The First Baseman of the Future [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time in a long time, the Yankees came into the season with some high-end prospects close to the big league level. We’ve spent the last few years talking about how the farm system was on the rise due to the team’s lower level talent, but geez, that’s lame as hell. Every team has talented players at the lower levels. That didn’t make the Yankees special as much as we wanted it to.

This year was different because of that upper level talent. And, given the club’s newfound commitment to young players, many of those players got an opportunity to help at the big league level this summer. Greg Bird, who I ranked as the fifth best prospect in the organization coming into the season, was one of those players even though he was what you could have considered a “blocked” prospect because of his position. Nevertheless, Bird got a chance late in the season and had an impact.

The Joys of Spring

The Yankees invited the 22-year-old Bird to Spring Training and he was arguably the most impressive young hitter during Grapefruit League play. It was either Bird or the resurgent Slade Heathcott. (Heathcott received a James P. Dawson Award as the best rookie in camp, for what it’s worth.)

Either way, Bird appeared in 13 spring games and went 6-for-17 (.353) with three doubles and a home run. He stood out most for his ultra-refined approach and insanely quick hands.

Bird had almost zero chance to make the Yankees out of Spring Training. He just wasn’t at the point in his career where that was a possibility. That said, young players like Bird still have a chance to make a strong impression on the front office and coaching staff in Spring Training. You might not make the team, but you can put yourself in position to be considered for a call-up during the season, and that’s exactly what Bird did it in camp. He was dynamite.

Back to the Minors

The Yankees assigned Bird to Double-A Trenton to start the season — he ended last year with 27-game cameo for the Thunder — and he started slowly, going 7-for-39 (.179) with only three extra-base hits in the first eleven games of the season. Bird eventually got hot, raked for a few weeks, then landed on the DL with a right shoulder injury. He was sidelined a month.

Bird returned in early-June, crushed the ball for a month (143 wRC+ in 24 games), then was promoted to Triple-A Scranton as part of the team’s mass midseason promotions. He hit .258/.358/.445 (133 wRC+) with six homers, a 14.2% strikeout rate, and an 11.3% walk rate in 49 Double-A games this year. Bird shook off the slow start and showed no ill-effects following the shoulder injury.

After the promotion to Triple-A, Bird hit .301/.353/.500 (146 wRC+) with six homers in only 34 games with the RailRiders, with an 18.0% strikeout rate and a 7.3% walk rate. It was his first taste of the level and, like pretty much every other stop in his career, Bird put up big numbers. He hit .277/.356/.469 (139 wRC+) with 12 home runs, a 15.7% strikeout rate, and a 9.7% walk rate in 83 minor games split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2015.

A Surprise Promotion

On August 13th, a little more than one week after calling up Luis Severino, the Yankees surprisingly called up Bird to bolster the bench. Trade deadline pickup Dustin Ackley was hurt and Garrett Jones hadn’t been all that productive, so the Yankees saw it as an opportunity for an upgrade. A marginal upgrade — the plan was to use Bird to rest Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez on occasion, that’s it — but an upgrade nonetheless.

Bird made his Major League debut in Cleveland on August 13th, the day he was called up. They put him right in the lineup. Bird went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts as the seventh place hitter and first baseman. He started again two days later at first base — Teixeira sat on the 13th then served as the DH on the 15th with A-Rod resting — and went 1-for-4 with a strikeout in Toronto.

Bird’s first career hit came in his ninth plate appearance. He had been making solid contact but had a knack for finding gloves early on. That’s baseball. So, naturally, his first career hit was a little ground ball through the left side side of the infield.

Two days after Bird picked up his first career hit, Teixeira fouled a ball off his shin and suffered what proved to be a season-ending fracture. Bird’s stint as a bench player or spot starter or whatever you want to call it lasted five days. Bird replaced Teixeira off the bench that game, then, in the tenth inning, he sparked the team’s game-winning rally with a leadoff double against Glen Perkins.

That was Bird’s first career extra-base hit. Later in the inning he scored his first career run to win the game. He drew his first career walk in the seventh inning, in his first at-bat after coming in for Teixeira. Bird got a lot of “firsts” out of that way that night.

We didn’t know Teixeira’s injury was season-ending at the time, but it looked like he was going to miss at least a few days, so Bird was going to get an opportunity to play a few games in a row. It was an unfortunate way to get him in the lineup. That’s usually what it takes for a young player to get a chance though, an injury.

