Early Spring Training Winners And Losers

[caption id="attachment_80583" align="aligncenter" width="575"]CC ST 2016 Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] The Spring Training game schedule is almost 2 weeks old, the first round of roster cuts were made yesterday, and the ST process has taken a step from "getting loose and back into the swing of things" up to "starting to think about the regular season and what needs to be done to be ready for that".  With that in mind and with the Yankees off today, I thought it would be a perfect time to look at some of the big winners and losers so far in camp.  There's still another 3 weeks to go until final roster decisions and anything can happen in that time, but these are the guys who have done the most to help or hurt their standing through the first 13 games.

Winners:

Rob Refsnyder- No-brainer.  And it's not even about how well he's actually played.  Refsnyder is 4-16 with a double, a few walks, and 3 stolen bases in his 9 games, nothing special.  It's the fact that he's playing so much that's the telling sign, that and his early ability to hold his own at third base.  Joe is using Refsnyder in a variety of different scenarios at multiple positions and Refsnyder has responded well to it.  He's showing he's capable of handling this 2B/3B utility bench role and that's got to be going a long way for a club that doesn't have a lot of vital options for that role.

Austin Romine- Makes himself a more likely Opening Day backup to Big Mac with each game he plays.  His bat has been hot (5-14 with 3 doubles and 4 RBI in 7 games) and we already know that Romine is a more experienced and polished defensive catcher than Gary Sanchez.  Sanchez is still the future and he's drawing his share of positive reviews, but the Yankees are surely interested in pushing his FA timetable back and there has to be some value in Romine's 183 plate appearances of MLB experience to Sanchez's 2.  He's making the team's decision easier by showing something with the stick.  If he can do that for a little while when the games count, that's gravy.

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Quick Hit: Castro As Backup Third Baseman Is Over Before It Began

The final bench spot competition shifted yesterday with the report that the Yankees have already scrapped plans to try Starlin Castro at third base.  Via George King, Joe announced before yesterday's game that the Yankees would continue to use Castro as the backup shortstop but not at third because "we want to make sure he is comfortable at second." This is obviously great news for Rob Refsnyder, who has been impressive at the plate in the first week of ST games and handled his business at the hot corner in his few games there.  That said, I'm not sure if this is a move that signifies the Yankees are sold on Refsnyder as Headley's backup at third.  For once, I actually take the Yankees at face value when they give an explanation for a decision.  I said a while back that I didn't like the idea of making Castro the backup third baseman in addition to backup shortstop and starter at second.  He wasn't brought in to be a utility guy and there's no need to put too much on his plate when he's still adapting to second base and making the transition to a new team in a big market.  Let him settle in there and work on improving his hitting.  Joe and Castro both sound like they're on that same page and I'm glad the third base experiment has been aborted.

While I do think this decision is more about Castro than Refsnyder, there is no denying that Refsnyder becomes the favorite to take that last bench spot now.  He's the only contender for the spot who's shown anything with the stick at the Major League level (obligatory SSS reference) and most of his primary competition is hurt and not playing in games (Kozma, Solano).  It's too early to call anything, but I expect to see the Yankees give Refs more time at third in practices and games over the next few weeks.  If he keeps making the plays he's supposed to make there, it's his backup third base job to lose.

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Quick Hit: Don't Sleep On Ellsbury

[caption id="attachment_80534" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Ellsbury 2014 Courtesy of USA Today Sports[/caption] The Yankees continued to check off 2016 debuts for their pitching staff with this afternoon's start by CC Sabathia, and as we approach the completion of the first week of games there aren't too many players left who need to get into game action.  One notable position player debut that happened over the weekend was that of Jacoby Ellsbury, who got 3 plate appearances in his first ST action on Saturday.  Ellsbury's game debut came a few games after the rest of his teammates, and it sounds like the decision to start later was a mutual one between Joe and Ellsbury.

