The cases for and against Tyler Wade at shortstop

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At some point in the coming days the Yankees will decide how they’re going to replace the injured Didi Gregorius at shortstop for what everyone hopes is only a few weeks. Gregorius suffered a shoulder strain earlier this month and the talk right now is he could return in early-May. Missing April stinks, but at least it wasn’t something more serious.

The Yankees have three shortstop candidates remaining in camp following their latest round of roster cuts: Pete Kozma, Ronald Torreyes, and Tyler Wade. Torreyes is a lock to be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity. At worst, he’ll be the utility infielder again. There’s also a definite chance Torreyes will start at short while Gregorius is sidelined.

Who do fans want to replace Gregorius? Wade, of course. Bring me the young exciting prospect over the veteran retread any day of the week. Unfortunately things like development plans and the 40-man roster get in the way of such moves. Blah. In all seriousness though, is now the right time for Wade? Let’s make the cases for and against.

The Case Against Wade

It’s much easier to build a case against Wade than for Wade — that is true of most prospects — so I might as well start here. Wade, who turned 22 in November, has never played above Double-A. Not one single game. He hit .259/.352/.349 (101 wRC+) at the level last year, which is good but not blow you away great. The various projection systems don’t see Wade having much of an immediate impact:

  • PECOTA: .233/.299/.353 (.227 TAv)
  • Steamer: .224/.284/.315 (61 wRC+)
  • ZiPS: .234/.299/.316 (67 wRC+)

Those projections are both terrible and better than Kozma’s — PECOTA is the high man on Kozma at .218/.283/.333 (.214 TAv) — though I’m not sure being slightly less awful than Kozma is enough of a reason to call Wade up right now. The Yankees have a development plan in place for Wade, which involves turning him into a super utility guy, and deviating from that plan for what might be a one month stopgap role doesn’t seem like a great idea.

The 40-man roster situation can’t big ignored either. Once Wade is added to the 40-man, he’s on for good. Kozma can be cut easily because no one really cares if he gets claimed on waivers. Also, by calling Wade up, the Yankees would then burn one of his three option years sending him down to Triple-A whenever Gregorius returns. You’d rather not burn a young player’s option so he can be a short-term injury fill-in, you know?

For what it’s worth, the projection systems tells us Wade isn’t ready to help the Yankees all the much at the plate, so using him to replace Gregorius would mean altering his development plan and complicating the roster situation for someone who doesn’t figure to much of a short-term upgrade over Kozma. Neither guy is expected to hit much, and at best, Wade is Kozma’s equal in the field. I’d bet on Kozma being better defensively right now. The last thing the Yankees want to do is rush Wade and hurt his development, especially when there’s a viable alternative.

The Case For Wade

Kozma is really bad. He’s a career .222/.288/.293 (58 wRC+) hitter in the big leagues and last season he managed a .209/.268/.265 (52 wRC+) batting line in nearly 500 plate appearances with Triple-A Scranton. There is a minimum acceptable standard for offense and Kozma isn’t going to meet it. Not without a little BABIP luck, which, you know, could happen in a month of playing time.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The projection systems aren’t too enthused about Wade this year, though there are a few things to keep in mind about that. One, projections are not predictions. They’re an attempt to estimate the player’s true talent level, and weird things can happen in one month samples. Who’s to say Wade, who is hitting .341/.372/.439 during Grapefruit League play, won’t slash-and-dash his way to a respectable batting line in April? (Kozma is hitting a Kozmanian .206/.289/.265 this spring.)

PECOTA’s 70th percentile projection for Wade calls for a .251/.321/.382 (.244 TAv) batting line, which would essentially make him the 2016 version of Chase Headley (.253/.331/.385). The 70th percentile projection is the slightly optimistic projection, and hey, what’s wrong with being optimistic about a good looking prospect who has played well in camp and plays all out all the time? (PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection, the really optimistic one, is .279/.352/.424.)

There’s also this: the 40-man roster situation isn’t that dire. Tyler Austin is a 60-day disabled list candidate. I doubt others like Johnny Barbato, Dietrich Enns, Gio Gallegos, Ronald Herrera, Chasen Shreve, and Mason Williams will stand in the way of the Yankees making a roster move. Fringe roster players, which all of those guys are for the Yankees, are a renewable resource. There will be other Barbatos and Ennses and Gallegi somewhere along the line, especially given New York’s farm system.

As for Wade’s development plan, I do think that should be a serious consideration, but we’re only talking about a month here. If one month in the big leagues is enough to derail Wade’s entire career path, he probably wasn’t going to make it anyway. Keep in mind being in the big leagues is a learning experience. Wade would get to work with the big league coaches and learn from guys like Headley and Matt Holliday and CC Sabathia. There’s value in that.

* * *

There is no denying Wade would be the most fun and exciting shortstop option while Gregorius is out. Well, no, Gleyber Torres would be the most fun and exciting option, but that ain’t happening. You know what I meant. The fact the Yankees have played Torreyes at short more than anyone since Gregorius got hurt leads to me to believe they’re leaning towards using him at shortstop. In that case, Kozma would make the most sense as the backup. I think we can all agree calling Wade up only to have him sit on the bench would be a waste.

The Year Ahead in the Farm System [2017 Season Preview]

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

This is still a weird and awesome and completely true statement: the Yankees are loaded with exciting up-and-coming young talent. Last year’s trade deadline activity combined with breakouts from incumbent prospects give New York the game’s consensus No. 2 farm system behind the Braves. The 2016 draft helped too. That was cool.

The Yankees are, in their words, a team in transition. They’re trying to get younger while remaining competitive, which is both an excellent goal and difficult to do. Young players tend to come with growing pains. Even the most talented ones. Not everyone hits the ground running like Gary Sanchez. Usually they hit some bumps in the road, like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino.

The “remaining competitive” stuff is a topic for another time. This entry into our season preview series is dedicated to all the ladies out there the great farm system the Yankees have built. Let’s preview the upcoming season in the minors. Here is my top 30 prospects list, if you’ve somehow missed it.

