The Yankees could use a 2005-esque shake-up, but they don’t have a lot of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Eleven years ago the Yankees had a truly miserable start to their season. They opened the 2005 season by losing 19 of their first 30 games and falling nine games back in the AL East. Nine back after 30 games! Needless to say, fans were pretty uneasy because that slow start followed the 2004 ALCS collapse. It was not a good time around these parts. No siree.

The 2005 Yankees rebounded of course, winning 84 of 132 games following the 11-19 start. Two reasons they turned it around were a pair of early-May call-ups: Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees shook things up and were rewarded when Cano and Wang had an immediate impact. Robbie hit .297/.320/.458 (105 wRC+) in 132 games and Wang had a 4.02 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 116.1 innings. They gave the team a real shot in the arm.

Getting Wang into the rotation was pretty easy because Jaret Wright got hurt. (Remember when Wright failed his physical and George Steinbrenner signed him anyway because he thought it would lure Leo Mazzone to New York? Good times.) Getting Cano into the lineup took more creativity. The Yankees moved Tony Womack to left field, Hideki Matsui to center field, and basically benched Bernie Williams, who was nearing the end of the line.

The 2016 Yankees, like the 2005 team, have gotten off to a terrible start. They’re 8-15 overall and have lost 13 of their last 17 games. The AL East is much more competitive these days too. Back in 2005 it was the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a bunch of pushovers. Erasing that nine-game deficit was much easier. The current Yankees are six games back in the division with four good teams ahead of them. It’ll be an uphill climb, that’s for sure.

Given their sluggish start and the fact the Yankees have underachieved on both sides of the ball in the early going — the offense has been far worse than the pitching, but the rotation hasn’t been all that good either — the team could use an early-May shake-up like the one the 2005 team received. The problem? The Yankees don’t have a Cano and/or Wang waiting in Triple-A. There’s not much depth at the positions of obvious need. Here are some shake-up ideas.

Give A Young Outfielder Regular Playing Time

If there’s one thing the Yankees have in Triple-A, it’s outfield depth. Both Ben Gamel (136 wRC+) and Aaron Judge (125 wRC+) are off to nice starts, though Slade Heathcott (41 wRC+) has mostly struggled. The Yankees also have Aaron Hicks at the big league level, though he hasn’t played much for a variety of reasons. (Hicks may not seem young, but he’s only a year older than Heathcott.)

Brett Gardner (110 wRC+) has been one of New York’s most productive hitters in the early going. Jacoby Ellsbury (85 wRC+) and Carlos Beltran (91 wRC+) have not. Beltran has really struggled of late. He has a 16 wRC+ over the last two weeks. Yikes. Sitting Ellsbury and/or Beltran more often in favor of Hicks or Gamel or Judge or whoever is one way to change the lineup and get some young legs on the field.

I think the best way to go about this is to use a regular rotation that also includes Alex Rodriguez and the DH spot. Something like this, perhaps:

LF CF RF DH
Game One Gardner Ellsbury Beltran A-Rod
Game Two Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod
Game Three Gardner Young OF Beltran A-Rod
Game Four Gardner Ellsbury Young OF Beltran
Game Five Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod

Ellsbury, A-Rod, and the young outfielder would be playing four out of every five games while Beltran is reduced to playing three times out of every five games, with only two of three starts coming in the outfield. Gardner stays in there full-time because, you know, he’s actually been good this year. The Yankees reduced Bernie’s playing time in 2005 and it’s time to start thinking about doing the same with Beltran.

Calling up Gamel or Judge or Heathcott requires a roster move and cutting someone else loose, and it’s a little too early for that, I think. I’d start by playing Hicks more often. No, he hasn’t hit in the early going (-47 wRC+!), but it’s 28 plate appearances in 23 games. This is a guy who hit .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) with eleven homers and 13 steals last year, and we’ve already seen the kind of impact he can have at defense.

Hicks is not going to get his bat going while sitting on the bench. He’s been an everyday player his entire career. This bench thing is new to him. With two of three starting outfielders not really hitting and the team reeling, it’s time to see what Hicks can do with regular at-bats. The Yankees need to figure out what they have in him.

Stick Headley On The Bench

I’ve defended Headley as much as anyone but I can’t do it any longer. He’s been atrocious this year, hitting .156/.267/.156 (24 wRC+) with nary an extra-base hit in 75 plate appearances. As Jared Diamond pointed out yesterday, Headley is only the 13th player in history to start May with a sub-.150 slugging percentage in at least 70 plate appearances. That’s brutal.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

I don’t care how good a player is on defense — Headley has rebounded quite well in the field after last year’s error-fest — there is a minimum acceptable standard on offense and Headley is not meeting it. The Yankees can talk all they want about the quality of his at-bats or how close they think he is to snapping out of it. The bottom line is this is a results oriented business and Headley’s results have been dreadful one month into the season.

The problem at third base is the Yankees don’t have an obvious replacement. Womack stunk back in 2005 and Cano was the obvious candidate to take over. Who can replace Headley at third? Ronald Torreyes? Moving players with bench player skill sets into a full-time role usually turns out poorly. Rob Refsnyder? Pete Kozma? Donovan Solano? Solano is hitting .312/.341/.351 (100 wRC+) in Triple-A, you know.

