Poll: The Backup Infielder

Refsnyder. (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

At some point during the road trip the Yankees are expected to welcome Alex Rodriguez back from the DL. He is eligible to be activated tomorrow, though following last night’s game Joe Girardi admitted that won’t happen. A-Rod has yet to test his hamstring by running at full speed. That’s kind of a big deal.

“He is not going to be ready on Thursday. He still has some hurdles to cross and get by, and he is not by them yet. He really hasn’t had a setback. We were hoping for 15 days, but it will be more than that,” said Girardi to George King yesterday. The team does expect to get Alex back “sometime in Oakland” though. He’ll be back soon, just not tomorrow.

Whenever A-Rod comes back, the Yankees will have to clear a roster spot for him, which almost certainly means demoting either Rob Refsnyder or Ronald Torreyes. I suppose the team could cut ties with Dustin Ackley, but that would surprise me. They could use the lefty bench bat and they wouldn’t have a backup first baseman. Refsnyder or Torreyes it is.

It’s easy to assume Refsnyder’s stint with the Yankees will be short-term a la Gary Sanchez last week — the circumstances aren’t quite the same, but you know what I mean — because, after all, Torreyes has been with the team all season and has mostly been fine. I don’t think that is necessarily the case, however. Refsnyder has the better track record offensively and he’s improved his versatility by playing third base and right field this year. He could stick instead.

For now both Refsnyder and Torreyes are on the roster until A-Rod comes back, whenever that may be. We’re not going to learn a whole lot about these two in the coming days, especially if they ride the bench, so we know pretty much all we need to know about them right now. Which one is a better fit for the bench going forward? Let’s look.

The Case For Refsnyder

Here’s a challenge: try to make a case for Refsnyder that doesn’t involve citing minor league stats from a year or two (or three) ago. Refsnyder is now 25 years old and he’s in his third year at Triple-A. His numbers have gotten worse each season (Triple-A wRC+ from 2014-16: 137, 123, 115) and he’s not a good defender at all. Refsnyder is, by all accounts, a great teammate and a hard worker. That matters. But so does everything else.

Refsnyder offers versatility in that he can play second and third bases in addition to right field, though we’ve seen him at second and third, and it’s not pretty. Right field? I’m not so sure. I haven’t seen him out there. He could be a Jason Heyward level defender for all I know. Seems unlikely though. So Refsnyder’s versatility isn’t as valuable as it may seem. Sure, he can play multiple positions, but if he can’t play them even decently, what’s the point?

That said, Refsnyder does have offensive upside, especially compared to Torreyes. He has more power — Torreyes has hit 22 home runs in over 2,600 pro plate appearances — and late last season he also showed the ability to spray the ball around a bit. And, even though his defense is below-average, it’s passable. Refsnyder probably isn’t someone you would be comfortable playing every day, but he can make spot starts here and there no problem.

The case for Refsnyder is built around his offense, and offense has been a problem for the Yankees much of the season. Especially against lefties too. They’ve hit .231/.289/.345 (78 OPS+) as a team against southpaw starters this year. We’ve already seen a few clubs call up lefties to make spot starts against the Yankees for that reason (Blake Snell, Cesar Ramos). Refsnyder’s righty bat would help the lineup whenever a lefty is on the mound. Torreyes has started 12 of 38 games. Start Refsnyder that often and his glove won’t be a huge issue.

The Case For Torreyes

Torreyes and Refsnyder are pretty much opposites. Refsnyder is bat first and glove second. Torreyes is bat second and glove first. Torreyes did get off to a fantastic start offensively, going 6-for-9 in his first three games, but that was never going to last and it hasn’t. He’s gone 4-for-29 (.138) since and is down to .263/.282/.342 (66 wRC+) on the season overall. Ewww.

(Presswire)
Torreyes. (Presswire)

That said, Torreyes does have an elite offensive tool in his contact ability. He’s struck out four times in 39 bats (10.3%) and his swing and miss rate is a measly 7.5%. Torreyes struck out in 6.2% of his minor league plate appearances, so this isn’t small sample noise, this is who he is. Few players in the game can get the bat on the ball as frequently as he can. Put the ball in play and generally good things happen.