For some, that news may come as a sign that the team has learned from the last few years and doesn't want to over-work one of its most important players.  For many, it probably comes as another reason to chalk Ellsbury up as a lost cause and a sunk contract after 2 years of his 7-year deal.  However you feel about Ellsbury's prospects in 2016 and however you feel about him in general, the key point to remember heading into this season is that aforementioned importance to the team.  Ellsbury at the top is what allows Joe to build the rest of his lineup every day without having to tinker too much and play/bat guys out of position.  And when he's healthy and on top of his game, Ellsbury can be a dangerous force at the top of that lineup.

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Thoughts A Few Weeks Into Spring Training

We're still less than a week into the game schedule, but it already feels like Spring Training has been going on for a while.  Does it feel like that to anybody else or am I just a weirdo?  Either way, all the spring storylines are starting to churn into motion with the beginning of games and it's been mostly positive in Yankee camp thus far.  Here are some random thoughts on the early goings on. - Masahiro Tanaka is going to start on Opening Day.  Barring any unforeseen physical setback, that's clearly the plan and one the Yankees started executing with his start yesterday.  It's no coincidence that pitching yesterday lines Tanaka up to start on April 4th.  The Yankees have a timeline laid out for Tanaka to be ready to open the season and Tanaka seems both healthy enough and far enough along in his throwing to stick to it.  He threw a 60+ pitch bullpen session last week and I thought his stuff all had good movement yesterday.  He revved the fastball up into the low 90s and threw a lot of different pitches, so he doesn't appear to be limited at all by the offseason surgery.  As long as he keeps hitting his pitch counts in every start from here on out, he's getting the ball on 4/4.

- Sample sizes are way too small to be meaningful, but Rob Refsnyder has to be making an impression on the coaching staff.  He did a little of everything in yesterday's game, singling, drawing a walk, stealing 2 bases, and making a couple of nice plays at third base.  They were pure reaction plays and Refsnyder made them and made the throws.  That's what the Yankees are looking for.  Refsnyder continues to show that his bat is ready for the big leagues.  If he can just handle his business in the field and make the plays he's supposed to make, I think he gets the last bench spot easily.

- Joe pretty much came out and said it's a 2-horse race for backup catcher between top prospect Gary Sanchez and faded former prospect Austin Romine.  Both of them had notable days yesterday with Sanchez getting the nod to catch Tanaka's first start and Romine coming off the bench to hit 2 doubles.  The Yankees don't appear to be too concerned about losing Carlos Corporan and they've got Eddy Rodriguez and a few other guys to handle things in Double and Triple-A.  I think they're going to end up stashing Sanchez in SWB for a few weeks to push back his free agency, let Romine show what he can do as the season-opening backup catcher, and then try to sneak him back through waivers when it's time to call Sanchez up.  That might not work if Romine plays well, but it's the smart business decision.  One way or another, these next few months are likely Romine's last hurrah as a Yankee.  Hopefully he does well enough to get himself a big league job somewhere else.

- Question.  Does anybody want these last few open bullpen spots?  I know it's early, but a lot of those back end guys have not pitched well out of the gate.  I don't know who I'd take after Miller, Betances, Shreve, Mitchell, and Nova if I had to choose right now.

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Yanks To Try Refsnyder At Third Base This Spring

Looks like we can consider Rob Refsnyder the early favorite for the 25th roster spot now.  After moving him to second base when he was drafted, staying committed to making him an everyday second baseman for the last few years, and presumably shopping him as such on the trade market, the Yankees have switched course on Refsnyder and will try him at third base this spring.  Team decision makers held a meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the possibility, decided it was worth a shot, and Refsnyder worked out at third base during the first full-squad workout yesterday. The move was somewhat unexpected considering the team's recent commitment to keeping Refsnyder at second and previous comments by Brian Cashman stating the team would not consider moving Refsnyder from that spot.  But as the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and finding a reliable backup third baseman is a major necessity this spring.  Chase Headley showed a lot of disconcerting signs in his performance last year and there isn't another viable backup anywhere on the current roster.  Alex Rodriguez and his old hips are staying at DH, Starlin Castro is going to get some time at third as well to see if he can handle the position, and Dustin Ackley looks like he's going to be primarily a first baseman/5th outfielder.  The Yankees really have nothing to lose trying Refsnyder at third, nor does Refsnyder.  Given the team's acquisition of Castro, this could be Refsnyder's best chance at nailing down a Major League job.

