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

Birdman. (Presswire)
Birdman. (Presswire)

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

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

Greg Bird: C to 1B

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

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

John Ryan Murphy: IF to C

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

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

Peter O’Brien: C to OF

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

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

Rob Refsnyder: OF to 2B

Ref. (Presswire)
Ref. (Presswire)

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

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

Luis Torrens: IF to C

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

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

Chase Whitley: 3B to RP to SP

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

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

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

The New Old Backup Catcher [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last offseason the Yankees reached a breaking point with their catchers. Brian McCann was locked into the starting job, and they had three viable candidates for the backup spot: Francisco Cervelli, John Ryan Murphy, and Austin Romine. Cervelli was the incumbent, Murphy was as big league ready as he was going to get, and Romine was out of minor league options. Something had to give.

The Yankees acted early in the offseason, trading Cervelli to the Pirates for Justin Wilson one year ago today. And with that trade, they gave Murphy a rather large vote of confidence. Cervelli was quite productive as a backup, at least when healthy, and keeping him for depth would have been completely understandable. Instead, they opted to make a change, used Cervelli to bolster the bullpen, and handed the reins over to Murphy.

A Competition, But Not Really

Although Murphy was obviously the favorite, the Yankees held one of those rigged competitions in Spring Training to determine the backup catcher. Murphy and Romine were the headliners, and others like Gary Sanchez and Eddy Rodriguez were said to be in the mix too. Murphy appeared in 19 Grapefruit League games and hit .238/.304/.310. Romine appeared in 17 games and hit .171/.216/.200.

Ask the Yankees and they’ll tell you those combined 83 plate appearances were used to determine their backup catcher for Opening Day. But we all knew it was going to be Murphy. He jumped Romine on the depth chart, so much so that when Cervelli got hurt last year, it was Murphy who got the call, not Romine even though he spent almost the entire 2013 season as Chris Stewart’s backup. Murphy “won” the job, then Romine was put on waivers and was dropped from the 40-man roster.

A First Half to Forget

The life of a young backup catcher is not easy, especially when you’re stuck behind a veteran like McCann. You’re used to playing everyday and now all of a sudden you’re playing once or twice a week. The adjustment from starter to part-timer can be difficult. Being a bench player ain’t easy, you know.

Murphy got his first start of the new season in the third game, catching CC Sabathia and facing lefty Daniel Norris. He went 2-for-4 with two doubles in the loss. His next start came two days later, after McCann caught that 19-inning game against the Red Sox, and that was the start of Murphy’s first half swoon.

From that game through the end of May, Murphy went 8-for-39 (.205) in 19 games, though he did record three doubles and a triple. June was better — 9-for-29 (.310) with a double in 12 games — and after limited time in early-July, Murphy cruised into the All-Star break hitting .247/.286/.325 (63 wRC+) in 29 games and 85 plate appearances. Meh.

A Second Half to Remember

After the All-Star break, the Yankees seemed to make a concerted effort to pick their spots with Murphy. He essentially became a platoon bat, starting against most left-handers to give McCann a rest. Five of his first seven starts of the second half were against southpaws, and the Yankees were so committed to this that Murphy even started back-to-back games against lefties on July 31st and August 1st. McCann actually sat two straight games.

The reward? Murphy went 11-for-27 (.407) with two doubles and a home run in those seven starts. He struck out only four times. The home run was a big one too. It was a go-ahead three-run home run over the high wall in right-center field at Target Field. Naturally, it came off a lefty, Glen Perkins.

Murphy continued to start against most lefties in the second half and continued to hit. He went deep twice in the span of three starts in early-September, first taking Henry Owens deep, then getting Wei-Yin Chen. After going 9-for-33 (.273) with those two homers in September, Murphy finished the second half with a .308/.368/.487 (134 wRC+) batting line in 25 games and 87 plate appearances.

As the team the Yankees really struggled against lefties down the stretch. McCann actually had a decent year against southpaws (108 wRC+), so Joe Girardi looked for ways to get him and Murphy into the lineup at the same time. With Alex Rodriguez tying up the DH spot, the Yankees had Murphy work out at first base at the very end of the season. He’s a former infielder — a third baseman, mostly — so it made sense to try it.

Murphy never did get into a game at first base, but the fact the team was considering him at the position showed how much they wanted his bat in the lineup against left-handers. He was behind the plate when the Yankees clinched their first postseason berth in two years, then stole the show during the postgame celebration.

There was talk the Yankees may start Murphy over McCann against the left-handed Dallas Keuchel in the wildcard game, but that didn’t happen. The point stands though. The Yankees viewed Murphy as a weapon against lefties.