In the field is where Torreyes really makes an impact. He’s an above-average gloveman who has already played the three non-first base infield positions this season, plus he’s spent a few innings in right field. Girardi has said he’s comfortable playing Torreyes pretty much anywhere. Offense can be hit or miss with bench players because it’s easy to lose rhythm with sporadic playing time. Defense seems to be more of a constant.

(It’s worth noting that if the Yankees go with Refsnyder or Torreyes, Starlin Castro would have to take over as the backup shortstop.)

Keeping Torreyes would mean prioritizing defense over offense and, frankly, the Yankees could use help in both departments. That he puts the ball in play so much means he’ll occasionally run into a BABIP fueled hot streak, like he did early in the season. Zero power limits his offensive upside though. Torreyes is a classic bench guy who can play almost anywhere and control the bat.

* * *

I’m pretty sure I know how this poll is going to turn out, but I guess I’ll post it anyway. Both Refsnyder and Torreyes have clear strengths and weakness and they are different strengths and weaknesses, which is why this is not an insignificant question. If they had the same skill sets, then who cares? Pick one and move on. They offer different things and the Yankees have to figure out which one fits their needs better.

Who should the Yankees keep with A-Rod returns?

Game 38: Which Pineda Shows Up?

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Last night’s series opening loss to the Diamondbacks was ugly but not necessarily unexpected. The Yankees started a kid making his big league debut, and that’s always unpredictable, plus their best relievers were all unavailable due to their recent workloads. You’d still like to be able to steal a game under those circumstances, though more often than not you’re on the wrong end of the final score.

Tonight the Yankees are at full strength — or at least something approximating full strength — with Michael Pineda on the mound. Which Pineda will show up, the guy who gets hammered in the first inning or the guy with a knack for settling down and chucking scoreless innings? It would be nice to see the second guy without the first guy for once, you know? Here is the D’Backs’ lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. RF Aaron Hicks
  9. RHP Michael Pineda

It’s a bit cooler in Phoenix today than it was yesterday, meaning the temperature is in the mid-80s rather than the low-90s. The Chase Field roof will be open. Tonight’s game is going to start at 9:40pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) has yet to run the bases at full speed, so it’s possible he won’t be ready to come off the DL when eligible Thursday.

Roster Moves: The Yankees called up three players from Triple-A, they announced: Luis Cessa, James Pazos, and Rob Refsnyder. Chad Green and Conor Mullee were optioned down while Phil Coke was designated for assignment. The Yankees are back to a seven-man bullpen and a four-man bench, and they have an open 40-man roster spot now.

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.

A-Rod and Hicks injuries create some short-term roster headaches for the Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The just completed nine-game homestand did not go well for the Yankees. Not at all. They lost six times in the nine games, and, over the weekend, they lost both Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Hicks to injury. A-Rod hurt his oblique taking swings in the indoor batting cage between at-bats Sunday, and Hicks jammed his shoulder attempting a diving catch Friday.

The good news is neither A-Rod nor Hicks suffered a serious long-term injury. The MRI on A-Rod’s oblique came back negative, and he did travel with the team to Texas for their upcoming series with the Rangers. Hicks’ MRI showed “traumatic bursitis,” which sounds a lot worse than it really is. He received a cortisone shot and is only expected to miss a few days.

That A-Rod and Hicks only suffered day-to-day injuries is good news. The bad news is the two simultaneous injuries create some roster headaches for the Yankees. They have 23 healthy players on their 25-man roster right now, which means only a two-man bench. Playing short for a few days while one player nurses an injury is one thing. Playing short two position players is very different.

“That would be pretty hard to do … Playing two short would be really difficult,” said Joe Girardi to Daniel Popper following yesterday’s game. The Yankees said they were not going to make an immediate roster move when they announced the results of A-Rod’s MRI last night, but the key word there is immediate. They could still make a move prior to tonight’s game and I expect they will.

