Game 76: Pineda, Yankees going for series win over Astros

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I have made the executive decision to downgrade Michael Pineda from Big Mike to Midsize Mike, at least temporarily. Pineda didn’t just get hammered last time out (eight runs in 3.1 innings), he has a 6.10 ERA in his last seven starts and 38.1 innings overall. That dates back to the 16-strikeout game. Pineda has a shiny 2.89 FIP this year. That’s awesome! He also has a 4.25 ERA (93 ERA+). That’s not awesome.

The Yankees need to get Pineda back on track and soon — preferably starting today against the Astros — because I don’t think they can get to the postseason if they’re stuck with Midsize Mike the rest of the season. One thing at a time though. Get the win today, take the four-game series from the Astros, and hope Pineda starts earning back the Big Mike moniker. Here is Houston’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. LF Garrett Jones
  7. RF Chris Young
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. 2B Stephen Drew
    RHP Michael Pineda

There are thunderstorms in Houston today, so the Minute Maid Park roof will be closed once again. This afternoon’s series finale will begin just after 2pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and, depending where you live, MLB Network nationally. Enjoy.

Roster Move: Guess what? Esmil Rogers is back! He has been called up from Triple-A Scranton and Gregorio Petit was sent down, so the Yankees have a seven-man bullpen and a three-man bench right now. Today was Esmil’s day to start for the RailRiders, so he’s good for a lot of innings if necessary. Slade Heathcott was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot for Rogers.

Injury Update: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) hit and ran the bases again today. He’ll head to Tampa tomorrow and will begin playing in minor league rehab games this week, the Yankees say.

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Young outfielders doing well during their auditions so far this season

(Getty)
Williams. (Getty)

I’m not going to lie. If you had told me back before the start of Spring Training that both Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams would make their MLB debuts before the All-Star break this season, I would have assumed the starting outfield had been decimated by injuries. Not just the starters, but the backups too. Heathcott (injuries) and Williams (poor performance) were not on my big league radar at all coming into 2015.

Instead of fading into prospect obscurity this year, both Heathcott and Williams had strong showings in Spring Training that carried over into the regular season. Slade was simply fully healthy for the first time in basically his entire career. Williams had the proverbial light bulb turn on and finally got serious about his career. It took injuries for them to get to the show — Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) for Heathcott, then Heathcott (quad) for Williams — but both Heathcott and Williams put themselves in position for the call-up and they deserve credit for that.

Ramon Flores also made his MLB debut earlier this year — he actually came up when Heathcott got hurt then went down for Williams — so that’s three young outfielders the Yankees have called up already this season. All three had some immediate success too. Heathcott went 6-for-17 (.353) in his cameo, Flores had some hits against top notch pitching (Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez) and played great defense, and Williams walloped a no-doubt two-run home run in his second at-bat in pinstripes. As far as first impressions go, all three did well.

As is the case with any young player, especially those not considered tippy top prospects at the time of their call-up, these three guys are auditioning for big league jobs. Heathcott, Flores, and Williams want to show the Yankees they can play everyday. On the other side of the coin, the Yankees want those three outfielders to show other teams they can play everyday to boost their trade value. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the team called Williams up last week instead of recalling Flores — the Yankees want to show off as many of these guys as possible.

This is a simple numbers game. Brett Gardner and Ellsbury are locked into long-term contracts and Carlos Beltran is signed through next year with Chris Young and Garrett Jones on the bench as reserves through the end of 2015. With Alex Rodriguez hitting so well at DH, Beltran is stuck in the outfield. Not only are Heathcott, Flores, and Williams waiting in Triple-A, the Yankees also have Ben Gamel and Tyler Austin at that level as well, plus Aaron Judge and Jake Cave are sitting in Double-A. The Yankees have a lot of outfielders and something has to give. They can’t keep everyone. There’s not enough roster spots to do that.

Flores. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Flores. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

The Yankees have enough Triple-A and Double-A outfield depth to trade at least one of their young outfielders this summer to plug another roster hole. Since Heathcott is on the DL, that leaves Flores and Williams as trade bait. Flores is the more predictable player while Williams has the greater upside. Whom you want to see the Yankees keep is a matter of preference. There’s no right answer. The team shouldn’t label either untouchable though — other clubs will value Flores and Williams differently and the Yankees should be willing to act on either player.

