Ranking the Yankees’ shortstop options in the wake of Didi Gregorius’ shoulder injury

Torreyes. (Presswire)
Torreyes. (Presswire)

Later today, the Yankees hope to get good news about starting shortstop Didi Gregorius, who left the World Baseball Classic and returned to Tampa yesterday with a “hematoma of the subcapsular muscle.” This a shoulder injury. Otherwise I have no idea what that means. I googled it and only made myself more confused. We should get some clarification soon.

“The doctor was really encouraged by his strength and felt good about it, but we thought we’re going to cover ourselves,” said Joe Girardi to Randy Miller. “It’s obviously not what you want to hear, but hopefully it’s something short. But again, we have not seen him. The evaluation from the doctor was his strength was really good. But we’ve got to see him.”

The bottom line is Gregorius now has some kind of shoulder injury, and unless it’s a really minor injury — the fact he’s already had a preliminary MRI and is going for more tests suggests he’s going to miss at least a few days with this — it’s hard to think he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. Opening Day is only 12 days away now, you know. Practically right around the corner.

Compared to most teams, the Yankees do have a pretty decent collection of shortstop options. Not too many clubs can replace their starting shortstop with another starting caliber shortstop, you know? The Yankees have a nice mix of shortstop prospects and veterans with big league shortstop experience, some as an everyday player. It could be worse.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to attempt to lay out what I think is the shortstop pecking order. This isn’t necessarily how I’d rank these players. It’s how I think the Yankees rank them internally. Depth charts change as the season progresses, so this is nothing more than a snapshot in time. Let’s get to it.

1. Ronald Torreyes

Why is he ranked here? Torreyes managed to spend the entire 2016 season in the big leagues as the utility infielder, and when you do that, there’s a pretty good chance you’re at the front of the line to replace an injured infielder. The Yankees know he can handle shortstop defensively and know his contact skills allow him to go on some insane BABIP fueled hot streaks. Simply put, among the reserve infielder options, Torreyes had the best 2016 season, and that tends to be a factor in decisions like this.

Why could he be ranked lower? I’m of the belief that Torreyes would get exposed pretty quickly as an everyday player, and the Yankees could feel the same way. Given his complete lack of power and general lack of walks, playing Torreyes everyday could very easily result in a slash line that starts with .2s across the board. The man they call Toe has a nice utility infielder’s skill set given his defensive versatility and ability to get the bat on the ball. I’m not sure that’s enough to hold down an everyday shortstop job though, even for a few weeks.

2. Ruben Tejada

Tejada. (Presswire)
Tejada. (Presswire)

Why is he ranked here? Prior to last season, Tejada spent most of the previous five seasons as the starting shortstop with the Mets. From 2011-15 he hit .261/.333/.328 (88 wRC+) overall, including .261/.338/.350 (94 wRC+) in 2015, which works out to +1.4 bWAR and +1.8 fWAR per 162 games. Not great! But the league average shortstop hit .262/.319/.407 (92 wRC+) last season, so Tejada isn’t that far below the positional standard. He’s long been a solid defender, so, in that sense, Tejada might be the best bet for competence on both sides of the ball.

Why could he be ranked lower? There’s a reason the Yankees were able to scoop Tejada up on a minor league contract over the winter. He was pretty terrible in 2016. Tejada played 36 games with the Giants and hit .167/.247/.242 (34 wRC+) in 78 plate appearances, though his .303/.337/.414 (101 wRC+) batting line in 43 Triple-A games with the Giants and Cardinals is easier to swallow. It should be noted Tejada missed time with a quad strain last year, and he was also coming back from having his leg broken by Chase Utley’s vicious takeout slide in the 2015 NLDS. Either way, healthy or not, Tejada was pretty bad in 2016.

3. Donovan Solano

Why is he ranked here? Familiarity more than anything. Solano has plenty of big league time — he played 361 games with the Marlins as a reserve player from 2012-15 — and he spent just about the entire 2016 season with Triple-A Scranton, where he hit .319/.349/.436 (124 wRC+) and led the league in hits. The Yankees called Solano up late in the season when Starlin Castro‘s hamstring acted up, and they liked what they saw from him enough to sign him to a new minor league deal over the winter. Solano is an okay defender who had a nice year in Triple-A and seems to have some fans in the organization.

