Yankeemetrics: Two up, two down in Cleveland (Aug. 3-6)

(AP)
(AP)

Sorry, Sonny
Thursday’s series opener in Cleveland — a sloppy and frustrating 5-1 loss — was definitely not the ideal way to welcome Sonny Gray to the New York Yankees franchise.

Four batters into the game and the Yankees had already committed three errors behind Gray and the Yankees were quickly in a 2-0 hole. Whoops. It was the first time the Yankees committed three errors in any inning since October 2, 2010 against the Red Sox.

For Gray, this was a recurring nightmare that he thought had ended when he left Oakland, which leads the league in errors. Instead, he now has 13 unearned runs allowed on his ledger, tied with Derek Holland for the most in the majors through Thursday.

Gray pitched well as the Yankee gloves failed behind him, showing his toughness in pitching out of jams and limiting the damage on the scoreboard. He finished with two earned runs allowed on four hits in six innings, and for that solid effort, gets our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series:

Gray is the first pitcher in nearly 60 years to post those numbers or better (at least 6 innings, 2 earned runs or fewer, 4 hits or fewer) in his debut with the Yankees — and lose. The last guy to be this unlucky was Duke Maas in 1958. Maas (no relation to Kevin, I think) was traded by the A’s to the Yankees in mid-June, and then made his pinstriped debut as the starter in a 1-0 loss to the Tigers on June 21.

The Yankees bats also provided little offensive support as they were dominated by Corey Kluber, who tossed an 11-strikeout, three-hit complete game while giving up one run. That was his fourth straight start with at least eight strikeouts and one earned run or fewer allowed against the Yankees, the longest such streak ever by any pitcher against the Yankees.

(AP)
(AP)

Bad News Bombers
It was deja vu all over again on Friday night for the Yankees, as the mistakes in the field piled up and their offense remained in a miserable slump, resulting in another disappointing loss.

The “star” of the defensive lowlights was Gary Sanchez, who had his 12th passed ball of the season, the most in the majors despite the fact that he missed nearly a month of games in April and early May. He also has 10 errors, the second-most among catchers through Friday.

While the Yankees could barely touch Kluber’s stuff on Thursday, they put plenty of runners on base against Trevor Bauer and the Indians bullpen, but repeatedly failed to cash in on those chances. For the 15th time this season, they outhit their opponent (11-8) but still lost; only the Blue Jays (16) and White Sox (21) had suffered more losses in games when out-hitting their opponents through Friday.

Jaime Garcia contributed to the miserable night with a mediocre outing. He coughed up six runs in 4⅔ innings and couldn’t find the strike zone (four walks, one wild pitch), earning himself this #NotFunFact:

He’s one of just seven players in the Live Ball Era (since 1920) to allow that many runs, not get out of the fifth inning and walk at least four batters in his Yankee debut. The most recent guy to do it was CC Sabathia on Opening Day 2009 … okay? And the others are Tim Redding (2005), Bob Wiesler (1951), Fred Sanford (1949) and Karl Drews (1946).

(AP)
(AP)

Chase “Hero” Headley
While the bats remained silent on Saturday, the defense was outstanding and the Yankees got a stellar effort from Jordan Montgomery to survive a 2-1 nail-biter in Cleveland.

It was perhaps one of the team’s most unlikely wins, given how dominant Danny Salazar and the rest of the Indians pitchers were against a feeble Yankee lineup. They struck out 15 times, were on base just nine times and scored only two runs. In the last 100 years, no Yankee team had ever won a game with that many strikeouts, fewer than 10 baserunners and no more than two runs scored … before Saturday.

Montgomery was terrific, allowing one run on three hits in five innings, and making a strong statement that he should be a key part of the rotation down the stretch (which is now a hot topic for us banter about after he was optioned to Triple-A following Sunday’s game). Although Monty rarely dazzles like a Severino or Pineda, he consistently puts up solid numbers and keeps the Yankees in the game while he’s on the mound.

Consider this stat: Saturday was the 16th time this season that he held the opponent to three runs or fewer. Only five other Yankee pitchers have done that within their first 21 career games: Dave Righetti, Doc Medich, Masahiro Tanaka, Mel Stottlemyre and Spec Shea.

