Assorted Baseball Thoughts

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Hey, baseball! You’re unofficially back and that’s all sorts of awesome. It’s still a while before things really count, but it’s nice to have the game back in our lives on a daily basis, even if it’s just in the form of players doing workouts or taking batting practice or throwing bullpens. Dinner, so to speak, is finally on the stove and we’re beginning to smell it as its scent wafts up to us, enticing us to walk down into the kitchen (even if it won’t really open until April). So, in celebration of the season, here are some assorted thoughts about baseball goings on and whatnot.

How about that Aaron Judge homer? Or Gleyber Torres knocking two doubles and scoring from second (!) on a wild pitch? Or Clint Frazier going oppo on a triple? In the long run, these things mean absolutely nothing. I know it; you know it; the players themselves (probably) know it. But, regardless, it’s nice to see. Spring Training already gives us that nebulously fuzzy feeling of optimism and that only gets heightened when prospects and young players perform well.

While on the topic of young players, whom do you guys think is more likely to start the year in AAA: Judge or Greg Bird? There are cases for both players needing more work. Judge still swings and misses a lot and Bird will need to find his power stroke after missing an entire year; it’s plan to see why those two things could/should be worked out in Scranton rather than the Bronx. Both have nominally capable “replacements” in Aaron Hicks and Chris Carter, though Carter is much more a sure thing than Hicks at this point. I don’t think either of them ends up in AAA to start the year, though, and despite arguments for it, in a year in which the Yankees are transitioning, it’s okay to see some growing pains at the highest level.

The World Baseball Classic is back this year and it’s still something that I like but don’t love at this point. I get why it exists and I think the commissioner and his office genuinely do want to grow the game internationally–as they well should from a business point of view–but the whole thing still feels a bit stilted and awkward and I can’t place why. As a fan of soccer, I enjoy tournaments that the WBC tries to mimic–the World Cup, the European/Copa America tournaments, the Champions League, the FA Cup, etc.–but I just can’t fully buy into the WBC. I think I’d like it a lot more if it were styled after the Champions League with club teams rather than international teams. The only problem there is lack of competition. Only teams from the US, Japan, Cuba, and Korea would really be able to hack it in such a tournament, as teams from the other leagues in the world aren’t anywhere near good enough to hang with the best of the best from those leagues. I suppose, then, that there really isn’t much to do about changing it. Eventually–when no Yankees play in the damn thing–I’ll learn to love it.

Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)
Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)

Speaking of changes, MLB is doing away with the intentional walk process and I feel very…ambivalent about it. I don’t necessarily like it, but I don’t feel nearly strong enough about it to make a stink. At the end of the day, it’s a fairly meaningless change that won’t do much to take away from the game and won’t do much to improve it. It’s a fairly transparent move, in fact, so MLB can say ‘Look! See? We’re making changes!’ without having to do anything radical or spend any money. Regardless of my personal feelings, pace of play is a concern of MLB’s and they’re going to do what they can to speed up play, though I’m not sure how much it’ll help. Will casual fans become die hards or will new fans be born because games go from three hours to two hour and forty five minutes? Eh.

To grow the game, MLB needs to think outside just the field of play. I love baseball not just because it was introduced to me by my family, but because I played it growing up. For many kids in this country–especially kids of color and those in urban environments–the cost of playing baseball is prohibitive. Pumping money into youth leagues of all shapes and sizes–even subsidizing some of them–is one way for MLB to grow both with young people and people of color, demographics the sport has lacked recently.

Additionally, MLB needs to tap into why young people like certain sports. Over the last five years or so, I’ve taught every grade from 7-12 (though only as a day sub for 8th grade) and kids like players more than they like teams. I was the same way when I was younger–I had basketball and football jerseys from a dozen different teams and kids today are no different. They talk about players and stars more than they talk about teams. MLB hasn’t done the greatest job of promoting its new crop of stars and that’s going to hurt them as they compete against star-driven leagues like the NBA and the NFL. Allow player personalities to shine on the field and give them exposure off the field. It’s 2017; act like it, MLB.

What needs to go right for the Yankees to contend in 2017?

An uphill climb. (Presswire)
An uphill climb. (Presswire)

In just three days the Yankees will play their first game of the Grapefruit League season. These next five weeks and four days will be used to determine the final few roster spots and shape the Opening Day roster, a roster that will inevitably change many times during the regular season. The Opening Day roster is never the roster that finishes the season.

The Yankees readily admit they’re in the middle of a “transition” right now, and while they’re not completely throwing in the towel and tanking, they are emphasizing the future over the present. It’s refreshing. They’ve needed to do this for a while. A year ago the Yankees won 84 games and were still in the wildcard race in late-September. It seems they’re in for more of the same this year. In fact, let’s look over the 2017 projections quickly:

  • FanGraphs: 80 wins (last in AL East, three games back of second wildcard spot)
  • PECOTA: 82 wins (third in AL East, two games back of second wildcard spot)
  • SportsLine: 80.4 wins (fourth in AL East, four games back of second wildcard spot)

The Yankees have outperformed the projections and their run differential for several years running now. Run differential says they should have won 323 games from 2013-16. They actually won 340. Do it once and it’s a fluke. Do it year after year — we’re talking about 17 extra wins across four years here, that’s a lot — and it’s a trend. For whatever reason the Yankees are always a few games better than expected. It’s happened too long to ignore.

