Even without many lefty power hitters, the Yankees will still be able to take advantage of the short porch

Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Once the new Yankee Stadium opened and it became clear the short right field porch was even shorter than it had been at the old ballpark, the Yankees started to build their roster around left-handed pull hitters. I mean, they’d always done that, but there was an increased emphasis for sure. It made complete sense too. You tailor your roster to your ballpark since that’s where you play the majority of your games. Every team does it.

The Yankees sought left-handed pull hitters whenever possible. When they needed a short-term designated hitter, they signed guys like Nick Johnson and Raul Ibanez and Travis Hafner. Filling out the bench? They brought in Kelly Johnson and Eric Chavez. Brian McCann‘s pull power from the left side of the plate was one of the biggest reasons the Yankees signed him. No doubt about it.

At the moment the Yankees have three left-handed hitters in their projected 2017 lineup: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Didi Gregorius. Greg Bird can make it four should he win the first base job in Spring Training, and he’s the only one of those four you’d truly consider as a power hitter, right? Gregorius hit 20 homers last season and that was awesome, but I don’t think anyone is counting on him to be a big run producer going forward.

The Yankees actually have more power from the right side of the plate right now. Chris Carter, who will play first base on the days Bird does not, smacked 41 home runs last year. He’s hit the eighth most homers in baseball since 2014. Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro all topped 20 homers in 2016. Sanchez and Holliday didn’t even play full seasons. Aaron Judge hit 23 homers in 120 games between Triple-A and MLB.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Yankees lineup leans towards the right side of the plate. Go back throughout history and most successful Yankees teams had big lefty bats, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss to Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez. Left-handed power and patience is the franchise’s trademark. That isn’t the case so much right now.

“The power is not prevalent from the left side. That is the way the dominoes have shaken out,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman recently. “There is no think-tank, philosophical change to get away from lefty power. It is how it has shaken out as we tried to upgrade each individual position.”

If the Yankees wanted lefty power, they could have added it this offseason. They could have brought in Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss instead of Holliday and Carter, for example. Or maybe Adam Lind and Luis Valbuena. There were left-handed pull hitters on the market this winter waiting to be signed. The Yankees went righty instead of lefty, probably because Holliday is a better pure hitter than those guys and Carter has more power than all of them.

The team’s lack of left-handed power — Carter hit more homers than Gardner, Ellsbury, and Gregorius (and Bird) combined in 2016 (41 to 36) — does not mean the Yankees will be unable to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch in 2017. Last year we saw Castro drive the ball to right field with authority. Holliday and Carter have been doing it for years as well. Check out their line drive and fly ball rates by direction from 2014-16:

LD+FB% to Pull LD+FB% to Middle LD+FB% to Oppo
Carter 51.8% 80.0% 90.1%
Castro 31.3% 51.6% 74.5%
Holliday 33.9% 54.3% 77.9%
MLB AVG for RHB 33.7% 35.3% 51.1%

When Carter has hit a ball the other way over the last three seasons, it’s been a fly ball or a line drive more than nine times out of ten. That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s not unheard of. Other top right-handed power hitters like J.D. Martinez (90.1%), Kris Bryant (88.6%), and Mike Trout (88.0%) are in the same neighborhood. The best power hitters are the ones who hit the ball out to all fields.

Castro and Holliday don’t hit as many line drives and fly balls when going the other way as Carter, but they’re still way above the league average for right-handed batters. Roughly three out of every four balls they’ve hit to right field over the last three seasons have been airborne. Want to take advantage of the short porch as a right-handed hitter? You’ve got to get the ball in the air when you go the other way, and Carter, Castro, and Holliday are all very good at it.

(Last year, after Tyler Austin hit his walk-off home run against the Rays, I noted how rare it is for a right-handed batter to hit an opposite field home run on an inside pitch. Only eleven righties had done it up to that point last year, and three are now Yankees: Austin, Carter, and Holliday.)

Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

Now, here’s the rub: those three don’t hit the majority of their batted balls the other way. When they do hit the ball to right field, it tends to be in the air, but like most hitters they mostly hit back up the middle and to the pull side. Since 2014 only 23.0% of Carter’s batted balls were to right field. It was 29.9% for Holliday and 22.5% for Castro. This is important context. It’s not like these three are hitting every other ball to right field. It’s just that when they do go to right field, they often do so in the air. That’s good given the short porch.

During their brief big league cameos last season we saw Sanchez and Austin, as well as Judge, hit home runs to right field. All five of Austin’s big league homers were opposite field shots at Yankee Stadium. Sanchez hit two out to right field and Judge hit one. Their scouting reports coming up as prospects indicated those guys have opposite field power, especially Sanchez and Judge, so what we saw last year wasn’t out of character.

The Yankees aren’t very left-handed at the moment. Their best lefty power hitter is Gregorius by default, though a healthy Bird would take over that title. The good news is the Yankees do have plenty of power from the right side, including several righties who are equipped to take advantage of the short right field porch given their tendency to hit the ball in the air the other way. They’ll be able to use the short porch without all the annoying grounders pulled into the shift.

Sherman: The Yankees have “let some clubs know” Starlin Castro is available

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

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees have “let some clubs know” second baseman Starlin Castro is available in trade talks. This was apparently part of their efforts to trade Brett Gardner and Chase Headley earlier this winter. Seems they made any veteran making decent money available.

