The Milestone Watch [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With another Yankee season underway, let’s take a look at some statistical milestones that a few of our boys in pinstripes can reach this summer.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod, of course, is on the verge of becoming the fourth player in major-league history with 700 homers. His pursuit of the home run record is well-documented, as he is 28 homers shy of passing Babe Ruth for third place all-time.

He is at 342 homers with the Yankees, just 16 shy of tying Yogi Berra for fifth-most in franchise history. He has a good chance to move into the top-10 of a couple more lists in the Yankee record books, too. With 14 runs scored, he’ll pass Don Mattingly for 10th place there, and with 35 more RBI, he’ll also jump ahead of Mattingly and into 10th place on that leaderboard.

Carlos Beltran

Beltran is approaching a few nice round numbers this season. With eight more home runs, he’ll be the fourth switch hitter to reach the 400-homer milestone. Beltran can join an even more exclusive club, too, when he hits No. 400. He’d be just the fifth player in MLB history with at least 400 homers and 300 stolen bases in a career, joining A-Rod, Andre Dawson, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays.

If he stays healthy, he should also reach two more benchmarks: 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBI. He is at 2,454 hits and 1,443 RBI entering Tuesday’s season opener. The only switch hitters in baseball with 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBI are Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones.

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

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira is also nearing membership in the 400-homer club, and is just six away as he begins his 14th major-league season. The only other switch hitter to hit 400 homers that early into his career was Mickey Mantle. Eight other first baseman totaled 400 homers in their first 14 career seasons: Carlos Delgado, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Jeff Bagwell, Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire.

Starlin Castro
The 26-year-old enters 2016 needing nine hits to reach the 1,000-hit mark. His gap-to-gap power and ability to hit for average is underrated and rare for a player at his age and position. He would be just the seventh middle infielder to compile 1,000 hits, 175 doubles, 30 triples and 60 homers through his age-26 season. The others: Roberto Alomar, Robin Yount, Bobby Doerr, Arky Vaughan, Travis Jackson and Rogers Hornsby.

CC Sabathia
If Sabathia can hold onto his rotation spot, he can enjoy a few round-number milestones. First, he is just 11 1/3 innings pitched shy of 3,000 for his career. Only 10 other left-handers have gotten to that mark in their age-35 season or younger, as CC is about to do. And of that group of 10, only Steve Carlton and Mickey Lolich also had at least 2,500 strikeouts on their resume like Sabathia.

He’s also moving up the Yankee pitching lists. With two more starts, he’ll be the 17th guy to start 200 games for the Yankees, and he needs three wins to become the 17th pitcher with 100 wins for the franchise.

Yankees officially set 2016 Opening Day roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon — weather permitting — the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season against the same team and in the same place their 2015 season ended: at Yankee Stadium against the Astros. Opening Day is just another game in the grand scheme of things, but it absolutely has symbolic value, and besides, everyone wants to start the new year with a win.

Earlier today the Yankees officially announced their Opening Day roster. The deadline to file the roster with MLB was 12pm ET this afternoon. The Opening Day roster offers no surprises. There were no last minute trades or waiver claims. Nothing like that. The roster is exactly as expected following all the roster moves over the last week or two. Here is the club’s Opening Day roster:

CATCHERS (2)
C Brian McCann
C Austin Romine (No. 27)

INFIELDERS (6)
UTIL Dustin Ackley
2B Starlin Castro
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
1B Mark Teixeira
IF Ronald Torreyes (No. 17)

OUTFIELDERS (4)
RF Carlos Beltran
LF Brett Gardner
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
OF Aaron Hicks (No. 31)

DESIGNATED HITTERS (1)
DH Alex Rodriguez

STARTERS (5)
RHP Nathan Eovaldi
RHP Michael Pineda
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka

RELIEVERS (7)
RHP Johnny Barbato (No. 26)
RHP Dellin Betances
RHP Luis Cessa (No. 85)
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP Chasen Shreve
RHP Kirby Yates (No. 39)

MISCELLANY (4)
1B Greg Bird (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)
LHP Aroldis Chapman (restricted list, 30-game suspension)
RHP Bryan Mitchell (15-day DL retroactive to March 31st, broken toe)
OF Mason Williams (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)

Romine beat out Gary Sanchez and I guess Carlos Corporan for the backup catcher’s job. Torreyes beat out Pete Kozma and Rob Refsnyder for the backup infielder’s job, and Sabathia beat out Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Barbato, Cessa, and Yates beat out a small army of relievers for spots on the Opening Day roster. They’re on the shuttle though; they could be send down for a fresh arm in short order.

