The Four Young Rotation Candidates [2017 Season Preview]

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Anyone with doubts about the Yankees and their commitment to the youth movement need not look beyond the rotation. Rather than bring in outside help over the winter, even a innings eating veteran on a one-year contract, the Yankees are planning to go with their young starting pitchers in 2017. They’re taking a leap of faith.

Four young starters are vying for two rotation spots this spring: Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. We still don’t know which way the team is leaning — “I would say (no one is ahead). I think we’re going to have some long meetings about this,” said Joe Girardi over the weekend — though I get the feeling Severino came into Spring Training as a favorite for one spot.

Regardless of who gets the two rotation spots on Opening Day, history suggests the Yankees will need all four of these guys to make starts at some point. The Yankees haven’t used fewer than eight starters in a season since the strike-shortened 1994 season, when they used seven. They’ve averaged slightly more than ten starters per season the last three years. So yeah, the depth is good. Let’s preview these four young arms.

Luis Cessa

What does he have the others don’t? A fourth pitch and a ton of athleticism. Cessa, 25 in April, is a former shortstop and his athleticism is evident in his easy, repeatable delivery. More importantly, Cessa throws four distinct pitches. We saw all of them last season during his big league debut. Setting aside his eight relief outings last season, here are the numbers from Cessa’s nine starts (MLB averages in parentheses):

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Fastball 48.6% 95.0 (92.1) 5.7% (6.9%) 35.0% (37.9%)
Slider 30.3% 85.4 (84.3) 21.8% (15.2%) 66.0% (43.9%)
Curveball 11.1% 80.2 (77.1) 4.8% (11.1%) 50.0% (48.7%)
Changeup 9.9% 85.0 (93.7) 13.3% (14.9%) 40.0% (47.8%)

The slider was Cessa’s go-to secondary pitch, but he also threw his curveball and changeup roughly 10% of the time each, so the four-pitch mix is there. As a result, his platoon split was relatively small: lefty batters had a .324 wOBA against him while righties had a .311 wOBA. None of the other rotation candidates threw four pitches as often as Cessa, and I don’t think any of them are as consistently in sync with their delivery as well.

Also, in the age of pitch counts, I should note Cessa was incredibly pitch efficient last year. He averaged only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.69 pitches per plate appearance as a starter in 2016. The MLB averages are 16.8 and 3.95, respectively. Cessa managed to complete at least five innings in all nine of his starts while throwing 85+ pitches only three times.

What’s holding him back? A lack of strikeouts and #toomanyhomers, more than anything. Even with a slider that rated as well-above-average in swing-and-miss rate and ground ball rate, Cessa had a mere 17.1% strikeout rate and a 45.0% ground ball rate in his 51.2 innings as a starter last year. Hitters tagged him for a 1.92 HR/9 (19.3 HR/FB%) and that’s way too high. Can’t do that and stay in the rotation.

Cessa has long had a reputation for being a strike-thrower and we saw it last season. He had a 3.9% walk rate in his nine starts. I wonder whether he’s someone who could benefit from throwing a few more pitches out of the zone, especially in two-strike counts. Not everything needs to be over the plate, you know. That could lead to more strikeouts and fewer homers allowed. Just an idea. But yeah, too few strikeouts and too many homers. Those are the two things Cessa will look to improve this summer.

Chad Green

Green. (Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Good question! I’m not sure, exactly. Possibly an overpowering fastball? Green, who turns 26 in May, is one of several pitchers who added velocity after joining the Yankees within the last few years, and last season his heater averaged 95.4 mph and topped out at 99.2 mph. His four-seamer generated a swing and a miss a whopping 16.2% of the time, which is nearly triple the league average rate. Green’s fastball: it’s good. (Bet you didn’t realize he had a 26.3% strikeout rate last season, did you? )

I’d also argue that among the four pitchers in this post, no one improved their stock more over the last 12 months than Green. He’s trending in the right direction. He added some oomph to his fastball, improved the quality of his slider with help from pitching coach Larry Rothschild last spring, and he added a cutter while down in Triple-A. Green came to New York with a fastball and an okay slider. Now he has a bigger fastball, a better slider, and a brand new cutter. Neat.

What’s holding him back? The complete lack of a changeup. Green has tried both splitter and changeup grips and so far he’s been unable to find something that works. Because of that, he has nothing to combat left-handers aside from cutters in on the hands. Last summer lefties hit .287/.351/.663 (.421 wOBA) with nine homers in 95 plate appearances again Green. Yikes. That’s a 3.74 HR/9 (34.6 HR/FB%). Yikes.