Top Prospects Who Could Help In 2017

Depending on the scouting publication, the Yankees have anywhere between six (Keith Law) and nine (Baseball Prospectus) top 100 caliber prospects in the farm system. One of those players is Judge, who we previewed two weeks ago. As always, top 100 prospects are not all created equal. Some are much closer to the big leagues than others. The Yankees have a little of everything with their top 100 guys.

The best prospect in the farm system and one of the very best in all of baseball is, as you know, SS Gleyber Torres. He came over in last summer’s Aroldis Chapman trade and blew everyone away in Spring Training. Torres hit .448/.469/.931 with six doubles and two homers in 32 Grapefruit League plate appearances, which was enough for folks to want him to replace the injured Didi Gregorius. That won’t happen. The Yankees have already sent Gleyber to minor league camp and he’ll open the season in Double-A.

That said, I definitely believe the 20-year-old Torres has a chance to help the Yankees later this year, likely in the second half. Similar prospects have made their MLB debuts at age 20 after starting the season in Double-A. Some things will have to happen first — Torres has to hit, the Yankees have to need him, etc. — but there’s a chance Gleyber will force the issue at some point and make the team think about calling him up. Special talents have accelerated timetables.

OF Clint Frazier, who would be the No. 1 prospect for many other teams, is the No. 2 prospect in the farm system. He came over in the Andrew Miller trade. Frazier, 22, reached Triple-A last season and will return there to start this season. (He hit .308/.300/.487 in camp. I do love silly AVG > OBP lines.) Given his proximity to MLB, Frazier is much more likely to reach the show this season than Torres. The Yankees will have to make room for him somehow, but they’ll figure it out. Frazier is a potential impact bat and lineup cornerstone, and we’ll see him in the Bronx at some point this summer. I’m sure of it.

Among New York’s other top 100 prospects, the only other one I could see reaching the big leagues this season is RHP James Kaprielian, and that’s a long shot. Kaprielian is healthy after missing nearly the entire 2016 regular season with a flexor strain, though the Yankees are going to take it slow with him early in the season. He threw nothing but simulated games the first few weeks of Spring Training before finally getting into a Grapefruit League two weeks ago. Kaprielian threw two innings and was sent to minor league camp the same day.

What needs to happen for Kaprielian to reach MLB in 2017? He has to stay healthy, for starters. Secondly, he’s going to have to pitch well enough to climb from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A to MLB. Climbing three levels in one year isn’t easy, but it has been done before. Both Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain did it in 2007. And third, the Yankees have to believe Kaprielian is one of their best rotation options. They won’t call him up for the hell of it. There are 40-man and service time considerations in play.

My guess right now is no, Kaprielian will not make his MLB debut this season. Sorry to be a buzzkill. As long as he stays healthy, I expect Kaprielian to pitch very well — he should carve up High-A hitters — and reach Triple-A late in the season. We’ll then complain the Yankees aren’t calling him because he is clearly better than one of the starters the Yankees are running out there every five days, right? That’s usually how it goes.

Top Prospects Who Probably Won’t Help In 2017

Sheffield. (Presswire)
Sheffield. (Presswire)

The Yankees have three consensus top 100 prospects who are unlikely to play in the big leagues this year, at least not in a meaningful way. LHP Justus Sheffield, another part of the Miller trade, is a three-pitch southpaw with good velocity. He is still only 20 and is ticketed for Double-A. I expect him to spend just about the entire season there. He might make a late-season Triple-A cameo, but that’s about it. Besides being so young, Sheffield needs to improve his command before being an MLB option.

SS Jorge Mateo might soon be CF Jorge Mateo. The Yankees have been moving their shortstop prospects around — Torres has played second base and has worked out at third, for example — in an effort to increase their versatility. Mateo is a good defender at short, though center field would better allow him to use his elite speed on the defensive side of the ball. Either way, shortstop or center field, Mateo has to do more with the bat. He didn’t hit much last season and hitting coach Alan Cockrell is working with him to widen his stance this spring.

Now, that all said, I do think Mateo has a chance to make his MLB debut in 2017. He was added to the 40-man roster over the winter to avoid Rule 5 Draft exposure, which means the Yankees could turn to him as their annual September designated pinch-runner. They very much believe in that role — they picked up Eric Young Jr. and Rico Noel at midseason to fill that role the last two years — and Mateo is an 80 runner, so it’s hard to think they’ll drum up a better option at some point.

There are two things to keep in mind though. One, Mateo wasn’t a great basestealer last season — he went 36-for-51 (71%) in steal attempts in 2016 — and the Yankees are said to be working with him to improve his reads and things like that. And two, being in the big leagues is a privilege and something a player has to earn. If Mateo has another disappointing season, the Yankees could very well turn to another pinch-runner option rather than reward Mateo will a month in MLB. I think it’s possible we’ll see him as the September pinch-runner, but it’s far from certain.

The best top 100 caliber prospect in farm system we 100% will not see in the big leagues this coming season is OF Blake Rutherford, last year’s first round pick. Rutherford was a consensus top ten talent in the draft class — Keith Law (6th), MLB.com (8th), and Baseball America (9th) all ranked him highly among draft prospects — who slipped to the Yankees with the 18th pick for kinda dopey reasons. One, he turned 19 in May and was a few months older than most high school draftees. And two, he wanted a large bonus. Those seem like not great reasons to pass on him, but whatever.

Rutherford projects as a classic No. 3 hitter who can hit for average and power, and also draw a healthy amount of walks. His placement in the various top 100 lists tells you how highly he’s regarded. He didn’t just sneak onto the back of those lists. He was in the top half. At the same time, Rutherford will spent most of the season at age 20 and he’s going to start at Low-A. Not a big league option. A very talented prospect? Hell yes. But not a big league option in 2017. Not close.

Two consensus non-top 100 prospects who I consider among New York’s better prospects are RHP Albert Abreu and 3B Miguel Andujar. Abreu came over in the Brian McCann deal and he might have the highest upside of any pitcher in the farm system. He’s got mid-90s gas and both his slider and changeup look like out pitches on their best days. At the same time, Abreu is a 21-year-old with only 11.2 High-A innings under his belt. He’s going to spend the majority of this season at that level. An MLB call-up ain’t happening. Not this year.

