because he has a freaking cannon. It isn’t always on the money and it doesn’t always get a baserunner out, but it surely makes any runner think twice about taking the extra base. His 105.5 mph throw last April is the fastest recorded throw in the Statcast era and even tops the fastest pitch of Aroldis Chapman. Granted, it’s different heaving the ball with a running start on a lazy fly ball vs. what a pitcher does, but it’s a perfect display of what Hicks is capable.

Hicks also still has my favorite outfield assist ever, even though it came when he was with the Twins against the Yankees. Indulge me and re-watch this masterpiece that really shows off how strong Hicks’ arm really is.

With all that in mind, it should come as little surprise that Hicks was also a pitcher when he was drafted 1st round, 14th overall, out of high school. Baseball America mentions it in their blurb about Hicks in multiple prospect handbooks back in his Twins days, including right off the bat when he was Minnesota’s No. 4 prospect in 2012. Here’s what they said about him in 2011, when he was the Twins’ No. 2 prospect.

“Some teams liked him more as a pitcher coming out of high school, thanks to his athleticism and a fastball that reached 97 mph at times, and he retains excellent arm strength, his best present tool.”

It’s still his best tool and Hicks still has that top-notch velocity. Hicks threw a near no-hitter in high school and after the game mentioned his curveball as one of his top pitches. At the 2007 Perfect Game Showcase, Hicks hit and pitched. You can catch a glimpse of his pitching at 2:38, 6:13 and 11:30 of the showcase video, in which Hicks says he had been told he had “starter stuff” but indicated he wanted to be a position player. In a world where the Yankees now asked him to be a pitcher in addition to his hitting, they’d have to build back up his off-speed offerings.

CC Sabathia

Of the players I’ll list, this is more a dream than anything. CC Sabathia isn’t going to start playing a position in 2017. At most, he’ll get an extra chance or two to swing away compared to other Yankees’ pitchers in interleague play.

But back in the day, CC was a capable hitter. From 2002 to 2008, he hit .261 (22-for-84), having his ‘breakout’ offensive season in 2008 when he switched leagues for the second half of the season and carried the Brewers to the playoffs. That year, he hit two mammoth home runs, one with the Indians and one with the Brewers, including this moon shot at Dodger Stadium.

Sabathia didn’t ever have the speed and athleticism to man anything other than maybe first base and a corner outfield spot. If you put him in a corner, you know he’d have a good arm, even if he lacked range. As a Yankee, he has only two hits, none for extra bases, in 27 at-bats while laying down just one sacrifice hit.

Didi Gregorius

Gregorius would make a much more realistic two-way player than Sabathia, although his role as the everyday shortstop makes it a true impossibility. His arm is the entire argument. Watching him throughout the season, he fires some lasers to first base and has some solid accuracy as well. No word on how hard he throws off a mound or even if he ever has. Baseball America rated his arm as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale when he was a prospect in the Reds system.

While Didi doesn’t have a history of pitching like Hicks, there is evidence of possible aspirations. The YES Network posted a video of Gregorius pitching on flat ground to a teammate in warmups before a game last season.

The Yankees wouldn’t risk injury to Gregorius, but I have a feeling he’d go out to the mound with the same infectious zeal that Ryan had when he got his opportunity in a game.

Quick Hits

Aaron Judge on the mound would be a spectacle to behold. He is perhaps the most unlikely person to be a two-way player because working out mechanics for a 6-foot-7 pitcher is tough enough as it is but especially from scratch. He’s another guy with a strong arm in the outfield, but yeah, this one’s a pipe dream.

Gary Sanchez, like Sabathia, doesn’t quite have the athleticism to pull off the two-way life, but he’s got the arm. While Hicks had the fastest recorded throw on Statcast, Sanchez had the quickest for a catcher throwing out a base stealer. We’ll see plenty more attempted base stealers thrown out as long as he’s the Yankees’ backstop.

In the minor leagues, Cito Culver seems like an obvious choice. Like Didi, he’s a middle infielder with a strong arm, but Culver actually had experience on the mound in high school. BA said he hit 94 mph. They said the same thing for Jake Cave, who had 17 outfield assists last season across three outfield positions.

The Yankees lost some lefty power, but does it matter?

Getty Images
(Getty Images)

The Yankees lost a lot of veterans over the last year, whether to trade, retirement or release. While it has enabled the team to undergo a much-needed youth movement, it also signifies a significant loss in left-handed power. Lefty power isn’t a be-all, end-all. Just look at the 2015-16 Blue Jays and the success they had with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Yet nearly all of the Yankees’ teams since Babe Ruth have been built around powerful lefty (or switch) hitters and they have a home stadium built to match. After all, lefties have the platoon advantage most of the time and strong lefty pull hitters can make mince meat of Yankee Stadium. Therefore, it’s worth looking into whether the Yankees can maintain that or if it will even matter with the team’s new additions.