Chase Headley rescued the Yankees from another depressing loss when he belted a tie-breaking home run in the top of the eighth inning. Headley, who has quietly been one of the best hitters in the league since the All-Star break deserves a #FunFact for his heroics on Saturday: He is just the third Yankee first baseman in the last four decades with a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning or later against the Indians – Jason Giambi (2005) and Don Mattingly (1984 and 1986) are the others.

(AP)
(AP)

#Sevy4MVP
Finally … the Bronx Bombers are back. The Yankees offense, which had been M.I.A. for the past week, exploded for eight runs on Sunday, more than they had scored in their previous five games combined. But it was the brilliant pitching of Luis Severino and a shutdown performance by the Yankee bullpen that truly shined in the 8-1 win.

It was the fourth game this year that the pitching staff allowed no more than three baserunners. The last time a Yankees team did that? 1929!

Sevy, the undisputed ace of the 2017 staff, cemented his status as a no-doubt Cy Young contender with another lights-out performance: two hits, one run, nine strikeouts over 6⅔ dominant innings. I think this is a good list to be on:

He also became the first Yankee pitcher in more than 20 years to beat the Indians in Cleveland while holding them to no more than two hits. The last guy to do it? David Cone in the 1996 opener … and we know how that season ended.

Severino’s effort would have been another wasted gem in a deflating loss if not for the team’s offensive explosion in the sixth and seventh innings. The five-run sixth was sparked by the most unlikely source, a bases-loaded triple off the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury. The struggling lefty entered the day hitting .163 with runners in scoring position, the sixth-lowest batting average among AL players (min. 50 PA).

The three-run seventh, on the other hand, was powered by a much more familiar name — Mr. Aaron Judge — who smoked a 94 mph fastball into the rightfield seats for his 35th homer of the season. And, of course, with that blast, Judge etched his name in the baseball record books once again: He is the only rookie outfielder in major-league history with at least 35 homers and 75 walks in a season.

With Aaron Hicks on the mend, the Yankees will soon have to make some roster and playing time decisions

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

Later tonight nominal fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks will start a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton. He’s been sidelined since June 26th with a right oblique strain. Oblique injuries are really tricky. They’re very easy to reaggravate. And because Hicks is a switch-hitter, he and the Yankees had to be extra careful during his recovery and rehab.

Prior to the injury the 27-year-old Hicks was enjoying a breakout season, a breakout season that had him in the All-Star Game conversation. He hit .290/.398/.515 (145 wRC+) with ten homers and nearly as many walks (15.3%) as strikeouts (17.4%) before getting hurt. Among the 281 players with at least 200 plate appearances this season, Hicks ranks 14th in OBP and 19th in wRC+. He was awesome.

Since Hicks got hurt, a whole lot has changed. The Yankees lost for the seventh time in nine games to blow their division lead the day Hicks got hurt. Now the Yankees have won seven of their last nine games to climb back in the AL East race. They’re still only a half-game back following last night’s loss. Also, Jacoby Ellsbury returned from the disabled list and has since been relegated to fourth outfielder duty, both by his play and Clint Frazier‘s play.

Simply put, when Hicks got hurt, the Yankees were trending down and it was not pretty. Now, with Hicks nearing a return, the Yankees are winning games and they’ve added several new players to the roster. Frazier came up from the system and all the trades brought in Todd Frazier, Jaime Garcia, Sonny Gray, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle. Hicks is returning to a much better and more formidable team.

Because he’s missed more than a month and because he’s a switch-hitter with two swings to hone, my guess is Hicks will need more than one or two rehab games. The plan might be to have him rejoin the team next Friday at the start of the next homestand. That would give him eight days worth of minor league games. Hopefully that’s enough. We’ll see. Whenever Hicks is ready to come back, the Yankees will have to make some roster decisions.

Opening A Roster Spot

If Clint goes down, we riot. (Elsa/Getty)
If Clint goes down, we riot. (Elsa/Getty)

At the moment the Yankees are carrying a three-man bench with a backup catcher (Austin Romine), a backup infielder (Tyler Wade), and a backup outfielder (Ellsbury). They’re also carrying six starters and seven relievers, and for at least one turn through the rotation, the Yankees will use all six starters. They say they’re going back to a five-man rotation after that. Does that mean Jordan Montgomery to Triple-A? Garcia to the bullpen? Both are possible.

The easiest way to open a roster spot for Hicks would be sending down that 13th pitcher (whoever it is) and getting back to a normal four-man bench. As much as you may want them to, the Yankees are absolutely not going to release Ellsbury this year. At the very least, the Yankees are going to wait until the offseason to see whether they can unload him in a salary dump trade first. Saving even $4M or $5M a year on his contract is better than nothing.