Andujar is a personal fave and I feel like he gets lost in the depth of the farm system. His best tools are his raw power and throwing arm, and last year he started to make some real strides with his approach at the plate. Andujar wasn’t a big time hacker or anything, but he makes easy contact and had a tendency to swing at anything in the zone. He did a better job recognizing which pitches he could hammer and which he should let go last year. I’m expecting big things in 2017. A September call-up isn’t out of the question because Andujar is on the 40-man roster, though I would be surprised if helped the Yankees in a more substantial way this summer.

The Secondary Prospects Likely To Help In 2017

Montgomery. (Presswire)
Montgomery. (Presswire)

The depth of the farm system is on display when you look at the second and third tier prospects who figure to help the Yankees in 2017. LHP Jordan Montgomery has already put himself in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot with a strong spring. SS Tyler Wade added the outfield to his skill set in the Arizona Fall League and he’s now being considered as Gregorius’ replacement at short. I’m not sure that’ll happen, but the fact he’s being considered shows the Yankees think he’s at least close to MLB.

OF Dustin Fowler and RHP Chance Adams are both slated to open the season in Triple-A — Wade and Montgomery will be there as well if they don’t make the Opening Day roster — and are coming off very strong 2016 seasons. Breakout seasons, really. (Definitely in Adams’ case.) The odds of the Yankees needing a pitcher are much greater than the odds of them needing an outfielder for obvious reasons — besides, Frazier and OF Mason Williams figure to be ahead of Fowler on the call-up depth chart — but the fact these two are starting in Triple-A makes them big league possibilities. Once you get to that level, everyone is a call-up candidate.

Other prospects we could see in the Bronx this year include Williams, C Kyle Higashioka, RHP Ben Heller, RHP Jonathan Holder, LHP Dietrich Enns, RHP Ronald Herrera, RHP Gio Gallegos, and RHP J.P. Feyereisen. All except Feyereisen are on the 40-man roster. Heller is the best bullpen prospect in the farm system in my opinion, though Holder, Enns, and Gallegos all have great minor league numbers. Those dudes will all be part of the bullpen shuttle this summer. No doubt about it. Higashioka will, at worst, be a September call-up. He’s the third catcher.

Breakout Candidates

Abreu has already been mentioned and he’s the biggest breakout candidate in the farm system, I think, at least among pitchers. He’s already got four pitches — well, the makings of four pitches, I should say — and is in need of more refinement than anything. Better command, get more consistently with the delivery, things like that. Abreu doesn’t have to learn a changeup or anything like that. The pieces are there for him to become no-doubt top 100 prospect next spring.

On the position player side, 3B Dermis Garcia is a dude I’m very excited to follow this summer. He has 80 raw power on the 20-80 scouting scale — 80 raw power and 80 game power are different things! — and is a better pure hitter than his .206/.326/.454 (114 wRC+) batting line and 34.3% strikeout rate with rookie Pulaski last year would lead you believe. Garcia turned only 19 in January and it’s looking like he’ll spend the season at Low-A. Some progress with his approach, meaning not swinging out of his shoes each time he deems a pitch hittable, could turn Dermis into a top 100 guy. That’s a lot to ask, but the talent is there.

Other recent international signees like SS Hoy Jun Park, RHP Domingo Acevedo, SS Wilkerman Garcia, SS Diego Castillo, OF Leonardo Molina, and especially OF Estevan Florial are potential breakout candidates this year. Acevedo needs to continue to improve his breaking ball if he wants to remain in the rotation long-term. Florial has outrageous tools. His power, speed, and throwing arm all rate near the top of he scale. He just needs to tone down his ultra aggressive approach. Florial can swing-and-miss with the best of ’em.

It’s odd to consider a former fourth overall pick a breakout candidate, but RHP Dillon Tate qualifies. He came over from the Rangers in the Carlos Beltran trade after Texas soured on him. Tate, who was drafted in 2015, hurt his hamstring early last season and had difficulty adjusting to some mechanical changes the Rangers asked him to incorporate. The Yankees told him to forget about that and go back to his old mechanics, and by time the AzFL rolled around, his fastball was averaging 98.0 mph and topping out at 99.6 mph, per PitchFX. Yeah.

Of course, that 98.0 mph average heater came in a short burst and no one expects him to sit there as a starter. The Yankees will return Tate to the rotation this year — he worked multi-inning stints out of the bullpen after the trade last year so they could work on his mechanics — though it should be noted that even at his best, there was some thought Tate would wind up in the bullpen long-term because his fastball is straight and his changeup is still a work in progress. Point is, the Yankees bought low on Tate and are working to get him back to his fourth overall pick form, and he looked better in the AzFL than he did at any point with the Rangers before the trade.

If you’re looking for an Adams caliber breakout candidate, that reliever-turned-starter prospect, don’t. Seriously. What Adams did last year was best case scenario stuff. Hard to expect that again, though I’d happily welcome it. The best reliever-turned-starter prospect candidate in the system is Tate, though that’s not a true reliever-to-starter conversion. In that case, RHP Taylor Widener is the best bet. He was the team’s 12th round pick in last year’s draft.

Widener is the latest in a string of Yankees prospects to gain velocity in pro ball — Kaprielian, Montgomery, and Adams all did that — and he has a good slider, albeit an inconsistent one. His changeup has been a point of emphasis since the draft. I’m not sure Widener can make the transition to the rotation as seamlessly as Adams, though then again I never thought Adams would take to the role as easily as he did. Widener is more of a sleeper than a true breakout prospect.

Bounceback Candidates

McKinney. (Presswire)
McKinney. (Presswire)

Last year was a great year for the farm system, though it wasn’t perfect. A few players had disappointing seasons, most notably Mateo. The Yankees are hoping he bounces back in a big way this summer. Kaprielian too following the elbow injury. Tate is another bounceback candidate. Can a player be a bounceback candidate and a breakout candidate in the same season? I guess so. Garcia (Wilkerman, not Dermis) is a bounceback candidate despite being 18. He was great in 2015 and looked like a potential top 100 guy. He then battled through a shoulder issue and had a poor statistical season in 2016.