An Everyday Player, Suddenly

Teixeira started just one game the rest of the season. About a week later, with his shin feeling only slightly better, he started and played six innings against the Astros in a blowout loss. He pinch-hit in the ninth inning the next night. Teixeira did not play again the rest of the season.

In his first game as the starting first baseman, Bird went 2-for-4 and drove in a run. In his second, he went 2-for-4 with a pair of two-run home runs in the Yankees’ 4-2 win over the Twins. He provided all of the offense with his first and second big league dingers.

Bird was, like most players, consistently inconsistent the rest of the season. He went 3-for-23 (.130) with nine strikeouts in the nine games immediately following the two-homer game. Then he went 11-for-35 (.314) with three home runs in the next ten games. A 2-for-19 (.105) stretch followed that. On and on it goes. That’s pretty normal. Day-to-day consistency is a myth in baseball. The season is just a bunch of hot and cold streaks.

Bird’s most dominant stretch of the season was a seven-game span from September 15th to the 22nd, when he went 9-for-26 (.346) with three doubles and five home runs, including a homer in three consecutive games at one point. The third of those three was a go-ahead three-run shot in the tenth inning in Toronto, with the Yankees desperately trying to keep pace with the Blue Jays in the AL East.

The Yankees struggled big time in the final week of the season but not because of Bird. He was one of their few reliable bats down the stretch. Bird went 7-for-21 (.333) in his final seven games of the season and finished the year with an overall .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) batting line in 178 plate appearances across 46 games. He hit eleven home runs and drew a lot of walks (10.7%), but also struck out quite a bit (29.8%). Pitchers attacked him relentlessly with high fastballs. Here is the pitch type and location of his 53 strike threes.

Greg Bird strike threes

The high fastball is definitely a vulnerability for Bird right now. It is for a lot of hitters — fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone and above have a 9.1% whiff rate compared to 6.9% for all fastballs overall — so this isn’t unique to Bird. Opposing teams identified it as a weakness — they were throwing Bird high fastballs in strikeout situations the day of his debut, scouting reports are crazy good these days — and now it’s up to Bird to adjust.

The Yankees had only three hits against Dallas Keuchel and the Astros in the wildcard game and Bird had one of them, a solid line drive single to right in the second inning. Bird hit an acceptable .238/.347/.405 (110 wRC+) against southpaws like Keuchel overall this season — he hit .270/.341/.574 (147 wRC+) against righties — though it’s both a small sample (49 plate appearances) and quite misleading. Bird crushed lefties early and then went 5-for-31 (.161) against them in the final month.

Even with those late-season struggles against lefties, Bird was an excellent fill-in for Teixeira. The original plan was the play him two or three times a week to rest Teixeira and A-Rod, but the injury forced him into everyday duty, and Bird excelled. I didn’t think he would get called up at all this year coming into the season, the call-up was a total surprise to me, but Bird handled the promotion well. At least offensively. His defense remains rough around the edges.

Fly Balls & Hard Contact

Three things about Bird stood out to me during his relatively brief time as a big leaguer this season. One, he’s very calm at the plate. Joe Girardi called it a “slow heartbeat.” Bird seems very controlled with a bat in his hands. Two, he rarely hits the ball on the ground. And three, he hits the ball very hard. Combine two and three and you get a lot of hard hit balls in the air.

Here are Bird’s batted ball rates compared to the MLB average, just to give you an idea of how extreme his fly ball/hard hit tendencies really are:

GB% LD% FB% Soft% Medium% Hard%
Bird 26.7% 21.9% 51.4% 14.3% 41.0% 44.8%
MLB Avg 45.3% 20.9% 33.8% 18.6% 52.7% 28.6%

Among the 389 batters with at least 150 plate appearances this season, Bird had the lowest ground ball rate and the second highest hard contact rate. Only Giancarlo Stanton hit the ball harder, on average (49.7% … lol). Very, very few batters matched Bird’s combination of hitting the ball hard and hitting the ball in the air.

Actually, a graph probably works best here. Here are those 389 batters with 150 plate appearances, with ground ball rate on the x-axis and hard contact rate on the y-axis:

2015 Hard vs. GB

So yeah, when it came to hitting the ball hard and in the air this season, Bird was truly elite. Obviously small sample caveats apply, but I do think Bird’s batted ball tendencies are notable because they match the scouting report coming into the season. Here’s a piece of what Keith Law (subs. req’d) wrote in his preseason top 100 prospects list, in which he ranked Bird the 81st best prospect in the game:

Bird’s swing is very short to the ball, and he accelerates his hands quickly for hard contact to all fields, rarely putting the ball on the ground because he squares it up so frequently.

