Incorporating Gary Sanchez and the need to reduce Brian McCann’s workload going forward

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

Last month, when the Yankees shipped John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks, it created a clear path for Gary Sanchez to get Major League playing time. If not right away next season, then at some point in the near future. Murphy is no longer around representing an obstacle. A big league roster spot is Sanchez’s for the taking.

“I really like Gary Sanchez. I’m hopeful with his high-end ability he can be a big positive impact on (Joe Girardi‘s) lineup choices on a weekly basis, as he chooses when to rest (Brian McCann),” said Brian Cashman to reporters at the Winter Meetings earlier this month. “And we face so many left-handers that it’s nice to have that type of power bat. I’d like to unleash the Kraken — which is Gary Sanchez — on our roster in 2016 if I can, and see if he can do some real positive damage for us.”

Sanchez, who turned 23 earlier this month, had a big regular season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, putting up a 137 wRC+ with 18 homers. (He’s averaged 19 homers per 120 games in full season ball in his career.) He reportedly did some growing up and put himself in position to be a big league option. That definitely was not the case at this time last year. Sanchez’s maturation and development made Murphy expendable.

As with Murphy this past season, getting Sanchez playing time will be a bit of challenge because McCann is going to start. Eh, challenge probably isn’t the right word. I think a veteran like McCann can be very beneficial for a young catcher like Sanchez — “I’m extremely excited to work with him and see his tools on a daily basis and try to help him get better,” said McCann to Jack Curry recently (video link) — but going from playing everyday to playing once or twice a week can be a tough adjustment.

The Yankees do, however, need to start paying some more attention to McCann’s workload. That isn’t to say Girardi has been oblivious to it — Girardi’s an ex-catcher, after all, he know when McCann needs a rest — it’s just that McCann will be 32 in February and he’s been a starting catcher for eleven seasons now. He’s been behind the plate for nearly 11,000 regular season innings. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

McCann may have started to show some of that wear and tear this past season, when he hit .200/.306/.395 (91 wRC+) in the second half and .174/.301/.279 (64 wRC+) in September. He started 43 of 55 games in May and June — that’s a 127-start pace across a full 162-game season — before Girardi started to scale back and give Murphy a little more playing time in July and August. McCann was a workhorse early in the season.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

“You know, you try to keep it around somewhere between 100-120 games, 120 is pushing it a little bit,” said Girardi when asked about McCann’s 2016 workload at the Winter Meetings. “He wants to play every day, and sometimes I’ve got to tell him, ‘You’re going to take a day here.’ But I think you see how he’s doing … I know his bat is important to us and I have to keep him healthy.”

Sanchez is a natural platoon made for McCann just like Murphy was this past season. Starting Sanchez against southpaws next season — assuming he and not someone else is the backup catcher, of course — ensures McCann regular rest and puts Sanchez in position to do the most damage. It also gives him something of a set schedule, which all players appreciate. Sanchez can look at the upcoming pitchers and get an idea of exactly when he’ll play.

Girardi has also been known to use personal catchers at times — Jose Molina and A.J. Burnett is the most notable example, but he also used to pair Frankie Cervelli with CC Sabathia — and Sanchez could get playing time that way. Luis Severino‘s the obvious candidate here. Severino threw to Sanchez with Double-A Trenton the last two years and again with Triple-A Scranton this year. There’s familiarity there.

Either way, Sanchez now has an obvious long-term role with the organization, and his arrival coincides perfectly with what figures to be the back-end of McCann’s career. The Yankees can begin to scale back on McCann’s workload — an inevitability for all veteran catchers — and incorporate Sanchez into the lineup at a comfortable pace. In 2016, that could mean platoon work against lefties and perhaps a stint as Severino’s personal catcher.

Aaron Judge claims top spot on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects list

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Prospect season is in full swing now. One day after Baseball America published their top ten Yankees prospects list, the crew at Baseball Prospectus did the same. For BP, the top ten list plus the write-up for the top prospect are free. Everything else is behind the paywall. Here’s the top ten:

  1. OF Aaron Judge
  2. SS Jorge Mateo
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. RHP James Kaprielian
  5. OF Dustin Fowler
  6. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  7. RHP Drew Finley
  8. 3B Eric Jagielo
  9. RHP Brady Lail
  10. LHP Ian Clarkin

Again, as a reminder, both RHP Luis Severino and 1B Greg Bird are no longer prospect eligible, which is why they’re not on the list. They both exceeded the rookie playing time limits this past season.

Judge, Mateo, Sanchez, and Kaprielian are very clearly the top four prospects in the organization right now, as I said yesterday. We could argue the precise order until we’re blue in the face, but those are the four guys. It’s them, then everyone else right now.

The BP gang appears to be quite high on Fowler — “If he isn’t an everyday center fielder at the highest level, he could be a very good fourth outfielder,” said the write-up — and I’m glad to see someone shares my Finley affection. I’m not sure Finley’s a top ten guy, but he’s close.

