Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa yesterday and it didn’t take long for the Yankees to suffer their first injury of the spring. Pitching prospect Mike King will miss at least three weeks with an elbow issue. Baseball always has a way of keeping you humble. Excited Spring Training has started? Well you won’t be seeing this pitching prospect this spring, sorry. So it goes.
Position players report Monday and the Yankees open their Grapefruit League season next Saturday. These next ten days are a grind. Baseball is happening and not happening at the same time. We waited all winter for Spring Training to begin and now we have to wait a little longer for actual baseball games, and even then the games are meaningless. It’s baseball though, and baseball is better than no baseball.
Now that Spring Training has opened, this is a good time to break down some key Yankees storylines for the coming weeks. Players to watch, trends to track, that sorta thing. Here are eight storylines to watch this spring, listed in no particular order.
Seriously, what about Harper and Machado?
Look, I’m as sick of writing about them as you are of hearing about them, but as long as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned, we have to talk about them. The stunningly stupid prevailing logic says MLB teams all have smart front offices now and they’ve realized paying top dollar for
aging past prime players elite prime-aged talent is a bad idea. Did you know ten teams have a sub-$100M payroll? In 2019? Crazy.
Anyway, the Yankees only half-heartedly pursued Machado over the winter and they weren’t connected to Harper at all. “I’m surprised you’re still asking,” said Brian Cashman when asked about possibly signing Harper during the Winter Meetings. The thing is, the longer those two sit in free agency, the greater the chances the Yankees swoop in to sign one of ’em. The temptation has to be there, and, at this point, I have to think a discount is possible.
It feels like everyone I talk to wants Machado and Harper to sign just to get it over with already. We’re sick of hearing about them and, frankly, it’s embarrassing for baseball that these two are unemployed as camp opens. It looks bad. Hopefully the Yankees can sign either Machado or Harper. That would be preferable but weeks ago I accepted they’re probably going elsewhere. Until they sign though, their situation has to be monitored.
Tulowitzki’s comeback attempt
The Good: Troy Tulowitzki has fully recovered from last year’s dual heel surgeries and is as healthy as he’s been at any point in the last couple years, plus he is basically free, so the Yankees could easily cut him loose should he not get the job done. The Bad: The Yankees seem very committed to Tulowitzki as their starting shortstop and I’m not sure they would cut him loose even if his production warrants it.
“The plan right now is to get Troy ready to play shortstop. That’s where he’ll focus,” Aaron Boone said yesterday. “As the weeks — as the months — unfold we’ll adjust if we need to. We’re planning on him playing shortstop and focusing solely there.”
“We were all in. He really looked athletic (during his workout), it looked like he had that bounce back in his step. We feel there is a lot of potential upside here,” said Cashman last month. I totally get rolling the dice on Tulowitzki. It’s a low-risk contract and, as a former star caliber player, there’s always a chance he has a late-career dead cat bounce season. Think Eric Chavez in 2012. He’s worth a look with Didi Gregorius out.
Tulowitzki has not played since July 2017 and you kinda have to expect some rust after that. He has been working out all winter — Tulowitzki has been in Tampa working out at the minor league complex for a few days now even though position players aren’t due to report until Monday — but there’s no substitute for game action. Those first few live pitches and ground balls might speed up on him a little bit, you know?
Spring Training performance is not very predictive and that will be especially true in Tulowitzki’s case. Certainly it would be great to see him knock the snot out of the ball and vacuum up everything at shortstop for a few weeks. Even then, we won’t know how long it’ll last because he’s had so many injury problems throughout his career. For all intents and purposes, we’re going into camp with no idea what to expect from Tulowitzki. We’ll learn as we go.
“Entirely at third,” Boone came out and said yesterday when asked where Miguel Andujar will play going forward. “That said, there may be a day or two that we pick to have him on a back field just getting some first base in — which we may do with a (Austin) Romine or a Gary (Sanchez) — pick a day just to keep some versatile options when you get into a little bit of a bind. His game work will be, I’ll say pretty much entirely at third base.”
Last season Andujar was the worst defensive third baseman in baseball (according to DRS) and the Yankees sent him into the offseason with a plan to improve what he does before the pitch is thrown. They want him to get in better position to react and make plays, basically. Andujar’s hands and throwing arm are pretty good! There are times he stumbles over his own feet though, and he rushes his throws because he double-clutches so often.
