The Grapefruit League season is halfway complete. More than halfway complete, really. The Yankees have played 16 of their 32 exhibition games and had another rained out, so there are only 15 spring games to go. Thirteen of those 15 games will be televised live. Hooray for that. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the current state of Yankees affairs, so let’s get to ’em.
1. One Spring Training performance that matters: Clint Frazier is 4-for-25 (.160) with two extra-base hits (both doubles) and eight strikeouts. The crummy 30 plate appearance showing does not mean Frazier is a bust or that his career outlook has changed. Guys go 4-for-25 all the time. In Frazier’s case, he needed a monster spring to have any chance at making the Opening Day roster. Struggling through camp isn’t going to land him the final bench spot over Tyler Wade, who can play pretty much everywhere and is having the superior Grapefruit League season. An injury could still land Frazier on the Opening Day roster. (Aaron Hicks’ back thing is lingering.) That’s pretty much his only path to a roster spot now. Missing all that time last year with the concussion and post-concussion issues meant it was always likely Frazier would wind up in Triple-A to get regular at-bats (Aaron Boone indicated as much over the weekend), and he hasn’t done anything this spring to change the team’s mind. Seventy-three days in the minors pushes Frazier’s free agency back from the 2023-24 offseason to the 2024-25 offseason. I don’t think the Yankees are planning to game his service time because their singular focus right now is winning the World Series, and if they need Frazier in the big leagues, they’re going to call him up. I also don’t think it’s crazy to think Frazier could sit in the minors until mid-June before getting a chance to platoon (or replace) Brett Gardner in left field. We’ll see. For now, Frazier needed a strong Spring Training to make the Opening Day roster, and it hasn’t happened. Most spring performances don’t matter. This one did.
2. Speaking of the Hicks injury, it’s worrisome the back stiffness/soreness/whatever they’re calling it today has continued to linger, though Dan Martin reports Hicks took swings from both sides of the plate and played catch Sunday, so it’s not like he’s shut down completely. I have to think the Yankees are playing it safe with Opening Day still more than two weeks away. Still, it would be nice to get Hicks back out on the field soon so he can get his timing down and all that. Anyway, the Yankees do not have much center field depth right now. Gardner is the obvious candidate to play center field should Hicks miss time during the regular season — the Hicks injury might be Frazier’s only path to an Opening Day roster spot right now — though I’m not sure playing 35-year-old Brett Gardner in center field full-time is a good idea. That’s a good way to wear him down. Aaron Judge could play center here and there, but I don’t think the Yankees want to do that regularly. Frazier? Nah. Tyler Wade? Probably not. He’s played five different positions this spring and none are center field. (I have to think they’ll throw him out there at some point should Hicks remain sidelined.) A trade? Eh, that’s not likely. The March trade market usually doesn’t have much to offer. Maybe the Diamondbacks would part with Jarrod Dyson after the Adam Jones signing, but Dyson has been nursing an oblique injury this spring and may not be ready for Opening Day himself. That doesn’t solve the center field problem should Hicks miss time. Hopefully yesterday’s doctor appointment went well and Hicks will begin ramping up his workouts and return to game action soon. If this thing continues to linger, the Yankees will have to figure out something in center field, because I don’t think Gardner can play out there every single day at this point of his career.
3. The most exciting player in camp so far? Estevan Florial! It’s always fun when the top prospect shines in Spring Training. Florial is hitting .333/.385/.542 with two doubles, one home run, and four stolen bases through 26 plate appearances. (For what it’s worth, Baseball-Reference’s opponent quality metric says Florial has faced mostly Double-A caliber pitching this spring.) Those 26 plate appearances are fourth most on the team behind Clint Frazier (30), Greg Bird (28), and Tyler Wade (27) — Hicksie’s back issue surely led to Florial getting more playing time than expected — and that home run he hit last week was awfully impressive. He turned around a 95 mph (on the television radar gun) fastball and drove it the other way over the left-center field wall.
