Thursday Notes: Mendoza, Montgomery, Prospect Lists

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The seemingly never-ending offseason continues. I guess the good news is the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game is four weeks from tomorrow, and yes, that game will be broadcast on the YES Network. Four weeks and one day until actual baseball is on your television. It’ll be glorious. I’ll post the full Spring Training broadcast schedule once all the networks announce their plans. Until then, here are some newsy nuggets to check out.

Hector Mendoza declared a free agent

Cuban right-hander Hector Mendoza has been declared a free agent by MLB, reports Jesse Sanchez. Sanchez says Mendoza is expected to wait until his 23rd birthday on March 5th to sign, at which point he would be a true free agent unaffected by the international spending restrictions. Every team, including the Yankees and other clubs currently limited by international bonus penalties, would be able to sign him to a contract of any size at that point.

Back in April 2015, Ben Badler (subs. req’d) ranked Mendoza as the 12th best prospect in Cuba, one spot ahead of current Dodgers farmhand Yasiel Sierra. “At his best, he throws 90-94 mph with downhill plane, with solid strike-throwing ability and fastball command for his age … His 76-80 mph curveball is a solid-average pitch,” says the two-year-old scouting report. It also mentions Mendoza features a changeup and figures to start long-term.

Sierra signed a six-year deal worth $30M last February — he then pitched to 5.89 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 88.2 innings split between High-A and Double-A last year, and reportedly didn’t impress scouts either — so I guess that’s the benchmark for Mendoza. The Yankees have steered clear of the big money Cuban player market the last few seasons, so I’m not expecting them to get involved. And, frankly, I didn’t even know the guy existed until a few days ago.

Teams asking for Montgomery in trades

According to George King (subs. req’d), Brian Cashman confirmed teams have asked for left-hander Jordan Montgomery in trade talks this offseason. “He is a starter and left-handed. His name comes up,” said the GM. Not only that, but Montgomery has already has success at Triple-A (albeit in 37 innings) and is close to MLB ready, making him even more desirable. Here’s my prospect profile.

It can be really easy to overlook a guy like Montgomery given the strength and depth of the Yankees’ farm system, but he’s come a long way as a prospect the last few seasons. He’s added a cutter and also gained quite a bit of velocity, going from 88-91 mph in college to 93-95 mph in 2016. The Yankees seem to have a knack for getting guys to add velocity. Their throwing program must be good. We’ll see Montgomery in the Bronx in 2017. I’m sure of it.

MLB.com’s top prospects by position

Over the last few days MLB.com has been releasing their annual positional prospect lists. That is, the ten best prospects at each position. Several Yankees farmhands make appearances on the various lists. Here’s a quick recap:

I’m a bit surprised the Yankees only had one player on the outfield list, but eh, whatever. The shortstop list is stacked as always. Torres is one spot ahead of Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. Mateo is one spot ahead of Twins shortstop Nick Gordon, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft.

James Kaprielian failing to crack the top ten righties shouldn’t be a surprise. He did miss just about the entire 2016 season, after all. Also, I’d be more bummed about not having a top catcher prospect if, you know, Gary Sanchez didn’t exit. But he does and that’s cool. Same thing with first base and Greg Bird. Landing five prospects in the various top ten lists is pretty cool.

Update: On Twitter, Jim Callis says Blake Rutherford ranks 14th among outfielders in MLB.com’s upcoming top 100 prospects list.

Spring Training is getting shorter

Starting in 2018, Spring Training will be a whole two days shorter, reports Ronald Blum. Huge news, eh? As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the regular season will increase from 183 days to 187 days starting in 2018, and the shorter Spring Training will help make that happen. The goal was to add more off-days “in a way that doesn’t just chew up offseason days,” said MLBPA general counsel Matt Nussbaum.

The players have been pushing for more in-season off-days for a while now, and at one point they proposed shortening the season to 154 games. I’m not surprised that didn’t happen. The owners would be giving up four home games each, plus television contracts would have to be revised because they include a minimum number of broadcasts and things like that. Lots of logistical issues to work through. So anyway, two fewer days of Spring Training in two years. Yippee.

Prospect Profile: Jordan Montgomery

(Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)

Jordan Montgomery | LHP

Background
Montgomery, who turned 24 last month, grew up in the relatively small town of Sumter, South Carolina, about 40 miles outside Columbia. He was a star at Sumter High School and was named 2011 Gatorade State Player of the Year after going 11-0 with a 0.38 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 74.1 innings as a senior. Montgomery tossed a seven-inning shutout in the state championship game that year.

Despite a stellar prep career, Baseball America did not rank Montgomery among their overall top 200 prospects or even their top 40 prospects in South Carolina prior to the 2011 draft. He went undrafted that year and instead followed through on his commitment to the University of South Carolina, where stepped right into the rotation and was teammates with former Yankees farmhand Tyler Webb.