Clearly, the goal for Green this season will be improving his changeup. Or his splitter. Either one works. He needs something to keep left-handed hitters off balance, because busting them inside with cutters only works so much. Green needs that soft offspeed pitch to keep them guessing. I’m not sure he has much of a chance to be a big league starter without one. His fastball and slider are good enough that, at worse, Green should be a pretty nice reliever. Obviously the Yankees hope he can be something more than that.

Bryan Mitchell

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? The potential for a truly dominant pitch. Mitchell’s curveball is arguably the best curveball in the organization. It’s a power bender that averaged 81.9 mph last season with a well-above-average spin rate, which points to the potential for swings and misses and grounders. Don’t sleep on Mitchell’s mid-90s four-seamer and low-90s cutter either. His raw stuff is very impressive.

Also, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Mitchell has performed the best among the rotation candidates, both this spring and last season. I get the sense that’s going to factor into the team’s decision. So far this spring Mitchell has struck out 12 and walked three in 14.1 innings. He’s allowed no more than one run in three of his four appearances. Last year Mitchell threw 25 innings across five starts with the Yankees, during which he had a 3.24 ERA (4.23 FIP). I don’t think the Yankees will base their decision on those numbers, but I do think they’ll be considered.

Of course, Mitchell walked more batters (12) than he struck out (11) during his relatively brief big league cameo last year, so perhaps don’t read too much into the shiny ERA. Point is, Mitchell performed well from a “didn’t allow many runs” perspective, and it sure is easy to dream on his fastball/cutter/curveball combination.

What’s holding him back? Both command and a changeup, or the lack thereof. Mitchell doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d expect and he’s more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe because his command is so poor. Throwing in the mid-90s is great! But if it’s over the plate, it’s going to get hit. And as pretty as his curveball is, it’s had a below-average swing and miss rate in all three of his MLB seasons. There’s a big disconnect between Mitchell’s stuff and his results, and that disconnect is due to poor command.

The changeup, I’d argue, is a bigger issue. You can carve out a successful career with below-average command, even as a starter. It’s doable. A.J. Burnett spent 17 years in the big leagues, won a pair of World Series rings, and banked over $140M with below-average command. Mitchell doesn’t have Burnett stuff, but he has pretty darn good stuff, and that should be enough to enjoy a big league career even without improving his command.

Without a changeup, however, Mitchell has to rely on his cutter to neutralize lefties, and his command isn’t good enough to rely on that one pitch consistently. Lefties hit .270/.372/.378 (.334 wOBA) against Mitchell last year and .274/.379/.415 (.350 wOBA) in his big league career overall. A right-hander who can’t get lefties out doesn’t have much of a chance to be a starter in Yankee Stadium. Mitchell has been working on his changeup for years — he’s tried a splitter as well — and so far nothing has taken. I wonder how much longer the Yankees will keep waiting before sticking him in the bullpen for good.

Luis Severino

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Former top prospect status and, in theory, the most upside. That’s going to buy the just turned 23-year-old Severino plenty of opportunities and that’s why I think he’s favored to land a rotation spot right now. Now, to be fair, that’s not the only thing Severino has going for him. He’s got the big fastball, he’s got the wipeout slider, and at one point in time he had a very nice changeup as well. There was a reason Severino was a top prospect.

There’s also this: Severino has had, by far, the best stretch in the big leagues among these four players. Back in 2015 the Yankees called Severino up in the second half, and he had a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in eleven starts and 62.1 innings for a team in a postseason race. He had his issues with walks (8.6%) and strikeouts (1.30 HR/9), but what rookie pitcher doesn’t? Besides, Severino’s strikeout (22.0%) and grounder (50.3%) rates were impressive. Remember this guy?

That guy is really good! The Yankees remember that guy. They want him back. Severino, unlike Cessa and Mitchell and Green, has shown the ability to dominate big league hitters as a starting pitcher, albeit in 60-something innings two years ago. It’s more than the other guys have shown, however, and that’s going to work in Severino’s favor come decision time. He’s a former top prospect who gave everyone a taste of his upside in 2015. That can’t be ignored.

What’s holding him back? Once again, it’s command and a changeup, though unlike Green and Mitchell, Severino does actually have a changeup. Watch that video. There are more than a few in there. Severino lost confidence and/or feel for his changeup last season — he threw 12 changeups total in his final four starts after averaging 12 changeups per start in 2015 — and he’s working to get it back this spring. Not enough of his starts have been televised for us to get an idea of how he’s progressing, unfortunately.

As for the command, Severino’s location with his secondary stuff last year was a bigger issue than with his fastball. His fastball is so overpowering that he doesn’t need to be precise with it. He just needs to be close enough. With his slider, however, Severino left too may up in the zone and out over the plate early last season, which earned him a demotion back to Triple-A. The same was true with his changeup before he stopped throwing it all together.