The other option, which Brian Cashman has floated, is sending down Frazier. Man, if that happens, I will be Mad Online. I can’t see it happening at this point. Frazier has been productive and the Yankees are in it to win it now. You don’t go out and trade all those prospects only to turn around and send down Frazier, who has had an impact in his short time as a big leaguer. That’s not putting the best roster on the field.

Remember, once upon a time the Nationals said they were calling up Bryce Harper only temporarily. Then he hit the snot out of the ball for a few weeks and they had to keep him around. Frazier is not Harper, but he is really good, and he is forcing the team’s hand here. He’s done enough to stick. The Yankees may have planned to send Frazier down when Hicks is ready, but plans have to be flexible. Plans change.

Now, that all said, one thing to keep in mind here is that September isn’t far away. Assuming Hicks returns for the start of the homestand next Friday — again, that’s just my assumption, not something the Yankees have confirmed — the Yankees could send Frazier down for three weeks, then bring him right back when rosters expand on September 1st. Reevaluate the roster situation at that time to figure out the best outfield alignment. It’s an option. I hate it, but it’s an option.

So, as things standing right now, the best way to get Hicks back onto the roster is to send down that 13th pitcher, likely either Montgomery or Chasen Shreve. No one else is going down. The other options are release Ellsbury (nope) or send down Frazier (please no). An injury could change things — Matt Holliday back on the disabled list with his mystery illness? — but right now, I’d say it’s drop the 13th pitcher or bust for Hicks.

Finding Playing Time

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

This interests me much more than opening a roster spot. Hicks was out of this world before the injury, and because of that, he belongs in the lineup once he gets healthy. So does Frazier. So does Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge. I know Judge has slumped since the All-Star break, but does anyone actually want him out of the lineup? No way. He could snap out of it at any moment. No one busts out of a slump sitting on the bench.

As it stands the Yankees have four outfielders who deserve to play everyday (Hicks, Frazier, Gardner, Judge) and a fifth outfielder on the 29th richest contract in baseball history. I’m glad the Yankees and Joe Girardi have reduced Ellsbury’s playing time. It needed to happen. Now they’re looking at the possibility of completely burying Ellsbury on the bench as the seldom used fifth outfielder. The right move? Sure. An awkward situation? Yup.

Four outfielders who deserve to play means the return of the outfield rotation, I assume. Gardner will sit against lefties and I guess Frazier and Judge will take turns sitting against tough righties. Hicks will get days off here and there as well. All four of those guys should play as much as possible, and it’s up to Girardi to make it work. Ellsbury will have to be limited to pinch-runner and spot start duty. There’s really no other way to use him.

The wildcard here is the DH spot. Holliday has been pretty terrible for weeks now. If he continues to be terrible, it’s entirely possible the Yankees will scale back on his playing time, freeing up DH at-bats for the four regular outfielders and Ellsbury. “We continue to talk about it … (He) has had some good at-bats, but he really hasn’t gotten back on track. I think he will but it hasn’t happened yet,” said Girardi to George King when asked about Holliday’s slump recently.

The best case scenario is having too many good players. The Yankees don’t want to sit Holliday to open DH at-bats for other players. They want Holliday to mash, Hicks to mash, and Judge and Frazier and Gardner to mash. And they want Ellsbury to mash too. The more good players, the better. Take the depth and the production and enjoy it while it lasts. Realistically, that won’t happen. It’s very rare that everyone is hitting at the same time. That’s baseball.

Once Hicks returns, the Yankees will have to go back to the four-man outfield rotation, and maybe make it a five-man outfield/DH rotation should Holliday not get back on track. There’s really no other way to do it. None of the three current outfielders deserve to be taken out of the lineup, yet Hicks played too well before his injury to go to the bench. The Yankees have to play him to see whether that was for real. Early season Hicks was the best non-Judge hitter on the team, remember.

* * *

For now, Hicks’ return is at least a few days away and maybe more than a week away. Tonight will only be his first rehab game after more than a month on the shelf. A lot could change between now and the time Hicks is ready to be activated. Someone could get hurt, Frazier could play his way down to Triple-A, someone could get traded … who knows? Hopefully the Yankees have to make some tough decisions when Hicks returns. That’ll mean everyone is playing well and no one deserves to lose playing time or a roster spot.

