Previewing the Yanks’ few Spring Training position battles

Sixth starter or setup man? (Presswire)
Sixth starter or setup man? (Presswire)

Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Spring Training this Friday, though several Yankees players are already in Tampa preparing for the season according to reporters on site. It’s the guys you’d expect to show up to camp early — rehabbing players (Ivan Nova), players new to the organization (Nathan Eovaldi), and players trying to win a job in camp.

The Yankees don’t have many open roster spots, at least not on paper, but that doesn’t mean jobs aren’t up for grabs in Spring Training. Sometimes the job on the line is being the first guy called up when the inevitable injury strikes. Just look at Preston Claiborne two years ago. He didn’t win a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he put himself on the call-up map with a strong showing in camp. So, with Spring Training set to start later this week, let’s preview New York’s position battles.

Sixth Starter
Candidates: Adam Warren, Esmil Rogers, Bryan Mitchell

Every team needs a sixth and seventh and occasionally even eighth starter during the season, and the Yankees are more likely to need spare starters than most teams because of the injury risk in the rotation. Warren and Rogers were both told to come to Spring Training ready to work as starting pitchers and Mitchell has been a starter his entire minor league career. You don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which one of these guys is in the rotation come Opening Day.

Warren did very nice work as a short reliever last year but came up through the minors as a starter. Rogers has both started and relieved in the past, and he worked as a swingman last year. Mitchell is a rookie with just a big league cup of coffee under his belt. Warren and Rogers are all but certain to open the season on the 25-man roster in some capacity and I’m sure the Yankees want both to be relievers. That means everyone in the rotation is healthy. Mitchell would go back to Triple-A to bide his time in that scenario.

If someone does get hurt in Spring Training and the Yankees do need a replacement starter, I think it would come down to who has the best camp. Not necessarily statistically, but who shows the Yankees they have the best chance of turning over a lineup three times. My guess is Warren would get the first chance to start if necessary, but I’m not all that confident in that pick. I am confident these guys are ahead of scrap heap signings Scott Baker and Kyle Davies on the rotation depth chart, however.

Seventh Reliever
Candidates: Lots

Whitley. (Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

In a perfect world, Warren and Rogers would be in the Opening Day bullpen alongside Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, David Carpenter, and Justin Wilson. (Rogers would presumably be the long man in that scenario.) The seventh bullpen spot is wide open and the Yankees have no shortage of candidates on the 40-man roster: Danny Burawa, Jose DePaula, Chris Martin, Branden Pinder, Jose Ramirez, Chasen Shreve, and Chase Whitley. We should probably include Mitchell in there as well. Non-40-man roster candidates include Jacob Lindgren and Andrew Bailey.

At least one of those extra guys is going to make the roster as the seventh reliever. If Warren and/or Rogers are needed in the rotation, several of the extra arms will make the Opening Day roster to fill out the bullpen. And since there are so many viable seventh reliever candidates, I think it will come down to Spring Training performance. I don’t think handedness will matter one bit. And remember, just because someone wins a job in Spring Training, it doesn’t mean they keep it forever. If, say, Martin wins the last bullpen spot but has a 6.00 ERA two weeks into the season, the Yankees will swap him out for someone else. The seventh bullpen spot is always a revolving door.

Backup Catcher
Candidates: Austin Romine, John Ryan Murphy

Technically, this is a competition since nothing is final, but it’s widely believed Murphy will be the backup catcher come Opening Day. Everything points in that direction. Romine wasn’t all that impressive during his extended stint as Chris Stewart‘s backup in 2013, and when the team needed a long-term fill-in for Frankie Cervelli last summer, Murphy got the call ahead of Romine. And, when they needed a third catcher after rosters expanded it September, it was again Murphy over Romine. That doesn’t mean Romine has nothing to play for in camp, of course.

“I want it. I want to go out there and prove to them that I want it. That’s why I’m here early and I just want to hit the ground running and go after it and bust my ass to make the team,” said Romine to Mark Feinsand last week. “(There are) a little more doors opening up with Cervelli gone now. Whatever happens, happens. I’m going to show them I want this.”

Romine is out of options, meaning he can’t go to Triple-A without first passing through waivers. That could happen but the Yankees have to proceed as if it won’t. That’s why they signed Eddy Rodriguez to a minor league deal. Even if he can’t beat out Murphy for the backup job, Romine is auditioning himself for other teams this spring, teams that could claim him off waivers before the start of the season or look to acquire him in a minor trade. This is the definition of a healthy competition, even if the job is basically Murphy’s to lose.

Ryan. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Ryan. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Last Bench Player
Candidates: Brendan Ryan, Jose Pirela, Rob Refsnyder

This is basically a “can either Pirela or Refsnyder convince the Yankees they’re better off paying Ryan his $2M salary to not play for them?” competition. I’m guessing no — Ryan’s ability to play shortstop is a hard to find skill with real value — but you know how it goes. Stranger things have happened. For what it’s worth, Brian Cashman insists Refsnyder will get a chance to win a job in camp.