This spring Severino made some slight changes to his mechanics — he’s breaking his hands closer to his body (GIF) — in an effort to improve his command and changeup. His issues aren’t a mystery. The Yankees and Rothschild have been working to get Severino back on track, and heck, he even spent some time with Pedro Martinez in the offseason. With the changeup, it’s about getting Severino back to where he was two years ago. Concerns about his command have existed for a while though, and ultimately his ability to improve that will determine whether he stays in the rotation long-term or winds up back in the bullpen, where he dominated last season.

* * *

We have to acknowledge these four pitchers are not necessarily in a rotation competition this spring. They’re in a pitching staff competition. It’s entirely possible one or more of them will wind up in the bullpen should they fail to secure a rotation spot. Like I said earlier though, I’d bet on all four guys making starts at some point during the summer. That’s usually how these things play out.

Assuming Masahiro Tanaka stays healthy and opts out, the Yankees have no established pitching under control beyond 2017. The hope is one or two or all four of these young starters emerge as viable long-term big league rotation options this coming season. They don’t need to become aces to have value. (Have you seen what average-ish mid-rotation guys are getting in free agency?) These four pitchers could help solve a lot of problems this season, though each of them has to figure some things out to make it happen.

What needs to go right for the Yankees to contend in 2017?

An uphill climb. (Presswire)
An uphill climb. (Presswire)

In just three days the Yankees will play their first game of the Grapefruit League season. These next five weeks and four days will be used to determine the final few roster spots and shape the Opening Day roster, a roster that will inevitably change many times during the regular season. The Opening Day roster is never the roster that finishes the season.

The Yankees readily admit they’re in the middle of a “transition” right now, and while they’re not completely throwing in the towel and tanking, they are emphasizing the future over the present. It’s refreshing. They’ve needed to do this for a while. A year ago the Yankees won 84 games and were still in the wildcard race in late-September. It seems they’re in for more of the same this year. In fact, let’s look over the 2017 projections quickly:

  • FanGraphs: 80 wins (last in AL East, three games back of second wildcard spot)
  • PECOTA: 82 wins (third in AL East, two games back of second wildcard spot)
  • SportsLine: 80.4 wins (fourth in AL East, four games back of second wildcard spot)

The Yankees have outperformed the projections and their run differential for several years running now. Run differential says they should have won 323 games from 2013-16. They actually won 340. Do it once and it’s a fluke. Do it year after year — we’re talking about 17 extra wins across four years here, that’s a lot — and it’s a trend. For whatever reason the Yankees are always a few games better than expected. It’s happened too long to ignore.

Anyway, the projection systems see the Yankees as a .500 team or thereabouts in 2017, and I can’t say I strongly disagree with that. Based on the way things have gone the last few years, that probably means they’ll end up with something like 84 wins instead. Enough to remain interesting but almost certainly not enough to seriously contend for a postseason berth. They’ll need some things to break right to play in October this year.

Some of those things are obvious. Masahiro Tanaka needs to stay healthy or the Yankees are completely screwed. There’s virtually no path to the postseason that includes Tanaka being anything less than ace-like. Gary Sanchez needs to be an offensive force. He won’t do what he did last year again, though the Yankees are counting on him to provide big time power. When the team has a lead after seven innings, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman have to make it stand up.

The Yankees are going to need some other things to go their way to contend this year, things that are not so obvious. Without fail, each year every contending team get some kinda surprise out-of-nowhere performance that helps push them over the hump. Do you think the Red Sox expected Sandy Leon to hit like that last year? Of course not. The Dodgers weren’t counting on Grant Dayton being an ace setup man. Those surprise performances are what make baseball fun.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things I think need to happen for the Yankees to have a real chance at contending this year. I’m talking 89 wins or more, something that puts them right in the thick of the wildcard race. It’s doable. Unlikely? Sure. But doable. Let’s get to it.

Either Bird or Judge becomes bonafide a middle of the order hitter

#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)

First base and right field are offense positions. Strong defense is always appreciated, though generally speaking, teams are looking for bashers at those spots. Bird and Judge both have a lot of potential, though they’re kids with fewer than 300 big league plate appearances combined. It’s tough to know what to expect. Especially since one is coming back from major shoulder surgery and the other is 6-foot-7 and making all sorts of mechanical adjustments.

As it stands, the Yankees will lean on Sanchez and Matt Holliday to anchor the middle of the order. I’ll be surprised if they’re not hitting third and fourth (in either order) on Opening Day. The Chris Carter addition provides some protection in case Bird gets off to a slow start or needs time in the minors to get his swing back. Carter is a flawed hitter, no doubt, but at least you know he’ll sock dingers on the regular. Ideally he’d something like sixth or seventh though, not fifth.