Tanaka will start his second straight Opening Day tomorrow — Sabathia started six straight Opening Days prior to last year — and be followed in the rotation by Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino, and Sabathia in that order. Miller is going to pitch through the chip fracture in his right wrist, which is both admirable and awesome. After spending all winter talking about the team’s super-bullpen, the Yankees were dangerously close to starting the season with only one of their three elite relievers.

Chapman will return on May 9th, in the 31st game of the season. Bird is done for the season, Mitchell will miss a minimum of three months, and I’m not quite sure how long Williams will be sidelined. He’s been hitting and throwing at Tampa, so I assume his return is weeks away, not months. Chapman’s suspension means the Yankees have an open 40-man roster spot. Bird and Mitchell are 60-day DL candidates whenever more spots are needed.

Okay, that was entirely too many words about an Opening Day roster with zero surprises. Hooray for baseball being back. Go team.

Sorting through the 45 players the Yankees still have on their Spring Training roster

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Two weeks from today, the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season at home against the Astros. There are a 14 exhibition games to be played between now and then, and several roster decisions have to be made as well. The Yankees have made two rounds of roster cuts so far, paring the number of players in big league camp from 70 down to 45. Another 20 still must go.

It goes without saying some of those 45 players have a much better chance to make the Opening Day roster than others. You’d be surprised to see how few have close to no chance to make the team though. The Yankees have only a few open roster spots but an awful lot of candidates to fill them. Let’s look over the 45 players still in big league camp and figure out where they fit going forward.

Definitely Making The Team (20)

These are the easiest calls, so we might as well start here. These 20 players will definitely be on the Opening Day roster:

Coming into the spring I would not have considered Shreve a lock for the bullpen, but it’s pretty safe to say he’s in right now. He’s been phenomenal in camp, he was awesome most of last year, and Joe Girardi is talking about him like one of his regular relievers. Shreve’s going to break camp with the Yankees.

The Yankees insist they are having a true competition for the fifth starter’s spot, though sending Sabathia to the bullpen so Nova can start is one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” things. Maybe the Yankees will figure out a way to stick Sabathia on the DL rather than send him to the bullpen, though that would surprise me. I’m sticking with what I said last week: I don’t believe Sabathia is truly competing for a rotation spot. He’s in.

Very Likely To Make The Team (2)

In Bryan Mitchell and Rob Refsnyder, the Yankees have two young players who are forcing the issue with their Spring Training performances. Both saw time in the show last year and both came to camp on the roster bubble. Mitchell keeps throwing fire and getting outs while Refsnyder has shown he can actually handle third base, a position he never played prior to this spring.

“(Refsnyder at third base) been better than I expected, to be honest. He’s never been over to that side of the infield. His reactions are really good. His arm’s good,” said Brian Cashman to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). The Yankees need a backup third baseman now that Castro will stick to second, and Refsnyder has taken to the position quickly. He hit in his limited time last year and he adds some balance as a righty hitter.

As for Mitchell, the Yankees do have three open bullpens, and none of the shuttle relievers have impressed this spring. He’s been by far the best of the team’s bullpen candidates, and Girardi has mentioned him as a potential Adam Warren replacement, meaning a multi-inning reliever. Mitchell pitched pretty well in relief last year before taking that line drive to the nose. I wouldn’t call him or Refsnyder locks for the Opening Day roster, but they sure look like strong candidates right now.

Hurt Or Suspended (3)

Three of the 45 players still in camp will not be on the active 25-man roster when the season begins. Aroldis Chapman has to serve his 30-game suspension, and both Greg Bird and Mason Williams will start the season on the DL following shoulder surgery. Bird’s going to be out for the year. We know that already. Williams is doing pretty much everything — throwing, hitting, etc. — but still needs more time to finish up his rehab.

