Sunday Links: Walker, Best Tools, Bullpen, Food Safety

Random photo is random. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Random photo is random. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Yankees and Red Sox will wrap up their three-game weekend series with the ESPN Sunday Night Game later today. The game should end sometime Monday morning. Anyway, here are some bits of news and notes to check out.

Yankees, Mets had Walker deal

More Yankees-Mets trade deadline drama. According to Mike Puma, the Yankees and Mets agreed to a Neil Walker trade prior to the trade deadline, but the Yankees backed out due to medical concerns. Puma says the Mets believe the Yankees used the medical concerns as an excuse to back out after finishing the Sonny Gray trade. Hmmm. Walker returned from a partially torn hamstring a few days before the trade deadline and had back surgery late last year.

Walker, 31, was traded to the Brewers last night and is hitting .264/.339/.442 (107 wRC+) with ten home runs in 299 plate appearances this season. Although he’s primarily a second baseman, the Mets also used Walker at first and third bases. He’s an impending free agent and the Yankees would have presumably used Walker at second base until Starlin Castro returned, then shifted him into a utility role. Eh, whatever. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little sick of this Yankees-Mets drama.

Baseball America’s best tools survey

One of my favorite features of the year is Baseball America’s annual best tools survey. They poll managers and coaches and scouts about the best tools and players in their leagues, from MLB all the way down to Low-A. Here’s where the various Yankees ranked:

Bell, the longtime big leaguer, is in his first season managing High-A Tampa after spending 2013 as the Pirates hitting coach and 2014-15 as the Reds bench coach. I’m curious to see what the Yankees do with him going forward. If Bell is a highly regarded managerial prospect as the survey suggests, either the Yankees are going to have to move him up the ladder, or they’ll lose him to an organization that will move him up.

Also, must be a down year for relievers in the Sally League, huh? Lane, who has since been promoted to High-A Tampa, is a 23-year-old former tenth round pick, and a sinker/slider lefty with middling velocity and a low arm slot. A classic left-on-left matchup profile. He’s got really good numbers this year, throwing 57 innings with a 1.26 ERA (2.26 FIP) and strong strikeout (27.1%) and walk (6.7%) rates. Not sure he’s much of a prospect though.

Yankees top ZiPS bullpen projections

Not surprisingly, the Yankees sit atop the ZiPS bullpen projections for the rest of the season, so says Dan Szymborski. Projections don’t really mean anything, of course. They’re not predictions. They’re more like an estimate of talent level. Anyway, here’s what ZiPS has to say about New York’s new-look bullpen:

Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman was already one of the best, if not THE best, one-two relief punch in baseball. Now you add in David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, the latter possibly the most underappreciated player acquired this deadline. Even Adam Warren has been lights-out, with a 1.97 ERA/2.69 FIP. Not to mention the team’s remaining big acquisition: Adding the complete absence of Tyler Clippard.

The bullpen before the Robertson/Kahnle trade: 3.39 ERA (3.33 FIP). The bullpen since the Robertson/Kahnle trade: 2.09 ERA (2.64 FIP). That 3.39 ERA (3.33 FIP) before the trade is a little deceiving too, because Jonathan Holder and especially Clippard had become wholly unreliable. They started the season well before crashing hard. The Yankees needed to fix their bullpen at the trade deadline, and they did exactly that. Too bad the starters are all getting hurt and the offense has since gone in the tank.

Yankees lagging in food safety rankings

Earlier this week Tanner Walters, using public inspection records, compiled ballpark food safety rankings. How clean are the facilities, is everything stored properly, so on and so forth. Yankee Stadium ranks 21st among the 28 parks in the rankings (data wasn’t available for Progressive Field or Comerica Park), and ranking 21st among 28 teams seems not good? From Walters:

Yankee Stadium led the league with critical violations (62% of its stands), and an infestation of flies highlighted the inspections from late July in the Bronx. Inspectors handed out citations at over a dozen food entities around the ballpark for observation of flies and improper vermin-proofing. The city doesn’t give detailed observations in its reports, but nearly a quarter of the stadium’s violations came from improper maintenance for non-food surfaces. Last year, even without a fly problem, Yankee Stadium would have finished in the same spot in our rankings. The ballpark had fewer overall violations but more that were critical, mostly from the restaurants and suites.