Aside from Mateo, I think the biggest bounceback candidate in the farm system on the position player side is OF Billy McKinney, who put together an impressive Grapefruit League showing (.417/.517/.917 with four walks and one strikeout in 29 plate appearances) before being reassigned to minor league camp. McKinney came over in the Chapman trade and was better with the Yankees than the Cubs, though his overall 2016 season was underwhelming. The former first rounder hit .256/.349/.363 (107 wRC+) at Double-A. Meh.

The spring performance was nice, though that’s not the reason McKinney is a bounceback candidate. He hit .300/.371/.454 (135 wRC+) between High-A and Double-A two years ago, and was ranked as a top 100 prospect prior to both 2015 (Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus) and 2016 (MLB.com, Keith Law, BP). McKinney’s 2015 season ended early because he fouled a pitch into his knee and suffered a hairline fracture, and there’s some belief it took him longer to get over the injury than expected, hence last year’s performance. With his sweet lefty swing and innate hitting ability, a healthy McKinney could regain significant prospect stock in 2017.

LHP Ian Clarkin was not bad by any means last season — he threw 98 innings with a 3.31 ERA (3.26 FIP) in High-A — though he finished the season hurt (knee) after missing the entire 2015 regular season (elbow). Reports on his stuff were mixed last season, so the Yankees haven’t really seen the supplemental first round pick version of Clarkin since 2014. This isn’t a make or break year for Clarkin (he just turned 22!) though the Yankees very much want him to stay healthy and regain his former top prospect status in 2017.

Prospects I Am Irrationally Excited About

I was originally planning to call this section sleepers or something, but I figured I might as well be straightforward about it. I’ve been waxing poetic about IF Thairo Estrada for two years now, and the just turned 21-year-old could reach Double-A in the second half of the season. RHP Zack Littell is kind of the anti-Yankees pitching prospect. He’s not physically huge with a big fastball. He’s a pitchability guy with three pitches who puts in an insane amount of work studying opposing hitters.

The Yankees are short on catching prospects at the moment — I still expect C Luis Torrens to be returned from the Padres as a Rule 5 Draft pick at some point soon — and their best backstop prospect is C Donny Sands, a converted third baseman. He’s a great bat-to-ball hitter with some power potential. Sands is still new to catching and is rough around the edges, but he’s attacked the transition and has already made some big strides defensively. He should be a top 30 organizational prospect at this time next year. (Some say he is right now.)

IF Oswaldo Cabrera had a ridiculous statistical season last summer — he hit .345/.396/.523 (163 wRC+) in 52 rookie ball games as a 17-year-old — and comes with interesting offensive upside. It seems likely he’s destined for second base rather than shortstop though. That’s okay. OF Rashad Crawford was the fourth piece in the Chapman trade and he’s loaded with tools and athletic ability, and is just now starting to figure out how to translate those tools into baseball skills. OF Isiah Gilliam is a switch-hitter with pop from both sides of the plate. He quietly finished fourth in the rookie Appalachian League with ten homers as a 19-year-old in 2016.

On the mound, I’m really looking forward to a full, healthy season of RHP Domingo German. He’s kind of a forgotten prospect given the Tommy John surgery. German is basically an older, shorter version of Acevedo in that he’s a righty with a big fastball and a very good changeup. Unlike Acevedo, German is on the 40-man roster. The Yankees will have him work as a starter this season, though I think we might see him pitch out of the big league bullpen at some point, likely as a September call-up. German can still bring it.

LHP Daniel Camarena has long been a personal favorite, and he bounced back well from elbow surgery last season. Because he’s left-handed and breathing, and also likely to open the season in Triple-A, he has to be considered a potential call-up candidate. RHP Jorge Guzman came over in the McCann trade and will live in the 98-100 mph range as a starter. He’ll be a Big Deal in a few months. RHP Drew Finley and RHP Nolan Martinez are lower level pitchability guys I am excited about. Also, RHP Nick Nelson. The post-draft scouting reports last year were almost too good to be true. Plus fastball, plus curveball, potentially plus command? Sign me up.

Will They Trade Any Of These Guys?

Yeah, probably. The question is who and for what? The Yankees have a lot of quality prospects coming up on Rule 5 Draft eligibility after the season. A lot. They can either try to keep everyone by adding the guys they really like to the 40-man roster and hoping everyone else gets passed over in the Rule 5 Draft, or trade a few of them to ensure some kind of return. You don’t want to lose someone like, say, Estrada or Littell for nothing more than the $100,000 Rule 5 Draft fee.

Aside from the Rule 5 Draft concerns, I have to imagine the Yankees are at least tempted to dip into their prospect base to land a pitcher with long-term control. They could really use one of those. Jose Quintana is the big name right now, though who knows who will be available at the trade deadline? Maybe the Phillies will put Jerad Eickoff or Vince Velasquez on the market, or the Diamondbacks will float Robbie Ray and Archie Bradley in trade talks. I get the Yankees want to build from within, but they’d be foolish to not consider available trades.

Either way, the Yankees figure to do some farm system shuffling this year. Not necessarily blockbuster trades, but asset management. Last year the Yankees traded Ben Gamel and James Pazos, two fringe big league players, for lower level prospects to make the 40-man situation a little better. I think we’ll see some deals like that this year, perhaps involving Rule 5 Draft eligible prospects not yet on the 40-man. Trades are coming. They’re inevitable. And given the depth of the farm system, I don’t think we can rule out a blockbuster, however unlikely it may seem right now.

Where Does The System Go From Here?

I believe the likelihood of the following two statements being true in eight months is quite high:

  1. The Yankees will have a worse farm system than they do right now.
  2. The Yankees will still have one of the game’s best farm systems.