What I think will happen and what I think should happen are different things. I think the Yankees will place Hicks on the DL and ride out A-Rod’s injury for a few days. I think the Yankees should place both Hicks and A-Rod on the DL to not only avoid playing short-handed, but also to give the two players as much time as necessary to get healthy. A DL stint means no temptation to bring them back early.

Remember, oblique injuries are very tricky and very easy to re-aggravate. Plus A-Rod is 40 now, and 40-year-olds tend to take longer to heal that 25-year-olds. I can’t help but feel like something the Yankees believe will keep Alex out for, say, four or five days will end up sidelining him for nine or ten days. Same with Hicks to a lesser extent. He won’t be back until the end of the week at the earliest based on the five or six day timetable the team threw out there.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The Yankees have 40-man roster flexibility — they have one open spot thanks to Aroldis Chapman‘s suspension, plus two 60-day DL candidates (Greg Bird, Bryan Mitchell) and likely a third (Branden Pinder) — and a bunch of call-up options in Triple-A. A right-handed hitter(s) who can play a little outfield would be ideal, though not completely necessary. Here are the main candidates:

1. Nick Swisher. Swisher has raked in his short time with Triple-A Scranton (175 wRC+), which is good to see, but be careful not to read too much into a 12-year veteran mashing Triple-A pitching. He’s healthy and that’s good. Swisher also stunk the last two years and his knees are shot, so he’s basically a first baseman and DH at this point. (He hasn’t played the outfield at all with Scranton.) Also, Swisher can’t be sent back down when Hicks and A-Rod are healthy.

2. Ben Gamel. Gamel is a left-handed hitter and the Yankees already have three of those in the outfield if you include Dustin Ackley. He has hit this year though (118 wRC+), and he’s far better suited to play right field than Ackley. In a perfect world Carlos Beltran will slide into the DH spot full-time while A-Rod is on the shelf. Gamel may be the best option in terms of expected performance on both sides of the ball.

3. Aaron Judge. Well, if the Yankees want a right-handed batter, Judge would fit the bill. He’s played well in the early going (125 wRC+) despite some strikeout issues (30.9%). The Yankees have been going young whenever possible lately, and Judge would be a better fit than Gamel because he is a righty. That said, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and sending him back down when Hicks and A-Rod return would burn his first minor league option year. Also, Judge simply might need more time in Triple-A. That strikeout rate is no bueno. You’d hate to rush a guy this talented before he’s ready.

4. Lane Adams. The Yankees claimed Adams off waivers this winter specifically because he’s a right-handed hitting outfielder, something they lacked at the upper levels. He started the year in Double-A before moving up to Triple-A when Cesar Puello got hurt, and so far he hasn’t stood out with the bat (78 wRC+). Adams is the best defender among the team’s outfield options, which is not nothing. It’s unknown how much any of these guys will contribute with the bat right now. Adams could help the most in the field.

5. Rob Refsnyder? Once upon a time Refsnyder was a right fielder, though he has played only nine games at the position since 2013. The Yankees had him work out exclusively at second and third base in Spring Training and Triple-A. That said, he’s a right-handed hitter, and he did some damage against lefties late last year. The Yankees could use the help against southpaws. Would they stick Refsnyder in right field for a few days until Hicks returns? My guess is no, but it is an option.

Gamel is the easy move because he’s already on the 40-man roster and is playing the best on both sides of the ball right now. Swisher is the “old Yankees” move in that he’s a veteran who would be getting priority over younger players. Adams is the boring option, Judge is the bold option, and Refsnyder is the out of the box option. If the Yankees do stick someone (Hicks) on the DL, I think Gamel would get the call. I’m wrong all the time though.

Neither A-Rod nor Hicks have been hitting all that much in the early going, so it’s possible whoever gets called up will actually improve the team in the short-term. Still, the Yankees want to get those two going, and they’re at their best when those two guys are playing up to their potential. A-Rod and Hicks won’t be able to snap out of their funks while injured. There’s nothing the team can do about that though. They just have to hope they can return soon.