Kinda gross! Even with recent improvements, the concessions at Yankee Stadium lag big time in quality and selection behind the rest of the league — the concessions at Citi Field are so much better it’s not even funny, and it’s not just Shake Shack — and apparently they’re lacking in cleanliness and proper food safety too. Yuck.

Contract talks between the Yankees and Joe Girardi could get pretty interesting this offseason

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

Following this season the Yankees will shed a pair of massive contracts in Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia. Those two are making a combined $46M this season — yes, the Yankees are still paying A-Rod — plus it’s possible Masahiro Tanaka will opt out of the three years and $67M left on his deal. That’ll all go a long way to helping the Yankees get under the $197M luxury tax threshold next season.

Two other key members of the organization will become free agents after the season: Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi. Cashman’s quick fix youth movement has been a smashing success so far (despite the last 31 games), so I can’t imagine the Yankees won’t bring him back. They might have to fend off some suitors — the Marlins under new ownership? — and give him a raise into the Andrew Friedman ($7M annually) and Theo Epstein ($10M annually) pay grade, but I think the chances of a Yankees-Cashman reunion are pretty high.

As for Girardi, he is a favorite of Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner, and other are two pretty good people to have in your corner. Girardi is wrapping up a four-year contract worth $4M annually, which, at the time it was signed, made him the second highest paid manager behind Mike Scioscia. The Yankees and Girardi — and the Yankees and Cashman, for that matter — have not yet discussed a new contract, which isn’t unusual. They always wait until the offseason for this stuff.

“To be honest, I only worry about this year,” said Girardi to Dan Martin when asked about his contract last month. “I’m not really worried about seven years down the road, ten years down the road. There’s a lot of things that could happen in my life that could make me want to do it or make me not want to do it — or prevent me from doing it.”

This is, incredibly, Girardi’s tenth season with the Yankees. Only Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, and Joe Torre have had longer continuous managerial stints in franchise history. I don’t think Girardi has had a particularly good year strategically — a bad bullpen makes every manager look bad, though Girardi has had a few too many “this doesn’t give the Yankees the best chance to win” moments — and as far as I can tell, he’s great in the clubhouse. That to me is every bit as important than the X’s and O’s on the field.

And yet, I feel like the odds of an offseason divorce — they’re not firing him midseason no matter how bad things get, no way, no how — between the Yankees and Girardi are greater than they have been at any other point during his tenure. Two reasons for that:

1. The Yankees might miss the postseason again. There are still 70 games to play this season and the Yankees are right in the thick of the both the division and wildcard races, but missing the postseason again is a very real possibility. The Yankees are 10-21 in their last 31 games. That’s rough. If the freefall continues, it’ll be one postseason games in five years for the Yankees. How many managers survive that? Even with rebuilding teams?

2. Other teams could come after Girardi. If the Mets (finally) part ways with Terry Collins, I imagine Girardi would among their top choices at manager. The Marlins could come calling under new ownership. Dusty Baker’s contract with the Nationals will be up after the season. The Tigers and Pirates could both be in the market for a new skipper too. What happens if Bruce Bochy decides to retire because of his ongoing heart issues? Girardi figures to have some options this winter. It won’t be Yankees or bust.

My gut feeling is ownership is happy with their management team and the overall direction of the franchise, even after this rough month, and even if the Yankees miss the postseason again. There’s a ton of high-end young players in the organization and the payroll is starting to clear up. As frustrating as these last few weeks have been, the future is awfully exciting. The Yankees have an exciting young core and will soon have a lot of money to spend.

Because of that, I expect both Cashman and Girardi to be back next year. Both will probably leverage opportunities elsewhere into healthy raises because that’s what anyone in their shoes should do, but I think they’ll be back. Cashman is ultra-loyal to the Yankees and I don’t think he wants to leave. I don’t think Girardi wants to leave either, and it helps that those above him are on his side.

Saturday Links: Happ, Zimmer, Sanchez, Mock Drafts, Girardi

The Yankees and Rays will play the second game of their three-game series later this afternoon. Here are some links to check out until then.