The beginning of the end of the Jacoby Ellsbury era

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three and a half years later, I still don’t understand what compelled the Yankees to sign Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year contract worth $153M. A top Scott Boras client signing the week before the Winter Meetings is never a good sign. The offer was too good to be true for Ellsbury to sign that early. My guess is the Yankees overrated three things: Ellsbury’s ability to repeat his monster 2011 season, his durability (many of his injuries with the Red Sox were fluky), and the value of succeeding in a tough market like Boston.

Whatever it was, the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that contract, and three and a half years later, they wish they hadn’t. He is no better than the fourth best outfielder on the current 25-man roster, and once Aaron Hicks returns from his oblique strain, Ellsbury will be the fifth best outfielder on the roster. Ellsbury has sat in each of the last three games and six of the last ten games. Clint Frazier has been too good early in his MLB career to take out of the lineup, and Brett Gardner has been better than Ellsbury overall this season.

“I realize the way I started the first two months of the year, played very well, then I had a concussion, hurt my neck and the last three weeks my production hasn’t been the same since I ran into the wall,” said Ellsbury to Randy Miller over the weekend. “But it’s only three weeks, so for the first two months I played very well and I’m looking forward to getting back to what I was the first two months.”

As Ellsbury said, he missed a month with a concussion earlier this season and he hasn’t hit since returning. He’s gone 11-for-62 (.177) with a double and a triple since coming back. He got hurt and he stopped hitting, and it’s not the first time this has happened. Ellsbury got off to a tremendous start in 2015, tweaked his knee, missed six weeks, and didn’t hit the rest of the year. He did the same thing several times with the Red Sox. This is the reality of Jacoby Ellsbury:

  • 2015: 83 OPS+
  • 2016: 87 OPS+
  • 2017: 80 OPS+

That is three years and nearly 1,400 plate appearances of .258/.324/.361 (84 OPS+) from a player on a $153M contract. Ellsbury derives a lot of value from his defense, there’s no doubt about that, but the Yankees did not give him that massive contract simply to run down balls in center field. Mason Williams could do that for the league minimum. The brought in Ellsbury for two-way excellence.

The contract tells us the Yankees believed Ellsbury would be an impact player and he’s been anything but. We’ve seen flashes of it, but that’s it. Flashes. And this is on the Yankees. They misevaluated him and they put the contract in front of him. Ellsbury did what anyone in that situation would do. He took the massive payday. Ellsbury is eating up precious luxury tax payroll space and tying up a roster spot because the Yankees screwed up, plain and simple.

The recent benchings suggest the Yankees are beginning to acknowledge that screw up, and won’t let it continue to hurt them. The contract is a sunk cost. The Yankees are paying it no matter what. That doesn’t mean they have to play him though. Ellsbury is not in the lineup because he doesn’t belong in the lineup. The Yankees have better players available. Does Joe Girardi want to sit Ellsbury? No. Of course not. It’s an uncomfortable situation. But he’s done it before. Ellsbury sat in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game in 2015, remember.

“I am going with the hot hand … Clint is playing well and I will keep using him,” said Girardi to George King over the weekend. “It’s tough to tell a player who has had a really good career that you are going with someone who is younger and has the hot hand. That is never an easy conversation, but it is part of the game. The big thing is that we aren’t saying it’s permanent, but when (Ellsbury) gets his chances, it’s important he plays well.”

Given Ellsbury’s recent benchings and the fact the Yankees have two oh so awesome young outfielders in Frazier and Aaron Judge, it’s only natural to think this is beginning of the end of Ellsbury’s tenure in pinstripes. It’s not impossible to come back from this, but it doesn’t happen often with players Ellsbury’s age. Step one is getting benched. Step two is getting pushed out the door. How will that happen? There are four possibilities, realistically:

  1. Release Ellsbury and eat the $80M or so left on his contract. Not happening. Maybe if there were one year left on his contract, but three? Nope.
  2. Trade Ellsbury in a bad contract for bad contract swap that gives the Yankees a player who better fits their roster, like a starting pitcher.
  3. Eat a bunch of money and trade Ellsbury for fringe prospects. A straight salary dump. Save whatever money you can and go from there.
  4. Attach Ellsbury to a top prospect as a way to get another team to take on a big chunk of his contract in a trade. I don’t see this happening.

