One week from today the Yankees will open the 2019 regular season at home against the Orioles. Masahiro Tanaka will be on the mound that day, not Luis Severino, because Severino suffered a shoulder injury earlier this month. That has been the story of Spring Training thus far. Injury after injury after injury.
The Yankees came into Spring Training with a 25-man roster that was fairly set. The last two bullpen spots and the final bench spot were up for grabs, and even then it was kinda easy to see who would get those spots. Now? Now injuries have created a few openings, openings the Yankees are still working to address. They have a week to figure it out.
So, with Yankees far from full strength going into the regular season, let’s take an updated look at the current state of the projected Opening Day roster. At this point, some Opening Day roster spots are being awarded almost by default.
Injured List (8)
Might as well start here. We know with certainty eight players — eight! — will be unavailable at the start of the regular season due to injury. Several of these injuries were known coming into Spring Training. Others popped up in recent weeks. These eight players combined for +18.4 WAR last year:
- Dellin Betances (shoulder)
- Jacoby Ellsbury (hip surgery)
- Didi Gregorius (Tommy John surgery)
- Ben Heller (Tommy John Surgery)
- Aaron Hicks (back)
- Jordan Montgomery (Tommy John surgery)
- CC Sabathia (knee, heart)
- Luis Severino (shoulder)
The Yankees have not yet put these players on the injured list because they can’t. The 10-day IL doesn’t open until Monday. The 60-day IL has been open for a few weeks now, but the Yankees haven’t needed a 40-man roster spot yet, so there’s no reason to 60-day IL anyone. Montgomery and Gregorius figure to be the first two to go on the 60-day IL when 40-man space is needed.
It sounds like Hicks will be back a week into the regular season. Sabathia is expected back in mid-April and Severino in early-May. Everyone else is a little up in the air at this point, though Betances isn’t expected to be out too long. Ellsbury, Heller, Gregorius, and Montgomery are longer term injuries. We won’t see them for a while.
The Roster Locks (21)
After the injured dudes, the next logical place to go is the roster locks. I count 21 players who will assuredly be on the the Opening Day roster. There are no questions about these guys:
- Position Players (11): Miguel Andujar, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Troy Tulowitzki, Luke Voit, Tyler Wade
- Pitchers (10): Zack Britton, Luis Cessa, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, J.A. Happ, Jonathan Holder, Tommy Kahnle, Masahiro Tanaka, Adam Ottavino, James Paxton
I am comfortable calling Cessa, Kahnle, and Wade roster locks at this point. Cessa and Kahnle are both out of minor league options and they came into the spring as Opening Day roster favorites, and they’ve done nothing to pitch their way off the roster. Cessa in particular has been lights out. Add in the pitching injuries and yeah, Cessa and Kahnle will be on the roster.
On more than one occasion this spring Aaron Boone has indicated Wade’s versatility gives him a leg up on a bench spot. Add in the Yankees playing him in center field as soon as it became clear Hicks would not be ready for Opening Day, and we’ve got two pretty good signs Wade has made the roster, assuming yesterday’s hip tightness truly is nothing (fingers crossed). He’s the de facto fourth outfielder until Hicks returns, and, as an added bonus, he can play the infield as well. Wade’s a lock.
The Near Lock (1)
Assuming the Yankees again go with the eight-man bullpen/three-man bench roster construction, they have one more position player spot to fill. Realistically, there are three candidates for that roster spot: Greg Bird, Clint Frazier, and non-roster invitee Billy Burns. I’d rank their chances of making the Opening Day roster like so:
- Greg Bird
- Billy Burns
- Clint Frazier
Frazier has not had a good spring (.140/.220/.233) and Boone has said he needs regular at-bats after missing so much time last season. The Yankees could give him those at-bats at the big league level given the Hicks injury, but it seems unlikely given his Grapefruit League showing. I have Burns ever so slightly ahead of Frazier because I think the Yankees are more willing to let Burns sit on the bench as the fourth outfielder than Frazier. Burns on the bench with Frazier getting regular at-bats in Triple-A seem much more likely than vice versa.