Point is, the Yankees have a pretty glaring need for another middle of the order hitter, someone to give the team a formidable 3-4-5 with Sanchez and Holliday. Bird and Judge have the most offensive potential among the young players, and while it would be cool if both established themselves as big time hitters this summer, the Yankees are going to need at least one of those guys to do it to contend. They need to add length to the lineup. No doubt about it.

Gardner and Ellsbury bounce back at the plate

Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury had similar offensive seasons a year ago. Gardner got on base more often and hit .261/.351/.362 (97 wRC+) overall. That was down from the .259/.343/.399 (106 wRC+) line he put up in 2015. Ellsbury showed a little more pop than Gardner and finished with a .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) batting line last year. That was actually up from .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) in 2015.

The Yankees have hinted at breaking those two up atop the lineup, though the fact of the matter is the offense is at its best when Gardner and Ellsbury are playing like they did in 2014 and early in 2015, before Ellsbury hurt his knee. It seemed like they were on base a combined six times each night. The Yankees don’t want to break those two up. They want them to play well enough to remain atop the lineup. That’s the best case scenario.

Like I said earlier, the Yankees need a deeper lineup, and that starts right at the top with Gardner and Ellsbury. Whether they’re capable of giving more at their ages — Gardner turns 34 in August, Ellsbury will do the same in September — is another matter entirely. I can’t say I’m optimistic about Ellsbury bouncing back at the plate, personally. For the Yankees to contend in 2017 though, they’ll need their two veteran speedsters to raise some hell as table-setters.

Severino pulls a Danny Salazar

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

In 2013 the Indians called Salazar, a top pitching prospect, up to the big leagues in the second half, and he gave them ten starts with a 3.12 ERA (3.16 FIP). Cleveland was counting on him to be a key member of their rotation in 2014, but instead Salazar didn’t pitch all that well (4.25 ERA and 3.52 FIP) and spent a chunk of the season in the minors. Then, in 2015, Salazar reestablished himself as a top young arm by throwing 185 innings with a 3.45 ERA (3.62 FIP).

The Yankees are hoping Severino follows a similar path. He came up and helped the team with eleven strong starts in 2015 before struggling in 2016 and spending part of the season in the minors. With any luck, Severino’s 2017 will look like Salazar’s 2015. There are plenty of caveats here — Salazar’s changeup is better than either of Severino’s secondary pitches, and Salazar really wasn’t that bad in 2014 — though the point stands. A good second half cameo in year one, struggles in year two, then a breakout in year three. This is year three for Severino.

Pineda has a big contract year

If there was ever a time for Michael Pineda to become the pitcher the Yankees expected when they acquired him all those years ago, this would be it. Big Mike will be a free agent after the season and putting together a solid campaign from start to finish would set him up for a nice payday. The Yankees need him to pitch well to solidify the rotation too. Pineda pitching well is a win-win. He sets himself up well for free agency and the Yankees get some wins out of it. Another year of below-average production helps no one.

At least one of the young relievers breaks through

In Betances and Chapman, the Yankees have as good a bullpen one-two punch as any team in baseball. Things get a little dicey after that. Tyler Clippard was solid after the trade last year, though he is clearly no longer the pitcher he was a few years ago, and an extreme fly ball pitcher whose fastball is dipping closer and closer to 90 mph might not be such a great fit for Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general. Clippard is the No. 3 reliever right now.

Adam Warren is the fourth option and he seems to be at his best when he’s a Swiss Army Knife reliever, not someone who is tied down to a specific inning. Then there’s Tommy Layne and two open spots, which figure to log a lot of mileage this year. We’ll see plenty of pitchers come in and out over the summer months. We always do. Sometimes by design but often out of necessity. The Yankees have been as aggressive as any team calling up relievers.

One of the young relievers like, say, Ben Heller or Jonathan Holder becoming a reliable sixth or seventh inning guy would go a long way to improving the bullpen. The rotation doesn’t figure to log many innings, making the middle of the game treacherous at times. Another year of middle innings instability won’t get the Yankees to the postseason. Finding that extra bullpen piece could swing a lot of games in those tricky middle innings.

The Yankees could follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint with James Kaprielian in 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Luis Severino and James Kaprielian, two of the best young pitchers in the Yankees organization, are looking to rebuild value this season. Severino had big league success in 2015 before struggling big time as a starter in 2016. Kaprielian, meanwhile, was sidelined for most of the 2016 regular season by a pretty significant elbow issue. Both are talented and looking to rebound this summer.

When the Yankees selected Kaprielian with their first round pick two years ago, he was billed as a quick moving college starter who could possibly reach the big leagues late in 2016. It didn’t happen because of the elbow injury, but the Yankees brought him to Spring Training as a non-roster player last year, which was the first time in at least a decade they brought their first round pick to big league camp for his first pro season. They were eager to see him.