What they’ve lost

In 2016, the lineup had Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Didi Gregorius, all lefties or switch-hitters, all hit 20+ home runs in pinstripes. Now, the first three names on that list are either retired or playing for the Astros. That leaves a major hole in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup without similar players to fill it.

And those weren’t the only lefties in the lineup. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for just 16 home runs after 33 between the pair as recently as 2014. Chase Headley, despite going without an extra-base hit until mid-May, still hit 11 homers from the left side. In total, thanks to the contributions of those above and a few others, 101 of the team’s 183 homers came from lefty batters, many taking advantage of the short porch in right field.

Sir Didi and Bird

If all went according to plan in 2017, Gregorius and Greg Bird would cement themselves as Yankees regulars for the foreseeable future. Headley, Ellsbury and Gardner will all be 33 for most of the upcoming season, so it’s tougher to see them rebound and provide a strong power surge. So we look to the youthful duo.

It’s worth questioning whether Gregorius, who had only 22 career dingers before last year, can sustain his power surge. He improved on pitches located essentially anywhere, but where he really improved was his power on inside pitches. It’s spelled out through his isolated power in 2015 vs. 2016, via Baseball Savant.

didi-iso-zone-2015-vs-2016
2015 (left) vs. 2016 (right)

While he began the spring with a home run, he’s still not exactly a home run hitter. Some of those home runs last year were line drives that snuck out and he pulled all 20 of his dingers, benefiting from the short porch. Craig Goldstein broke down Gregorius’ 2016 power surge at Baseball Prospectus (subs. required) and says it very well could be a one-year blip.  For what it’s worth, the Yankees believe he can maintain his power, even if the home runs don’t necessarily come, and he did also post a career-high in doubles last season.

As for Bird, the 24-year-old first baseman has the task of replacing Teixeira in the middle of the Yankees’ order. First base is the one spot where the Yankees could find improved power for a LHB, but there is also reason to fret that may not happen. Greg Bird hit 11 homers with a .268 ISO in 178 plate appearances in 2015, but now he’s working his way back from shoulder surgery. Did the surgery sap some of his power? Time will tell and his spring will be important to knocking off some of the inevitable rust (his two doubles on Monday are a good sign).

Righties in the middle

Beyond Bird, there were no lefty hitters added to the Yankees lineup. Maybe Gardner or Ellsbury could bounce back and hit double-digit home runs again. It’s certainly possible that, with extended playing time, this is the year Aaron Hicks puts it together and fulfills his potential.

However, it’s more than likely any uptick in slugging would come from righty Bombers, of which there are plenty candidates. Namely Chris Carter, Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.

Carter mashes lefties more than righties, making him an obvious platoon candidate with Bird, but he still hit 29 homers and posted a more than respectable .487 slugging percentage against RHPs in 2016. Furthermore, he used the opposite field more against RHPs while pulled the ball against LHPs, a sign Carter can utilize the short porch more than one might expect. Here’s his spray heatmap vs. RHPs via Baseball Savant (and here’s the link to the same vs. LHPs).

chris-carter-heatmap-vs-rhp

Matt Holliday, the team’s new everyday DH, has hit — with the exception of 2015 — 20 home runs every season since 2005. Like Carter, he hit for more power against lefties but was still above league average against same-sided pitchers.

Sanchez and Judge are tougher enigmas to crack. Sanchez’s slump to end 2016 indicates he won’t put up nearly the same numbers as he did in August last year. Then again, how exactly was he supposed to replicate that anyway? For what it’s worth, Sanchez hit righties much better than lefties, making up for the lack of platoon advantage McCann provided vs. RHPs. Judge, meanwhile, has more than enough power regardless of opponent but needs to cut down on strikeouts to stay in the lineup.

Does it matter?

Surely the Yankees will hit fewer homers from the left side. But their addition of right-handed power, particularly batters who can use the opposite field, will help make up for that. This will help correct the team’s issues against southpaws that plagued them last season (.253/.317/.391 vs. LHP as compared to .256/.323/.414 league average). With a division littered with lefty starters (eight, including potentially four on the Red Sox alone), the Yankees may be able to turn a 2016 weakness into a strength. As mentioned above, you can be right-handed heavy like the Blue Jays recently were and still be able to rack up extra bases.

Still, it’s worth wondering if the team has traded struggles vs. southpaws for something worse, a lack of power vs. RHPs, who make up the majority of what the team will face. The team as a whole was just 12th in the AL in slugging last season. Therefore, it’s reliant on young players like Bird and Gregorius as well as the team’s RHBs to fill in the power gap or else the Yankees won’t be able to live up to the Bronx Bomber nickname in this transitional season.

Embracing the reality (and beauty) of a prospect-laden Yankees

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The recent Yankees’ Winter Warmup was a nice touch to the offseason. Deep within the monotony of the winter when you’re mostly refreshing Didi GregoriusInstagram, the Yankees gave fans a chance to interact with their players. Yet, at the same time, fans also got a glimpse of a completely different version of the Bronx Bombers.

