The Coaching Staff [2016 Season Preview]


Once again, the Yankees made some changes to their coaching staff this past offseason. Not huge changes, but changes nonetheless. Two years ago Gary Tuck replaced Mike Harkey as bullpen coach. Last year the duo of Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell replaced Kevin Long at hitting coach, and Joe Espada took over as third base coach with Rob Thomson moving to bench coach and Tony Pena moving to first base coach.

This past offseason the Yankees replaced Tuck with Harkey — Tuck was reportedly let go due to a disagreement with the front office about the use of analytics — and promoted Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Marcus Thames to replace Pentland. Well, technically Cockrell was promoted to replace Pentland as the main hitting coach, with Thames replacing Cockrell as the assistant. Got all that?

It’s tough to preview or review the coaching staff because so much of what they do happens behind the scenes. Sometimes we can see the results of their work — Thames helped Ben Gamel add a leg kick last year, for example — but oftentimes we’re talking about adjustments the untrained eye won’t see. So rather than provide a rigorous analysis of the coaching staff, here is a more casual preview of the upcoming season.

The Manager

Can you believe this will be Joe Girardi‘s ninth season as manager? The Yankees have had two managers over the last two decades. They had eleven managers in the two decades before that, not counting the guys who were hired multiple times. I was still very young when George Steinbrenner was in his hiring and firing heyday, so I can’t really appreciate the continuity the Yankees have had the last 20 years.

Anyway, I have long believed the manager’s most important work takes place is in the clubhouse, where he has to manage 25 personalities (way more than that, really) day in and day out for eight months a year. That can’t be easy. The Yankees seem to have a very cohesive clubhouse — Alex Rodriguez referred to the veteran players as the “Board of Trustees” because of the way they oversee things — and that surely helps Girardi. Over the last few seasons the team has been largely distraction free and that’s a good thing. Girardi keeps the chaos to a minimum.

On the field, I think Girardi has two key responsibilities this year. One, don’t screw up the laughably great bullpen he’s been given. And he won’t. Girardi’s very good with his relievers. Yes, he makes moves that sometime backfire. That makes him like every other manager. We now have eight years worth of data telling us Girardi is good at a) turning marginal relievers into assets by putting them in good positions to succeed, and b) keeping his bullpeners fresh.

Managing this bullpen with the lead will be easy. Are the Yankees up in the late innings? Bring in Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, or Aroldis Chapman. Any of three will do. That’s the easy part of managing this bullpen. The tough part is all the other innings, when you’re trailing or deep into extra innings and the three big guys have been used. The Yankees are going to shuttle relievers in and out all year again, and it’ll be up to Girardi to get the most out of them.

The second key on-field responsibility this season is resting the regulars. Girardi and the Yankees seem to be all-in on this. They’ve been talking about it since the end of last season. They want to rest the veterans and try to avoid another second half offensive collapse. The versatile Aaron Hicks will make resting the outfielders easy. He can play any outfield position and he’s a switch-hitter. Hooray for that. The infield? Eh, things are a little up in the air there. Either way, keeping players fresh and productive will be very important in 2016.

Beyond all that, I’d like to see Girardi try a few more Hail Mary instant replay challenges this summer, which I discussed a few months ago. The team’s replay success rate may dip, but who cares? They don’t give out a prize for that. Girardi has to navigate this weird transition period as the “get younger and trim payroll but remain competitive” thing continues. I don’t think his job will be (or should be) in jeopardy if they miss the postseason, but who knows. After eight years, it’s pretty clear Girardi is an asset and one of the game’s better managers.

Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)
Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)

The Hitting Coaches

The Yankees are on their third hitting coach(es) in three years. They scored the second most runs in baseball last season, and outside of Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury, pretty much everyone in the lineup met or exceeded expectations. That seems to be the criteria by which fans judge hitting coaches. Did the team score a lot of runs? Did the players meet expectations? If the answers are yes, the hitting coach is doing a good job.

This summer the Cockrell/Thames tandem will be tasked not so much with keeping the veterans productive, though that’s obviously important. Given the team’s direction, the more important goal is helping the young players, specifically guys like Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro. We could also lump Hicks and Gary Sanchez in there as well. The Yankee have put aside the present for the future, that couldn’t be any more clear, which is why the young guys are the priority. That’s … pretty much all I have to say about the hitting coaches. Go team.

The Pitching Coach

This year the Yankees did not give Larry Rothschild a project. Last season they dropped a shiny new Nathan Eovaldi into his lap and told Rothschild to turn him into a better pitcher. And he did! Rothschild taught Eovaldi a splitter and he was way more effective with that pitch. Based on that, the project was successful in the short-term. We’ll see what happens in the long-term.