Severino, on the other hand, was the rare fast moving international amateur free agent. He went from the rookie Gulf Coast League to the big leagues in two calendar years. That’s pretty incredible. Were the Yankees perhaps overly aggressive with him? Yeah, I think that’s possible, but when Severino was blowing hitters away as thoroughly as he was, it’s tough to hold him back. And after he was called up in 2015, it sure looked like a smart move.

There is again talk Kaprielian, despite the injury, could reach MLB later this year. Obviously staying healthy is the primary goal. If he only makes it to Triple-A this year, so be it. That’ll put him in position to help in 2018 and that’s perfectly fine. Staying healthy is priority No. 1 here. If Kaprielian does that, it’ll be a successful season regardless of whether he actually makes it to the Bronx at some point.

The Yankees surely are at least planning for the possibility of Kaprielian reaching MLB this year though, right? Of course they are. They consider just about everything, just like they did two years ago, when Severino was a potential  second half call-up candidate. The team put together a plan to make that happen, and if it came to fruition, great! If not, they’ll adjust. Thankfully it worked it out.

The 2015 Severino plan could apply to 2017 Kaprielian. What plan is that, you ask? As a young pitcher with a workload limit, the Yankees conserved Severino’s innings early in the season so they could turn him loose in the second half. Brian Cashman admitted that was the plan and I wrote an entire post about it. Here is Severino’s workload by level in 2015:

IP per Start Pitches per Start
Double-A 4.8 75.5
Triple-A 5.6 88.3
MLB 5.7 93.1

Severino had one disaster start in the big leagues (2.1 IP, 6 R) that is skewing the results a bit. Remove that start and he averaged six innings and 95.3 pitches per start in MLB in 2015. Point is, the Yankees started Severino slow and gradually increased his workload as the season progressed. That way he didn’t hit his workload limit in, say, early-September.

The Yankees could follow the same blueprint with Kaprielian this year. In fact, earlier this week Kaprielian told Jack Curry he anticipates being on an innings limit early in this season, though the team hasn’t told him their plans yet. Chances are they haven’t made a final decision. There are two benefits to this:

  1. Conserving innings so Kaprielian won’t hit his workload limit at an inopportune time later in the season, which we just discussed.
  2. Easing Kaprielian back into things after the elbow issue. He was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and that’s great, but he Yankees don’t want to push him too much, too soon.

We’ve seen plenty of clubs run into problems with their young starters in recent years. There’s the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012. Others have had starts skipped or been moved to the bullpen in September. That sort of thing. There really is no easy way to control workloads. It’s a headache. A necessary evil.

Conserving innings in the minors like the Yankees did with Severino in 2015 and could do again with Kaprielian in 2017 works because it happens in the minors. Limiting a starter to, say, five innings and 75 pitches each time out for two months doesn’t really work at the big league level. Not when you’re trying to win games. In Double-A though? Who cares. It’s about development.

The key difference between Severino then and Kaprielian now is the fact Severino opened the 2015 season at Double-A. Kaprielian will likely begin this coming season at High-A. I don’t think that’s a huge deal though. Maybe that means Kaprielian won’t make his MLB debut in August like Severino in 2015. The plan still works though. Limit his innings early — Kaprielian should carve up High-A ball, he might be there long — and turn him loose later.

Now that I think about it, it’s entirely possible the Yankees will use the 2015 Severino plan with several minor leaguers in 2017. I thought of Kaprielian first because he’s the organization’s top pitching prospect. But what about Chance Adams and Jordan Montgomery? They’ll be on some sort of workload limit this year too. Limiting their Triple-A innings in April and May potentially buys them more big league time in August and September.

Like it or not, workload limits are part of baseball now. Teams spend a lot of money on these kids — the Yankees gave Kaprielian a $2.65M bonus two years ago — and they want to protect their investments, and make sure they get as much out of them as possible. Keeping Kaprielian healthy this year is the top priority, but it is possible he will reach the big leagues, and if he does, the Yankees want to be ready. They don’t want to have to shut him down early.

The spring rotation competition could have a domino effect on the Opening Day bullpen

Luis and Luis. (Presswire)
Luis and Luis. (Presswire)

Over these next seven weeks or so, the Yankees are going to hold a massive rotation competition in Spring Training. They’ve held fake competitions in previous springs, we’ve seen plenty of those, but this one is legit. There are two spots open behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda, and no shortage of candidates. Here’s the approximate fourth and fifth starter pecking order:

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

The Yankees insist Adam Warren will compete for a rotation spot as well, though I have a hard time believing the soon-to-be 30-year-old Warren will be given a rotation spot over a kid in his mid-20s, especially since Warren is so valuable in relief. I suppose Ronald Herrera could be given the chance to win a rotation spot, though it seems unlikely. Generally speaking, that’s the pecking order.