All told, the 24-year-old Murphy hit .277/.327/.406 (99 wRC+) with three home runs in 172 plate appearances across 67 games. That includes a .266/.314/.456 (108 wRC+) line in 86 plate appearances against lefties and a decent .289/.341/.355 (91 wRC+) line in 86 plate appearances against righties. Among the 54 catchers to bat at least 150 times in 2015, Murphy ranked 19th with that 99 wRC+. Pretty cool for a backup.

Defense Not First

When the Yankees drafted Murphy back in 2009, he was relatively new to catching, so his first few seasons of pro ball were spent learning the position. He made some tremendous strides from 2011-14, enough that the Yankees were comfortable with him at the MLB level. They do value catcher defense highly, after all.

The numbers say Murphy was an average-ish defensive catcher this season. He threw out eight of 29 attempted base-stealers, or 28%, which is basically league average. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus say he was an average pitch-framer. His rate of 13.8 innings per passed pitch was actually much worse than the league average (20.9), though he once did this:

John Ryan Murphy block

Average throw-out rate plus average framing plus below-average blocking equals a bit below average overall? I guess so. Defensive stats are sketchy, especially for catchers. I thought Murphy was good defender based on the eye test, though what do I know. He certainly wasn’t a liability. I think we can agree on that. As far as backup catchers go, it’s really hard to find fault with anything Murphy did in 2015.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Murphy is a trade chip this offseason. I know that because the Yankees traded him to the Twins for Aaron Hicks yesterday. I figured he would be back as the backup catcher but a trade was never out of the question, obviously. So long, Serial Killer John Ryan Murphy. It’s been real.

Yankees trade John Ryan Murphy to Twins for Aaron Hicks

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Let the roster makeover begin. The Yankees have traded catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks, both teams announced. It’s a straight one-for-one trade. Brian Cashman told reporters at the GM Meetings he first proposed the swap to Minnesota a few weeks ago.

In a nutshell, both teams traded from a position of depth to fill a need. The Twins had a ton of outfielders but no viable catcher, and Murphy figures to get an opportunity to start in Minnesota. That wasn’t happening in New York because of Brian McCann. Hicks replaces Chris Young as a lefty mashing fourth outfielder at the very least, but he has the potential to grow into much more.

Hicks, 26, is a former top prospect — peaked at No. 19 on Baseball America’s top 100 list in 2010 — who has struggled to find his way at the MLB level. He is a career .225/.306/.349 (82 wRC+) hitter in 928 big league plate appearances, but he did start to figure it out in 2015, hitting .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) overall and .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties. Interestingly, Hicks is a switch-hitter who two years ago stopped hitting left-handed due to a lack of confidence. He then went back to switch-hitting this year.

In the field, Hicks is a borderline elite defender — he’s almost certainly the best defensive outfielder in the organization now — capable of playing all three outfield spots. He also has a rocket arm. Hicks did this at Yankee Stadium two years ago:

Statcast says Hicks was one of five outfielders to make at least three 100 mph throws this past season, and he didn’t even play everyday. What a novel idea, an outfielder who can throw. Hicks is also a stolen base threat. The tools are high-end but the production has yet to match. It’s easy to understand why the Yankees grabbed him. Hicks has a lot of ability and major upside.

Murphy, 24, is a career .267/.311/.374 (88 wRC+) hitter in 284 MLB plate appearances over the last three years. He put up a .277/.327/.406 (99 wRC+) line as McCann’s backup this past season, including .266/.314/.456 (108 wRC+) against lefties. Murphy’s a good defender and a pretty likable dude, though it was difficult to see how he could be anything more than a backup for the Yankees with McCann signed through 2018.

Hicks is under team control through 2019 and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next offseason. Murphy is under control through 2020 and it looks like he’ll be right on the Super Two bubble, so he might be arbitration-eligible for the first of four times next year. The Yankees are getting four years of team control while the Twinkies are getting five.

The move could mean Gary Sanchez steps in as the backup catcher, but I don’t think that’s a given. It could mean Austin Romine sticks around a little longer, or the Yankees go outside the organization for a veteran backup. Sanchez mashed this season — he’s still mashing in the Arizona Fall League — but his defense is rough around the edges. Some more time in Triple-A wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Anyway, the Yankees continue to target young players with tools and upside. Over the last year they’ve brought in Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dustin Ackley, three young guys who seemed to fall out of favor with their former teams, and Hicks was in a similar situation with the Twins. I’m the world’s biggest Murphy fan and I’ll miss him, but I get it. The Yankees are adding upside while dealing from a position of depth.

