The Yankees could use a 2005-esque shake-up, but they don’t have a lot of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Eleven years ago the Yankees had a truly miserable start to their season. They opened the 2005 season by losing 19 of their first 30 games and falling nine games back in the AL East. Nine back after 30 games! Needless to say, fans were pretty uneasy because that slow start followed the 2004 ALCS collapse. It was not a good time around these parts. No siree.

The 2005 Yankees rebounded of course, winning 84 of 132 games following the 11-19 start. Two reasons they turned it around were a pair of early-May call-ups: Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees shook things up and were rewarded when Cano and Wang had an immediate impact. Robbie hit .297/.320/.458 (105 wRC+) in 132 games and Wang had a 4.02 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 116.1 innings. They gave the team a real shot in the arm.

Getting Wang into the rotation was pretty easy because Jaret Wright got hurt. (Remember when Wright failed his physical and George Steinbrenner signed him anyway because he thought it would lure Leo Mazzone to New York? Good times.) Getting Cano into the lineup took more creativity. The Yankees moved Tony Womack to left field, Hideki Matsui to center field, and basically benched Bernie Williams, who was nearing the end of the line.

The 2016 Yankees, like the 2005 team, have gotten off to a terrible start. They’re 8-15 overall and have lost 13 of their last 17 games. The AL East is much more competitive these days too. Back in 2005 it was the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a bunch of pushovers. Erasing that nine-game deficit was much easier. The current Yankees are six games back in the division with four good teams ahead of them. It’ll be an uphill climb, that’s for sure.

Given their sluggish start and the fact the Yankees have underachieved on both sides of the ball in the early going — the offense has been far worse than the pitching, but the rotation hasn’t been all that good either — the team could use an early-May shake-up like the one the 2005 team received. The problem? The Yankees don’t have a Cano and/or Wang waiting in Triple-A. There’s not much depth at the positions of obvious need. Here are some shake-up ideas.

Give A Young Outfielder Regular Playing Time

If there’s one thing the Yankees have in Triple-A, it’s outfield depth. Both Ben Gamel (136 wRC+) and Aaron Judge (125 wRC+) are off to nice starts, though Slade Heathcott (41 wRC+) has mostly struggled. The Yankees also have Aaron Hicks at the big league level, though he hasn’t played much for a variety of reasons. (Hicks may not seem young, but he’s only a year older than Heathcott.)

Brett Gardner (110 wRC+) has been one of New York’s most productive hitters in the early going. Jacoby Ellsbury (85 wRC+) and Carlos Beltran (91 wRC+) have not. Beltran has really struggled of late. He has a 16 wRC+ over the last two weeks. Yikes. Sitting Ellsbury and/or Beltran more often in favor of Hicks or Gamel or Judge or whoever is one way to change the lineup and get some young legs on the field.

I think the best way to go about this is to use a regular rotation that also includes Alex Rodriguez and the DH spot. Something like this, perhaps:

LF CF RF DH
Game One Gardner Ellsbury Beltran A-Rod
Game Two Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod
Game Three Gardner Young OF Beltran A-Rod
Game Four Gardner Ellsbury Young OF Beltran
Game Five Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod

Ellsbury, A-Rod, and the young outfielder would be playing four out of every five games while Beltran is reduced to playing three times out of every five games, with only two of three starts coming in the outfield. Gardner stays in there full-time because, you know, he’s actually been good this year. The Yankees reduced Bernie’s playing time in 2005 and it’s time to start thinking about doing the same with Beltran.

Calling up Gamel or Judge or Heathcott requires a roster move and cutting someone else loose, and it’s a little too early for that, I think. I’d start by playing Hicks more often. No, he hasn’t hit in the early going (-47 wRC+!), but it’s 28 plate appearances in 23 games. This is a guy who hit .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) with eleven homers and 13 steals last year, and we’ve already seen the kind of impact he can have at defense.

Hicks is not going to get his bat going while sitting on the bench. He’s been an everyday player his entire career. This bench thing is new to him. With two of three starting outfielders not really hitting and the team reeling, it’s time to see what Hicks can do with regular at-bats. The Yankees need to figure out what they have in him.