As it stands, the Yankees are likely to graduate two of my top 30 prospects to the big leagues (Judge, Chad Green) and potentially a handful of others as well (Frazier, Wade, Montgomery,  Williams, Tyler Austin). Inevitably a few pitchers will get hurt and other players will stall out. That’s baseball and that’s why you want as many prospects as possible. It’s hard to see how, after this season, the farm system can be even better than it right now.

That said, the chances New York will still have one of the game’s better farm systems are pretty darn good. They’ll still have Torres and Rutherford (and Sheffield and Mateo), hopefully a healthy Kaprielian, plus whoever the 2017 draft brings in. Others like Andujar, Adams, and Acevedo all have the potential to be top 100 caliber prospects. Unless the Yankees gut the system to make some trades or they experience a catastrophically bad season in the minors, the club will still be loaded with prospects year from now.

The farm system right now is the focal point of the organization. We’re used to looking at a star-laden big league roster around these parts, and while the Yankees figure to be an entertaining team this season (if nothing else), everyone is talking about the farm system. Even the Yankees themselves. Their Winter Warm-Up event was built around prospects and the commercials feature kids, not veterans. This is a new era for the Yankees and that’s pretty exciting.

Sorting out the 35 players the Yankees still have in big league camp

Bird and Judge. (Presswire)
Bird and Judge. (Presswire)

Opening Day is now only six days away, and at this point the Yankees still have nearly a full 40-man roster worth of players in big league camp. They have 35 players in camp and the World Baseball Classic is part of the reason. Some players, like Donovan Solano, have been in camp without actually being in camp these last few weeks. The Yankees and every other team needed the extra bodies while players were away at the WBC.

All throughout this week the Yankees will cut down their roster as they prepare for Opening Day on Sunday. It’s late in camp, so not only will the big league players start playing a full nine innings and back-to-back days, the minor leagues need to do that too. There’s only so much playing time to go around, and at this point of the spring, it’s time for clubs to emphasize their MLB roster players.

Earlier today the Yankees reassigned Solano, Wilkin Castillo, and Ruben Tejada to minor league camp, meaning there are now 35 players remaining in the big league Spring Training. Let’s take stock of those 35 players and figure out where they fit into the Opening Day roster equation. Some will definitely make it, some definitely won’t, and a whole bunch of guys are on the bubble. Let’s get to it.

Definitely Making The Team (19)

Might as well start here since this is our easiest and largest roster group. These are the players we know will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity.

Any doubt about Bird making the Opening Day roster was erased when he was named the starting first baseman last week. It was plenty fair to wonder whether he’d need some time to Triple-A to regain his strength and/or timing after missing the entire 2016 season with shoulder surgery, but he’s crushing the ball this spring. No doubts about him now. Everyone else is pretty straightforward, right? Right.

Very Likely To Make The Team (3)

This group includes three players who are not a lock to make the Opening Day roster, but are in prime position to make the club out of Spring Training. The three players: Aaron Judge, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. Judge has had a strong camp to date. I’m not sure what else the Yankees could want to see from him, though I still don’t think the right field job is 100% his right now. Hicks has played well this spring. (Like he does every spring. Career .303/.365/.521 hitter in Spring Training!)

Mitchell and Severino are both competing for a rotation spot, though I think they’re on the roster either way, starter or reliever. Mitchell won a bullpen spot in camp last year and he hasn’t really done anything to not deserve a roster spot since. I still think Severino is the odds on favorite to get one of the open rotation spots. I’m also not convinced he’ll go to Triple-A should he not get a starting spot. The chances of Severino making the Opening Day roster in some capacity sure seem pretty darn high to me. He’s not a lock, but the odds are in his favor.

Injured (2)

Baseball can be cruel. The Yankees lost both Didi Gregorius and Tyler Austin to injury this spring, and while neither suffered a severe long-term injury, they are going to miss the first several weeks of the regular season. Austin fouled a pitch off his foot and broke a bone. He could return to game action in mid-April. Gregorius strained his shoulder making a throw and could be out until May. Yuck. Both Austin and Didi are disabled list bound to begin the regular season.

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Most players in this group will be shuttle pitchers. Chad Green is competing with Severino and Mitchell (and Warren, I guess) for the two open rotation spots, and I feel the Yankees are much more willing to send him to Triple-A rather than stash him in the bullpen. Jordan Montgomery has impressed in camp, so much so that Joe Girardi is talking about him as a possible Opening Day roster option. Can’t say I expected to have him in this group at the outset of Spring Training.

Aside from Green and Montgomery, the other three pitchers in this group are all relievers: Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve. We will inevitably see those guys in the Bronx at some point this season, though I’d say it’s less than 50/50 they’re on the Opening Day roster. Heller probably has the best chance to win a job out of camp. He’s had a fine spring and is, in my opinion, the best bullpen prospect in the organization.

Rob Refsnyder, who has been mentioned as a trade candidate at times this spring, didn’t have much of a chance to make the Opening Day roster at coming into the spring. Then Austin and Gregorius got hurt which, if nothing else, opened the door for Refsnyder a little bit. His inability to play shortstop hurts him, obviously. The Yankees would have to be comfortable using Castro at shortstop.

An unexpected Opening Day roster candidate is Tyler Wade, who has played well this spring and could get a look at shortstop while Gregorius is sidelined. The question is whether the Yankees want to tie up a long-term 40-man roster spot — the veteran non-roster infielders in camp can be dropped off the 40-man roster as soon as Gregorius returns, but Wade will be on the 40-man for good — so Wade can fill-in for a month. I have him in this group for a reason though. I think it’s possible the Yankees go with him at short while Didi is out.

Oh Geez, They Might Actually Make The Team (3)

It happens every year, doesn’t it? Some random player you forgot the Yankees acquired shows up to camp, performs well, and before you know it, he’s on the Opening Day roster. Kirby Yates did it last year. Chris Martin the year before. Cody Eppley a few years before that. You never see it coming with these guys. Here are this year’s candidates, listed alphabetically:

  • Ernesto Frieri: The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal two weeks ago, which suggests they were impressed by the way he threw with Colombia during the WBC.
  • J.R. Graham: Graham recently had a three-run disaster outing, but eight of his ten Grapefruit League appearances have been scoreless. Ten strikeouts and two walks in 9.1 innings too.
  • Pete Kozma: Kozma’s chances of making the Opening Day roster improved with the news of the Gregorius injury as well as the Solano and Tejada demotions. He’s a candidate to help fill in either at shortstop or as the utility infielder.