Yankees well-stocked with trade chips heading into the offseason

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Over the last 12 months the Yankees have changed the way they do business. We’re used to seeing them throw money at their problems. They’ve been doing that for decades. Trades were the focus last offseason though, and whenever a need arose during the season, the Yankees called someone up from the minors. It was … different.

The Yankees have limited flexibility this winter. The roster is pretty full thanks to guaranteed contracts and whatnot, and with so little money coming off the books, there’s probably not much payroll space to work with either. Not unless Hal Steinbrenner approves a payroll increase, which he’s been hesitant to do over the years.

Trades again figure to be the focus this offseason. That allows the Yankees to both navigate their roster and payroll limitations while attempting to improve the team at the same time. They don’t all have to be blockbuster trades, of course. Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius was a low-key move that paid big dividends for the Yankees in 2015.

So, with trades again likely to dominate the winter months, let’s sort through the team’s trade chips and figure out who may be on a move.

The (Almost) Untouchables

As far as I’m concerned, the Yankees do not have any untouchable players. They have some players I wouldn’t trade unless the return is significant, but that doesn’t make them truly untouchable. Wouldn’t you trade, say, Luis Severino for Jose Fernandez? I know I would. The group of almost untouchables includes Severino, Gregorius, Dellin Betances, Aaron Judge, and Andrew Miller. That’s all of ’em in my book.

The Untradeables

The Yankees have several players who they couldn’t trade even if they wanted to due to performance or contract or something else, or in some cases all of the above. Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia headline this group. None of them are worth the money they’re owed and they all have full no-trade protection as well, so the Yankees would have to get their permission to move them.

There’s a second tier of big contract players who are not necessarily untradeable, but who would be difficult to move for various reasons. Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Chase Headley, and Masahiro Tanaka fit here. Teixeira and Beltran are entering the final year of their contracts, so they’d be short-term pickups, but they both have no-trade protection and have indicated a desire to stay in New York.

McCann, even while in decline, is still one of the better catchers in baseball. Maybe not top five anymore, but certainly top seven or eight. He’s got another three years and $51M left on his contract, and paying a catcher $17M per season is not something most teams can afford. Headley’s contract isn’t bad — three years and $39M is nothing — but he was below-average on both sides of the ball this season.

Tanaka is an interesting case. It seems like he’s neither as good nor as bad as many people think. Is he an ace? On his best days, yeah. But a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in 154 innings this year suggests he is more above-average than elite. Tanaka is also owed $22M in both 2016 and 2017 before his opt-out comes into play. He just had elbow surgery and teams are well aware his UCL is a grenade with the pin pulled. How in the world do you value him?

The Yankees could try to move any and all of these players. It’ll be tough though, either because their performance is down, their contracts are exorbitant, or they have no-trade protection. They’re untouchable, but in a different and bad way.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Top Chip

Among the established players on the roster, Brett Gardner has by far the most trade value. It also helps that he doesn’t have a no-trade clause. (Gardner gets a $1M bonus if traded.) Gardner is owed only $39.5M over the next three years and he remains above-average on both sides of the ball. Even with his second half slump, he still put up a .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) batting line with 16 homers and 20 steals in 2015.

The Yankees can market Gardner as a two-way leadoff hitting center fielder to teams looking for outfield help but unable to afford top free agents like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes. He’s affordable, he’s productive, and he’s a high-character guy who’s shown he can play and win in New York. Teams absolutely value that stuff. Getting a player of Gardner’s caliber on a three-year contract would be a major coup.

The real question is why would the Yankees trade Gardner? He’s arguably their best all-around player. They could move him to free up an outfield spot for, say, Heyward, but I think that’s unlikely. I also don’t think anyone in the minors is ready to step in and play left field regularly. Gardner is the only veteran on the team with actual trade value though. That’s why we’ll hear his name a lot this offseason.

The Top-ish Prospects

Beyond Judge, the Yankees have a few other high-end prospects they could trade for big league help, most notably Gary Sanchez, Jorge Mateo, and Rob Refsnyder. Greg Bird is technically no longer a prospect — he lost his rookie eligibility late in the season — but we can lump him in here too because he’s not exactly an established big leaguer yet. The elimination of the Pete Incaviglia Rule means the Yankees could trade James Kaprielian and any other 2015 draftees this winter, if they choose.