Since no obvious replacement exists, I’d go with the highest upside candidate: Refsnyder. He’s new to third base — he’s played 153.1 career innings at the hot corner between Spring Training and Triple-A — and his defense is rough, but he might actually hit. Stick him at third, get three at-bats out of him, then pull for defense in the sixth-ish inning. When you hit as poorly as Headley has, you losing playing time. That’s the way it should work.

(Yes, I know Refsnyder hasn’t hit much in Triple-A this year. I’m not too concerned about that though. It’s been cold in Scranton and he’s spent a lot of time learning a new position. As long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine.)

Play Ackley or Swisher?

One the biggest reasons the Yankees scored the second most runs in baseball last year were bounceback seasons from A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season and no one knew what to expect from him in 2015. Teixeira was terrible in the second half of 2014. He hit .179/.271/.302 (63 wRC+) with only five homers after the All-Star break that year.

Dustin Ackley hasn’t played a whole lot this year (18 plate appearances!) because it’s tough to get him into the lineup. He’s stuck in the same role as Garrett Jones last year. Teixeira and A-Rod are not doing much damage right now — Rodriguez has looked much better of late, to be fair — and giving Ackley some of their at-bats could spark the offense. This would complicate the outfield plan outlined above. That’s not worth worrying about right now.

The alternative here would be Nick Swisher, who owns a .340/.370/.540 (167 wRC+) batting line with three homers down in Triple-A. I can’t say I put much stock in a 12-year veteran mashing minor league pitching though. Swisher has two bad knees and he’s hit .204/.291/.326 (75 wRC+) in the big leagues the last two years. Call him up and I suspect you’ll get closer to 2014-15 MLB Swisher than 2016 Triple-A Swisher.

This is where Greg Bird‘s injury really hurts. Calling up Bird to take at-bats away from Teixeira and A-Rod would be far more realistic and, likely, far more successful than the Ackley/Swisher plan. With those two you’re just hoping small sample size success translates to long-term success. Ackley was terrible all those years with the Mariners before raking in pinstripes in September. Swisher was bad from 2014-15 and has had a few good weeks in Triple-A. That’s all it is.

The Yankees have had some success turning veterans who looked washed up into useful players (see Chavez, Eric), so we shouldn’t completely write off Swisher as a possibility. Either way, Ackley or Swisher, taking at-bats away from A-Rod or Teixeira is one potential way to inject some life into the offense. For what it’s worth, I think this is the least likely suggestion in this post.

* * *

I’m not sure what the Yankees could do to shake-up the pitching staff other than maybe swap out some relievers. I guess they could replace Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, or Luis Severino with Ivan Nova. My guess is Nova’s going to end up making a bunch of starts at some point anyway. Point is, the Yankees have reached the point where some kind of change needs to be made. The problem is they don’t have a lot of internal options. What you see is what you’re going to get with this team.

Sorting through the 45 players the Yankees still have on their Spring Training roster

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Two weeks from today, the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season at home against the Astros. There are a 14 exhibition games to be played between now and then, and several roster decisions have to be made as well. The Yankees have made two rounds of roster cuts so far, paring the number of players in big league camp from 70 down to 45. Another 20 still must go.

It goes without saying some of those 45 players have a much better chance to make the Opening Day roster than others. You’d be surprised to see how few have close to no chance to make the team though. The Yankees have only a few open roster spots but an awful lot of candidates to fill them. Let’s look over the 45 players still in big league camp and figure out where they fit going forward.

Definitely Making The Team (20)

These are the easiest calls, so we might as well start here. These 20 players will definitely be on the Opening Day roster:

Coming into the spring I would not have considered Shreve a lock for the bullpen, but it’s pretty safe to say he’s in right now. He’s been phenomenal in camp, he was awesome most of last year, and Joe Girardi is talking about him like one of his regular relievers. Shreve’s going to break camp with the Yankees.

The Yankees insist they are having a true competition for the fifth starter’s spot, though sending Sabathia to the bullpen so Nova can start is one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” things. Maybe the Yankees will figure out a way to stick Sabathia on the DL rather than send him to the bullpen, though that would surprise me. I’m sticking with what I said last week: I don’t believe Sabathia is truly competing for a rotation spot. He’s in.

Very Likely To Make The Team (2)

In Bryan Mitchell and Rob Refsnyder, the Yankees have two young players who are forcing the issue with their Spring Training performances. Both saw time in the show last year and both came to camp on the roster bubble. Mitchell keeps throwing fire and getting outs while Refsnyder has shown he can actually handle third base, a position he never played prior to this spring.

“(Refsnyder at third base) been better than I expected, to be honest. He’s never been over to that side of the infield. His reactions are really good. His arm’s good,” said Brian Cashman to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). The Yankees need a backup third baseman now that Castro will stick to second, and Refsnyder has taken to the position quickly. He hit in his limited time last year and he adds some balance as a righty hitter.

As for Mitchell, the Yankees do have three open bullpens, and none of the shuttle relievers have impressed this spring. He’s been by far the best of the team’s bullpen candidates, and Girardi has mentioned him as a potential Adam Warren replacement, meaning a multi-inning reliever. Mitchell pitched pretty well in relief last year before taking that line drive to the nose. I wouldn’t call him or Refsnyder locks for the Opening Day roster, but they sure look like strong candidates right now.