Stick Headley On The Bench

I’ve defended Headley as much as anyone but I can’t do it any longer. He’s been atrocious this year, hitting .156/.267/.156 (24 wRC+) with nary an extra-base hit in 75 plate appearances. As Jared Diamond pointed out yesterday, Headley is only the 13th player in history to start May with a sub-.150 slugging percentage in at least 70 plate appearances. That’s brutal.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

I don’t care how good a player is on defense — Headley has rebounded quite well in the field after last year’s error-fest — there is a minimum acceptable standard on offense and Headley is not meeting it. The Yankees can talk all they want about the quality of his at-bats or how close they think he is to snapping out of it. The bottom line is this is a results oriented business and Headley’s results have been dreadful one month into the season.

The problem at third base is the Yankees don’t have an obvious replacement. Womack stunk back in 2005 and Cano was the obvious candidate to take over. Who can replace Headley at third? Ronald Torreyes? Moving players with bench player skill sets into a full-time role usually turns out poorly. Rob Refsnyder? Pete Kozma? Donovan Solano? Solano is hitting .312/.341/.351 (100 wRC+) in Triple-A, you know.

Since no obvious replacement exists, I’d go with the highest upside candidate: Refsnyder. He’s new to third base — he’s played 153.1 career innings at the hot corner between Spring Training and Triple-A — and his defense is rough, but he might actually hit. Stick him at third, get three at-bats out of him, then pull for defense in the sixth-ish inning. When you hit as poorly as Headley has, you losing playing time. That’s the way it should work.

(Yes, I know Refsnyder hasn’t hit much in Triple-A this year. I’m not too concerned about that though. It’s been cold in Scranton and he’s spent a lot of time learning a new position. As long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine.)

Play Ackley or Swisher?

One the biggest reasons the Yankees scored the second most runs in baseball last year were bounceback seasons from A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season and no one knew what to expect from him in 2015. Teixeira was terrible in the second half of 2014. He hit .179/.271/.302 (63 wRC+) with only five homers after the All-Star break that year.

Dustin Ackley hasn’t played a whole lot this year (18 plate appearances!) because it’s tough to get him into the lineup. He’s stuck in the same role as Garrett Jones last year. Teixeira and A-Rod are not doing much damage right now — Rodriguez has looked much better of late, to be fair — and giving Ackley some of their at-bats could spark the offense. This would complicate the outfield plan outlined above. That’s not worth worrying about right now.

The alternative here would be Nick Swisher, who owns a .340/.370/.540 (167 wRC+) batting line with three homers down in Triple-A. I can’t say I put much stock in a 12-year veteran mashing minor league pitching though. Swisher has two bad knees and he’s hit .204/.291/.326 (75 wRC+) in the big leagues the last two years. Call him up and I suspect you’ll get closer to 2014-15 MLB Swisher than 2016 Triple-A Swisher.

This is where Greg Bird‘s injury really hurts. Calling up Bird to take at-bats away from Teixeira and A-Rod would be far more realistic and, likely, far more successful than the Ackley/Swisher plan. With those two you’re just hoping small sample size success translates to long-term success. Ackley was terrible all those years with the Mariners before raking in pinstripes in September. Swisher was bad from 2014-15 and has had a few good weeks in Triple-A. That’s all it is.

The Yankees have had some success turning veterans who looked washed up into useful players (see Chavez, Eric), so we shouldn’t completely write off Swisher as a possibility. Either way, Ackley or Swisher, taking at-bats away from A-Rod or Teixeira is one potential way to inject some life into the offense. For what it’s worth, I think this is the least likely suggestion in this post.

* * *

I’m not sure what the Yankees could do to shake-up the pitching staff other than maybe swap out some relievers. I guess they could replace Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, or Luis Severino with Ivan Nova. My guess is Nova’s going to end up making a bunch of starts at some point anyway. Point is, the Yankees have reached the point where some kind of change needs to be made. The problem is they don’t have a lot of internal options. What you see is what you’re going to get with this team.

Spring Competitions: The Backup Catcher & Final Bench Spot [2016 Season Preview]

Romine. (Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

Coming into the spring, half of the bench was set. We knew Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks would occupy two of the four spots and nothing’s changed. The last two spots were up for grabs. One will go to the backup catcher, and because the plan to play Starlin Castro at third base didn’t work out, the other has to go to a backup third baseman. The Yankees don’t have much of a choice with those last two spots, positionally. Let’s preview those last two bench players, whoever they may be.

