Sorting through the 45 players the Yankees still have on their Spring Training roster

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Two weeks from today, the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season at home against the Astros. There are a 14 exhibition games to be played between now and then, and several roster decisions have to be made as well. The Yankees have made two rounds of roster cuts so far, paring the number of players in big league camp from 70 down to 45. Another 20 still must go.

It goes without saying some of those 45 players have a much better chance to make the Opening Day roster than others. You’d be surprised to see how few have close to no chance to make the team though. The Yankees have only a few open roster spots but an awful lot of candidates to fill them. Let’s look over the 45 players still in big league camp and figure out where they fit going forward.

Definitely Making The Team (20)

These are the easiest calls, so we might as well start here. These 20 players will definitely be on the Opening Day roster:

Coming into the spring I would not have considered Shreve a lock for the bullpen, but it’s pretty safe to say he’s in right now. He’s been phenomenal in camp, he was awesome most of last year, and Joe Girardi is talking about him like one of his regular relievers. Shreve’s going to break camp with the Yankees.

The Yankees insist they are having a true competition for the fifth starter’s spot, though sending Sabathia to the bullpen so Nova can start is one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” things. Maybe the Yankees will figure out a way to stick Sabathia on the DL rather than send him to the bullpen, though that would surprise me. I’m sticking with what I said last week: I don’t believe Sabathia is truly competing for a rotation spot. He’s in.

Very Likely To Make The Team (2)

In Bryan Mitchell and Rob Refsnyder, the Yankees have two young players who are forcing the issue with their Spring Training performances. Both saw time in the show last year and both came to camp on the roster bubble. Mitchell keeps throwing fire and getting outs while Refsnyder has shown he can actually handle third base, a position he never played prior to this spring.

“(Refsnyder at third base) been better than I expected, to be honest. He’s never been over to that side of the infield. His reactions are really good. His arm’s good,” said Brian Cashman to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). The Yankees need a backup third baseman now that Castro will stick to second, and Refsnyder has taken to the position quickly. He hit in his limited time last year and he adds some balance as a righty hitter.

As for Mitchell, the Yankees do have three open bullpens, and none of the shuttle relievers have impressed this spring. He’s been by far the best of the team’s bullpen candidates, and Girardi has mentioned him as a potential Adam Warren replacement, meaning a multi-inning reliever. Mitchell pitched pretty well in relief last year before taking that line drive to the nose. I wouldn’t call him or Refsnyder locks for the Opening Day roster, but they sure look like strong candidates right now.

Hurt Or Suspended (3)

Three of the 45 players still in camp will not be on the active 25-man roster when the season begins. Aroldis Chapman has to serve his 30-game suspension, and both Greg Bird and Mason Williams will start the season on the DL following shoulder surgery. Bird’s going to be out for the year. We know that already. Williams is doing pretty much everything — throwing, hitting, etc. — but still needs more time to finish up his rehab.

There are some 40-man roster implications here. Chapman will be on the restricted list and will not count towards the 40-man roster while suspended. Bird can also be placed on the 60-day DL whenever a 40-man spot is needed. The 60-day DL is kinda weird though. Teams can only use it when they need it, meaning another player has to placed on the 40-man right away. Bird will likely start the season on the 15-day DL, then be transferred over whenever a 40-man spot is inevitably needed.

Pazos. (Presswire)
Pazos. (Presswire)

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

This might as well be the shuttle reliever category. Johnny Barbato, Nick Goody, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow are all still in camp and they’re all on the 40-man roster. All but Barbato pitched in the big leagues last year too. Barbato has pitched the best during Grapefruit League play so far, which won’t hurt his case for the Opening Day roster. Then again, none of these guys have thrown more than seven innings this spring.

Based on everything I have above, five of the seven bullpen spots are claimed: Miller, Betances, Shreve, Mitchell, and Nova (or Sabathia). I honestly have no idea how those last two spots will shake out. I don’t even have an inkling which way the Yankees are leaning. Barbato has pitched well so far, though that doesn’t mean much. He’s got two weeks to make some mistakes. At the same time, the other guys have a chance to step up their game. The best way to describe the bullpen situation right now is: developing.

Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are also in the mix for a roster spot. They’re competing for the backup catcher’s job, and right now I’d say it’s advantage Romine. Sanchez has not had a good spring (1-for-17) and over the weekend Girardi said he seems to be pressing. There’s also the service time issue (35 days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year) and the fact that Sanchez probably could use some more Triple-A time to work on his defense.

Out of these seven players, all but Romine will go to Triple-A if they don’t make the team. Romine’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll go on waivers. And even if he clears, he can elect free agency. The Yankees can’t expect to keep him based on those conditions. That’s probably another reason Romine seems to be the favorite to back up McCann right now.

Oh Gosh, They Might Actually Make The Team (5)

Remember Chris Martin? He was that random offseason pickup no one really paid attention to last year, then bam, he was on the Opening Day roster. The five guys in this group are candidates to be this year’s Chris Martin. Here’s how they can make the team out of camp:

  • Chris Denorfia: Unlike most of the team’s depth outfielders, Denorfia hits right-handed and he has a lot of MLB experience. He strikes me as the top bench candidate should Ellsbury’s wrist injury linger.
  • Pete Kozma: What if the Yankees want to give Refsnyder some more Triple-A time to continue working at third? Kozma, a veteran utility man, is the annoyingly obvious alternative.
  • Tyler Olson: Having a very good spring and could fill one of the open bullpen spots. Olson is a true lefty specialist and Girardi sure does love his matchups.
  • Anthony Swarzak: Swarzak has been solid overall, and he’s another guy with MLB experience. The fact he can throw multiple innings may land him in the bullpen.
  • Kirby Yates: Quietly shoving this spring (4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and he has big league time under his belt. With none of the shuttle guys standing put, Yates could grab a bullpen spot.

Yeah, you don’t have to try real hard to see one or two (or three) of these guys making the team, do you? It’s surprisingly easy, in fact. I swear, these guys just sneak up on you. You overlook them as cast-offs when they’re acquired, and before you know, they’re standing on the foul line and being introduced on Opening Day. Baseball, man.

Long Shots To Make The Team (8)

Never say never, but I am comfortable saying these last eight players are very unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. Catchers Carlos Corporan and Eddy Rodriguez remain in camp, though Girardi has dismissed them as backup catcher candidates. They’re still around so McCann, Romine, and Sanchez don’t have to catch every inning of every spring game. That’s all.

Chris Parmelee was signed to replace Bird as the Triple-A first baseman, so he’s going to Triple-A. The only way he makes the Opening Day roster is if Teixeira gets hurt. (I don’t think he’d make it if A-Rod got hurt. They’d use Beltran at DH in that case.) Ronald Torreyes had gotten a look at third base this spring and he’s been fine overall. At this point I think he’s behind Refsnyder and Kozma on the backup infield depth chart.

Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)
Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)

In addition to Denorfia, Slade Heathcott and Cesar Puello are the last remaining spare outfielders in camp. Heathcott has been brutal during Grapefruit League play (1-for-22!), and while that isn’t everything, I think it puts him behind Denorfia on the depth chart should Ellsbury stay hurt. Puello’s been great in camp, but this is a guy who played one game last season due to a back injury. I can’t see him sticking even if Ellsbury’s wrist problem lingers.

The last two arms in camp are Diego Moreno and Luis Cessa. The Yankees really like Cessa — Cashman in particular has talked him up — and he’s looked pretty good in his limited action. Those are the key words there, limited action. He’s appeared in only three Spring Training games, and if the Yankees were seriously considering Cessa for the roster, he’d get more looks. Pitching two innings once a week suggests he’s on the outside looking in. That’s fine. He could use more Triple-A time anyway.

The Yankees seem to like Moreno more than we realize — he’s been mentioned as a call-up candidate for two or three years now — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again this summer. He is not on the 40-man roster right now, and he hasn’t pitched well in camp (six runs in 5.1 innings), so it seems safe to say Diego is way down on the Opening Day bullpen depth chart at the moment. The Yankees have too many other candidates.