“I can’t tell you he’s not Major League ready just yet,” said Cashman in a radio interview earlier month, according to Brendan Kuty. “The bottom line is, he’ll go into camp, and he’ll compete, and he’ll have a chance to potentially earn a spot on the roster … We’re all going to see that develop in Spring Training.”

The Yankees could opt for Pirela’s versatility or Refsnyder’s bat over Ryan’s defense, especially since Stephen Drew can cover Didi Gregorius at shortstop. There is a legitimate baseball reason to keep Ryan though. We can’t forget that. Depth at shortstop is necessary. Either way, we’re talking about the 25th man on the roster. This isn’t a decision that will make or break the season.

email

The Plan B’s: Sorting through the Yankees’ backup options at each position

A wild backup first baseman has appeared. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
A wild backup first baseman has appeared. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

We’ve spent, well, just about the entire offseason discussing rotation options should Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder), or whoever else get hurt during the 2015 season, but the pitching staff is only one piece of the team. The Yankees suffered several position player injuries last summer and didn’t always have an appropriate backup. Remember Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson at first? Zelous Wheeler at third? Martin Prado in right? It wasn’t pretty.

Thanks to their offseason machinations and improved farm system, the Yankees appear to be better prepared to handle the inevitable position player injury(ies) this coming season. And they are inevitable. Someone’s going to pull a hamstring, take a pitch to the hand, something like that. It takes way more than 25 players to win, remember. Teams put the entire 40-man roster to work each season and the Yankees have more position appropriate backup plans in place for 2015. Let’s run them down.

Catcher
Starter: Brian McCann
Backup Plan: John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine?, Eddy Rodriguez?

You’re not going to find a bigger SKJRM (Serial Killer John Ryan Murphy because his name sounds like a serial killer, for you newbies) fan than me, but even I am a little nervous about the idea of Murphy taking over as the everyday catcher if McCann gets hurt at some point this year. McCann’s a pretty damn important player to the Yankees* and losing him to injury would be a big blow. Romine is out of options and will probably be in a different organization come Opening Day, either via waivers or a minor trade, leaving Rodriguez as the likely third string catcher. He has two MLB games to his credit. In the worst case scenario, I think the Yankees would make a trade for a veteran stopgap backstop rather than call up Gary Sanchez for an extended period of time.

* The starting catcher is an important player for every team, this isn’t unique to New York.

First Base
Starter: Mark Teixeira
Backup Plan: Garrett Jones

Finally, a real live backup first baseman. Nine players played at least one game at first base for the Yankees last summer, including McCann, Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Brendan Ryan, Scott Sizemore, and Francisco Cervelli. The team’s approach to backing up Teixeira last year was basically “we’ll put anyone there,” but now they have Jones, a true first baseman with over 400 games of experience at the position in MLB and another 800 or so in the minors. He played 129 games at first for the Marlins just last year. Phew. When Teixeira needs a day off or gets hurt this coming season, the Yankees can stick Jones there and we all won’t have to hope for the best on ground balls to first or slightly off-line throws from other infielders. If both Teixeira and Jones get hurt at some point, I guess McCann would see time at first, or Kyle Roller could get the call from Triple-A if he mashes again.

Second Base
Starter: Stephen Drew
Backup Plan: Rob Refsnyder, Brendan Ryan

Shortstop
Starter: Didi Gregorius
Backup Plan: Stephen Drew, Brendan Ryan

Refsnyder. (Scranton Times-Tribune)
Refsnyder. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

I’m going to lump the two middle infield spots together because I think if either Drew or Gregorius misses time this year, Refsnyder is going to step into the lineup as the replacement. He’ll take over second if Drew gets hurt, and if Gregorius gets hurt, Drew will slide over to short and Refsnyder will take over at second. Ryan is there for the day-to-day stuff. Gregorius sitting against a tough lefty or Drew needing a day off after starting 15 straight, something like that. If there’s an extended absence though, I believe Refsnyder’s the guy. Ahead of Ryan and ahead of Jose Pirela.

Third Base
Starter: Chase Headley
Backup Plan: Alex Rodriguez?, Brendan Ryan?

Third base is a potential problem area should injury strike. There is no obvious fill-in candidate until A-Rod shows he can handle the position at least somewhat regularly, say two or three times a week, and that might not ever happen. Ryan’s played a handful of games at the hot corner in his career, Gregorius has ten career innings at third, and Drew has never played there as a pro. Even Pirela just has a handful of games at third in his career.

The Yankees did add some minor league infield depth in Jonathan Galvez, Nick Noonan, and Cole Figueroa, none of whom we want to see in the Bronx playing regularly next year. They’re emergency options, and if A-Rod can’t play third, it might be an emergency the instant Headley gets hurt. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.

This all depends on Alex. If he can play third base some, they’ll have an okay backup plan. If he can’t, the Yankees will probably have to go outside the organization should Headley go down for an extended period of time.