The Yankees would trade Ellsbury today if it were at all possible. It’s not though. Any team looking for an outfielder would presumably turn to a cheap rental like, say, Jay Bruce. The plan to trade Ellsbury figures to begin in earnest in the offseason, when the Yankees will have more time to negotiate and perhaps more financial flexibility. The problem then is that there will lots of other outfielders available as a free agents. Outfielders like Ellsbury aren’t hard to find. What can you do? The Yankees put themselves in this situation and they’ll deal with the consequences.

As poorly as the last month or so has gone for the Yankees overall, they are very clearly a team on the rise with a lot of exciting young talent. Think about it, how long have we waited for the farm system to produce one difference-maker like Judge? Since Robinson Cano, basically. Now the Yankees have Judge and Frazier and Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino. And there’s more coming! There’s still a lot of work to be done for the Yankees to make the jump from fringe contender to World Series threat, but man, they are set up really well right now.

Ellsbury is not part of the long-term solution. I mean, I suppose he could make that one mechanical change that turns his entire game around a la Curtis Granderson in 2010, but the chances of that happening are so small. We haven’t seen nearly enough of the good Ellsbury over the years, and now that he’s approaching his mid-30s, it is increasingly unlikely we will see the good Ellsbury for a meaningful length of time. The Yankees have too many quality young players to keep Ellsbury in the lineup, and his recent benchings are an indication are preparing to move on.

2017 Midseason Review: The Outfield

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Going into the spring, the Yankees had two spots claimed in the outfield and one up for grabs.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner were the veteran holdovers from last season while the pair of Aarons — Hicks and Judge — battled for right field. Both hit quite well in the spring, so the job went to the prospect with higher promise — and what promise it has been!

Perhaps the best way to look at this outfield is going month-to-month, as things changed … other than Aaron Judge‘s dominance.

April: Judge and Hicks emerge

As I’m sure everyone remembers, Judge was a monster in April. He smacked 10 home runs, batting .303/.411/.750 (198 wRC+) for the month. Somehow, that wasn’t his peak for the season. That slugging percentage should be a little higher because of that “triple” against the Cardinals. It actually took him five starts to hit a home run and he’s taken off from there.

Hicks, on the other hand, was the fourth outfielder, so he took a lot of pinch hitting duty early on. He hit two home runs vs. the Rays on Apr. 13 and proved effective in the 57 plate appearances he received. His .295/.429/614 (173 wRC+) slash line is his best for a month this year.

Gardner and Ellsbury each got off to slow starts, which allowed Hicks to get into the lineup more often. They combined for 11 stolen bases (and fielded their positions well, like both Aarons), but had 78 and 99 wRC+ respectively. Gardner was slowed by a collision at first base against Tampa Bay while Ellsbury met expectations while hitting a key grand slam against Baltimore.

Signature moments: I’ll nominate two: Judge’s birthday, when he homered and dove into the stands for a catch vs. Boston, and Hicks’ two-homer game against the Rays, when he provided all of the offense the Yanks needed.

May: Judge (and Gardner) surge

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The fair assumption was that Judge would cool off in May. His OPS did fall… but from 1.161 to 1.084. Another seven homers, just insane stuff. Hits first grand slam came late in the month and he followed with a Memorial Day homer next day. He actually hit for more average in May yet with a little less power.

Meanwhile, Gardner went on a power surge starting with a two-homer game vs. Toronto May 2, his first of two multi-homer games in the month. He had perhaps the most clutch homer of the season vs. the Cubs three days later. His nine homers for the month were more than he had all of 2016.

Hicks really hit his stride, earning some playing time over Ellsbury before Taco’s injury. Not quite as good as April overall, but he also proved his first month wasn’t a fluke. He had seven hits over the first two games of the Cubs series and 10 hits over a four-day span.

Even Taco hit better in May with a .288/.373/.442 (120 wRC+) line. Just one HR, but five doubles. Unfortunately, he got hurt catching a ball on May 24 and was out for over a month.

Signature moment: Easily Gardner vs. the Cubs. Down to the final strike, Gardner erased a 2-0 deficit with a game-winning three-run shot. That’s a very literal game changer.

June: How is Judge still doing this!?!

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Judge literally got on base every single game in June. That shouldn’t be possible. But it was. That 495-foot homer was absurd. He struck out 39 times, but walked 30(!). Another 10 home runs. Ho hum.