Consistently hitting the ball hard and in the air is a wonderful recipe for extra-base hits. I don’t know if Bird is a true talent sub-30% ground ball rate hitter, that seems very extreme — batted ball data has been recorded since 2002, and during that time only four of 729 hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances have a sub-30% ground ball rate (Frank Thomas, Rod Barajas, Chris Carter, Jason Lane) — but the data matched the scouting report this year.

We’ll find out next season whether Bird can sustain his unique hard hit fly ball profile. What we saw out of him was pretty exciting though. He has a plan at the plate, he has power, and he seems to do a lot of damage when he makes contact. The strikeouts are the only significant red flag at this point.

(I suspect Bird will always be prone to strikeouts because he works so many deep counts. It just comes with the territory. You can’t drew a lot of walks and run 5+ pitch at-bats consistently without getting rung up a few times.)

Looking Ahead to 2016

Bird’s role next season is TBD at this point. He played more than well enough to be in the team’s future plans — he is clearly the first baseman of the future, there is little doubt about that — but Teixeira is under contract for another season, and he’ll be at first base in 2016. Teixeira had a pretty awesome year, remember. The Yankees are better with him at first than Bird.

This is a problem that isn’t a problem. Too many good players is a good thing. The Yankees could carry Bird as a bench bat again or they could send him to Triple-A for the time being. Teixeira, A-Rod, and Bird himself have not been the most durable players in recent years — Bird has had on and off back problems the last few seasons in addition to his shoulder injury this year — so my guess is there will be plenty of playing time for all three next year.

Severino, Bird, Judge, and Sanchez rank among Baseball America’s top 20 International League prospects

(Tony Dejak/Associated Press)
(Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Baseball America wrapped up their look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league with the Triple-A International League today. As always, the list is free but the scouting reports are not. Indians SS Francisco Lindor sits in the top spot. The Yankees have four players on the list: RHP Luis Severino (No. 2), 1B Greg Bird (No. 6), OF Aaron Judge (No. 10), and C Gary Sanchez (No. 18).

“While opposing managers lauded Severino’s stuff—a 92-97 mph fastball that typically sits at 95 and is complemented by a solid low-80s changeup and solid-average slider—many were equally impressed with his command, composure and athleticism on the mound,” said the write-up. The 21-year-old Severino had a 1.91 ERA (2.50 FIP) in eleven starts and 62.1 innings with Triple-A Scranton before being called up to the big leagues.

Bird, 22, hit .301/.353/.500 (146 wRC+) with six homers in 34 games with the RailRiders before being called up. “He combines a disciplined approach at the plate with a balanced swing and quick hands to drive the ball to all parts of the ballpark,” said the scouring report. “Bird made significant strides at first base this season: His footwork around the bag is serviceable and he has improved at picking balls in the dirt.”

Judge, 23, put up a .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) line with eight homers and a 28.5% strikeout rate in 61 games for Scranton this summer. “(Judge) struggled for stretches against experienced pitchers who found holes in his swing with breaking and offspeed pitches,” said the write-up. “He did show the ability to make adjustments and punish mistakes. Judge uses a gap-to-gap approach with bat speed and natural strength to drive the ball.”

As for Sanchez, the scouting report says he was “more mature off the field” and “in noticeably better shape this season.” The write-up also noted his “improved plate discipline” allowed him to better tap into his power in games. “He has double-plus arm strength behind the plate, and though he worked hard at improving his receiving, it remains the biggest hurdle for him to clear at catcher.” Sanchez, 22, hit .295/.349/.500 (145 wRC+) with six homers in 35 games for the RailRiders.

I was a bit surprised 2B Rob Refsnyder didn’t make the top 20, especially since Baseball America’s prospect rankings tend to be performance driven. Then again, I guess that could be why Refsnyder didn’t make the International League list. He had a good (123 wRC+) but not truly great year with the RailRiders. Others like RHP Bryan Mitchell, OF Slade Heathcott, and OF Ben Gamel are fine prospects, but not top 20 in the league caliber prospects.