Why could he be ranked lower? Unlike Tejada, Solano has not been a full-time shortstop in several years. Not since he was in Single-A ball back in 2009. He has played the position before, though most of his experience is at second base. Even last season Solano was primarily a third baseman with the RailRiders. Solano has big league time and he performed well in Triple-A last summer. Still, his ability to handle shortstop on a full-time basis, even for a few weeks, is in question.

4. Tyler Wade

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Why is he ranked here? The first actual prospect on our list. Wade played shortstop everyday with Double-A Trenton last summer and hit .259/.352/.349 (101 wRC+) overall. He’s now having a strong Grapefruit League season (.394/.430/.484) while playing multiple positions as the Yankees try to turn him into a super utility player. It’s not often the Yankees skip prospects over Triple-A, but they have done it before, and they sure seem committed to this youth movement. Wade has open some eyes this spring — the Yankees knew he was good, though I’ve seen more than a few fans say he’s growing on them — and we know he can play shortstop. The Yankees may decide to continue trekking forward with the youth movement and go with Wade.

Why could he be ranked lower? A few reasons. One, zero Triple-A games. That’s kind of a big one. The Double-A to MLB jump isn’t an easy one. Two, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and the Yankees might not want to add him yet. Adding Wade ties up a 40-man spot for good. Tejada and Solano are guys they could easily add to the 40-man then designate for assignment when a spot is needed. Can’t do that with Wade. And three, the Yankees do want to turn him into a super utility guy, and perhaps they’d prefer to continue that process in Triple-A. That last one doesn’t seem like a good reason to me, but who knows why teams do what they do.

5. Starlin Castro

Why is he ranked here? No one in this post has as much experience as a big league shortstop as Castro. He played the position everyday all those years with the Cubs before sliding over to second base in the second half of the 2015 season. Because he’s played the position before and will without a doubt be part of the Opening Day roster, I don’t think we can completely rule out the Yankees sliding him over to shortstop, even for a short period of time. I don’t think that’ll happen, which is why he’s ranked so low in our half-baked attempted as a shortstop depth chart, though I’d never say never. (Not surprisingly, Castro told George King he’s willing to play short while Didi is out.)

Why could he be ranked lower? The Yankees have given us no reason to believe they consider Castro a shortstop option. He played only three games at the position last year — when Gregorius sat, it was Torreyes at short — and he hasn’t played the position at all in Spring Training. Not one inning. I assume that will change at some point given the Gregorius injury, just to keep Castro acquainted with the position in case he’s needed there. Starlin seems to be a shortstop option the same way Matt Holliday is a left field option. Yeah, he can do it if needed, but they’d prefer not to. Also, moving Castro to shortstop doesn’t solve the problem. It just shifts the opening from short to second.

6. Pete Kozma

Kozma. (Presswire)
Kozma. (Presswire)

Why is he ranked here? Kozma has some time as a big league shortstop — he started at short for the pennant winning 2013 Cardinals — and, if nothing else, he’s a good defensive player. The man can’t hit at all — he’s a career .222/.288/.293 (58 wRC+) hitter in MLB, and last summer he managed a .209/.268/.265 (52 wRC+) line in 130 games with Triple-A Scranton — but he can catch the ball, and that’s not nothing. If the Yankees say “screw it, no one can hit so let’s focus on defense,” Kozma could be the guy.

Why could he be ranked lower? He really can’t hit. I don’t think anyone would expect Torreyes or Tejada or even Wade to come out and knock the ball all around the park, but the book is out on Kozma. He’ll turn 29 shortly after Opening Day and there’s no reason to think his offense is about to take a step forward. It seems the Yankees re-signed Kozma to a minor league deal because a) shortstop depth is never a bad thing, and b) he’s long had a reputation for being a hard worker and great clubhouse dude, and I think they consider him a good example for the kids in Triple-A.

7. Outside Help

Why is this ranked here? Going outside the organization for help can never be ruled out. Depending on the severity of Didi’s injury and how the Yankees feel about their internal options, they could look to make a minor trade or free agent signing to plug the shortstop hole for the time being. There are always a rash of transactions near the end of camp, and the Gregorius injury could push the Yankees to make one.