Anyway, the projection systems see the Yankees as a .500 team or thereabouts in 2017, and I can’t say I strongly disagree with that. Based on the way things have gone the last few years, that probably means they’ll end up with something like 84 wins instead. Enough to remain interesting but almost certainly not enough to seriously contend for a postseason berth. They’ll need some things to break right to play in October this year.

Some of those things are obvious. Masahiro Tanaka needs to stay healthy or the Yankees are completely screwed. There’s virtually no path to the postseason that includes Tanaka being anything less than ace-like. Gary Sanchez needs to be an offensive force. He won’t do what he did last year again, though the Yankees are counting on him to provide big time power. When the team has a lead after seven innings, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman have to make it stand up.

The Yankees are going to need some other things to go their way to contend this year, things that are not so obvious. Without fail, each year every contending team get some kinda surprise out-of-nowhere performance that helps push them over the hump. Do you think the Red Sox expected Sandy Leon to hit like that last year? Of course not. The Dodgers weren’t counting on Grant Dayton being an ace setup man. Those surprise performances are what make baseball fun.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things I think need to happen for the Yankees to have a real chance at contending this year. I’m talking 89 wins or more, something that puts them right in the thick of the wildcard race. It’s doable. Unlikely? Sure. But doable. Let’s get to it.

Either Bird or Judge becomes bonafide a middle of the order hitter

#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)

First base and right field are offense positions. Strong defense is always appreciated, though generally speaking, teams are looking for bashers at those spots. Bird and Judge both have a lot of potential, though they’re kids with fewer than 300 big league plate appearances combined. It’s tough to know what to expect. Especially since one is coming back from major shoulder surgery and the other is 6-foot-7 and making all sorts of mechanical adjustments.

As it stands, the Yankees will lean on Sanchez and Matt Holliday to anchor the middle of the order. I’ll be surprised if they’re not hitting third and fourth (in either order) on Opening Day. The Chris Carter addition provides some protection in case Bird gets off to a slow start or needs time in the minors to get his swing back. Carter is a flawed hitter, no doubt, but at least you know he’ll sock dingers on the regular. Ideally he’d something like sixth or seventh though, not fifth.

Point is, the Yankees have a pretty glaring need for another middle of the order hitter, someone to give the team a formidable 3-4-5 with Sanchez and Holliday. Bird and Judge have the most offensive potential among the young players, and while it would be cool if both established themselves as big time hitters this summer, the Yankees are going to need at least one of those guys to do it to contend. They need to add length to the lineup. No doubt about it.

Gardner and Ellsbury bounce back at the plate

Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury had similar offensive seasons a year ago. Gardner got on base more often and hit .261/.351/.362 (97 wRC+) overall. That was down from the .259/.343/.399 (106 wRC+) line he put up in 2015. Ellsbury showed a little more pop than Gardner and finished with a .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) batting line last year. That was actually up from .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) in 2015.

The Yankees have hinted at breaking those two up atop the lineup, though the fact of the matter is the offense is at its best when Gardner and Ellsbury are playing like they did in 2014 and early in 2015, before Ellsbury hurt his knee. It seemed like they were on base a combined six times each night. The Yankees don’t want to break those two up. They want them to play well enough to remain atop the lineup. That’s the best case scenario.

Like I said earlier, the Yankees need a deeper lineup, and that starts right at the top with Gardner and Ellsbury. Whether they’re capable of giving more at their ages — Gardner turns 34 in August, Ellsbury will do the same in September — is another matter entirely. I can’t say I’m optimistic about Ellsbury bouncing back at the plate, personally. For the Yankees to contend in 2017 though, they’ll need their two veteran speedsters to raise some hell as table-setters.

Severino pulls a Danny Salazar

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

In 2013 the Indians called Salazar, a top pitching prospect, up to the big leagues in the second half, and he gave them ten starts with a 3.12 ERA (3.16 FIP). Cleveland was counting on him to be a key member of their rotation in 2014, but instead Salazar didn’t pitch all that well (4.25 ERA and 3.52 FIP) and spent a chunk of the season in the minors. Then, in 2015, Salazar reestablished himself as a top young arm by throwing 185 innings with a 3.45 ERA (3.62 FIP).

The Yankees are hoping Severino follows a similar path. He came up and helped the team with eleven strong starts in 2015 before struggling in 2016 and spending part of the season in the minors. With any luck, Severino’s 2017 will look like Salazar’s 2015. There are plenty of caveats here — Salazar’s changeup is better than either of Severino’s secondary pitches, and Salazar really wasn’t that bad in 2014 — though the point stands. A good second half cameo in year one, struggles in year two, then a breakout in year three. This is year three for Severino.

