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.

Eddy: Yankees sign Vinnie Pestano, three others to minor league contracts

Pestano. (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)
Pestano. (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

The Yankees have started filling the gaps in the upper levels of the farm system. Matt Eddy reports the team has signed righty reliever Vinnie Pestano, outfielder Cesar Puello, catcher Sebastian Valle, and lefty Richard Bleier to minor league contracts. I assume Pestano received an invite to big league Spring Training. Not sure about the others.

Pestano, 30, is the most notable of the bunch. He spent most of last season in Triple-A with the Angels, pitching to a 2.10 ERA (2.58 FIP) in 34.1 innings. Pestano also threw 11.2 ineffective innings with the big league team (nine runs and 23 base-runners). What are the odds his grandmother calls him Vincent? Like 99.8%, right? Definitely.

Anyway, a few years ago Pestano had a great season as a setup man with the Indians, pitching to a 2.32 ERA (2.67 FIP) in 62 innings in 2011. He had a strong follow-up season in 2012 (2.57 ERA and 3.42 FIP) but has struggled since, posting a 3.97 ERA (4.79 FIP) in 65.2 innings for the Indians and Halos while spending a bunch of time in Triple-A.

The Yankees subtracted Adam Warren and Justin Wilson and added Aroldis Chapman this offseason, so while they could use bullpen help, but I wouldn’t pencil Pestano into the Opening Day roster just yet. I think he’s nothing more than a depth arm, one who might not even get through Spring Training if he doesn’t impress. If anything, Pestano may be the guy who fills in at Triple-A if a few of the relief prospects who spent 2015 on the shuttle make the big league team.

Puello, 24, is a former top Mets prospects who got caught up in the Biogenesis scandal a few years ago. In fact, Eddy notes Puello is the only player suspended for his ties to Biogenesis who has yet to play in MLB. Puello played only one game this past season, going 0-for-3 in a rookie ball contest. He missed the season with a stress fracture in his back and was released in late-August.

Puello. (Sarah Glenn/Getty)
Puello. (Sarah Glenn/Getty)

When healthy and not suspended, Puello hit .252/.355/.393 (98 wRC+) with seven homers and 13 steals in 105 Triple-A games in 2014. Baseball America ranked him as the No. 77 prospect in the game way back in 2011, one spot ahead of Andrew Brackman. How about that? “(Puello is an) average runner with the instincts to play all three outfield posts capably … His minor league track record suggests he could platoon against lefthanders,” wrote Baseball America in their 2015 Prospect Handbook, when they ranked him the No. 26 prospect in the Mets system.

The Yankees are loaded with Triple-A outfielders at the moment, even with Jake Cave going to the Reds in the Rule 5 Draft. Some combination of Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Aaron Judge, Ben Gamel, and Tyler Austin figures to be the Triple-A outfield next year, though one of those guys could end up on the MLB bench. Puello might be ticketed for Double-A Trenton, where the Yankees lack outfield options.

The 25-year-old Valle hit .279/.341/.413 (118 wRC+) in 70 Double-A games with the Phillies this past season. They originally signed him out of Mexico in 2006. As with nearly every catcher the Yankees acquire these days, Valle has a reputation for being a strong defender. My guess is he will open next season with Double-A Trenton. The Yankees don’t have an obvious everyday catcher for the level at the moment.

Bleier, 28, is a journeyman who’s spent the last few years bouncing around different organizations. He had a 2.57 ERA (3.32 FIP) in 171.2 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A with the Nationals in 2015. Bleier is an extreme control pitcher: he had a 9.5% strike rate (!) and a 2.4 walk rate this past season. Either the Yankees are going to try Bleier in relief (he’s done that before) or he’s just an innings guy for Double-A and Triple-A next year.

In addition to these four, the Yankees also signed catcher Eddy Rodriguez and infielder Pete Kozma to minor league deals this offseason. I’m sure they’ll sign a few more players to minor league contracts in the coming weeks. They’re said to be looking for a starting pitcher and will need some Triple-A infielders since both Eric Jagielo and Tony Renda were in the Chapman trade. The Yankees usually don’t announce their non-roster invitees until early-February, so it’ll be a while until these deals are made official.