Why could this be ranked lower? Because, right now, there’s basically no one available. The only available free agent shortstop is Alexei Ramirez, who can no longer hit or defend, and the out of options market doesn’t offer any help either. There aren’t many teams with spare shortstops lying around, and those that do tend to want to hang on to them. Anyone who becomes available figures to be a Tejada/Solano type. Not surprisingly, Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty the Yankees will stick with their internal options at shortstop for now.

8. Gleyber Torres

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Why is he ranked here? Torres has not played a single game above High Class-A. Not one. Making the jump from High-A to MLB is not unprecedented — the late Jose Fernandez made that jump and had a Cy Young caliber rookie season — but there’s a reason it rarely happens. It’s very, very, very difficult. Also, spoiler alert: Cashman already told Andrew Marchand that Gleyber won’t be on the Opening Day roster. I know folks are thinking about a Tony Fernandez/Derek Jeter situation here, but Jeter had some MLB time and was making the jump from Triple-A in 1996, not High-A.

Why could he be ranked higher? Because he’s the best prospect in the organization and on the very short list of the best prospects in baseball. Oh, and Torres is hitting .464/.484/.964 this spring, and his 51.1 innings at shortstop are by far the most among all players in camp. (Jorge Mateo is second with 35. Obviously Gregorius being away at the WBC has opened up playing time.) Torres looks like he belongs and special talents have a way of forcing an accelerated timetable.

* * *

For now the Yankees will hope the second round of tests today bring good news about Didi’s shoulder. And if not, they’ll change gears and adapt. Nothing else you can do. Torreyes seems to be at the top of the replacement shortstop depth chart given the fact he was on the MLB roster all year last season, though others like Tejada and Solano are viable fill-in utility infielders.

Wade is the wildcard to me. My hunch is his chances of being the fill-in shortstop are better than the above rankings would lead you to believe. I think he’s right there with Tejada and Solano. I really do. (Things drop off a bit after him.) It boils down to how willing the Yankees are to tie up a 40-man roster spot, and how ready they think Wade is for the big leagues. Again, zero Triple-A experience. My guess is that should Gregorius miss time during the regular season, they’ll look to get by with a combination of two of the top four players on this list.

A Couple of Middle Infielders in Their Prime [2017 Season Preview]

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

There seems to be a strong consensus that 2016 was a breakout season for Didi Gregorius, and something between a disappointment and a shrug of the shoulders for Starlin Castro. This is unsurprising, considering that the former set career highs (nearly) across the board, whereas the latter failed to have the change of scenery bounceback that many expected – but is it fair? Consider their offensive production last year:

castro-gregorius-fg
(FanGraphs)

Their numbers were virtually indistinguishable. Gregorius struck out significantly less, to be sure, but it’d be difficult to find two more comparable players otherwise (much less a duo that mans the same middle infield). It feels like cognitive dissonance to an extent.

The comparison shouldn’t end there, of course, as Gregorius was the superior base-runner, adding between four and eight extra runs depending on your metric of choice, and he played the more difficult position (both were subpar defenders by most measures, though the eye and reputation tests tell another story entirely for Gregorius). As a result of these factors, Gregorius had a comfortable lead in both fWAR (2.7 to 1.1) and bWAR (2.2 to 1.2). He was undoubtedly the better player, but the similarities remain striking.

With Gleyber Torres setting the world ablaze, Tyler Wade in Triple-A, and Jorge Mateo still earning some prospect love, the Yankees are certain to be watching the performances of Castro and Gregorius closely. And if they see an opportunity to improve the team with a cheaper, internal option, they might just take it.

So what should be expected of the Yankees current double play combination in 2017?

Starlin Castro

The only real constant in Castro’s career to-date has been his inconsistency. Plotting his year-to-year wRC+ results in a fairly wicked looking roller coaster:

castro-wrc

Put that all together and you have a roughly league-average hitter, with a 162 game average of .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) and 13 HR. Both ZiPS (.272/.305/.419 with 18 HR) and PECOTA (.268/.308/.415 with 16 HR) project more of the same in 2017, which makes sense at this point in his career. Castro is still quite young, as he won’t be 27 until March 24, but he has 4374 Major League plate appearances under his belt, and he has regressed more so than anything else of late.