Sanchez and Mateo are the team’s best young trade chips among players who could actually be made available. (I don’t think the Yankees would trade Bird but I would in the right deal.) Sanchez is stuck behind McCann and John Ryan Murphy, and his defense probably isn’t up to the team’s standards. Mateo is an excellent prospect, but Gregorius is entrenched at the MLB level, and the Yankees are loaded with lower level shortstop prospects. They already offered Mateo in a trade once, remember. (For Craig Kimbrel at the deadline.)

The Yankees refused the trade Refsnyder this summer — the Athletics wanted him for Ben Zobrist — but they also refused to call him up for much of the year. It wasn’t until very late in the season that he got an opportunity. Refsnyder’s defense is improving but it is still an issue, and the truth is it may never be good enough for the Yankees. That doesn’t mean they’ll give him away though.

Second tier prospects like Eric Jagielo, Tyler Wade, Rookie Davis, and Jordan Montgomery could all be trade bait, though that’s true every offseason. The second tier prospects usually don’t bring back a whole lot unless there’s a salary dump involved. Either way, we can’t rule them out as trade chips.

The Outfielders & Relievers

The Yankees are very deep in Triple-A left-handed hitting outfielders and relievers. Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel, and Jake Cave make up the crop of lefty hitting outfielders. Relievers? Gosh. There’s Chasen Shreve, Branden Pinder, Caleb Cotham, Nick Rumbelow, Nick Goody, James Pazos, healthy Jacob Lindgren, and I guess even Bryan Mitchell. He’s part of this group too, although he can start.

These are obvious positions of depth and the Yankees can and should use them in trades this offseason, if possible. The problem is they don’t have a ton of trade value. The Yankees already traded a lefty hitting outfielder (Ramon Flores) and a Triple-A reliever (Jose Ramirez) this year. The return was busted Dustin Ackley. So yeah. Heathcott and Williams have been both hurt and ineffective in recent years while Gamel lacks a track record of top end production. They have trade value, no doubt, but don’t expect them to headline any blockbusters.

The Spare Arms

The Yankees have a lot of pitchers but not a whole lot of pitching, if you catch my drift. The rotation ranked 19th with a 4.25 ERA and 15th with a 4.04 FIP this past season. Right smack in the middle of the pack. The Yankees have seven potential starters in place next year: Sabathia, Tanaka, Severino, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, and Adam Warren. That group is a mixed bad of upside and mediocrity, I’d say.

Of the final four pitchers on that list, I’d say Nova has the least trade value because he was both hurt and terrible last year. Also, next season is his final year of team control before free agency. Eovaldi and Pineda are the embodiment of that “upside and mediocrity” group. They’re so obviously talented. But the results? Eh. Not great this year. Both are under team control for another two seasons, which is a plus.

Warren has proven himself as a very valuable member of the pitching staff. He’s basically a high-end version of Ramiro Mendoza. He can start or relieve and is very good in both roles, and he’s durable with a resilient arm. No injury problems at all since being drafted. Warren is under control another three years and the Yankees rejected the trade that would have sent him to the A’s with Refsnyder for Zobrist.

Personally, I don’t think the Yankees are in position to deal away pitching depth given some of the injury concerns in the rotation, but I thought that last year and they traded Greene anyway. As it turned out, they were planning to trade for another pitcher (Eovaldi) and bring in a low cost veteran for depth (Chris Capuano). They also had Warren waiting. The same could happen this year.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Best of the Rest

There’s three players on the roster we haven’t covered. The best of the bunch is Murphy, a young and cheap catcher with defensive chops, a promising bat, and five years of team control remaining. I can’t imagine how many calls Brian Cashman has fielded about Murphy over the last 18 months or so. He’s really valuable and not just in a trade. To the Yankees too.

Justin Wilson is what every team looks for in a reliever: he throws hard and he misses bats. Being left-handed is a bonus. He struggles with control sometimes, and that’s why he’s only a reliever and not a starter or something more. Wilson has three years of control remaining, so his trade value is less than last offseason, when all it took to get him was an injury plagued backup catcher two years away from free agency. (What Francisco Cervelli did after the trade doesn’t change anything.)

Ackley is the third player and he doesn’t have much value. Flores and Ramirez. There’s his trade value, even after a strong finish to the season. Those 57 plate appearances with the Yankees didn’t erase his 2,200 plate appearances of awful with the Mariners. Given his versatility, Ackley is more valuable to the Yankees as a player than as a trade chip. I think the same is true of Wilson as well.