Left Field
Starter: Brett Gardner
Backup Plan: Chris Young, Jones?

Center Field
Starter: Jacoby Ellsbury
Backup Plan: Gardner, Young

Right Field
Starter: Carlos Beltran
Backup Plan: Young and Jones

The outfield is pretty straight forward so I’m going to lump the three positions together. The backup plan should any of the starters go down is a Young/Jones platoon. (Jones has some left field experience but not much, though I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to throw him out there if necessary.) If either Gardner or Beltran gets hurt, the Young/Jones platoon takes over in either left or right. If Ellsbury gets hurt, Gardner takes over in center and the Young/Jones platoon steps into left. Simple, right?

Young has been a center fielder his entire career and is still a quality defender, so he’s the third option there. Pirela logged a decent amount of time in left in the minors and is probably the sixth outfielder — behind the starting three, Young, and Jones — by default. Ramon Flores had a nice run in Triple-A last summer (116 wRC+) before hurting his ankle and is next in line behind Pirela. As of this very moment, I think Flores would get the call over Tyler Austin, who is also on the 40-man roster and slated to open the year with the RailRiders. That could change if Austin straight up mashes.

* * *

Aside from third base and the always vulnerable catcher position, the Yankee have clearly defined backup plans all over the field. Young and Jones have the outfield covered, Refsnyder is backing up the middle infield in case of a long-term absence, and Jones is a true backup first baseman behind Teixeira. The Yankees had to scramble for help whenever a position player got hurt the last few years, particularly on the infield, but they have more protection now. Hopefully they won’t need to use these backup plans, but you know as well as I do that it’s inevitable. The 162-game schedule is cruel like that.

News & Notes: Shifts, Pirela, Prospects, YES Network

No more shifts? (Screen cap from April 2014)
No more shifts? (Screen cap from April 2014)

Time to “empty out the notebook,” so to speak. I have a whole bunch of miscellaneous links lying around that are worth passing along but aren’t necessarily worth their own individual post. So, here are some Yankees-related notes from around the web.

New commissioner will look to ban infield shifts

On Saturday, Bud Selig’s tenure as commissioner officially ended and new commish Rob Manfred came into power. Manfred told Jerry Crasnick that youth outreach, pace of play, and improving labor relations are among the first items on his agenda. He also said he is open to banning infield shifts (video link). Here’s what he said about getting rid of infield shifts:

“I would be aggressive about using the (pitch clock) over the long haul. I think it’s a helpful thing in terms of moving the game along,” said Manfred to ESPN. “I think the second set of changes I would look at is related, and that related to injected additional offense into the game. For example, things like eliminating shifts. I would be open to those sorts of ideas.

“Look, we have really smart people working in the game, and they’re going to figure out ways to get a competitive advantage,” added Manfred. “I think it’s incumbent upon us in the commissioner’s office to look at the advantages that are produced and say ‘is this what we want to happen in the game.'”

Jeff Passan ran Manfred’s quote by “two sabermetrically inclined GMs” and both agreed with dumping shifts because “the game is better when the casual fans gets the product they want,” and there’s concern within the industry that baseball isn’t delivering. (That makes me wonder how many lefty pull hitters those GMs have on their rosters!)

I understand why many people want them gone but I am not a fan of eliminating shifts, personally. It’s basically a ban on creativity and that is bad regardless of industry. The MLB-wide batting average on balls in play has not changed at all over the last two decades even as shifts became popular, and I think teams with better information — or maybe I should say more willing to use that information to try something outside the box — should be allowed to use it.

If MLB wants to improve offense — and I am 100% all for that — I think they should start with fixing the strike zone and not having it depend on who’s catching and who the umpire is. Forcing relievers to face at least two batters and thus eliminating matchup specialists could be another idea. Telling players where to stand on the field is not something the commissioner’s office should control. Let teams position defenders where the hitter is likely to hit it. What’s wrong with that?

Pirela okay after taking pitch to hand in winter ball

During a recent winter ball postseason game in Venezuela, utility man Jose Pirela took a pitch off his right hand and had to exit the game. He went for x-rays after the soreness lingered and they showed no fracture, reports Chad Jennings. “He’s all good to go,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler. Pirela was shut down from winter ball play as a precaution but has already resumed working out.

Pirela, 25, hit .296/.394/.515 with 11 doubles, four triples, six homers, 26 walks, and 30 strikeouts in 47 winter ball games. He’ll come to Spring Training on the outside of the big league roster looking in — I still don’t expect the Yankees to cut Brendan Ryan, extra shortstops are useful — but with a chance to put himself in position to be the first position player called up. Pirela’s done nothing but hit these last few years and his versatility is a plus as well.