Pineda has a big contract year

If there was ever a time for Michael Pineda to become the pitcher the Yankees expected when they acquired him all those years ago, this would be it. Big Mike will be a free agent after the season and putting together a solid campaign from start to finish would set him up for a nice payday. The Yankees need him to pitch well to solidify the rotation too. Pineda pitching well is a win-win. He sets himself up well for free agency and the Yankees get some wins out of it. Another year of below-average production helps no one.

At least one of the young relievers breaks through

In Betances and Chapman, the Yankees have as good a bullpen one-two punch as any team in baseball. Things get a little dicey after that. Tyler Clippard was solid after the trade last year, though he is clearly no longer the pitcher he was a few years ago, and an extreme fly ball pitcher whose fastball is dipping closer and closer to 90 mph might not be such a great fit for Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general. Clippard is the No. 3 reliever right now.

Adam Warren is the fourth option and he seems to be at his best when he’s a Swiss Army Knife reliever, not someone who is tied down to a specific inning. Then there’s Tommy Layne and two open spots, which figure to log a lot of mileage this year. We’ll see plenty of pitchers come in and out over the summer months. We always do. Sometimes by design but often out of necessity. The Yankees have been as aggressive as any team calling up relievers.

One of the young relievers like, say, Ben Heller or Jonathan Holder becoming a reliable sixth or seventh inning guy would go a long way to improving the bullpen. The rotation doesn’t figure to log many innings, making the middle of the game treacherous at times. Another year of middle innings instability won’t get the Yankees to the postseason. Finding that extra bullpen piece could swing a lot of games in those tricky middle innings.

Bird’s shoulder, Severino’s changeup among top storylines for Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Today is the first day of the long journey that is the 2017 baseball season. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa to open Spring Training today, and with any luck (okay, a lot of luck), the Yankees won’t be done playing until November. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There’s a whole baseball season to enjoy first.

This Spring Training, perhaps moreso than any Spring Training in recent memory, will offer some really intriguing storylines. And for once, it’s not because of the latest Alex Rodriguez controversy, or because we’re wondering whether some veteran signed to a huge contract will be healthy and productive. The Yankees will have many of their great prospects in camp and several big league jobs up for grabs.

So, as something of a Spring Training preview, let’s look at what figure to be the most important storylines of Spring Training this year. These are the storylines I think are important, anyway. You don’t need to be told Gary Sanchez‘s sophomore season and Aroldis Chapman‘s return are big deals, right? Right. Here are my most important storylines this spring, in no particular order.

Is Bird’s shoulder healthy?

By all accounts the answer is yes, Bird’s shoulder is healthy. Bryan Hoch posted video of Bird cutting loose and taking batting practice last week. That’s probably not something he would be doing if there was still concern about his shoulder. So I guess the real question is whether Bird has shaken off the rust following his lost season, and gotten back to where he was prior to the surgery one year ago.

The Yankees suddenly have a bonafide first base alternative in Chris Carter, who signed a one-year deal last week. I mean, they always had Tyler Austin and Ji-Man Choi to compete with Bird for the first base job, but Carter represents a more legitimate option. Austin and Choi have proven basically nothing at the MLB level. Carter led the National League in homers last year. For what it’s worth, Bird said all the right thing after the Carter signing.

“I think we’re happy to have (Carter), honestly. It’s another big bat and a good bat. I think he can bring a lot to the table. I’m excited to meet him,” said Bird to Dan Martin last week. “I missed a whole year. I have to prove to them that I can play again and play at a high level and be a quality part of the team.”

How is Judge doing with his new leg kick?

Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)
Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)

We’ve seen several versions of Aaron Judge since 2015. Two years ago he had a relatively small leg kick. Then last year he had a big leg kick. Now he has no leg kick. Judge and the Yankees are still working to find the right lower half mechanics, the mechanics that will allow him to make more contact. Power isn’t a question. Judge has plenty of that. Enough that he can sacrifice some power for contact.

As far as we know, Judge has been working on this new no leg kick setup all offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s 100% comfortable yet and ready to take it into games yet, however. This was always going to be an important Spring Training for Judge anyway. He is going to have to perform well to win the right field job. Now he has to do it while still adjusting to his new lower half mechanics. Hopefully it clicks right away and is a smooth transition.

Is Severino actually throwing his changeup?

The 2016 version of Luis Severino is a harsh reminder that sometimes things go wrong even with the most talented young players. Very, very wrong. Severino was an unmitigated disaster as a starter last year. He really was. We’re talking an 8.50 ERA (5.56 FIP) in 47.1 innings. Yikes. He was electric in 23.1 innings out of the bullpen, which only barely salvaged his season. (Not really.)

Severino basically stopped using his changeup late last year. He averaged 12.2 changeups per start during his debut in 2015, then averaged 13.1 changeups per start in his first eight starts last season, before he hurt his triceps and was later sent down. Then, in his final four starts — this doesn’t count his time in the bullpen — Severino threw 12 changeups total. That won’t work. Not as a starter.

This spring Severino will have to earn a rotation spot — I do think he’s favored to get one, though it’s far from guaranteed — and part of that is showing a willingness to use that changeup. It should be, anyway. If Severino cuts through camp with nothing but fastballs and sliders, how is that a good thing? He needs his changeup to be a successful starter and we should see that pitch plenty in camp.

