Sorting out the 35 players the Yankees still have in big league camp

Bird and Judge. (Presswire)
Bird and Judge. (Presswire)

Opening Day is now only six days away, and at this point the Yankees still have nearly a full 40-man roster worth of players in big league camp. They have 35 players in camp and the World Baseball Classic is part of the reason. Some players, like Donovan Solano, have been in camp without actually being in camp these last few weeks. The Yankees and every other team needed the extra bodies while players were away at the WBC.

All throughout this week the Yankees will cut down their roster as they prepare for Opening Day on Sunday. It’s late in camp, so not only will the big league players start playing a full nine innings and back-to-back days, the minor leagues need to do that too. There’s only so much playing time to go around, and at this point of the spring, it’s time for clubs to emphasize their MLB roster players.

Earlier today the Yankees reassigned Solano, Wilkin Castillo, and Ruben Tejada to minor league camp, meaning there are now 35 players remaining in the big league Spring Training. Let’s take stock of those 35 players and figure out where they fit into the Opening Day roster equation. Some will definitely make it, some definitely won’t, and a whole bunch of guys are on the bubble. Let’s get to it.

Definitely Making The Team (19)

Might as well start here since this is our easiest and largest roster group. These are the players we know will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity.

Any doubt about Bird making the Opening Day roster was erased when he was named the starting first baseman last week. It was plenty fair to wonder whether he’d need some time to Triple-A to regain his strength and/or timing after missing the entire 2016 season with shoulder surgery, but he’s crushing the ball this spring. No doubts about him now. Everyone else is pretty straightforward, right? Right.

Very Likely To Make The Team (3)

This group includes three players who are not a lock to make the Opening Day roster, but are in prime position to make the club out of Spring Training. The three players: Aaron Judge, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. Judge has had a strong camp to date. I’m not sure what else the Yankees could want to see from him, though I still don’t think the right field job is 100% his right now. Hicks has played well this spring. (Like he does every spring. Career .303/.365/.521 hitter in Spring Training!)

Mitchell and Severino are both competing for a rotation spot, though I think they’re on the roster either way, starter or reliever. Mitchell won a bullpen spot in camp last year and he hasn’t really done anything to not deserve a roster spot since. I still think Severino is the odds on favorite to get one of the open rotation spots. I’m also not convinced he’ll go to Triple-A should he not get a starting spot. The chances of Severino making the Opening Day roster in some capacity sure seem pretty darn high to me. He’s not a lock, but the odds are in his favor.

Injured (2)

Baseball can be cruel. The Yankees lost both Didi Gregorius and Tyler Austin to injury this spring, and while neither suffered a severe long-term injury, they are going to miss the first several weeks of the regular season. Austin fouled a pitch off his foot and broke a bone. He could return to game action in mid-April. Gregorius strained his shoulder making a throw and could be out until May. Yuck. Both Austin and Didi are disabled list bound to begin the regular season.

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Most players in this group will be shuttle pitchers. Chad Green is competing with Severino and Mitchell (and Warren, I guess) for the two open rotation spots, and I feel the Yankees are much more willing to send him to Triple-A rather than stash him in the bullpen. Jordan Montgomery has impressed in camp, so much so that Joe Girardi is talking about him as a possible Opening Day roster option. Can’t say I expected to have him in this group at the outset of Spring Training.

Aside from Green and Montgomery, the other three pitchers in this group are all relievers: Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve. We will inevitably see those guys in the Bronx at some point this season, though I’d say it’s less than 50/50 they’re on the Opening Day roster. Heller probably has the best chance to win a job out of camp. He’s had a fine spring and is, in my opinion, the best bullpen prospect in the organization.

Rob Refsnyder, who has been mentioned as a trade candidate at times this spring, didn’t have much of a chance to make the Opening Day roster at coming into the spring. Then Austin and Gregorius got hurt which, if nothing else, opened the door for Refsnyder a little bit. His inability to play shortstop hurts him, obviously. The Yankees would have to be comfortable using Castro at shortstop.

An unexpected Opening Day roster candidate is Tyler Wade, who has played well this spring and could get a look at shortstop while Gregorius is sidelined. The question is whether the Yankees want to tie up a long-term 40-man roster spot — the veteran non-roster infielders in camp can be dropped off the 40-man roster as soon as Gregorius returns, but Wade will be on the 40-man for good — so Wade can fill-in for a month. I have him in this group for a reason though. I think it’s possible the Yankees go with him at short while Didi is out.

Oh Geez, They Might Actually Make The Team (3)

It happens every year, doesn’t it? Some random player you forgot the Yankees acquired shows up to camp, performs well, and before you know it, he’s on the Opening Day roster. Kirby Yates did it last year. Chris Martin the year before. Cody Eppley a few years before that. You never see it coming with these guys. Here are this year’s candidates, listed alphabetically:

  • Ernesto Frieri: The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal two weeks ago, which suggests they were impressed by the way he threw with Colombia during the WBC.
  • J.R. Graham: Graham recently had a three-run disaster outing, but eight of his ten Grapefruit League appearances have been scoreless. Ten strikeouts and two walks in 9.1 innings too.
  • Pete Kozma: Kozma’s chances of making the Opening Day roster improved with the news of the Gregorius injury as well as the Solano and Tejada demotions. He’s a candidate to help fill in either at shortstop or as the utility infielder.