* * *

With Opening Day two weeks away, it appears the Yankees have 22 of their 25 roster spots figured out. They need to pick a backup catcher and decide who will hold down the last two bullpen spots on a temporary basis. I assume those will be shuttle spots, with new guys cycling in and out as necessary, especially early in the season. The next round of roster cuts should be coming next weekend, and that may lend some clarity to the bullpen situation.

Saturday Links: Stottlemyre, Prospects, Teixeira, KBO

The Yankees continue their Grapefruit League schedule against the Braves this afternoon, and YES has picked the game up, so hooray for that. It wasn’t on the original broadcast schedule. Here are some links to help you pass the time until first pitch.

Stottlemyre’s health improving

Let’s start with some good news. According to John Harper, former Yankees pitcher and coach Mel Stottlemyre is improving as he fights blood cancer. “This is the best I’ve been in some time. I’m doing a lot better than when people saw me in New York,” he said. “I’m doing so well that the doctor told me I can pretty much live normally again. I’m going to get out and do more fishing again. I might even try to play golf again too.”

Stottlemyre, now 74, was able to travel to New York for Old Timers’ Day last summer. There had been some concern he wouldn’t be healthy enough to do so. The Yankees surprised Stottlemyre with a plaque in Monument Park and he gave a very touching speech. It was one of the best moments of the season, hands down. Glad to hear Mel is doing better. He’s had a lot of impact on the Yankees in his life, both as a player and as a coach.

FanGraphs evaluates Yankees prospects

Dan Farnsworth at FanGraphs recently posted his massive look at the Yankees’ farm system. It’s different, I’ll say that much, but different doesn’t automatically mean bad. Most of Farnsworth’s team lists have been off the beaten path. He has SS Jorge Mateo as the No. 1 prospect, which makes sense, but then has RHP Domingo Acevedo as No. 2. Give the post a look over if you’re a fan of divergent opinions. Here is my Preseason Top 30 Prospects List for comparison.

Teixeira wants to get to 500 homers

By almost any objective measure, Mark Teixeira is one of the best switch-hitting power hitters in baseball history. He ranks fourth all-time among switch-hitters with 394 homers, behind only Mickey Mantle (536), Eddie Murray (504), and Chipper Jones (468). (Carlos Beltran is fifth with 392 dingers.) Teixeira ranks seventh in OPS+ (129) and fourth in SLG (.518) among switch-hitters with 3,000 career plate appearances.

A few weeks ago Teixeira said he wants to play five more seasons, and more recently he told Ryan Hatch he would like to reach 500 home runs. “I think if I play long enough I’ll get there. God willing I’ll play four, five more years and that’d be a nice number,” he said. Teixeira is 106 homers shy and about to enter his age 36 season. Only 27 players in history have hit 106 homers after turning 36, though most have done it within the last 30 years so. The big thing is health. Teixeira hit 31 homers in only 111 games last year. As long as he stays on the field, he could get to 500 within three or four years. Doable? Yes. Likely? Probably not.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

MLB, KBO working on new posting agreement

According to Jee-Ho Yoo, Major League Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization are currently in the process of negotiating a new posting agreement. The current posting agreement between MLB and KBO is the same as the old posting process for Japanese players, so teams submit a blind bid, then the high bidder wins a 30-day negotiating window with the player.

Under the current MLB-NPB agreement, Japanese players are free to negotiate with any team during a 30-day window, and the team that signs the player pays his former team a release fee. The release fee is set by the NPB team and capped at $20M. Yoo indicated MLB and KBO are talking about a similar system, except MLB wants to limit the max posting fee to only $8M.

Three notable Korean players have come to MLB through the posting process in recent years: Hyun-Jin Ryu ($25.7M bid), Byung-Ho Park ($12.85M), and Jung-Ho Kang ($5M). The bids are only going to increase though, especially if Park has success right away with the Twins the same way Kang did with the Pirates. It’s no surprise MLB is trying to keep costs down. That’s what they do.