He will have to prove that he can play the position, however, and there are a few things working against him in that department.  Third base is about quick movements and reaction times, skills that don't come into play a lot at second base or in right field.  Typically you want a guy with a strong arm at third base to make the long throws across the diamond, and Refsnyder is not known to have a strong arm.  His throwing arm might be the weakest part of his defensive game, which is part of the reason he got moved to second base in the first place.  He won't have to worry about foot placement and movement around the bag to turn a double play, but third base and second base are completely different worlds and it's going to be a challenge for Refsnyder to show he's got what it takes to handle the hot corner in a short amount of time.

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No Need To Rush To Judge-ment In The Outfield

[caption id="attachment_80384" align="aligncenter" width="375"] Courtesy of the AP[/caption] (That was my attempt at matching Stacey's title from the other day.  It failed, I know)

Aaron Judge has been on the fast track since he was one of the Yankees' multiple 1st round picks in 2013.  He breezed through the low-level Minors the way you would expect an experienced college hitter to, and he reached Triple-A last year after another successful short stint at Trenton.  Along the way Judge drew plenty of praise from scouts for being a better all-around hitter than they thought, and that added in with the rest of his impressive skill set surely helped build him to the unanimous top 100 prospect he is heading into this season, top 50 or top 20 in some cases.

Predictably, Judge felt some growing pains when he reached Triple-A last year.  Better, more experienced pitchers were able to exploit holes in his swing caused by his giant frame, and the talk surrounding Judge this spring focuses almost exclusively on the work he has done and will continue to do to close up those holes.  They'll likely never be completely eliminated, natural byproduct of Judge's genetics, but to truly reach his potential Judge needs to be able to handle better pitching and not settle into a low-average/high-strikeout profile.

Based on the early MLB success of top prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird last season, the unspoken hope and expectation among fans and possibly the Yankee front office is that Judge will be better in his return trip to SWB this year, his swing and hitting approach will improve, and he will be primed to take over the right field job sometime later this season.  But in seeing how the Yankees have constructed their roster, I wonder if that accelerated timeline is still necessary.  The way I see it, the Yankees might be better served giving Judge more time in Triple-A to work on his hitting.  They're certainly deep enough in the outfield to do it.

We know who the starting three in the Major League outfield are going to be, but look at everybody else on the roster.  The Yanks have added Aaron Hicks as the 4th outfielder and he can play all 3 positions.  They've got Dustin Ackley in the mix, and while he's expected to take over primary backup first base duties he can also handle an outfield corner.  If anybody gets hurt, they've got Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, and Ben Gamel on standby on the 40-man to step in.  Remember that Judge is not on the 40-man yet, so the reality is he's pretty far down on the depth chart right now.

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Spring Training News And Notes: 2/23/16

I'm having a slow mental start to this Tuesday.  Let's ease into things with some camp notes from yesterday. - The highlight of the day was Masahiro Tanaka's morning bullpen session.  He threw 31 pitches without issue and Larry Rothschild said Tanaka is "where we want him to be" at this point.  More from Roth- "So far there’s been no hitches or anything, so we’ll just keep progressing and hopefully it stays that way.”  No word yet on when Tanaka will face live batters. (quotes via Chad Jennings)

Aroldis Chapman was absent from yesterday's activity, excused for personal reasons.  There was some early buzz that it could have been because he was meeting with MLB in regards to the investigation of his domestic violence incident, but the Yankees confirmed that it was not that and that this absence was something they knew about ahead of time.

Aaron Judge was one of a few MiL guys taking hacks against live pitching yesterday morning and he continues to draw a lot of attention and press this spring.  Turns out his locker is located right next to Carlos Beltran's, and according to Brendan Kuty that was something that Beltran requested and arranged.  He's got a great reputation for mentoring young players in the clubhouse, so if this is his way of helping to prepare Judge for a late 2016-2017 torch passing, I'm all for it.