Yankees passed on Happ, Jimenez, Zimmer

This is pretty fun and interesting. According to Joel Sherman, during trade talks last year, the Yankees and Cubs agreed that New York would receive either Gleyber Torres, Ian Happ, or Eloy Jimenez in the Aroldis Chapman trade. Also, during talks with the Indians about Andrew Miller, it was down to Clint Frazier or Bradley Zimmer. Both Happ and Zimmer were called up within the last week, and both have hit their first MLB home runs already.

Sherman says the Yankees passed on Jimenez because he was furthest away among the three Cubs prospects, and they passed on Happ because he’s not expected to be much of a defender. Torres had the best all-around ability. The Yankees went Frazier over Zimmer because he’s two years younger and has fewer exploitable holes in his swing. (Zimmer had a 30.7% strikeout rate between Double-A and Triple-A last year. Yikes!)

I really do like Happ, though I am totally cool with passing on him for Gleyber. The Yankees picked correctly in both cases, in my opinion. Torres is a budding superstar. Frazier has a much better chance to be an impact bat long-term too. Something tells me we’ll all have one eye on Happ and Jimenez and Zimmer over the next few years. Either way, the trade deadline last year truly was a franchise altering event. The Yankees are in much better shape long-term right now than they were 12 months ago.

Sanchez among top 25 under 25

A few days ago Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked the 25 best players in baseball under the age of 25. Not surprisingly, Bryce Harper claims the top spot. Manny Machado and Carlos Correa are second and third. Yeah. The Yankees have one player on the list: Gary Sanchez, who ranks 14th. He’s one spot behind Alex Bregman and one spot ahead of Dansby Swanson. Here’s the write-up:

Sanchez had a rookie season — well, half-season — for the ages last year, with 20 homers in 53 games, good enough to get him second in Rookie of the Year balloting and push the Yankees to trade Brian McCann and give Sanchez the starting job behind the plate. Sanchez has improved enough as a receiver to stay back there, though he is probably always going to be a bat-first, throw-second, glove-third kind of guy. I’m sure the Yankees will be fine with that.

Aaron Judge, who turned 25 last month, was not eligible for the list. I’m sure he would have made it had the list been players age 25 and under. The list is very position player heavy — Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Julio Urias, and Michael Fulmer are the only pitchers — and I’m guessing Luis Severino wasn’t particularly close to making it. That doesn’t surprise me. Sanchez is the only catcher in the top 25, and that is pretty darn cool.

Baseball America’s mock draft v3.0

Baseball America released their third mock draft of the year earlier this week, and now they have the Twins selecting Vanderbilt RHP Kyle Wright with the top pick. California HS RHP/SS Hunter Greene, the top prospect in the draft class, is projected to fall to the Padres with the third pick. The mock draft has the Yankees taking Alabama HS OF Bubba Thompson with their 16th pick. Here’s the write-up:

New York has been linked to preps this spring such as Huntington Beach first baseman Nick Pratto and Alabama prep outfielder Bubba Thompson, who’s likely to go in the 16-23 range. Pratto’s relatively modest spring offensively has pushed him down lists a bit.

The draft is a little more than four weeks now, so things are still pretty wide open. So far the Yankees have been connected to mostly high school players, though that doesn’t mean much. Last year they were mostly connected to high school arms and college bats before the draft, then bam, they went with a high school bat. Hopefully things get narrowed down a bit over the next month.

MLB.com’s mock draft v1.0

In other mock draft news, Jim Callis dropped his first full mock draft of the year last week. He has the Twins taking Louisville LHP/1B Brendan McKay first overall. It seems Minnesota has been connected to all the top prospects except Greene. Weird. Anyway, Callis has the Yankees taking California HS 1B Nick Pratto withe their first rounder.

One of the most rumored mid-round marriages is New York and Pratto, though this is more a floor than a ceiling for the best high school bat available. Burger and Canning are other potential targets.

Here’s my write-up on Pratto. Also, here’s my write-up on UCLA RHP Griffin Canning, who Callis connected to the Yankees as well. Burger is Missouri State 3B Jake Burger, who is one of the top power hitters in the draft. He’s probably going to end up at first base though, and it’s unclear if his less than picturesque swing will allow him to handle pro pitching. Meh. Doesn’t seem like the kind of player the Yankees usually target in the first round.