Both Jagielo and Clarkin were understandably dinged in the rankings after losing so much time to injury in 2015, but the BP crew opted not to ignore their ceilings. I don’t know where Jagielo will play long-term, but he can mash. Clarkin didn’t have surgery and showed his pre-injury stuff in the Arizona Fall League.

“Recent success with early-round draft picks and aggressive tactics in the July 2nd market have given the Yankees a deep system with a healthy mix of almost-ready major-league regulars and teenagers with loud tools,” said the write-up, which also listed SS Wilkerman Garcia, OF Leonardo Molina, C Luis Torrens, 3B Dermis Garcia, and LHP Jacob Lindgren as other interesting prospects to watch. One of those things is not like the others.

The Baseball Prospectus feature also includes a ranking of the top ten players in the organization age 25 or younger. Severino sits in the top spot, followed by Judge, Mateo, Sanchez, Bird, Kaprielian, Fowler, Refsnyder, RHP Bryan Mitchell, and LHP Chasen Shreve. SS Didi Gregorius, 2B Starlin Castro, and RHP Nathan Eovaldi all missed the age cutoff by a few weeks and weren’t eligible for the 25 and under list.

Of nothing else, the 25 and under list shows how much better shape the Yankees are in right now than a year ago. Last year Molina was in the top ten under 25 list and, uh, no. This year eight of the ten are either in MLB or will be very soon. “The Yankees of the future likely won’t take shape for a year or two at least,” said the write-up, “but if the end of 2015 was any indication, we’ll get an increased glimpse into its promise in 2016.”

Jorge Mateo tops Baseball America’s top ten Yankees prospects list

Mateo. (Main St. Rock)
Mateo. (Main St. Rock)

Baseball America’s annual look at the top ten prospects in each organization continued today with the Yankees and their improving farm system that figures to take a hit in the rankings. As always, the list and intro essay are free, but the individual scouting reports are not. You need a subscription for those. Here’s the top ten, as ranked by Josh Norris:

  1. SS Jorge Mateo
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. OF Aaron Judge
  4. RHP James Kaprielian
  5. RHP Domingo Acevedo
  6. RHP Rookie Davis
  7. SS Tyler Wade
  8. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  9. SS Wilkerman Garcia
  10. OF Dustin Fowler

As a reminder, neither RHP Luis Severino nor 1B Greg Bird are prospect eligible. They both exceeded the rookie playing time limits — 130 at-bats for position players and 50 innings for pitchers — this past season. Severino threw 62.1 innings and Bird had 167 at-bats in the big leagues.

I wouldn’t say Mateo moving into the top spot is surprising, though I don’t necessarily agree with it. Moving him ahead of Sanchez and especially Judge means fully buying into his projection. The scouting reports say Mateo “could be an above-average shortstop” while Sanchez “profiles as a front-line catcher,” yet the shortstop in Single-A is ranked above the catcher in Triple-A (or MLB). Eh, whatevs. I’m guessing the gap between No. 1 and No. 3 is pretty small anyway.

The team’s top four prospects — in whatever order — are pretty obvious. If you have anyone other than Mateo, Sanchez, Judge, and Kaprielian in the top four, you’re overthinking it. After the top four is where it gets interesting and I honestly have no idea who New York’s fifth best prospect is right now. Norris slots Acevedo in at No. 5 and he’s the next great divisive Yankees prospect. Some see him as an ace in the making and others see a big guy with a big fastball and not much else.

Davis and Wade both made nice strides this past season and Refsnyder is Refsnyder. We know all about him by now. Garcia had the best debut from the team’s massive 2014-15 international haul and the scouting report says he “has the potential to be a five-tool player, with some scouts even giving him future average power.” Fowler, a 2013 draftee, was a two-sport guy in high school who is starting to figure out this baseball thing now that he’s playing it full-time.

LHP Ian Clarkin and 3B Eric Jagielo stand out as the most notable omissions. Clarkin (elbow) was hurt all season before getting some innings in the Arizona Fall League, so it’s understandable to drop him. I’m not sure I’d drop him all the way out of the top ten, but to each his own. Jagielo probably isn’t a third baseman long-term, though he mashed at Double-A this summer before jamming his knee sliding into home plate and having surgery. I like Wade, but give me Clarkin and Jagielo before him.

The Yankees actually got some help from their farm system this past season, and the graduations of Severino and Bird all but guarantee the team will place lower in the various organizational rankings in 2016 than they did in 2015. Losing two high-end talents like Severino and Bird hurts. Then again, the farm system lost them for the right reason, not because they stalled out in the minors. Sanchez, Judge, Refsnyder and possibly Davis are the top ten prospects in position to help the Yankees in 2016.