I have no illusions of Andujar becoming an above-average defender. He is a tireless worker and I don’t doubt that he’ll try to improve. It’s just that going from that bad to that good is unlikely. Has anyone else done it? Gone from being one of the worst defenders in baseball, statistically, to being legitimately above-average? I can’t think of anyone. My hopes are modest. Andujar becomes an average defender who makes routine plays look routine. That’s all I’m asking.
I think two things will happen this spring: One, any Andujar misplay will be magnified, and two, he’ll look better than expected at third base because we’ve kinda lost perspective about him as a defender after spending all winter talking about how bad he defensively. Pre-pitch setup is not something we’ll be able to evaluate in Spring Training. At least not on television. Clearly though, Andujar’s defense is something to monitor throughout camp.
“I feel like he’s in a really good place defensively,” Boone added. “There’s some things that we’ve had him work on defensively that I think have really taken hold with him. And I think he’s had a great winter of work — I think all of you that have been around and have seen the work ethic, that’s reared its head in the winter — I feel that he’s another guy that comes into Spring Training in a really good place.”
On Saturday, CC Sabathia will make official what we’ve known for a long time now: 2019 will be his final season. Sabathia will hold a press conference (with his family in attendance) to formally announce his retirement, and mostly take questions because no one has had a chance to ask him about it. Man I hope he doesn’t cry during the press conference. Not sure I could handle seeing the big guy in tears.
Once the press conference is over with, it’ll be time to get down to business. Sabathia had his usual offseason knee cleanup procedure and also heart surgery in December, and Boone said yesterday the Yankees will take it slow with Sabathia early in camp. So much so that his first bullpen session could be a few weeks away, which would seem to put his Opening Day roster status in question.
Sabathia is fine, physically. It’s just that the heart procedure interrupted his offseason work and put him behind schedule, and he’s still catching up. The Yankees take it very easy on Sabathia in Spring Training anyway — he usually pitches in simulated games rather than Grapefruit League games — so it’ll be tough to know exactly how far behind schedule he is. He’s a difficult guy to track usually because we rarely see him in games.
If Sabathia has to start the season on the injured list, so be it. Won’t be the only time the Yankees have to use one of their depth starters this year. The larger point is this is it for Sabathia, and maybe Brett Gardner as well, the final two links to the 2009 World Series team. It’s one thing when the veterans assume reduced roles. It’s another when they’re gone and the changing of the guard is complete.
How is the rehab group doing?
The list of rehabbing Yankees is sneaky long. Sabathia did not suffer a baseball injury but he will be playing catch up in Spring Training. Tulowitzki has technically completed his heel surgery rehab but is something of an unknown, physically. Clint Frazier is in a similar spot following his concussion and post-concussion migraines. Here are some of the other rehabbing Yankees and their statuses:
- Jacoby Ellsbury (hip surgery): He won’t report with position players Monday and will instead stay home in Arizona for a few more weeks. Weird, man.
- Didi Gregorius (Tommy John surgery): Started a throwing program last week and is a few weeks away from swinging a bat two-handed. The Yankees refuse to give a firm timetable for his return.
- Ben Heller (Tommy John surgery): No update, probably because he’s not a big name player.
- Jordan Montgomery (Tommy John surgery): Expected to throw off a mound next month and rejoin the Yankees sometime after the All-Star break.
- Gary Sanchez (shoulder surgery): He is hitting and catching, and will be held back early in Grapefruit League play. Sanchez will be ready for Opening Day.
We won’t see Gregorius or Montgomery participate in Grapefruit League games at all this spring given where they are in their rehab. The same is probably true with Ellsbury, and Heller as well. We’ll see Sanchez on the field and be able to track his progress ourselves. The other guys? No luck. The Yankees will give us updates when they’re deemed necessary and we’ll continue to guesstimate Sir Didi’s return date and Ellsbury’s future.
“I hate giving a timeline because we’ll let the thing play out,” said Boone when asked about Gregorius yesterday. “I think our original was anywhere from 2-4 months maybe into the season. He certainly seems at least on that pace. He’s in really good shape and progressing the way he should be so we’re optimistic that he’s going to play hopefully a significant amount of the season for us.”
LeMahieu’s transition to utility infielder
It has been nearly five years since DJ LeMahieu played a position other than second base. He played one inning at first base in an emergency situation on June 28th, 2014, and he didn’t even have to make a play. A reliever struck out the side in that inning. LeMahieu has played second base exclusively since that date and that includes Spring Training. The Rockies never worked him out anywhere else.