The Backup Catcher (For Now)

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years. At the very least, they were strong defenders. The Yankees place a lot of emphasis on catcher defense. Some of those backups even hit too, like Frankie Cervelli a few years back and John Ryan Murphy last year. Murphy was traded for Hicks over the winter, leaving the backup spot to a spring competition.

The two main competitors: actual prospect Gary Sanchez and former prospect Austin Romine. The Yankees brought in veteran journeyman Carlos Corporan for depth, but Joe Girardi quickly ruled him out of the race, surprisingly. Others like Eddy Rodriguez and Sebastian Valle didn’t get much of a look in camp at all. It was either Sanchez or Romine. Anyone else would be a surprise.

It’s not yet official, but all signs point to Romine getting that backup catcher job to start the regular season. The Yankees optioned Sanchez to Triple-A last night, which effectively takes him out of the running. If he was still being considered for the job, the Yankees would keep Sanchez in big league camp so he could continue working with the big league pitchers. Instead, they sent him to minor league camp for at-bats and regular reps.

Sanchez and Romine are very different players. Sanchez hit 25 home runs in 500 total plate appearances a year ago. Romine hit 25 home runs from 2011-15. Sanchez is an outstanding thrower and an adequate receiver. Romine is an adequate thrower and a very good receiver. They’re pretty close to polar opposites, really. Sanchez was miserable during Grapefruit League play (1-for-21!) though, and Girardi said he felt he was pressing in an effort to make the team.

Sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks is totally justifiable given his still rough around the edges defense. The service time aspect can’t be ignored either. Thirty-five days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year. That’s potentially huge. If he turns into the type of player his tools suggest he can become, gaining control of his age 29 season in 2022 would be enormous. It’s a no-brainer, really. How do you not send him down to delay free agency?

The Yankees have gone young at almost every opportunity over the last 18 months, and replacing Murphy with Sanchez seems like the logical move. Remember, Romine was pretty close to out of the organization last year. The team designated him for assignment at the end of Spring Training, he slipped through waivers, and they stashed him in Triple-A. He was added to the 40-man roster and called back up in September only because Sanchez was dealing with a hamstring issue and the Yankees wanted a third catcher when rosters expanded.

So, for now, Romine is in line to be the backup catcher. The key words there are “for now.” There is zero doubt Sanchez is in the club’s long-term catching picture. Ideally, he would spend some time as Brian McCann‘s understudy before taking over the starting job. That apprenticeship is still likely to begin this year, I think. Once his free agency is delayed and once the Yankees are comfortable with his defense, Sanchez will be in the show. Romine is a placeholder more than anything.

Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)
Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)

Open Tryouts At Third Base

Eight different players have played third base for the Yankees during Grapefruit League play this spring. Eight! It would have been nine had the team not pulled the plug on the Castro experiment. One of the eight is the starter (Chase Headley) and another is a prospect (Miguel Andujar) who was up from minor league camp for a day to help out during a set of split squad games. The other six: Jonathan Diaz, Pete Kozma, Rob Refsnyder, Deibinson Romero, Donovan Solano, and Ronald Torreyes.

Diaz, Romero, and Solano have all already been assigned to minor league camp, taking them out of the running for the final bench spot. The remaining three candidates hit the bench guy stereotype trifecta:

  • Kozma: Veteran utility man who’s played for some pretty good teams in the past.
  • Refsnyder: Prospect with no clear path to playing time, so he’s trying to improve his versatility.
  • Torreyes: Third tier prospect with just enough tools to potentially force the issue.

Kozma is a known quantity at this point. He’s not going to hit, but he can play some pretty good defense at the three non-first base infield positions. Refsnyder has handled himself quite well at third base this spring despite being thrown into the fire. Give him some props. Learning a new position and trying to make the team at the same time isn’t easy. Torreyes? Well, I learned his name is pronounced “to-reyes” and not “torre-eyes” like I had been saying in my head. That about sums up his spring.