Anyway, that is all moot because Bird is a damn near lock for the Opening Day roster thanks to the Hicks injury, as long as yesterday’s pitch to the elbow is nothing (again, fingers crossed). The Yankees love Bird and there are DH at-bats open now with Stanton set to play left field. Bird can take those at-bats. Another lefty bat in the lineup would be welcome, for sure. With Wade set to be the fourth outfielder, the Yankees can put both Bird and Voit in the lineup, and they sound excited about that scenario. Bird’s on the roster, I believe.
“I look at as we have two impact players,” Boone said to Randy Miller earlier this week. “Bird has been a different guy this year. He’s been the guy we’ve been waiting on. He looks that part right now (with) his at-bats. But Luke has come in and picked up where he left off last year. Both guys are controlling the strike zone. Both guys are impacting the ball. Both guys have done everything we could have hoped for. So now moving forward, we haven’t necessarily revealed anything, but now there’s a scenario where both of them can certainly factor in on a regular basis for at least early in the season.”
The Gio vs. German Spot (1)
I am working under the assumption Sabathia will serve his five-game suspension on Opening Day. That makes the most sense. The Yankees could get the suspension out of the way early, then use Sabathia’s injured list stint to recall a recently optioned player. I thought Domingo German would be that recently optioned player before the Betances injury. I’m not so sure now.
With Betances hurt and Cessa needed in the rotation right out of the gate, the Yankees are a little shorthanded in the bullpen, and carrying German on the Opening Day roster as a long man seems likely to me. If he’s needed in long relief at some point during Sabathia’s suspension, the Yankees will use him and call up someone else (Jonathan Loaisiga?) to be the interim fifth starter. If he’s not needed in long relief, he then becomes the fifth starter.
Loaisiga’s hasn’t had a good spring (11 runs in 12 innings) and pitching coach Larry Rothschild recently said it’s big league rotation or Triple-A for Johnny Lasagna. They’re going to develop him as a starter and not use him out of the bullpen even though I think a bullpen role shouldn’t be ruled out. Loaisiga has a long and scary injury history, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get whatever you can out of him before he gets hurt again. Harsh, but that’s the business.
With Loaisiga pitching himself out of the rotation conversation, there are three potential candidates to wrestle that fifth starter/swingman spot from German: David Hale, Drew Hutchison, and the recently signed Gio Gonzalez. Nestor Cortes isn’t a serious Opening Day roster candidate and Chance Adams has already been sent to minor league camp. That doesn’t mean the Yankees can’t carry Adams on the Opening Day roster. It just seems unlikely.
Hale and Hutchison have been fine this spring. They haven’t been mentioned as Opening Day roster candidates at all and I think — and I think the Yankees think — German is flat out better than both of them. Hale and Hutchison are break glass in case of emergency guys. You call them up when you have no one else. Even with all the pitching injuries, the Yankees are thankfully not at that point yet. They’re out, so it’s German vs. Gio.
Gonzalez reported to camp two days ago and he’s thrown upwards of 80 pitches on his own, so his arm is stretched out. “I don’t think I am far away at all,” he said to Kristie Ackert. “I have been staying with my routine. In my last (simulated game), I pitched Monday, 88 pitches, five innings. I am trying to keep up with baseball, at least I am doing my routine and sticking to my guns. I’ll be ready to go. Hopefully I’ll be in a game pretty soon.”
Brian Cashman hedged a bit, saying the Yankees are looking forward to getting a look at Gonzalez up close the next few weeks. He has an April 20th opt-out date and it sounds like the Yankees want to take their time evaluating him. If push comes to shove and injuries force their hand, sure, they’ll carry Gio on Opening Day. It does not sound like that’s the plan. It sounds like Gonzalez is Plan B with German being Plan A.
Had he signed over the winter and reported to Spring Training with everyone else, this would definitely be Gonzalez’s roster spot. That’s not what happened though. He signed late and, even though he’s stretch out to 80 or so pitches, he’s probably not where he needs to be with his feel for his stuff or his command. That gives German the edge. I think he’s on the roster as a long reliever who moves into the fifth starter’s spot when the time comes.
The Final Pitching Spot (1)
Sabathia’s suspension means the Yankees have to play with a 24-man roster. A three-man bench equals 12 pitcher spots during the suspension, and we have ten locks plus German, leaving one open spot. Once Sabathia’s suspension ends and the Yankees go back to 13 pitches, either German slots in as the fifth starter and a reliever gets called up, or German remains in the bullpen and a starter gets called up. Point is, there’s one open pitching spot.