With Gregorius hurt and two open bullpen spots, I’d put the chances of at least one of these five players making the Opening Day roster at: annoyingly high. My money is on Frieri making it. He’s looked pretty darn during the World Baseball Classic and with the Yankees, plus his experience as a Proven Closerâ„¢ will work in his favor.

Esmil Rog ... I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)
Esmil Rog … I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)

Long Shot To Make The Team (1)

The Yankees reassigned their very best prospects to minor league camp last week, which took some of the excitement out of the remaining Grapefruit League games. It was that time of the spring though. The kids have to go get ready for their seasons. The at-bats aren’t there any more in the big league camp. The regulars are going to play and play a lot this week.

The final player still in big league camp is catcher Kyle Higashioka. He is No. 3 on the catcher depth chart, which means he is heading to Triple-A Scranton until someone gets hurts or rosters expand in September, whichever comes first. Higashioka’s only chance to make the big league roster out of Spring Training involved and injury to Sanchez or Romine, and, thankfully, the Yankees have stayed healthy behind the plate.

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.

Saturday Links: Wade, Best Tools, Farm System Rankings

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Welp, it appears this afternoon’s game will not be televised. It was on the original YES Network broadcast schedule and it’s still listed on today’s MLB.tv schedule as of this writing, but it’s been removed from the updated YES schedule and they’re advertising a 2pm ET NYCFC game on Twitter. Womp womp. If the game is on YES or MLB.tv or whatever, use this as a game thread (here’s the lineup). Otherwise here are some links to check out.

Yankees making Wade a super utility player

As suspected, the Yankees are indeed trying to turn Tyler Wade into a super utility player. Their Ben Zobrist, basically. Farm system head Gary Denbo told Brendan Kuty they approached Wade with the idea last August, and he was all for it. “Does it get me to the big leagues? … Then sign me up,” Wade told Denbo at the time. Here’s what Joe Girardi had to say:

“(Wade) gives you a ton of options. He loves it. And that’s why I think he’s done so well with it. He loves the idea. You think about it, you have your everyday players, but realistically does it hurt to give him a day off a week? No. So if you’ve got a guy who can play six positions, he could actually play five or six days a week.”

Wade told Kuty being a super utility guy is “a good thing for me, a good thing for the team.” He got his first taste of the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, and this spring he’s already played second, short, third, left, and center. (He played right in the AzFL.) I had a feeling the Yankees were going to try to turn one of their shortstop prospects into a 400-500 plate appearance supersub, and Wade is a good candidate given his athleticism.

Yankees prospects among best tools lists

Over at Baseball America (subs. req’d), J.J. Cooper polled scouts and executives about the best individual tools in the minor leagues. The best tools among legitimate prospects, that is. They didn’t worry about the light hitting journeyman outfielder with an 80 arm. Several Yankees prospects appeared on the lists. A quick recap:

  • Best Athlete: SS Jorge Mateo (fourth)
  • Best Power Hitter: OF Aaron Judge (fourth)
  • Fastest Baserunner: SS Jorge Mateo (fourth)
  • Best Fastball: RHP Domingo Acevedo (eighth)
  • Best Defensive Infielder: SS Kyle Holder (seventh)

Again, these rankings cover the entire minor leagues, so they’re saying Mateo is the fourth best athlete and baserunner among the hundreds of prospects in the minors. Baseball America puts together league specific best tools lists each year as well, and the Yankees will be heavily featured when those are released.

MiLB.com ranks Yankees system second in baseball

These last few weeks every major scouting publication said the Yankees have the second best farm system in baseball, behind the Braves. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, and MLB.com all agree. The crew at MiLB.com takes their farm system lists a step further and ranks teams based on different criteria. Here’s where the Yankees rank:

The Yankees are heavy on position player prospects at the moment — the top four and seven of the top ten prospects on my top 30 list are position players — but there’s no shame in ranking 13th among pitchers. Not when you have guys like RHP James Kaprielian and LHP Justus Sheffield in the system.

Besides, I am totally cool with a position player heavy farm system. Pitchers are very risky. You need them, but they get hurt often and it’s hard to build around young arms long-term. Give me a lineup loaded with high-end young position players and I’ll figure out the pitching as we go. Offense is becoming harder find these days because of all the velocity and shifts and whatnot. Focusing on a great offense is the way to go in my books.

Shortstop depth gives the Yankees a chance to develop the super utility player they’ve been seeking

Jorge & Gleyber. (Presswire)
Jorge & Gleyber. (Presswire)

Everything in baseball is trending toward using pitchers less and less. Starters don’t throw nearly as many innings as they once did — only 15 pitchers reached 200 innings in 2016, ten years ago 38 guys did it — and relievers are becoming increasingly specialized. Every team has a one-inning setup man, a left-on-left matchup guy, players like that. Individual workloads are declining even though the season is still 162 games long.

It feels like only a matter of time until six-man rotations or eight-man bullpens (or both?) become the norm, so much so that MLB and the MLBPA reportedly considered expanding rosters to 26 players during the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. I’d bet on it happening during the next round of CBA talks. Point is, teams are using more pitchers than ever before, and there’s no reason to think that trend will reverse anytime soon.

As a result, benches are getting shorter and super utility players, guys who can play three or four positions rather than one or two, are increasingly more valuable. Ben Zobrist is the poster boy for the super utility movement. Others like Brock Holt and Sean Rodriguez fit the mold as well. The Yankees, like everyone else, have been looking for such a player. That’s one reason Rob Refsnyder has moved around so much, and why Ronald Torreyes has seen time in the outfield this spring.