Other league top 20s: Rookie Gulf Coast League, Rookie Appalachian League, Short Season NY-Penn League, Low-A South Atlantic League, High-A Florida State League, Double-A Eastern League

Refsnyder, Heathcott, Sanchez all make Wildcard Game roster

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Rosters for the 2015 AL wildcard game were due at 10am ET this morning, and shortly thereafter the Yankees officially announced their 25-man squad for their first postseason game in three years. Here is the Astros’ roster and here is the Yankees’ roster for tonight’s winner-take-all game at Yankee Stadium:

PITCHERS (9)
RHP Dellin Betances
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Bryan Mitchell
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP James Pazos
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
RHP Adam Warren
LHP Justin Wilson

CATCHERS (3)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy
Gary Sanchez

INFIELDERS (7)
2B/OF Dustin Ackley
1B Greg Bird
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
2B Rob Refsnyder
DH Alex Rodriguez
IF Brendan Ryan

OUTFIELDERS (6)
RF Carlos Beltran
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
LF Brett Gardner
OF Slade Heathcott
PR Rico Noel
OF Chris Young

I’m glad the Yankees took only nine pitchers. There’s really no need for more than that. Plus it’s not like the Yankees are swimming with options right now. CC Sabathia is unavailable after checking into rehab and next in line is probably Andrew Bailey, who wasn’t too good during his September cameo.

Both Severino and Nova started Saturday, so they aren’t fully available tonight. Today is their usual between-starts throw day, so they can probably give an inning or two, maybe three if they’re really efficient, but I doubt it would be much more than that. Obviously the plan is Tanaka to Wilson to Betances to Miller. Anything other than that is probably bad news.

Sanchez had only two garbage time at-bats at the end of the regular season, and the fact he is on the roster suggests the Yankees may start Murphy against the left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Murphy starts, McCann takes over once Keuchel is out of the game, and Sanchez is the emergency catcher. Sanchez could also be a pinch-hitter or DH option if A-Rod gets lifted for Noel at some point.

The rest of the roster is pretty self-explanatory. As I said this morning, I think Young will start tonight’s game, likely in place of Gardner. Young has good career numbers against Keuchel and Joe Girardi loves his head-to-head matchups. Gardner figures to come off the bench as soon as Keuchel is out of the game though. With any luck, no one outside the starting lineup and big three relievers will be used.

Judge, Bird among top Baseball America’s top 20 Eastern League prospects

Judge and Bird in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)
Judge and Bird in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)

Baseball America’s look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league continued earlier today with the Double-A Eastern League. As always, the list is free but the scouting reports are not. Nationals RHP Lucas Giolito claims the top spot and is followed by Phillies SS J.P. Crawford and Mets OF Michael Conforto.

The Yankees have two players on the stacked — seriously, Giolito and Crawford are the two best prospects in the minors right now — Eastern League list: OF Aaron Judge ranks 15th while 1B Greg Bird ranks 16th. RHP Luis Severino only threw 38 innings with Double-A Trenton and did not qualify for the list. Josh Norris did not take any Yankees questions in the subscriber-only chat, so there’s no other information there.

“Having such a big body means Judge has a big area for pitchers to attack, with a greater probability of finding holes to exploit. The book on Judge this year read: work him hard inside before finishing him off with soft stuff away,” said the write-up. “Even so, Judge’s power is undeniable, and he has the potential to make an impact in the near future … Nearly all who watch him say he’s more athletic than they’d estimate simply by looking at his body, and all praise his throwing arm as plus.”

Judge, 23, hit .284/.350/.516 (147 wRC+) with 12 homers, an 8.6% walk rate, and a 25.0% strikeout rate in 63 games with the Thunder before being promoted to Triple-A Scranton. The relatively low ranking seems like an overreaction to Judge’s strikeout issues in Triple-A more than anything, especially since the guy ranked one spot ahead of him (Phillies C Andrew Knapp) is older and had a similar strikeout rate (22.4%) while slugging .356. (Oops, read the wrong stat line.) Whatevs.

As for the 22-year-old Bird, the scouting report says he has “shown an approach at the plate advanced beyond his years, as well as enough power to stick as an everyday player at a corner position.” He also received credit for showing “smoother actions around the bag at first base” this summer, although his defense is still not considered a plus. We’ve seen it firsthand the last few weeks.

Bird put up a .258/.358/.445 (133 wRC+) line with six homers in 49 Double-A games before being promoted to Triple-A. He struck out in 14.2% of his plate appearances and walked 11.3% of the time. 3B Eric Jagielo and C Gary Sanchez both qualified for the top 20 — at least based on their playing time compared to Bird’s — but simply fell short of the list. OF Jake Cave and RHP Brady Lail were long shots for the top 20.

The next and final list of interest to Yankees fans it the Triple-A International League. That will be released later this week. Judge and Severino are right on the playing time bubble and might not qualify for the list. Bird and Sanchez will almost certainly fall short of qualifying. 2B Rob Refsnyder had plenty of playing time with the RailRiders and could be the only Yankees farmhand on the top 20. OF Ben Gamel and RHP Bryan Mitchell are long shot candidates.