Kiley McDaniel’s massive farm system breakdown

Over at FanGraphs, Kiley McDaniel is in the middle of a series looking at each organization’s farm system from top to bottom. He covered the Yankees earlier this week and the write-up is massive, nearly 10,000 words. It runs 68 (!) players deep and McDaniel said it “may be the deepest system in the game.” Needless to say, the write-up comes with RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

Best of all, McDaniel also posted a ton of video at FG’s YouTube channel. He has clips of all the usual suspects there (OF Aaron Judge, RHP Luis Severino, C Gary Sanchez, etc.) and also some hard-to-find video of several of New York’s recent international signings, like OF Leonardo Molina, OF Jonathan Amundaray, and OF Juan DeLeon. (3B Dermis Garcia is embedded above.) Some of the videos span multiple years, so you can see how the players have changed over time. It’s a goldmine. Check it out.

YES ratings up 10% in 2014

For the 11th time in the last 12 years, the YES Network was the most-watched regional sports network in the country in 2014. Ratings were up 10% overall and 16% during primetime, the network announced. YES averaged 58,000 households during primetime in New York last season — game broadcasts averaged 223,000 households — blowing MSG (41,000) and SNY (30,000) out of the water. Pre- and post-game rated were up 25% and 23%, respectively.

Obviously some of that improvement is due to Derek Jeter‘s retirement tour, but not all of it. I’m sure Masahiro Tanaka‘s arrival boosted ratings a ton as well. Same with Carlos Beltran, who is more or less the most popular active player from Puerto Rico. Either way, lots of people were watching the Yankees last season. Lots more than 2013, that’s for sure.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 26-31

Over these next two weeks, we’re going to rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 32-40.

Ramirez. (Presswire)
Ramirez. (Presswire)

Like every other team, the Yankees have several spots on their 40-man roster dedicated to prospects who may or may not provide immediate help. Those are the players who have been protected from the Rule 5 Draft despite not yet being MLB ready. Not all of them are top prospects, mind you, but they are young players with some projected future utility the club didn’t want to risk losing.

Our 40-man roster ranking series continues today with Nos. 26-31, spots that feature a collection of those young prospects who might be able to help the Yankees in some capacity this coming season. But, more than anything, they’re looked at as potential future pieces down the road. Guys who can help more in 2016 or 2017 than 2015. To the next set of rankings …

No. 31: Danny Burawa

2015 Role: An up-and-down bullpen arm who is behind several others on the call-up depth chart. Burawa was passed over in last year’s Rule 5 Draft and actually had to be briefly demoted to Double-A Trenton last year after a rough start to the season with Triple-A Scranton (5.95 ERA and 3.52 FIP). He’s ticketed for a return to the RailRiders to start 2015.

Long-Term Role: Burawa, 26, has some of the nastiest stuff in the organization. His fastball regularly sits in the upper-90s with run in on righties, and his hard mid-to-upper-80s slider is a swing-and-miss pitch at its best. He’ll also throw a changeup but it isn’t a key pitch for him out of the bullpen. Burawa is held back by his below-average control — 5.17 BB/9 and 13.2 BB% in Double-A and Triple-A from 2013-14 — and may never be a late-inning reliever because of that, though he has vicious stuff and can be a factor in middle relief for multiple years down the road.

No. 30: Branden Pinder

2015 Role: Another up-and-down bullpen arm who I think is ahead of Burawa on the depth chart. The soon-to-be 26-year-old Pinder was added to the 40-man this offseason, his first year of Rule 5 Draft eligibility, and took a nice step forward with his control last summer, going from a 9.0 BB% from 2012-13 to a 5.9 BB% in 2014. He’s another guy who will return to Triple-A Scranton to start the year, though I expect to see him in MLB at some point in 2015. Before September call-ups, I mean.

Long-Term Role: Pinder doesn’t have the same overwhelming stuff as Burawa but he isn’t going out there with a fastball you can catch with your teeth either. He sits 93-95 mph with his four-seamer and is able to vary the break on his low-80s slider, sometimes throwing a short slider (almost like a cutter) and other times throwing a sweepy slider that frisbees out of the zone. It’s a classic boring middle relief profile but Pinder is a very high-probability future big leaguer.

No. 29: Jose Ramirez

2015 Role: Yet another up-and-down bullpen arm, though this one has MLB experience. Ramirez made his big league debut last season (5.40 ERA and 6.43 FIP in ten whole innings) before going back to Triple-A and, unfortunately, getting hurt. The getting hurt part has become an annual thing for him. Ramirez will compete for the last bullpen spot in camp, and if he doesn’t win it, he’ll return to Triple-A and be among the first called up when a fresh arm is inevitably needed.

Long-Term Role: Ramirez is two years younger than Burawa, one year younger than Pinder, and out-stuffs both of them. He has a mid-to-upper-90s fastball with movement, a sharp slider, and a knockout changeup he uses against both lefties and righties. On his absolute best days, Ramirez goes to the mound with three swing-and-miss pitches. The stuff is there for future late-inning work.