This rotation competition comes with two questions. One, who wins the two spots? That’s the obvious question. And two, what happens to the guys who don’t win the rotation spots? In cases of Adams, Enns, and Montgomery (and Herrera), the answer is clear. They’ll go to Triple-A Scranton to bide their time. Warren, if he is truly involved in this rotation competition, will slide back in to the bullpen.

The top four guys is where it gets murky. It’s easy to assume the two competition losers will go to Triple-A — all four of them have options remaining (Mitchell has one, the other three have two) — and simply wait their turn. The Yankees aren’t going to get through the season using only five starters, so it’s only a matter of time until the two competition losers wind up in the rotation. That’s baseball.

That said, the answer is never that simple. The Yankees also have two open bullpen spots at the moment, and we can’t rule out the two rotation competition losers winding up in the Opening Day bullpen. They’ve done this before. The Yankees did it in 2014 with Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno, and they did it last year with Cessa. They would have done it with Mitchell too last year had he not suffered that fluke toe injury at the end of camp.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Severino and Cessa win the fourth and fifth starter’s spots. Severino has the most upside of the rotation candidates and Cessa had the most success as a starter last year. Sound good? Doesn’t matter, really, it’s only a hypothetical. In that case, the Opening Day pitching staff could shake out like so:

Rotation: Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Severino, Cessa
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, Warren, Green, Mitchell

If the Yankees believe Green and Mitchell give them a better chance to win than other bullpen candidates like, say, Jonathan Holder and Ben Heller, that very well could be the Opening Day pitching staff. I know I’m not alone in thinking the rotation competition losers could win up in the bullpen. Bryan Hoch suggested something similar recently as well.

Now, is this a good idea, using the sixth and seventh starters as relievers? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer. Montgomery, Enns, Adams, and Herrera give the Yankees some decent Triple-A pitching depth should they need an emergency spot starter. Also, as we saw with Cessa last year, the team could always send one of the starters they stick in the bullpen back down to Triple-A to get stretched out.

One thing to keep in mind: the Yankees are short on innings eaters. Last season AL starters averaged 5.69 innings per start. Tanaka averaged 6.43 innings per start, 12th highest in baseball. Sabathia was at 5.97 innings per start but noticeably lost effectiveness after 80-85 pitches or so. Pineda averaged 5.48 innings per start, third lowest among the 71 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Joe Girardi doesn’t trust him and had an increasingly short leash late in the season.

The two kids, whether it’s Severino and Cessa or Green and Mitchell, probably won’t be counted on to chew up innings and save the bullpen. We saw Girardi pull Cessa after five or six innings several times last season even though his pitch count was manageable, and there are reasons for that. He didn’t want him to go through the lineup a third time, because that’s usually when the opposing team does the most damage against the starter.

With Tanaka the only reliable source of innings, having multiple relievers who can throw multiple innings wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The Yankees don’t have to employ a true tandem starter system, though on the days the starter goes five and fly, it’ll be nice to have a reliever who can go three innings, if necessary. Putting the two rotation competition losers in the bullpen would give the team those multiple long men to help cover a rotation not known to pitch deep into games.

Opening Day is still nearly two months away (groan) and a lot can and will change between now and then. With any luck, everyone will get through camp healthy and the Yankees will be in position to decide whether to send their extraneous starters to Triple-A or use them in relief. That would be a nice problem to have. The rotation competition will be a big story this spring, and there’s a pretty good chance it will overlap with the bullpen competition as well.

Open Thread: February 14th Camp Notes

Spring Training has begun. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa today — the position players are due to arrive Saturday — and Joe Girardi held his annual start-of-spring press conference this morning. Part of the press conference is above. The rest of the videos are right here. As expected, Girardi all but confirmed Masahiro Tanaka will be the Opening Day starter. That was the only real news from the press conference. Otherwise it was the usual. Here is this year’s first set of camp notes:

  • Dellin Betances has been excused from workouts until his salary situation is resolved. He and the Yankees are scheduled to have their arbitration hearing Friday. The ruling is usually handed down the following day. Next Wednesday, February 22nd, is the mandatory reporting date for players participating in the World Baseball Classic, like Betances. [Brendan Kuty]
  • Luis Severino dropped ten pounds over the winter — the Yankees thought he was too bulky last year, remember — and acknowledged he needs to emphasize his changeup. He’s made a slight change to his mechanics and now breaks his hands closer to his body, which he said helps his changeup. “I came here to be a starter,” said Severino. [Jack Curry, Billy Witz]
  • CC Sabathia is perfectly healthy following his minor offseason knee surgery. It was a routine cleanup procedure that was scheduled well in advance. Sabathia reiterated he intends to continue pitching beyond this season as long as he’s healthy. “If I’m healthy, I’m going to play as long as I can,” he said. [Meredith Marakovits, Curry]
  • Since Chad Jennings is no longer covering the Yankees, we might not get daily reports on who is throwing bullpen sessions and hitting in the cage and whatnot. That’s a shame. Severino and Adam Warren threw live batting practice yesterday, so they’re ahead of schedule. (Warren seems to be ahead of schedule every year.) Tanaka threw a bullpen session. [George King]
  • The Yankees have added righty J.R. Graham and lefty James Reeves to their list of non-roster players, the team announced. I didn’t even realize Graham was still in the organization. I thought he became a minor league free agent after last season. Huh. Anyway, there are now 65 players in big league camp.
  • The Chris Carter signing is still not official — someone will have to be dropped from the 40-man roster to make room for him — but he is in camp and has a locker. He’ll wear No. 48. [Erik Boland]
  • Here are the Spring Training uniform numbers, via Bryan Hoch. Nos. 13, 21, and 25 were not issued. I have no idea what the Yankees are planning to do with No. 21 long-term.
  • Among this year’s guest instructors are Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Hideki Matsui, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Lee Mazzilli, and Stump Merrill. [Hoch]
  • And finally, the renovations at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa are still underway. Here’s a photof the place at the moment, via Mike Mazzeo.

Good to have the camp notes back, isn’t it? They’ll get more exciting in the coming days and weeks, I promise. Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. Both the Devils and Islanders are playing, and there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about anything that isn’t religion or politics right here.

Bird’s shoulder, Severino’s changeup among top storylines for Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Today is the first day of the long journey that is the 2017 baseball season. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa to open Spring Training today, and with any luck (okay, a lot of luck), the Yankees won’t be done playing until November. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There’s a whole baseball season to enjoy first.

This Spring Training, perhaps moreso than any Spring Training in recent memory, will offer some really intriguing storylines. And for once, it’s not because of the latest Alex Rodriguez controversy, or because we’re wondering whether some veteran signed to a huge contract will be healthy and productive. The Yankees will have many of their great prospects in camp and several big league jobs up for grabs.

So, as something of a Spring Training preview, let’s look at what figure to be the most important storylines of Spring Training this year. These are the storylines I think are important, anyway. You don’t need to be told Gary Sanchez‘s sophomore season and Aroldis Chapman‘s return are big deals, right? Right. Here are my most important storylines this spring, in no particular order.

Is Bird’s shoulder healthy?

By all accounts the answer is yes, Bird’s shoulder is healthy. Bryan Hoch posted video of Bird cutting loose and taking batting practice last week. That’s probably not something he would be doing if there was still concern about his shoulder. So I guess the real question is whether Bird has shaken off the rust following his lost season, and gotten back to where he was prior to the surgery one year ago.

The Yankees suddenly have a bonafide first base alternative in Chris Carter, who signed a one-year deal last week. I mean, they always had Tyler Austin and Ji-Man Choi to compete with Bird for the first base job, but Carter represents a more legitimate option. Austin and Choi have proven basically nothing at the MLB level. Carter led the National League in homers last year. For what it’s worth, Bird said all the right thing after the Carter signing.

“I think we’re happy to have (Carter), honestly. It’s another big bat and a good bat. I think he can bring a lot to the table. I’m excited to meet him,” said Bird to Dan Martin last week. “I missed a whole year. I have to prove to them that I can play again and play at a high level and be a quality part of the team.”

How is Judge doing with his new leg kick?

Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)
Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)

We’ve seen several versions of Aaron Judge since 2015. Two years ago he had a relatively small leg kick. Then last year he had a big leg kick. Now he has no leg kick. Judge and the Yankees are still working to find the right lower half mechanics, the mechanics that will allow him to make more contact. Power isn’t a question. Judge has plenty of that. Enough that he can sacrifice some power for contact.

As far as we know, Judge has been working on this new no leg kick setup all offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s 100% comfortable yet and ready to take it into games yet, however. This was always going to be an important Spring Training for Judge anyway. He is going to have to perform well to win the right field job. Now he has to do it while still adjusting to his new lower half mechanics. Hopefully it clicks right away and is a smooth transition.

Is Severino actually throwing his changeup?

The 2016 version of Luis Severino is a harsh reminder that sometimes things go wrong even with the most talented young players. Very, very wrong. Severino was an unmitigated disaster as a starter last year. He really was. We’re talking an 8.50 ERA (5.56 FIP) in 47.1 innings. Yikes. He was electric in 23.1 innings out of the bullpen, which only barely salvaged his season. (Not really.)