Point is, having A-Rod and Hicks hurt at the same time really creates some problems. The injuries remove two right-handed bats from a team struggling against lefties (74 wRC+) and they could be left playing shorthanded for a few days. These are only day-to-day injuries, but the fact both happened at the same time gives the Yankees little choice but to stick someone on the DL for the time being.

The Farm System [2016 Season Preview]

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

The Yankees ignored their farm system for a number of years in the early and mid-2000s. They forfeited first round picks left and right to sign free agents, and they traded the few prospects they had for big leaguers every chance they got. I don’t think that’s automatically a bad thing! There’s a time and a place to go for it, and when you’re winning 90+ games every year, you go for it.

Things changed not too long ago. The Yankees decided to scale back the “go for it” mentality and instead focus on getting younger and building from within. Draft picks are precious, especially now that it’s harder to get extra ones, and top prospects are off limits in trades. Or at least the team says they are. Last summer the Yankees dipped into their farm system to fill a number of holes, most notably by sticking Luis Severino in the second half rotation.

The Yankees doubled down on their farm system this offseason. They signed zero Major League free agents for the first time in franchise history (as far as I can tell), and they didn’t go bonkers with trades either. They added a new second baseman, a new fourth outfielder, and a new closer. That’s about it. Any additional help is going to come from within in 2016. Let’s preview the farm system.

The Top Prospects

The Yankees have four prospects who are clearly a notch above everyone else in the system: OF Aaron Judge, C Gary Sanchez, SS Jorge Mateo, and RHP James Kaprielian. Put them in any order you want. I won’t argue (much). Those are the four guys though. They’re the cream of the farm system crop. And cool part is all four could play in MLB in 2016. I wouldn’t call it likely, but it’s not completely impossible.

Judge is a behemoth — he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 275 lbs. — with the kind of raw power you’d expect from that frame, though he doesn’t fit the one-dimensional slugger stereotype because he has a good hit tool and can play quality right field defense. Triple-A pitchers beat him with soft stuff away last year, so he’ll focus on the outer half this year. He’s already made some adjustments. Judge is not on the 40-man roster and the Yankees do have a lot of Triple-A outfield depth, but he will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next offseason, so the team could add him to the 40-man ahead of time and bring him up in September. Perhaps even sooner.

As soon as John Ryan Murphy was traded, Sanchez became the favorite for the backup catcher’s job. Over time it became clear sending him down was the right move, and not only because he went 1-for-21 (.048) in Spring Training. Five weeks in the minors equals an extra year of team control down the line and that is too good to pass up. Sanchez will continue to work on his defense in Triple-A for the time being. It’s only a matter of time until he takes over as Brian McCann‘s backup.

Mateo and Kaprielian are both going to start the season in High-A and they could conceivably reach MLB late in the season. Kaprielian, a polished college arm, could follow the Ian Kennedy path and zoom up the ladder, capping off his season with a few big league starts. Mateo, a speedster who can do a little of everything, could be the team’s designated pinch-runner in September. He’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, so the Yankees could add him to the 40-man roster a few weeks early and put those legs to good use.

Judge, Sanchez, Mateo, and Kaprielian are the club’s tippy top prospects, and even if they don’t help at the MLB level this season, they’re all big parts of the future. Judge is the obvious long-term replacement for Carlos Beltran. Sanchez is McCann’s long-term replacement. The Yankees have one big league starter under team control beyond 2017 (Severino), so Kaprielian’s place is obvious. Mateo? They’ll figure that out when the time comes. For now, these four will continue to hone their skills and inch closer to an MLB job.

Ready To Help

In addition to the four top prospects, the Yankees have a few minor leaguers on the cusp of helping at the MLB level right now. First and foremost, they have about a dozen arms for the bullpen shuttle, and frankly I’m kinda sick of talking about them. We know the names, right? LHP Jacob Lindgren, RHP Nick Rumbelow, RHP Nick Goody, RHP Branden Pinder, LHP James Pazos, on and on the list goes. We’re going to see them all at some point in 2016. I’m sure of it.