* * *

Last offseason taught me that pretty much no one is safe from trades other than the guys with no-trade clauses. I did not at all expect the Yankees to trade Greene or Martin Prado or even Manny Banuelos. Those were surprises. I would be surprised if the Yankees traded guys like Severino and Gregorius and Gardner this winter, but hey, anything can happen. Surprises are fun. The Yankees are well-armed with trade chips this winter. All shapes and sizes.

Finding a way to create flexibility will be key to offseason for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The 2015-16 offseason is now underway, but things really won’t get going until Saturday, when free agents can start signing with new teams. Even then the first few days and weeks of free agency can be slow. Like the regular season, the offseason is a marathon, not a sprint.

Once the offseason really gets moving, the Yankees will look for ways to improve despite limited maneuverability, both in terms of the roster and payroll. The payroll could always increase — these are the Yankees after all, they might has well have a money printing room in the basement of Yankee Stadium — but Hal Steinbrenner has been hesitant to give the thumbs up. That’s another topic for another time, I guess.

Roster flexibility is a different matter. Roster spots are finite. You’ve got your 25-man active roster and 15 reserve players on the 40-man roster. That’s it. For the Yankees, eleven of those 25-man roster spots are already accounted for thanks to guaranteed contracts. Add in arbitration-eligible players and it’s 18 spots. Then add in the no-brainer pre-arbitration guys and it’s 21 spots. Here’s the roster:

Catcher Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Brian McCann Mark Teixeira Brett Gardner CC Sabathia Andrew Miller
Dustin Ackley Jacoby Ellsbury Masahiro Tanaka Dellin Betances
DH Didi Gregorius Carlos Beltran Michael Pineda Justin Wilson
Alex Rodriguez Chase Headley Nathan Eovaldi Adam Warren
Luis Severino Ivan Nova
BENCH ?
John Ryan Murphy ? ?
Brendan Ryan ?

Four open spots: two pitchers and two position players. With Warren and Nova in the bullpen — at least for this exercise — the Yankees have rotation depth in case someone gets hurt or unexpectedly falls apart. So those last two pitching spots don’t really come with defined roles. The closer is set, the setup guys are in place, the long men are there. They need two middle relievers, basically. The more dominant the better.

The position player spots are where it gets interesting because the Yankees need a backup outfielder and they need to find a way to better rest their veteran players. That will be easier said than done given the lack of versatility. Here are some possible ways to improve things.

Give Alex A Glove

The Yankees were very hesitant to play A-Rod in the field this year — he didn’t play the field at all after May 23rd and didn’t play a full inning in the field after May 5th — and I get it. He’s over 40, he’s got two surgically repaired hips, he’s not very mobile anymore. All good and valid reasons to keep him at DH.

That said, I think the Yankees should have him work out at first base a little more often next year. (Forget third base, that’s not happening at this point.) Not regularly, but maybe once every ten games? That frees up the DH spot for someone else and adds more flexibility. It’s not much, but it’s something. Alex is crazy good at this baseball thing. Give him time at first in Spring Training and he’ll pick it up.

Joe Girardi has already talked about finding a way to keep his veteran players fresh next year, and that includes A-Rod, who faded in the second half. He played 151 games this season and started 138. Maybe the magic number next year is 120 starts. Is there any chance it could be 105 at DH and 15 at first? That’s not too much to ask.

Put JRM Back On The Infield, Sometimes

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The infield is not unfamiliar territory for Murphy. He played third base in high school before converting to catcher full-time after being drafted, and he played 14 games at third in the minors as well. The Yankees had him work out at first base late this year and Murphy routinely takes ground balls at third base before games, though most players work out at other positions in batting practice.

Murphy’s long-term value is greatest at catcher. Put him at another position full-time and he’s just another guy. The Yankees don’t need him to play another position full-time, however. They could just use him for spot start duty at either first or third base. Position changes are usually far-fetched, especially when they involve catchers, but the Yankees did have Murphy spend time getting familiar with first base this season, so it’s at least crossed their mind. He’s athletic enough and it’s a way to get him some more at-bats.

Put Refsnyder Back In The Outfield, Sometimes

To me, this is less realistic than putting Murphy at first or third base. Murphy’s a good defensive catcher. Refsnyder is a bad defensive second baseman who needs more reps there. Any time he spends in the outfield — as you know, Refsnyder was an outfielder in college before the Yankees moved him to second base — is time he could be spending at second base, where he needs work and is ultimately most valuable. Is putting Refsnyder in the outfield an option? Yeah. Of course. It’s an idea to kick around. I’m not sure having Refsnyder spend time in the outfield is best for his development at second base though.