Looking ahead, the Yankees can use one of these guys as the fourth outfielder next season, though the problem is Heathcott, Flores, and Williams are all left-handed hitters. The Yankees would prefer a righty fourth outfielder to balance out the roster. The best fit for the roster among young outfielders might actually be Austin, a righty hitter who can play the corner outfield as well as first base. He’s had a down year though (76 wRC+) and isn’t in the big league conversation right now.

Judge is hopefully the long-term answer in right field once Beltran’s contract is up. I imagine that’s the plan but this is baseball, and things rarely go according to plan, especially with prospects. That’s why the outfield depth is a good thing. Maybe Williams ends up the long-term right fielder. Or Flores. Or Austin. Or maybe Gardner turns into trade bait and Flores and Judge are flanking Ellsbury in two years. Who knows? The depth gives the Yankees lots of options, and one of them absolutely should be trading prospects. That’s why you have ’em.

So far this season things have worked out to almost the best case scenario for these young outfielders. Heathcott and Williams rebuilt some value early in the season and those two plus Flores made strong first impressions in their brief MLB cameos. Judge, Gamel, and Cave are also having nice years in the minors. Austin’s been the only negative. This depth allows the Yankees to trade one of their young outfielders at the deadline this year to improve their roster elsewhere. A few months ago, dealing some of these guys would have been the definition of selling low.

Game 50: Late Night on the West Coast

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The only thing that sucks worse than a Yankees loss is waiting until late at night for a Yankees loss on the West Coast. The Yankees have dropped the first two games of this four-game series to the Athletics — which team is in first place and which one has the worst record in the league again? — and we’ve had to wait until the wee hours of the morning for both games to go final. Blah.

Anyway, the Yankees have lost two straight and 12 of their last 16 games, yet they somehow aren’t buried in the AL East. Quite the opposite in fact. The division is just that bad. Still, the Yankees can’t keep losing at this pace. The offense, the defense, and the pitching has let them down in not so equal parts. Start righting the ship with a win tonight, mmmkay? Here is the A’s lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. LF Ramon Flores
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. 2B Jose Pirela
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

It’s cool and foggy in Oakland tonight, though there is no rain in the forecast. First pitch is scheduled for 10:05pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Try to enjoy the game.

Roster Move: As expected, Slade Heathcott (quad) was placed on the 15-day DL and Flores was called up from Triple-A Scranton.

Injury Updates: Jacob Ellsbury (knee) is working out in a pool and getting treatment. That’s about it … Garrett Jones is dealing with plantar fasciitis but it’s manageable … Gregorio Petit (hand) has started taking batting practice … Brendan Ryan (calf, hamstring) has started playing in Extended Spring Training games.

Yankees place Slade Heathcott on 15-day DL with quad strain, call up Ramon Flores

Slade. (Presswire)
Slade. (Presswire)

Earlier today, Joe Girardi told reporters in Oakland the Yankees will place Slade Heathcott on the 15-day DL with a Grade II quad strain. “I can tell you it’ll be longer than 15 days,” said Girardi when asked about a timetable. Ramon Flores has been called up from Triple-A Scranton to fill the roster spot.

Heathcott, 24, told reporters on Thursday that the quad has been bothering him on and off since the offseason. I guess the team sent him for tests at some point, which confirmed the Grade II strain. Chris Capuano suffered a Grade II quad strain in Spring Training and was out from early-March through mid-May, for what it’s worth. Heathcott’s not a starting pitcher who has to get stretched out though.

Girardi said that with both Heathcott and Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) on the DL, he’ll use Brett Gardner in center field more often going forward. That makes sense — Chris Young hasn’t hit for about a month now and Flores is best used in left field. Hopefully Flores gets a chance to play like Heathcott, even if he’s only the left-handed half of a left field platoon with Young.

Flores, 23, has hit .294/.389/.425 (140 wRC+) with four homers in 42 games with Triple-A Scranton this season. This will be his first taste of MLB. Donnie Collins says Flores was in the RailRiders’ lineup tonight before being scratched, so chances are he is not with the Yankees and is still traveling out west. I guess they have to play a man short tonight.

Game 48: Oaktown

See? The Coliseum wasn't so bad before Mount Davis. (Baseball Feelings)
See? The Coliseum wasn’t so bad before Mount Davis. (Baseball Feelings)

Fresh off their three-game sweep of the Royals, the Yankees are back out on the road, this time traveling across the country for a seven-game West Coast trip. It starts tonight in Oakland, not far from CC Sabathia‘s hometown, and Sabathia happens to be on the mound tonight. Neat.