Other league top 20s: Rookie Gulf Coast League, Rookie Appalachian League, Short Season NY-Penn League, Low-A South Atlantic League, High-A Florida State League

Something to Celebrate

I (also) love this photo so much. (@Yankees)
I (also) love this photo so much. (@Yankees)

In a matter of hours, the 162 game marathon that is the Major League Baseball season will be officially over for everyone (unless we get some tiebreaker action!). The Yankees are one of ten teams both skilled enough and lucky enough to keep marching towards the ultimate goal of winning the World Series. As a team they already got to celebrate–and why shouldn’t they? This is a team that very few people thought could make the playoffs. In most best-case scenarios in February and March, this was an 85-win team that might scratch at contending for the second wildcard spot. Now, they sit assured of a spot in that wildcard game that will probably (hopefully?!) be in the Bronx. The notion that the Yankees–or any team–shouldn’t celebrate making the Wildcard Game is just silly to me. What that team is celebrating is not just the accomplishment of making it one more day, but acknowledging the impressive feat of being one of ten teams standing after 162 games. These celebrations are as much about–if not more–what has happened rather than what will happen. Anyway, now that the team has celebrated and been celebrated, let’s take a look at some individual Yankee players and what they have to celebrate about 2015.

Starting with number one, there are some pitchers we should discuss; chief among them is Masahiro Tanaka. TANAK may not have been quite-as-brilliant in 2015 as he was in 2014, but this was still a successful year for him. By the way, let’s talk for a moment about how crazy it is that I’m saying a year for a pitcher was “successful” and “not-quite-as-good” despite a K/BB of 5.71 and a WHIP of 0.994. The former is good for fifth in the AL among pitchers with at least 150 IP and the latter is good for first. Performance, though, is only part of why Tanaka’s been successful this year. While he missed some time recently, his elbow has more or less held up despite a whole lot of armchair-doctoring by media and fans alike at the beginning of the season. There’s a reason that doctors, the Yankees, and Tanaka didn’t opt for surgery and this year has proved it a wise decision. His elbow ligaments could snap tomorrow, but that goes for any pitcher at any time and one should never have surgery when it isn’t necessary. Try to imagine the Yankees’ season without Tanaka in the rotation. He’s the only one among the Yankees’ starters with at least 100 IP who has an ERA+ of over 100 (114); without him, there’s no way this team is in the postseason.

Sticking with the starters, there’s Luis Severino. Few, expected him to be on the team this year; even fewer expected him to have this much of an impact as a starter. Despite some hiccups and some general first-time-in-the-Majors-rough-around-the-edgesness, Severnio has been spectacular. He’s held his own against big lineups at times. He’s flashed plus stuff. He’s helped Tanaka carry the rotation in the second half and has definitely pitched his way into not only the playoffs, but also the 2016 rotation.

Lastly in the pitching category, appropriately enough, there’s the dynamite combo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better 1-2 bullpen combination than this one anywhere in the Majors. While Betances has looked more human lately, he managed to mostly repeat an incredible 2014 and he and Miller solidified a very-shaky-at-times relief corps to give the Yankees a much-needed late-game edge. Miller, meanwhile, stepped right into the line of Yankee closers and wowed us all year with a dominant fastball/slider combination that left many batters baffled. The back end of a bullpen is important in a regular season, but is paramount the in the playoffs; the more we see these two in the coming weeks, the more likely it is that they and the team have done something special.

Moving to the lineup, we’ll start with number two–don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a position-by-position breakdown–and discuss Brian McCann and John Ryan Murphy. Like most of the Yankee offense, McCann hasn’t looked great of late, but that doesn’t mean this season isn’t something to celebrate. He raised all four portions of his slash line from last year and managed to belt a career high 26 homers. He’s also already tied his career high in RBI with 94, so anything he drives in today will represent a new career high. His backup also had a great season as JRM hit more-than-admirably and seemed like a veteran behind the plate in very limited duty. As a bonus, he also provided the hands-down best quote of 2015 by anyone in the Yankee organization.

I’ve already touched on Mark Teixeira‘s great season, so I’ll be brief here. Tex had a fantastic season and his absence has definitely been felt in the last few weeks, even if Greg Bird has done incredibly well both for the team and himself, something completely unexpected in and of itself, and also worthy of celebration. The Yankees now have a very good problem regarding Bird, Tex, and the next two guys we’ll touch on–Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran–and how to get them all at bats.