The Good, the Bad, and the Funny of 2016 ZiPS Projections

2016 ZiPS

Yesterday morning, 2016 ZiPS projections for the Yankees were released over at FanGraphs. There are an awful lot projection systems out there but ZiPS has emerged as the most reliable — especially when it comes to translating minor league or overseas performance — of the bunch. Dan Szymborski’s system is pretty rad.

Anyway, projections are always fun to look at, though you have to take them with a grain of salt. (Those are the WAR projections in the image above.) Remember, projections are not predictions of what the player will do next season. They’re just an attempt to estimate the player’s current talent level. Got it? Good. Here are some Yankees projections that caught my eye for one reason or another.

Aaron Judge

Judge has maybe the most LOL worthy projection, and I mean that in a nice way, not a ZiPS is stupid way. The system him pegs him for 30 home runs … and a 35.0% strikeout rate. That’s just perfect. Judge still has some work to do to combat soft stuff away and I think if the Yankees did stick him in the show right now, he would strike out 30% of the time or more. Then again, 30 dingers! That’s fun. No other Yankee projects for 30 homers.

Greg Bird

In terms of OPS+, Bird projects as the best hitter in the organization right now. ZiPS has him at .252/.324/.486 (122 OPS+) with 26 dingers in 2016. Mark Teixeira (119 OPS+) and Alex Rodriguez (115 OPS+) are the only other players close to Bird. I can buy this. Bird showed a lot of Yankee Stadium friendly pull power in his cameo this year (eleven homers in 46 games) though I do worry teams will LOOGY the hell out of him. Then again, the only non-Yankee lefty starters in the AL East right now are David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore. Not exactly Murderer’s Row of southpaws there aside from Price.

Starlin Castro vs. Rob Refsnyder

Projection for Castro: .274/.310/.405 (98 OPS+) with 2.2 WAR. Projection for Refsnyder: .248/.318/.395 (98 OPS+) with 1.9 WAR. That’s basically the same! I’m not sure if I buy that though. I’d bet on Castro outproducing Refsnyder by a pretty decent margin if given the same playing time. There’s also the “they acquired Castro because they think he’s going to get a lot better” thing. Either way, the objective projection system sees Castro and Refsnyder as basically equal.

Oh, and by the way, ZiPS projects a .253/.310/.415 (100 OPS+) batting line for Dustin Ackley next season. Am I the only one who would sign up for that right now, no questions asked? Ackley’s hit .238/.298/.365 (89 OPS+) in his last 1,900 plate appearances.

No Innings

ZiPS projects Masahiro Tanaka to lead the Yankees in innings with … 157.7. Yikes. Luis Severino is second with 154 innings. That just reflects the rotation’s health concerns — injury history is baked into the ZiPS algorithm — which are significant. After all, CC Sabathia led the team with only 167.1 innings this past season, so having no one reach even 160 innings next year would not be the most surprising thing in the world.

The Yankees need some arms. We’ve known this for weeks. This starting staff is risky as hell. Lots of upside and lots of downside, and when four of the five projected 2016 starters missed time with injuries in 2015, the downside outweighs the upside.

The Bullpen Shuttle

In terms of FIP, the best projection among the various bullpen shuttle relievers belongs to … Nick Goody at 3.68. Jacob Lindgren (3.73 FIP) is right there with him. Everyone else is at a 4.00-ish FIP or above. Lindgren and Goody lead the way with 29.5% and 27.3% projected strikeout rates, respectively. We all know about Lindgren, he was the top draft pick who zoomed to MLB, but Goody had a ridiculous 2015 season in the minors (1.59 ERA and 2.06 FIP with 33.2 K%). He might be getting overlooked as a potential bullpen factor in 2016.

The Comps

ZiPS works by comparing players to others with similar statistical profiles, so it spits out a list of comps for each player. The No. 1 comp is included in the FanGraphs post and I always enjoy these because they have a way of knocking you back down to Earth. Take Severino, for example. His No. 1 comp? Kris Benson. Benson was the first overall pick in the 1996 draft and a pretty big prospect back in the day.

Glancing at the list, Dellin Betances is the only Yankee to get a Hall of Famer as his No. 1 comp (Goose Gossage). Well, Pete Kozma drew a Leo Durocher comp, but that’s Leo Durocher the light-hitting infielder and not Leo Durocher the Hall of Fame manager. Andrew Miller drew a Billy Wagner comp and you could argue Wagner’s a Hall of Famer. Bird got a Roberto Petagine comp. Judge? He got Jesse Barfield. Gary Sanchez drew Todd Zeile and Eric Jagielo drew Mark Reynolds. Matt Nokes as the No. 1 comp for Brian McCann gave me a good laugh.

The Suddenly Productive Farm System [2015 Season Review]

Judge at the Futures Game. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Judge at the Futures Game. (Rob Carr/Getty)

This past season the Yankees received more production from their farm system than they did in any year since Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang arrived in 2005. And because of that, they’ll take a hit in the various farm system rankings next spring. Top prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird graduated to MLB, as did the since traded John Ryan Murphy.