The A’s have the worst record in the league (17-32) but their run differential (-5) says they’re better than that. Their bullpen has really sabotaged their season. I wouldn’t assume this will be an easy series — is any series an easy series for these Yankees? — just because Oakland has such an awful record. They could sneak up on you. Here is the A’s lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. 2B Stephen Drew
  8. CF Chris Young
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    LHP CC Sabathia

It’s sunny yet cool in the Bay Area tonight. Temperatures are down in the 50s. No rain in the forecast though. Tonight’s game is scheduled to begin just after 10pm ET (argh) and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Slade Heathcott was originally in tonight’s lineup but was a late scratch due to a sore quad … Ivan Nova (elbow) made another Extended Spring Training start today. He’ll make one more in a few days then head out on an official minor league rehab assignment … Chris Martin (elbow) will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton on Saturday … in case you missed it earlier, Masahiro Tanaka is en route to join the Yankees. He’s expected to start early next week.

Chris Young’s great April shouldn’t stand in the way of regular playing time for Slade Heathcott

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Back a few weeks ago, when the Yankees were winning on a consistent basis, they were doing so thanks in part to fourth outfielder Chris Young, who was providing power and strong overall play off the bench. His production was forcing Joe Girardi to pencil him into the lineup as often as possible, even at the expense of Brett Gardner at times. It appeared the Yankees had struck bench player gold.

The last few weeks have been much different, however. Both for the Yankees and Young. Since the calendar flipped to May, Young is gone a weak 6-for-42 (.143) overall, including his current 2-for-31 (.065) rut. And while that isn’t a ton of playing time, it is enough to know Young no longer belongs in the lineup as often a possible. His struggles seem to have flown under the radar a bit given everything else happening with the team, yet there they are.

Young’s hot start earned him some rope, and with Jacoby Ellsbury out hurt and Carlos Beltran always at risk of getting hurt, there are lots of reasons to keep him around. I don’t think anyone is lobbying to get rid of him anyway. What the Yankees should do though is reduce Young’s playing time, especially against righties, with those at-bats going to Slade Heathcott instead.

Heathcott was called up when Ellsbury got hurt and he’s gone 5-for-12 (.417) with a double and a homer in three starts so far, which tells us … nothing, really. Outside of a serious injury, there’s no way three games should change your opinion about any player. Heathcott should play more simply because he’s young player with two-way ability who — bear with me a second, it’s about to get a little crazy — might actually carve out a role with the team going forward because his best years are ahead of him.

The Yankees are being hush hush about Ellsbury’s timetable, though we do know he will spend more than the minimum 15 days on the DL. That could mean 16 days, 30 days, 60 days … who knows? Either way, Ellsbury is not returning anytime soon, so playing time is plentiful, and that’s an opportunity to evaluate Heathcott at the MLB level. The Yankees called Slade up over other deserving players (Ramon Flores, most notably), so it’s clear they like him. He’s not just a warm body.

Remember, Heathcott is a former first round pick and tools aren’t a question. He’s battled injuries and off-the-field demons over the years, not a lack of production, and we’ve seen just how dynamic he can be when healthy these last few days. Slade plays defense, seems to have a plan at the plate, has speed, and is sneaky strong. Plus he plays with the dial turned to eleven at all times. That doesn’t necessarily make him a better player, but it makes him fun to watch. Talent, effort, health. For years he only had two of the three. At this very moment he has all three.

Heathcott is someone who could have a future with the Yankees and force the team to clear a spot for him down the road. This call-up during Ellsbury’s injury may only be temporary, but that’s okay, it’s still an opportunity for Slade to get his foot in the door. Play well now and make a good first impression, and the next time an outfielder gets hurt, the club’s call-up decision won’t be tough. Keep playing well and suddenly a roster spot could be there come Spring Training 2016.

This isn’t Melky Cabrera circa 2005-06, when he fell on his face (almost literally too) during his 2005 cameo but got called up again in 2006 because he was the best option. Heathcott has competition and the Yankees have options. If he doesn’t play well now, Flores is waiting to get the next opportunity. If Flores doesn’t work, there’s Tyler Austin. Slade is the most well-rounded player though, one who can contribute on both sides of the ball, and he’s the kind of young player the Yankees should be embracing given their current roster.