In 2016, Rothschild’s pet project will be Luis Severino and perhaps Bryan Mitchell, assuming he’s in the Opening Day bullpen. Severino is very refined for a kid his age, but the Yankees do need to monitor his workload, and Rothschild is in charge of mapping that out. Mitchell has to improve his control and command and gosh, that’s a tough one. Rothschild can only do so much there. Baseball history is full of live arms who washed out because they couldn’t locate.

Rothschild is about to begin his sixth season as pitching coach — how the hell did that happen? didn’t they just hire him? — and in those five years the Yankees have had plenty of pitchers exceed expectations, and I’m talking about both veterans (Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda) and young pitchers (Betances, Adam Warren, even Ivan Nova). Most of their pitching failures have been injury related. How much credit does Rothschild deserve? We can’t say, exactly. After five years, I feel pretty good with him running the show.

The Other Coaches

Harkey left the Yankees two years ago to take over as the Diamondbacks pitching coach. Arizona canned him at the end of last season, which was inevitable. He was a holdover from the previous regime and it was only a matter of time until GM Dave Stewart and head baseball operations hocho Tony La Russa brought in their own guy. They gave Harkey a year, then moved on, so now he’s back with the Yankees as bullpen coach. It’s like he never left.

Thompson returns as bench coach and I have no opinion about that whatsoever. Pena returns as first base coach — his is Pena’s 11th season on the coaching staff, by the way — and I also have no opinion about that. Both guys have been around forever and they wouldn’t continue to be around if they weren’t quality baseball minds. All bench and first base coaches are cool with me because I’m don’t really know what they do or how much influence they have. Pena works with the catchers. I know that much.

Third base coaches generally get a bad rap. They’re either hated or unnoticed. Espada was conservative sending runners last year and at least part of that was out of necessity. The Yankees are not a fast team aside from Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. Also, the Yankees scored a lot of runs last year, and when you can hit for power like they did, it makes sense to hold a runner if you think there may be a play at the plate. Teams that struggle to score runs have to really push it. The Yankees aren’t one of those teams.

That said, Espada did appear to be overly conservative at times, perhaps due to poor reads or not knowing the scouting reports on the outfielder’s arm. (Guessing it was the former, not the latter.) That’s something that has to be cleaned up. Espada’s not a rookie third base coach — he was the Marlins third base coach from 2010-13 — so he has experience. Hopefully his second year in New York goes a bit more smoothly now that he’s seen the league and is more familiar with his personnel.

Kuty: Yankees working on adjusting Aaron Hicks’ swing

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

According to Brendan Kuty of, new assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames has been working with OF Aaron Hicks on “correcting his bat path.”  Hicks has been in the minor league complex for around a month, lifting and working on hitting with Thames.

Hicks, whom the Yankees acquired in the offseason for John Ryan Murphy, was touted as one of the top ML prospects (topping at #19 in 2010 BA list) before being called up to the Minnesota Twins in 2013. Since then, he’s shown flashes of athletic brilliance but has not hit to his potential. The good news is he’s steadily improved hitting in ML: his 97 wRC+ in 390 PA in 2015 is career high (62, 83 wRC+ in previous two seasons) and many believe his tools will take him even further (for instance, check out this Carlos Gomez comparison from FanGraphs). I wouldn’t count on Hicks actually becoming as good as Gomez, but hitting improvements will do wonders for him as a player.

Kuty’s article mentioned that most of the work focused on Hicks’ left-side swing. That’s a plausible idea. His career LHP/RHP splits are quite stark in difference. He’s hit to a nice .808 OPS versus lefties with his righty swing, but only .596 OPS versus righties. Switch hitting is not easy – you have to work on two different swings at once. It is hard to maintain consistency and polish on one swing alone. There have been guys like Shane Victorino, a former switch-hitter who ditched one side and focused on another, but there are undeniable benefits if you can succeed with two swings.

What are they focusing on? Consistent bat path.”Being able to stay long through the zone and line drives, hitting line drives all over the place and constant hand positioning, being able to constantly get that slot long and through the zone,” Hicks said. Those are some phrasings that one may hear at local batting cage but they still ring true in the bigs.

Let’s also talk about Marcus Thames. There’s not a lot of history with his work as a hitting coach but from what I can tell, he seems to be very well-respected and liked. To have a rapid climb from being a High-A hitting coach (2013) to ML assistant coach means that he’s doing something right. In terms of hitting philosophy, it sounds like he’s far from being a cookie-cutter:

“I don’t have one philosophy,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and make up something because it depends on the hitter. And it depends on the guy on the mound. I really don’t have one and it just depends on the guys. One major thing that I do, I want my guys to be aggressive in the strike zone. Other than that, philosophy-wise, it just depends on the hitter.