Yankees encouraging players to quit chewing tobacco

At the behest on MLB, the Yankees are encouraging their players to quit chewing tobacco. The team is offering “Nicotine Replacement Therapy Supplies” such as gum and patches, according to sign posted in the clubhouse in Tampa. Of course, chewing tobacco may soon be illegal at Yankee Stadium. The New York City Council is expected to approve a ban on smokeless tobacco at all sporting venues in the city, according to Adam Rubin. The vote is Tuesday.

Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles have already passed similar bans on chewing tobacco, and it’s only a matter of time until other cities follow suit. Tony Gwynn passed away following a battle with salivary gland cancer, which may have been the result of his smokeless tobacco use as a player. Curt Schilling has mouth cancer and has said many times he blames it on his use of chewing tobacco. I am generally pro “do whatever you want with your body,” but I can understand why the city wants to ban chewing tobacco at sporting events. They don’t want kids to watch and pick it up.

Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.

As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez

I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.

Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.

The Leadoff Man

This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.

The Two-Hole

An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.

An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.

Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.

There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.

The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.

2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.

That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.

The Bottom Third

I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.

In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.

Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.

So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:

  1. Ellsbury
  2. Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
  3. Rod
  4. Teixeira
  5. Beltran
  6. McCann
  7. Headley
  8. Gregorius
  9. Castro

Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.

Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.

Mark Teixeira’s Contract Year [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s hard to believe Mark Teixeira is already entering the final season of his eight-year, $180M contract. It feels like just yesterday he was poised to sign with the Red Sox before the Yankees swooped in to sign him at the last moment. That was, hands down, one of the most exciting days in RAB history. That Teixeira immediately led the Yankees to the 2009 World Series title was icing on the cake.

Teixeira, now 35 and turning 36 shortly after Opening Day, has had a mostly successful stint in pinstripes, no doubt with some injuries mixed in. He’s appeared in only 372 of 648 possible games over the last four seasons, and the Yankees have missed Teixeira dearly whenever he’s been out of the lineup. Greg Bird last year was the only adequate fill-in they’ve had. Others like Lyle Overbay and Kelly Johnson were just … no.

It appeared the injuries were taking their toll on Teixeira back in 2014, when he hit a career worst .216/.313/.398 (101 wRC+) with 22 homers in 123 games. His second half in particular was gruesome (63 wRC+). Wrist surgery sabotaged Teixeira’s 2013 season, so a year ago at this time we were hoping the poor 2014 was simply Teixeira struggling to get back to 100% after surgery. The further away he got from the procedure, the more effective he’d be, right?

Right. Teixeira hit .255/.357/.548 (143 wRC+) with 31 homers in only 111 games last season before fouling a pitch off his shin and suffering a small fracture. It was his best offensive season as a Yankee by wRC+ — he had a 142 wRC+ in 2009 — and he was the club’s best all-around player by no small margin. You could easily argue Teixeira was the team’s best hitter and best defensive player in 2015. He was that good before getting hurt.

Whereas last season Teixeira was viewed as a bounceback candidate, he comes into this season as a no doubt middle of the order presence who also saves runs with his glove. Teixeira reestablished himself as a core player in 2015, which means a lot will be expected of him in 2016, namely …

Stay Healthy

As I said earlier, injuries have been a problem for Teixeira the last few years. He hasn’t played more than 125 games since 2011. A few weeks ago losing Teixeira would have sucked but been survivable because Bird was going to be waiting in Triple-A. That is no longer the case. Bird will miss the season following shoulder surgery. The safety net is gone. If Teixeira goes down, we’re going to see an awful lot of Dustin Ackley and Chris Parmelee. Yeesh.

I suppose the good news is Teixeira has not dealt with any chronic injuries the last few years. Yes, the wrist surgery was very serious and possible flare-ups will be on ongoing concern, but it hasn’t given him trouble since. Last year he fouled a ball off a shin. It happens. Two years ago he pulled a hamstring running after a pop-up in foul territory. Back in 2012 he pulled his calf trying to beat out a double play, then rushed back and re-aggravated it. These are all dumb, mutually exclusive injuries.