Sticking with players who remain in big league camp, the Yankees have ten candidates for that final pitching spot. Sure, they could also bring back someone who’s already been sent out (Adams?), but it does seem unlikely. The ten candidates:
- On the 40-man roster (2): Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley
- Not on the 40-man roster (8): Rex Brothers, Nestor Cortes, Danny Coulombe, Phil Diehl, Raynel Espinal, Gio Gonzalez, David Hale, Drew Hutchison
We’ve already ruled out Gonzalez, Hale, and Hutchison as serious Opening Day roster candidates earlier in this post. Also, Loaisiga is a big league rotation or bust guy, so, for our purposes, it’s bust. He’s in Triple-A. Brothers has eight walks in 5.1 innings this spring after walking 44 in 40.2 minor league innings last year. I think we can cross him off the list. Espinal had a visa issue and reported to camp late, and has thrown one (1) Grapefruit League inning. He falls into that “he won’t be fully ready for Opening Day” group, similar to Gio.
That leaves four candidates: Cortes, Coulombe, Diehl, and Tarpley. Pretty easy to see where this is going, right? It’ll be Tarpley. He’s already on the 40-man roster and he impressed the Yankees enough last September to get a spot on the ALDS roster. Also, Tarpley’s had a very nice spring, chucking ten scoreless innings. That won’t hurt his cause. Diehl’s been impressive at times this spring but he’s barely pitched above Single-A. Cortes? Coulombe? I have no reason to believe they are ahead of Tarpley in the bullpen pecking order. Tarpley it is.
The Projected Roster (24+1)
That is 24 active players plus one suspended Sabathia. Again, once the five-game suspension ends, Sabathia goes directly on the injured list and the Yankees call up another pitcher to get back to a normal three-man bench/eight-man bullpen arrangement. Injures have really stretched the Yankees thin already. Sheesh. Anyway, after all that, here’s the projected Opening Day roster:
|Gary Sanchez||1B Greg Bird||LF Giancarlo Stanton||Masahiro Tanaka||CL Aroldis Chapman|
|Austin Romine||1B Luke Voit||CF Brett Gardner||James Paxton||SU Zack Britton|
|2B Gleyber Torres||RF Aaron Judge||J.A. Happ||SU Chad Green|
|SS Troy Tulowitzki||UTIL Tyler Wade||Luis Cessa||SU Adam Ottavino|
|3B Miguel Andujar||MR Jonathan Holder|
|IF DJ LeMahieu||MR Tommy Kahnle|
|MR Stephen Tarpley|
|SWG Domingo German|
That is 24 active players plus one suspended player (Sabathia) plus seven other players on the injured list (Betances, Ellsbury, Gregorius, Heller, Hicks, Montgomery, Severino). Once Sabathia’s suspension ends, he becomes the eighth (!) player on the injured list, and the Yankees get their 25th roster spot back. Presumably it goes to a pitcher seeing how they’ve rarely employed a seven-man bullpen the last two years or so.
Bird’s elbow could throw a wrench into the roster situation. If he’s unable to go Opening Day, the Yankees would have little choice but to carry Burns or Frazier as the extra outfielder, with LeMahieu moving into the everyday lineup (Andujar to DH?) and Wade taking over as the full-time backup infielder. Hopefully Bird’s elbow (and Wade’s hips) is a-okay and he’ll be fine come Opening Day.
The injuries have eliminated several position battles. With a healthy Severino, it’s German vs. Tarpley for one spot. With Hicks healthy, it’s Bird vs. Wade for one spot. The injuries answered some questions and everything kinda falls into place. I don’t think we can completely rule out Gio beating out German, though it would surprise me. It really seems like the Yankees want to get an extended look at Gonzalez in minor league games first.
Hopefully everyone stays healthy these next seven days and the Yankees can go into the regular season with that roster. That is almost certainly the best 24+1 unit they could put together right now. Once Sabathia goes on the injured list, the Yankees get the 25th roster spot back. Once Hicks returns, they’ll have to drop another position player. Worry about that later though. Those are questions the Yankees will answer when the time comes and not a minute sooner.