There are some 40-man roster implications here. Chapman will be on the restricted list and will not count towards the 40-man roster while suspended. Bird can also be placed on the 60-day DL whenever a 40-man spot is needed. The 60-day DL is kinda weird though. Teams can only use it when they need it, meaning another player has to placed on the 40-man right away. Bird will likely start the season on the 15-day DL, then be transferred over whenever a 40-man spot is inevitably needed.

Pazos. (Presswire)
Pazos. (Presswire)

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

This might as well be the shuttle reliever category. Johnny Barbato, Nick Goody, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow are all still in camp and they’re all on the 40-man roster. All but Barbato pitched in the big leagues last year too. Barbato has pitched the best during Grapefruit League play so far, which won’t hurt his case for the Opening Day roster. Then again, none of these guys have thrown more than seven innings this spring.

Based on everything I have above, five of the seven bullpen spots are claimed: Miller, Betances, Shreve, Mitchell, and Nova (or Sabathia). I honestly have no idea how those last two spots will shake out. I don’t even have an inkling which way the Yankees are leaning. Barbato has pitched well so far, though that doesn’t mean much. He’s got two weeks to make some mistakes. At the same time, the other guys have a chance to step up their game. The best way to describe the bullpen situation right now is: developing.

Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are also in the mix for a roster spot. They’re competing for the backup catcher’s job, and right now I’d say it’s advantage Romine. Sanchez has not had a good spring (1-for-17) and over the weekend Girardi said he seems to be pressing. There’s also the service time issue (35 days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year) and the fact that Sanchez probably could use some more Triple-A time to work on his defense.

Out of these seven players, all but Romine will go to Triple-A if they don’t make the team. Romine’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll go on waivers. And even if he clears, he can elect free agency. The Yankees can’t expect to keep him based on those conditions. That’s probably another reason Romine seems to be the favorite to back up McCann right now.

Oh Gosh, They Might Actually Make The Team (5)

Remember Chris Martin? He was that random offseason pickup no one really paid attention to last year, then bam, he was on the Opening Day roster. The five guys in this group are candidates to be this year’s Chris Martin. Here’s how they can make the team out of camp:

  • Chris Denorfia: Unlike most of the team’s depth outfielders, Denorfia hits right-handed and he has a lot of MLB experience. He strikes me as the top bench candidate should Ellsbury’s wrist injury linger.
  • Pete Kozma: What if the Yankees want to give Refsnyder some more Triple-A time to continue working at third? Kozma, a veteran utility man, is the annoyingly obvious alternative.
  • Tyler Olson: Having a very good spring and could fill one of the open bullpen spots. Olson is a true lefty specialist and Girardi sure does love his matchups.
  • Anthony Swarzak: Swarzak has been solid overall, and he’s another guy with MLB experience. The fact he can throw multiple innings may land him in the bullpen.
  • Kirby Yates: Quietly shoving this spring (4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and he has big league time under his belt. With none of the shuttle guys standing put, Yates could grab a bullpen spot.

Yeah, you don’t have to try real hard to see one or two (or three) of these guys making the team, do you? It’s surprisingly easy, in fact. I swear, these guys just sneak up on you. You overlook them as cast-offs when they’re acquired, and before you know, they’re standing on the foul line and being introduced on Opening Day. Baseball, man.

Long Shots To Make The Team (8)

Never say never, but I am comfortable saying these last eight players are very unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. Catchers Carlos Corporan and Eddy Rodriguez remain in camp, though Girardi has dismissed them as backup catcher candidates. They’re still around so McCann, Romine, and Sanchez don’t have to catch every inning of every spring game. That’s all.

Chris Parmelee was signed to replace Bird as the Triple-A first baseman, so he’s going to Triple-A. The only way he makes the Opening Day roster is if Teixeira gets hurt. (I don’t think he’d make it if A-Rod got hurt. They’d use Beltran at DH in that case.) Ronald Torreyes had gotten a look at third base this spring and he’s been fine overall. At this point I think he’s behind Refsnyder and Kozma on the backup infield depth chart.

Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)
Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)

In addition to Denorfia, Slade Heathcott and Cesar Puello are the last remaining spare outfielders in camp. Heathcott has been brutal during Grapefruit League play (1-for-22!), and while that isn’t everything, I think it puts him behind Denorfia on the depth chart should Ellsbury stay hurt. Puello’s been great in camp, but this is a guy who played one game last season due to a back injury. I can’t see him sticking even if Ellsbury’s wrist problem lingers.