Had Teixeira been dealing with a nagging injury over the last few seasons, say something along the lines of Albert Pujols’ plantar fasciitis or Matt Kemp’s arthritic hips, then I’d be much more concerned about his ability to stay healthy. He’s suffered a bunch of random injuries. Hopefully the extra rest the Yankees say they plan to give all their veterans allows Teixeira to avoid those sort of physical issues in 2016.

Get On Base & Mash Taters

Does anyone still care Teixeira is a dead pull hitter from the left side who is prone to losing hits to the infield shift? That’s so 2012. Last season Teixeira showed he can be very productive despite those shifts because he puts the ball in the air and he makes loud contact. His 35.3% hard contact rate ranked 36th out of the 211 players who batted at least 400 times in 2015, better than Jose Bautista’s and Justin Upton’s and Buster Posey’s and many, many more.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At this point of his career Teixeira is not going to hit for a high average. That’s just not who he is. He’s an old school masher who walks and hits the ball out of the park. Teixeira has consistently walked in 11%+ of his plate appearances over the years and when he puts the ball in the air as a left-handed hitter, roughly one in five batted balls have left the yard the last few seasons. (It’s closer to 15% as a righty hitter, which is still pretty darn good.) Those are Teixeira’s two best and most important offensive skills*. Walking and hitting the ball in the air with authority.

The Yankees have a very straightforward offensive strategy: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner get on base and run a little, then Teixeira and some others (Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann) drive them in. That’s it. Nice and simple. When the Yankees do that, they’re dominant. Teixeira figures to hit cleanup again, meaning his job is to drive runs in and get on base for the power hitters behind him. That’s all. That’s what the Yankees need from him at the plate. Take those walks and grip it and rip it. No need to overthink this.

* Teixeira doesn’t get enough credit for being a low strikeout hitter. His 18.4% strikeout rate last year was below the 20.4% league average and tenth lowest among the 41 players to go deep at least 25 times.

Force The Yankees To Make A Tough Decision

Last week Teixeira told reporters he wants to play until he’s 40 and he would love to remain with the Yankees beyond this season. That’s nice to hear. Up until a few weeks ago, it was difficult to see how that would happen. Bird was ready to step in and take over as the long-term solution at first base. Replacing the guy in his mid-to-late-30s with the guy in his early-20s is a no-brainer move.

Bird’s shoulder surgery has cast some doubt on his ability to step in at first base in 2017. Even if his rehab goes well, he may need some time in Triple-A to shake off the rust and get back to where he was last season. We’ll have a much better idea of Bird’s status come the end of the 2016 season, but for now, we’re in wait and see mode. Shoulder surgery is serious stuff. The rehab could take longer than expected.

Teixeira will be a free agent after this season and the Yankees want to have to make a difficult decision come October. Do they give Teixeira the qualifying offer? Do they considering bringing him back as Bird insurance? If Teixeira’s performance suffers at all this season, say he repeats his 2014 showing, these questions will be easy to answer. No to the qualifying offer and no to bringing him back, then find someone else to play first if Bird can’t do it.

But, if Teixeira repeats his 2015 performance, or even produces at 80% of that rate, then what? Those qualifying offer and re-sign him questions become difficult to answer. I suspect we’re going to see more players accept the qualifying offer in future seasons given what happened to Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond this winter. Teams shy away from players Teixeira’s age, so even if he has a big year, he might be worried about getting hung out to dry on the open market.

There’s no need to worry about any of this right now with a full season yet to come. The Yankees for sure want Teixeira to play well enough that they have to at least consider the qualifying offer and re-signing him in a few months. If that happens, the 2016 Yankees will have received from a very awesome contract season from someone who has been a very awesome Yankee.

Mark Teixeira would like to play until he’s 40, remain with the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Hands down, one of the most memorable moments of the RAB era was the Yankees swooping in to sign Mark Teixeira at the very last minute back in December 2008. It was a foregone conclusion he would end up with the Red Sox. The two sides had been connected for weeks and they were progressing towards a deal, then BAM, he was a Yankee. It was incredible.