Castro, who will turn 27 next month, managed a .270/.300/.433 (94 wRC+) batting line with a career high 21 home runs last year, his first as a Yankee and his first as a full-time second baseman. Starlin is owed $30M from 2017-19 with a $16M club option ($1M buyout) for 2020, so he’s making decent money. I have some thoughts on this.

1. Of course the Yankees made Castro available. At this point, there is absolutely no one on the roster the Yankees should make off-limits in trade talks. Gary Sanchez is the closest thing to an untouchable, and even then it makes sense to listen. It never hurts to listen. What if the Angels come calling and say Mike Trout is up for grabs, but only if Sanchez is in the package? Exactly.

Anyway, the best way to describe Castro is … adequate. He offers promise because he’s still young and his raw talent is obvious, though his lack of plate discipline holds him back, and we haven’t seen any improvement in that department. His 3.9% walk rate last year was the second lowest of his career. His career low is 3.6% in 2015, so he’s more of a free-swinger than ever before right now.

We’re getting to the point where Starlin is what he is. This is a guy with nearly 4,400 big league plate appearances to his credit already. If he was going to improve his plate discipline, we’d probably be seeing it by now, right? At the same time, you’d hate to give up on Castro and have him blossom elsewhere. That’s not enough of a reason not to trade him though. By all means, make him available.

2. Which teams need a second baseman? Sherman’s report says the Yankees made “some clubs” aware Castro was available, which seems to indicate they phoned around and let teams with a middle infield opening know they were willing to part with Starlin. This wasn’t a mass “hey Castro is available make me an offer” text situation. It was a “hey, I noticed you need a second baseman, we’re willing to talk Castro” thing. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

The Dodgers had, by far, the biggest need at second base this offseason. They were connected to Brian Dozier for weeks and weeks before completing the Logan Forsythe trade. Looking around the league, only the Braves, Royals, Padres, and Diamondbacks appear to have middle infield openings. The Braves have top prospect Ozzie Albies coming soon and the Padres are in tank mode, so forget them.

Point is, the market for a middle infielder is fairly limited at this point, which is unusual. So many clubs are rebuilding right now that they prefer to stick with their young internal options at second (or short) rather than scoop up a guy like Castro. I don’t think Starlin has much trade value — remember, the Yankees got him for Adam Warren, not some top prospect — but still, not many teams are desperate for middle infield help.

3. Who would play second for the Yankees? Okay, so let’s say the Yankees find a taker for Castro. Who would they then play at second base? I’ll tell you the answer right now: Chase Utley. Sorry, Rob Refsnyder fans. The Yankees very clearly do not believe in his defense at second. Ronald Torreyes, Ruben Tejada, and Donovan Solano are also internal candidates, but c’mon, a cheap one-year deal for Utley would be inevitable. Maybe he and Refsnyder would platoon.

The real question is who would play second base long-term? I’m not even sure Castro is the answer himself. The Yankees have a ton of shortstop prospects on the way. Tyler Wade is going to open the season at Triple-A and many believe he’s best suited for second because of his arm. Gleyber Torres isn’t far away either. Stopgap free agents like Neil Walker and (ew) Brett Lawrie, both of whom will hit the market next winter, are always options in the interim.

The best case scenario is Starlin figures out some semblance of plate discipline and become a reliably above-average hitter going forward, as he enters what should be the best seasons of his career. That would force the Yankees to make tough decisions with Wade and Torres, among others. That’s a good thing. Too many options is a luxury. For now, Starlin simply isn’t good enough to be considered a long-term core player, and that’s exactly the kind of player you put on the trade market.

Attempting to “Optimize” the Lineup

Using one of these guys probably won't help much nowadays.
(Using one of these guys probably won’t help much nowadays.)

Even though it’s something we will never have control over, and even though it’s something that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, we as fans love to obsess over lineup construction. I’ve probably written as many posts about it in my illustrious writing career as I have about any other topic. Forgive me for dipping into that shallow pool again, but in the days leading up to the pitchers and catchers report date and Spring Training proper, most of the other pools have been completely drained.

The new conventional wisdom says that the most important spots in your lineup are numbers 1, 2, and 4, so your best hitters ought to go there. I don’t think I’m taking a big leap of faith here when I assume that the Yankees’ three best hitters this year will be some combination of Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez, and probably Brett Gardner. To be fair, I’m getting an assist from ZiPS on this one, which projects those three to have the highest wOBAs on the team at .329; .342; and .321 respectively. A note: Aaron Judge is also projected for a .329 wOBA, but we’ll get to him later.

For lineup spot one, you want your best OBP guy who’s also fast, so that obviously goes to Brett Gardner. No need to consider anyone else, really, as he’s got the best on-base skills on the team and is still fast, even if he doesn’t steal as much. He can use his speed to take extra base when the hitters behind him–who are more powerful–knock the ball into the gaps, and that has just as much value as steals.

