Spring Training has finally arrived. Pitchers and catchers report today with position players due to arrive Monday. Many Yankees have been working out in Tampa for a few days now, but today it’s official. Spring Training has begun. Aaron Boone will hold his annual start-of-spring press conference at 1:30pm ET and I assume YES will carry it. They usually do. It’ll probably stream on the official site as well. Here are some scattered thoughts on the first day of the new season.
1. I know I’ve been bitching and moaning all offseason, so I just want to take a second to say I am very excited for the upcoming season. (Yes, I can still get excited about baseball!) To me, this is the most talented Yankees roster of the last three years. All the top young players have arrived and have at least one big league season under their belt, Giancarlo Stanton is entering year two in pinstripes, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the Yankees help James Paxton get better. I thought some offseason moves were underwhelming (J.A. Happ over Patrick Corbin, DJ LeMahieu over Manny Machado, Zack Britton over David Robertson, etc.), though the Yankees have earned the benefit of the doubt, so let’s see what happens. Yeah, it stinks Didi Gregorius is injured, but what can you do. Injuries are part of baseball. Sir Didi missed a bunch of time in April 2017 (shoulder) and August/September 2018 (heel) and the Yankees survived. They’ll figure it out again. Will the Yankees win another 100 games this year? I dunno, that’s really hard. The 2017-18 Astros and 2004-05 Cardinals are the only teams with back-to-back 100-win seasons in the last 15 years. It’s possible the Yankees will be a better and deeper team than last season and still finish with fewer wins. Then again, so many teams are tanking that contenders will have inflated win totals to some extent. Either way, I’m glad the offseason is over (even though it’s not really over) and I can’t wait to see this roster on the field. I think this is the most talented Yankees roster since their resurgence and they are on the very short list (three or four teams) with a chance to win the World Series.
2. Spring Training performance has no predictive value because the competition is so uneven. A hitter could face a Cy Young candidate in his first at-bat and a Single-A kid in his second, and veterans often work on something specific (changeup, tracking pitches, etc.) rather than chase results. Spring performance is not predictive but I would not necessarily call it meaningless. Some players absolutely must perform in camp. You’re not going to win a bench job or that final bullpen spot while getting blasted each time out, you know? Greg Bird obviously needs a good Spring Training this year. Brian Cashman and the Yankees have said the first base job is Luke Voit’s to lose, as it should be, and Bird has zero chance of stealing it away without a strong camp. I’m not sure he’d get the job even with a good camp, but a bad camp would certainly disqualify him. Even if he doesn’t win the first base job, I imagine a strong spring would boost Bird’s confidence and maybe help push him in the right direction. Tommy Kahnle could use a good spring as well. With him, it’s not so much about the results as it is how he looks. Has the velocity returned? Or he is still putting everything he has into each pitch to get to 94 mph? Kahnle with a free and easy 97 mph heater would be a welcome sight in March. Don’t get too caught up in Spring Training results. They don’t tell us anything useful, by and large. Some players do need to have a good camp though, Bird and Kahnle chief among them.
3. For me, the best part of Spring Training is getting to see prospects and minor leaguers we otherwise won’t get to see during the summer. Chances are Estevan Florial is not getting called up this summer, so watch him in February and March while you can. This spring I think I’m most looking forward to seeing Albert Abreu. Here’s some video from last September:
4. Alright, so who’s going to be That Guy in Spring Training? That random out-of-nowhere player who has a strong camp and gets people talking about him as an Opening Day roster candidate? Jon Weber in 2010 is the That Guy gold standard. He hit .452/.452/.581 in 31 Grapefruit League plate appearances and there was talk he belonged on the roster over a young fourth outfielder named Brett Gardner. Weber, then 32, didn’t make the team and instead went to Triple-A, where he hit .258/.333/.325 (82 wRC+) in 47 games before being released. Womp womp. Anyway, it’s been a few years since we had a good That Guy, hasn’t it? Gleyber Torres had a monster spring in 2017 and the coaching staff reportedly wanted him to play shortstop while Gregorius was on the shelf in April, but Gleyber was too well known to be a That Guy. It has to be someone like Weber or Yangervis Solarte, who turned his 2014 stint as That Guy into a nice little MLB career. Tim Locastro would’ve been a Grade-A That Guy candidate had he not been traded a few weeks ago. Gio Urshela has a chance even though he might not be random enough. Looking over the list of non-roster invitees, my That Guy pick is Matt Lipka. He has all the essential ingredients. He’s a total unknown to most fans (mystery is an important part of being That Guy), he has good pedigree as a former high draft pick (35th overall in 2010), and he’s a speed and defense guy, which will equal flashy plays that stick in your mind. I could totally see Lipka BABIPing his way to a .400-something batting average in 30-ish plate appearances against minor leaguers in the late innings of Grapefruit League games with enough hustle doubles and nice catches to create a “this guy should get the last bench spot” stir, if not a “start Lipka over Gardner and see what the kid can do” movement. Lipka is my pick to be That Guy.
5. One quick “state of baseball” thought to close this out. I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done to fix free agency at this point. Teams are refusing to pay big money to older players (they won’t even pay big money to 26-year-old stars!) and it’s difficult for me to see that changing. It’s not like aging curves are going to change, you know? Because of that, the MLBPA should focus on increasing pay for players with 0-6 years of service time in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Remember, only a relatively small percentage of players even make it to free agency. Last season 1,379 players appeared in a Major League Baseball game and only 145 became Article XX(B) free agents, meaning they had at least six years of service time. A 2007 study found the average MLB career lasts 5.6 years and my guess is that number has come down as teams increasingly eschew veterans. Raising the minimum salary should be an obvious priority for the union. I also like the idea of replacing arbitration with restricted free agency. Rather than go to arbitration, players with 3-6 years of service time would be allowed to negotiate and sign a contract with any team, though their original team can match it and keep him. The player gets increased leverage and therefore increased earning potential. There could also be a draft pick compensation component as well. Sign a restricted free agent and you lose this pick(s), lose a restricted free agent and you get this pick(s). Something like that. The NHL has restricted free agency and, generally speaking, NHL players make the most money in years 3-7 of their careers. In fact, nowadays many of the largest NHL contracts in terms of average annual salary are going to players in their restricted free agent years. Imagine if Jacob deGrom or Kris Bryant could’ve gone out into restricted free agency this winter rather than be stuck negotiating with one team. Restricted free agency could be a game-changer for baseball and the MLBPA. If not restricted free agency, the union should still focus on raising pay for players in years 0-6 of their career. Get those guys more money because a) free agency doesn’t pay like it once did, and b) only a relatively small percentage of players make it to free agency anyway.