That was more than seven years ago now. Teixeira is entering the final season of his eight-year, $180M contract, and by and large that contract has been a success. Yeah, there have been some injuries, but he’s hit .253/.349/.493 (125 wRC+) with 191 homers and 19.3 fWAR in seven seasons, plus he helped the Yankees win a World Series title. Teixeira’s time in pinstripes should be looked upon fondly.

Earlier today Teixeira reported to what might be his final Spring Training with the Yankees. He told reporters he not only hopes to play until he’s 40, but he’d also like to remain with the Yankees beyond this season. From George King:

“I would love to play until I am 40,’’ said Teixeira, who will turn 36 early next month. “If you asked me that when I was coming off wrist surgery, I was pretty honest with you guys, I felt like crap the entire year, 2014. I didn’t know what the future held for me. I have completely turned that around. My body feels good. Why not play until I am 40? Being the kind of hitter I am, I could be a DH the last few years of my career. I would love to play that long.’’

“Absolutely. That’s the easiest question you can ask me,’’ Teixeira said when asked about remaining a Yankee. “I would love to stay here, but we will see what happens. It’s a little weird: The seven years have gone by in an instant. It’s amazing how quickly it’s gone by. For me to be in a productive position and help our team win maybe in my last year is all you can ask for.’’

Up until about three weeks ago, it was safe to assume the Yankees would let Teixeira leave as a free agent after the season, even if he had a monster walk year. Greg Bird was ready to step in at first base and the team has been skewing young whenever possible. It was an obvious move. Teixeira will turn 36 in April. Replacing the guy in his late-30s with the guy in his early-20s is a no-brainer.

Bird’s shoulder surgery has thrown a big wrench into that plan. Even if the doctors say he’s fully healthy come next offseason, it could take Bird some time to shake off the rust and get back into baseball mashing shape. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Yankees to have Bird open the 2017 season in Triple-A so he can focus on getting back to normal in an environment where results don’t matter. (Also, 65 days in the minors would delay Bird’s free agency and “buy back” the year of team control they’re losing to injury.)

It’s way to early to say whether bringing Teixeira back in 2017 would be a smart move. There’s an entire season to play out first. When times comes to make a decision about Teixeira’s future — not only whether the Yankees should re-sign him, but whether he is worth a qualifying offer — the Yankees will have a ton more information, particularly about Bird’s rehab.

Teixeira was a monster before that fluke shin injury ended his season in 2015. He hit .255/.357/.548 (143 wRC+) with 31 homers in only 111 games. If Teixeira comes anywhere close to repeating that kind of performance in 2016, it’s hard to see how the Yankees don’t make him the qualifying offer.

The Middle

Good seats behind the dugout still available. (Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last week, I wrote about how the Yankees’ lineup won’t be dominated by any one position group, but that only applies to the hitters as they appear on the field. As they appear in the lineup, there is certainly a group that will carry the Yankees on offense: the middle of the order.

This guy is good at baseball. (Jeff Haynes/AP Photo)
This guy is good at baseball. (Jeff Haynes/AP Photo)

While the league has mostly moved away from take-and-rake as an offensive philosophy, power and patience still dominate the middle of the Yankee order, which will be populated by some combination of Brian McCann, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran. These stars don’t shine as brightly as they once did, but all four put up–at the very least–respectable seasons in 2015, despite battling their own ages and their own bodies for portions thereof. Given their ages and the shift in offenses across MLB, it’s not likely that we’re going to see these guys put up the monster numbers they were capable of in the past. However, even as more senior players, their skillsets position them well for success. Just as importantly, those skills and their general levels of talent make it possible that they can be distributed in any number of ways that would help the team.