Raise your hand if you thought Carlos Beltran wasn’t toast after April. Put your damn hand down, you liar. At the end of April, Carlos had an OPS of .481 (!) and had exactly zero home runs. From May on, he’s hit .292/.352/.506 with 19 homers. His bat was steady and stable throughout the summer and we’ll finally get to see his playoff prowess put to the test.

Then, finally, there’s Alex Rodriguez. Al. Al from Miami. Summer of Al. How many times did we tweet these things over the last few months? The finish hasn’t been pretty, but how delusional would you have seemed in March if you said A-Rod was going to hit 33 homers this year? I thought he MIGHT, MAYBE hit 15-20 and be average overall at the plate. He completely shattered those expectations and now a finalist for Comeback Player of the year. Considering there were a lot of people who said he might never play a game for the Yankees again, this is nothing short of an amazing year for Alex and I couldn’t be happier for him. Even though a lot of the crap he’s dealt with is of his own doing, he still deserves to celebrate this year just as much as anyone, if not more. Here’s hoping for a repeat of 2009 from Alex and his teammates.

 

Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Position Players

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are in position to clinch a wildcard spot very soon, possibly tonight, so it’s time to start thinking about the wildcard game roster. Earlier today we sorted through the pitching staff, trying to figure out which ten or eleven pitchers the Yankees will carry in the wildcard game. It was easier said than done.

Ten or eleven pitchers — my guess is ten, but you never know — leaves 14-15 position player spots to fill. Joe Girardi will have a decent-sized bench at his disposal, but ideally it won’t come into play too much. The starting lineup will decide the game. As we did with the pitchers, let’s go through the position player group and try to figure out who will be on the wildcard game roster next Tuesday.

The Locks

This is the easy part …

Catcher: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy
First Base: Greg Bird
Second Base: ???
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Chase Headley
Outfield: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran
Designated Hitter: Alex Rodriguez

That’s nine of the 14-15 position player spots right there and they’re all self-explanatory right? Right. That is eighth-ninths of the starting lineup and the backup catcher. All easy calls. Next.

Second Base

For most of the summer, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan platooned at second base. That is no longer the case. Drew has been dealing with some dizziness/concussion issues that may end his season, but even before that Dustin Ackley wrestled the starting job away from him. Ackley got some playing time, hit right away, and he’s continued to play against right-handers.

Meanwhile, Rob Refsnyder has started each of the Yankees’ last four games against left-handed starters, not Ryan. Chances are Refsnyder will start against lefties Wade Miley, Rich Hill, and Wei-Yin Chen the next three days too. Like Ackley, he got a few at-bats, got some hits, and has received more playing time. That Drew/Ryan platoon was together for 140 games or so. The last 16 have gone to Ackley/Refsnyder.

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

At this point there is no doubt Ackley will be on the wildcard roster. The rest of the guys is where it gets tricky. Refsnyder is starting against lefties, but would the Yankees actually start him in the wildcard game if they face, say, Dallas Keuchel or Scott Kazmir or Cole Hamels? I get the sense Girardi would stick with Ackley in that situation and just roll with his best player.

If Refsnyder’s not going to start the game, then what’s his role? Pinch-hitter against a lefty reliever. That’s all. I guess he could pinch-run too, but there figure to be other guys on the roster to do that. Refsnyder’s not going to come in for defense. Pinch-hitter against a lefty is a big deal though! It could be the difference in the late-innings of a close game. Given the extra bench spots, I think Refsnyder’s in.

With Ackley and Refsnyder on the roster, the Yankees will need to carry a shortstop-capable backup infielder. Neither of those guys can play short. Not even in an emergency. That leaves a spot for Drew or Ryan. In a vacuum, I’d take Drew over Ryan eight days a week and twice on Sundays. But Drew isn’t healthy and we shouldn’t count on him getting healthy before the wildcard game. He’s still dealing with this dizziness/concussion stuff and has been for almost two weeks now. That puts Ryan on the wildcard game roster along with Ackley and Refsnyder.

The Pinch-Runner

Rico Noel will be on the wildcard game roster. I’m sure of it. One of the benefits of shrinking the pitching staff in the postseason is creating an open roster spot for someone just like Noel. A burner who can come off the bench to pinch-run in the late innings of a close game. Look at Rico run:

The kid can fly and his speed can potentially have a huge impact in the wildcard game. The Yankees brought Noel up this month strictly to pinch-run and I fully expect him to be on the postseason roster. Remember, they carried Freddy Guzman on the postseason roster in 2009 for this exact reason. Noel’s on the wildcard roster. I have no doubt about it.