Girardi on new competition committee

Earlier this week MLB announced the relaunch of the competition committee, a 16-man committee that is “charged with studying all aspects of the game and advising the Commissioner and Club Owners on on-field matters.” They’re going to look for ways to make baseball better, basically. I guess automatic intentional walks and talking about pace of play constantly isn’t working as well as hoped.

Anyway, Joe Girardi is one of four current big league managers on the committee, along with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, and Orioles skipper Buck Showalter. Here is the press release with all the committee members. I do like that commissioner Rob Manfred is open to new ideas and seems genuinely interested in improving the game. I have no idea whether the new competition committee will result in any tangible improvements, but hey, at least they’re trying.

Defending putting Bryan Mitchell at first base

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Yankees nearly won in the ninth inning on Sunday thanks to a crazy ninth inning comeback capped off by a two-run single by Didi Gregorius, but Chris Carter struck out with the winning run on third.

And then things went from exciting to downright bizarre. Bryan Mitchell, who pitched the ninth inning, moved to first base and Aroldis Chapman came into pitch the 10th. Chapman replaced the DH, Matt Holliday, in the lineup, batting third, while Mitchell was inserted into the lineup in the place of Carter, batting eighth. If you’re interested in the mechanics of how the lineup move worked, here’s the relevant rule.

The move didn’t quite work out. Mitchell missed a pop up in foul territory, but the error didn’t lead to a run in the 10th. Neither did the lineup decision hurt the Yankees in the bottom of the inning with Greg Bird getting hit by a pitch in Holliday’s vacated No. 3 spot.

But after a long time in between pitching the top of the 9th and the top of the 11th, Mitchell came back in and gave up three runs en route to taking the loss. It was the first time since 1989 that a pitcher threw an inning, moved to first base and then moved back to the mound in the same game. Wacky? Yes. But the wrong move? No. Here’s why:

1. A rusty Mitchell is likely better than Tommy Layne: With Jordan Montgomery lasting 5+ innings, the Yankees had already used Jonathan Holder, Tyler Clippard and Dellin Betances before Mitchell came in for the ninth. Adam Warren threw 36 pitches over 2 2/3 on Saturday, so he was likely unavailable. That left Mitchell and Tommy Layne for the 11th.

Mitchell hasn’t been masterful this season, but he’s shown signs of becoming a competent middle reliever, particularly one who can get quality outs and go multiple innings. The best example was his two innings vs. the Pirates a week ago, when he work through two walks to throw two shutout innings. This is a 26-year-old pitcher with a mid-90s fastball, a plus curveball and a potential splitter. Even with his occasional control issues, there’s promise with Mitchell.

And yes, Mitchell was clobbered by the Orioles on Friday. But perhaps the best argument for Mitchell as a reliever was how he bounced back in the ninth yesterday. He even struck out Manny Machado after he tormented the Yankees all weekend.

If you want to go to Layne in the 11th, that means going with your LOOGY against a lineup constructed of only right-handed hitters. J.J. Hardy and Joey Rickard are 0 for 6 vs. Layne but Machado and Adam Jones are both 1 for 2 and both were locked in at the plate on Sunday. Layne holds lefties to a .515 OPS in his career while righties bat .282/.386/.449 off the southpaw.

So sending Layne out there, particularly with 9-1-2 coming up in the 11th, would likely end in defeat. Mitchell gives you more of a fighting chance and has the ability to last deep into games.

2. The move pushes need for position player/starter to 14th at the earliest: This was another option for the Yankees. Don’t want to keep using Mitchell or throw Layne in vs. the O’s? Fine, then you can put in a tired Warren, use a position player (Aaron Hicks?!?) or one of the starting pitchers, presumably Luis Severino, who is scheduled to start on Monday.

That seems silly and shortsighted. Let’s disregard a tired Warren. A position player is waiving the white flag. Why do that so early in extras? Going to Severino is risky in two regards. First, you risk losing tomorrow’s game because of your actions today. Luis Cessa would be on turn to pitch Monday and could be called up, but that’s less desirable than Severino on normal rest while on a roll. The second risk is injury to Severino. He didn’t go into Sunday expecting to pitch. Throwing your next day’s starter in doesn’t guarantee a win and can lead to some poor results.