Get A True Utility Man

The “go outside the organization” option. The Yankees could bring a true utility player type. They could go high-end (Ben Zobrist), mid-range (Martin Prado), or low-end (Mike Aviles). All three of those guys can play both the infield and outfield. And unlike Ackley, they can play the left side of the infield. (Ackley’s arm has been terrible since he had Tommy John surgery in college. Shortstop or third base ain’t happenin’.)

Zobrist or Prado would not necessarily be a bench player, they’d almost be like the tenth position player, capable of playing in a different spot depending on who needs rest. Aviles is not someone you want to give much playing time, so he’d be a Ryan replacement more than anything. Neither can hit and Ryan is the better defender, but he can’t play all three outfield spots like Aviles. You’d being trading some defensive competence for versatility, a trade that may or may not be worth making.

More than anything, the Yankees need to figure out a way to get their players more rest, whether that’s full days off or half-days as the DH. This past season they had no real backup third baseman and the DH spot was unavailable because of A-Rod. With limited roster flexibility, both in terms of players under contract and available roster spots, the Yankees will have to get creative.

Joe Girardi’s End-of-Season Press Conference: Ellsbury, Gardner, Rotation, Refsnyder, More

Earlier this morning at Yankee Stadium, Joe Girardi held his annual end-of-season State of the Yankees press conference. There was no major news announced — no coaches were fired, no players are having offseason surgery, nothing like that — which is a good thing, I suppose. Girardi instead reflected back on this season and looked ahead to next season.

The press conference was shown live on YES and you can watch the entire thing in the two videos above. Here are the highlights with some of my thoughts as well.

The Second Half Slump

  • On players getting worn down this year: “When I look at our club, we struggled down the stretch, to me more offensively than anything that we did. You can look at things a couple different ways. You could say ‘were they tired?’ I don’t know. Everyone during the season is going to get physically worn down … We do have a lot of players that are considered to be the prime age, we have some older players in Alex and Carlos.”
  • On possibly playing the veterans too much: “With the info in front of me and being prepared and having discussions with my coaches, we’re not so sure that it would have worked any better (had we done it differently). I did the best I could, is the bottom line.”
  • On having a different plan next year: “You always try to put a reason on certain things. Try to understand it, how you can learn from that, do you try to do something different next year? In these situations, it’s something I’ll think long and hard about this winter … For whatever reason some guys struggled in the second half, the last month, whatever it is.”
  • On Brian McCann‘s second half slump: “I’ll evaluate what I did with Brian McCann this year and see could you do it a little different next year to keep him physically strong.”

More than anything, Girardi seemed to indicate he believes his plan to rest players this season was correct given the information, but it didn’t work as hoped. He really seemed to emphasize reviewing what happened this year and coming up with a way to avoid the second half slump again, either through more rest or something else.

Girardi didn’t simply brush off the second half offensive slump as just “one of those things.” He acknowledged it as a real problem and made it clear he believes it can be corrected. He also said he needs to make sure the players buy into whatever plan they come up with going forward. How do they fix it next year? I have no idea. I came away with the impression that Girardi and Yankees will spent a lot of time this winter trying to come up with a way to keep their veterans productive all season in 2016.

Bullpen Struggles

  • On Dellin Betances in September: “I think he became a little human, that’s all. It’s not like he had a 4.00 ERA in those months. He still pitched pretty well … He had a human month. We’ve seen other great relievers have a human month.”
  • On overworking his key relievers: “As far as using them more than I would have liked, no. I paid attention to Dellin’s (workload) numbers in Triple-A, last year, and this year … Miller had a couple weeks off during the season. Wilson’s workload was not as much as Dellin’s.”
  • On Chasen Shreve‘s rough finish: “I think Shreve has a chance to be better because of the struggles he went through and (he) learned a lot about himself. For the first couple of months he was really good and a huge part of his bullpen. We have to figure out what happened, mechanically. There were probably some things that were a little bit off … I think it has a chance to really help him.”
  • On Adam Warren‘s value: “When Adam went back into our rotation it changed our bullpen dramatically. He made our bullpen deeper … He was as valuable as any pitcher we have because of the opportunities he gave us to win games.”
  • On the young relievers: “I think there’s a number of relievers who came up and got good experience … When you move (Warren) into the rotation, now you’re asking kids to do that. At times we were asking a lot of them. I think the experience they got was extremely valuable. It will help them in the future and give us more options. Did they struggle? Yes they did.”