(Since he wasn’t called up until September 1st, Noel will technically have to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have two position player injury spots available thanks to Mark Teixeira and Mason Williams.)

The Backup Outfielder

Noel will be on the wildcard game roster but he’s not really a backup outfielder. He’s a pinch-runner and that’s all. (The scouting reports indicate Noel is a pretty good defender, but the Yankees haven’t used him defensively all that much.) The Yankees will still need to carry a legitimate backup outfielder if for no other reason than to replace Beltran for defense in the late innings. Chris Young, who is the only righty hitting outfielder on the roster, held that job all season and I expect him to be on the wildcard roster. I know he’s stumped lately, but there’s no reason to think the Yankees won’t carry Young in October. In fact, I’m not sure how you can look at the 39-man active roster and saying Young doesn’t belong on the wildcard game roster. He’s in.

The Final Roster Spot

We still have one last roster spot to fill. The nine locks above plus Ackley, Refsnyder, Ryan, Noel, and Young gets us to 14 position players. I suppose the Yankees could carry eleven pitchers, but I doubt it. It was hard enough coming up with ten pitchers worth a spot on the wildcard roster. One last position player makes sense.

There’s no point in carrying three catchers, so Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are out. The remaining candidates are Jose Pirela and Slade Heathcott, assuming Drew is indeed done for the year. With Refsnyder on the roster, there’s no need for Pirela, another righty hitter. Yeah, Pirela can play the outfield if necessary, but he’s an emergency option out there only. Noel and Ackley are available as emergency outfielders. I also think Pirela would have played more this month if he was a serious wildcard game roster candidate.

Slade. (Presswire)
Slade. (Presswire)

That leaves it between Heathcott and a possibly but not likely healthy Drew. If Drew is not over high dizziness/concussion symptoms by next week, this questioned gets answered for us. In the unlikely event Drew is healthy though, would it make sense to carry another infielder or another outfielder? I think an extra outfielder makes more sense. Between Ackley, Refsnyder, and Ryan, you’ve got the second base starter and two backups. The only backup outfielder is Young considering Noel’s job is pinch-running.

Heathcott gives the Yankees another potential pinch-runner — he’s no Rico, but he’s faster than Young or Refsnyder — and another quality defender, as well as a left-handed bat on the bench. In fact, Drew and Slade are the only possible lefty bats off the bench, and one’s hurt. Besides, if Drew is healthy, it’s Ryan or Heathcott, not Drew or Heathcott. I’d take Heathcott over Ryan.

With Slade on the roster, the Yankees would have two backup infielders even without Drew (or Ryan), and Heathcott at least has a chance to contribute offensively and defensively. I mean, if Drew’s healthy and on the roster, what’s the point of Ryan? What does he offer in a winner-take-all game? I’d expect neither guy to actually play in the game, but, if pressed into action, it’s easy to see Slade having more potential impact than Ryan.

So after all of that, here’s the 25-man wildcard game roster we’ve kinda sorta pieced together today:

Catchers (2) Infielders (7) Outfielders (6) RHP (5) LHP (5)
McCann Bird Gardner Masahiro Tanaka (SP) Andrew Miller
Murphy Ackley Ellsbury Dellin Betances Justin Wilson
Gregorius Beltran Adam Warren Chasen Shreve
Headley Young Andrew Bailey Chris Capuano
A-Rod (DH) Heathcott Nova/Severino/Pineda CC Sabathia
Refsnyder Noel (PR)
Drew/Ryan

Remember, the Yankees can change their 25-man roster prior to the ALDS should they advance, and they’ll have to change it too. They’d need to get more starting pitchers on the roster. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. One thing at a time.

That appears to be the best 25-man roster the Yankees can carry in the wildcard game. Maybe not the most talented, but the most useful given the circumstances. We’re not planning for a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. It’s one game. One stupid little game where anything can happen. Hopefully Girardi won’t have to use anyone beyond the nine starting position players, Beltran’s defensive replacement, Tanaka, and the big three relievers. That’s the best case scenario. If the Yankees need to dip any deeper into their wildcard game roster than that, then, well, just hang on tight.

Beltran, Bird, and Severino have gone from non-factors in April to indispensable in September

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night the Yankees beat the Blue Jays thanks in large part to Carlos Beltran, Greg Bird, and Luis Severino. Others certainly helped, but Beltran and Bird stood out for their clutch late-inning home runs, and Severino chucked six innings of two-run ball against a great offense. They were the heavy-lifters in the team’s most important win of the season (to date!).