How long will Kaprielian stick around?

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

Last spring the talk was James Kaprielian could make his big league debut later in the 2016 season. A flexor strain put an end to that, but it wasn’t an unrealistic thought in Spring Training. Kaprielian was a non-roster invitee last year and he threw only 3.2 Grapefruit League innings (across two appearances) before being sent to minor league camp. It wasn’t the longest look. Then again, Kaprielian had to prepare for his minor league season.

At this time last year the Yankees were six deep in starters, remember. Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Severino were going to be in the rotation. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova had to compete for the fifth starter’s spot. This year the Yankees have two open spots behind Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia. Severino is going to compete for one of those spots with Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Possibly Adam Warren too.

The number of Grapefruit League innings the Yankees give Kaprielian this spring could be telling. If it’s another quick two-game, four-inning showing before being reassigned to minor league camp, then it’s business as usual. But, if Kaprielian hangs around a little longer, then it’ll be a pretty good indication the Yankees want to move him through the system quickly. He’ll get to spend more time with the big leagues coaches in the spring that way.

Is Girardi really going to change the top of the lineup?

Last month Brian Cashman acknowledged the Yankees have discussed breaking up Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup since last season. Ultimately, it will be Joe Girardi‘s call, he said. “I think Joe’s going to get a better feel when he sees everything in camp — if it’s all healthy — and who’s best for that two-hole, then where’s the best guy slot after that. We’ll see how it plays,” said the GM.

Spring Training lineups are not designed to win the game. The veteran players bat high in the order so they can get their three at-bats and head home. It’s not until later in the spring, when the regulars play complete games and back-to-back days, that we start to get an idea of how the regular season lineup will shake out. The Yankees have so many young players and new faces that the lineup is kinda up in the air. Been a while since that was the case.

Anyway, my guess is Girardi will start the season with Gardner and Ellsbury batting first and second in whatever order. That’s the easiest thing to do. It won’t ruffle any feathers and it’ll delay any action, which might not even be necessary. But, if Girardi is truly willing to break up his two veteran leadoff guys, we should see it happen at some point in camp, particularly later in March when the lineup begins to look like the actual regular season lineup.

Attempting to “Optimize” the Lineup

Using one of these guys probably won't help much nowadays.
(Using one of these guys probably won’t help much nowadays.)

Even though it’s something we will never have control over, and even though it’s something that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, we as fans love to obsess over lineup construction. I’ve probably written as many posts about it in my illustrious writing career as I have about any other topic. Forgive me for dipping into that shallow pool again, but in the days leading up to the pitchers and catchers report date and Spring Training proper, most of the other pools have been completely drained.

The new conventional wisdom says that the most important spots in your lineup are numbers 1, 2, and 4, so your best hitters ought to go there. I don’t think I’m taking a big leap of faith here when I assume that the Yankees’ three best hitters this year will be some combination of Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez, and probably Brett Gardner. To be fair, I’m getting an assist from ZiPS on this one, which projects those three to have the highest wOBAs on the team at .329; .342; and .321 respectively. A note: Aaron Judge is also projected for a .329 wOBA, but we’ll get to him later.

For lineup spot one, you want your best OBP guy who’s also fast, so that obviously goes to Brett Gardner. No need to consider anyone else, really, as he’s got the best on-base skills on the team and is still fast, even if he doesn’t steal as much. He can use his speed to take extra base when the hitters behind him–who are more powerful–knock the ball into the gaps, and that has just as much value as steals.

The New School (as if this theory is still new) generally states your best overall hitter should go second. By ZiPS projected wOBA, that’s Gary Sanchez. However, he also has the highest projected slugging at .490 and the second highest ISO at .235. Those signs point to him being in the number four slot to take better advantage of his power. This leaves Matt Holliday–who also comes withe some pop–and his slightly better on base skills (his projected OBP beats Sanchez’s .325 to .313) to take up the two spot and Sanchez for the clean up spot.

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

That leaves the three spot for someone like Aaron Judge, a slugger who’s not likely to be a high OBP guy, but will also come up with the bases empty and two outs quite often. Given that, putting his power at the third spot in the lineup–he’s projected for the highest ISO on the team at .244 and a .473 SLG, second highest on the team.

This old post has a rather vague description for the fifth spot in the lineup:

The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

The only guy who really fits this bill is the returning Greg Bird. Of the remaining players, he’s got the most power and probably the best batting eye. The only other option for this could be Chase Headley, but his power has waned enough that his on-base skills wouldn’t quite make up for it.

Spots six through nine are also a little broadly defined, with a stolen base threat occupying the six spot so he can be driven in by singles hitters behind him. Of the players left, Jacoby Ellsbury is the only stolen base threat. Behind him, you can slot one of Starlin Castro, then Didi Gregorius to avoid stacking the lefties too much. These guys bring a potential bonus because both did show some power last year. Chase Headley can bring up the rear, a switch hitter at the bottom to avoid any platoon snarls.