I thought the Yankees would try to turn Dustin Ackley into a super utility player when they acquired him two years ago, but alas. It didn’t work out. Why? Because he couldn’t hit. That’s what makes this super utility business so tough. You’re asking a player to be competent defensively at several positions and hit well enough to deserve a lineup spot. That’s hard! Playing one position is difficult. So it hitting.

Now though, the Yankees have a chance to develop a super utility player like Zobrist (or, to a lesser extent, Holt or Rodriguez) because of their shortstop depth. Seven of my top 30 prospects are shortstops …

1. Gleyber Torres
7. Jorge Mateo
10. Tyler Wade
17. Hoy Jun Park
18. Wilkerman Garcia
26. Kyle Holder
27. Thairo Estrada

… and that doesn’t include other shortstop prospects like Abi Avelino, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Diego Castillo, all of whom would have made my top 30 list in a “normal” year. Shortstops are typically the best athletes and thus the best candidates to move to other positions. Zobrist was a natural shortstop. So were Holt and Rodriguez. And Torreyes. And other internal utility candidates like Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada.

Sure enough, the Yankees are already making sure their shortstop prospects spend time at other positions to increase their versatility. Torres has seen time at second. Mateo has played second in addition to short, plus he’s working out at third base and in center field. Wade was introduced to the outfield in the Arizona Fall League and he’s played short, third, left, and center already this spring. Park, Garcia, Holder, and Estrada have seen time all around the infield in the minors.

The other component here, as I mentioned earlier, is the offense. A super utility player is only super if he can hit. Otherwise he’s just a bench guy you’re looking to replace. Torres projects as an impact middle of the order hitter. Mateo has the tools to be a dynamic offensive player at well, thanks largely to his speed. Wade has no power, but he makes the contact and will draw walks, which is essentially the Holt skill set. There are varying levels of offensive upside here.

We’re used to seeing the Yankees give their veteran players extra rest whenever possible, creating a need for a strong bench and a super utility type. Now, even with the youth movement in full swing, having a super utility guy to give the regulars rest is still useful. The more you can help your players stay fresh and avoid fatigue, the more productive they’ll be. If that means 550 plate appearances across the 162-game season rather than 650, so be it. That means your players will be that much closer to midseason form in the postseason.

Of course, one reason the Yankees have the luxury of moving their young shortstop prospects around is Didi Gregorius. He’s established himself as a starting caliber big league shortstop these last two seasons. If that weren’t the case and the Yankees were still looking for Derek Jeter‘s long-term replacement, they might not be soon keen on moving their young shortstops around. Gregorius helps makes this super utility talk possible.

Given the way pitching staffs are used these days, super utility players are becoming a necessity, not a luxury. The Yankees have been hoarding shortstop prospects because they’re the best athletes and often have the broadest skill sets. So, in addition to being good shortstop prospects, they’re also candidates for a super utility role. There’s no stigma to being a utility guy now. They’re highly sought after and quite valuable.

The Long-Term Future in Center Field

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

This is an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. The big league team might not be any good this season, and frankly they haven’t been all that good over the last four years anyway, but at least now the farm system is loaded and there are a ton of quality young players in the organization. Soon young guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will join Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in the Bronx.

At some point in the near future, perhaps sooner than anyone realizes, the Yankees will have to figure out their center field situation. The two best center fielders on the roster, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, will both turn 34 later this year. Over the last ten years there has been one full-time center fielder age 34 or older: Mike Cameron, who continued to play center full-time from ages 34-36 in 2007-09. No one else has done it.

Center field is a young man’s position because it involves lots and lots of running, day after day after day. The Yankees had Johnny Damon begin the process of moving to left field at age 33 because Melky Cabrera was the superior defensive option, remember. By center fielder standards, Gardner and Ellsbury are pretty darn old, and it stands to reason they won’t be viable options at the position much longer. Speed usually doesn’t age all that well.

This creates two questions for the Yankees. One, who plays center field long-term? And two, what do the Yankees do with Gardner and/or Ellsbury? I’ll answer the second one first: they’re probably going to trade Gardner at some point. Would they prefer to trade Ellsbury? Yeah, I’m sure of it. But that’s not happening, so Gardner it is. They’ve been listening on him for over a year, and it feels like only a matter of time until a trade goes down.

I get the feeling the eventual outcome here is Gardner gets traded away, then Ellsbury slides over to left field for the tail end of his contract, similar to Damon back in the day. (Or worse, to designated hitter full-time.) That creates an opening in center field, and as good as the farm system is these days, the Yankees don’t have an elite center field prospect. Torres is a shortstop, Frazier and Aaron Judge are corner outfielders, and so on.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees lack potential center field options, however. Not at all. They actually have quite a few, both short-term and long-term. That’s good. Multiple options are good. As much as we all love the prospects, the reality is they won’t all work out, and you’d hate to pin your hopes on that one guy to take over a position long-term. Here, in no particular order, are the club’s various long-term center field options.

The Almost Ready Option

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

When the 2017 regular season begins, Dustin Fowler figures to roam center field for Triple-A Scranton. Fowler is New York’s best pure center field prospect — I ranked him as the 12th best prospect in the system overall — and last year he hit .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in Double-A. He really fills up the box score. Fowler is also a very good defender with plenty of range.

There are two glaring weaknesses to Fowler’s game. One, he doesn’t have much of a throwing arm. And two, he’s pretty undisciplined at the plate. Minor league walk rates aren’t everything, though his career 4.4% walk rate in over 1,500 minor league plate appearances is emblematic of his approach. Those are negatives, clearly, but Fowler also offers enough positives to be an everyday player. He makes contact, has some pop, steals bases, and defends well. Similar skill set to peak Ellsbury now that I think about it.

For all intents and purposes, Fowler is a call-up candidate right now. He’s going to start the season in Triple-A and will be added to the 40-man roster no later than next winter (when he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible), and any time those combination of things exist, there’s a chance for the player to wind up in the show. Fowler is, by far, the Yankees’ best close to MLB ready center field prospect. He is easily the favorite to take over the position in the short-term.