I get the feeling Refsnyder has the inside track for the final bench spot right now, though cases could be made for Kozma and Torreyes. Remember, this is a part-time gig. The Yankees could want Refsnyder playing everyday in Triple-A — and working on his third base defense — rather than sitting on the bench and playing maybe twice a week in the big leagues. Two months (55 days to be exact) in the minors delays his free agency a year. Like Sanchez, is it worth keeping Refsnyder up to play only a handful of times in those two months when he could instead play everyday in Triple-A and push his free agency back? That’s a question worth asking.

Kozma could be buried on the bench for weeks at a time a la Brendan Ryan and no one would care. Torreyes does not have Refsnyder’s offensive upside but he’s a contact machine with some speed and solid defensive chops. He truly may be a better bench option than Refsnyder because he does more things well. Refsnyder’s all bat. Torreyes is more well-rounded and his development isn’t a huge priority. If he sits on the bench and plays once every ten days, so be it.

The Yankees say they want to rest their regulars more often this season, but Girardi also acknowledged Didi Gregorius and Castro don’t need as much rest as everyone else because they’re so young. Whoever gets this last bench spot will be responsible for backing up Headley, first and foremost. Didi and Starlin don’t need as many days on the bench. I think Refsnyder will get the job. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees go with the “safer” bet in Kozma or the more well-rounded option in Torreyes.

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.

Position Battles of Note [2016 Spring Training Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The long marathon that is the 2016 season will begin Thursday, when Yankees pitchers and catchers report to Tampa for Spring Training. Position players will follow next Wednesday. The first Grapefruit League game will be played March 2nd, two weeks from Wednesday. Real live baseball is coming soon.

This spring the Yankees will not have many position battles to follow. Their nine starting position player spots are set, the five rotation spots are pretty much set, the back-end of the bullpen is set, and two of four bench spots are set. It might even be three of four. You could argue as many as seven roster spots are up for grabs. In reality it’s probably more like four. Here are the three battles to watch.

The Backup Catcher

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years, from the defensive-minded Jose Molina to the occasionally great Frankie Cervelli to the solid all-around John Ryan Murphy. Murphy is now a Minnesota Twin, meaning the backup job will go to Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, or non-roster invitee Carlos Corporan. Sebastian Valle, another non-roster player, is the deep sleeper. He’s an outstanding defender and the Yankees value catcher defense highly.

Sanchez had a strong 2015 season in terms of production, development, and maturity, which helped make Murphy expendable. Brian Cashman said he would “like to unleash the Kraken” this year, referring to Sanchez, but there are big picture aspects to consider. Is Sanchez the best backup catcher candidate? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks a good idea? That answer is almost certainly yes as well.

A total of 35 days in the minors this season will delay Sanchez’s free agency another year. Thirty-five days in 2016 equals control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022. That’s a long time away and who knows whether Sanchez will be worth keeping around in 2022, but 35 days? That’s it? Sending him down for five weeks to gain control of his age 29 season is a no-brainer in my opinion. It’s a little 2016 pain for potentially a lot of 2022 gain.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Keep in mind five weeks for a backup catcher equals maybe six or seven starts. The Yankees have a ton of April off-days like they do every year — five in first four weeks! — so keeping Brian McCann in the lineup will be rather easy. Those six or seven starts might actually be more like four or five starts. Is sacrificing four or five Sanchez games in 2016 worth it to gain control of his age 29 season? Hell yes. The system makes this an obvious move.

Romine and Corporan, Sanchez’s two chief competitors, are in different situations. Corporan is on a minor league contract and can be easily stashed in Triple-A for depth this season. Romine is on the 40-man roster and out of options, meaning he can’t go to the minors without being exposed to waivers. That was the case last year, when Romine did slip through waivers unclaimed, but since this would be his second outright assignment, he could elect free agency.

If he doesn’t make the team, Romine in all likelihood would elect free agency and look to join a team that offers a greater big league opportunity. With McCann and Sanchez in tow, it’s hard to see how any upper level catcher gets MLB time in the Bronx without an injury. The position is locked down for at least three more seasons (the duration of McCann’s contract). I see four possible outcomes for the spring backup catcher competition:

  • The Best Team: Sanchez in MLB with Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the organization.
  • The Most Depth: Romine in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A.
  • The Eh I Get It Plan: Corporan in MLB with Sanchez in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.
  • The WTF Plan: Valle in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.