When you lose two high-end talents like Severino and Bird to the big leagues, your system is going to take a hit. That’s life. You’d rather the system take a hit because of graduations than failing prospects, and in recent years the Yankees were dealing with too much of the latter. With new farm system head Gary Denbo in charge, the system took a step forward this summer and gave the MLB team help, the kind of help that wasn’t always available in recent years. Let’s review the season on the farm.

The Top Prospect

Coming into the season it was debatable whether Severino or OF Aaron Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect. I went with Judge for a number of reasons, including the inherent injury risk with pitchers. Severino zoomed to the big leagues this summer while Judge split the season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, hitting .258/.332/.446 (124 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 127 total games.

Judge dominated the Double-A level (147 wRC+ with 12 HR in 63 games) but had a tougher time in Triple-A (98 wRC+ with 8 HR in 61 games), which isn’t all that uncommon. He was facing pitchers with big league experience for the first time and they picked him apart, mostly by taking advantage of his big strike zone — Judge is 6-foot-7, remember — with high fastballs and soft stuff away.

Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, Judge’s strikeout rate did not spike in Triple-A, at least not insanely so. He had a 25.3% strikeout rate at High-A, a 25.0% strikeout rate in Double-A, and a 28.5% strikeout rate in Triple-A. That’s three extra strikeouts per 100 plate appearances. Judge did have some ugly strikeout heavy slumps with the RailRiders, but overall the strikeout increase was not alarming.

That isn’t to say Judge’s strikeouts aren’t an issue. He’s always going to strike out a lot, he’s a huge guy with a big zone, but you’d rather see him hover around 25.0 K% rather than 28.0+ K% long-term. The power is there though. Judge hit three more homers and two more doubles in 2015 than 2014 despite getting 23 fewer plate appearances, playing against better competition, and playing in worse hitters parks.

The less than stellar showing at Triple-A ensures Judge will return to the RailRiders to start 2016 so he can work on controlling the strike zone a little better (his 9.8% walk rate was above-average, for what it’s worth) and laying off soft stuff off the plate. Judge has big power and his right field defense is easy to overlook. He’s a really good athlete with a strong arm who’s an asset in the field. Hiccup in Triple-A notwithstanding, Judge remains New York’s top prospect in my book.

Mateo. (Jerry Coli)
Mateo. (Jerry Coli)

The Big Name Breakout Prospects

It’s weird to consider C Gary Sanchez a breakout prospect because he’s been one of the best prospects in the organization for a few years now, but a few things finally clicked this year, mostly in terms of his maturity. It helped him reach the big leagues in September. Sanchez is now a candidate — if not the favorite — to replace Murphy as the Brian McCann‘s backup next summer.

SS Jorge Mateo, another one of the team’s top prospects, also broke out this past season in the sense that he played his first full season. The 20-year-old speedster hit .278/.345/.392 (114 wRC+) with a minor league leading 82 steals in 99 attempts (83% success rate) in 117 games with (mostly) Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. No other player stole more than 75 bases this year. If you want to argue Mateo (or Sanchez) is the Yankees’ top prospect and not Judge, I’d disagree, but I’d understand.

A few years ago RHP Rookie Davis was an interesting name literally because of his name. His real name is William but a nickname like Rookie gets you noticed. Davis took a big step forward this year, especially with the command of his mid-90s heater/curveball combination. Walk rate is a control stat, not a command stat, though it is notable he cut his walk rate from 7.6% last year to 4.7% his year. Davis had a 3.86 ERA (2.47 FIP) in 130.2 innings with High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton.

OF Dustin Fowler, 20, also made the jump from sleeper to bonafide prospect this summer by hitting .298/.334/.394 (113 wRC+) with 20 doubles, five homers, and 30 stolen bases in 123 games at Low-A and High-A. He then had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Fowler has been playing baseball full-time for only two years now — he was also a top football recruit in high school — and he’s starting to turn his power/speed/defense tool package into baseball ability.

And finally, the biggest breakout prospect of the summer was OF Ben Gamel, who’s spent the last few years as a depth player and not an actual prospect. Thee 23-year-old hit .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) with 28 doubles, 14 triples, ten homers, and 13 steals in 129 games, all at Triple-A. Gamel’s power finally started to blossom and he’s now a legitimate big league candidate. He and Davis were added to the 40-man roster last month.

The Emerging Depth

Farm systems will always be defined by their star power, that’s just the way it goes, though depth is important as well. The Yankees had several lower profile prospects — guys who don’t necessarily project to be stars but do have a chance to contribute at the big league level in a meaningful way — emerge this summer, including SS Tyler Wade, RHP Brady Lail, LHP Jordan Montgomery, RHP Cale Coshow, and RHP Domingo Acevedo.