The New School (as if this theory is still new) generally states your best overall hitter should go second. By ZiPS projected wOBA, that’s Gary Sanchez. However, he also has the highest projected slugging at .490 and the second highest ISO at .235. Those signs point to him being in the number four slot to take better advantage of his power. This leaves Matt Holliday–who also comes withe some pop–and his slightly better on base skills (his projected OBP beats Sanchez’s .325 to .313) to take up the two spot and Sanchez for the clean up spot.

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

That leaves the three spot for someone like Aaron Judge, a slugger who’s not likely to be a high OBP guy, but will also come up with the bases empty and two outs quite often. Given that, putting his power at the third spot in the lineup–he’s projected for the highest ISO on the team at .244 and a .473 SLG, second highest on the team.

This old post has a rather vague description for the fifth spot in the lineup:

The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

The only guy who really fits this bill is the returning Greg Bird. Of the remaining players, he’s got the most power and probably the best batting eye. The only other option for this could be Chase Headley, but his power has waned enough that his on-base skills wouldn’t quite make up for it.

Spots six through nine are also a little broadly defined, with a stolen base threat occupying the six spot so he can be driven in by singles hitters behind him. Of the players left, Jacoby Ellsbury is the only stolen base threat. Behind him, you can slot one of Starlin Castro, then Didi Gregorius to avoid stacking the lefties too much. These guys bring a potential bonus because both did show some power last year. Chase Headley can bring up the rear, a switch hitter at the bottom to avoid any platoon snarls.

So our “optimized” lineup?

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Matt Holliday, DH
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Gary Sanchez, C
  5. Greg Bird, 1B
  6. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
  7. Starlin Castro, 2B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Chase Headley, 3B

It’ll never happen this way, but I think that’s a pretty okay looking, if top heavy lineup. If you really wanted, you could swap Ellsbury and Gardner without too much difference and the same goes for Judge and Bird, probably. We’ve gotta remember, though, that little lineup adjustments like this don’t make a ton of difference over the course of the season and as long as the guys at the top aren’t at the bottom, everything’ll end up about the same. Still, on the even of the preseason, it’s fun to talk about.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

[Read more…]

Thoughts on the ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees

2017 WAR projections.
2017 WAR projections.

Earlier this week, Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs released ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees. There are a ton of projection systems out there these days, possibly too many at this point, and ZiPS is my personal favorite. It’s been pretty accurate relative to the other systems, historically. ZiPS is my preference. You’re welcome to feel differently.

As a reminder, projections are not predictions. They’re not trying to tell you the future. Projections like ZiPS are an estimate of the player’s current talent level. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .271 in 2008, and .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change? Nah. That’s just baseball being baseball. It would be boring if it were predictable. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the ZiPS projections. They made for good talking points.

1. Sanchez is very unique. Last year Gary Sanchez came up in August and smashed 20 home runs in his final 52 games of the season. No one had ever done that before, especially not as a full-time catcher. Because of that, Sanchez is super unique as a player and projecting him is damn near impossible. That’s why ZiPS spit out Chris Hoiles (Chris Hoiles!) as Sanchez’s top statistical comp at age 24. Hoiles played six games in his age 24 season. He played 23 games in his age 25 season. It wasn’t until his age 26 season that he broke into the show full-time. And yet, ZiPS determined Hoiles was the best statistical comp for Sanchez at this age because Hoiles could really hit. The guy retired as a career .262/.366/.467 (122 wRC+) hitter who averaged 24 homers per 140 games played. Point is, Sanchez’s career path is incredibly unique. Few catchers show this much power this early. ZiPS spit out Hoiles because he had power too even though he didn’t stick for good until age 26.

2. How about that youthful power? The Yankees’ top six projected 2017 home run hitters according to ZiPS are Aaron Judge (30 dingers), Sanchez (27), Clint Frazier (22), Tyler Austin (18), Greg Bird (18), and Starlin Castro (18). Castro is the grizzled veteran of the group and he’s still only 26. Again, ZiPS is not a prediction. The system is estimating the talent level of each player at that homer total. I’ll take the under on Judge and the over on Bird, assuming his shoulder holds up, but the point is the Yankees have multiple young power bats on the roster for the first time in a long time. Last year they had three players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers (Sanchez, Castro, Didi Gregorius). They had three total from 2002-15 (Alfonso Soriano, Cano twice). Prior to last season, the last time the Yankees had multiple players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers was 1991, when Roberto Kelly and Kevin Maas did it. Sanchez, Judge, and Bird are all serious threats to do it in 2017. Maybe Austin too if he gets enough playing time. (Castro turns 27 in Spring Training.) That is pretty awesome and exciting. Hooray for not counting on the veterans to hit the ball out of the park.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3. The Bird projection is a good reality check. I love Greg Bird. I love his plate discipline, I love his calm at the plate, and I love his ability to hit the ball in the air with authority. We also have to remember the kid is coming back from major surgery though, and there are other flaws in his game as well. He’s not a good defender and lefties have given him trouble in the past. The ZiPS projection reflects those realities. It pegs Bird as a true talent .234/.307/.449 (108 OPS+) hitter right now, which is good in a vacuum but not great in the world of first basemen. (First basemen hit .259/.338/.453 in 2016. That’s a 114 OPS+.) Add in the lack of defense — ZiPS has Bird saving zero runs in the field, which might be generous — and you get a +0.8 WAR player. That’s disappointing to see for 2017. But you know what? ZiPS drops Mo Vaughn on Bird as the top statistical comp at age 24, and Vaughn was a monster from ages 25-30. Remember, this coming season will be Bird’s first full season in the show. There will inevitably be bumps along the way, especially following surgery. Hopefully 2017 is a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the future.