There’s definitely not one foolproof way to make every hitters succeed. If there were, imagine the terror pitchers would endure on plate appearance-basis. There were guys like Walt Hriniak, who was a hitting coach for Red Sox and White Sox in the 80’s and 90’s, who saw success (HOF’er Frank Thomas being the main disciple) teaching hitters pretty much the one way, but I personally think every hitter is different. I assume we will hear more about Thames’ reign as a ML assistant hitting coach throughout the season.

Back to Aaron Hicks – he certainly has some pop in his bat. In 2015, Hicks hit for a .142 ISO, which is right around league average. You can expect that figure to go up slightly in the Yankee Stadium. A more exciting number would be 20 HR’s and 20 steals. He hit 11 home runs in 390 PA’s. If he were to get full season’s worth of plate appearances, hypothetically he could get it near 20. I’m not necessarily calling it but it’s plausible and fun to think about. If what he works on with Thames pays off on the field, I think Yankees may have themselves a player that the Twins envisioned years ago. Don’t get too excited yet – if it happens, it’ll be a process.

Yankees promote Alan Cockrell to hitting coach, Marcus Thames to assistant hitting coach

Thames. (Blade/Julia Nagy)
Thames. (Blade/Julia Nagy)

6:34pm ET: The Yankees have officially announced the moves. Cockrell takes over as hitting coach and Thames is the assistant hitting coach.

5:23pm ET: According to George King, the Yankees are planning to promote assistant hitting coach Alan Cockrell to the primary hitting coach position. Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Marcus Thames will be promoted to serve as Cockrell’s assistant. The Yankees have not yet confirmed or announced the moves.

Hitting coach Jeff Pentland was let go earlier this month, as was bullpen coach Gary Tuck. The Yankees hired Pentland and Cockrell last offseason after firing Kevin Long. Pentland always seemed like a stopgap coach, though I thought he would stick around longer than one year. I was wrong.

Cockrell, 52, was the Rockies hitting coach from 2006-08, the Mariners hitting coach from 2009-10, and a minor league hitting coordinator with the Diamondbacks from 2011-12. He served as a roving minor league hitting coordinator with the Yankees from 2013-14 before joining the big league staff.

Thames, 38, played for the Yankees in 2002 and 2010. They hired him as a coach prior to the 2013 season and he steadily climbed the minor league ladder — Thames was the hitting coach for High-A Tampa (2013), Double-A Trenton (2014), and Triple-A Scranton (2015) in recent years.

It has seemed as though the ultra-likable Thames was being groomed for the hitting coach job the last few seasons. King says the Yankees were impressed with his minor league work and notes other clubs were showing interest in Thames as a coach. The Yankees decided he was ready for a big league job. Neat.

With Cockrell and Thames promoted, the Yankees now only have to replace Tuck as bullpen coach. There have not been rumblings any yet, but I do think it’s worth noting ex-bullpen coach Mike Harkey was let go as D’Backs pitching coach a few weeks ago.

Saturday Links: Wildcard Game, Thames, Judge, Son, Yogi


The Yankees and White Sox are halfway through their four-game series. They continue the set with the third game later this afternoon. Here are some links to help you pass the time.

Wildcard games start times announced

Earlier this week, MLB announced the start times for the two wildcard games. The AL game will be played at 8:08pm ET on Tuesday, October 6th, while the NL game will be played at 8:08pm ET on Wednesday, October 7th. Standard postseason start times. The AL game will be broadcast on ESPN and the NL game on TBS. Those are the only games scheduled those days. The full postseason schedule can be found right here.

The Yankees come into today four games back of the Blue Jays in the AL East and 4.5 games up on the Astros for the first wildcard spot. They’re five games up on the Angels for a wildcard spot in general. The magic number to clinch the team’s first postseason berth since 2012 is a mere five, as Joe DiMaggio tells you in the sidebar. It’s unlikely the Yankees will catch and pass the Blue Jays to win the AL East, so they figure to be playing in that wildcard game one week from Tuesday. They’ll host the game at Yankee Stadium if they hold onto their lead for the first wildcard spot.

Q&A with Marcus Thames

Brendan Kuty recently posted a short-ish interview with Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Marcus Thames, who was with the Yankees during their recent trip to Toronto. Thames discussed his philosophy as a hitting coach and some players we’ve seen come up from the minors this year. He also spoke about top prospect OF Aaron Judge at length after Judge hit .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with a 28.5% strikeout rate in 61 games for the RailRiders.