Back in April, last night’s win would have felt impossible. Beltran had a miserable opening month and looked very much like an older player on his last legs. Bird and Severino? They were in Double-A. Not Triple-A, Double-A. Calling up Severino in the second half seemed possible, sure, but Bird? I don’t think anyone thought he would come up in the second half and play everyday.

Beltran, Bird, and Severino were total non-factors for the Yankees back in April. Beltran was a negative both at the plate and in the field, and the other two guys were two minor league levels away from the Bronx. The season is very long though, things change constantly over the course of 162 games, and now those three guys are all indispensable pieces as the Yankees look to clinch a postseason spot.

Let’s be clear here: these are three players the Yankees can not live without right now. That’s not hyperbole. Beltran and Bird have been the club’s two best hitters this month and Severino has been no worse than their third best starting pitcher since he was called up. You could easily argue he’s been their second best starts since being summoned. The Yankees are not hanging on to the top wildcard spot without these guys doing what they’ve done.

Beltran’s first month was awful. You don’t need me to remind you. He hit .162/.216/.265 (21 wRC+) with no homers in April. It was ugly. We all wanted him out of the lineup. Since then though, Beltran has hit .300/.361/.514 (136 wRC+) with 17 home runs in just over 400 plate appearances since May 1st (406 to be exact), including the go-ahead solo homer in the eighth inning last night. The crazy thing? It wasn’t even Beltran’s biggest homer against the Blue Jays this year:

Beltran’s home run last night didn’t stand up — Andrew Miller blew the save in the ninth, only his second blown save of the year — but the Yankees again rallied to take the lead, this time on Bird’s three-run homer in the tenth. Chris Young (walk) and Slade Heathcott (catcher’s interference) deserve credit for reaching base to start the rally, but it was Bird who not only hit the homer, but battled back from an 0-2 count to work it to 2-2.

In his short time as Mark Teixeira‘s injury replacement, Bird has hit .256/.336/.562 (142 wRC+) with ten homers in 34 games. Ten homers! He hit a dozen homers in 83 minor league games this year. Furthermore, six of Bird’s ten homers have either tied the game or given the Yankees the lead. He’s had some huge ones. The two-homer game against the Twins, the go-ahead blast against the Orioles, last night … Bird’s been huge. Huge. Just don’t ask him to talk about it.

“I’m just comfortable playing baseball. I don’t really know how else to put it. But I enjoy it. I enjoy it here,” he said to reporters following last night’s win. That’s the boring answer we’re used to hearing from seasoned veterans, not a 22-year-old with barely more than month in the show. Bird is the big new thing but let’s not forget how great Teixeira was before getting hurt. He was a monster and the Yankees aren’t where they are without him. It could have been very bad when he went down. It hasn’t been thanks to Bird.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Then there’s Severino, who zoomed through the system and has become a big time contributor who is only 24 months removed from rookie ball. He came up after the trade deadline — after the Yankees declined to trade for rotation help at the deadline, more precisely — and has given the team as huge boost, pitching to a 3.10 ERA (4.38 FIP) in nine starts and 49.1 innings. That’s as good as it gets for a 21-year-old kid thrust into a postseason race. The Yankees have needed him too. The rotation is stretched thin due to injury.

Last night’s start was Severino’s third against the Blue Jays this year and easily his best. They hit him around a bit in their first meeting (three runs in six innings) then really did a number on him in their second meeting (six runs in 2.1 innings), but Severino rebounded, made the necessarily adjustments, and held them to two runs in six innings on the road last night. It would have been easy to understand if a rookie pitcher had been overwhelmed by that environment last night. Severino wasn’t.

Back in April, I’m not sure anyone figured Beltran and Bird and Severino would be playing major roles down the stretch and into September. Beltran looked washed up and both Bird and Severino were sitting in Double-A, far away from the Bronx. (Well, not literally. They were only in Trenton.) The Yankees stuck with Beltran and have been rewarded in a huge way. They didn’t trade for any significant help at the deadline and instead placed their trust in Bird and Severino. Again, they’ve been rewarded in a huge way.

Chances are the Yankees won’t win the division. There’s not much time left in the season and the Blue Jays are really good. They are in great position to claim a wildcard spot and return to the postseason, however. They wouldn’t be where they are without Beltran, Bird, and Severino. They’ve all been major contributors down the stretch after it appeared none would have any impact earlier this season.