- The Yankees made the Chris Parmelee signing official.  As expected, it's a MiL deal with a ST invite.  Via Bryan Hoch, Cashman confirmed that the team is looking at Parmelee as Greg Bird's replacement at Triple-A.

- The pitchers who threw live BP yesterday included Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Johnny Barbato, and James Kaprielian.  They threw to Judge, Dustin Fowler, Tyler Wade, and Jorge Mateo.

- In addition to Tanaka, other notable pitchers to throw bullpens yesterday included Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, Jacob Lindgren, and Nick Rumbelow.

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Thoughts After The First Few Days Of Spring Camp

We're still a few days away from the first full-squad workout, but there's already plenty to talk about in Yankee camp this spring.  Pitchers and catchers have all arrived, press conferences have been held, arms are loosening, gloves are popping, and hills are being run.  The spring story cycle is only going to quicken once the rest of the team shows up on Wednesday, so here are my thoughts on the major stories from the first few days. - Joe held his big camp-opening presser last Thursday, and I couldn't help but notice the number of beat guys who commented on the "awkward" or "uncomfortable" nature of what he said regarding the Aroldis Chapman situation.  Maybe I've just gotten a little dull to the over-dramatic MSM spin, but did I miss something?  There was nothing there.  Joe deferred to MLB and the commissioner's investigation when asked about the suspension, acknowledged that it was a serious issue, and said he wanted to get to know Chapman better before judging him.  What's awkward about any of that?  What else was he supposed to say?  The new domestic violence policy is a big talking point this spring and for good reason, but do we really need to be injecting more drama into a manager's press conference answers to drive that point home?  Doesn't the seriousness of the subject matter already speak for itself?

- It's a small detail, but it was good to find out that Teix has been running with no issues since the beginning of the year.  I remember being a little bit worried when that timeline was first laid out, so having it confirmed that he's on target with his rehab and ready to start baseball activities this week is reassuring.  Teix is easily the most important position player on this team and most difficult to replace.

- Speaking of which, it sounds like it's only a matter of time before the Yankees announce they've signed Chris Parmelee, who dropped this on Instagram yesterday.  Parmelee is a lefty-hitting first baseman who has basically settled into a Quad-A depth role at this stage of his career.  He's a .245/.311/.396 hitter in just over 1,000 career MLB plate appearances, but he did hit .314/.386/.444 in Triple-A last year.  The Yankees need some insurance for Teix with Greg Bird on the shelf and Parmelee fits that role well.  I imagine he got a MiL deal with a ST invite, and hopefully there's no opt-out clause built into that.  I have to imagine Parmelee would welcome the chance to play regularly in Triple-A and be the next in line for a call up should the injury bug strike.

- Via Chad Jennings, we found out yesterday that Carlos Corporan does have an opt-out in his MiL deal and that's yet another interesting wrinkle to add to the Gary Sanchez situation.  The Yankees are likely to lose both Corporan and Austin Romine when spring camp ends, and that would leave them pretty thin at the upper levels of their system.  Knowing that, I think I could see the Yankees keeping one of the vets to open the season as McCann's backup and stashing Sanchez in Triple-A if he struggles in any way during ST games.  It would be a safe, smart play considering the depth hit they're likely to take, and I'm sure the front office would have no problem avoiding some service time accrual and pushing Sanchez's free agency back a year.

- All eyes and cell phone cameras were on Saturday's bullpen session, when big hosses Chapman, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and CC Sabathia all threw.  That's a lot of dude right there.  Chapman was understandably the highlight and he drew plenty of praise from the beat crew for the appearance and sound of his stuff.  Regardless of what you think about him as a person, he's going to be really fun to watch.

- Same goes for Betances, and I'm interested in seeing how Joe uses him this spring.  Remember last year when there was all the early hullabaloo about Betances' velocity and command and it took him a few weeks to get going in the regular season?  Betances said he felt like he didn't get to throw enough in the spring and that he likes to work more because he believes it helps his mechanics and command.  Coming into camp this year he's saying again that he wants to work on his fastball command, and I wonder if Joe will give him a little more time to do that over the next month and change.  Doesn't have to be in games necessarily, just let him throw a few more bullpens.  Betances has shown he can carry a big workload, so if he feels more comfortable and better prepared with more work, let him have it.