Hurt Or Suspended (3)

Three of the 45 players still in camp will not be on the active 25-man roster when the season begins. Aroldis Chapman has to serve his 30-game suspension, and both Greg Bird and Mason Williams will start the season on the DL following shoulder surgery. Bird’s going to be out for the year. We know that already. Williams is doing pretty much everything — throwing, hitting, etc. — but still needs more time to finish up his rehab.

There are some 40-man roster implications here. Chapman will be on the restricted list and will not count towards the 40-man roster while suspended. Bird can also be placed on the 60-day DL whenever a 40-man spot is needed. The 60-day DL is kinda weird though. Teams can only use it when they need it, meaning another player has to placed on the 40-man right away. Bird will likely start the season on the 15-day DL, then be transferred over whenever a 40-man spot is inevitably needed.

Pazos. (Presswire)
Pazos. (Presswire)

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

This might as well be the shuttle reliever category. Johnny Barbato, Nick Goody, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow are all still in camp and they’re all on the 40-man roster. All but Barbato pitched in the big leagues last year too. Barbato has pitched the best during Grapefruit League play so far, which won’t hurt his case for the Opening Day roster. Then again, none of these guys have thrown more than seven innings this spring.

Based on everything I have above, five of the seven bullpen spots are claimed: Miller, Betances, Shreve, Mitchell, and Nova (or Sabathia). I honestly have no idea how those last two spots will shake out. I don’t even have an inkling which way the Yankees are leaning. Barbato has pitched well so far, though that doesn’t mean much. He’s got two weeks to make some mistakes. At the same time, the other guys have a chance to step up their game. The best way to describe the bullpen situation right now is: developing.

Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are also in the mix for a roster spot. They’re competing for the backup catcher’s job, and right now I’d say it’s advantage Romine. Sanchez has not had a good spring (1-for-17) and over the weekend Girardi said he seems to be pressing. There’s also the service time issue (35 days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year) and the fact that Sanchez probably could use some more Triple-A time to work on his defense.

Out of these seven players, all but Romine will go to Triple-A if they don’t make the team. Romine’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll go on waivers. And even if he clears, he can elect free agency. The Yankees can’t expect to keep him based on those conditions. That’s probably another reason Romine seems to be the favorite to back up McCann right now.

Oh Gosh, They Might Actually Make The Team (5)

Remember Chris Martin? He was that random offseason pickup no one really paid attention to last year, then bam, he was on the Opening Day roster. The five guys in this group are candidates to be this year’s Chris Martin. Here’s how they can make the team out of camp:

  • Chris Denorfia: Unlike most of the team’s depth outfielders, Denorfia hits right-handed and he has a lot of MLB experience. He strikes me as the top bench candidate should Ellsbury’s wrist injury linger.
  • Pete Kozma: What if the Yankees want to give Refsnyder some more Triple-A time to continue working at third? Kozma, a veteran utility man, is the annoyingly obvious alternative.
  • Tyler Olson: Having a very good spring and could fill one of the open bullpen spots. Olson is a true lefty specialist and Girardi sure does love his matchups.
  • Anthony Swarzak: Swarzak has been solid overall, and he’s another guy with MLB experience. The fact he can throw multiple innings may land him in the bullpen.
  • Kirby Yates: Quietly shoving this spring (4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and he has big league time under his belt. With none of the shuttle guys standing put, Yates could grab a bullpen spot.

Yeah, you don’t have to try real hard to see one or two (or three) of these guys making the team, do you? It’s surprisingly easy, in fact. I swear, these guys just sneak up on you. You overlook them as cast-offs when they’re acquired, and before you know, they’re standing on the foul line and being introduced on Opening Day. Baseball, man.

Long Shots To Make The Team (8)

Never say never, but I am comfortable saying these last eight players are very unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. Catchers Carlos Corporan and Eddy Rodriguez remain in camp, though Girardi has dismissed them as backup catcher candidates. They’re still around so McCann, Romine, and Sanchez don’t have to catch every inning of every spring game. That’s all.

Chris Parmelee was signed to replace Bird as the Triple-A first baseman, so he’s going to Triple-A. The only way he makes the Opening Day roster is if Teixeira gets hurt. (I don’t think he’d make it if A-Rod got hurt. They’d use Beltran at DH in that case.) Ronald Torreyes had gotten a look at third base this spring and he’s been fine overall. At this point I think he’s behind Refsnyder and Kozma on the backup infield depth chart.

Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)
Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)

In addition to Denorfia, Slade Heathcott and Cesar Puello are the last remaining spare outfielders in camp. Heathcott has been brutal during Grapefruit League play (1-for-22!), and while that isn’t everything, I think it puts him behind Denorfia on the depth chart should Ellsbury stay hurt. Puello’s been great in camp, but this is a guy who played one game last season due to a back injury. I can’t see him sticking even if Ellsbury’s wrist problem lingers.

The last two arms in camp are Diego Moreno and Luis Cessa. The Yankees really like Cessa — Cashman in particular has talked him up — and he’s looked pretty good in his limited action. Those are the key words there, limited action. He’s appeared in only three Spring Training games, and if the Yankees were seriously considering Cessa for the roster, he’d get more looks. Pitching two innings once a week suggests he’s on the outside looking in. That’s fine. He could use more Triple-A time anyway.