Gamel. (Presswire)
Gamel. (Presswire)

Beyond the bullpen shuttle, the Yankees have a small army of Triple-A outfielders who can help at a moment’s notice. Need a bat? OF Ben Gamel is there. Need defense? OF Mason Williams is the best bet once he fully recovers from shoulder surgery. Need a little of both? There’s OF Slade Heathcott. 2B Rob Refsnyder provides infield depth, or at least he will once he spends more time at third base. IF Ronald Torreyes, who will open the season in the show, is another infield candidate.

RHP Bryan Mitchell is also going to open to season in MLB, though he’s still a piece of rotation depth. If he’s the best man for the job, the Yankees will pull him out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation whenever a starter is needed. RHP Luis Cessa, who came over in the Justin Wilson trade, looked very good this spring and is probably next in line for a call-up. RHP Brady Lail and RHP Chad Green are behind him. Cessa is on the 40-man. Lail and Green are not.

Unlike last season, the Yankees don’t have a Severino waiting in the wings. They don’t have that prospect who can come up and provide immediate impact. Well, I should rephrase that. They don’t have a prospect you would reasonably project to come up and have an impact right away. Cessa could come up and throw 60 innings with a sub-2.00 ERA, but no one expects that. Either way, the Yankees have depth pieces in Triple-A. Expect them to dip into their farm system for short-term help again this year, regardless of what they need at the MLB level.

The Next Top Prospects

A year ago at this time Mateo looked like a prospect who was ready to explode onto the scene and become a top tier prospect. Two years ago it was Severino. This summer, the best candidate for such a breakout is SS Wilkerman Garcia, who was part of that massive international spending spree two years ago. He’s a switch-hitter with good defense and I swear, every scouting report I read about him is better than the last. I’m excited to see what Wilkerman does this year.

Beyond Wilkerman, OF Dustin Fowler and C Luis Torrens have a chance to become top prospects this year. Fowler is a do-it-all outfielder and Torrens is a defense-first catcher with a promising bat. He’s coming back from shoulder surgery though, so maybe expecting a breakout after missing the entire 2015 season is too much to ask. 3B Miguel Andujar has high-end tools. We’re just waiting for the performance to match. SS Hoy Jun Park is another toolsy shortstop like Garcia.

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system, though they do have some pitching prospects poised to break out this summer. RHP Drew Finley is the No. 1 guy. He’s got three pitches and he locates. I feel like he’s going to sneak up on people this year. RHP Domingo Acevedo is the quintessential huge fastball guy. He just has to figure everything else out. LHP Jeff Degano needs to develop a changeup but already has the fastball and breaking ball.

Then, of course, there’s whoever the Yankees take with their first round pick (18th overall) in this June’s amateur draft. That player — the smart money is on a college player based on the team’s recent draft tendencies — figures to be one of their better prospects a year from now. Wilkerman, Fowler, and Finley are my picks. Those are the guys I see having big 2016 seasons developmentally and becoming true top prospects year from now.

Returning From Injury

Torrens missed all of last season with his injury, but man, he’s not the only one. LHP Ian Clarkin missed the regular season with elbow inflammation, which stinks. The good news is he did not need surgery and was able to throw some innings in the Arizona Fall League. RHP Ty Hensley, RHP Austin DeCarr, and RHP Domingo German all had Tommy John surgery last spring and are still working their way back. Lindgren (elbow), Heathcott (quad), and Williams (shoulder) all missed big chunks of the season too. That’s a lot of talent coming back. Hopefully all of them come back at full strength, or at least something close to it.

Sladerunner. (Presswire)
Sladerunner. (Presswire)

Last Chance?

Prospects are fun and everyone loves them, but they will break your heart. Over and over again. Some players are entering make or break years, and I don’t mean 2015 Gary Sanchez make or break years. I mean real make or break years. 1B/OF Tyler Austin is the most obvious last chance guy. He’s battled injuries and ineffectiveness the last few years, and he lost his 40-man roster spot in September. The 2016 season is his last chance to show the Yankees he’s worth keeping around.