The last two arms in camp are Diego Moreno and Luis Cessa. The Yankees really like Cessa — Cashman in particular has talked him up — and he’s looked pretty good in his limited action. Those are the key words there, limited action. He’s appeared in only three Spring Training games, and if the Yankees were seriously considering Cessa for the roster, he’d get more looks. Pitching two innings once a week suggests he’s on the outside looking in. That’s fine. He could use more Triple-A time anyway.

The Yankees seem to like Moreno more than we realize — he’s been mentioned as a call-up candidate for two or three years now — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again this summer. He is not on the 40-man roster right now, and he hasn’t pitched well in camp (six runs in 5.1 innings), so it seems safe to say Diego is way down on the Opening Day bullpen depth chart at the moment. The Yankees have too many other candidates.

* * *

With Opening Day two weeks away, it appears the Yankees have 22 of their 25 roster spots figured out. They need to pick a backup catcher and decide who will hold down the last two bullpen spots on a temporary basis. I assume those will be shuttle spots, with new guys cycling in and out as necessary, especially early in the season. The next round of roster cuts should be coming next weekend, and that may lend some clarity to the bullpen situation.

The New Second Baseman [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have committed to a youth movement over the last 18 months or so, though they’ve done it in a unique way. Sure, they’re bringing up their own prospects from the minors and giving them a chance, but they’ve also traded for young players who fell out of favor with their former teams for whatever reason. Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dustin Ackley were all acquired that way. Aaron Hicks too.

The most-notable and perhaps the riskiest such acquisition came at the Winter Meetings in December, when the Yankees shipped Adam Warren (and Brendan Ryan!) to the Cubs for Starlin Castro. Castro’s young and he’s had some very good seasons in his career. The Yankees also gave up a very valuable piece in Warren, someone Joe Girardi called “as big as any pitcher that we have in that room” last October.

The Castro trade was the first time the Yankees gave away a player they’re really, truly going to miss in one of these out of favor trades. Yeah, you could have argued they would really miss Shane Greene at the time of the Gregorius trade, but Greene was not nearly as established as Warren. Warren has been getting big outs for the Yankees for a few years now, and he’s been doing it in a variety of roles. That was a big piece of depth to give up.

Brian Cashman & Co. saw Starlin as too good to pass up, however. He’s 25 years old — Castro turns 26 this Thursday — with strong defensive chops at second base, offensive promise, and a team-friendly contract that can max out at $53M over the next five seasons. Those types of players rarely become available, and when they do, the asking price is usually much higher than an Adam Warren type. Warren will be missed, no doubt about it, but this was a deal the Yankees had to make.

Castro’s first impression has been great — he is 12-for-27 (.444) with two dingers so far this spring — though we all know Grapefruit League numbers don’t mean much, if anything. I guess it’s better than struggling in camp. After the trade Starlin instantly became part of what the Yankees hope is their next core, along with Gregorius, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Greg Bird, and some others. What does 2016 have in store? Let’s preview.

So Which Castro Will The Yankees Get?

There’s a reason the Cubs made Castro available. They didn’t trade him out of the kindness of their heart. Starlin’s stock has dipped in recent years because his offense has gone backwards since his promising debut back in 2010. Here is his wRC+ by year. Remember, 100 is league average and the higher the number, the better.

2010: 99
2011: 109
2012: 100
2013: 74
2014: 117
2015: 80

A 99 wRC+ at age 20 then a 109 wRC+ at age 21 is the kind of stuff you see from future stars. Not many players produce at that clip at such a young age, especially middle infielders. Since then Castro has had one league average year, one well-above-average year, and two well-below-average years. He barely outproduced Stephen Drew (76 wRC+) last season.

Last year Castro hit .265/.296/.375 overall, though it was split into .236/.271/.304 (53 wRC+) in 435 plate appearances as the starting shortstop, and .353/.374/.588 (161 wRC+) in 143 plate appearances as the starting second baseman. Small sample noise? Possibly. There were also adjustments made, however. Castro said he worked with Chicago’s hitting coaches to close his stance during his four days on the bench between going from short to second:

Starlin Castro stance

“Just moved my front leg,” said Castro to Meredith Marakovits over the winter (video link). “I think my front leg was just too open and I just tried to pull the ball. That’s why at the beginning of the season, I hit a lot of ground balls to third and to short. It’s not the type of player that I am. I just always hit the ball to the middle and right field. The adjustment that I did, I just closed the stance a little bit more and that helped me a lot to drive the ball to the opposite way.”