As best I can tell Corporan does actually have a minor league option remaining, so the Yankees could carry him as the backup catcher for some period of time, then send him down once Sanchez’s service time is in a good place. They would still presumably lose Romine, but at least they’d keep Corporan.

Now, if Corporan does not have an option left — that’s possible, this stuff can be difficult to pin down — then the Yankees would need to drop him from the 40-man roster when the time comes to promote Sanchez. Going with the Eh I Get It Plan means the team could be faced with the possibility of losing Romine and Corporan once Sanchez is called up.

Maybe that’s no big deal. Romine and Corporan aren’t great by any means, but I do think you need an extra catcher or two in the organization. The Yankees got really lucky with McCann and Murphy last season — those two combined to catch every inning of every game in 2015 — and I wouldn’t count on that kind of health again. It just doesn’t happen at catcher. It’s a brutal position.

Carrying Sanchez as McCann’s backup likely gives the Yankees the best possible team to start the season. The benefit of manipulating his service time — especially since we’re only talking about losing him for a handful of actual starts — means sending him to Triple-A to start the season is the best thing for the organization long-term. Rolling with Romine or Corporan for five weeks is the price to pay for Sanchez’s age 29 season, and that’s not bad at all.

(Presswire)
Lindgren. (Presswire)

At Least Three, Likely Four, Maybe Five Bullpen Spots

At some point soon we’re going to hear something about Aroldis Chapman‘s seemingly inevitable suspension. Rumor has it commissioner Rob Manfred will hand down the suspension before Spring Training, meaning it could be any day now. Chapman will not be charged with a crime stemming from his October domestic dispute incident but that’s irrelevant. The collectively bargained Domestic Violence Policy explicitly says no arrests or charges are necessary for a suspension.

It seems very likely Chapman will be suspended for some length of time. How long? Your guess is as good as mine. (I’ve seen a few reporters suggest a 15-game ban is coming.) Either way, any sort of suspension opens a bullpen spot come Opening Day. Right now the Yankees have Chapman, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Ivan Nova locked into spots, leaving three open three bullpen spots. Chapman’s suspension would make it four open spots and an injury to a starter would make it five since Nova would have to jump into the rotation.

For the purposes of this post, let’s just assume the rotation stays healthy and Nova is indeed the long man come Opening Day. A reach? Eh, maybe. We’ll deal with the injuries as they come. Regardless of the number of open bullpen spots, the Yankees have no shortage of relief options this year. Check out the list of bullpen candidates coming to camp this spring:

Some of those guys are more likely to land a big league job than others — Kaprielian won’t be breaking camp with the Yankees, for example — but they’ll all be in Spring Training and therefore theoretically capable of winning a roster spot.

The Yankees have relievers of all shapes and sizes. Righties, lefties, strikeout guys, ground ball guys, guys with big league experience, guys who has yet to pitch above Single-A … you name it and the Yankees will have it in camp this year. And here’s the thing: aside from Shreve, who was so excellent the first four and a half months last season, I’m not sure anyone has a leg up on a spot.

It’s great the Yankees have so many bullpen options, because they’re inevitably going to need them. This is a position battle that won’t ever end. The Yankees once again figure to employ a bullpen shuttle this year to ensure Joe Girardi always has a fresh arm or two available, meaning whoever wins a spot on the Opening Day roster may only be there short-term. I can’t imagine that’s comfortable for the players, but that’s life. That’s the way the roster is built.

My guess is Shreve will get one of the open bullpen spots barring a catastrophic showing in camp. The other open spots could be decided by Spring Training performance (as silly as that may be) and roster considerations. The Yankees may not want to free up 40-man space just yet, for example. They open the season against the Astros and could opt to carry an extra lefty (for Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, Jason Castro, etc.) before going with an extra righty for the second series of the season against the Tigers (almost their entire lineup is right-handed). We’ll see.

Spring Training will be an audition for all of those pitchers. Even Kaprielian, who wants to make a strong impression as he prepares for his first full pro season. If you don’t win a bullpen job in camp, you still want to put yourself in position for an early call-up. Make the Yankees remember you. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years ago. Someone like Campos could do the same this year.