Just last week, however, Mike dug into a potential breakout season for Castro, discussing the reasons for optimism, which essentially boil down to past success, harder (and better) contact, greater comfort at the keystone, and his age. In the end, Mike thinks that a .300/.340/.475 line is within the realm of possibility; it’s tough to disagree, given that he hit .307/.341/.432 in 2011 and .292/.339/.438 in 2014, and just showcased the best power of his career last year. I wouldn’t expect that level of production – but it wouldn’t shock me, either.

This does feel like a big year for Castro, at least insofar as his pinstriped career is concerned. He’s no longer cheap, as he’ll earn an average of just under $11 MM over the next three years, but he’s far from untradeable, given his age and ability to play an up-the-middle position. Another middling season might result in him playing elsewhere in 2018, as it’s no secret that he is (or was) available in trade talks this off-season.

Didi Gregorius

Projecting Gregorius’ 2017 is an incredibly difficult task, as the shape of his production has changed dramatically over his four full-ish seasons. Keeping in mind that his 2012 season was a 21 PA cup of coffee, take a look at the following:

didi-plate-discipline

In 2013 – his first full-ish season – Gregorius walked in 9.2% of his plate appearances, which was comfortably above the league-average walk rate of 7.9%. He swung a bit more often than the average player by about 4 percentage points, but his strikeout rate was better than average and his 91 wRC+ as a 23-year-old shortstop was more than acceptable.

Fast forward to the end of 2016, and Gregorius looked like a completely different player. His 3.2% walk rate was 5 percentage points below average, his 13.7% strikeout rate was 7.4 percentage points above average, and he swung at 55.4% of pitches thrown his way (the highest among all qualified shortstops, and tied for 6th in the Majors). His gradually developed aggression resulted in the best season of his career.

Much of the discussion about Gregorius’ 2017 revolved around his 20 home runs, which nearly matched his total of 22 in 1302 PA from 2012 through 2015. The most glaring improvement last season, however, came against LHP. Heading into 2016, the Dutch shortstop was a career .214/.282/.272 hitter (52 wRC+) against southpaws, and it seemed as though he may have to be platooned. There were signs of life in 2015, as a 74 wRC+ might just be playable with his defense, but it was still far less than ideal.

And then he hit .324/.361/.473 (126 wRC+) against LHP last year, striking out in just 7.5% of those plate appearances. He also walked in just 2.5% of that 161 PA sample size, posting an uncharacteristic .331 BABIP along the way. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a player to solve same-handed pitchers as he enters his prime, but we need more evidence to prove that he did just that.

Neither ZiPS (.262/.308/.404, 15 HR) nor PECOTA (.259/.309/.400, 14 HR) sees Gregorius repeating his 2016, though both do see him sustaining a bit of his power surge. At the same time, though, projections do not always take into account tangibles changes in approach over a short-term, which may well be the case with the Yankees shortstop.

What about their defense?

In an ideal world, the Yankees middle infield defense would be an embarrassment of riches. Castro was somewhere between a below-average and fringe-average defensive shortstop, and one would expect his tools to play-up as he slides down the defensive spectrum. And Gregorius was a legitimate prospect largely due to his potential Gold Glove defense, and his reputation is still that of a plus defender. If only it were that simple.

By Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150, 2016 was Castro’s worst defensive season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he had all of 258 innings at second prior to the 2016 calendar year, but there was some sense that his defense backslid as the year wore on. His acclimation to the Bronx and the position may well lead to a sizable step forward in defensive value this year, and that might just be the most important aspect in reviving his overall stock.

And, as I inferred earlier, the advanced metrics cast Gregorius as a middling, if inconsistent defender. He was worth 5 DRS and 7.9 UZR/150 in 2015, but was below-average in both in his other three full-ish seasons. DRS pegged Gregorius as a -9 defender last season, meaning he nearly cost the team a win relative to the position. The truth may well be that he’s merely average, with his smooth actions and strong arm masking his inadequacies to the naked eye. Given the Yankees dedication to defense, you can be sure that they’re watching him closely.


With the exception of the rookies and comparably inexperienced players, I’m not sure that there are two more difficult Yankees to project – and Castro and Gregorius feel somewhat less certain than a few of those guys, as well. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that Castro improves a bit overall (owing largely to improvements on defense), Gregorius produces a similar total package (perhaps with a bit less power and a bit more glove) … and we’re regularly reminded that Torres is tearing it up in the minors.