As a first year player in 2012, Montgomery pitched to a 3.62 ERA in 74.2 innings spread across 13 starts and two relief appearances. He struck out 57 batters and walked only ten. That earned him a spot on the Freshman All-American Team. Montgomery threw eight scoreless innings against Arkansas to help put South Carolina in the College World Series Finals, where they lost to Rob Refsnyder‘s Arizona Wildcats.

The following season Montgomery emerged as the staff ace by throwing 79 innings of 1.48 ERA ball. He struck out 64 and walked 18. The Gamecocks did not advance to the College World Series in 2013, but Montgomery did keep their season temporarily alive by shutting out North Carolina in the Super Regionals. He allowed four hits in the game. Montgomery was named Gamecocks MVP and to the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

As a junior in 2014, Montgomery threw a collegiate career high 100 innings with a 3.42 ERA while striking out 95 and walking 29. He was again named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll. Baseball America ranked Montgomery as the fourth best 2014 draft prospect in South Carolina and the 120th best prospect in the draft class overall. The Yankees selected him in the fourth round (122nd overall) and signed him quickly for a full slot $424,000 bonus.

Pro Career
The Yankees took it easy on Montgomery after the draft and limited him to only 19 innings in his pro debut. He had a 3.79 ERA (2.30 FIP) with 20 strikeouts and six walks in those 19 innings split between the rookie Gulf Coast League and Short Season Staten Island. All told, Montgomery threw 119 innings in 2014.

The following season the Yankees assigned Montgomery to Low-A Charleston, but that didn’t last very long. He was promoted to High-A Tampa after only nine starts, and he remained with Tampa the rest of the season. Montgomery had a combined 2.95 ERA (2.61 FIP) with 24.1% strikeouts and 6.6% walks in 134.1 innings at the two levels in 2015.

This past season Montgomery started at Double-A Trenton, where he remained most of the summer. It wasn’t until early August that he was bumped up to Triple-A Scranton. He finished the year with a 2.19 ERA (2.91 FIP) with 22.7% strikeouts and 7.7% walks in 152 total innings. Montgomery set a RailRiders’ record with a 29.2-inning scoreless streak, and he got the win in the Triple-A Championship Game over El Paso (Padres).

Scouting Report
Montgomery is a big dude at 6-foot-6 and 225 lbs., and he’s been gradually adding velocity over the years. He sat in the mid-80s in high school, got up to 88-90 mph for most of his college career, then lived in the 90-92 mph range in pro ball in 2015. Last year his velocity climbed again, this time into the 93-95 mph range, and he held that velocity all season and deep into starts. How about that?

That 93-95 mph fastball is Montgomery’s straight four-seamer. He also throws a sinker that is more of a low-90s offering, as well as a cutter right around 90 mph. His best pitch is a sinking changeup in the low-80s. Montgomery also has a quality curveball, so he’s a true five-pitch pitcher. As you’ll see in this video, he throws from an extreme over-the-top arm slot:

Montgomery is a good athlete and he repeats his delivery very well for someone his size. He has no problem filling the strike zone and the guy never misses a start. He’s been healthy all throughout his amateur and pro career. The Yankees love that Montgomery has thrived in pressure games — SEC baseball is incredibly competitive — and that he’s a very diligent worker.

2017 Outlook
The Yankees will surely bring Montgomery to big league camp as a non-roster invitee this spring, and while I would bet against him winning an Opening Day roster spot, it’s all but guaranteed he’ll make his MLB debut at some point this summer. Montgomery will return to Triple-A for the time being and continue to fine tune things until his time comes. It’s important to note he is not on the 40-man roster yet, which could work against him. Others like Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera could get the call first.

Miscellany
I don’t mean this as a slight, but I didn’t think too much of Montgomery when he was first drafted. I thought maybe he could be a left-handed version of Adam Warren, a successful big program college starter who finds success as a big league swingman, but since then Montgomery has added a cutter and gained considerable velocity, improving his long-term outlook dramatically. He’s gone from swingman candidate to no-doubt starter in his two full pro seasons. It’s hard not to love that.

The only real concern I have about Montgomery is his arm slot, and whether it’ll lead to a big platoon split because right-handed hitters get a good look at the ball. Right-hander Josh Collmenter has a similar arm slot and lefties have hit him pretty hard over the years. Montgomery was actually more effective against righties than lefties in the minors this year, though I wouldn’t read too much into that. We’ll just have to see how his arm slot plays in the show when the time comes. For now, Montgomery is a near MLB ready workhorse southpaw, and good gravy do the Yankees need one of those.