Kozma. (Presswire)
Kozma. (Presswire)

The 25th Man

Cashman is on record saying the Yankees hope to use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door depending on their need at the time. If they need an extra reliever, they’ll use that spot for an extra reliever. If they need a position player, they’ll call up a position player. So on and so forth. Good idea in theory. How will it work in the real world? We’re going to find out soon enough.

The Yankees have three off-days within the first two full weeks of the season, so using that 25th roster spot on an eighth reliever out of Spring Training qualifies as overkill. I understand the starters are still getting stretched all the way out and whatnot, but eight relievers with all those off-days? Nah. Carrying an extra bench player early on makes the most sense, and the Yankees have plenty of infield (Jonathan Diaz, Donovan Solano, Pete Kozma, Ronald Torreyes, Rob Refsnyder) and outfield (Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel) options.

The 25th man decision is going to depend entirely on Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third base, because if he can’t do it, the Yankees will need to carry a backup third baseman. So moreso than the backup catcher and bullpen battles, the 25th man competition is going to be influenced by outside factors. Castro’s the big one, but health with be a factor too, as will 40-man roster considerations. Is it worth designating someone for assignment to carry Kozma for two weeks? Maybe it is. That’s up to the Yankees.

Judge, Mateo, Kaprielian headline 2016 Spring Training invitees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier today the Yankees announced their list of non-roster Spring Training invitees for the 2016 season. A total of 25 non-roster players were invited, so add in the guys on the 40-man roster, and the Yankees will have a total of 65 players in Spring Training this year. Last season they had 68.

Here are the 25 non-roster players who will be in Tampa this spring. As always, everyone on the 40-man roster will be there as well.

CATCHERS (6)
Carlos Corporan
Francisco Diaz
Kyle Higashioka
Eddy Rodriguez
Sebastian Valle
Santiago Nessy

INFIELDERS (6)
Jonathan Diaz
Pete Kozma
Jorge Mateo
Deibinson Romero (recently signed as a minor league free agent)
Donovan Solano
Tyler Wade

OUTFIELDERS (3)
Dustin Fowler
Aaron Judge
Cesar Puello

PITCHERS (10)
LHP Richard Bleier
RHP Tyler Cloyd (recently signed as a minor league free agent)
RHP Domingo German (rehabbing from Tommy John surgery)
RHP Chad Green
RHP James Kaprielian
RHP Brady Lail
RHP Diego Moreno
RHP Vinnie Pestano
RHP Anthony Swarzak
LHP Tyler Webb

Obviously some players have a much better chance of making the Yankees than others. Mateo, for example, has close to zero chance of making the Opening Day roster. He’ll be in camp so the big league coaching staff can get a firsthand look at arguably the top prospect in the organization. The same applies to Kaprielian, last summer’s first round pick, and Judge.

Right now the Yankees have five open big league roster spots: three in the bullpen, the backup catcher, and the final bench spot. Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine are the main candidates for the backup backstop job along with Corporan. It seems like the Yankees want Sanchez to be the guy, but there are service time reasons to send him to Triple-A for a few weeks (35 days in Triple-A equals an extra year of team control). All those extra catchers will be in camp to help catch bullpens and stuff.

Brian Cashman has confirmed the Yankees intendt the use their final bench spot as something of revolving door. They want to rotate players in and out based on their needs at the time, and that includes adding an eighth reliever on occasion. Remember, position battles do not end when Spring Training is over. Whoever gets those three bullpen spots and the two bench spots will have to produce during the regular season to keep the job.

Pitchers and catchers are due to report to Tampa on Thursday, February 18th. That’s two weeks from yesterday. Position players will report on Wednesday, February 24th, and the first full squad workout will follow on February 25th.

Sorting out the projected 2016 Triple-A Scranton roster

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Over the last few seasons Triple-A rosters have become extensions of the 25-man big league roster. There is no better example of this than last year’s bullpen shuttle. Teams use their Triple-A rosters not only to develop prospects, but also to stash depth players at each position should they be needed due to injury or poor performance. And they will be needed. Baseball always makes sure of it.