Young did some fine work earlier this season. The Yankees benefited greatly and he remains a useful piece off the bench. He shouldn’t get playing time priority over Heathcott though, and, to be fair, Heathcott has started three of the last four games against right-handed starters, so Young isn’t stealing at-bats from him right now. Slade is an underdog with one heck of a story. He’s also a young player with talent who could help the Yankees short and long-term. The Yankees owe it to themselves to use Ellsbury’s injury as an opportunity to let Heathcott show what he can do. Otherwise I don’t see much point in calling him up.

Slade Heathcott and Not-So-Irrational Optimism

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Spring Training this year was a great time to prospect watch. The Yankees had just about all of their top prospects in big league camp and they were all impressive. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Jacob Lindgren, and Luis Severino stood out in particular but they were hardly alone. It was a fun few weeks watching the kids play, that’s for sure.

Perhaps the most impressive prospect in Spring Training was a player who came to camp barely registering as a prospect at this point of his career: Slade Heathcott. Heathcott played only nine games last season due a pair of knee surgeries and only 230 games from 2011-14 due to knee and shoulder surgeries, which means a lot of missed development time. I ranked him the team’s 30th best prospect before the season, so he only barely made the cut.

The Yankees non-tendered Heathcott this past offseason because it was the only way to get him off the 40-man roster without exposing him to waivers. Heathcott could have signed with any other team as a free agent but instead returned to the Yankees on a minor league deal that included an invite to Spring Training, though he was an afterthought compared to the other prospects coming into camp.

Heathcott, now 24, had a dynamite showing in Spring Training, hitting .333/.450/.545 with three stolen bases in parts of 23 Grapefruit League games. He won the James P. Dawson Award as the top rookie in Spring Training and played so well the Yankees decided to send him to Triple-A Scranton to start the season rather than Double-A Trenton as planned.

So far this year Heathcott is hitting .347/.392/.472 (~145 wRC+) with two steals, a 7.5 BB%, and a 16.3 K% in 80 plate appearances with the RailRiders, including a torrid 14-for-25 (.560) stretch in his last seven games. He’s also running around center field making catches like this (GIF via Donnie Collins):

Slade Heathcott

We didn’t see Heathcott make any catches quite that good in Spring Training, but we did see a Slade Heathcott who looked fully healthy for the first time in years. You don’t make athletic plays like that without being healthy. Heathcott moved around very well in camp and looked great physically following his various surgeries.

“Honestly, my knee never crosses my mind when I’m playing,” said Heathcott to Chad Jennings in Spring Training. “I’m to the point that I’ve trained hard enough and ran enough and done the training that I need to do to make sure that it will hold up. It very seldom crosses my mind. So it’s really just the confidence of getting back in the swing of things.”

Heathcott’s apparent return to health and bonafide hot start have me feeling … conflicted. My head says not to excited because Slade has basically no track record of health. When we all look back at his hot start in August, we’ll laugh because it was just a hot start, nothing more. Know what I mean? This isn’t the first time Heathcott’s gotten off to a great start. He hit .370/.440/.616 in his first 18 games of 2011, for example.

At the same time, my heart is telling me hell yeah Heathcott’s healthy! This is all legit! He always had talent, that was never the question. Heathcott could just never stay on the field but now he’s doing it. This is great! How could you not get excited about what Slade has done so far this season? This is pretty much the best case scenario. Couldn’t ask for a better Spring Training and start to the regular season.

So which one should I listen to, my head or my heart? I think the answer is both. Heathcott sure looked healthy in Spring Training based on how well he moved around following a pair of recent knee surgeries, and he can do some exciting things if healthy, but at the same time staying healthy has been a career long challenge for Slade. An impressive spring and a great start to the Triple-A season doesn’t change that.

Against my better judgement, I find myself getting very excited about Heathcott and the prospect of finally (finally!) seeing what he can do across a full, healthy season. The Yankees have a lot of upper level outfield depth — Heathcott has been flanked by Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores in the Triple-A outfield, so yeah — so I’m not sure where Slade fits into the call-up pecking order, but if he keeps playing like this, he’ll force his way into the picture. He offers a dynamic two-way, power-speed game Austin and Flores simply do not. For the first time in a long time, there is a reason to be excited about Heathcott.

“Heathcott’s been very impressive. Very healthy, very athletic, very productive,” said Brian Cashman to Jennings at the end of Spring Training. “There’s optimism.”