Like Ellsbury, Hicks got hurt making a catch and it threw a wrench into the outfield situation. He had slumped later in the month, but was still walking and getting on base. Ellsbury’s return was quickened by the loss of Hicks.

Gardner cooled off significantly (.239/.296/.389 for June). With his power falling off, he got back to stealing bases with five and continued to provide solid fielding in left and center.

Off the bench, the Yankees went to Mason Williams and Rob Refsnyder, the former who would be DFA’d. You surely remember the Dustin Fowler injury…

Signature moment: Is there any question? It’s Judge vs. the Orioles. A 495-foot homer is impressive in BP, let alone in game. And he followed it with a lightning fast shot to right-center.

July: Enter Clint Frazier

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Since returning at the end of June, Ellsbury is batting just .208/.321/.208. No power and a lot of weak grounders to second. Judge, of course, is still doing Judge things, though his on-base streak came to an end on July 1. He also won the Home Run Derby, which was cool. Gardner picked up just five hits (no HR) in 37 plate appearances.

The main bright spot in the eight games before the ASG was Clint Frazier. Frazier has been a revelation with his bat speed. He could force his way onto the roster post-Hicks return, although the outfield will be quite crowded if everyone stays healthy. Six of his seven hits have gone for extra bases and he’s slugging .875 through 24 at-bats. I like it!

Signature moment: Frazier’s walk-off vs. the Brewers. He fastball hunted against All-Star Corey Knebel and launched one to left for the win. Well done.

With Judge, Hicks, Ellsbury, Gardner and Frazier all starting quality outfielders, the Yankees have some of the most enviable outfield depth in baseball. That crew includes the MVP so far, a young player having a career year, a vet with a power resurgence and a 22-year-old just tapping into potential. It’s been a good 3 1/2 months for the Bombers OF and it should be a good overall season, too.

Game 74: Split vs. Reverse Split

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Tonight the Yankees open a four-game series with the White Sox in Chicago, where they are undefeated so far this season. They swept three games from the Cubs back in May. Remember that? It was awesome. Brett Gardner hit that insanely clutch ninth inning home run in the first game and the Yankees outlasted the defending World Series champs during the 18-inning game on ESPN in the last game. Good times.

Tonight left-hander Jordan Montgomery will face baseball’s very best hitting team against left-handed pitchers. Their combined batting line: .307/.370/.474 (125 wRC+). Big right-handed power bats like Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, Matt Davidson, and Avisail Garcia explain that. Montgomery, however, has a reverse split. He has a 3.43 FIP against righties and a 6.72 FIP against lefties. The best lefty hitting team in baseball against a lefty who gets righties out. Intrigue! Here is the White Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. DH Gary Sanchez
  5. 1B Tyler Austin
  6. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

It is cloudy and cool in Chicago this evening, and, of course, windy. Lots of wind. Tonight’s series opener will begin at 8:10pm ET and WPIX will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Roster Moves: As you can see, Ellsbury is back. He was activated off the disabled list earlier today. The Yankees also officially placed Aaron Hicks on the 10-day DL with an oblique strain and sent down both Mason Williams and Tyler Webb. Ronald Herrera and Rob Refsnyder were called up. So that’s Hicks, Williams, and Webb out, Ellsbury, Herrera, and Refsnyder in.

Injury Update: Matt Holliday (allergic reaction) was sent to see a doctor and is not available tonight … Greg Bird (ankle) is with Triple-A Scranton. He’s going to take batting practice with them the next few days. I imagine he’ll begin another minor league rehab assignment with the RailRiders if things go well … Castro (wrist) is feeling better after his cortisone shot. He said he originally hurt the wrist on multiple check swings … Adam Warren (shoulder) played catch over the weekend and is tentatively scheduled to throw a bullpen later this week. He hopes to be back in time for the homestand next week.

All-Star Voting Update: MLB released their final fan voting update earlier today and Judge remains the leading vote-getter in the AL. His 3,442,597 votes are second only to Bryce Harper’s 3,617,444 among all players. Pretty cool. Sanchez (second), Castro (second), Didi Gregorius (third), Matt Holliday (fourth), and Gardner (ninth) are also getting votes at their positions. Here’s the ballot. Voting ends Thursday and the All-Star rosters will be announced Sunday. Also, Judge said he still hasn’t decided whether to participate in the Home Run Derby. (It’s an easy yes, dude.)