The only question is whether Ramirez will stay healthy enough to reach that ceiling. The Yankees moved him to the bullpen full-time last year because he kept getting hurt as a starter — arm injuries too, shoulder and elbow — and he still got hurt as a reliever. Ramirez seems very much like a “let’s get something out of him before his arm gives out completely” type of pitcher, and whatever they get out of him could be very good based on the quality of his stuff.

No. 28: Jose Pirela

Pirela. (Presswire)
Pirela. (Presswire)

2015 Role: Versatile utility player who will be first in line for a bench spot if someone gets hurt in Spring Training. (As I said yesterday, I don’t think the Yankees are going to cut Brendan Ryan just because.) Pirela is the very poor man’s Martin Prado — he has a contact-oriented swing and can play second base and left field. (Prado was already a fourth year big leaguer by time he was Pirela’s age (25), hence the very poor man’s part.)

Pirela has torn up Double-A and Triple-A the last three seasons — .290/.353/.432 (118 wRC+) with a 7.9% walk rate and a 12.5% strikeout rate — and his versatility gives the Yankees some options. He can step in to help out in case of injury, back up multiple positions, or be the light half of a platoon. It’s the kind of player just about every manager loves to have … and fans tend to overrate. I don’t know why, but versatility has that effect.

Long-Term Role: Despite the minor league numbers, I’m not sold on Pirela as an everyday player at the big league level — I think he’s more likely to be another Eduardo Nunez than Prado lite — but he’s useful and flexible. There is plenty of room for a guy like that on the bench and in the organization in both 2015 and for years to come. In the best case scenario, Pirela becomes the player many people believed Chone Figgins was, the guy who plays a different position everyday (to rest everyone else) and produces. More than likely though, he’ll be a bench guy while in his cheap pre-arbitration years.

No. 27: Ramon Flores

2015 Role: With Eury Perez now gone, Flores is the de facto fifth outfielder who will be called up in case of injury. Well, I guess sixth outfielder when you include Pirela. The 22-year-old Flores had a .247/.339/.443 (116 wRC+) line with seven homers in 63 games with the RailRiders last season — he hit eight homers in 141 games in 2013 — before a freak ankle injury effectively ended his season on the first day of June. Chances are he would have been a September call-up had he stayed healthy.

Long-Term Role: Carlos Beltran is perpetually on the verge of injury and/or a permanent shift to DH, and, as a left-handed hitter, Flores has a clear path to getting regular at-bats as at least a platoon right fielder in the near future. The Yankees never did give Zoilo Almonte — a switch-hitter who was better against righties with more raw power and more stolen base ability than Flores — a shot in a similar role whenever the opportunity arose these last few seasons, so there’s no guarantee Flores will get a look. That is more or less his long-term outlook: lefty platoon bat in a corner outfield spot.

Williams. (Scott Iskowitz/Getty)
Williams. (Scott Iskowitz/Getty)

No. 26: Mason Williams

2015 Role: For the big league team, none. Williams has close to zero chance of helping the MLB team this coming season as anything more than a defensive replacement when rosters expand in September. He was added to the 40-man roster this offseason only because he is a former top prospect who was Rule 5 Draft eligible. Williams has hit .236/.298/.319 (74 wRC+) in over 1,200 plate appearances at High-A and Double-A the last two years. He has no business being considered for a 2015 role at the big league level.

Long-Term Role: Once upon a time, Williams had the potential to be a Jacoby Ellsbury type of player. A leadoff hitter with on-base ability, speed, and elite center field defense. That long-term outlook has changed considerably the last two years and a lot of has to do with makeup. Multiple reports say Williams has been insubordinate and plays with an utter lack of energy. He’s failing as a prospect, and it is definitely not due to a lack of physical talent.

Williams right now has no long-term role with the team. The Yankees are hoping he will get his career on track and improve going forward — perhaps the 40-man spot will serve as motivation — and if that happens, their intention may be to flip him in a trade as soon as possible. The club has been emphasizing strong makeup and work ethic for years and Williams has shown zero of that so far, leading me to believe he’s more likely to be dealt as soon as he rebuilds a modicum of trade value rather than be given a real big league opportunity.

Coming Wednesday: Nos. 20-25. Three veteran(-ish) big leaguers and three youngsters more important for the future than the present.

The many ramifications of Stephen Drew’s return

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier this week the Yankees agreed to re-sign infielder Stephen Drew in a move that didn’t seem to go over too well, to put it nicely. It’s a nothing contract, reportedly $5M for one year with $1.5M in incentives, but bringing back a guy who hit .150/.219/.271 (32 wRC+) in pinstripes last year was never going to be popular. Plus the Drew family seems to be polarizing in general.

The Yankees have long coveted Drew — they offered him more money than the Red Sox two years ago, but he went to Boston in part due to uncertain playing time based on the health of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez — and it seems his price simply dropped into their comfort range this offseason. During the holidays Joel Sherman reported Drew was seeking $9M to $10M. The Yankees were able to get him for half that.