Previewing the Yankees’ potential Spring Training invitees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Four weeks from yesterday, pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa and the Yankees will open Spring Training. It’s the best non-news day of the year. Nothing really happens that day, but hey, it’s the start of Spring Training, and that’s exciting. The offseason is boring. This one especially so.

At some point in these next three weeks and six days the Yankees will announce their Spring Training non-roster invitees. There are usually 20-something of them. The number varies year to year. The 20-something non-roster players plus the 40-man roster means 60-something players in big league camp. This is a World Baseball Classic year though, so the Yankees might bring a few extra bodies to camp to cover for the guys who leave to play for their country.

Non-roster players take on all shapes and sizes. Some are veteran journeymen trying to hang on. Others are top prospects. Heck, some are middling prospects. Very few of them actually have a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Most non-roster players are hoping to open eyes in camp and earn an early-season call-up whenever reinforcements are inevitably needed. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years back. He pitched well in camp and made himself a name to remember.

This spring should be extra exciting because the Yankees have such a robust farm system, and so many of their top prospects are close to the big leagues. Spring Training is a great time of year for prospect watchers. The Yankees will surely bring a bunch of their top youngsters to camp, even if only for a few weeks, just to expose them to big league life. So, with all of that in mind, let’s preview this year’s crop of potential non-roster players. Let’s call this … educated speculation.

Catchers

The Yankees, like every other team, invite a ton of non-roster catchers to Spring Training. Why? Well, who else is supposed to catch all those bullpen sessions? That’s really all it is. Teams need lots of catchers in camp because there are lots of pitchers in camp, and someone has to behind the plate for those guys. Last year the Yankees brought six non-roster catchers to camp. The year before it was five.

New York is pretty devoid of catching prospects at the moment, now that Luis Torrens is (temporarily?) a member of the Padres. Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, and Kyle Higashioka are all on the 40-man roster, so they’ll be in camp. Donny Sands and Miguel Flames, the team’s two best catching prospects, are rookie ball kids still transitioning behind the plate, so they won’t be in big league Spring Training. Too soon. Their time will come. That means an unexciting crop of minor league signees and journeyman roster fillers behind the plate.

Mike’s Prediction: Wilkin Castillo, Kellin Deglan, Francisco Diaz, Jorge Saez, plus one or two others yet to be signed. Diaz was in camp as a non-roster player last year and re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason. Castillo and Deglan signed as minor league free agents over the winter. Saez, 26, was a minor league Rule 5 Draft pick from the Blue Jays. The Yankees brought Santiago Nessy to camp last spring after picking him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. I’m guessing Saez gets the same treatment.

Infielders

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Alright, now we’re talking. Gleyber Torres, the best prospect in the system and one of the best prospects in all of baseball, is a lock to be invited to big league camp, I believe. The Yankees have historically brought their tippy top prospects to camp — Jorge Mateo was there last year, remember — and Gleyber is the best they have to offer. Torres could hang around until mid-to-late March too, depending on how much playing time is available.

Among the other prospects, Tyler Wade is the other non-roster lock in my opinion. He’s not a Torres-caliber prospect, but he’s pretty darn good himself, and he’s slated to open the 2017 season in Triple-A. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League last year, so they’re starting to groom him for a big league utility job. Getting him in camp so he can work with the big league instructors is the next logical step.

The Yankees have a small army of infield prospects in the low minors, guys who are better served going to minor league camp. Wilkerman Garcia, Hoy Jun Park, Kyle Holder, and Thairo Estrada fit into this group. I thought maybe the Yankees would bring Mike Ford to camp as an extra first baseman, but the recent Ji-Man Choi signing takes care of that. Choi will “compete” with Greg Bird and Tyler Austin (and Rob Refsnyder?) for the first base job.

Mike’s Prediction: Choi, Torres, Wade, Cito Culver, Donovan Solano, and Ruben Tejada. Solano and Tejada are big league veterans on minor league deals, so yeah, they’ll be in camp. Culver gets the call because both Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro could end up playing in the WBC, meaning the Yankees will need infielders. Cito re-signed with New York as a minor league free agent a few weeks ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if an invite to Spring Training was part of the deal. Keep in mind Mateo and Miguel Andujar are on the 40-man roster and will be in Spring Training automatically.

Outfielders

Remember last spring, when the Yankees had both Mateo and Aaron Judge in camp as non-roster players? That was so fun. They even hit home runs in the same game (against the Red Sox!). To the very necessary action footage:

Ah yes, that’s the good stuff. Anyway, I bring this up because Torres and Clint Frazier and going to be this year’s Mateo and Judge. The top prospect infielder-outfielder tandem we all tune in to see every Spring Training broadcast. Frazier is one of the Yankees’ best prospects and he’s already played in Triple-A, making a non-roster invitation to Spring Training is a no-brainer.