The Yankees seem to like Moreno more than we realize — he’s been mentioned as a call-up candidate for two or three years now — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again this summer. He is not on the 40-man roster right now, and he hasn’t pitched well in camp (six runs in 5.1 innings), so it seems safe to say Diego is way down on the Opening Day bullpen depth chart at the moment. The Yankees have too many other candidates.

* * *

With Opening Day two weeks away, it appears the Yankees have 22 of their 25 roster spots figured out. They need to pick a backup catcher and decide who will hold down the last two bullpen spots on a temporary basis. I assume those will be shuttle spots, with new guys cycling in and out as necessary, especially early in the season. The next round of roster cuts should be coming next weekend, and that may lend some clarity to the bullpen situation.

Prospect position changes have helped the Yankees boost their farm system in recent years

Birdman. (Presswire)
Birdman. (Presswire)

In an effort to improve roster flexibility, the Yankees have both Starlin Castro and Rob Refsnyder working out at third base this spring. It might work, it might not. The only way to find out is to try, and there is no better time to try than Spring Training. Well, except in the minors, where the player can play their new position every day and not worry about sharing playing time.

Over the last few years the Yankees have boosted their farm system and improved the stock of several individual prospects by changing their positions. I don’t mean the usual starter to reliever (Dellin Betances), shortstop to third base (Miguel Andujar), and center field to a corner (Aaron Judge) conversions. I mean moves to more challenging positions, with Jorge Posada going from second base to catcher the most well-known example. The Yankees have had some success with similar moves in recent years. Here are the most notable.

Greg Bird: C to 1B

Okay, moving from catcher to first base is a move down the defensive spectrum, but catcher is a unique position, and I think the Bryce Harper principle applies to Bird. Harper was a catcher as an amateur, yet the Nationals moved him to the outfield immediately following the 2010 draft. Why? Because it would reduce injury risk, it would allow them to keep his bat in the lineup every single day, and it would accelerate his development because he wouldn’t have to focus on the defensive aspect of the position.

Bird actually started his career as a catcher — he caught three games with the rookie Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2012 — before suffering a back injury, at which point the team said forget it, let’s put him at first base. That has allowed Bird to avoid the wear and tear of catching, focus on his offense, and reach the big leagues just three years later. Would Greg Bird be more valuable as a catcher? In theory yes. Except his offense would likely suffer because he’d wear down, he wouldn’t play as often, and he’d probably be a nightmare defensively. Moving from catcher to first made Bird a better prospect and allowed him to reach the big leagues sooner.

John Ryan Murphy: IF to C

Back in high school Murphy was primarily an infielder — a third baseman, specifically — who also dabbled in the outfield and caught once in a while. The Yankees moved him to catcher full-time after selecting him in the 2009 draft and Murphy took to the position well, well enough that he reached the show four years after being drafted and was able to settle in as a sturdy big league backup by age 23.

The Yankees received one full season of backup catcher work from the Serial Killer plus 48 other games scattered across two seasons before sending him to the Twins for Aaron Hicks this winter. Given his good but not great offensive potential, Murphy would have been just another guy at third base or in the outfield. The Yankees saw his potential behind the plate and were rewarded first with a quality prospect, and later with a quality big league player.

Peter O’Brien: C to OF

The Yankees are very willing to be patient with bad defensive catchers in the minors — Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez, anyone? — but even they could not be patient with O’Brien. The team gave him 99 games behind the plate from 2012-13 before pulling the plug and moving him first to third base, then later to the outfield, where he has remained since. As with Bird, the move out from behind the plate has helped O’Brien blossom as a hitter.

In the span of two years, the Yankees turned O’Brien from a bad defensive catcher who might hit into a passable defensive outfielder who can mash taters, which made him good enough to fetch Martin Prado in a trade. They then turned Prado into Nathan Eovaldi. O’Brien was a lost cause behind the plate and keeping him there for a sake of being patient would have been a mistake. The Yankees stuck him where he was most likely to succeed and were rewarded with quality trade bait. (Tyler Austin, who also made the move from catcher to the outfield, didn’t work out quite as well.)

Rob Refsnyder: OF to 2B

Ref. (Presswire)
Ref. (Presswire)

In perhaps the most notable prospect position change, the Yankees moved Refsnyder back to send base after he played the outfield for three years at Arizona. (He played some second in high school.) Similar to Murphy, Refsnyder would be just another guy in a corner outfield spot given his offensive profile. But, put him at second base, and suddenly he has a chance to be above-average at the position.

Refsnyder’s defense at second base has improved but is still rough overall, and now the Yankees have him working out at the hot corner. He did reach the big leagues as a second baseman though, and probably could have (should have?) spent a lot more time in the show last season than he actually did. At least one team wanted him in a trade — the A’s wanted Refsnyder and Adam Warren for Ben Zobrist last July — and the Yankees claimed they were willing to go into the season with Refsnyder as their primary second baseman. That won’t happen, but point is, the move to second has largely been a success.

Luis Torrens: IF to C

As with Murphy, Torrens was primarily an infielder when the Yankees signed him out of Venezuela in 2012, playing mostly third base but also some shortstop. The Yankees moved him to catcher immediately and he has reportedly taken to the position extremely well. Torrens was praised for his defensive work and baseball acumen earlier in his career, before shoulder surgery sidelined him for the entire 2015 season.