4. ZiPS hasn’t given up on Severino as a starter. More than a few folks would like to see the Yankees keep Luis Severino in the bullpen, where he was so dominant last year, and I get it. I do. Brian Cashman indicated they’re going to stick with him as a starter for now, even if it means sending him to Triple-A in 2017, and that’s the right move in my opinion. Severino is still only 22 and I’d hate to give up on him as a starter at that age, especially with the Yankees in need of long-term rotation help. Development isn’t always linear. There are obstacles to overcome along the way. Anyway, ZiPS is still on the “Severino should start” bandwagon, projected him for a 4.20 ERA (3.94 FIP) in 152 innings this coming season. That’s in 26 starts too. (And yeah, seven relief appearances.) His top statistical comp is Mike Witt, who also hot hammered as a starter and pitched well as a reliever at age 22. Witt went on to have a lot of success as a starter from age 23-28. Severino ain’t alone. He’s not the only guy who’s gone through this.

5. The other young starters don’t look so hot. Along with Severino, the Yankees figure to use some combination of Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell at the back of the rotation in 2017. Chances are we’ll see all three of those guys at some point this summer, plus others. ZiPS likes Green the most among those three guys, and the system only projects him as a +0.8 WAR player in 2017.

IP ERA FIP WAR
Cessa 126.2 5.33 5.08 -0.2
Green 128.2 4.67 4.47 +0.8
Mitchell 80 5.74 5.36 -0.6

Eek. I like Cessa more than most, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were replacement level with a 5.00+ ERA next season. Not if he doesn’t do a better job keeping the ball in the park and/or start missing more bats. Other young arms like Jordan Montgomery (+0.5 WAR) and Chance Adams (-0.2 WAR) don’t project a whole lot better in 2017. These guys might be pretty good down the line! But, for this coming season, they carry an awful lot of risk, and ZiPS reflects that.

6. The Yankees need to figure out the rest of the bullpen. The Yankees are set in the eighth and ninth innings with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom have been excellent in recent years and project to be excellent again next season. The rest of the bullpen is a little dicey. Veteran stalwarts Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren project to be average by reliever standards, which I don’t think is unreasonable at this point of their careers. The best of the young relievers, per ZiPS, are Jonathan Holder and Gio Gallegos, who have basically zero combined time in the big leagues. (Holder threw 8.1 sporadic innings in September.) The minor leagues are littered with relievers who have great strikeout and walk rates, they’re everywhere, and not too many of those relievers are able to carry their success over to the big leagues. ZiPS projects Holder and Gallegos for a combined +0.9 WAR in nearly 140 innings in 2017. Eh. No other young reliever projects to be even replacement level. There’s some figuring out to be done in the bullpen.

Dellin Betances isn’t the only Yankee who could play in the 2017 WBC

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

In a few weeks baseball players all around the league will leave their teams in Spring Training to participate in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. Pool play begins March 6th in South Korea, and the tournament will end with the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium on March 22nd. Here is the full 2017 WBC schedule.

The 16 countries do not have to finalize their WBC rosters until January, though we already know Dellin Betances will pitch for the Dominican Republic. He committed to them recently. Betances was on Team USA’s preliminary roster but instead choose to honor his family by pitching for the Dominican Republic squad. So far he’s the only Yankees player to commit to the WBC.

The Yankees are not as star-laden as they once were — a few years ago a case could have been made their entire starting infield belonged in the WBC — so they don’t figure to send a ton of players to the WBC next spring. Chances are Betances won’t be the only Yankee to participatein the event, however. In fact, farmhand Dante Bichette Jr. already played for Brazil in the qualifying round in September. Who knew? (Brazil did not advance.)

So, as we wait for the commitments to trickle in and the final rosters to be announced, lets look at the Yankees who could wind up joining Betances and participating in the WBC. Keep in mind the WBC is not limited to big league players — some countries can’t field an entire roster of MLB players, hence Bichette playing for Brazil — and the rosters are 28 players deep, not 25, so there are extra spots.

Canada: Evan Rutckyj

Rutckyj, who recently re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent, was the team’s 16th round pick back in 2010. The Braves took a look at him this past spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick, but Rutckyj failed to make the Opening Day roster and instead returned to the Yankees. He struck out 14 in 11.2 innings around a relatively minor elbow procedure during the 2016 regular season.

Only eleven pitchers born in Canada have appeared in the big leagues over the last three years — only seven did so in 2016 — and five of those eleven threw fewer than 20 innings. Three of the other six are now retired (Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Phillippe Aumont). Rutckyj, who grew up across the river from Detroit in Windsor, has had some Double-A success as a reliever and could make a Canada roster that has been heavy on minor league pitchers in previous WBCs.

Colombia: Tito Polo, Carlos Vidal

Colombia clinched their first ever WBC berth by winning their qualifying round back in March. They won a pool that included France, Spain, and Panama. Both Polo and Vidal were on Colombia’s roster for the qualifying round and chances are they will be on the actual WBC roster as well. Only six Colombian-born players appeared in MLB in 2016, one of whom was Donovan Solano and none of whom were an outfielder like Polo and Vidal.