One top outfield prospect I don’t expect to see in big league camp is Blake Rutherford. The Yankees bought James Kaprielian to camp last year and that was a rarity — Kaprielian was the first first round pick the Yankees brought to Spring Training as a non-roster player one year after the draft in at least a decade. Not even Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain got non-roster invites in 2007. Rutherford is fresh out of high school. Big league camp isn’t the appropriate place for him. Lame, but it is what it is.

Mike’s Prediction: Frazier, Dustin Fowler, Mark Payton, and Jake Cave. I’m going to go against the grain and say Payton over the more heralded Billy McKinney. Payton is not a top prospect by any stretch, but he can do a little of everything and is a performer. He’s going to carve out a career as a fourth outfielder, and I think the Yankees will want to get him in camp at least once before he becomes Rule 5 Draft eligible next winter. Cave is a Triple-A vet, hence the non-roster invite. Fowler is one of the team’s top prospects and he’ll be in Triple-A this year, so I expect to see him too. Mason Williams (and Judge) is already on the 40-man.

Right-handers

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

We’re going to see some nice prospects arms in camp this year, me thinks. Kaprielian, Chance Adams, and Dillon Tate are the three big names. Kaprielian was in Spring Training last season, and since he was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, I don’t think the Yankees will hesitate to bring him to camp this year. Adams broke out last year and is going to start the season in Triple-A. Prime non-roster fodder.

Tate is the interesting one and I don’t think a non-roster invite is a lock, but I do think it’s likely. He regained velocity after the trade last year and threw well in the AzFL. Tate is going back to starting this season and I think the Yankees will look to move him quickly. And you know what? I think the Yankees want to show him off too. Tate was the fourth overall pick in the draft two years ago and one of the big name prospects they acquired at the deadline last summer. They’ll strut him out there and let him air it out for a few Grapefruit League innings because hey, why not?

Other big name prospects, like Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu, seem unlikely to get an invite to big league Spring Training this year. There are only so many innings to go around, and the Yankees will need them to a) decide the fourth and fifth starter race, and b) sort through a bunch of candidates for the remaining bullpen spots. This might be a year ahead of schedule for Acevedo and Abreu. I’m open to being wrong. We’ll see.

Mike’s Prediction: Adams, Kaprielian, Tate, J.P. Feyereisen, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, plus two or three others yet to be signed. At some point soon the Yankees will sign some pitchers to minor league deals for depth and Triple-A roster filler. The Anthony Swarzaks of the world we all love to hate. Feyereisen is a reliever with a chance to pitch in the show next year, hence the invite. Pinder and Rumbelow are still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, so they won’t actually pitch this spring, but they have big league service time and the non-roster invite is basically a courtesy. They’ll get big league meal money and lodging. It’s better than rehabbing in minor league camp.

Left-handers

As with the righties, I think we’ll see some good left-handed pitching prospects in Spring Training, most notably Jordan Montgomery and Justus Sheffield. Montgomery pitched very well at Double-A and Triple-A last summer, and the odds are strongly in favor of him making his MLB debut at some point in 2017. Spring Training is a chance for Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild to get their eyes on him. Giving Montgomery a non-roster invite makes all the sense in the world.

Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)
Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)

As for Sheffield, I do think he’ll get the invite to big league camp even though the odds of him pitching in the show this year are extremely small. Sheffield is a top prospect who reached Double-A last year, and he’s going to spend much of 2017 there as well, which could be enough to make him a non-roster candidate. And like Tate, I think the Yankees are going to want to show him off a bit. Sheffield could be one of those guys who makes one Grapefruit League appearance before being sent to minor league camp.

Mike’s Prediction: Montgomery, Sheffield, Jason Gurka, Joe Mantiply, plus one yet to be signed. Gurka signed a minor league deal a few weeks ago and has big league time with the Rockies, so he’ll get the non-roster invite. Mantiply is in a similar situation. Other southpaw prospects like Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, Stephen Tarpley, and Josh Rogers will have to settle for minor league camp and a possible one-day call-up for a split squad game or something.

* * *

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the chances of me being wrong (very wrong) here are quite high. This is all nothing more than guesswork based on the farm system and New York’s recent non-roster tendencies. Okay, so after all of that, I came up with 30 possible non-roster invitees:

  • Catchers (6): Castillo, Deglan, Diaz, Saez, plus up to two others yet to be signed.
  • Infielders (6): Choi, Culver, Solano, Tejada, Torres, and Wade.
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and Payton.
  • Pitchers (14): Adams, Feyereisen, Gurka, Kaprielian, Mantiply, Montgomery, Pinder, Rumbelow, Sheffield, Tate, plus as many as four yet to be signed.