That numbers don’t show a drastic change in Castro’s batted ball direction — he had a 41.2% pull rate with the open stance and a 39.2% pull rate with the closed stance last year, so it wasn’t that big a difference — but he did hit the ball substantially harder. His open stance hard contact rate was 21.6%, which is far below the 28.6% league average. With the closed stance it was a 29.2% hard contact rate, right in line with a 29.1% hard contact rate he had during his 117 wRC+ season in 2014. Here are Castro’s average exit velocities by zone, via the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant:

Starlin Castro exit velocities

Starlin was only able to really drive pitches middle-away with his open stance last year. Once he closed it up in August, Castro was able to do a better job pulling his hands in to get to that inside pitch. We have to be aware that this is a small sample of data — again, he only had 143 plate appearances once he moved to second and closed his stance — though for that limited bit of data, Castro closed a hole in his swing on the inner half.

There is also definitely something to be said for having confidence and being comfortable on the field. That can absolutely impact performance. In Chicago, Castro was the guy for a long time. The Cubs won 97 games and were swept in the NLDS in 2008. They won only 83 games in 2009 and missed the postseason. Castro debuted in 2010, a 75-win season, and he was the face of the team’s rebuild. He was the next great Cub, and his success from 2010-11 only added more pressure. That’s a lot to take in at a young age.

With the Yankees, Castro is just one of the guys. Yeah, he’s very important in the long-term, but this season he’s going to hit near the bottom of the lineup and only be expected to help the offense, not carry it. This is a fresh start and of course he wants to impress his new team and his new fans. He’s not expected to be the face of the franchise though. Castro’s coming in with a clean slate and that can be a very good thing mentally.

We’ve seen the raw talent — Starlin hit a ball over the friggin’ batter’s eye last week (video) — and this is a player who is one season removed from a .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) batting line. The Yankees would sign up for that in a second. Castro is young, he has natural ability, he appeared to close a hole in his swing late last year, and now he no longer has to be The Man in the lineup. Those are all positives. Last year was rough overall. Now Starlin has a fresh start.

Second Base, Not Third

Cashman talked about trying Castro at third base as soon as the trade was made, though that plan was short-lived. The Yankees pulled the plug before he even had a chance to play a Spring Training game at the hot corner. He did nothing more than work out there in infield drills. That’s probably for the best. Castro is still learning second base, after all. He only played 258 innings there last year.

After spending his entire big league career at shortstop, Starlin said everything felt “backwards” once he moved to the other side of the bag, though he added it only took a handful of games to get comfortable. The numbers at second (+2 DRS and -0.8 UZR) are useless given the sample size, so we don’t have much reliable data. This play from earlier this month …

… shows that if nothing else, Castro has range and a strong arm, which you’d expect from an ex-shortstop. Can he make use of that range and arm consistently? That’s the big question. How is his double play pivot? Turning two at the bag is totally different as a second baseman than it is as a shortstop. The shortstop can see the play develop in front of him. The second baseman has to go in blind with the runner at his back.

“(His defense) will be significantly better because of the athleticism and putting Castro at second base, he has the ability to be a very good defensive player. Second base is a little easier for a guy like him,” said one scout to George King. Keith Law also said he would bet Castro is “above-average to plus” at second base. So if nothing else, there are two people on Earth who believe Starlin has the tools for be a real asset defensively on the right side of second base.

There are reasons to believe Castro will be a very good defender at second base, if not right away then in time, as he gains experience. I’m guessing we’ll see a wide range out of plays at second this year. Some truly spectacular plays and some goofs on routine plays, perhaps because Castro is still learning the nuances at second. The early returns at second last season were generally promising, both defensively and offensively. The Yankees want their new second baseman to build on that in 2016.

Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.

As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez

I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.

Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.

The Leadoff Man

This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.

The Two-Hole

An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.

An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.

Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.

There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.

The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.