Brian Cashman has already said the Yankees hope to use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door based on their needs at the time. If they need an extra bullpen arm, they’ll call up a pitcher. If they need an extra outfielder because someone is banged up, then they’ll call up an extra outfielder. It sounds like a great plan. Will it work as well in reality as it does on paper? We’ll see.

So, with that in mind, let’s sort out the projected Triple-A Scranton roster as it sits right now. After all, these guys are the backup plans for the big league team. I have zero doubt we’ll see several of these players in the Bronx this coming summer, including guys none of us would ever expect. Remember Kyle Davies? Matt Tracy? Yeah. Let’s start with the position players. Asterisks (*) denotes players on the 40-man roster.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Gary Sanchez* Greg Bird* Slade Heathcott* Tyler Austin
Carlos Corporan Rob Refsnyder* Mason Williams*
Eddy Rodriguez Pete Kozma Ben Gamel*
Sebastian Valle Donovan Solano Lane Adams*
Jonathan Diaz Aaron Judge
Cesar Puello

There are 25 roster spots in Triple-A and, believe it or not, that is relatively new. Triple-A and Double-A teams had 24-man rosters as recently as 2011. It’s pretty common for Triple-A teams to carry three-man benches and eight-man bullpens because of workload limits and whatnot, especially early in the season before guys are fully stretched out. I’ve got 16 position players in the table there, so three or four won’t make the cut one way or another.

Catchers: All signs point to Sanchez being the big league backup catcher, though that’s not set in stone just yet. The Yankees could send him to Triple-A for regular playing time and to work on his defense. As an added bonus, sending Sanchez down for 35 days or so will delay his free agency another year. Assuming Sanchez makes the MLB team, Triple-A catching duties will belong to Corporan and either Rodriguez and Valle. They’re all defense-first guys who can’t hit.

Austin Romine, Sanchez’s primary competition for the backup job, is out of minor league options and has been outrighted before, meaning if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he has to go through waivers and can elect free agency if he clears, which I imagine he would do in an effort to find a better opportunity. There appear to be only two ways for Romine to remain in the organization beyond Spring Training: he gets the backup catcher’s job, or he gets hurt in camp and is placed on the MLB DL.

If Sanchez doesn’t make the big league roster, he’ll be the starting catcher in Triple-A with either Romine or Corporan backing up Brian McCann. If Romine backs up McCann, Corporan will be in Triple-A. If Corporan backs up McCann, Romine will be gone and either Valle or Rodriguez will be with Sanchez in Triple-A. For now, I’ll say Sanchez makes the big league roster. The Yankees leaned on their prospects a lot in 2015 and I think that’ll continue in 2016.

Bird. (Presswire)
Bird. (Presswire)

Infielders: Barring injury, Bird and Refsnyder will start the season with the RailRiders. “That’s the optimal” according to Cashman, at least when it comes to Bird. The Yankees lost Ronald Torreyes on waivers earlier this week but still have Kozma, Solano, and Diaz on minor league contracts. I expect them to compete for a big league bench job in camp, and hey, one of them might win a spot.

In that case, Bird and Refsnyder will hold down the right side of the infield while the other two guys handle the left side. That means the RailRiders still need a utility infielder. There are going to be five infielders on the roster no matter what. Cito Culver and Dan Fiorito are the best candidates for that job right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees brought in one more minor league infielder these next few weeks. A minor league contract or waiver claim, something like that. One pulled hamstring in camp and the Yankees could be real short on upper level infield depth.

Outfield: The Triple-A outfield picture is crowded and yet crystal clear. Judge, Slade, Williams, and Gamel will be the four regular outfielders. They’ll rotate around the outfield and at DH. Simple, right? Puello, who played exactly one game in 2015 due to a back injury, is an obvious candidate for Double-A. Between the two catchers, the five infielders, and the four outfielders, we’re already at eleven position player spots.

So right now there is room for only one more position player since an eight-man bullpen is rather common in April. That last spot comes down to Adams and Austin. Both stunk in Triple-A last season and had to be demoted to Double-A in the second half. Adams is two years older and a better defender, but Austin has the advantage of being able to play a little first base as well. Plus he has seniority in the organization. That can’t hurt.