So our “optimized” lineup?

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Matt Holliday, DH
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Gary Sanchez, C
  5. Greg Bird, 1B
  6. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
  7. Starlin Castro, 2B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Chase Headley, 3B

It’ll never happen this way, but I think that’s a pretty okay looking, if top heavy lineup. If you really wanted, you could swap Ellsbury and Gardner without too much difference and the same goes for Judge and Bird, probably. We’ve gotta remember, though, that little lineup adjustments like this don’t make a ton of difference over the course of the season and as long as the guys at the top aren’t at the bottom, everything’ll end up about the same. Still, on the even of the preseason, it’s fun to talk about.

Sorting out the projected 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster

Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)
Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)

Over the last few seasons the Yankees and every other team in baseball have begun to use their Triple-A affiliate as an extension of their big league roster. They not only send relievers up and down whenever a fresh arm is needed, they’ll also shuttle platoon players in and out based on upcoming pitching matchups. Clubs look for every advantage possible, and these days that means having MLB and Triple-A roster flexibility.

The Yankees have built an exceptional farm system with many high-caliber prospects ticketed for Triple-A. They also have several big league roster openings with young players slated to compete in Spring Training. The refreshing emphasis on youth means projecting the 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster is damn near impossible, but that won’t stop me from trying. I do this every winter and I ain’t stoppin’ now.

Now that the non-roster invitees have been announced, let’s try to figure out what the RailRiders’ roster will look like on Opening Day. After all, these players are depth players for the Yankees, and inevitably we’re going to see many of them in MLB at some point. The top prospects get all the attention, understandably, but don’t sleep on the Chris Parmelees and Anthony Swarzaks of the world either. Those guys have a way of finding themselves in the Bronx.

Let’s begin by looking at position player candidates for the Triple-A Scranton roster. An asterisk (*) denotes the player is on the 40-man roster, which, in this situation, is kind of a big deal.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Kyle Higashioka* Greg Bird* Aaron Judge* Tyler Austin*
Wilkin Castillo Ronald Torreyes* Mason Williams* Rob Refsnyder*
Francisco Diaz Ji-Man Choi Jake Cave Tyler Wade
Kellin Deglan Cito Culver Dustin Fowler
Mike Ford Clint Frazier
Pete Kozma
Donovan Solano
Ruben Tejada

I have 20 position players in the table and these days Triple-A rosters run 25 players deep. As recent as 2011, Triple-A and Double-A teams fielded only 24-man rosters. For real. It is not at all uncommon for Triple-A clubs to carry eight-man bullpens, especially early in the season when pitchers are still getting in the swing of things and also having their workloads monitored. We need to pare that list of 20 players down to 13 or even 12.

Catchers: Barring injury, the Yankees are set with Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine behind the plate at the big league level. Romine did an okay job as the full-time backup last year, and while I wouldn’t completely rule out Higashioka winning the job in camp, it would surprise me. Remember, Romine is out of minor league options, which means if he’s not the backup catcher, he’s out of the organization. (Even if he clears waivers, he’d likely elect free agency and look for a big league opportunity elsewhere.)

The odds are strongly in favor of Romine backing up Sanchez with Higashioka biding his time as the third string catcher in Triple-A. The real question is who will back up Higashioka? Castillo seems like the safe bet considering he’s a 32-year-old journeyman with (a little) big league experience and a ton of Triple-A experience. Diaz has two games of Triple-A experience and that’s it. Deglan has barely played above Single-A. Those two figure to be the Double-A Trenton catching tandem with Higashioka and Castillo in Scranton. That’s two of our 12 position player roster spots.

Infielders: Austin, Bird, and Refsnyder are essentially competing for two big league roster spots: the first base job and a bench job. Everyone wants Bird to win the first base job, including the Yankees themselves. But, if he needs more time to shake off the rust following shoulder surgery, a return trip to Scranton could very well be in the cards. Either way, one of these three players figures to start the season with the RailRiders while the other two are with the Yankees. My guess is Refsnyder winds up in Triple-A, but who knows. Three of our 12 Triple-A roster spots are now taken.

Back to Triple-A for Mr. Refsnyder? (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

Solano, Tejada, and Torreyes will all compete for the big league reserve infielder’s job in Spring Training, or at least appear to compete for the job. Maybe even Kozma too. Torreyes not only filled the role admirably last season, he’s also on the 40-man roster and the other three are not. That’s one heck of a tiebreaker. Torreyes can be sent to Triple-A, he has options remaining, it’s just hard to think he could lose the bench job in Spring Training. Lil’ Ronnie in the show with the other three in Scranton seems to be the most likely outcome here. That’s six Triple-A roster spots accounted for now.

Choi has big league time and while I suppose it’s not completely impossible he wins the big league first base job should Bird need more time in Triple-A, I’d bet against it. The big league service time all but ensures Choi will start the season in Scranton, not Double-A Trenton. That figures to spell bad news for Ford, who has played only 42 career games at the Double-A level. Hard to think the Yankees would send two pure first basemen to Scranton. Choi is position player number seven.