I thought Betances in particular had a really heavy workload between the sheer volume of innings (84, most among all relievers) and high-leverage work (1.64 Leverage Index when entering games, tenth highest among relievers). He has a long history of struggling to throw strikes, and his late season control issues could easily have been him fighting his mechanics, but I can’t imagine the workload helped. Dellin is crazy valuable and it’s tempting to use him four or five outs at a time, but boy, relievers just don’t work like that anymore.

As for the rest of the bullpen, yes, figuring out what the hell happened with Shreve will be a major item this winter. Shreve was awesome for much of the season, he really stepped up when Andrew Miller got hurt, but his finish was abysmal. They need to get first half Shreve back. I also agree that the young relievers got good experience this season, but I don’t think they can continue shuttling them back and forth again next year. It’s time to give one or two an extended opportunity. You’re not going to learn anything about them when they’re throwing two or three innings between being called up and sent back down every other week.

Ellsbury & Gardner

  • On Jacoby Ellsbury‘s knee injury: “Ellsbury felt good. He physically felt pretty good the second half. He did run into the wall (during the final homestand) and I think it affected his shoulder a bit … Speed guys are going to get beat up as much as anyone.”
  • On Brett Gardner being banged up and slumping in the second half: “I’ll look at how I used him. Some of the months he was so good it was unbelievable (and it was hard to take him out of the lineup) … We tried to get him rest. We try to give these guys rest.”
  • On Gardner’s lack of stolen bases after the first few weeks: “Part of it is he wasn’t on nearly as much, and teams pay attention to him obviously a lot. That’s probably something that needs to be addressed because we need that out of him … He never complained about his legs, but when a guy doesn’t steal as much, maybe he doesn’t feel physically 100%.”
  • On sitting Ellsbury in the wildcard game: “You know what, there’s a lot of hard decisions I have to make during the course of the season. At times I sat Gardner for Chris Young and at times I sat Ellsbury …  I went all through kind of scenarios … It came down to a body of work over the season against left-handers. I did what I thought was the best at the time. Did it work out? No.”
  • On having to possibly mend the fence with Ellsbury: “As far as fence mending, I guess that’s to be determined … Only time will tell. I thought we had a great conversation that day. I thought he had a great attitude that day.”

I was actually kinda surprised Girardi acknowledged Gardner’s lack of stolen bases — he did go 20-for-25 in steal attempts this year, for what it’s worth — as a problem. I figured he’d just brush it off. I’m not a huge stolen base guy, especially early in the game (I’d rather not risk losing the base-runner with the middle of the order due up), but if they can Gardner to be more aggressive next year, great!

The “mending the fence” question with Ellsbury was interesting. That’s an Ellsbury problem as far as I’m concerned, not a Girardi problem. Sitting Ellsbury was the right move in my opinion. Is he really going to hold a grudge after the season he had? If Ellsbury is upset with anyone, he should be upset with himself for putting Girardi in a position where he had to pick between him and Gardner in a winner-take-all game.

Injuries

  • On CC Sabathia‘s rotation status: “I thought when you look at his last seven or eight starts, once you look at his starts with his knee brace, things got better. He pitched much better. I think right now, you view him as a starter, you see how he physically bounces back again.”
  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow and giving him extra rest between starts: “I think that’s another discussion we have to have. We had some physical concerns going into the season and I think we were trying to be proactive in that situation, but I think he answered the bell pretty well … I think he answered (questions about his elbow). I think he showed that was not an issue during the course of the season.”
  • On any offseason surgeries: “As of right now, I don’t think so … As we look at guys, Jake’s knee healed up fine, we didn’t have any issues … there’s nothing scheduled right now.”

Girardi did not address Sabathia’s stint in rehab at all. The answer about whether he is considered part of the rotation next year was purely performance and health (knee) based, and he gave the answer I expected. There’s no reason to think they’ll remove Sabathia from the rotation at this point as long as he’s physically able to take the mound.

The Young Players

  • On who we could see next year: “We feel Aaron Judge is going to make a big impact. We feel Gary Sanchez is going to make a big impact. We feel good about the improvements he made (in 2015) … You’ve got a Brady Lail … To me, when there’s talent, there’s an opportunity they’re going to have an impact for you. When you have players who are extremely talented, they get there before you anticipate, and that’s what happened this year.”
  • On Rob Refsnyder not getting a bigger opportunity: “The one thing as a club you always want to have is depth … If we would have kept Refsnyder — there were still some question marks that had to be answered about him, about playing the position, there were shifts taking place, we wanted to make sure (he was) complete aware of — we probably would have had to release someone and we weren’t ready to do that.”
  • On giving young kids playing time: “You don’t want a young player playing once or twice a week when there’s still development that has to happen. You don’t want to slow that down … John Ryan Murphy did very well. I thought he thrived in that situation.”
  • On trying Refsnyder and Murphy at other positions: “I don’t really see a Refsnyder going back to the outfield. I think we will continue to try to develop him as a second baseman. We believe his bat is going to play … Could you toy around with a Murphy playing a different position? I think you could. I think he’s athletic enough. I’m not opposed to that. I’m not opposed to doing anything if it has value and I think it’ll help us.”