Wade. (The Times of Trenton)
Wade. (The Times of Trenton)

Wade, 21, had an ugly 21-game cameo with Double-A Trenton (37 wRC+) late in the season after a strong showing with High-A Tampa (117 wRC+). He hit .262/.321/.333 (99 wRC+) in 127 total games overall in 2015 and is a contact-oriented left-handed hitting middle infielder with the defensive chops for either side of the second base bag. At the very least, Wade is in position to have a long career as a backup infielder.

The 22-year-old Lail is a major player development success for the Yankees. He was the team’s 18th round pick in the 2012 draft as an extremely raw high schooler from Utah. The Yankees have helped mold him into a four-pitch righty who is in position to give the team serviceable innings soon. Lail had a 2.91 ERA (3.51 FIP) in 148.1 innings for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton in 2015, though he didn’t miss any bats (13.8 K%). He offers a fastball, curveball, cutter, and changeup. The ceiling is not all that high here, but Lail can help.

Unsurprisingly, the 22-year-old Montgomery was one of the best pitchers in the system this season, posting a 2.95 ERA (2.61 FIP) with very good strikeout (24.1%) and walk (6.6%) rates in 134 innings at Low-A and High-A. Montgomery spent three years in South Carolina’s rotation facing tough SEC lineups, so Single-A lineups were no challenge. He’s another four-pitch guy (fastball, cutter, curve, change) and we’ll find out if Montgomery is for real next season, when he heads to Double-A Trenton.

Coshow is an interesting prospect. For starters, the guy is listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 lbs., so he’s an intimidating presence on the mound. Secondly, he had a 2.45 ERA (2.80 FIP) with good strikeout (21.5%) and walk (6.2%) numbers in 114 innings at three levels in 2015. He topped out at Double-A. Coshow, 23, performed so well the Yankees moved him from a relief role into a starting role at midseason. He’s got a huge fastball, sitting 95-97 and hitting 100 mph in relief, and he backs it up with a wipeout slider. I don’t think Coshow’s a starter long-term, but gosh, that’s a nice looking relief prospect.

And finally, the 21-year-old Acevedo is either one of the best prospects in the organization or just an interesting arm with a long way to go, depending who you ask. Acevedo had a 1.81 ERA (2.89 FIP) with a lot of strikeouts (26.6%) and an average number of walks (7.9%) in 49.2 innings with mostly Short Season Staten Island this summer. He’s another huge guy (6-foot-7) who has touched triple digits, and his changeup is pretty good too. Acevedo needs to figure out a breaking ball at some point to avoid a future in the bullpen.

The Reclamation Prospects

At this time last year both OF Mason Williams and OF Slade Heathcott were afterthoughts. Williams didn’t hit at all from 2013-14 and he was dogged by maturity issues. Heathcott simply couldn’t stay healthy. The two came to Spring Training healthy this year and with positive attitudes, and they put themselves back on the prospect map. Both made their MLB debuts in the first half. It might not sound like much, but Williams and Heathcott went from non-factors to the show in about six months. That’s pretty darn cool.

The Best of the Rest

The Yankees had to be pleased with what they saw from 3B Eric Jagielo (141 wRC+ with Double-A Trenton) before he jammed his knee sliding into home plate in June and had to have it scoped, ending his season. Jagielo’s defense is still a huge question, but the guy can hit, especially for power. IF Abi Avelino and IF Thairo Estrada both had nice seasons in the low minors — Avelino stole 54 bases and Estrada had a 108 wRC+ with Short Season Staten Island.

OF Rob Refsnyder, LHP Jacob Lindgren, and RHP Bryan Mitchell gave the Yankees some mileage at the big league level, and the team turned OF Ramon Flores and RHP Jose Ramirez into Dustin Ackley. The 2014-15 international spending spree added a bevy of prospects to the system and the 2015 draft added even more talent, with RHP James Kaprielian, SS Wilkerman Garcia, RHP Drew Finley, SS Hoy Jun Park, 3B Dermis Garcia, and RHP Chance Adams among the most notable new additions. Also, 2B Tony Renda came over in the David Carpenter trade.

The Disappointing Prospects

It’s not all good news, of course. Several prospects had disappointing seasons, most notably OF Tyler Austin. He hit .240/.315/.343 (92 wRC+) in 94 regular season games and was demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. The Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster in September and he slipped through waivers unclaimed.

3B Miguel Andujar did the bad first half/good second half thing again, though the end result was a .243/.288/.363 (98 wRC+) line in 130 High-A Tampa games. At some point Andujar has to put together a full productive season. Bonus baby OF Leonardo Molina hit .247/.290/.364 (96 wRC+) while repeating the Rookie Gulf Coast League. Age is on his side though — Molina turned 18 in July. Yes, he’s still only 18. Austin, Andujar, and Molina were the biggest disappointments among the team’s top 30 prospects.