The Aaron Hicks injury creates a spot for one of the Triple-A outfield prospects

Frazier. (Scranton Times-Tribune)
Frazier. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

The losses are starting to pile up. Not just in the standings either. The Yankees have lost ten of their last 12 games, and they’ve also lost several players to injuries during that time as well. Yesterday Aaron Hicks went down with a right oblique issue. He’s expected to go on the disabled list and miss 3-4 weeks. Yuck. Hicks as been great this year overall. Losing him is no good.

If there’s a silver lining to the Hicks injury, it’s the timing. Jacoby Ellsbury played two minor league rehab games over the weekend and there’s a chance the Yankees will activate him today to replace Hicks. The Yankees would love to have both guys healthy, but that’s not an option. Having one is better than having none, and it sure seems like Ellsbury will be back very soon.

Replacing Hicks with Ellsbury would be the easiest move. Hicks goes on the disabled list and Ellsbury takes his place on the roster, in center field, and in the second spot in the lineup. Three birds, one stone. It’s so straightforward that that’s what I think will happen. That said, even with Ellsbury back, the Hicks injury creates an opportunity for the Yankees to turn to Dustin Fowler or Clint Frazier, their top Triple-A outfield prospects. Let me explain.

1. Ellsbury and Gardner could use rest going forward. Ellsbury is going to be coming back from a concussion and, for his own good, easing him back into things would be a smart move. You don’t want to push him too hard coming off a brain injury. Brett Gardner, the team’s other veteran outfielder, could also use a more rest going forward. He’s played a ton these last few weeks with Ellsbury out. Gardner has started 27 of 28 games since Ellsbury went on the disabled list, and he came off the bench the one game he didn’t start. Yeah.

Think about this way: what was the plan when Ellsbury came back before Hicks got hurt? The Yankees were going to go back to rotating Hicks around the outfield. There’s basically no chance the Yankees and Joe Girardi would outright bench one of their outfielders and relegate someone to true fourth outfielder duty. And, really, none of them deserve to sit full-time. The Yankees are at their best when all four outfielders are getting rest and staying involved.

Calling up one of the Triple-A outfielders, either Fowler or Frazier, would allow the Yankees to do the same thing. Rotate the young outfielder around like they would have Hicks. You don’t want to call up one of those guys and have him sit on the bench day after day. You want him to play. This would be a way to get their feet in the big leagues without overwhelming them, without counting on them to have an impact, and without cutting someone else’s playing time drastically.

Fowler. (Times Leader)
Fowler. (Times Leader)

2. The Yankees really need to upgrade the bench. The Yankees effectively went into yesterday’s game with a one-man bench. Matt Holliday wasn’t feeling well and Starlin Castro was unavailable after receiving a cortisone shot in his wrist. Their only bench player was Austin Romine, and he went into the game when Hicks got hurt. That meant the Yankees had no one to pinch-hit for Tyler Austin or Romine in the late-innings of a one-run game. Yuck.

On days everyone is feeling well, the regular three-man bench is Romine, Ronald Torreyes, and Mason Williams. That’s … not great. I love Torreyes as much as the next day, but realistically, you’re not going to use him as a pinch-hitter late in the game. He can pinch-run and be a defensive replacement. That’s about it. The same is true with Williams. Romine? He’s the backup catcher and those guys rarely get used strategically in the late innings.

The Yankees are handcuffing themselves with an eight-man bullpen. I get that they’re worried about running out of arms, especially with Masahiro Tanaka struggling all year and Michael Pineda struggling recently, and Luis Cessa in the rotation. Eight relievers still feels like overkill when you have a multi-inning guy like Chad Green and true long man like Domingo German in the bullpen. And you know what? If you do blow out your bullpen due to a short start or extra innings, you make a roster move or two after the game. They do that anyway, even with eight relievers.

Dropping the eighth reliever for a fourth bench player would give Girardi more bench options so he could pinch-hit for Austin, or pinch-run for Holliday, or replace Castro for defense. Whatever. The Yankees can’t do that now. The three bench players are there purely to back up each position. They’re not weapons that can be used strategically, for matchups or whatever. Adding Fowler or Frazier creates more options. Remember, even on days they play, one of the veterans will be on the bench resting.

3. The Yankees could use a spark. Like I said, the Yankees have lost ten of their last 12 games. That’s not good! And prior to yesterday’s late comeback attempt, the offense has looked pretty flat for a good week or so. Remember late last year, when the Yankees called up Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, and it seemed to energize the entire team? They gave the entire roster a nice shot in the arm and the Yankees played well in August and September. Calling up Fowler or Frazier could provide a similar spark. And if it doesn’t, well, no big deal. The Yankees are right where they started.