Vidal, 20, has spent most of his career with the various short season league teams in New York’s farm system. He went 2-for-8 with a double and played in all three qualifying games in March. Polo, 22, came over from the Pirates in the Ivan Nova trade. He was Colombia’s extra outfielder in the qualifying round. He appeared in two games as a a pinch-runner and defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat. Both Vidal and Polo figure to play in the WBC in March.

Dominican Republic: Gary Sanchez (Starlin Castro?)

WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)
WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Over the last three seasons, the leader in bWAR among Dominican-born catchers is Welington Castillo. Sanchez is second. For all the great baseball players to come out of the Dominican Republic, the island hasn’t produced much catching talent in recent years. Their catching tandem in the 2013 WBC was Francisco Pena, Tony’s son, and Carlos Santana, who is no longer a catcher.

The Dominican Republic’s current catching pool includes Sanchez, Castillo, Pena, Pedro Severino of the Nationals, and Alberto Rosario of the Cardinals. I have to think they want Sanchez and Castillo there. Then again, Tony might want Francisco on the roster, and I’m sure the Yankees would rather Sanchez spend his first Spring Training as the No. 1 catcher learning the pitching staff.

The Yankees can’t stop Gary from going to the WBC if he’s invited though. They might need Pena to pull some strings, which would be kind of a dick move. I’m sure Sanchez would love to play. Bottom line: Sanchez is arguably the best Dominican catcher in baseball right now and inarguably one of the two best. In what is intended to be a best vs. best tournament, Gary belongs on the Dominican Republic roster.

(For what it’s worth, Victor Baez reports Pena promised Sanchez he would be considered for the WBC team, but acknowledged things may change before the final roster is submitted.)

As for Castro, he has an awful lot of competition on the Dominican Republic middle infield. Robinson Cano is the presumed starter at second with someone like Jose Reyes or Jean Segura at short. Jonathan Villar, Jose Ramirez, Eduardo Nunez, Jhonny Peralta, and some others are WBC candidates too. Castro’s a possibility for the tournament but probably isn’t part of the club’s Plan A infield.

Japan: Masahiro Tanaka

Interestingly enough, not a single MLB player was on Japan’s roster for the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro Suzuki. They filled their entire roster with NPB players. Japan has had big leaguers on their roster in previous WBCs, including Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, just not in the last one. Will they invite big leaguers this time? I honestly have no idea. We’re going to have to wait and find out.

If Japan does want current MLB players, Tanaka figures to be near the top of their list. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and on the very short list of the best Japanese-born pitchers on the planet. The Yankees can’t stop Tanaka from playing in the 2017 WBC. Brian Cashman confirmed it during his end-of-season press conference. Needless to say, the thought of Tanaka suffering an injury during the WBC is enough to make you squeamish. The Yankees have already been through that once before, with Mark Teixeira and his wrist in the 2013 WBC.

For what it’s worth, Tanaka has participated in the WBC twice before. He was on Japan’s roster in both 2009 and 2013, throwing 9.1 total innings across one start and seven relief appearances. Maybe that was enough for Tanaka? Maybe he’s had his fill of the WBC — Japan won the 2009, so he has a championship — and would rather focus on the Yankees in Spring Training and putting himself in the best position to use his opt-out the team in the best position to win? Gosh, I hope so.

Mexico: Luis Cessa, Gio Gallegos

Fifteen pitchers born in Mexico have appeared in the big leagues over the last three seasons, and 13 of those 15 did so in 2016. The two exceptions are ex-Yankees: Manny Banuelos and Al Aceves. Banuelos is coming off another injury and Aceves spent the 2016 season in the Mexican League. Mexico figures to try to build their WBC rotation from a group that includes Marco Estrada, Julio Urias, Jorge De La Rosa, Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, and Miguel Gonzalez.

Cessa and Gallegos — fun fact: the Yankees signed Gallegos away from a Mexican League team as part of a package deal with Banuelos and Aceves in 2007 — could be candidates for Mexico’s bullpen. Especially Cessa since he has MLB experience. Gallegos might not get much consideration given the fact he has yet to pitch in the show. Roberto Osuna, Joakim Soria, and Oliver Perez are likely to be Mexico’s late-inning relievers, but they’re going to need other pitchers for middle relief, especially early in the tournament when starters have limited pitch counts.

Keep in mind both Cessa and Gallegos figure to come to Spring Training with a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Cessa will be among those competing for a rotation spot, which is kind of a big deal. Gallegos, who the Yankees added to the 40-man roster earlier this month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, is trying to reach the show for the first time. As much as I’m sure both guys would love to represent their country in the WBC, they would be better off hanging around Spring Training and focusing on winning a roster spot with the Yankees at this point of their careers.

Netherlands: Didi Gregorius

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Dutch team has had to rely heavily on players from Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of pro ball in the Netherlands, to fill their WBC roster in the past. The same figures to be true this year. Only six Dutch players have played in MLB the last two years: Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Jurickson Profar, and Kenley Jansen. So, if nothing else, the Netherlands doesn’t have to worry about their infield or closer. They’ll need Honkballers in the outfield and rotation.