Before we found out the Yankees re-signed Kozma, the final Triple-A infield spot came down to Culver or Ford. Now neither of them figures to get a Triple-A roster spot. They’ll likely have to go back to Double-A to begin the season. Either that, or the RailRiders will carry a six-man bullpen, and there’s no chance of that happening.

Outfield: In a roundabout way, Judge and Williams are competing for one big league roster spot. Judge will be given every opportunity to win the starting right field job, but if the Yankees determine he’s not ready for it, he could wind up back in Triple-A. In that case, Aaron Hicks would presumably take over in right field and Williams would get the fourth outfielder’s job. I suppose it could go to Refsnyder or Austin, but I think the Yankees would want an actual outfielder on the bench. There’s the eighth position player. (Hicks, by the way, is out of options and can’t be sent to Triple-A.)

Frazier is a Triple-A lock because he reached the level last season and is a priority guy as a top prospect. The Yankees aren’t going to send him to Double-A to clear a roster spot because Culver has tenure in the organization or anything like that. Fowler is another high-end prospect who had a successful season at Double-A in 2016, so an assignment to Triple-A is the natural order of things. Cave is a Triple-A veteran and the logical candidate for the fourth outfield spot. Frazier, Fowler, and Cave are position players nine, ten, and eleven.

Utility: I listed Austin and Refsnyder as utility players only because they can play the infield and outfield. They were already covered in the infield section. Wade, who is primarily an infielder but started working out in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, had a solid Double-A season a year ago, so, like Fowler, an assignment to Triple-A makes sense. Wade is out 12th and final Triple-A position player.

Let’s quickly recap everything we just went through:

  • Catchers (2): Higashioka and Castillo
  • Infielders (4): Choi, Kozma, Solano, and Tejada
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and either Judge or Williams
  • Utility (2): Wade, and one of Bird, Austin, or Refsnyder

That’s a dozen position players right there, and I suppose if the RailRiders open the season with a normal seven-man bullpen, either Culver or Ford would make the team as the 13th position player. Probably Culver. I still expect an eight-man bullpen, at least initially.

The perfect world scenario for the Yankees is Bird and Judge winning the first base and right field jobs, respectively, and Austin beating out Refsnyder for a bench spot. So, assuming that happens, here are the projected Triple-A position players, with a batting order written out because why not?

1. SS Tyler Wade
2. CF Dustin Fowler
3. LF Clint Frazier
4. DH Rob Refsnyder
5. C Kyle Higashioka
6. 3B Donovan Solano
7. 1B Ji-Man Choi
8. 2B Ruben Tejada
9. RF Mason Williams

Bench: C Wilkin Castillo, IF Pete Kozma, OF Jake Cave

The batting order is just for fun. Don’t take it to heart. Remember, players are going move around. Refsnyder won’t always DH. Wade will undoubtedly see some time in the outfield. Frazier and Williams will probably see time in all three outfield spots. Heck, Solano and Tejada will probably roam around the infield too. These things are very fluid. That, however, is the projected Triple-A Scranton group of position players based on everything we know at the moment. Now let’s get to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Luis Cessa* Johnny Barbato* Richard Bleier*
Dietrich Enns* Gio Gallegos* Chasen Shreve*
Chad Green* Ben Heller* Joe Mantiply
Ronald Herrera* Jonathan Holder* Jason Gurka
Bryan Mitchell* J.P. Feyereisen Evan Rutckyj
Luis Severino* Mark Montgomery
Chance Adams Matt Wotherspoon
Daniel Camarena
Kyle Haynes
Brady Lail
Jordan Montgomery

Lots of pitchers. Lots and lots of pitchers. There are 23 of ’em in the table, and if that sounds like a lot, consider the RailRiders used 37 different pitchers last season, including 22 different starters. They used 45 pitchers and 24 different starters in 2015. So yeah, 23 pitches in the table seems like a lot, but it’s maybe half as many as Scranton will need to get through the season. Before you know it they’ll be signing Phil Coke out of an independent league again. That’s baseball, yo.

Rotation: At the moment, the Yankees have to two open big league rotation spots, which Brian Cashman & Co. insist will go to two young pitchers. Cashman has specifically singled out Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino as the candidates for those jobs. (Adam Warren too, but I don’t think he’ll actually open the season in the rotation unless all hell breaks loose in camp.) My money is on Severino and Cessa getting the rotation spots. We’ll see.

In theory, the Yankees would send the two losers of the rotation competition to Triple-A, where they would bide their time until they need another starter in the Bronx. Sounds simple enough. That’s not necessarily how it will work though. In 2014 the Yankees held a three-way competition for the long reliever job — not even a rotation spot, the long reliever spot — between Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno. The Yankees ended up carrying all three on the Opening Day roster because they were the best men for the job.

Who’s to say that, if Cessa and Severino were to win the two rotation spots, that Green and Mitchell wouldn’t be in the bullpen? That really complicates things and is why I included guys like Haynes and Lail in this exercise. More than a few of those 40-man roster Triple-A rotation candidates could wind up in the big league bullpen, creating a need for starters in Scranton. Geez, that’s a mouthful.

Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)
Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)

Anyway, this is what I think will happen: two of the Cessa/Green/Mitchell/Severino quartet get big league rotation spots and a third winds up in the bullpen as the long man. The fourth goes to Scranton as the de facto sixth starter. That means, based our table, we’re left with seven candidates for the four remaining Triple-A rotation spots: Adams, Camarena, Enns, Haynes, Herrera, Lail, and Montgomery.

Two of the four spots are easy. They’ll go to Adams and Montgomery, two of the better pitching prospects in the organization, both of whom are ready for Triple-A. (Montgomery thrived there in his brief stint last year.) Enns and Herrera are on the 40-man roster, which could give them a leg up for the final two Triple-A rotation spots. I do wonder whether the Yankees will move Enns to the bullpen since that’s likely his ultimate destination.

For now, I’m guessing Enns remains a starter, meaning Scranton’s five-man rotation to start the season will be, in whatever order, Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green Mitchell, or Severino. That leaves Camarena, Haynes, and Lail out in the cold. The projected Double-A rotation is pretty stacked (Ian Clarkin, Josh Rogers, Justus Sheffield, etc.) so it’s not as simple as bumping them down a level. Hmmm.

Bullpen: Right now, the Yankees have five big league bullpen spots accounted for: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, and Warren. Layne is out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league bullpen, he’s probably out of the organization. No Triple-A for him. I assumed in the previous section one of the four young starters winds up in the bullpen, which means six of seven big league bullpen spots are accounted for in this little exercise.

I have 12 relievers in the table plus Camarena, Haynes, and Lail to consider, so that’s 15 pitchers total. One of those 15 is going to get the final big league bullpen spot, so it’s really 14 pitchers for eight Triple-A bullpen spots. In all likelihood one of the 40-man roster guys will get that last bullpen job with the Yankees. It doesn’t really matter which one, specifically. My money is on Bleier because the Yankees really seem to like him, but ultimately the name doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because there are six 40-man relievers in that table, and whichever ones don’t get that final MLB bullpen spot will wind up in Triple-A, no questions asked. None of ’em are going to Double-A. That’s five Triple-A bullpen spots accounted for already, which leaves us nine pitchers for the final two or three bullpen spots (depending whether they carry a seven or eight-man bullpen): Camarena, Feyereisen, Gurka, Haynes, Lail, Mantiply, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon.

The Yankees signed Gurka as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason and he has some big league bullpen time with the Rockies, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot. Cashman talked up Mantiply at the town hall two weeks ago and he has a tiny little bit of big league time too, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot as well. If the RailRiders employ an eight-man bullpen — and to be clear, the Yankees make that decision, not the RailRiders — I think it would be Feyereisen. Just a hunch. Camarena, Haynes, Lail, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon end up in Double-A for the time being. (One or two might even get released.)

Alright, so after all of that, my projected 13-man Triple-A Scranton pitching staff shakes out like this:

  • Rotation (5): Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green, Mitchell, or Severino.
  • Bullpen (8): Feyereisen, Gurka, Mantiply, and five of Barbato, Bleier, Gallegos, Heller, Holder, or Shreve.

After going through all of that, I must point out the odds are strongly in favor of this post being a complete waste of time. Guys are going to get hurt in Spring Training, released before the end of camp, whatever. These things change and they change a lot. Trying to project the Triple-A Opening Day roster in late January is a fool’s errand, so I guess that makes me a fool.

I still think it can be instructive to go through this exercise each year, even though it’s prone to blowing up in my face. It’s good to get an idea of how the Triple-A roster will shake out, see where the Yankees have depth, and who the call-up candidates are at any given moment. I have a tendency to forget about Herrera, personally. Laying this all out is a good reminder that hey, he’s probably going to be in the Scranton rotation. So even though this is all very subject to change, I think we get a good grasp of what the Triple-A roster may look like come April.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

[Read more…]

Thoughts on the ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees

2017 WAR projections.
2017 WAR projections.

Earlier this week, Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs released ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees. There are a ton of projection systems out there these days, possibly too many at this point, and ZiPS is my personal favorite. It’s been pretty accurate relative to the other systems, historically. ZiPS is my preference. You’re welcome to feel differently.

As a reminder, projections are not predictions. They’re not trying to tell you the future. Projections like ZiPS are an estimate of the player’s current talent level. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .271 in 2008, and .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change? Nah. That’s just baseball being baseball. It would be boring if it were predictable. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the ZiPS projections. They made for good talking points.

1. Sanchez is very unique. Last year Gary Sanchez came up in August and smashed 20 home runs in his final 52 games of the season. No one had ever done that before, especially not as a full-time catcher. Because of that, Sanchez is super unique as a player and projecting him is damn near impossible. That’s why ZiPS spit out Chris Hoiles (Chris Hoiles!) as Sanchez’s top statistical comp at age 24. Hoiles played six games in his age 24 season. He played 23 games in his age 25 season. It wasn’t until his age 26 season that he broke into the show full-time. And yet, ZiPS determined Hoiles was the best statistical comp for Sanchez at this age because Hoiles could really hit. The guy retired as a career .262/.366/.467 (122 wRC+) hitter who averaged 24 homers per 140 games played. Point is, Sanchez’s career path is incredibly unique. Few catchers show this much power this early. ZiPS spit out Hoiles because he had power too even though he didn’t stick for good until age 26.