Last year the Yankees brought 25 non-roster players to camp. The year before it was 26 and the year before that it was also 26, so my total of 30 is in ballpark when you consider each team will probably bring a few more players to camp to help cover for the WBC. If anything, 30 might be a little light since Pinder and Rumbelow won’t actually pitch. (The Yankees brought 44 players to camp in 2013, the last WBC year, which was insane.)

The Yankees announced their non-roster invitees on February 5th each of the last two years. Three years ago it was January 29th. They tend to do it very late in the offseason, so we still have a few weeks to go before things are made official. Either way, this promises to be a very prospect filled Spring Training. Guys like Torres, Frazier, Kaprielian, Montgomery, Fowler, and Wade will all be in camp, plus all the 40-man guys like Mateo, Andujar, Judge, and Bird. Should be fun.

Young starters allow the Yankees to finally use a six-man rotation in 2017

Cessa. (Mike Carlson/Getty)
Cessa. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

It feels like only a matter of time until a six-man rotation becomes the norm around baseball. Individual pitchers are generally throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, and with a full-time 26th roster spot seemingly on the horizon, soon it’ll be much easier to carry that extra starter. Right now it takes a little roster creativity to make a sixth starter work.

The Yankees, like many teams, have used a spot sixth starter at times the last few years. Someone gets called up, makes one start to give the rest of the rotation an extra day of rest, then gets sent back down the next day. We’ve seen Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, and Chad Green used in this way the last three seasons. Mitchell, Green, Luis Cessa, and Luis Severino are candidates to do this in 2017. Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams too, possibly.

Yesterday I wrote about the possibility of a tandem fifth starter system, which sounds great in theory, but probably wouldn’t fly in reality. It could work for a team in a deep rebuild with nothing to play for — the Rockies tried a four-man rotation and with four sets of tandem starters in 2012, when they lost 98 games — but a team trying to contend like the Yankees? Nah. Seems like it would be tough to pull off.

Tandem starters might not be doable. But some sort of six-man rotation? That definitely seems possible. It doesn’t have to be a full-time six-man rotation, remember. That would require playing with a six-man bullpen (nope) or a three-man bench (yup). Let’s call it a modified six-man rotation, in which the Yankees use their young pitching depth as a series of sixth starters.

In a nutshell, you call one guy up for a spot start, send him down the next day, then six days later you call up another young starter to make the next spot start. The Yankees wouldn’t be able to call up the same guy for both starts — players must remain in the minors ten days after being sent down, unless someone is placed on the disabled list — but they have the depth to swing it. Something like this:

Day One: Masahiro Tanaka
Day Two: CC Sabathia
Day Three: Michael Pineda
Day Four: Severino (or whoever wins the rotation spot)
Day Five: Cessa (or whoever wins the rotation spot)
Day Six: Mitchell as spot sixth starter
Day Seven: Tanaka
Day Eight: Sabathia
Day Nine: Pineda
Day Ten: Severino
Day Eleven: Cessa
Day Twelve: Green as the spot sixth starter (Mitchell can’t be recalled yet due to the ten-day rule)

The exact names may change, but that’s the idea. And this is doable because the young starters have minor league option years remaining. Mitchell has one left while Cessa, Severino, and Green each have two. Montgomery and Adams, who are also spot sixth starter candidates, have yet to be added to the 40-man roster, so they have all three options remaining. Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera were just added to the 40-man and have all three options too. Can’t forget them.

Shreve. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Shreve. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Furthermore, the Yankees have optionable relievers, which is a necessity to make this spot sixth starter thing work. Guys like Johnny Barbato, Richard Bleier, Gio Gallegos, Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve can all be sent up and down without being exposed to waivers in 2017. Send a reliever down one day, call up the spot sixth starter the next, then send down the spot sixth starter and call up another reliever the day after that. See? Simple.

Keep in mind the Yankees don’t have to do this all season. April is, as always, loaded with off-days. The Yankees have three off-days in the first ten days of the regular season. They have eight off-days in the first 43 days of the regular season. Basically one every five days. Yeah. It’s not until mid-May, when they begin a stretch of 20 games in 20 days on May 16th, that the Yankees need to seriously consider using a spot sixth starter to give their regular rotation extra rest.

With any luck, the Yankees will be in position to consider using a spot sixth starter (or tandem starters!) all season. That will mean everyone will have stayed healthy and all the young starters won’t be needed to plug big league rotation spots. We know that’s very unlikely, which is why depth is important. Counting guys like Montgomery, Adams, Enns, and Herrera, the Yankees just might have enough arms to use spot sixth starters all year.

Remember, this is as much about the veterans as it is the kids. Tanaka and Sabathia would benefit from the extra rest now and then, as would the younger pitchers, especially since they’ll all presumably be on some workload limit. Cessa led the kids with only 147.2 innings in 2016. It’s not like these guys are all set to throw 190 innings in 2017, you know? Using a spot sixth starter, something the Yankees have done in the past and have the personnel to do this coming season, benefits everyone.