2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.

That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.

The Bottom Third

I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.

In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.

Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.

So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:

  1. Ellsbury
  2. Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
  3. Rod
  4. Teixeira
  5. Beltran
  6. McCann
  7. Headley
  8. Gregorius
  9. Castro

Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.

Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.

Yankees won’t try Starlin Castro at third base, want to “make sure he’s comfortable” at second

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Starlin Castro at third base experiment is over before it even had a chance to begin. Earlier today Joe Girardi told George King the team won’t try Castro at third because they want him to focus on preparing to play second base. “I don’t know if that is going to happen. We want to make sure he is comfortable at second,” said the skipper.

Castro, 25, moved to second base last August and has only played 258 career innings at the position, so it’s not like he’s a seasoned veteran there. He hasn’t played the hot corner since rookie ball years and years ago, and that was only a handful of games. Castro took ground balls at third during infield drills earlier in camp but he never did appear in a game at the position.

There are reasons to believe Castro can handle third, but letting him focus on second base is a smart move since it’ll be his primary position. Asking him to learn third might be too much, too soon. The Yankees could always revisit the plan in the future — in fact, I bet we’ll hear about Castro possibly playing third base next spring — but right now it’s been shelved.

This decision means the Yankees must use the fourth and final bench spot on a backup third baseman. That’s good news for Rob Refsnyder, who has looked good in his limited time at the hot corner and played there again today. Others like Pete Kozma (who also played third today), Donovan Solano, Ronald Torreyes, Jonathan Diaz, and Deibinson Romero are candidates for that bench spot.

The Yankees could still go outside the organization for third base help — there’s always a rash of small trades at the end of Spring Training as teams finalize their rosters — but right now it seems very likely the Yankees will carry Refsnyder on their Opening Day roster. The more he plays third base going forward, the better his chances to make the club.

The Five Most Important Storylines of the Spring [2016 Spring Training Preview]

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Each and every year, Spring Training around the Yankees is pretty hectic with important storylines to watch, regardless of whether they just won the World Series or missed the postseason. Last year we had the Alex Rodriguez circus and I’m not sure anything can compare to that. All things considered, it went pretty well, mostly because A-Rod showed he could still play.

This spring there are many things to keep an eye on as the Yankees prepare for the upcoming season, most of which involve health. That’s the buzzword this spring: health. The Yankees have some injury risk — I think it’s fair to say more than other teams — so that’s something to watch these next few weeks. Is it the only think to watch? Hardly. Here are five of the most important storylines to monitor in Spring Training this year, roughly in order of importance.

Tanaka’s Timetable

Masahiro Tanaka did indeed have elbow surgery this offseason, but it wasn’t the Tommy John surgery that is widely considered inevitable. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow, a spur that reportedly dates back to his time playing in Japan. Tanaka is already in Tampa working out and he’s thrown off a mound, so his rehab is going well. He threw some gas on the fire by saying he might not be ready for Opening Day, however.

“I can’t really say (whether I’ll be ready for Opening Day). I’ll take it day by day. I just want to see myself go into the bullpen, get the innings and see how I feel. I feel perfectly healthy,” said Tanaka to reporters the other day. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Tanaka has had no trouble with his throwing program and that the team’s ace will “get to where he needs to get to as time progresses.”

Brian Cashman hedged a bit, saying Tanaka will “enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons,” even though he is physically fine. CC Sabathia had the same surgery following the 2012 season and the Yankees took it easy on him in Spring Training. He was a few days behind the other starters in camp, and he made most of his early spring starts in controlled simulated games before getting into Grapefruit League action.

Every pitcher is different, though I suspect the Yankees will follow a similar plan with Tanaka this year. Simulated games early — that allows the team to control the action; they can end a inning if it goes too long, stuff like that — then a few tune-up Grapefruit League appearances late. (Sabathia made only two official Grapefruit League starts in 2013.) Is it ideal? No. But neither is offseason elbow surgery, even for something as relatively minor as a bone spur.