Mitchell can take you through at least the 12th if not the 13th or, stretching him a bit thin, the 14th. Layne is good for two innings if he doesn’t lose it for you after one. Utilizing both to the max is the best plan, even if it goes awry. A few more scoreless innings should have opened the door for the Yankees to win.

Your other option is to save Chapman for whenever Mitchell is done, but you have to go to your best options right away in extras. Saving Chapman while Mitchell struggles through the lineup would have been a flat-out wrong call by Girardi. And losing the DH to keep Mitchell in the game for later didn’t change the result on Sunday.

Screenshot
(Screenshot)

3. Move hurt lineup but not immediately and not in a way that affected the game: Inserting Mitchell in the lineup for a hitter, even one who is struggling like Carter, isn’t ideal. Putting Mitchell at first while bringing Chapman pokes two holes in your lineup at once and you can only plug up one (Bird pinch hitting).

However, putting Mitchell and Chapman into the lineup didn’t affect the game and wouldn’t have for a few innings. Bird easily pinch hit for Chapman and was hit by a pitch. Holliday would have been intentionally walked with runners on second and third and one out. Mitchell wasn’t going to bat until the 11th and you could pinch hit for him if you fell behind or allowed him to hit or bunt if you’re tied. You still have Ronald Torreyes, who’s provided better ABs than Carter this year.

4. Mitchell didn’t lose the game so much as the RISP-fail did: It really shouldn’t have come down to Mitchell pitching the 11th and beyond. Carter had his shot in the ninth. Castro and Judge blew their opportunity with the bases loaded in the 10th. The team went 3-for-13 with RISP and blew a lead with a rookie reliever in the sixth. That’s worth questioning. Meanwhile, there weren’t really better options than Mitchell in the 11th and it’s dubious as to whether Layne could have done any better. Simply put, the offense needed to come through more often on Sunday.

Watching Bryan Mitchell play first base was downright fun. Sure, he gave the team a heart attack and missed a pop-up before making up for it two batters later, but watching a guy grin ear-to-ear in the middle of an extra inning game is infectious. I enjoyed the heck out of Mitchell’s inning in the field.

And the decision was quite close to working out. The Cubs won after a similar decision last year. A bad J.J. Hardy throw on Starlin Castro‘s grounder or a hit from Castro/Aaron Judge would have given the Yankees a win and made this a memorable moment in a great winning streak. Quibbling with the choice to keep Mitchell in simply isn’t worth it because it likely didn’t change Sunday’s result.

Why Chris Carter should be the Yankees starting shortstop

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

The headline drew you in, didn’t it?

The Yankees were almost faced with a situation where someone, either Chris Carter, Austin Romine or Aaron Hicks, was going to have to play second base if they tied it up on Sunday. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it.

But it could actually be quite logical to start Chris Carter, a guy who is basically confined to first base, at shortstop… and bat him lead off.

No, I’m not crazy. This is an old Earl Weaver trick that can only be used on the road and only with a sufficient roster. Here’s how it works:

1. Carter isn’t actually going to play the field: Basically, you would have Carter lead off the top of the first inning in the lineup card as the shortstop. He’d take his turn at the plate. If you’re having a really good day, he might even get two plate appearances. And then you put Ronald Torreyes or Pete Kozma in as the shortstop for the bottom of the first. The lineup will then be the same as it is normally, just with the nine hitter as the leadoff guy and everyone moved down a spot.

With this scenario, you guarantee that you’ll get a better hitter an at-bat. You probably don’t want to do it with Didi Gregorius because he can actually hit. However, with him out, why not give an AB to Carter (or Aaron Hicks, who works just fine here too) over Torreyes? You can still pinch hit for them later with whoever is left on your bench in case you have a situation like Sunday’s ninth inning.

2. This can cause some clubhouse turmoil: When Weaver would do this back in the mid-1970s, it led to Royle Stillman, a left-handed hitting outfielder, as the team’s shortstop (as well as others). Personally, I love the concept of a lefty shortstop, even if it’s in name only. And Stillman was 3 for 6 in the role. However, Weaver also acknowledged in his book, “Weaver on Strategy,” that his sure-handed shortstop Mark Belanger was annoyed by the move. Sure, it makes perfect baseball sense, but it also is forcing a hitter like Belanger to see that he is an inferior hitter in his manager’s mind. That can really toy with a guy’s mind and may not be worth it from that standpoint.