2. How about that youthful power? The Yankees’ top six projected 2017 home run hitters according to ZiPS are Aaron Judge (30 dingers), Sanchez (27), Clint Frazier (22), Tyler Austin (18), Greg Bird (18), and Starlin Castro (18). Castro is the grizzled veteran of the group and he’s still only 26. Again, ZiPS is not a prediction. The system is estimating the talent level of each player at that homer total. I’ll take the under on Judge and the over on Bird, assuming his shoulder holds up, but the point is the Yankees have multiple young power bats on the roster for the first time in a long time. Last year they had three players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers (Sanchez, Castro, Didi Gregorius). They had three total from 2002-15 (Alfonso Soriano, Cano twice). Prior to last season, the last time the Yankees had multiple players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers was 1991, when Roberto Kelly and Kevin Maas did it. Sanchez, Judge, and Bird are all serious threats to do it in 2017. Maybe Austin too if he gets enough playing time. (Castro turns 27 in Spring Training.) That is pretty awesome and exciting. Hooray for not counting on the veterans to hit the ball out of the park.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3. The Bird projection is a good reality check. I love Greg Bird. I love his plate discipline, I love his calm at the plate, and I love his ability to hit the ball in the air with authority. We also have to remember the kid is coming back from major surgery though, and there are other flaws in his game as well. He’s not a good defender and lefties have given him trouble in the past. The ZiPS projection reflects those realities. It pegs Bird as a true talent .234/.307/.449 (108 OPS+) hitter right now, which is good in a vacuum but not great in the world of first basemen. (First basemen hit .259/.338/.453 in 2016. That’s a 114 OPS+.) Add in the lack of defense — ZiPS has Bird saving zero runs in the field, which might be generous — and you get a +0.8 WAR player. That’s disappointing to see for 2017. But you know what? ZiPS drops Mo Vaughn on Bird as the top statistical comp at age 24, and Vaughn was a monster from ages 25-30. Remember, this coming season will be Bird’s first full season in the show. There will inevitably be bumps along the way, especially following surgery. Hopefully 2017 is a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the future.

4. ZiPS hasn’t given up on Severino as a starter. More than a few folks would like to see the Yankees keep Luis Severino in the bullpen, where he was so dominant last year, and I get it. I do. Brian Cashman indicated they’re going to stick with him as a starter for now, even if it means sending him to Triple-A in 2017, and that’s the right move in my opinion. Severino is still only 22 and I’d hate to give up on him as a starter at that age, especially with the Yankees in need of long-term rotation help. Development isn’t always linear. There are obstacles to overcome along the way. Anyway, ZiPS is still on the “Severino should start” bandwagon, projected him for a 4.20 ERA (3.94 FIP) in 152 innings this coming season. That’s in 26 starts too. (And yeah, seven relief appearances.) His top statistical comp is Mike Witt, who also hot hammered as a starter and pitched well as a reliever at age 22. Witt went on to have a lot of success as a starter from age 23-28. Severino ain’t alone. He’s not the only guy who’s gone through this.

5. The other young starters don’t look so hot. Along with Severino, the Yankees figure to use some combination of Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell at the back of the rotation in 2017. Chances are we’ll see all three of those guys at some point this summer, plus others. ZiPS likes Green the most among those three guys, and the system only projects him as a +0.8 WAR player in 2017.

IP ERA FIP WAR
Cessa 126.2 5.33 5.08 -0.2
Green 128.2 4.67 4.47 +0.8
Mitchell 80 5.74 5.36 -0.6

Eek. I like Cessa more than most, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were replacement level with a 5.00+ ERA next season. Not if he doesn’t do a better job keeping the ball in the park and/or start missing more bats. Other young arms like Jordan Montgomery (+0.5 WAR) and Chance Adams (-0.2 WAR) don’t project a whole lot better in 2017. These guys might be pretty good down the line! But, for this coming season, they carry an awful lot of risk, and ZiPS reflects that.

6. The Yankees need to figure out the rest of the bullpen. The Yankees are set in the eighth and ninth innings with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom have been excellent in recent years and project to be excellent again next season. The rest of the bullpen is a little dicey. Veteran stalwarts Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren project to be average by reliever standards, which I don’t think is unreasonable at this point of their careers. The best of the young relievers, per ZiPS, are Jonathan Holder and Gio Gallegos, who have basically zero combined time in the big leagues. (Holder threw 8.1 sporadic innings in September.) The minor leagues are littered with relievers who have great strikeout and walk rates, they’re everywhere, and not too many of those relievers are able to carry their success over to the big leagues. ZiPS projects Holder and Gallegos for a combined +0.9 WAR in nearly 140 innings in 2017. Eh. No other young reliever projects to be even replacement level. There’s some figuring out to be done in the bullpen.