Anyway, the return of Drew impacts the roster in several ways. Chad Jennings did his usual fine job breaking down the impact of the signing yesterday. Now here’s what I think.

So A Trade Is Coming, Right?

I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon or if I’m just starting to notice it now, but every time the Yankees make a move these days, the immediate response seems to be “this is a precursor to a trade.” When they traded for all those relievers a few weeks ago, it was because they were planning to trade their bullpen depth to add a starter. When they re-signed Drew, it was because they’re planning to trade Didi Gregorius or Rob Refsnyder for Cole Hamels. Something like that.

That is very possible. Drew puts the Yankees in a better position to deal a young middle infielder for a high-end starter, though it would go against everything else they’ve done this offseason. The Yankees have gotten younger with just about every move this winter and it appears to be a concerted effort, not a coincidence. Turning around and trading a bunch of that youth for someone like Hamels would be a total change in direction. A complete 180. The Yankees have done this before, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented, but I don’t see it.

And there’s also the money. If the Yankees were going to absorb a huge contract like Hamels’, I think they’d sooner sign Max Scherzer or James Shields, forfeiting the draft pick but keeping the real live young players. Perhaps the plan is to trade Gregorius or Refsnyder for a younger, cheap starter. Someone like … Shane Greene? That wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Packaging a bunch of players for a young pitchers gets you who these days? Tyson Ross? That’s a lot of work to get someone like him.

A trade is definitely possible because a trade is always possible. I would never put a huge splash by the Yankees. Those moves are in their DNA. I just think there’s a definite emphasis on getting younger for the first time in a very long time by the Yankees. They’ve been after Gregorius for years — they’ve been trying to get him since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings — and they finally landed him this winter, right when they desperately needed a young shortstop. I would be very surprised if the Drew signing did in fact lead to a young infielder being traded.

Middle Infield Depth Is A Good Thing, You Know

To me, re-signing Drew boils down to this: New York’s shortstop depth chart was Gregorius and Brendan Ryan, and their second base depth chart was Refsnyder and Jose Pirela. Three unproven guys and Ryan. I’ve been saying for weeks that a young middle infield tandem like Gregorius-Refsnyder made me nervous as heck, and while Drew doesn’t significantly improve the situation by himself, he does help. Drew gives the team protection at both second and short, where Refsynder and/or Didi could prove to be overmatched. Simply put, the Yankees added another able body at a hard to fill position(s).

Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)
Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)

The Kids Aren’t Blocked, Stop Saying They’re Blocked

A one-year contract blocks no one. Big money, long-term contracts block prospects. A one-year deal? That’s no obstacle. In fact, I think the Drew signing actually benefits Refsnyder developmentally. Granted, he loses out on a potential big league job come Opening Day and that sucks for him, but now he’ll go back to Triple-A to work on his defense, which has always been the concern. He won’t have to learn on the job. I mean, he will eventually, but not right now, not two years after changing positions.

The jump from Triple-A to MLB is tougher right now than it has ever been because of all the information teams have. I can’t repeat that enough. Super-elite prospects — I’m talking top two or three in the game — like Xander Bogaerts, Gregory Polanco, and the late Oscar Taveras all came up and stunk last season when everyone was certain they’d rake. Refsnyder (and Pirela) are not close to that level of prospect, and non-elite prospects are not the guys you just hand jobs. They’re the ones who have to force the issue.

Remember, the Yankees cut both Alfonso Soriano and Brian Roberts last season when they were terrible, and that’s when they didn’t have appealing replacements. They dumped Soriano and called up Zelous Wheeler. They dumped Roberts when they acquired Drew. Now, if Drew stinks, they have Refsnyder waiting and can more quickly pull the trigger and make a change. A one-year contract for Drew isn’t a roadblock for Refsnyder, it’s a bridge.

Et tu, Brendan?

Although it seems like Refsnyder will return to Triple-A thanks to Drew, I’m not so sure this move doesn’t mean the end of Brendan Ryan. I don’t think the Yankees will cut him right now — like I said, middle infield depth is hard to find, and Ryan will be handy if Drew or Gregorius or whoever pops a hamstring in Spring Training — but he might have to fight for his roster spot in camp. (For the record, I think Eury Perez will be designated for assignment to clear a 40-man spot for Drew.)

Before adding Drew, the Yankees needed Ryan because he was the only player in the organization other than Gregorius who could legitimately play shortstop at the big league level. Now they have Drew to do that. The club could opt to carry the more versatile Pirela on the bench instead of Ryan, for example. Maybe they decide to carry Refsnyder anyway and use him in some three-man platoon with Gregorius and Drew. There’s no reason to get rid of Ryan just yet, but come Opening Day, he might not have a place on the 25-man roster.

Defense!

When the Yankees first traded for Drew and stuck him at second base last year, his inexperience was obvious. He had never played a position other than shortstop in his professional career and it showed. I remember there were some issues on double play pivots and indecisiveness on cut-off plays. But I though he improved quite a bit by the end of the season. He wasn’t a natural, but Drew had the raw athleticism to make tough plays and he was gaining experience.