Young pitching depth could allow Yankees to use tandem fifth starters in 2017

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

Five weeks from tomorrow, the Yankees will officially open Spring Training as pitchers and catchers report to Tampa. It’s the biggest non-news day of the year. Nothing really happens that day, but still, it’s the start of the new season. Baseball will be back and that’s exciting. It can’t come soon enough.

The Yankees still have five weeks of offseason remaining to tweak their roster. At this point I would be surprised if they traded away Brett Gardner or Chase Headley, or traded prospects for a young pitcher with several years of control. They might still swing a cheap free agent signing, say a one-year deal for a veteran innings guy, and that’s maybe it. We’ll see.

As it stands, the Yankees can fill out the back of their rotation with their collection of young starters. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda are the top three starters. These are the guys up for the final two spots, kinda sorta in order of their chances to win a rotation spot in Spring Training:

  1. Luis Severino
  2. Luis Cessa
  3. Chad Green
  4. Bryan Mitchell
  5. Jordan Montgomery
  6. Chance Adams

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d say they want Severino to grab a rotation spot and run with it in camp. That’s what I want to happen, anyway. He has the most upside of those six starters. I’m not sure anyone would disagree with me there. Severino winning a spot and keeping it all season would be the best thing for the Yankees, both short and long-term.

Montgomery and Adams almost certainly need more Triple-A time — Adams has yet to pitch at that level and Montgomery has thrown only 49.2 innings there, including postseason — so the chances of them winning a big league rotation job in camp are small. It’s not impossible, just really unlikely. And after Severino, the next three names can really be put in pretty much any order.

In all likelihood we’ll see all six of those guys in the Bronx at some point this coming season. That’s usually how it goes. Getting through a season using only seven starters feels like a miracle these days. The Yankees do have a nice amount of young pitching depth — Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera are both on the 40-man roster and I haven’t even mentioned them yet — which could allow the team to be a little creative and use tandem fifth starters.

The tandem starters idea is pretty simple. One guy starts, throws four or five innings, then the next guy comes in and pitches the rest of the game. Perhaps it’s better to set it at times through the lineup rather than innings. The starter goes through the lineup twice, then the tandem starter comes in and goes through the lineup twice as well. Something like this, basically:

Day One: Tanaka
Day Two: Sabathia
Day Three: Pineda
Day Four: Severino
Day Five: Cessa and Mitchell

The names are interchangeable. Cessa could be the fourth starter with Severino and Mitchell the tandem fifth starters. Or Mitchell the fourth starter with Severino and Green the tandem fifth starters. Whatever the order, that’s the idea. Two young pitchers work in tandem in the fifth starter’s spot, essentially splitting the nine-inning game.

The tandem starters idea seems neat, but what exactly is the point? How does this help the Yankees? I see three benefits:

  1. More young pitchers see MLB time. It’s possible those young starters have all reached the point where they need to face big league competition to continue their development. Rather than use two in the rotation and send two to Triple-A, three would be in MLB, turning a lineup over multiple times.
  2. The bullpen gets a day off every five days. If the tandem starters are handling the fifth starter’s spot, then the bullpen won’t have to work so hard that day. It’s a chance to give the rest of the staff regular rest once each time through the rotation. It’s almost like a guaranteed complete game every fifth day.
  3. Workloads can more easily be controlled. These are young pitchers, remember. Cessa led the four youngsters with 147.2 innings in 2016. They’re not ready to be 200+ inning workhorses and will need their innings limited in 2017. The tandem starters plan makes that a bit easier.

At the same time, there is some downside here. How are the kids supposed to learn how to pitch deep into games if you keep yanking them after the second time through the lineup? This is a recipe for building a bunch of five-and-fly starters. And two, what happens in close games? You know everyone, from Joe Girardi to the fans, will want Aroldis Chapman on the mound in the ninth inning of a one-run game. That complicates things.

Ultimately, I feel like the tandem starter idea works better in the minors than it does in the majors. Winning is not the priority in the minors. Development is. You can use the tandem starter system in Triple-A, and hey, if you lose a game because the “second” starter blows a one-run lead in the ninth during his fourth inning of work, so be it. That doesn’t fly in the show, especially not when the Yankees insist they’re still trying to contend.

The tandem starter plan is a nice idea in theory that probably won’t fly in reality. Chances are the Yankees will have plenty of opportunities to use all their young starters this season anyway — they’ve had at least seven starters make 5+ starts in 14 of the last 17 seasons — so finding playing time probably won’t be an issue. Maybe come September, when rosters are expanded and the pitchers approach their innings limit, and the team’s place in the standings is more clear, tandem starters is a more viable idea. For now, it doesn’t seem doable, but not because the Yankees lack the personnel.