Heathcott’s another make or break player for me. The Yankees gave him a second chance last year and he rewarded them with his big September home run against the Rays. That said, he again missed a bunch of time due to injury, and when healthy he didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball in Triple-A. Another year like that might spell the end of Slade’s time in the organization, especially since he will be out of options following the season.

I’m also inclined to include RHP Vicente Campos in the make or break category. He’s had a lot of injuries over the years, most notably missing the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery, which has really cut into his development time. This is his final minor league option year, and if he doesn’t show the Yankees he can help as soon next year, it may be time to move on. Baseball is cruel, man.

The Deep Sleepers

Remember that “The Next Top Prospects” section? Consider this the Next Next Top Prospects section. These are the deepest sleepers in the farm system. They’re way off the beaten path. The new hotness right now is OF Estevan Florial, an ulta-tooled up 18-year-old the Yankees got on the cheap because identity issues — he used a relative’s identity to enroll in school in the Dominican Republic — put him in purgatory before signing. He’s going to make his stateside debut this year and jump onto the prospect map in a big way.

SS Diego Castillo and OF Brayan Emery were part of the 2014-15 international spending spree, and both possess tools that far exceed their six-figure bonuses. Castillo in particular already looks like a steal at $750,000. He should come to the U.S. this year and is in line to follow Mateo and Wilkerman as the next great Yankees shortstop prospect. RHP Luis Medina, who signed last July, is already running his fastball up to 98-100 mph. And then there’s OF Leonardo Molina, who is still only 18. It feels like he’s been around forever. Florial is the big name to know here, but Castillo’s not far behind. Expect to hear a lot about those two in 2016 and beyond.

The Best of the Rest

There is nothing sexy about being a mid-range prospect, but you know what? Mid-range prospects are often the difference between good teams and great teams. They provide depth and they’re valuable trade chips. Guys like Adam Warren and Brett Gardner don’t grow on trees, you know. You’d rather draft and develop them yourself than have to go out and buy them from someone else.

SS Tyler Wade, SS Kyle Holder, LHP Jordan Montgomery, IF Thairo Estrada, IF Abi Avelino, OF Carlos Vidal, 1B Chris Gittens, RHP Cale Coshow, RHP Chance Adams, OF Trey Amburgey, and OF Jhalan Jackson all fit into this group. They’re good prospects, not great prospects, and they all project to be big leaguers of varying usefulness. I’m not sure if we’ll see any of these players in the show this year, but I bet several pop-up in trade rumors, and one or two could be moved for help at the MLB level. That’s what the farm system is for, after all. Call-ups and trades.

Yankees option Rob Refsnyder to Triple-A, final bench spot remains unsettled

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have optioned infielder Rob Refsnyder to Triple-A Scranton, the team announced today. He seemed to have the inside track for the final bench spot for most of the spring, but some recent defensive problems — Refsnyder took ground balls to the face in back-to-back games this weekend — and a sneaky lack of production at the plate (.649 OPS) pushed him off the Opening Day roster.

With Refsnyder out, the competition for the final bench spot comes down to Pete Kozma and Ronald Torreyes. Kozma’s the known quantity. He’s been around for a few years and is firmly established as a no-hit/all-glove utility man. Kozma is the new version of Brendan Ryan, basically. Torreyes has some offensive skills, specifically his contact ability, and he can play all over the infield well enough. My money’s on Kozma getting the job.

I’ll be interested to see whether the Yankees continue to give Refsnyder time at third base in Triple-A. There’s no reason not to, right? He looked fine at the hot corner earlier this spring, though that was mostly because he was making routine plays. Refsnyder has looked worse and worse in the field as the spring has progressed. It’s become clear he’s not a big league caliber third baseman at this point.

For now, Refsnyder’s only real path to meaningful playing time with the Yankees is injury. If either Starlin Castro or Didi Gregorius get hurt, Refsnyder would be the obvious candidate to come up and play second base in the interim. We’ll see. I’m not sure where Refsnyder fits long-term and that has been the case since the Castro trade. A utility role is his best (only?) chance to stay with the Yankees going forward.

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.