4. The Danny Farquhar comeback is the feel-good story of the spring. That he’s made it back on to a big league field less than a year after battling a life-threatening brain hemorrhage is truly remarkable. He’s getting cheered on the road and that’s pretty cool. As for his Spring Training performance, it has not been good (2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 5 BB, 0 K), and he didn’t look like a Major League pitcher in his lone televised outing. The fastball was 88-89 mph and all over the place, and the offspeed pitches weren’t fooling anyone. That is totally understandable after the guy missed basically the entire 2018 season and nearly died. Farquhar is still working his way back into baseball shape and any slim chance he had at making the Opening Day roster is gone. He doesn’t look ready for it. “Physically, I feel great. The butterflies are gone. I just think it’s the kinks of not being in competition for ten months. The game speeds up as opposed to sim games or live BP. I think more repetition will get me more comfortable,” Farquhar said to Randy Miller over the weekend. Based on the little we’ve seen, I think the Yankees are going to hold him back in Tampa and have him continue to build strength and work to regain form in Extended Spring Training rather than assign him to Triple-A Scranton on Opening Day. It might only take a few weeks. He could be with the RailRiders before the end of April. Given the state of the bullpen, it’ll take injuries (plural) or unexpected poor performances (also plural) for Farquhar to earn a call-up to the big leagues this year. Who knows though. David Hale and George Kontos managed to appear in games for the 2018 Yankees. For now, it’s wonderful to see Farquhar back on the field after what he went through last year. It’s also clear he has a long way to go before helping the Yankees.
5. The Yankees still have 58 players in big league camp based on my unofficial count and that seems like an awful lot with two weeks and two days to go until Opening Day. I reckon we’re going to see a big round of cuts soon. The Yankees still have seven catchers in camp and that’s probably two or three too many at this point. Kellin Deglan, Jorge Saez, and Francisco Diaz are the obvious candidates to be sent to minor league camp with Kyle Higashioka and Ryan Lavarnway sticking around to support Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine. The big leaguers are going to start playing more and more these next two weeks, which means kids like Florial, Thairo Estrada, Kyle Holder, and Trey Amburgey have to go to minor league camp soon to ensure everyone gets the at-bats they need to get ready for the season. They can’t continue to get two at-bats every other day, you know? Eventually depth arms like Rex Brothers, Nestor Cortes, Cale Coshow, Danny Coulombe, and Raynel Espinal will be sent out as well. The Yankees will play their final exhibition game two weeks from yesterday. There are only so many innings and at-bats remaining and 58 players in camp can’t last much longer. My guess is that number will be reduced to 40-something by the weekend and 30-something by the middle of next week.
6. The Jose Leclerc extension sets the market for a Chad Green extension, right? Leclerc had an unreal 2018 season (1.56 ERA and 1.90 FIP in 57.2 innings) and last week the Rangers gave him four years and $14.75M guaranteed, with two club options that could push the total value to $27M across six years. Green and Leclerc both arrived in the big leagues for good in 2017 and they have almost exactly the same amount of service time. Green’s 2017-18 numbers are a bit better though:
Green has faced 128 more batters than Leclerc the last two years and issued 33 fewer walks, but, to be fair to Leclerc, he cut his walk rate from 20.0% last year to 11.2% this year. That’s progress. Also, he took over as Texas’ closer late last year and will presumably keep the job going forward. Anyway, I think the Leclerc deal is a good framework for Green. Non-closing relievers usually don’t make much through arbitration. Dellin Betances has been as good as any reliever in baseball the last five years and he’ll make $15.7325M during the four-year stretch covered by Leclerc’s contract (one pre-arbitration year and three arbitration years). Four guaranteed years at $14.75M seems like a pretty good deal for Green, who was not a high draft pick and didn’t get a large signing bonus ($100,000 as an 11th round pick). He is a soon-to-be 28-year-old middle reliever still waiting for his first big baseball payday. He’s a very good middle reliever, but still a middle reliever with no real shot at save chances in the near future, and that typically doesn’t pay all that well. For Green, a four-year deal at $14.75M would lock in a life-changing payday and give him security in a role that generally isn’t very secure. For the Yankees, they’d buy out his four remaining team control years at $3.6875M annually, which is a drop in the bucket and wouldn’t stop them from doing anything else if it goes wrong. The real prize is those two club option years. Good relievers are getting $9M per year and more in free agency. Two option years at $6M or so like Leclerc would be a real steal down the line. Even though the Leclerc deal provides a good framework for a Green extension, my hunch is the Yankees will go year-to-year with Green because, frankly, it’s not worth the risk. His arbitration raises won’t be huge and the Yankees would retain the ability to non-tender him and walk away with no strings attached should things go wrong. Harsh, but that’s the business.