Clarkin. (MLB.com screen grab)
Clarkin. (MLB.com screen grab)

The Inevitable Injures

Injuries are part of baseball. That’s just the way it is. The Yankees had several high-profile prospects suffer significant injuries in 2015. LHP Ian Clarkin (elbow inflammation), C Luis Torrens (shoulder surgery), RHP Domingo German (Tommy John surgery), RHP Austin DeCarr (Tommy John surgery), and RHP Ty Hensley (Tommy John surgery) combined for zero regular season games played this year. Zero.

That is two of the top six, three of the top eleven, and five of the top 18 prospects in the organization according to my preseason rankings. (Four of the top seven pitching prospects!) Ouch. Literally and figuratively. On the bright side, Clarkin did avoid the zipper and was able to throw 24.2 innings in the Arizona Fall League. But still, that’s a lot of really good prospects going down with major injuries. The Clarkin and Torrens injuries really took a bite out of the system. They have the most upside.

* * *

Overall, the 2015 season was a big success for the Yankees’ farm system because they graduated some impact talent to the big leagues. Severino and Bird look like keepers and future core players. Murphy had a very good season before being traded a few weeks ago. Sanchez and Mateo emerged, Kaprielian was drafted, and Judge reached Triple-A.

The Yankees dipped into their farm system for help whenever possible this season, and I have to think that serves as motivation for the guys still in the minors. They see that if they stay healthy and produce, they’ll get a chance too. Calling up guys like LHP Matt Tracy and OF Taylor Dugas shows the Yankees will now give anyone and everyone an opportunity if they’re the right man for the job.

The Third & Fourth String Catchers [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

This past season, the Yankees were the only team in baseball to use just two catchers. A dozen teams used three different catchers and the other 17 used at least four. Brian McCann and John Ryan Murphy combined to catch every inning of every game for New York, which is a minor miracle. It’s so easy for catchers to get banged up and yet both stayed healthy.

The Yankees called up two additional catchers once rosters expanded in September, and even though neither spent an inning behind the plate, they had important seasons for the Yankees. Gary Sanchez re-established himself as a top prospect and Austin Romine stayed healthy and put together a solid season in Triple-A. Their work allowed the Yankees to trade Murphy this offseason.

The Arrival of Sanchez

Fair or not, Sanchez’s prospect stock took a hit in 2014, when he was merely very good instead of great with Double-A Trenton. He hit .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) with 13 home runs in 110 games and made incremental progress with his defense, which is good, but not exactly a huge breakout. Sanchez has been around for a while now and people were still waiting for that huge year.

Sanchez, who turns 23 today, finally had that monster year in 2015. After barely playing in camp — Sanchez went 1-for-9 (with a dinger!) in six Grapefruit League games — he started the season back with the Thunder and hit in the middle of what was a rather ridiculous lineup, especially by Double-A standards. Check out the team’s Opening Day starting nine:

Trenton lineup

That’s something else. Sanchez stayed in the cleanup spot and raked for the Thunder, hitting .262/.319/.476 (127 wRC+) with 12 home runs in 58 games. Power is Sanchez’s calling card and he was showing a lot of it early on.

The Yankees moved Sanchez up to Triple-A Scranton in mid-July — he missed two weeks in mid-June with a minor hand injury after being hit by a foul tip — and he hit the ground running with the RailRiders. Sanchez went 2-for-4 with a homer in his Triple-A debut and 25-for-70 (.357) with six doubles and four homers in his first 20 games with Scranton. A minor hamstring pull ended Sanchez’s minor league regular season on August 26th.

The team planned to called Sanchez to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September, though he had to wait until September 12th, after the hamstring healed and he got some tune-up at-bats in the Triple-A postseason. Sanchez hit .295/.349/.500 (145 wRC+) at Triple-A and .271/.329/.476 (131 wRC+) with 18 home runs in 96 minor league games overall. Only two minor league catchers hit more home runs in 2015.

The Yankees were in the postseason race right down to Game 162 — they didn’t clinch homefield advantage in the wildcard game until the final day of the season, remember — so Sanchez didn’t play much in September. He got two at-bats, both as a pinch-hitter in a blowout. He popped up against Oliver Drake and struck out against Zach Britton in those two at-bats. Anti-climatic!

Sanchez was on the wildcard game roster as an extra right-handed bench bat, but he didn’t get into the game. The Yankees decided to send Sanchez to the Arizona Fall League after the season and holy moly, he raked in the desert. He put up a .295/.357/.625 (159 wRC+) batting line with a league-leading seven home runs in 22 games, and was impressive on both sides of the ball.

The Yankees value catcher defense very highly, and I don’t think they would have traded Murphy if they aren’t comfortable with Sanchez behind the plate. Does that mean they think he’s ready to catch everyday at the MLB level? Of course not. But Sanchez has steadily improved behind the plate and the Murphy trade was a big vote of confidence. It showed the team has faith in his defensive skills. Simply put, Sanchez’s play this summer made Murphy expendable.