It remains to be seen how Torrens will return from the injury — shoulder surgery is no joke, especially for catchers since so much of their defensive value is tied up in their arm — but the early returns at catcher are very promising. “Managers and scouts alike rave about Torrens’ defensive skills, noting how advanced he is as a receiver and a blocker for someone his age and with his limited experience,” wrote Baseball America (subs. req’d) prior to last season. Torrens is still only 19 with a lot of career ahead of him. For now, the move to catcher looks like a smart one.

Chase Whitley: 3B to RP to SP

This one was pretty outside the box. Whitley was a two-way player in college, playing both third base and pitching out of the bullpen. He hit .364/.464/.564 with ten homers and more walks (31) than strikeouts (27) in 288 plate appearances his draft year while pitching to a 3.68 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 24 walks in 66 relief innings. Ace Whitley was one hell of a college player.

The Yankees drafted Whitley in the 15th round of the 2010 draft and moved him to the mound full-time. He was a rare three-pitch reliever (fastball, changeup, slider) who had a lot of success in the minors, so the team decided to stretch him out in Triple-A to see how he could handle a starting assignment. It worked well, and before you knew it, Whitley had made 16 starts for the Yankees from 2014-15.

Whitley wasn’t great (5.02 ERA and 4.23 FIP) and he eventually got hurt and claimed off waivers, but before all that the Yankees were able to develop him into a replacement level spot starter after acquiring him as a part-time third baseman/part-time reliever. All it cost them was a 15th round pick and a small signing bonus too. Considering the expected return for a 15th round pick is basically nothing, Whitley’s conversion(s) worked out very well.

Thoughts following Greg Bird’s shoulder injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

We have to interrupt Retro Week for a no good, very bad reason. Greg Bird will undergo surgery to repair a torn right labrum in his shoulder later today, the Yankees announced yesterday. Although Bird was not projected to be on the Opening Day roster, he is still an important piece of the organization, and chances are his absence will be noticeable in 2016. I have thoughts.

1. Bird missed a month with a right shoulder strain in Double-A last summer and the Yankees acknowledged in yesterday’s press release this injury is a “reoccurrence of a right shoulder injury sustained in May of 2015.” It’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees missed the injury in May or underestimated the severity, but I don’t think that’s the case. Bird hit well in the minors after returning and he mashed in the big leagues, swatting eleven homers in 46 games. There was no indication his shoulder was an issue.  The injury could have worsened due to the wear and tear, plus this is one of those things that could have been exacerbated as he ramped up his weightlifting in the weeks leading up to Spring Training. (Brian Cashman told Chad Jennings this popped up within the last ten days or so.) It sucks. Injuries happen.

2.. The long-term effect of the surgery is a legitimate concern. It is Bird’s right shoulder, so his front shoulder when hitting, and several players have lost power after having surgery on their front shoulder in recent years. Brian McCann, Matt Kemp, and Adrian Gonzalez are the three most notable examples. Here’s a really quick graph I whipped up:

McCann Kemp Gonzalez ISO

Y+1 is the first year after the player had surgery. Y+2 is the second year after surgery. Y-1 is the year before surgery. Got it? McCann’s power numbers actually held steady before and after the surgery, but both Kemp and Gonzalez suffered significant power hits. Gonzalez has never really regained his pre-surgery power either. Kemp needed a full year to bounce back. So these three represent the three possible outcomes: Bird comes back fine (like McCann), Bird gets back to normal after a year or two (like Kemp), or Bird never gets back to where he was (like Gonzalez). The injury stinks for 2016. I’m much more concerned about the long-term impact.

3. The injury changes the outlook of Mark Teixeira‘s impending free agency, doesn’t it? Before Bird got hurt it was pretty easy to assume the Yankees would simply let Teixeira walk next offseason, and maybe make him the qualifying offer depending on his production. The shoulder injury has made Bird a big question mark for 2017. No one knows what to expect from him following surgery. Suddenly re-signing Teixeira to a short-term deal doesn’t seem so far-fetched. There’s still an entire season that has to play out before we can seriously talk about the Yankees re-signing Teixeira, and by then we’ll have much more information. About Bird’s rehab, about Teixeira’s ability to produce, all sorts of stuff. Point is, Bird’s injury increased the odds of Teixeira returning to the Yankees in 2017 by some amount. I’m not sure how much exactly, but by some amount. (At the very least, the Yankees will need a capable Plan B at first base in 2017 behind Bird.)

4. I couldn’t tell you how many people I saw suggesting the Yankees sign Pedro Alvarez after the news yesterday. Bird was not going to be on the MLB roster and chances are Alvarez is not looking to take a minor league contract. Alvarez wasn’t a great fit for the roster anyway because he’s essentially a platoon DH. The opportunity for playing time in the Bronx has increased only slightly because Bird’s injury doesn’t open up a big league roster spot. Now, if Teixeira were to get hurt in Spring Training, then it would be different. Hopefully that’s not the case. Right now the Yankees lost a depth player, not a 2016 MLB piece. Alvarez still is not any kind of solution unless he’s willing to go to Triple-A. (Cashman did confirm the Yankees will look for first base help on a minor league contract. Maybe Ike Davis?) That’s where the roster hole is right now. In Scranton. Maybe this will push the Yankees to sign Juan Uribe, who has first base experience. That would be sweet. It would also mean spending money.