2017 Rule 5 Draft status suggests the Yankees will have to trade some prospects this year

Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)
Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)

The busiest day for the Yankees this offseason — and most teams, for that matter — was November 18th, the day clubs had to finalize their 40-man roster for the Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees made 12 transactions involving 13 players that day. The team’s deep farm system meant six players were added to the 40-man roster. Even then, the Yankees still lost four players in the MLB phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

The Rule 5 Draft and 40-man roster crunch was pretty significant this offseason. The Yankees lost several potentially useful players, most notably Jacob Lindgren and Nick Goody, simply because there was no room for them. Having a great farm system comes with a cost. The Rule 5 Draft crunch is poised to be even more severe next offseason too. Check out the (partial) list of prospects who will have to be added to the 40-man after the 2017 season:

Catchers: None
Infielders: Abi Avelino, Thairo Estrada, Gleyber Torres, Tyler Wade
Outfielders: Rashad Crawford, Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Billy McKinney, Leonardo Molina, Tito Polo
Pitchers: Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, J.P. Feyereisen, Zack Littell, Jordan Montgomery, Eric Swanson, Stephen Tarpley

That list doesn’t include outfielder Jake Cave, righty Nick Rumbelow, and lefties Daniel Camarena and Chaz Hebert, all of whom will become minor league free agents after the 2017 season. I know those guys are easy to overlook, but who knows what’ll happen this summer. Who would have guessed Kyle Higashioka would play his way on to the 40-man last year?

Also, that “none” under catchers may only be temporary. If Luis Torrens doesn’t stick with the Padres as a Rule 5 Draft pick, he’ll come back to the Yankees and have to be added to the 40-man roster after the season. That’s a must. If Torrens is picked in the Rule 5 Draft again in December, he’ll be able to elect free agency rather than come back to New York. Can’t let that happen. If Torrens does come back, he’ll land on the 40-man in November.

Okay, so anyway, that’s an awful lot of quality prospects, huh? Torres and Frazier are in a league of their own as top 100 prospects, but many of the other guys figure to be worth protecting too. Wade and Fowler are slated to spend 2017 with Triple-A Scranton. A successful season there means they’re a lock to be picked in the Rule 5 Draft. Others like Abreu and Acevedo have considerable upside, and those guys are always worth protecting.

The Yankees had to make compromises in November because 40-man roster spots are a finite resource. Would they have liked to protect, say, Torrens and Tyler Webb, and keep Lindgren? Yeah, probably, but there’s only so much space to go around. The Yankees will run into a similar problem next offseason, only to a much greater degree. They not only have more prospects eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, they have more high-end prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The solution is simple though, isn’t it? Just trade some of them. It’s basically impossible to protect them all, so rather than lose them for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft, just trade them. Package three or four together for one player, preferably a young starting pitcher with several years of control. Boom, problem solved. Two problems solved, really. The Yankees clear up the Rule 5 Draft logjam and add the young pitcher they’ve seemingly been craving for months. It’s perfect!

Except it’s not that easy. It never is. For starters, you have to find another team with the available 40-man roster space to make such a trade. No team is going to trade for these prospects only to expose them to the Rule 5 Draft. The other team’s 40-man situation is an obstacle. Prospects are like kids, teams always love their own more than they love everyone else’s. Not many clubs may be willing to cut one or two of their own players to make room for your players in a hypothetical four-for-one trade. There’s a reason trades like this are rare.

More realistically, we may see the Yankees make a series of smaller moves. One-for-one, two-for-one trades. Trades that swap a Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect for a non-Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect. That’s similar to the James Pazos-for-Zack Littell trade. The Yankees needed the 40-man space, so they sent Pazos to the Mariners for Littell, who is a year away from Rule 5 Draft eligibility. It bought them some time, basically. Not the sexiest move, but necessary.

There’s eleven months between now and the deadline to set the 40-man roster for the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, so this is hardly a pressing issue. It is something the Yankees have to plan for, obviously, and you can be sure it’ll affect their decision-making over the summer. In fact, Brian Cashman even admitted Rule 5 Draft status was a consideration when making trades last summer. How could it not be?

The Yankees did some great work rebuilding their farm system over the last few months and it’s set them up for sustainable success in the near future. Baseball doesn’t allow teams to keep prospects forever though, and rightfully so. There comes a time when you have to ether commit to the player (add him to the 40-man) or give him a chance to reach MLB with another organization (Rule 5 Draft). The Yankees will reach that point with several of their best prospects next winter, and since they can’t protect everyone, they figure to move a few in trades to clear the logjam.