With Gregorius hurt and two open bullpen spots, I’d put the chances of at least one of these five players making the Opening Day roster at: annoyingly high. My money is on Frieri making it. He’s looked pretty darn during the World Baseball Classic and with the Yankees, plus his experience as a Proven Closer™ will work in his favor.

Esmil Rog ... I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)
Esmil Rog … I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)

Long Shot To Make The Team (1)

The Yankees reassigned their very best prospects to minor league camp last week, which took some of the excitement out of the remaining Grapefruit League games. It was that time of the spring though. The kids have to go get ready for their seasons. The at-bats aren’t there any more in the big league camp. The regulars are going to play and play a lot this week.

The final player still in big league camp is catcher Kyle Higashioka. He is No. 3 on the catcher depth chart, which means he is heading to Triple-A Scranton until someone gets hurts or rosters expand in September, whichever comes first. Higashioka’s only chance to make the big league roster out of Spring Training involved and injury to Sanchez or Romine, and, thankfully, the Yankees have stayed healthy behind the plate.

Predictions by Position

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

After today, the next time you read a post from me, the Yankees will be three hours away from their first pitch of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays (while we’re on it, how silly is it that even in a dome, the Yankees have an off day after their Opening Day? Isn’t the point of the dome to avoid that? Ugh.). That’s pretty damn cool, huh? It also means you’re in for a flurry of prediction posts, so allow me to be near the top of the list. When September ends, we can all look back at this and laugh at how absurdly wrong I was.

Catcher

Gary Sanchez will struggle at the plate to start the year and a certain segment of fans–the talk radio set–will become frustrated, though his defense is mostly fine. By early June, though, Sanchez will find his stroke and finish the year with about 20 homers and a caught stealing percentage near the top of the league.

Austin Romine will remain the backup all year, turning in a very typical backup season. But, for him, it’s a coup as it lands him a two-year contract after the season to stay on as Sanchez’s reserve.

Carter. (Presswire)
Carter. (Presswire)

First Base

I don’t know exactly what the combination will be or how it will break down to a man, but Greg Bird and Chris Carter will combine for 40 homers.

Shortstop and Second Base

I’m combing these thanks to the Didi Gregorius injury. Ruben Tejada will start the year at short. By mid-April, though, his bat will not be worth the defensive contribution and he’ll be let go. Starlin Castro will slide over to short and “everyone” will get their wish as Rob Refsnyder will be called up to play second, the team willing to live with his defense since his offense will be needed more. He’ll have a hot first week, then cool down just in time for Didi to return and send Castro back to second.

Didi will take a slight step back offensively this year, as will Castro. However, they’ll be able to buoy it with solid defense, becoming one of the top double play combinations in the league.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Third Base

Chase Headley continues his ‘bounce back’ that started after his terrible beginning to 2016. He ends the year around a 100 wRC+, but his defense begins to show a little bit of wear before he heads into the last year of his contract.

Outfield

Brett Gardner bounces back offensively. The power doesn’t come back totally, but he reaches double digits in homers again and regains some of his base-stealing prowess. Jacoby Ellsbury hovers around where he was last year and his steals stay flat as he’s not apt to run in front of Sanchez or Matt Holliday, whoever occupies the three spot.

Aaron Judge struggles through the first month and is sent down to Scranton and Aaron Hicks takes over in right for a bit. Judge is eventually recalled and put in a platoon to start, but earns his way back into the starting role, promising better things for 2018.

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

Designated Hitter

Holliday shows flashes of his Colorado self, but is generally more like the player he was in St. Louis last year. He surprises, though, with a fair amount of opposite field homers and winds up leading the team in that category.

Starting Rotation

Michael Pineda comes out of the gates like a bat out of hell. He pushes his way into the All Star Game, but falters down the stretch, reminding us more of 2016 than the early part of 2017.

CC Sabathia pitches like a number two for half his starts and a number five for the other half. Masahiro Tanaka again competes for the Cy Young Award, putting up an even better case this year than last year.

Adam loves it. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Bullpen

Adam Warren becomes the new Dellin Betances. No, he won’t be as dominant as Dellin, but he’ll move into the multi-inning, high-leverage spot, allowing Betances to join Tyler Clippard and Aroldis Chapman as a more traditional one-inning reliever when Warren is fresh.

Team

What will all this add up to? Somehow, someway, I’m thinking…84 wins. That sounds right, no? What wild, crazy, or boring predictions do you have? If we’re gonna laugh at me in September, let’s laugh at you, too.

Play ball.

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.