“If you come to a game and watch, everybody’s trying to make him expand (the strike zone). So if he expands, he’s going to get himself out. So he’s going to have to have discipline to know what he does well, and that’s swing at strikes. If he does that, he’s going to be fine,” said Thames. Judge is always going to strike out a bunch — he’s 6-foot-7 remember, that’s a lot of strike zone to cover — but another few hundred at bats in Triple-A next season is best for him. Triple-A is the place to learn how to not expand the zone, not the big leagues.

Son. (Korea Times)
Son. (Korea Times)

Korean OF Ah-Seop Son plans to come to MLB

Korean outfielder Ah-Seop Son plans to come over to MLB this offseason, reports Jeff Passan. Son will not be a free agent this winter, so his team, the Lotte Giants, will have to make him available through the posting system. Once he is posted, teams will be able to place a blind bid, and high bidder gets a 30-day window to negotiate a contract with Son. Here are his career stats, via Baseball Reference:

2007 19 -9.5 Lotte KBO 4 6 2 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 .167 .167 .333 .500
2008 20 -8.2 Lotte KBO 80 250 31 66 11 1 3 17 2 3 28 35 .303 .387 .404 .791
2009 21 -7.3 Lotte KBO 34 96 11 16 4 0 3 4 1 1 9 16 .186 .263 .337 .600
2010 22 -6.0 Lotte KBO 121 487 85 129 23 0 11 47 6 2 50 82 .306 .377 .438 .815
2011 23 -5.4 Lotte KBO 116 492 79 144 25 5 15 83 13 4 43 80 .326 .385 .507 .892
2012 24 -4.3 Lotte KBO 132 556 61 158 26 0 5 58 10 5 41 79 .314 .370 .396 .766
2013 25 -3.5 Lotte KBO 128 568 83 172 23 4 11 69 36 7 64 88 .345 .421 .474 .895
2014 26 -2.9 Lotte KBO 122 570 105 175 25 3 18 80 10 3 80 78 .362 .456 .538 .994
2015 27 Lotte KBO 108 480 82 133 26 0 12 52 11 6 62 95 .321 .408 .471 .879
All Levels (9 Seasons) 845 3505 539 994 164 13 78 411 89 31 377 554 .324 .399 .462 .860

Son, who turns 28 in March, is described as a player “whose forte is more hitting for a high average and getting on base” rather than hitting for power. Passan notes Son will qualify for free agency next year, so if he gets lowballed during contract talks this winter, he could simply return to Korea for another season, then try again as a true free agent with more negotiating leverage next offseason.

The Yankees have a full and rather pricey big league outfield as well as a bevy of lefty hitting outfielders in the upper minors — Son is a left-handed hitter as well — so I’m not sure he makes sense for them. (For what it’s worth, the Yankees are reportedly scouting Korean first baseman Byung-Ho Park.) That said, you can be sure teams will take a much harder look at Korean players going forward following the success of Jung-Ho Kang with the Pirates.

Yogi’s funeral will be an “intimate private memorial”

According to Priscella DeGregory, the funeral for the late Yogi Berra will be an “intimate private memorial” next week, likely near his home in Montclair, New Jersey. It’ll be a small service for his family according to officials for Berra’s museum. “The outpouring of emotion that we have witnessed is a testimonial to how significant an impact he had not just as an athlete but as a human being,” said museum CEO Kevin Peters to DeGregory. Yogi passed away at age 90 late Tuesday night. We all miss him.

Triple-A Scranton, Double-A Trenton announce coaching staffs

Thames is movin' on up. (Times of Trenton)
Thames is movin’ on up. (Times of Trenton)

The Yankees have yet to hire a new hitting coach and first base coach, but they have finalized the coaching staffs for their top two minor league affiliates. They were officially announced a few days ago. There was quite a bit a turnover — which isn’t uncommon at the minor league level —  and some of it appears to have long-term big league implications. Here are the new staffs:

Triple-A Scranton

Manager: Dave Miley
Hitting Coach: Marcus Thames
Pitching Coach: Scott Aldred
Defensive Coach: Justin Tordi
Trainers: Darren London (head trainer) and Lee Tressell (strength and conditioning)

Miley, Aldred, and London are all returning. Miley has been managing New York’s top farm team since 2006, when they were still affiliated with the Columbus Clippers. Aldred was considered for the big league pitching coach job a few years ago before Larry Rothschild was hired. Tordi was the first base and bench coach with Low-A Charleston last summer.