With Drew at second as opposed to Refsnyder or Pirela, the Yankees will field a regular infield with three above-average defenders and one average defender. The average defender being Drew, who could become above-average with more experience. They’ll also have an above-average defender in Brian McCann behind the plate as well as Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in two outfield spots. The only bad defender on the field will be Carlos Beltran in right. The lineup is sketchy and the rotation is risky, but man, the Yankees are going to catch the ball next year. They haven’t had a defense this good in ages.

Headley’s signing is good for Refsnyder and Pirela

Jose Pirela
(AP Photo)

All Rob Refsnyder has done is hit. After starting slowly following the 2012 draft, he’s put up monster numbers at every level of the minors in the last two seasons, ending 2014 in AAA with a .300/.389/.456 (137 wRC+) line. It seems, or at least seemed, that his time in the Bronx is near.

Then the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley, which pushes Refsnyder out of immediate consideration for a starting spot.

It might appear as though the Yankees crowded Refsnyder out of a spot, but by re-signing Headley they might have made his transition to the big leagues easier. The same is true for Jose Pirela, and other candidate for an infield position before Headley signed.

It’s all about versatility

The trade for Martin Prado last July gives the Yankees flexibility. They took advantage right away, starting Prado multiple times at 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. It appears that he’ll start the season as the everyday second baseman, but that could change at any time — not because of Prado’s performance, but because others are stepping up.

Instead of starting Refsnyder at second out of the gate, they’ll have him continue what he started at Scranton Wilkes-Barre. If he continues pummeling the ball as he did in 2014, he can force his way into a call-up even if Prado is performing to expectations.

As of today, Alex Rodriguez is the Yankees’ primary DH. That could change between now and Opening Day, but let’s assume it’s true. In that case, who are the Yankees two biggest on-field risks? Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. Should anything happen to either, Prado can move to the outfield and Refsnyder can take over at second base.

(Refsnyder did play nine games in the outfield last year, and another 42 in 2012. He was an outfielder in college. But it appears that the Yankees want him to stay at second base. There’s a better chance that they move Prado to the OF rather than Refsnyder.)

Pirela is a man of many positions, having started multiple games at every spot except catcher in 2014. He also continued hitting well, a 117 wRC+ in 581 PA at AAA, which followed a 118 wRC+ in 530 PA at AA in 2013. Basically, ever since he reached AA he’s started to hit. Given his versatility, the Yankees can easily find a spot for him whenever a need arises.

Pirela can slide in for anyone who gets hurt, other than Brian McCann. The Yankees can work in Refsnyder in the event that anyone other than Didi Gregorius gets hurt, moving Prado to whatever position and inserting Refsnyder at 2B.

By fielding a team of veteran major leaguers, the Yankees can let Pirela and Refsnyder signal when they’re ready. With their flexibility, they can probably work in one of those guys at almost any time. Additionally, they provide depth in case of injury. If any of the seven non-mask-wearing fielders gets hurt, the Yankees have an easy way to fill the void.

When the Yankees signed Chase Headley they didn’t block two young players. They merely changed the way they’ll fit into the 2015 plans. It might be for the better, for all parties.

2014 Season Review: Brendan Ryan and the Random Infielders

Remember last season, when the Yankees had a revolving door at shortstop just about all summer? They had seven players start at least five games at short at year ago. This summer it was only four players, and two of them made fewer than nine starts. The Yankees still cycled through a healthy collection of random backup infielders in 2014, though thankfully it was not as substantial a group as 2013. Let’s recap their seasons.

Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Brendan Ryan

Giving Ryan a two-year contract with a player option for a third year definitely flew under the radar as a LOLWTF move last offseason. I mean, I get it, the Yankees had to protect themselves in case Derek Jeter‘s ankle and legs couldn’t hold up, but still. One year in, that’s a weird contract even though it only pays him peanuts. You don’t see players like this get multi-year contracts all that often.

Ryan, 32, actually started this past season on the disabled list after hurting his back in Spring Training — he suffered a pinched nerve in his upper back during drills, then re-aggravated it sitting on the bus during a long Grapefruit League road trip — and he didn’t join the team until early-May. He was a seldom used backup infielder, appearing in only 49 games and starting only 33. Ryan hit a weak .167/.211/.202 (12 wRC+) with no homers, four walks, and 30 strikeouts in 124 plate appearances. He had two (2) multi-hit games.

The Yankees did get their money’s worth out of Ryan defensively by playing him at all four infield spots. Yes, that includes first base. The image of Ryan playing first while Jeter plays short will forever be my lasting memory of the 2014 Yankees. Everything was just so backwards. Ryan is still a quality gloveman but he is clearly no longer elite defensively. That’s sort of the problem. He can’t hit — he’s never hit and never will — and if he’s not going to dominant defensively, then he’s not really worth a roster spot. Of course, if the 2015 season started today, Ryan would be the starting shortstop.