If this type of event had been held six years ago, the headliners would have been obvious. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, CC Sabathia, etc. The veteran stalwarts you know and love. The guys you’ve watched win titles and know exactly what to expect when they hit the field come that spring.

But those weren’t the guys put front and center (yes, CC took part on the Thursday of the event). How about a lineup of Chance Adams, Clint Frazier, James Kaprielian, Justus Sheffield, Gleyber Torres? Readers of River Avenue Blues are no doubt familiar with the next wave of the ‘Baby Bombers’ but they are far from household names for the average Yankees fan at the moment.

But they are the ones that the Yankees put front and center. That’s startling. For 20 years, it’s been essentially one core, a high-priced roster of aging stars with a rotating cast around them. The farm system has had its ups and downs, mostly downs, and filled in a few roster spots, producing a star (Robinson Cano), trade chips and some regulars since the turn of the century.

Cano or Brett Gardner were able to ease into the lineup to an extent, finding their footing while the veterans were the ones relied upon to produce wins. Sure, a Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain came with extraordinary expectations, but that was primarily once they put up big numbers. Jesus Montero would have been hyped to no end in 2012 after one month of beautiful home runs and general hitting promise, but he was instead one of the aforementioned trade chips.

Now it’s the prospects that are in the spotlight. Not just Gary Sanchez or Aaron Judge, guys who at least have received their first cups of coffee. Frazier, Sheffield and Torres have been in the organization for six months. Adams has been a starter for one year. Kaprielian threw 18 innings before the Arizona Fall League last year. Those five players, all among MLB.com’s top-100 prospects besides Adams, have played 30 combined games above Double-A, all by Frazier. Besides Judge, the Yankees’ other members of the top-100 are Jorge Mateo, who is still in Tampa, and Blake Rutherford, perhaps the prospect with the most upside but one who was drafted less than a year ago.

I know I’m not alone in feeling weird. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited beyond belief to see the development that will come in 2017, whether it’s from highlight packages or Down on the Farm posts. But where there’s excitement is also the dread. Because there will be growing pains … a lot of them. There are going to be times when we will shake our heads. At the big league level, Sanchez likely won’t be on a 60-homer pace in 2017. Judge is going to keep striking out as he has done at every level early on before he fully adjusts if he even can make that next step with his biggest challenge yet. Greg Bird is not going to be Mark Teixeira defensively and that shoulder surgery is a concern for him offensively.

In the minors, there will be even more growing pains. Torres faces the challenge of a pitcher-friendly Eastern League and Waterfront Park. Frazier continues to try and overcome his strikeout woes as he plays his first full season in Triple-A. Adams, Kaprielian and Sheffield (as well as Jordan Montgomery, Ian Clarkin and others) will need to prove themselves at new levels.

It’s important to keep in mind with all of these guys that development for a prospect is almost never a straight path. Sanchez is a great example with his early promise, his setbacks with questions of maturity and then having everything come together all at once last year. Judge seemingly struggles at the start of each new level before finding his footing and learning how to excel.

But we also can’t get too high when one of the guys in the minors has a hot week or two. The second Didi Gregorius makes an error or goes into a prolonged slump that coincides with a losing stretch, there will be a clamor from some to call up Torres all the way from Trenton. There needs to be plenty of patience, even if someone hits the way people hope Torres will hit.

There are also going to be the guys who take steps back – or at least sideways – like Mateo did last year, but with so many top prospects, some guys are also bound to take that next step, realize their potential and get us more excited than we are now. This season will be about embracing those big steps and even the little ones. To borrow a phrase from another franchise on the ride, it’s time to “trust the process.”

And that brings me back to the Winter Warmup. Sure, Adams and Kaprielian aren’t guys who the average fan might know right now. Many might only know Frazier or Torres by the head shots put on TV broadcasts explaining what the Yankees got back for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. But this season will be about embracing those fresh faces, warts and all, the Yankees put front and center at the Winter Warmup, with the hope that they’ll be front and center for the next championship runs.

Gary Sanchez will pass on the 2017 World Baseball Classic

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

According to multiple reports, Gary Sanchez has decided not to play for the Dominican Republic during the upcoming 2017 World Baseball Classic. The tournament begins March 6th and the Championship Game will be played March 22nd at Dodger Stadium.

Sanchez told Sweeny Murti he initially accepted an invitation to play in the WBC, but he changed his mind recently and will instead spend Spring Training with the Yankees. That’s good. Sanchez is about to begin his first full season as the starting catcher and he needs to familiarize himself with the pitching staff.

Dellin Betances will suit up for the Dominican Republic, which will be managed by Yankees first base coach Tony Pena. Didi Gregorius is going to play for the Netherlands. Minor leaguers Kellin Deglan (Canada), Tito Polo, Carlos Vidal, and Donovan Solano (all Colombia) are on WBC rosters as well.