It’s entirely possible the Netherlands will look to take all five of those infielders to the WBC because, well, they’re the best players the country has to offer. Profar has played first base and Bogaerts has played third, so the starting infield could very well be those two on the corners with the other three guys splitting time up the middle and at DH. Gregorius was not on the 2013 WBC roster, and with his Yankees roster spot secure, he could jump at the opportunity to play for the Netherlands.

Team USA: Tyler Clippard (Brett Gardner? Jacoby Ellsbury?)

Even with Betances committing to the Dominican Republic, Team USA’s potential bullpen is insane. Zach Britton closing with Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel setting up, Wade Davis as the fireman, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson as the middle relievers … goodness. What are the odds of that happening though? Extremely small. Some of those guys are going to pass on the tournament. Happens every WBC.

The Team USA bullpen in 2013 included Kimbrel and, uh, Luke Gregerson? Tim Collins? Mitchell Boggs? Vinnie Pestano? Yup. Yup yup yup. Team USA’s leader in relief innings in 2013 was Ross Detwiler. So yeah. The odds of a super-bullpen are so very small. Clippard could be among the club’s Plan B or C relievers. Team USA is going to miss out on a ton of the top guys, no doubt, so who’s next in line? Clippard could be one of them.

Along those same lines, I suppose Gardner and/or Ellsbury could receive outfield consideration if enough top guys drop out. We already know Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are passing on the tournament. Team USA would need to receive a lot of “nos” before considering Ellsbury and Gardner for their outfield — they ranked 12th and 20th in bWAR among American-born outfielders in 2016 — but hey, you never know.

* * *

The Yankees are said to have interest in bringing Carlos Beltran back, and I have to think he will suit up for Puerto Rico in the WBC next spring. The next generation of Puerto Rican stars has arrived (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez) but Beltran is still insanely popular in Puerto Rico, and he usually gives the people what they want. Aroldis Chapman, on the other hand, won’t pitch for Cuba regardless of whether he returns to the Yankees. No expatriates on the national team.

The First Year of the New Second Baseman [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It was only two seasons, but it felt a lot longer. Second base was a problem area after Robinson Cano left as a free agent following the 2013 season. He was the best second baseman in baseball at the time, which by definition made him impossible to replace, but the drop-off was enormous. Going from Cano to Brian Roberts and then Stephen Drew was a massive downgrade.

Last offseason the Yankees acquired a potential long-term solution at second base. They swung a two-for-one trade with the Cubs for Starlin Castro at the Winter Meetings, which gave the Yankees a young righty bat to help balance the lineup both short and long-term. Castro has been around a while, he’s played parts of seven MLB seasons already, but he turned only 26 during Spring Training. His first year in pinstripes embodied the Starlin Castro experience.

The Trade

The Yankees have made it pretty clear they do not see Rob Refsnyder as an everyday second baseman in the big leagues. He played everyday late last season only because Drew got hurt. When the club had chances to replace Drew last summer — he did absolutely nothing at the plate for long stretches of time — they opted to stick with him over Refsnyder. That was telling. The Yankees needed a long-term second baseman. It wasn’t Refsnyder.

The Castro trade was the result of a free agent signing. Brian Cashman acknowledged the deal was contingent on the Cubs first signing Ben Zobrist. Had Chicago not landed Zobrist, they would have had to keep Castro. Eventually the Cubbies swooped in, signed Zobrist out from under the Mets — “It’s disappointing, I’ll be honest,” said Mets assistant GM John Ricco after the club lost out on Zobrist — and turned their attention to the Castro trade.

Based on the time stamps at MLB Trade Rumors, the Castro trade was completed 15 minutes after the Zobrist signing. The Yankees and Cubs already had the deal in place. The only question was whether the Cubs would land Zobrist. New York sent Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan to Chicago for Castro in the two-for-one swap. Ryan was thrown in as a salary dump — the Yankees freed up $1M by trading him — but Warren had proven to be a valuable super utility pitcher. Still, the opportunity to get a young up-the-middle player was too good to pass up.

“He really looked like a different player over at second,” said Cashman after the trade. “I like that he’s athletic, I like his age. Between the youth, the flexibility, the right-handed bat, he’s got a history of hitting left-handers. Clearly that’s an area that we needed to better improve our balance in the lineup. It kind of checks off a lot of the boxes here.”

The Aborted Third Base Plan

After the trade, Cashman indicated the Yankees would use Castro all over the infield, including third base. Starlin had spent his entire career at shortstop until he slid over to second in August 2015, in deference to the defensively superior Addison Russell. Castro came to the Yankees with 258 career innings at second, plus another couple dozen in the postseason. His experience there was relatively limited.

The third base experiment never got off the ground. Castro didn’t see a single inning of Grapefruit League action at the hot corner. The Yankees had him take ground balls at third during infield drills and whatnot, then decided to abandon the plan because he needed more work at second than they realized. And that’s understandable. The guy was still new to the position. Sure, it’s still the middle infield, but moving over to the other side of the bag was a big change.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

“It’s a big difference. It’s not the same thing when you’re in the minor leagues. The position, you switch the position, we’ve got plenty of time to practice that position (in the minors),” said Castro in Spring Training about moving to second. “Now they’re saying in the middle of the season, you’ve got to get out there quickly and learn it right away, just (be) ready to play. The first two or three games, I don’t feel really comfortable. I feel the ball was hitting backwards. I just take early work every day and start every day feeling better. I think the most difficult thing is doing the double play. After doing a couple, I feel great.”