Zelous Wheeler

Because of Jeter’s lost 2013 season, Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension, and Robinson Cano‘s free agency defection, the Yankees hoarded some infielders on minor league contracts last winter. The 27-year-old Wheeler was one of those players, and he put himself on the map with a strong Spring Training and an excellent (132 wRC+) first few weeks with Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees called him up in early-July when Yangervis Solarte played his way down to the minors, and in his very first MLB game, Wheeler did this:

Not a bad way to start your big league career, no? Wheeler swatted another solo homer a week later and didn’t do much else offensively the rest of the season, finishing the year with a .193/.230/.298 (43 wRC+) batting line in 62 plate appearances. He went back down to Triple-A at one point and was recalled in August.

Wheeler is actually still on the 40-man roster, though now that I think about it, it isn’t all that surprising. First off the Yankees have some open 40-man spots, so it’s not like they need to get rid of someone, but also the infield is one giant question mark. They don’t have a second baseman, a third baseman, or a shortstop right now. Wheeler could always go to the minors and I guess he’s worth keeping around as depth for the time being.

Dean Anna

Man, what a season this was. Guys named Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte actually made the Opening Day roster. The Yankees acquired Anna from the Padres in the offseason — they sent reliever Ben Paulus to San Diego, and he had a 4.65 ERA (4.49 FIP) while repeated High-A this summer — and he beat out Eduardo Nunez for the spare infielder’s job in Spring Training. Both he and Solarte did, fair and square.

Anna, 27, played very sparingly in April, though he did record his first career hit in his first career game, a single off Jeremy Jeffress. Anna took Clay Buchholz deep for his first career homerun a week later, though that wasn’t the highlight of his time in pinstripes. One day after sparing the bullpen and throwing a scoreless inning in a blowout loss (video), Anna drew a bases loaded walk in the 12th inning to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead over the Rays:

I wish there was video of the entire at-bat somewhere. It was great. Anna saw eight pitches, fouled off a few tough sliders, and took some others for balls. You can even see Mark Teixeira say it in the video, “that’s a great at-bat.” Ken Singleton said the same thing.

The Yankees sent Anna to Triple-A when Michael Pineda was suspended for the pine tar incident — the suspension forced them to play with a 24-man roster, so they sent down Anna and called up a pitcher to replace Pineda — and he spent the rest of his time in the organization there before being designated for assignment in early-July to clear a 40-man spot for Wheeler. The Pirates claimed Anna off waivers and he spent the rest of the season with their Triple-A club. Anna hit .136/.200/.318 (38 wRC+) in 25 plate appearances with the Yankees.

Jose Pirela

Unlike everyone else in this post, Pirela is actually homegrown. The 24-year-old spent most of the last three years tearing the cover off the ball in Double-A, and he opened this past season with Triple-A Scranton. Pirela hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with ten homers and 15 stolen bases in 130 games with the RailRiders but did not get called up on September 1st. He wasn’t on the 40-man roster but would have been eligible for minor league free agency  after the season (again), and the team opted against adding him to the roster.

This looks like ... not the right way to hit. (Presswire)
This looks like … not the right way to hit. (Presswire)

That all changed when Martin Prado‘s season unexpectedly ended due to an emergency appendectomy in mid-September. The Yankees did indeed call up Pirela after that, though he sat on the bench for about a week before finally getting into a game. He tripled off Wei-Yin Chen in his first career plate appearance — it was a bomb off the wall in left-center, I thought it was gone off the bat — and sliced a single to right next time up. Pirela went 2-for-3 with the triple in his first career game and was a mainstay in the lineup after that, starting six of the team’s final seven games and coming off the bench in the seventh.

All told, Pirela went 8-for-24 (.333) with a double and two triples (149 wRC+) during his brief time in pinstripes at the end of the year. He started three games at DH and the final three games of the seasons at second base, after the Yankees had been eliminated. Pirela is one of those guys who has done nothing but put up great numbers in the minors even though the scouting reports aren’t glowing. The Yankees were able to re-sign him when he became a minor league free agent last winter, but after his strong season in Triple-A, another team might have offered more opportunity this offseason. Adding him to the 40-man will keep him in the organization, and, right now, Pirela has the inside track for a big league job in 2015, either at second base or on the bench.

Scott Sizemore

Sizemore was part of that group of infielders the Yankees brought in as minor league free agents last winter. The 29-year-old spent most of the season with Triple-A Scranton but did get called up to New York a few times, going 5-for-16 (.313) with three doubles and eight strikeouts (107 wRC+). He also drove in four runs in his limited time, which is kinda neat. Sizemore had a 108 wRC+ in Triple-A, was released at the end of July, then re-signed a few days later. He spent a bunch of time on the disabled list with an unknown injury as well as on the restricted list with some kind of off-the-field problem. In a season of mostly forgettable random infielders, Sizemore was the most forgettable.