My guess — and this is nothing more than a guess — is Adams will get the Triple-A spot over Austin. Adams is older and on the 40-man roster, so the Yankees probably want to figure out what they have in him as soon as possible. If he can’t hack in Triple-A, they’ll cut him and move on. In that case Austin would anchor a Double-A Trenton lineup that is a little light on prospect power. He, Puello, Taylor Dugas, and Mark Payton would be the Thunder outfield.

After all of that, the Triple-A roster looks like this on the position player side:

Catchers (2): Two of Sanchez, Corporan, Rodriguez, and Valle.
Infielders (5): Bird and Refsnyder, Kozma, Diaz, and Solano. If one of them lands a big league job, Culver or Fiorito are candidates to fill the spot in Triple-A.
Outfielders (5): Judge, Heathcott, Gamel, Williams, Adams.

Position battles in Spring Training will determine the exact roster, as will injuries and things like that. The last big league bench spot is wide open, and the backup catcher’s job is not Sanchez’s just yet. Now let’s move on to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Bryan Mitchell* Nick Rumbelow* Chasen Shreve*
Luis Cessa* Branden Pinder* Jacob Lindgren*
Anthony Swarzak Nick Goody* James Pazos*
Brady Lail Kirby Yates* Tyler Olson*
Chad Green Johnny Barbato* Tyler Webb
Jaron Long Vinnie Pestano
Eric Ruth Tyler Jones
Ronald Herrera Mark Montgomery
Caleb Smith

Lots and lots of pitchers. I have 22 names in the table for 12-13 Triple-A spots and three big league bullpen spots, so 6-7 of those guys are going to get stuck in Double-A. Of course, not everyone will get through Spring Training healthy. A handful of pitchers always get hurt in March. (There always seems to be a rash of Tommy John surgeries in Spring Training as pitchers ramp up their throwing.) It’s a vicious part of the baseball calendar.

I honestly think the Yankees will use those final three MLB bullpen spots to take the players they believe give them the best chance to win, regardless of previous role or handedness. If it’s three lefties, so be it. If it’s three guys who are starters by trade, fine. Remember, the Yankees took David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno north as relievers back in 2013 because they were the best options. The team didn’t worry about leaving one or two stretched out in Triple-A.

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Trying to predict who will make the bullpen right now is impossible and a waste of time. No one expected Preston Claiborne to come to camp throwing fire three years ago, putting him in position for a big league call-up. Shreve might have a leg up on everyone else because he was so good for the first four and a half months last season. Aside from that, good luck figuring out who starts in MLB and Triple-A. And besides, the shuttle ensures these guys will be rotating in and out all year anyway.

I will say that of those 22 pitchers listed, I believe Ruth, Herrera, Smith, Jones, and Montgomery are mostly likely to be squeezed down to Double-A due to a roster crunch. (Herrera’s the guy who came over in the Jose Pirela trade.) I wouldn’t necessarily call them non-prospects. They’re just low priority prospects in the grand scheme of things. They lack the upside of the other pitchers in the table, relatively speaking.

Among the deep depth arms are lefty Chaz Hebert and righty Kyle Haynes. They’re among the starters who will open the season in Double-A and jump to Triple-A whenever a spot start is needed because of call-ups and whatnot. Ruth, Herrera, and Smith are in that group. There’s no doubt the Yankees have a ton of upper level pitchers, particularly in the bullpen. Now they just have to figure out which of these guys can stick in the big leagues.

Reports: Yanks sign Pete Kozma to minor league contract

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have signed infielder Pete Kozma to a minor league contract, report Anthony McCarron and Chad Jennings. The deal includes an invitation to Spring Training. The Yankees haven’t confirmed anything, but they usually don’t announce their non-roster invitees until right before camp anyway.

Kozma, 27, was the 18th overall pick in the 2007 draft. He’s spent the last few years either in Triple-A or in a utility role with the Cardinals. Kozma was the starting shortstop during their 2013 pennant-winning season. He’s a terrible hitter, owner of a career .222/.288/.293 (58 wRC+) batting line in nearly 700 plate appearances.

The Cardinals designated Kozma for assignment back in June and he became a minor league free agent after the season. The Yankees don’t have a shortstop for Triple-A and Kozma is now the clear front-runner for the job. Plus middle infield depth is never a bad thing. Kozma can’t hit but he can field.