Severino basically stopped using his changeup late last year. He averaged 12.2 changeups per start during his debut in 2015, then averaged 13.1 changeups per start in his first eight starts last season, before he hurt his triceps and was later sent down. Then, in his final four starts — this doesn’t count his time in the bullpen — Severino threw 12 changeups total. That won’t work. Not as a starter.

This spring Severino will have to earn a rotation spot — I do think he’s favored to get one, though it’s far from guaranteed — and part of that is showing a willingness to use that changeup. It should be, anyway. If Severino cuts through camp with nothing but fastballs and sliders, how is that a good thing? He needs his changeup to be a successful starter and we should see that pitch plenty in camp.

How long will Kaprielian stick around?

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

Last spring the talk was James Kaprielian could make his big league debut later in the 2016 season. A flexor strain put an end to that, but it wasn’t an unrealistic thought in Spring Training. Kaprielian was a non-roster invitee last year and he threw only 3.2 Grapefruit League innings (across two appearances) before being sent to minor league camp. It wasn’t the longest look. Then again, Kaprielian had to prepare for his minor league season.

At this time last year the Yankees were six deep in starters, remember. Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Severino were going to be in the rotation. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova had to compete for the fifth starter’s spot. This year the Yankees have two open spots behind Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia. Severino is going to compete for one of those spots with Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Possibly Adam Warren too.

The number of Grapefruit League innings the Yankees give Kaprielian this spring could be telling. If it’s another quick two-game, four-inning showing before being reassigned to minor league camp, then it’s business as usual. But, if Kaprielian hangs around a little longer, then it’ll be a pretty good indication the Yankees want to move him through the system quickly. He’ll get to spend more time with the big leagues coaches in the spring that way.

Is Girardi really going to change the top of the lineup?

Last month Brian Cashman acknowledged the Yankees have discussed breaking up Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup since last season. Ultimately, it will be Joe Girardi‘s call, he said. “I think Joe’s going to get a better feel when he sees everything in camp — if it’s all healthy — and who’s best for that two-hole, then where’s the best guy slot after that. We’ll see how it plays,” said the GM.

Spring Training lineups are not designed to win the game. The veteran players bat high in the order so they can get their three at-bats and head home. It’s not until later in the spring, when the regulars play complete games and back-to-back days, that we start to get an idea of how the regular season lineup will shake out. The Yankees have so many young players and new faces that the lineup is kinda up in the air. Been a while since that was the case.

Anyway, my guess is Girardi will start the season with Gardner and Ellsbury batting first and second in whatever order. That’s the easiest thing to do. It won’t ruffle any feathers and it’ll delay any action, which might not even be necessary. But, if Girardi is truly willing to break up his two veteran leadoff guys, we should see it happen at some point in camp, particularly later in March when the lineup begins to look like the actual regular season lineup.

Ten Yankees among 2017 World Baseball Classic rosters

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Earlier this evening, the various World Baseball Classic rosters were announced during a live MLB Network broadcast. Bits and pieces of the rosters have leaked over the last several months. Now they’re all official.

A total of ten Yankees, including three-sevenths of their projected Opening Day bullpen, will participate in the tournament. Here are the full rosters (PDF link) and here are the various Yankees:

Michael Pineda was listed on a version of the Dominican Republic roster that leaked earlier today, but he wasn’t on the final roster. Huh. Severino is part of the Dominican Republic’s “Designated Pitcher Pool” and won’t play in the first round. Teams can add two pitchers from their DPP after each round.

Bleier is on the DPP for Israel, and since they’re not expected to make it out of the first round, chances are he won’t leave Spring Training. Everyone else is on the WBC active roster. Gallegos is ostensibly competing for a big league bullpen spot, and I can’t help but wonder if being away from the Yankees will hurt his chances.

I kinda had a feeling Clippard would sneak on to the Team USA roster. They were never going to get all their top relievers, and he figured to be among the second tier arms they turned to. Clippard will join former Yankees Andrew Miller and David Robertson in the Team USA bullpen. That’ll be fun. Bring them back with you, Tyler.

Cuba doesn’t allow expatriates to represent the country, so no Aroldis Chapman in the WBC. Gary Sanchez declined an invitation to play for the Dominican Republic because he wants to spend his first Spring Training as the starting catcher learning the pitch staff and whatnot. Masahiro Tanaka also declined to play for Japan.

Aside from those guys, the only other players in the Yankees organization who I thought might sneak on to a WBC roster were Luis Cessa (Mexico), Evan Rutckyj (Canada), and Carlos Vidal (Colombia). Vidal was on Colombia’s roster for the qualifying round last spring, but has since being dropped.

The 16-team tournament begins March 6th and will end with the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium on March 22nd. Here is the full WBC schedule.