We should be able to get a pretty good idea whether Tanaka will be ready for the start of the regular season early in camp. Opening Day is April 4th, so give him four weeks of prep and we’re talking about a March 7th target date for game action, even if it’s only a simulated game. If Tanaka’s not able to pitch in some kind of game and get his pitch count into the 40-45 range that week of March 7th, the odds of him being ready for the season fall big time.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Teixeira’s Leg

Greg Bird‘s shoulder surgery has made it easy to forget Mark Teixeira is coming back from a pretty substantial injury himself. He suffered a small fracture in his shin last August, then was shut down in mid-September with a three-month rehab timetable. The last Teixeira update came in mid-December and all indications were his rehab was going well, though he had not yet started running. That was scheduled for sometime in January.

Joe Girardi will hold his annual start of Spring Training press conference tomorrow and I’m sure we’ll get an update on Teixeira at that time. It goes without saying how important he is to the Yankees. Teixeira is arguably the team’s best two-way player and he is their best power hitter, and now Bird is not around as a backup plan. The Yankees could keep Teixeira off his feet and give him a bunch of DH at-bats in spring, but that is A-Rod’s position now, so it’s not so simple. Both guys need at-bats to get ready for the season.

Castro At Third

The Yankees have made it clear they plan to try Starlin Castro at third base this spring — “We’re not going to force it … but we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks,” said Cashman — and his ability to handle the hot corner will have huge roster implications. If he can play third, the Yankees can use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door, which is their plan. If he can’t play third, they’ll need to use that spot to carry a backup third baseman.

Not only will watching Castro physically play the position be important, but I’m also curious to see exactly how much time the Yankees give him there. Remember, Starlin is relatively new to second base as well. He only started playing second last August. He’s going to need reps at that position as well. The Yankees can’t have Castro focus solely on the hot corner in Spring Training. He’s got to work out at second too. Will that leave enough time for him to pick up third base? There are reasons to believe Castro can handle the third, but it is still going to be a new experience, and he won’t have much time to learn the position.

Headley’s Throwing

I’m not sure any aspect of the 2015 Yankees surprised me more than Chase Headley‘s sudden inability to make routine throws. He made a career high 23 errors last year, including 12 throwing errors, fourth most of any non-first base infielder in baseball. Only Marcus Semien (18), Jean Segura (15), and Josh Donaldson (13) threw more balls away. That doesn’t include all the errors Teixeira saved Headley as well*. There was too much of this last summer:

Chase Headley error

The routine plays gave Headley trouble, yet his throws on difficult plays (those with minimal reaction time) were largely perfect. That suggests a mental issue, not a physical issue, and to be fair he did cut down on the errors as the season progressed. He made 16 errors in the first half and only seven in the second half, which is still a lot, but not nearly as much as earlier in the season. “There are some balls there is nothing you can do about but I worked on recognizing. Hopefully it’s behind me and hopefully it makes me mentally stronger,” he said at midseason.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone would say Headley is over his throwing problems based on his second half error total, including the Yankees and Headley himself. That’s why his throwing will be a focal point this spring. The goal isn’t to get Headley to do something he’s never done before, like it is with Castro playing third. The goal is to get him back to where he was his entire pre-2015 career.

* For what it’s worth, the fancy Baseball Info Solutions data I have access to through CBS says Headley ranked middle of the pack among third basemen in the number of errors saved by “good scoops” at first.

Dellin’s Workload

Last spring was a new experience for Dellin Betances. It was the first time in his career he reported to Spring Training with a big league job locked up, and relievers who are locked into big league spots have light schedules. They throw only a handful of innings and rarely travel. It’s a sweet gig if you can get it. Last spring Dellin threw 8.1 innings across nine appearances. In 2014 it was 12.1 innings across ten appearances.

Four innings doesn’t sound like a huge difference, and it probably isn’t, but Betances did struggle in Spring Training last year. His control was awful and even his velocity was down. It wasn’t until a week or two into the regular season that he started to look like the 2014 version of himself. Betances has said he’s a guy who likes regular work because it helps him stay sharp, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest the reduced spring workload led to his early season problems. He simply didn’t have enough time to get ready.

I’m curious to see how the Yankees handle Betances this spring. Do they give him a few more Grapefruit League innings to prepare for the season, or do they keep him on the typical reliever plan and expect him to adjust? Maybe the solution is more bullpen work, not necessarily game action. A balance has to be struck between enough work to prepare and too much work. That doesn’t seem like an easy thing to do, especially with a pitcher as unique as Dellin.