3. The Yankees would have to re-tool their bench: This move eliminates your best pinch hitter (or one of them) and you lose one of your 13 position players off the bat. Therefore, it really only works if you have more position players on the roster. Weaver only pulled this trick in September with expanded rosters.

But the Yankees actually have an opportunity for that now. They have eight relievers for the time being, until a fifth starter is needed on April 16. That means they can easily afford to send someone down and call up another hitter. This would give the team more flexibility in general, but also enough room to use this ‘Carter at SS’ move.

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be Carter. On the 40-man, you could call up someone like Mason Williams, Rob Refsnyder or Kyle Higashioka and let them be the team’s shortstop in name only. That way, you save Carter for a late-game situation that may never come but could be a more valuable use of his power bat. Carter has never led off a game, as you may have guessed, so you don’t know if he’s even comfortable doing so.

(Getty Images)
A leadoff dinger would be fun. (Getty Images)

4. Lineup considerations: The other thing to consider is that with Matt Holliday at DH, Carter is your only backup first baseman unless you’re willing to have your pitcher hit or use your backup catcher (Romine). Therefore, you’d have to call up a backup first baseman (Refsnyder) or a backup catcher (Higashioka). You could also better do this move with Holliday getting a day off while you play all four of your outfielders with one as your DH. This way, Holliday is your emergency 1B or corner outfielder. Maybe you have Williams up as insurance for the outfield. Either way, this would probably be the optimal idea to pull this off.

I write this post acknowledging that the concept I’m suggesting will probably not be put into place. Beyond the simple thinning of your roster, it would cause a stir in the media. Girardi would be skewered if Carter made an out or Torreyes was forced to bat in a big situation late in the game. That’s the risk of this concept and you have to be someone that doesn’t care about how it will be received in order to actually put it in motion. I don’t blame Girardi if he doesn’t even consider this because really, what other current manager would even think about doing this? Maybe Joe Maddon or Buck Showalter? Buck, being in Baltimore, would be fitting to try it out.

But I will keep on dreaming of a world where some road PA announcer has to belt out, “Leading off, the shortstop, Chris Carter.”

Joe Girardi and the coaching staff [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

New year, same coaching staff. For the first time in a little while, the Yankees didn’t tinker with the staff surrounding Joe Girardi and will go into their second straight season with the same coaches.

That means Larry Rothschild is still the pitching coach, Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames handle the hitters, Mike Harkey is the bullpen coach, Tony Pena and Joe Espada man the bases and Rob Thomson returns as the bench coach.

This doesn’t mean the job will be easy for these guys just because they remain in their roles. Each of them may have their most challenging job yet with the Yankees promoting their youth throughout the roster.

Joe Girardi

Girardi is entering his 10th season as the Yankees manager. Only two managers — Mike Scioscia with the Angels and Bruce Bochy of the Giants — have been in their current jobs longer than Girardi, who was hired in October of 2007. Stability hasn’t always been a trademark for Yankees’ coaches, but this is the second straight manager to last at least a decade. Not bad.

This is a contract year for Girardi: his four-year deal ends after the season. As in past years, the team isn’t going to extend him early, which will lead to plenty of speculation that the Yankees will move on at manager. That seems unlikely: the Steinbrenners appear to be happy with Girardi’s performance thus far and that’s for good reason. Girardi has been solid as manager. Still, that storyline will play out this season, especially if the team gets out of the gates slow.

In his 10th season, Girardi has perhaps his toughest days ahead of him. In the past, he’s been surrounded by veteran players who know the “Yankee way” and can indoctrinate the few young players moving onto the roster. But now Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are all gone in one fell swoop. The Baby Bomber movement has taken over with plenty of rookies, or at least inexperienced, players taking key spots on the roster. Girardi’s main job is making sure that all gels in the clubhouse.

He has some veteran help with Matt Holliday‘s addition or the continued presence of guys like Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and co., but it’s still a challenge. For Girardi (and I guess Thomson), making sure inexperience doesn’t topple this team will be paramount to success. The one positive of having a younger roster is a lot less rest needed all around. Starlin Castro, for example, has played 151 games or more in five of the last six seasons. Fewer achy vets like A-Rod and Tex means more days with the team’s optimal lineup, whatever that may be.