We can never rule out an offseason trade, but right now Sanchez appears to have the inside track on the backup catcher’s job next year. The Yankees are really starting to emphasize youth and incorporating Sanchez into the 25-man roster is an obvious piece of that puzzle. We’ll see how things play out this winter and in Spring Training. One thing we know for sure is Sanchez is in position to have a real impact for the Yankees in 2016.

The Return of Romine

Coming into Spring Training, the Yankees said Murphy and Romine (and Eddy Rodriguez) were competing for the backup catcher’s spot. That was never really the case though. When Francisco Cervelli got hurt last season, it was Murphy who got called up to replace him. Romine, who spent most of 2013 as Chris Stewart’s backup, wasn’t even called up when rosters expanded on September 1st. He didn’t come up until later in the month, after Cervelli got hurt.

A poor Spring Training ended any chance Romine had at making the team. (He went 6-for-35 with ten strikeouts in camp.) It was going to take a monster spring combined with Murphy falling on his face for Romine to get the backup catcher job. Since he was out of minor league options, the Yankees had to put Romine on waivers to send him to Triple-A. Thanks to some creative timing, they were able to slip him through.

Romine. (Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

The Yankees designated Romine for assignment on April 4th, two days before Opening Day and the day before teams had to set their 25-man Opening Day roster. That gave them ten days to trade, release, or waive Romine. They waited until April 6th, the day after teams had to set their Opening Day rosters, to put him on waivers. Clubs had already set their rosters, so claiming Romine would have been a headache. That allowed him to slip through unclaimed. Sneaky!

Romine, who turned 27 last week, opened 2015 as the starting catcher with Triple-A Scranton. He started the season slow but did make it count when he connected — Romine went 11-for-56 (.196) in his first 15 games but had eight extra-base hits (seven doubles and one homer). He quickly settled in after that and owned a .267/.326/.407 (112 wRC+) line with six homers in 65 games the day Sanchez was promoted.

Considering Romine hit .242/.300/.365 (82 wRC+) in 81 Triple-A games in 2014, his rebound in 2015 was a welcome surprise. If nothing else, it allowed the Yankees to feel a little better about their catching depth. Sanchez took over behind the plate after being promoted and Romine moved into something of a utility role for the RailRiders. He played some first base and DH in addition to catching whenever Sanchez needed a rest, improving his versatility a tiny little bit.

The hamstring injury meant Sanchez wasn’t ready to be called up when rosters expanded on September 1st, so Romine got the call as the third catcher by default. He was re-added to the 40-man roster and joined the big league team after hitting hit .261/.311/.379 (99 wRC+) with seven home runs in 92 Triple-A games overall. Romine appeared in just one MLB this year: he started Game 160 at first base and went 0-for-2 with a line out and a ground out before being lifted for a pinch-hitter. That’s all.

Before the Murphy trade, Romine looked like a prime candidate to lose his 40-man roster spot whenever time came this offseason. Since he had already been outrighted once before (in April), he could elect free agency, which he almost certainly would have done so he could join an organization that gave him a better opportunity. Instead, Romine remains with the Yankees thanks to the Murphy trade and figures to do so for the foreseeable future.

At the moment it appears Romine will come to Spring Training and be given a chance to win the backup catcher’s job, except this time it might be a true competition with Sanchez. There are valid reasons to have Sanchez return to Triple-A next season — work on his defense, mostly — which could clear a spot for Romine. The Murphy trade was big for Romine. If nothing else, it bought him a few more weeks on the 40-man roster. It also gives him a legitimate chance to break camp with the Yankees next season.

Platoon

I’m hardly one who obsesses over dreams and they’re meanings, but for years now, I’ve had some recurring, sports-related themes in my dreams. Often, in some random context, I’m playing baseball or basketball, things I’ve done for most of my life. As a kid, I was decidedly mediocre at both of these, though getting contact lenses in the eleventh grade certainly helped. Nevertheless, when I have dreams featuring these two very familiar sports, I often find myself playing horrendously: I miss layups and jumpers at a Chucker Costanza like rate in basketball dreams and frequently in my baseball-inclusive dreams, I physically cannot throw the ball. Last night, I had a dream in which my wife and I were coaching a youth team, then I took some cuts against one of the pitchers and whiffed a lot–which I chalked up to playing slow pitch softball and not being used to hitting actual pitching–until finally smacking one over the shortstop’s head, just before the dream’s context and setting changed in a heartbeat, as they tend to do. I suppose the takeaway from this all, sparing you the Freudian dream analysis, is the simplest of all: even in our dreams, it’s damn hard to play sports, especially baseball. Players, managers, and teams have to constantly search for any advantage they can find and exploit in. For managers, one of the simplest and oldest advantages in the game is the platoon advantage. As Mike noted in late October, the Yankees led the league in gaining the platoon advantage over their opponents’ pitchers in 2015. 2016 has the potential to be no different, with at least three platoon situations presenting themselves early in the offseason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Catcher: When the Yankees traded away John Ryan Murphy to the Twins in exchange for switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks, it seemed to open the door for Gary Sanchez to (finally?) fully break through to the Major Leagues and get some consistent playing time. With Brian McCann entrenched behind the plate, Sanchez won’t be the full-time starter unless McCann gets injured. A platoon, however, could develop and give the Yankees value. As a young hitter with little experience to Major League pitching, Sanchez could benefit from a platoon that sets him up for success by limiting his exposure and letting him work against the types of pitchers–lefties–that he’s done well against. Like with any Minor League numbers, take these with a grain of salt, but Sanchez has put up an .863 OPS against southpaws throughout his career with a .241 ISO. His raw OPS against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad–.737–but it’s significantly lower and he’s flashed less power, a .147 ISO, against same-handed pitchers. Additionally, a straight platoon could give Sanchez more predictable playing time and give McCann more regular and consistent rest, something all catchers need, especially ones in their 30’s. On the other side of the ball, Sanchez’s defense, though improved, likely will never be a shining part of his game. Playing him against lefties and limiting him against righties will allow his potential shortcomings to be minimized.