5. Dustin Ackley was and still is the backup first baseman on a day-to-day basis. Whenever Teixeira needs a day off his feet or whatever. The real issue is the Yankees no longer have someone who can step in to play first base should Teixeira go down for several weeks, which he has done a few times in recent years. Maybe Ackley’s late season power surge is real and he can be that long-term fill-in. History suggests that is not the case though. Eric Jagielo has been traded, so he’s no longer an option. The first base security blanket is gone, and given Teixeira’s propensity to get hurt, that could potentially be a big problem in 2016. Bird was a piece of Grade-A depth at a position where the Yankees figure to need that depth at some point this coming season.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

6. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’d like the Yankees to give Alex Rodriguez some time at first base in Spring Training so he could play the position once in a while during the regular season. Not everyday or even once a week, but every so often, just to increase his versatility. Having a player who is incapable of playing the field really hurts roster flexibility. I don’t expect the Yankees to give A-Rod any time at first base — or third base, for that matter — in Spring Training. They’ve made it pretty clear he is a DH and a DH only at this point of his career. Too bad. Maybe they’ll give Rob Refsnyder some reps at first base. What else are they going to do with him?

7. Last week I went through the projected Triple-A Scranton roster in an attempt to figure out who fits where, and based on the available players, Tyler Austin looked likely to get stuck in Double-A. The Bird injury opens up first base with the RailRiders and could create regular playing time for Austin. (Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty they’re not planning to play Austin at first, for what it’s worth.) The 2016 season is basically Austin’s last chance to carve out a future with the Yankees, and if he’s able to show something offensively at Triple-A and handle first base — he’s played the position a bunch in his career, that shouldn’t be a problem, the concern is his bat — he could step in as Bird’s temporary replacement, both in 2016 and possibly 2017 if he needs time to get back to normal.

8. Possible silver lining: more playing time for Gary Sanchez. The Yankees could give McCann more regular reps at first base, freeing up time behind the plate for Sanchez. The service time benefit of sending Sanchez to Triple-A for 35 days is too great to ignore — 35 days in the minors in 2016 equals control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022 — and I’m still on board with sending him to the RailRiders for a few weeks. But, once Sanchez is with the big league team, maybe McCann sees a little more time at first base, especially if Teixeira is nursing some kind of injury. I’m grasping at straws here. There’s nothing good about a young player like Bird undergoing major surgery. Make no mistake, his injury is very bad for 2016 and potentially beyond, regardless of whether Sanchez sees more playing time.

Greg Bird to miss 2016 following right shoulder surgery

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

Well this is bad. Greg Bird will miss the entire 2016 season following right shoulder surgery, the Yankees have announced. He has a torn labrum and will have the procedure tomorrow. Bird missed about a month with a shoulder strain in the minors last year and felt it again during offseason workouts, the team confirmed.

Bird, 23, was scheduled to start the 2016 season in Triple-A since the Yankees have Mark Teixeira at first base, Alex Rodriguez at DH, and Carlos Beltran as a backup DH. Given the fragility of those players, there was a good chance Bird would get plenty of big league playing time anyway. That won’t happen now.

Since being drafted in 2010 Bird has dealt with ongoing back issues, which caused him to move from catcher to first base. The shoulder is relatively new as far as I know. Last season was the first time he had trouble with it. Obviously a torn labrum is very serious, especially since it is his throwing shoulder and front shoulder when hitting.

Front shoulder injuries are known to sap power even after the player is healthy. Brian McCann, Adrian Gonzalez, and Matt Kemp all had front shoulder surgeries in recent years and needed almost a full year to get back to where they were before going under the knife. Bird is close to an offense-only player. And loss of power would be bad news.

Service time rules are tricky but I’m fairly certain the Yankees can’t option Bird at this point. That means he’ll accrue a full year of service time sitting on the big league DL next summer and burn one of his six years of team control. Not ideal, but dems the breaks.

Sorting out the projected 2016 Triple-A Scranton roster

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Over the last few seasons Triple-A rosters have become extensions of the 25-man big league roster. There is no better example of this than last year’s bullpen shuttle. Teams use their Triple-A rosters not only to develop prospects, but also to stash depth players at each position should they be needed due to injury or poor performance. And they will be needed. Baseball always makes sure of it.

Brian Cashman has already said the Yankees hope to use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door based on their needs at the time. If they need an extra bullpen arm, they’ll call up a pitcher. If they need an extra outfielder because someone is banged up, then they’ll call up an extra outfielder. It sounds like a great plan. Will it work as well in reality as it does on paper? We’ll see.

So, with that in mind, let’s sort out the projected Triple-A Scranton roster as it sits right now. After all, these guys are the backup plans for the big league team. I have zero doubt we’ll see several of these players in the Bronx this coming summer, including guys none of us would ever expect. Remember Kyle Davies? Matt Tracy? Yeah. Let’s start with the position players. Asterisks (*) denotes players on the 40-man roster.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Gary Sanchez* Greg Bird* Slade Heathcott* Tyler Austin
Carlos Corporan Rob Refsnyder* Mason Williams*
Eddy Rodriguez Pete Kozma Ben Gamel*
Sebastian Valle Donovan Solano Lane Adams*
Jonathan Diaz Aaron Judge
Cesar Puello

There are 25 roster spots in Triple-A and, believe it or not, that is relatively new. Triple-A and Double-A teams had 24-man rosters as recently as 2011. It’s pretty common for Triple-A teams to carry three-man benches and eight-man bullpens because of workload limits and whatnot, especially early in the season before guys are fully stretched out. I’ve got 16 position players in the table there, so three or four won’t make the cut one way or another.