The Square Peg, Round Hole Option

Although his tools point to a long-term future in left field, Frazier has enough speed and athleticism to handle center field right now, if necessary. He has plenty of experience at the position — he’s played more minor league games in center (260) than he has in left and right combined (117) — and still possesses enough speed to cover the gaps. Would Frazier be a perfect fit in center? No, but it’s doable. The question is whether mid-30s Ellsbury in left and Frazier in center is a better defensive alignment than mid-30s Ellsbury in center and Frazier in left. It’s not so cut and dried.

The Conversion Candidates

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The Yankees are loaded with shortstop prospects at the moment, so much so that they’ve had Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo get acquainted with the outfield. Wade played all three outfield spots in the Arizona Fall League last year and he’s been out there this spring as well. Mateo worked out in center field in Instructional League and is doing the same this spring. He’s yet to play an actual game out there, however.

Wade, like Fowler, will open this season in Triple-A, though he’s not an immediate center field option given his inexperience at the position. He’s not someone the Yankees could call up and stick in center for two weeks in May to cover for injuries, you know? That’s a little too soon. Besides, it seems the Yankees are looking to make Wade a super utility player, not a full-time outfielder. He’s too good defensively on the infield to throw that away entirely.

As for Mateo, I am pretty intrigued with the idea of putting him in center field full-time. He’s a good defender at shortstop, that’s not much of a problem, but his truly elite speed may be put to better use in center. Mateo is a good defender at short. He might be a great defender in center. Either way, Mateo is not close to the big leagues like Fowler, Frazier, and Wade. He’s yet to play above High-A and has to answer some questions about his bat before we can start to think about him as a realistic center field option. (And, you know, he has to actually play some games in center too.)

The Reclamation Candidate(s)

Earlier I mentioned Gardner and Ellsbury are the two best center fielders on the roster, which is true when taking all things into account. The best defensive center fielder on the roster is Aaron Hicks (despite a few funky routes last season). He’s got top notch closing speed and a rocket arm. Right now, in the year 2017, Hicks is a better gloveman than either Gardner or Ellsbury in center.

The best defensive outfielder in the entire organization is another reclamation project: Mason Williams. He’s a premium runner who gets great reads, and while his arm isn’t Hicks caliber, it is comfortably above average. Even after shoulder surgery two years ago. It’s unclear whether Williams will ever hit enough to play regularly, but his glove is unquestioned. The Yankees could play him everyday in center and he could handle it defensively.

That “will he ever hit?” question is a big one though, and it applies to Hicks as well. Hicks and Williams are so talented that you can never rule out things coming together, especially at their ages, but for them to have any shot at replacing Ellsbury in center field full-time, they’re going to have to do more at the plate. No doubt. (To be fair to Williams, he’s been hurt more than ineffective the last two seasons.)

The Far Away Options

Fowler and Frazier (and Wade) are knocking on the door. Mateo is a little further away. Ever further away are Blake Rutherford and Estevan Florial, two high-upside center field prospects. Both figure to start the season at Low-A Charleston. They were teammates with Rookie Pulaski last year, where Rutherford played center field and Florial manned left. (First rounder gets priority.)

It goes without saying there is a lot of risk involved with players this far away from the big leagues. There’s so much that can go wrong these next few years. The obstacles facing Rutherford and Florial are very different too. The expectation is Rutherford will shift to a corner spot at some point as he fills out and adds some bulk. Florial is a graceful defender who happens to be a total hacker at the plate. He might not make enough contact to reach MLB.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Rutherford to be their long-term center fielder. Frazier, Rutherford, and Judge from left to right would be the perfect world long-term outfield picture. The odds are against that actually happening though, mostly because prospects have a way of breaking hearts. Rutherford and Florial are definitely long-term center field candidates. They’re just far away and carry a lot of risk relative to the other guys in this post.

The External Options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

These are the Yankees, and even though they’re trying to scale back spending to get under the luxury tax threshold, you can never really rule them out going outside the organization for help. I, personally, am hoping for a Rob Refsnyder for Mike Trout trade. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t happen, here are some potential free agent center fielders:

  • After 2017: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen (if option is declined)
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen (if option is exercised)

A few of those guys would look pretty good in pinstripes, no? Cain is pretty damn awesome. He’s a fun player and I am pro-fun. Blackmon hit .324/.381/.552 (130 wRC+) with 29 homers and 17 steals last season, you know. Pollock missed a bunch of time with an elbow injury last year, but he’s quietly been one of the best players in baseball the last three or four years.

There’s also Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent following the 2018 season, when he’ll still be only 26 years old. He’s a really good athlete and has played center field for the Nationals at times. Could the Yankees view him as a potential center fielder? That’d be interesting. It’s not like he’d be over the hill or anything. Perhaps Harper in center could work for a few years. Frazier in left, Harper in center, Judge in right? Sign me up.

Anyway, the problem with the non-Harper free agents is the same problem that currently exists with Ellsbury. The Yankees would be paying big money to someone over 30 and in their decline years. Before you know it, we’d be talking about moving Cain or Blackmon or Pollock or whoever to left in favor of a better defensive center fielder. Signing a free agent center fielder is definitely possible. It just seems unlikely given the team’s direction at this point.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is going to sound mean, but the worst case scenario would be keeping Ellsbury in center field through the end of his contract. Maybe he can make it work defensively in his mid-30s like Cameron did once upon a time. He’d be an outlier in that case, but hey, stranger things have happened. I’m sure the Yankees would prefer to keep Ellsbury in center as long as possible too. That’s where he’s most valuable. History suggests his days in center are numbered, however. There simply aren’t many players age 34 and over roaming center nowadays.

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The center field situation is not a pressing matter, fortunately. The Yankees don’t need to figure this out right now. They can let the season play out, see how Ellsbury handles it defensively and how the kids progress in the minors, then figure out what’s next. And maybe nothing is next. Maybe keeping Ellsbury in center through the end of his contract is plausible. The Yankees do have some center field options, both short and long-term, just in case things don’t work out. Sooner or later the team will have to go in a new direction in center field, and odds are it’ll be before the end of Ellsbury’s contract.