So far, this seems like a decent plan. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t things that would need to be considered. For one, Brian McCann actually has a reverse platoon split in his time with the Yankees, something I didn’t expect at all. The Yankees may also want Sanchez to get every day playing time in the minors until they feel he’s ready, rather than let him sit on the bench. While Murphy flourished with inconsistent playing time last year, the Yankees may not want to do that with Sanchez and opt to put him–along with Greg Bird, probably–in Scranton to see the field every day.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Second Base: Catcher is not the only spot on the field where the Yankees have a young player who may be ready to break out. Fans clamored for Rob Refsnyder through much of last season, and in 2016, they’re likely to get him–along with trade-deadline acquisition Dustin Ackley. This situation is likely more amenable to a straight platoon since the difference between Ackley and Refsnyder–while large, as one is an established-if-not-great Major Leaguer and the other is still unproven–is not as large as the difference between McCann and Sanchez. Neither one of these guys is making mega-bucks, so there’s no financial incentive to play one over the other more consistently.

A platoon at second base between these two would be best for them and the team as it would let their strengths play up, as platoons tend to do. In his career, Ackley has put up a replacement-level wRC+ of 80 against lefties. His mark against righties–97–isn’t great, but it’s much more palatable than the one against lefties. He’s also got a respectable .140 ISO against right-handed pitching and a solid 8.4% walk rate against them. Meanwhile, Refsnyder’s hit both types of pitchers will in the minors, but has outperformed against lefties: an .863 OPS against lefties compared to an .800 mark against righties. And with these two, you’ll let one of them shine. As soon as one starts to perform and the other starts to lag, you can ride that wave without too much consequence. If Refsnyder prevails, Ackley becomes the backup. If Ackley reclaims some of that prospect shine, Refsnyder can go back to AAA for some more seasoning and more reps.

The only real downside to this platoon is that neither of these players is strong on the defensive side of things. There’s also that chance that Ackley continues to be aggressively “meh” at playing Major League Baseball and that Refsnyder never blossoms into the player we all want him to be. The alternative in that nightmare scenario, then, is Brendan Ryan? Yuck.

Aaron Hicks
(Getty)

Outfield: Last week, I touched on the newest Yankee, Aaron Hicks, and his potential to get a lot of playing time even if he isn’t necessarily a starting outfielder, so I’ll be brief here as not to be repetitive. With Hicks in the fold, the Yankees can add a bit more balance to their outfield, balance that’s missing when two of the three outfielders are lefty hitters and one of them–Jacoby Ellsbury–has struggled against lefties recently. Manager Joe Girardi has also shown a propensity to platoon for Brett Gardner in the past and doing so with Hicks would be a fairly seamless transition. Carlos Beltran‘s concerns are from the defensive side, and it’s easy to see how much and how often he’ll be replaced on defense in the late innings. In that vein, a platoon involving Ellsbury, Gardner, and Hicks will always leave the Yankees with at least two–three when Beltran sits–outfielders capable of playing center field and playing it well, bolstering their outfield defense.

Hicks does struggle against righties, which limits his usefulness in resting Ellsbury and Gardner if the Yankees hit a long stretch of right-handed pitchers, but there is hope that some new adjustments can help overcome those (hopefully former) struggles. Regardless, Hicks’ defense and the injury concerns that all three starting outfielders have should give Hicks plenty of burn in the field and in the lineup, making a de-facto, if not de-jure, platoon situation.

Seeking the platoon advantage is something the Yankees have clearly prioritized of late and they’re set up to do so again in 2016. The ways hinted at here are not necessarily what will happen–it’s only November, after all–but it’s easy to see the Yankees tinkering with their lineup day in and day out to get the biggest advantage possible. They’d be foolish not to.