Carlos Beltran-001

All four hitters are capable of hitting in any of the all important middle spots in the lineup and for different reasons. If you want to go by the traditional book that says to put your best overall hitter third, you could slot Beltran in there, since he’s likely to have best combination of average, power, and patience among the three. If you want to go by the other Book, your three hitter can be a lowish-OBP/high-power guy. Of the three non-Beltran hitters, that best fits McCann; he may not be the most powerful, but he doesn’t have the on-base skills of Tex or A-Rod and can definitely knock some extra bases to extend rallies or start them, even with two out and none on.

(Steven Ryan/Getty)
(Steven Ryan/Getty)

Platooning these players in the lineup won’t be difficult either. Two of them–Tex and Beltran–are switch hitters and the other two–McCann and A-Rod–hit with the opposite hands. Rare will be the time when an opposing manager can call on a pitcher who will have the platoon advantage all the way through the middle of the Yankees’ lineup.

Ironically enough, these players are the ones with which the Yankees seem to have the least flexibility. All four of them will need time at DH quite frequently and all four of them are likely to miss time due to injury thanks to their advanced ages. Despite that, though, when healthy and in the lineup, they provide flexibility for manager Joe Girardi, who likes to tinker with lineups to get his team any advantage possible. When we look at these four hitters, we see guys who definitely need things to break right. But we also see four players who can easily carry a lineup. Like I’ve said in the past, I’m optimistic about this team, despite its warts. The middle of the lineup is one part of this team where I think we can count on production if health is a given. With an offseason of rest for these players, let’s hope everything (everything) will be alright in 2016.

The Five Most Important Storylines of the Spring [2016 Spring Training Preview]

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Each and every year, Spring Training around the Yankees is pretty hectic with important storylines to watch, regardless of whether they just won the World Series or missed the postseason. Last year we had the Alex Rodriguez circus and I’m not sure anything can compare to that. All things considered, it went pretty well, mostly because A-Rod showed he could still play.

This spring there are many things to keep an eye on as the Yankees prepare for the upcoming season, most of which involve health. That’s the buzzword this spring: health. The Yankees have some injury risk — I think it’s fair to say more than other teams — so that’s something to watch these next few weeks. Is it the only think to watch? Hardly. Here are five of the most important storylines to monitor in Spring Training this year, roughly in order of importance.

Tanaka’s Timetable

Masahiro Tanaka did indeed have elbow surgery this offseason, but it wasn’t the Tommy John surgery that is widely considered inevitable. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow, a spur that reportedly dates back to his time playing in Japan. Tanaka is already in Tampa working out and he’s thrown off a mound, so his rehab is going well. He threw some gas on the fire by saying he might not be ready for Opening Day, however.

“I can’t really say (whether I’ll be ready for Opening Day). I’ll take it day by day. I just want to see myself go into the bullpen, get the innings and see how I feel. I feel perfectly healthy,” said Tanaka to reporters the other day. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Tanaka has had no trouble with his throwing program and that the team’s ace will “get to where he needs to get to as time progresses.”

Brian Cashman hedged a bit, saying Tanaka will “enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons,” even though he is physically fine. CC Sabathia had the same surgery following the 2012 season and the Yankees took it easy on him in Spring Training. He was a few days behind the other starters in camp, and he made most of his early spring starts in controlled simulated games before getting into Grapefruit League action.

Every pitcher is different, though I suspect the Yankees will follow a similar plan with Tanaka this year. Simulated games early — that allows the team to control the action; they can end a inning if it goes too long, stuff like that — then a few tune-up Grapefruit League appearances late. (Sabathia made only two official Grapefruit League starts in 2013.) Is it ideal? No. But neither is offseason elbow surgery, even for something as relatively minor as a bone spur.

We should be able to get a pretty good idea whether Tanaka will be ready for the start of the regular season early in camp. Opening Day is April 4th, so give him four weeks of prep and we’re talking about a March 7th target date for game action, even if it’s only a simulated game. If Tanaka’s not able to pitch in some kind of game and get his pitch count into the 40-45 range that week of March 7th, the odds of him being ready for the season fall big time.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Teixeira’s Leg

Greg Bird‘s shoulder surgery has made it easy to forget Mark Teixeira is coming back from a pretty substantial injury himself. He suffered a small fracture in his shin last August, then was shut down in mid-September with a three-month rehab timetable. The last Teixeira update came in mid-December and all indications were his rehab was going well, though he had not yet started running. That was scheduled for sometime in January.