Another change to the job will be instant replay. MLB has mandated that teams are quicker in requesting replays this season, so there will be less of the manager holding up play while the team’s replay people check it out. The Yankees’ guy, Brett Weber,  will have a tougher job this year (NY Times profiled him last year) and the team may need Girardi to go with his gut on challenges. The Yankees were the second-best team at getting calls overturned percentage-wise last year (Royals), but they also requested the fewest challenges (just 28). Maybe Girardi takes more chances with it and risks being quite as efficient in 2017.

Finally, Girardi’s job comes down to the bullpen. He once again has a strong back-end with Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. I expect Chapman will have the 9th, Betances usually just the 8th and Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren would then be dispensed for the middle innings along with maybe Ernesto Frieri? Don’t forget Tommy Layne as a LOOGY! Girardi loves to get the platoon advantage.

And that’s not a knock on Girardi. His bullpen management is his best trait and is likely why the Yankees consistently outperform their Pythagorean record. He both has strong relievers to utilize and then actually utilizes them well. I don’t expect anything different in 2017.

Hitting, hitting and more hitting

Cockrell and Thames return, but many of their disciples do not. The two have been handed some interesting projects this season. They won’t have to worry too much about the veterans like Matt Holliday. Instead, they’ll have to work with 6-foot-7 rookie Aaron Judge to keep his strikeouts down or with Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez to make sure their rookie performances aren’t just mirages.

It’s tough to ever pinpoint exactly where a hitting coach makes his mark — best example for the Yanks in recent memory is Kevin Long working to correct Curtis Granderson‘s swing in the summer of 2010 — but any breakouts this year could come from Cockrell and Thames’ tutelage. Let’s hope they can make plenty happen.

Handling the pitching

(Getty Images)
Rothschild and Tanaka (Getty Images)

This season will be Rothschild’s seventh with the Yankees. Wow, feels like it’s been fewer but then you remember him working with big Bart in 2011 and others in the early 2010s. For the most part, Rothschild doesn’t have a new pitcher to work with this season. There are three veterans returning to the rotation, most of the bullpen was there at some point last season and even the guys fighting for the last rotation spot have big league experience (except Jordan Montgomery).

Rothschild will be judged on his ability to coax some solid seasons out of those back-end starters. Whether it’s Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino or Chad Green and Montgomery, there’s a lot of work ahead for the Yankees’ pitching guru. Rothschild has been known to get pitchers to increase strikeout totals, but getting a guy like Severino or Mitchell to improve their command will be much tougher. It isn’t even necessarily on Rothschild if they fail. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes with young pitchers.

And the rest

What can you really say about the rest of the staff? If you have a hard time accessing the performances of the hitting and pitching coaches, it’s even tougher with the bench or bullpen coach. Harkey begins the second season of his second stint with the Yankees. Seems like he never left for the desert, eh?

Meanwhile, Thomson has been with the Yankees since Girardi came aboard and has been the bench coach in two stints sandwiched around his time as the third-base coach. The bench coach seems like both another person for the manager to bounce ideas off of and another voice to work with the 25 personalities populating the Yankees’ clubhouse. Either way, Thomson has been solid enough in his role to stick around for 10 years.

Tony Pena has been here even longer. This will be his 12th season as a Yankees coach, now the first base coach after fulfilling other roles under Girardi and Joe Torre. Pena seemed to do a solid job as the Dominican Republic’s manager during the WBC and one has to wonder if he’ll be in consideration for another managerial gig (previously with the Royals) in the near future. Pena has a new full-time guy in Sanchez to work with behind the plate, which surely has him excited.

And then there’s Espada. He’s been perfectly fine as the third base coach. Like anyone in that position, he gets a ton of notice when he makes a bad send but otherwise has been left alone. He served a similar role for Puerto Rico at the WBC. If anything has changed for him, it’s that there are fewer base-clogging veterans like McCann or Teixeira and maybe a little more speed in the Yankees’ everyday lineup. Not much, but some. May be to Espada’s advantage in sending runners.

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.