Catchers: All signs point to Sanchez being the big league backup catcher, though that’s not set in stone just yet. The Yankees could send him to Triple-A for regular playing time and to work on his defense. As an added bonus, sending Sanchez down for 35 days or so will delay his free agency another year. Assuming Sanchez makes the MLB team, Triple-A catching duties will belong to Corporan and either Rodriguez and Valle. They’re all defense-first guys who can’t hit.

Austin Romine, Sanchez’s primary competition for the backup job, is out of minor league options and has been outrighted before, meaning if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he has to go through waivers and can elect free agency if he clears, which I imagine he would do in an effort to find a better opportunity. There appear to be only two ways for Romine to remain in the organization beyond Spring Training: he gets the backup catcher’s job, or he gets hurt in camp and is placed on the MLB DL.

If Sanchez doesn’t make the big league roster, he’ll be the starting catcher in Triple-A with either Romine or Corporan backing up Brian McCann. If Romine backs up McCann, Corporan will be in Triple-A. If Corporan backs up McCann, Romine will be gone and either Valle or Rodriguez will be with Sanchez in Triple-A. For now, I’ll say Sanchez makes the big league roster. The Yankees leaned on their prospects a lot in 2015 and I think that’ll continue in 2016.

Bird. (Presswire)
Bird. (Presswire)

Infielders: Barring injury, Bird and Refsnyder will start the season with the RailRiders. “That’s the optimal” according to Cashman, at least when it comes to Bird. The Yankees lost Ronald Torreyes on waivers earlier this week but still have Kozma, Solano, and Diaz on minor league contracts. I expect them to compete for a big league bench job in camp, and hey, one of them might win a spot.

In that case, Bird and Refsnyder will hold down the right side of the infield while the other two guys handle the left side. That means the RailRiders still need a utility infielder. There are going to be five infielders on the roster no matter what. Cito Culver and Dan Fiorito are the best candidates for that job right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees brought in one more minor league infielder these next few weeks. A minor league contract or waiver claim, something like that. One pulled hamstring in camp and the Yankees could be real short on upper level infield depth.

Outfield: The Triple-A outfield picture is crowded and yet crystal clear. Judge, Slade, Williams, and Gamel will be the four regular outfielders. They’ll rotate around the outfield and at DH. Simple, right? Puello, who played exactly one game in 2015 due to a back injury, is an obvious candidate for Double-A. Between the two catchers, the five infielders, and the four outfielders, we’re already at eleven position player spots.

So right now there is room for only one more position player since an eight-man bullpen is rather common in April. That last spot comes down to Adams and Austin. Both stunk in Triple-A last season and had to be demoted to Double-A in the second half. Adams is two years older and a better defender, but Austin has the advantage of being able to play a little first base as well. Plus he has seniority in the organization. That can’t hurt.

My guess — and this is nothing more than a guess — is Adams will get the Triple-A spot over Austin. Adams is older and on the 40-man roster, so the Yankees probably want to figure out what they have in him as soon as possible. If he can’t hack in Triple-A, they’ll cut him and move on. In that case Austin would anchor a Double-A Trenton lineup that is a little light on prospect power. He, Puello, Taylor Dugas, and Mark Payton would be the Thunder outfield.

After all of that, the Triple-A roster looks like this on the position player side:

Catchers (2): Two of Sanchez, Corporan, Rodriguez, and Valle.
Infielders (5): Bird and Refsnyder, Kozma, Diaz, and Solano. If one of them lands a big league job, Culver or Fiorito are candidates to fill the spot in Triple-A.
Outfielders (5): Judge, Heathcott, Gamel, Williams, Adams.

Position battles in Spring Training will determine the exact roster, as will injuries and things like that. The last big league bench spot is wide open, and the backup catcher’s job is not Sanchez’s just yet. Now let’s move on to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Bryan Mitchell* Nick Rumbelow* Chasen Shreve*
Luis Cessa* Branden Pinder* Jacob Lindgren*
Anthony Swarzak Nick Goody* James Pazos*
Brady Lail Kirby Yates* Tyler Olson*
Chad Green Johnny Barbato* Tyler Webb
Jaron Long Vinnie Pestano
Eric Ruth Tyler Jones
Ronald Herrera Mark Montgomery
Caleb Smith

Lots and lots of pitchers. I have 22 names in the table for 12-13 Triple-A spots and three big league bullpen spots, so 6-7 of those guys are going to get stuck in Double-A. Of course, not everyone will get through Spring Training healthy. A handful of pitchers always get hurt in March. (There always seems to be a rash of Tommy John surgeries in Spring Training as pitchers ramp up their throwing.) It’s a vicious part of the baseball calendar.

I honestly think the Yankees will use those final three MLB bullpen spots to take the players they believe give them the best chance to win, regardless of previous role or handedness. If it’s three lefties, so be it. If it’s three guys who are starters by trade, fine. Remember, the Yankees took David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno north as relievers back in 2013 because they were the best options. The team didn’t worry about leaving one or two stretched out in Triple-A.