The Yankees had Murphy work out at first base late in the season and he takes ground balls at third base regularly before games — he also played a little bit of third in the minors — and that might be worth exploring in the future. I like (love!) him behind the plate, but a little versatility wouldn’t hurt.

As for Refsnyder, one thing is becoming clear: the Yankees weren’t happy with his defense when he was called up in July, but they felt he improved after going to Triple-A and was more ready in late-September. The outfield is a waste of time to me. Put Refsnyder in the outfield and he’s just another guy. He has to remain at second to have the most value. Do the Yankees feel Refsnyder’s defense is ready for full-time play? That remains to be seen.

Also, it was interesting Girardi mentioned Lail by name. Lail, Judge, and Sanchez were the only prospects to get mentioned by name. Lail had some success in Triple-A this year and figures to be a call-up option next season. That Girardi is mentioning him by name — he mentioned Refsnyder and Severino by name at last year’s end-of-season press conference, for what it’s worth — indicated Lail is in the plans next year.

Improving Next Year

  • On the rotation: “I think you’re going to see improvement from our starting pitchers. Michael Pineda is not a rookie but it’s almost like he had to start over in a sense because this was the first time in a long time he was expected to take the ball every fifth day. Ivan Nova was coming off a major surgery where command was the last thing to come back … From a health standpoint, I feel a lot better about them.”
  • On the Yankees needing an ace: “Looking at Tanaka, I think he’s a top of line rotation pitcher. Is he a one or a two, I don’t know. I think Sevy has a chance to be a top of the rotation guy … We have five starters that give you a chance to win. That’s the most important thing.”
  • On young players taking a step forward: “I think a lot of those questions we had going into Spring Training have been answered. I think we saw improvement out of players over the course of the season, (like) Didi … We’ll have Severino for a full year, Michael has proved he can stay healthy … We have more pitchers we expect back and no more questions … I think there’s more depth in the organization.”
  • On Refsnyder at second base: “He played well. It’s a small sample. I thought he improved during Triple-A during the course of the season. You at him, you look at what’s available (at second base) and you make a decision … That’s something that will have to address this spring.”
  • On possible trades: “I think anything’s always possible. I do. But I’ve always said about trades, trades only work if both teams can agree. I’m sure that will be looked at.”

Not surprisingly, Girardi mostly deferred questions about offseason moves to the front office. That’s not really his place, though after eight years as manager, I assume he has input. It does seem like the Yankees will bank on their young players taking a step forward next year — not just their young players, but others like Nova bouncing back as he gets further away from surgery — and that’s not surprising. The Yankees stuck with their young players this year and it worked, for the most part. Why would they change it up?

Miscellany

  • On standing pat at the trade deadline: “I think when you look at the contributions (the kids) made, I think we made the right move. I know a David Price did extremely well in his 10-12 starts over there … But when I look at Severino’s body of work, I think we’re all pretty pleased. When I look at Bird’s body of work, I think we’re pretty pleased and glad we kept him.”
  • On A-Rod returning to the infield: “I imagine that he’s probably mostly going to be a DH going forward. That’s something that we’ll probably address over the winter … It’s probable he’s mostly a DH.”
  • On continuing to use a sixth starter next year: “Inserting a sixth starter every once in a while is not a bad, but it becomes something of an up and down shuttle … I think that’s something we really have to address too.”
  • On the coaching staff: “We haven’t even talked about that yet. I haven’t even been in the office until today … I haven’t even thought about that.
  • On his wish list for 2016: “It’s pretty plain and simple: win the World Series. Whatever it takes, that’s what my wish list is.”

Between his comments about Tanaka earlier and saying the spot sixth starter is “something we really have to address,” it seems like Girardi wants to get away from being so protective of the starters and turn them loose, at least more than they did this year. If nothing else, they definitely need more innings from the rotation next year. They can’t go through another season asking the bullpen for 10-12 outs a night.

Refsnyder, Heathcott, Sanchez all make Wildcard Game roster

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

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

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

CATCHERS (3)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy
Gary Sanchez

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

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

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

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

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

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