7. Royals catcher Salvador Perez needed Tommy John surgery last week and will miss the season. It’s a bummer for him and Royals fans but ultimately inconsequential for a Royals team that won’t contend. I guess the silver lining is it saves a year’s worth of wear-and-tear on Perez’s legs — his 6,434.2 innings caught since 2013 are second most in baseball behind Yadier Molina (6,558.1) — during a season in which Kansas City isn’t expected to do much. Anyway, I bring this up because wow does the American League catching picture stink. As bad as Gary Sanchez was last season, he is easily the best catcher in the league now that Perez is out. Here are the top five AL catchers based on ZiPS projected 2019 WAR:
- Gary Sanchez, Yankees: +3.1 WAR
(Salvador Perez, Royals: +3.1 WAR)
- Willians Astudillo, Twins: +2.4 WAR
- Danny Jansen, Blue Jays: +2.0 WAR
- Robinson Chirinos, Astros: +1.6 WAR
- Mike Zunino, Rays: +1.5 WAR
Astudillo is a utility guy more than a catcher — he appeared behind the plate 55 times in 108 games between Triple-A and MLB last year — and he wasn’t even a lock to make the Opening Day roster prior to Miguel Sano’s recent injury. The Twins are going with Jason Castro (projected +1.3 WAR) and Mitch Garver (projected +1.1 WAR) behind the plate. Point is, the current AL catching crop is pretty terrible and that is especially true with Perez set to miss the entire season. Sanchez doesn’t need to rebound all the way back to his 2016-17 level for the Yankees to have a clear advantage behind the plate in pretty much every game they play this season. If he does go back to 2016-17 Sanchez, forget it, he’ll be the best catcher in the league and it won’t even be close. That would’ve been the case even with a healthy Perez though. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I guess I just wanted to point out how awful the catching situation is in the American League right now. There seem to be a lot of Yankees fans out there who take having a catcher as talented as Sanchez for granted. Go look at what the rest of the league is working with then get back to me.
8. The Yankees had a very active offseason, pretty clearly the most active among American League contenders, and you know what’s gone mostly overlooked? They didn’t lose much from last year’s team. The only significant loss is David Robertson. Sonny Gray threw 130.1 innings that weren’t all that good, and Neil Walker, despite being a total pro and providing some big hits, was largely ineffective as a part-timer. Didi Gregorius will miss half the season or so and that’s a loss, though he’s expected back at some point. Robertson is the only player who made an impact for the 2018 Yankees that won’t be with the 2019 Yankees, and he’s been adequately replaced (maybe even improved upon) by Adam Ottavino. Sometimes it can be so easy to get caught up in the new additions that you lose sight of the players who left. The Dodgers, for example, added A.J. Pollock, which is a nice pickup. They also lost Yasmani Grandal to free agency and traded away Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp (and Kyle Farmer) in a deal that netted them zero MLB pieces. That all seems like a net negative for a team that won 92 games last year and had to play a Game 163 tiebreaker to win the NL West title. The Yankees lost Robertson, Gray, and Walker and replaced them with Ottavino, James Paxton, DJ LeMahieu, and full seasons of J.A. Happ and Zack Britton. That’s a clear upgrade. The Yankees started with a very good core, lost only one major contributor, then added a bunch. Sounds good to me.