Castro played mostly second base during the Grapefruit League season to get more comfortable at the position. He also played a few token games at short just to stay sharp there, but that was it. No third base. Not once. It was a good idea, increasing Starlin’s versatility and making him an option at third, but it never happened. He was still working to make the first position change and the Yankees didn’t want to overwhelm him with another so soon.

The Good Start, A Good Finish

Man, did Castro make a great first impression or what? Starlin came out of the gate and went 7-for-12 (.583) with two doubles, two home runs, and eight runs driven in during the first series of the season. That includes a four-hit, five-runs driven in game in the second game of the season.

The Yankees won the trade! Castro was a star energized by the bright lights of New York! Then he fell into a 9-for-50 (.180) slump and the honeymoon was over. Womp womp. So it goes.

The following graph does a pretty good job showing the path of Castro’s season. He started out insanely hot, cooled off big time during the summer months, then finished strong at the end of the season.

Starlin Castro wRC+To further drive home the point, here is Castro’s wRC+ by month: 123, 56, 81, 78, 137, 90. Huh, so I guess September wasn’t as good as I remember. Anyway, Starlin bottomed out at .255/.292/.389 (80 wRC+) on August 4th. August 4th! That was 429 plate appearances into his season. His lowest OPS of the season came in Game 108. Ouch.

Castro went 2-for-3 with a home run and two walks the next day, and finished the season with a .306/.320/.538 (126 wRC+) batting line and ten home runs in his final 181 plate appearances. He did miss a little more than a week with a hamstring injury at the very end of September, otherwise he was healthy all season. Starlin appeared in 146 of the team’s 148 games before the hamstring injury, and 151 of 162 games overall. The guy has played at least 151 games in five of his six full seasons as a big leaguer. He’s durable. Give him that.

During the summer months, when he was going through his three-month offensive lull, Castro hit two of the biggest home runs of the season for the Yankees. First, on May 29th, he swatted a go-ahead two-run home run against Jake Odorizzi at Tropicana Field.

That was New York’s only hit of the game. Odorizzi walked Brett Gardner with one out in the seventh and Castro made him pay with the dinger. Nathan Eovaldi and the three-headed bullpen monster made those two runs stand up. It was the only the second time in franchise history that the Yankees won a game despite being one-hit. The other came way back in 1914. Yeah.

Castro’s other huge hit came about a month later. It was a walk-off home run against Jason Motte and the Rockies. It also happened to be one of the longest homers hit by a Yankee in 2016. The ball settled into the second deck in left field, 443 feet from home plate. The Yankees were struggling bit time at the time and Castro’s walk-off felt huge.

All told, Castro hit .270/.300/.433 (94 wRC+) with a career high 21 home runs — his previous career high was 14 back in 2014 — in 610 plate appearances this season. His strikeout rate (19.3%) was also a career high, though it was still lower than the league average (21.1%). Castro didn’t walk at all (3.9%), which is the norm. Overall, his season batting line looked an awful lot like his career .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) batting line. Close enough, anyway.

The Subtle Improvements

It’s easy to bash Castro — I know I’m guilty of it — because he is so very undisciplined at the plate and makes himself look like an easy out at times. He guy has nearly 4,400 big league plate appearances under his belt and he still goes long stretches of time looking like an overmatched rookie. And geez, the baserunning. Don’t get me started on the baserunning.

The all-encompassing baserunning metrics at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus measured Castro at 1.6 and 2.1 runs below average on the bases, respectively. It’s not a blip either. FanGraphs has Castro at -16.6 runs on the bases for his career. Baseball Prospectus has him at -4.8. This is who he is.

Anyway, enough with the negatives. Castro showed some legitimate improvement in his game this season, which is good to see because the guy did spent the entire year at age 26. He’s entering what should be the prime of his career. Here are the two ways Starlin improved the most this season.

1. He hit for more power. I already told you about the career high 21 home runs, but it goes a little deeper than that. Castro had 29 doubles this season, right in line with the 31 doubles he averaged from 2011-15, so he added the dingers without sacrificing two-baggers. This wasn’t one of those “the home runs turned into doubles” situations. The homers were added to the doubles. They didn’t replace them.

Of course, power was up around the league this season, so it’s fair to wonder how much of Castro’s power output was a result of the league environment, and how much was natural progression. Also, the ballpark helped too. Wrigley Field is pretty hitter friendly when the wind is blowing out, but not as friendly as Yankee Stadium is pretty much all the time.

I’m going to do what I did with Didi Gregorius and calculate ISO+. Same idea as OPS+ and wRC+. We’ll compare Castro’s isolated power to the league average isolated power with a park factor thrown in. An ISO+ of 100 is average. The higher the number, the better. Got it? Good. Here are the last three years.

2014: 74 ISO+
2015: -21 ISO+ (!)
2016: 81 ISO+

Castro had a really, really bad year in the power department last season. That’s one of the reasons the Cubs decided he was expendable. They — and many other folks, for that matter — thought he was going backward. Or, at the very least, they weren’t seeing any progress from a guy who’d been in the big leagues for parts of six seasons.