- I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday, but I was surprised to read so much talk about top pitching prospect James Kaprielian possibly making it to the Majors in 2016 as if that would be a positive for the organization.  Don't get me wrong, I think Kaprielian is going to be a stud and I think he'll make himself into a universal top 50 prospect with his performance this season.  And if he is that good, the Yankees should definitely not waste time keeping him in the lower levels.  But if he makes it all the way to the show this year, that probably means a bunch of guys ahead of him on the depth chart got hurt.  I'm talking multiple guys in the Triple-A and big league rotations, and that would certainly not be a good thing.  I'm all for considering Kap for a rotation break-in in 2017, but if he's pitching in the big leagues at any point this year, something has gone horribly wrong.

Yankees Announce List Of Non-Roster Spring Training Invitees

We're less than 2 weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Tampa and that's close enough for the Yankees to announce their list of non-roster Spring Training invitees.  They did so earlier today, officially inviting 25 non-roster players to big league camp.  The group was highlighted by top organizational prospects Aaron Judge, James Kaprielian, and Jorge Mateo, as well as notable prospects Dustin Fowler and Brady Lail and previous MiL signings such as Pete Kozma, Anthony Swarzak, and Vinnie Pestano.  Along with the players on the 40-man roster, the Yankees will have 65 players in Major League spring camp. Here's the full list of non-roster invites:

Catchers: Carlos Corporan, Francisco Diaz, Kyle Higashioka, Eddy Rodriguez, Sebastian Valle, Santiago Nessy

Infielders: Jonathan Diaz, Pete Kozma, Jorge Mateo, Deibinson Romero, Donovan Solano, Tyler Wade

Outfielders: Dustin Fowler, Aaron Judge, Cesar Puello

Pitchers: Richard Bleier, Tyler Cloyd, Domingo German, Chad Green, James Kaprielian, Brady Lail, Diego Moreno, Vinnie Pestano, Anthony Swarzak, Tyler Webb

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Musing On The Rotation A Week Away From Opening Day

[caption id="attachment_73107" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Pineda ST 2015 Kill 'em, Big Mike. Courtesy of the AP[/caption] - Masahiro Tanaka: 3 G, 10.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 12 K - Michael Pineda: 4 G, 13.2 IP, 10 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 17 K - Nathan Eovaldi: 4 G, 13.2 IP, 10 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 14 K - CC Sabathia: 2 G, 4.2 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 0 BB, 6 K - Adam Warren: 5 G, 16.2 IP, 17 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 11 K

That's the official Spring Training statistical breakdown for the projected Yankee rotation so far, and if you're the type to put any stock in ST stats for any reason then there's a lot to like there.  The Yankee rotation was expected to be the roster area of greatest concern this spring, in terms of performance for some but more importantly in terms of health for most.  It was almost written as a foregone conclusion that the Yanks were going to suffer multiple injuries to their rotation in camp.  Tanaka's elbow was definitely going to tear again and he was going to miss the season with TJS.  CC's knee wasn't going to be able to hold up and he was going to end up back on the DL.  It was all going to fall apart and the Yankees would be screwed.

Fast forward a month and not only has nobody from that core group of starters suffered a setback or a new injury, they've been pictures of perfect health.  Tanaka has looked free and easy with his mechanics from the first time he threw a bullpen and does not appear to be inhibited in any way physically.  Sabathia has his weight back, his velocity back, and while the on-field results haven't been there he's been very happy with his body and how his knee feels, which isn't something we've heard from him a lot over the past few seasons.

Pineda has looked as good as he ever has in pinstripes and there hasn't been one peep about his shoulder or anything in that previously troublesome right arm.  His stuff is popping, his command is pinpoint, and he looks poised to take that next step up.  Ditto for Eovaldi, who already looks like a new pitcher under the tutelage of Larry Rothschild.  His stuff and command have been flashing above-average all spring, his 2-strike approach has been much better, and did you honestly know that he hasn't walked a batter all spring?  I had no idea.

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