Thoughts on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects

The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)
The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)

I totally missed this two weeks ago, but the crew at Baseball Prospectus posted their annual look at the top ten prospects in the Yankees’ farm system. The list is available for everyone. The rest of the piece is behind the paywall, unfortunately. Here’s the top ten with some thoughts:

  1. SS Gleyber Torres
  2. OF Clint Frazier
  3. SS Jorge Mateo
  4. OF Blake Rutherford
  5. LHP Justus Sheffield
  6. RHP James Kaprielian
  7. OF Aaron Judge
  8. RHP Albert Abreu
  9. SS Tyler Wade
  10. RHP Chance Adams

1. Still high on Mateo. It’s very easy to be down on Mateo these days. He didn’t have a great regular season, he was suspended two weeks for an undisclosed violation of team policy, and he hasn’t done much in winter ball either. There’s no other way to slice it, 2016 has been really disappointing for Mateo. At the same time, he just turned 21 in June and is immensely talented. He has the most exciting tools in the farm system, I think, even moreso than Gleyber. Development isn’t always linear. There are often bumps in the road and hopefully that’s all Mateo experienced this year, a bump(s) in the road. Something he can learn from and use as a development tool going forward. Baseball Prospectus still has Mateo very high on their top ten list and it’s not in any way unreasonable given his tools.

2. Down on Judge. On the other hand, the Baseball Prospectus crew is down on Judge, who they ranked as the 18th best prospect in baseball prior to 2016. Based on their preseason rankings, both Mateo (No. 65) and Kaprielian (not ranked) managed to jump Judge despite a disappointing season and an injury-marred season, respectively. I get why folks are down on Judge. He struggled in his brief big league cameo and there have long been concerns about whether big league pitchers would exploit his massive strike zone. We saw a 95 plate appearance manifestation of those concerns. Unless Judge shrinks about five inches, there’s not much he can do about the strike zone. That’s life. But he has a history of starting slow at each new level before making the necessary adjustments, and until he shows otherwise, I feel like we have to assume the same is happening at the MLB level. The biggest difference between Judge and other prospects on this list, like Mateo and Kaprielian and Gleyber, is that he’s had a chance to fail at the big league level. Everyone else is getting the benefit of the doubt because they haven’t had that same opportunity.

3. Wade gets some love. I’m a pretty big Tyler Wade fan and it seems I’m not alone. Ranking him ninth in this system is pretty lofty. “Wade is a favorite of many scouts and evaluators because of his energy, playing style, and instincts. He’ll grow on you the more you see him,” said the write-up. Wade is not a future star or anything, and that’s kind of a problem in a system with this many shortstops. Torres and Mateo, two guys with star-caliber tools, are right behind him climbing the minor league ladder. Others like Hoy Jun Park and Wilkerman Garcia have higher ceilings too. Unseating Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro at the MLB level won’t be easy either. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League to prepare him for a utility role, which is by far his best path to MLB playing time with New York. If I were another team with a long-term need a shortstop (coughPadrescough), I’d be all over the Yankees trying to get Wade in a deal. He hits for no power and won’t wow you with big OPS or wRC+ numbers, but a lefty hitter who can hit for average, draw walks and get on base, steal bases, and play good defense at shortstop is a nifty little player.

Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)
Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)

4. Others of note. Each year the Baseball Prospectus farm system write-ups include information on players beyond the top ten. Among the other Yankees singled out: 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jordan Montgomery, OF Dustin Fowler, OF Billy McKinney, RHP Dillon Tate, and RHP Erik Swanson. Swanson’s an interesting guy who is easy to overlook in this system. He came over in the Carlos Beltran trade. “Swanson touched as high as 98 in a June viewing, regularly sitting 91-96. He also flashed a hard slider and a more usable change than one often sees from a power profile at the Low-A level,” said the write-up. Swanson turned 23 in September and he missed most of 2015 with a forearm issue, but he’s healthy now and has enough stuff to possibly start long-term. If not, don’t be shocked if he moves very quickly as a fastball/slider reliever.

5. The top ten 25-and-under talents. My favorite part of Baseball Prospectus’ annual system write-ups is their list of the top ten talents age 25 and under in the organization. For the Yankees, the 25-and-under list is essentially the same as top ten above, except with C Gary Sanchez at the top, 1B Greg Bird sixth (between Rutherford and Sheffield), and RHP Luis Severino tenth (behind Judge). A year ago Judge and Severino were first and second. Now they’re ninth and tenth. Part of that is Judge’s strikeouts and Severino’s inability to pitch well as a starter, but it also speaks to how the Yankees’ long-term outlook has improved over the last 12 months. Sanchez emerged as a force and so many young players — five of the team’s top eight prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus — have been added to the system within the last six months or so. It’s really hard to read these prospect lists and not get very, very excited about where the Yankees are heading.