* * *

Okay, so now comes the obvious question: who should the Yankees call up, Fowler or Frazier? Fowler (.294/.331/.542, 137 wRC+) is outhitting Frazier (.251/.343/.482, 124 wRC+), though not by so much that it’s an obvious choice. Both Erik Boland and Josh Norris have heard from scouts that Fowler is the more MLB ready player, and I don’t disagree. The issue there is that you’re adding another speedy left-handed hitter to the roster when you already have two in Gardner and Ellsbury. Kinda redundant. Frazier would give the Yankees more balance as a righty bat. But, if he’s not ready, he’s not ready.

The 40-man roster is not a deciding factor here either. Neither Fowler nor Frazier is on the 40-man — the Yankees still have an open spot after designating Chris Carter for assignment — but they both have to be added after the season to avoid Rule 5 Draft exposure, and of course that’s going to happen. Calling them up now would only be getting a head start on things. I’d be more worried about burning a minor league option when Hicks returns than tying up a 40-man spot for a few weeks.

Assuming Ellsbury comes back to replace Hicks — that’s going to happen at some point no matter what — these are the other moves I’d like to see made:

  1. Send down the eighth reliever. Tyler Clippard isn’t going anywhere, so that means Tyler Webb.
  2. Send down Williams. Sorry dude, but there are better outfielders waiting.
  3. Call up Fowler. I like Frazier! But if the pros say Fowler is more MLB ready, I believe ’em.
  4. Call up Rob Refsnyder. He’s not great, but he’s more useful than an eighth reliever.

Because Refsnyder was just sent down Thursday, the Yankees would have to bring him back as the injury replacement for Hicks. That’s the only way around the ten-day rule. Ellsbury and Fowler would then technically replace Williams and Webb. Fowler gets regular at-bats by rotating in with the other outfielders a la Hicks, and you’re back to a four-man bench with a serviceable righty platoon bat in Refsnyder.

Keep in mind several players who are on the active roster aren’t 100% right now. Castro had the cortisone shot over the weekend. Chase Headley received an epidural last week. Sanchez had the abductor problem last week and doesn’t seem be running full speed yet. Ellsbury is coming back from the concussion. The Yankees have hamstrung themselves for a while now with a short bench. Continuing to do it with all those guys banged up is asking for trouble.

The Yankees are, amazingly, still in first place despite this recent 2-10 stretch. They won’t be in first place much longer unless things improve. Losing Hicks takes a bite out of the offense, and while getting Ellsbury back will help, there’s more the Yankees can. Fowler or Frazier would add another potentially potent bat (plus speed!) and getting back to a four-man bench gives Girardi more options. Contending is hard enough. Contending while essentially playing shorthanded on the position player side makes it even more difficult, and the Yankees shouldn’t do that voluntarily.

Game 72: Mess with Texas

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

Hey, the Yankees have won two of three! And they could have won the third game too! Things are looking up. They’re still in first place, Masahiro Tanaka pitched well last night, Tyler Austin has arrived … it could be worse. Hopefully Austin rakes right away. Would be nice to add a little more length to the lineup.

Anyway, this afternoon the Yankees have a chance to do something they haven’t done in two weeks: win a series! The last series win was that depantsing of the Orioles. Winning series is the name of the game. Keep winning series and things will work out. Get the series win today, go for the sweep tomorrow. Here is the Rangers’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Mason Williams
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 1B Tyler Austin
  8. 3B Ronald Torreyes
  9. C Austin Romine
    RHP Luis Cessa

The rain came and went this morning, and now there’s a bright blue sky above New York. Nice afternoon for a ballgame. Today’s game will start at 1:05pm ET and both YES and MLB Network will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Jacoby Ellsbury (concussion) will begin a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton tonight … Adam Warren (shoulder) played catch for the first time since being placed on the disabled list and everything went fine.

Roster Update: Chance Adams was in the clubhouse this afternoon … to pick up a passport. He’s not being added to the roster. There are no Canadian teams in the Triple-A International League and the Yankees don’t visit the Blue Jays again until mid-August. Minor leaguers need their passports at all times though. You never know when you’ll get traded and have to show up in Toronto. I’m kinda surprised Adams didn’t have one already.