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Trying to predict who will make the bullpen right now is impossible and a waste of time. No one expected Preston Claiborne to come to camp throwing fire three years ago, putting him in position for a big league call-up. Shreve might have a leg up on everyone else because he was so good for the first four and a half months last season. Aside from that, good luck figuring out who starts in MLB and Triple-A. And besides, the shuttle ensures these guys will be rotating in and out all year anyway.

I will say that of those 22 pitchers listed, I believe Ruth, Herrera, Smith, Jones, and Montgomery are mostly likely to be squeezed down to Double-A due to a roster crunch. (Herrera’s the guy who came over in the Jose Pirela trade.) I wouldn’t necessarily call them non-prospects. They’re just low priority prospects in the grand scheme of things. They lack the upside of the other pitchers in the table, relatively speaking.

Among the deep depth arms are lefty Chaz Hebert and righty Kyle Haynes. They’re among the starters who will open the season in Double-A and jump to Triple-A whenever a spot start is needed because of call-ups and whatnot. Ruth, Herrera, and Smith are in that group. There’s no doubt the Yankees have a ton of upper level pitchers, particularly in the bullpen. Now they just have to figure out which of these guys can stick in the big leagues.

Greg Bird and the temptation to manipulate service time

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

As it stands right now, Greg Bird will likely open the 2016 season with Triple-A Scranton. Brian Cashman said that’s “the optimal” outcome, mostly because it means everyone got through Spring Training healthy. An injury to Mark Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez would land Bird on the Opening Day roster. Otherwise he doesn’t make much sense for that final bench spot because he lacks versatility.

Bird turned 23 earlier this offseason and he is so very clearly the Yankees’ first baseman of the future. He mashed during his brief MLB cameo last year (137 wRC+) and Teixeira’s contract is up after the season. It’s not hard to see where this is going. The Yankees are trying to get younger and create more financial flexibility, so replacing the aging and expensive Teixeira with the younger and cheaper Bird makes total sense. It’s a no-brainer.

There is still a season to be played between now and then though, and in 2016 it seems like Bird is destined to wait things out in Triple-A with the RailRiders. He’ll come up when there’s an injury and he’ll surely be up when rosters expand in September, but otherwise there’s no obvious role for him next year. A pure backup first baseman/DH is not something you find on the bench these days. Dustin Ackley will back up Teixeira for the time being.

“The thing you always have to measure is is it more important for him to play everyday, or play a couple days a week,” said Joe Girardi during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “And I think you also have to let Spring Training play out to see how things work out for us before you make a decision. There’s been talk he might go back to Triple-A. Let’s let us get through Spring Training because things a lot of time have a way of ironing out.”

Getting stuck in Triple-A is unfortunate for Bird — for what it’s worth, he’s said all the right things about his situation (check out this video interview) — but it could benefit the Yankees long-term. For starters, it’ll give Bird a chance to play every single day and work on some things, particularly his defense and ability to handle lefties. Southpaws chewed him up down the stretch in 2015.

There’s also the service time aspect, which is complicated and yet oh so simple at the same time. With enough time in Triple-A next year Bird’s free agency will be delayed from the 2021-22 offseason to the 2022-23 offseason. Doing that is a no-brainer, right? The system is broken and teams are rewarded with an extra year of control by leaving their top young players in the minors juuust long enough.

At the same time, I would hope the Yankees would put Bird’s service time situation on the back burner next year. If Teixeira or A-Rod gets hurt and Bird is the best option to replace them, then he should be called up to help the team win. Right? Right. Bird accrued 53 days of service time last year, meaning he’ll have to spent about 65 days in the minors in 2016 to delay free agency. Two months. That’s it.

The Kris Bryant situation really brought to light the silliness of the service time rules. It couldn’t have been more obvious he was big league ready in Spring Training, and yet the Cubs sent him to Triple-A for two weeks to start the season, delaying his free agency. They made up some dumb excuse about working on defense. Bryant clearly was ready to help Chicago, yet, at the same time, the Cubbies would have been stupid not to send him down for those two weeks to gain the extra year of control.

The Yankees are in a slightly different situation with Bird. Bryant had to go down for two weeks. Bird has to go down for two months. Good health and good production from Teixeira and A-Rod would make that possible, and really, it would be best for the Yankees for that to happen. They want Teixeira and A-Rod healthy and productive and they want the extra year of Bird. It would be the best of both worlds.

What happens if Teixeira or A-Rod gets hurt? That’s where it gets tricky, and I guess it depends on the timing. If they get hurt early in the season, calling up Bird is the obvious move. But, if it happens later in the summer, say when Bird is a week or two shy of having his free agency delayed, then what? The temptation to keep him down just a bit longer would be mighty strong. And again, who could blame the Yankees?

Either way, Bird is in position to become a core player for the Yankees long-term. The team has only had four primary first basemen over the last 32 years — Don Mattingly (1983-95), Tino Martinez (1996-2001), Jason Giambi (2002-08), Teixeira (2009-present) — and Bird looks like he could take over the position for the next decade. That’s pretty exciting.

The Yankees have plenty of money, so Bird’s service time situation is not critical. This isn’t a small market team that needs to do whatever they can to keep their best young players. Bird’s service time is worth keeping an eye on though. As much as it would suck for Bird, keeping him in Triple-A those 65 or so days in 2016 would be very beneficial to the Yankees.