The most notable name here is Thames, who was said to be a candidate for the big league hitting coach job earlier this offseason. In fact, at one point it was erroneously reported he would take over as the team’s assistant hitting coach, but obviously that isn’t the case. Thames was the hitting coach for High-A Tampa in 2013 and Double-A Trenton in 2014, so he’s moving up another level. He has a lot of supporters in the organization and it appears the team is grooming him for an MLB coaching job in the future, perhaps as soon as 2016. Maybe that whole assistant hitting coach report thing was a year early.

Double-A Trenton

Manager: Al Pedrique
Hitting Coach: P.J. Pilittere
Pitching Coach: Jose Rosado
Defensive Coach: Michel Hernandez
Trainers: Lee Meyer (head trainer) and Orlando Crance (strength and conditioning)

Hernandez, Meyer and Crance are all returning to the team. Rosado is joining the Thunder after spending the last four seasons as a pitching coach with one of the team’s two rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliates.

Pilittere, who longtime RAB readers will remember as a player from Down on the Farm, was High-A Tampa’s hitting coach last year, Low-A Charleston’s hitting the coach the year before that, and the Rookie GCL Yanks hitting coach the year before that. The scouting report on him as a player always said he was smart guy with top notch makeup, which made him a good coaching candidate down the line. Like Thames, Pilittere seems to be a faster riser up the coaching ranks.

Pedrique is replacing longtime Thunder skipper Tony Franklin, who had been managing the team since 2007. Pedrique has some big league managerial and coaching experience — he spent 83 games as interim manager of the awful Diamondbacks in 2004 — and has been with the organization since 2013. He managed Low-A Charleston in 2013 and High-A Tampa in 2014.

Franklin, meanwhile, will manage the Pulaski Yankees in 2015, the organization’s new rookie ball affiliate, according to George King (subs. req’d). King notes that under new player development head Gary Denbo, the Yankees want to put veteran managers at the lower levels of the minors to work with their youngest prospects. I like the idea. I have no idea if it’ll make any real difference, but I like it.

Update: Yankees have not named Marcus Thames assistant hitting coach

Thames. (Times of Trenton)
Thames. (Times of Trenton)

Tuesday: While speaking with reporters at the Winter Meetings on Tuesday, Brian Cashman said the Yankees have not decided to hire Thames as the assistant hitting coach and called the report “false.” He said they need to hire a hitting coach first, which the team is still not close to doing. Same with the first base coach position.

Saturday: According to Anthony McCarron and Bill Madden, the Yankees are planning to hire Marcus Thames as their assistant MLB hitting coach. There’s still no word on who they will hire as the actual hitting coach, but the Daily News scribes says long-time minor league hitting coordinator James Rowson is the favorite right now.

Thames, 37, last played with the Dodgers back in 2011. He spent 2013 as the hitting coach at High-A Tampa and 2014 as the hitting coach at Double-A Trenton. Thames was reportedly considered for the hitting coach job, though it’s unclear if he ever actually interviewed. Seems kinda weird that they’ve already picked an assistant hitting coach before an actual hitting coach. Of course they could already have a hitting coach lined up and we just don’t know about it.

As for the first base coaching job, McCarron and Madden say minor league field coordinator Jody Reed is the current favorite for the job. He was a coach and coordinator in the farm system from 2007-10 and also in 2014. Reed was with the Dodgers from 2011-13. McCarron and Madden also say the Yankees have interviewed Willie Randolph for the first base coaching job. Randolph was the team’s third base coach from 1994-2003 and their bench coach in 2004.

I’m glad the Yankees are embracing the hitting coach/assistant hitting coach system and it’ll be cool to see Thames on the staff. He’s awesome. It’ll be ready cool if Randolph comes back as well. Everyone loves Willie. There’s no word on when the Yankees will officially hire a hitting coach and a first base coach, and at this point I think I’m more interested to see how long they can go without naming coaches than I am to see who they actually hire.

Heyman: Yanks interested in Bichette, Thames, Rowson for hitting coach job

Via Jon Heyman: The Yankees have some interest in Dante Bichette, Marcus Thames, and James Rowson for their vacant hitting coach position. They’ve already interviewed Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan and will interview Athletics hitting coach Chili Davis at some point in the near future. Bichette and Thames had been speculated as fits previously.

Bichette, who is very close with Joe Girardi and has a son in the Yankees farm system, was the Rockies hitting coach in 2013. He left the team after that season because he didn’t want to be away from his family so much. Thames was the hitting coach at High-A Tampa last year and Double-A Trenton this year. He’s earned rave reviews for his work with the team’s young prospects. Rowson has had two stints with the Yankees as a minor league hitting instructor (2006-11, 2014) and briefly served as the Cubs interim hitting coach in 2013. It sounds like the team has kicked around the idea of these three but is focused elsewhere.