Joe Girardi will hold his annual start of Spring Training press conference tomorrow and I’m sure we’ll get an update on Teixeira at that time. It goes without saying how important he is to the Yankees. Teixeira is arguably the team’s best two-way player and he is their best power hitter, and now Bird is not around as a backup plan. The Yankees could keep Teixeira off his feet and give him a bunch of DH at-bats in spring, but that is A-Rod’s position now, so it’s not so simple. Both guys need at-bats to get ready for the season.

Castro At Third

The Yankees have made it clear they plan to try Starlin Castro at third base this spring — “We’re not going to force it … but we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks,” said Cashman — and his ability to handle the hot corner will have huge roster implications. If he can play third, the Yankees can use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door, which is their plan. If he can’t play third, they’ll need to use that spot to carry a backup third baseman.

Not only will watching Castro physically play the position be important, but I’m also curious to see exactly how much time the Yankees give him there. Remember, Starlin is relatively new to second base as well. He only started playing second last August. He’s going to need reps at that position as well. The Yankees can’t have Castro focus solely on the hot corner in Spring Training. He’s got to work out at second too. Will that leave enough time for him to pick up third base? There are reasons to believe Castro can handle the third, but it is still going to be a new experience, and he won’t have much time to learn the position.

Headley’s Throwing

I’m not sure any aspect of the 2015 Yankees surprised me more than Chase Headley‘s sudden inability to make routine throws. He made a career high 23 errors last year, including 12 throwing errors, fourth most of any non-first base infielder in baseball. Only Marcus Semien (18), Jean Segura (15), and Josh Donaldson (13) threw more balls away. That doesn’t include all the errors Teixeira saved Headley as well*. There was too much of this last summer:

Chase Headley error

The routine plays gave Headley trouble, yet his throws on difficult plays (those with minimal reaction time) were largely perfect. That suggests a mental issue, not a physical issue, and to be fair he did cut down on the errors as the season progressed. He made 16 errors in the first half and only seven in the second half, which is still a lot, but not nearly as much as earlier in the season. “There are some balls there is nothing you can do about but I worked on recognizing. Hopefully it’s behind me and hopefully it makes me mentally stronger,” he said at midseason.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone would say Headley is over his throwing problems based on his second half error total, including the Yankees and Headley himself. That’s why his throwing will be a focal point this spring. The goal isn’t to get Headley to do something he’s never done before, like it is with Castro playing third. The goal is to get him back to where he was his entire pre-2015 career.

* For what it’s worth, the fancy Baseball Info Solutions data I have access to through CBS says Headley ranked middle of the pack among third basemen in the number of errors saved by “good scoops” at first.

Dellin’s Workload

Last spring was a new experience for Dellin Betances. It was the first time in his career he reported to Spring Training with a big league job locked up, and relievers who are locked into big league spots have light schedules. They throw only a handful of innings and rarely travel. It’s a sweet gig if you can get it. Last spring Dellin threw 8.1 innings across nine appearances. In 2014 it was 12.1 innings across ten appearances.

Four innings doesn’t sound like a huge difference, and it probably isn’t, but Betances did struggle in Spring Training last year. His control was awful and even his velocity was down. It wasn’t until a week or two into the regular season that he started to look like the 2014 version of himself. Betances has said he’s a guy who likes regular work because it helps him stay sharp, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest the reduced spring workload led to his early season problems. He simply didn’t have enough time to get ready.

I’m curious to see how the Yankees handle Betances this spring. Do they give him a few more Grapefruit League innings to prepare for the season, or do they keep him on the typical reliever plan and expect him to adjust? Maybe the solution is more bullpen work, not necessarily game action. A balance has to be struck between enough work to prepare and too much work. That doesn’t seem like an easy thing to do, especially with a pitcher as unique as Dellin.