Dreaming about a potential Starlin Castro breakout season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first two years of the post-Robinson Cano era at second base were not pretty for the Yankees. Sitting through nearly 1,000 combined plate appearances of late-career Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew is not something I’d wish on any fan. Cano was the best second baseman in baseball at the time of his free agency, so by definition he was irreplaceable, though I don’t think many of us were prepared for that big a drop-off.

Last year the Yankees brought in Starlin Castro, a player in his mid-20s with some MLB success under his belt and ostensibly his best years ahead of him, to man second base. His first season in New York was okay. Not great, not awful. Just okay. Starlin did set a new career high with 21 home runs, though his overall .270/.300/.433 (94 wRC+) batting line was right in line with his .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) career average. Blah.

The Cubs traded Castro last year essentially because they were tired of waiting for him to break out. They were ready to win and better players were available to them both internally (Javier Baez) and through free agency (Ben Zobrist), so they did something that usually draws ire from fans: they sold low on a talented young homegrown player. Things worked out pretty well for Chicago last year. Now the Yankees are hoping to get more from Starlin.

What, exactly, would a breakout season by Castro look like? He doesn’t lack physical talent. That much is obvious. He did this yesterday, remember:

Castro is held back by extreme plate indiscipline — he’s walked in 3.8% of his plate appearances the last two years (3.2% if you remove intentional walks) — so pretty much any sort of breakout would involve laying off pitches out of the zone. Improved discipline truly may be the only thing Castro needs to break out.

Last summer Castro swung at 37.5% of the pitches he saw out of the strike zone, the 17th highest rate among the 146 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. That’s up from 33.9% in 2015 and 30.4% in 2014. Not a great trend there, Starlin! And yet, I come to offer you four reasons Castro could break out in 2017. You may have to squint your eyes a little.

1. No more adjustment period. Castro grew up with the Cubs. They signed him as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 and he spent a decade in the organization. The Cubs were the only team Castro had known. Last year he came to New York and played in a new organization for the first time. New team, new coaches, new league, new city, new Spring Training site, the whole nine. That can be a lot to take in. This will be Castro’s second year in pinstripes and presumably he’ll be more comfortable this time around.

2. Castro is in what should be prime of his career. Starlin will turn 27 next month and that is the age when players are usually at their best. Once upon a time a player’s prime lasted from ages 27-31, or thereabouts. Nowadays it’s closer to 25-29. (Here are some aging curve studies.) Either way, 27-31 or 25-29, Castro is right smack in the middle of it. Age 27 is a pretty common age for a position player to have a career year. Every player is their own unique individual and there are exceptions to every rule. Generally speaking though, Starlin is at a good age for a baseball player. Big things tend to happen at 27.

3. Castro is making harder contact. The career high 21 home runs last season came with a steady increase in hard contact — an increase that started in the second half of 2015 — and a steady decrease in soft contact. Here are Starlin’s last two years:

starlin-castro-hard-and-soft-contactHit the ball hard and good things tend to happen, especially when it comes with fewer ground balls. Castro’s grounder rate dropped from a career high 54.1% to 49.1% last season. More hard hit balls in the air is a recipe for success. It’s not a coincidence Starlin set a new career high in home runs last year given his increase in hard contract and decrease in ground balls. Some more progress in both departments, especially in cutting down on ground balls, would equal even more power going forward.

4. Castro has done some good things before. As recently as 2014, Castro hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) with 33 doubles and 14 home runs. We’re not necessarily asking Starlin to achieve new offensive heights, though that would be cool. Just get back to where he was three seasons ago. This isn’t like asking 37-year-old Matt Holliday to hit .340/.405/.607 (151 wRC+) like he did at age 26. Castro is a month away from his 27th birthday and that solid 2014 season is not so far in the rear-view mirror that hoping he can return to that level of production is unrealistic.

* * *

At his peak, a version of Castro with a little more plate discipline could probably hit somewhere close to .300/.340/.475. Maybe even a little higher with the batting average. I think the raw talent is there for him to do that. The Yankees owe Castro some decent money — $9M, $10M, and $11M in the next three seasons — and they have a lot of middle infield prospects on the way. If Starlin doesn’t break out in 2017, the team figures to intensify their efforts to trade him.

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.

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