Relative to a league average right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, Castro’s power was below average this year. But it represented progress for him. It was a massive improvement from last season and also an improvement from 2014, a career best season in which he hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+). There’s some legitimate progress here. Also, check out his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Starlin Castro

Starlin can hit the ball to all fields, and he does so with enough authority to pop a few opposite field home runs. He hit five home runs to the right side of center field in 2016. Do you know how many he hit with the Cubs? Four. Total. In five and a half seasons. Yes, Yankee Stadium’s short porch helps explain that — four of his five opposite field homers came in the Bronx — but that’s sort of the point. Starlin took advantage of the short porch. That’s what the Yankees hoped he would do.

2. He had more success when ahead in the count. The term “plate discipline” has become synonymous with “draws walks,” but that’s overly simplistic. Yes, walks are good, but ultimately the point of working the count is getting a good pitch to hit. Castro is never going to be Joey Votto when it comes to plate discipline, but this year, for the first time in his career, he did some real damage when ahead in the count. Here are his numbers with the count in his favor:

2013: .295/.396/.446 (80 OPS+)
2014: .318/.446/.473 (96 OPS+)
2015: .291/.377/.424 (67 OPS+)
2016: .351/.438/.649 (116 OPS+)

Important context: the MLB average was a .302/.473/.525 batting line when the hitter was ahead in the count this year. Last year it was .296/.461/.498. That’s why Starlin’s .291/.377/.424 batting line when ahead in the count last season was only a 67 OPS+.

Prior to this season, Castro didn’t a do very good job when the pitcher fell behind in the count. He didn’t make them pay as much as a league average hitter would. This year, he had much more success when the count fell in his favor. He was better than league average when ahead in the count. By quite a bit too.

Starlin is not very disciplined, but throwing strikes is hard, so he’s going to see his fair share of favorable counts throughout the season. This year, he finally started to capitalize. That’s a positive development. Now we just have to see if he can built on this next year, or if it was a one-year fluke.

Defense at Second

Castro moved to second base late last year, so he was still relatively new to the position this year. His inexperience showed at times — I thought he was noticeably slow turning the double play, which cost the Yankees several bang-bang plays — but I feel that was to be expected. The guy had been a shortstop his entire life, and now he shifted to the other side of the base. Starlin did make some spectacular players this year …

… and he also made most of the routine plays too. When a guy is new to the position, I feel that’s a reasonable goal for the first year. Make the routine plays. We’ll figure out the more difficult stuff later.

The various defensive stats were kind of all over the place for Castro at second base: -8 DRS, -6.6 UZR, +6 Total Zone, +0.9 FRAA. Such is life when dealing with one-year samples of defensive stats. The eye test told me Castro was adequate at second. Not spectacular, not a total liability. My hope is he’ll pick up the pace turning double plays with experience. Otherwise he did what he was supposed to do in the field. Caught what he was supposed too, and made enough great plays to negate the misplays.

Outlook for 2017

Had he not signed a long-term extension with the Cubs a few years ago, Castro would have qualified for free agency this offseason. Instead, the Yankees owe him $30M from 2017-19 and have a $16M club option ($1M buyout) for 2020. Given the year he just had, would Castro get more than three years and $31M guaranteed as a 26-year-old free agent this winter? Yes. Yes he would. Pretty easily too, I think. He’d probably get double that money, if not more.

Castro is certainly not without his flaws. He’s so very undisciplined at the plate that I don’t think he’ll ever reach his full offensive potential, which I think is pretty big. Castro has power and he drives the ball to all field. That’s exciting. But we see way too much of this …

Starlin Castro slider

… for me to think Starlin will ever tap into his full offensive ability. He sabotages himself at the plate by being such a hacker. Guys like Castro and Alfonso Soriano, another guy with a big appetite for sliders off the plate, show us just how often Major League pitchers make mistakes. If everyone could execute a down-and-away slider every time, these types of players would never get a hit. But mistakes are made, and they capitalize.

Given his age, there is still room for Castro to grow as a player and I think that’s exciting. At the same time, I feel like Castro is what he is. He’s been in the show for six and a half years now and will still chase pitches way off the plate — his 37.5% swing rate on pitches out of the zone was 17th highest among the 146 players to qualifying for the batting title — which can get pretty frustrating. You want to see the adjustment be made, but it hasn’t yet, and it’s starting to look like it never will.

The Yankees have some impressive young bats either in the big leagues right now (Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge) or on the way next year (Greg Bird and Clint Frazier), and my hope is they will push Castro into more of a complementary role. Starlin as an offensive center piece, which is what he was this year, isn’t so good. I’d rather see him hitting 6-7-8 rather than 2-3-4, you know?

As for next season, I get the feeling the Yankees will again see if Castro can hack it over at third base. He doesn’t have to play there every single day, but at least maybe be an option. It doesn’t hurt to try it in Spring Training. The Yankees have a lot of young shortstops on the way, most defensively superior to Castro, so the Yankees will want to keep those guys on the middle infield. Overall, Castro was good enough this year, and I think he’ll continue to be good enough going forward.