The Yankees are planning to use LeMahieu as a super utility guy — Boone said yesterday the plan is to give Tulowitzki regular rest in April in an effort to keep him healthy, which equals playing time for LeMahieu — and gosh, that always makes me nervous, moving a full-time player into a part-time role. It sounds great, bringing in a regular for a bench role, but it can be a difficult adjustment.
I have no idea how LeMahieu will handle it offensively. Not only is he leaving Coors Field, but he’s also going not going to get as many at-bats as usual. Defensively, I think he’ll be fine. He’s a legitimate Gold Glove guy at second base. His range, his hands, his arm, and his instincts are all good, so it’s not like the Yankees are asking a guy short on defensive tools to move around. I see four ways for LeMahieu to get playing time:
- Start at second base on days Tulowitzki sits (with Gleyber Torres at short).
- Start at first base when Luke Voit sits (or Greg Bird sits, I guess).
- Replace Andujar in the late innings pretty much every game.
- Play third whenever Sabathia (and J.A. Happ?) starts to handle all the pulled grounders by righties.
LeMahieu has the tools to play pretty much anywhere on the infield. He just hasn’t played anywhere other than second base in a few years now, so he’s going to spend a lot time working out at first and third bases this spring. Probably more than he does at second. My guess is LeMahieu winds up playing more than expected this season, maybe as many as 500 plate appearances, but this spring will be about adjusted to life as a glorified utility guy.
The few position battles
“Hopefully, if things play out from a health standpoint in Spring Training, there will be very few decisions that we have to make,” said Boone yesterday, and he’s right. At the moment the Yankees are poised to have very few position battles in Spring Training. Two bullpen spots and a bench spot. That’s pretty much it. This is the projected 25-man Opening Day roster right now:
|1B Luke Voit
|LF Brett Gardner
|CL Aroldis Chapman
|2B Gleyber Torres
|CF Aaron Hicks
|SU Dellin Betances
|SS Troy Tulowitzki
|RF Aaron Judge
|SU Zach Britton
|3B Miguel Andujar
|OF Giancarlo Stanton
|SU Adam Ottavino
|MR Chad Green
|MR Jonathan Holder
|C Austin Romine
|IF DJ LeMahieu
The rotation order and the batting order will be whatever they end up being. Those are 22 of their 25 Opening Day roster names though. There is one open bench spot and two open bullpen spots. Should Sabathia have to begin the season on the injured list, then there will be a competition for the fifth starter’s spot as well. For all intents and purposes, the Yankees only have to figure out the 23rd, 24th, and 25th men on their roster.
With Ellsbury out of the picture, the final bench spot comes down to Greg Bird, Clint Frazier, and Tyler Wade. There’s a small army of relievers up for those bullpen roles. Chance Adams, Luis Cessa, Domingo German, Joe Harvey, Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley, so on and so forth. Cessa and Kahnle are out of minor league options and that might give them a leg up on the competition — Boone hinted that Cessa is headed for a bullpen role yesterday — but it doesn’t guarantee anything.
Spring Training competitions are kinda weird. First and foremost, spring performance is not very predictive, and yet teams base roster decisions on spring performance all the time. We see it every year. Bird could hit .350/.450/.750 during Grapefruit League play and it wouldn’t tell us a thing about him going forward, but it would probably land him on the Opening Day roster. Hard to ignore numbers like that, you know?
And secondly, Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day. Whoever wins the final bullpen spot better pitch well during the regular season, otherwise the Yanks will swap them out with someone else. Winning a spring position battle is the easy part. Keeping the job is where it gets difficult. The Yankees have a few roster decisions to make in camp. Thankfully nothing major. And it’s entirely possible those roster decisions could be upended a few weeks into the regular season. Such is life.
Farquhar’s comeback attempt
Last, but certainly not least, the Yankees have a feel-good story in camp in Danny Farquhar. I honestly don’t think he has much of a chance to crack the Opening Day roster, but he’s healthy, and that’s all that matters. Farquhar suffered a life-threatening brain hemorrhage last April when a brain aneurysm ruptured. He collapsed in the dugout while with the White Sox and had to be rushed to the hospital, where he remained for three weeks.
Farquhar’s recovery is complete and he will be a fully participant in Spring Training — his first spring bullpen session is scheduled for tomorrow — which is wonderful news. Maybe he won’t make the roster and instead go to Triple-A, or opt out of his contract and sign with a team willing to put him on their Opening Day roster. Either way, I’m glad Farquhar recovered and able to resume his career, and I think it’s pretty cool he’ll do it with the Yankees.