Quick Hit: An Even Better Betances?

[caption id="attachment_80672" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Betances ST 2016 Courtesy of Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News[/caption] He's a lock to make the Opening Day roster and there's no doubt about what role he's going to play in this year's bullpen or how well he'll handle that role, but Dellin Betances is an interesting case this spring.  You'll recall that last year one of the leading ST storylines was "what's wrong with Betances???"  His early velocity was down, his command was spotty at best, and his ST stat line was ugly: 8.1 IP, 9 H, 5 ER, 6 BB, 9 K.  Coming off his spectacular (and strenuous) debut relief season, there were questions aplenty about the impact that his heavy workload had on him and how that would carry over into the regular season.

Of course all that worry was for naught because Betances was lights out again in 2015.  But he did stumble a bit down the stretch, posting season-worst FIP, K %, and BB % values in September and giving up as many home runs then (3) as he had in the previous 5 months combined.  It would have made sense for some of last spring's worry to follow Betances into this year's camp after the rough finish to 2015, but that hasn't happened.  What also hasn't happened is a repeat of last spring's problems, as Betances has been utterly brilliant in his 2016 ST appearances thus far: 4.1 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K.

Betances said all along last year that there was nothing to worry about and that he just needed some more time to get loose and get back into his normal groove.  Once he did, he was money.  I'm equal parts curious about what he's done differently this spring to get locked in so quickly and excited about what that may mean for the season to come.  Betances has always and to a certain degree will always battle bouts of inconsistency with his command because of how big he is, and it was a major problem for him in camp last year.  The fact that he hasn't walked a single batter this spring is an encouraging sign that he's learned how to be even better at repeating his mechanics and a frightening sign of what may be in store for the rest of the AL if that is true.

Betances has been arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball over the last 2 seasons, top 3 at the absolute worst.  If his ST performance so far compared to his ST performance last year is any indication, we may be in for his best season yet in 2016.

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Quick Hit: Bryan Mitchell, Reliable Righty Middle Reliever

[caption id="attachment_80641" align="aligncenter" width="575"]B Mitchell ST 2016 Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] Sorry, guys and gals.  Short posts are about all I have time for these days.  But I wanted to touch on Bryan Mitchell and his quiet dominance thus far in Spring Training.  Mitchell followed Ivan Nova in yesterday's game, the second straight time he's done that after getting the start in his first 2 ST appearances.  He was very effective, throwing 2.2 perfect innings with 2 strikeouts, and this comes after he pitched 3 scoreless innings with 1 hit and 1 K last Tuesday.

Mitchell has thrown 10.2 innings across 4 appearances so far this spring with only 1 earned run against him and 7 strikeouts.  He's been far less hittable than we've seen in the past (only 5 in those 10+ IP) and more importantly, his command has been better.  Mitchell has only walked 1 batter in his 4 appearances and that was in his first start on March 4th.  Since then his command has been spectacular.  According to the stats I've seen, he's thrown nothing but strikes in each of his last 2 appearances and only 8 out of 58 pitches for balls in all 4 outings.

Now some of that surely is a direct result of facing less-than-MLB-level hitting competition and guys who are still trying to get in the swing of things as they go through their ST routine (pun totally intended).  It's much easier to rare back and fire strikes when you're facing hitters who aren't in full regular season mode and aren't even average MLB hitters to begin with.  Mitchell most likely can't get away with throwing all strikes when he's facing a full big league lineup and pitching in a higher-pressure situation in a game that matters, and his ability to effectively handle those situations is still out for judgement.

But there's a clear method to what the Yankees are trying to do with him in these last 2 outings and it's not getting him prepared to be stretched out as Triple-A rotation depth.  Mitchell is being used as a middle reliever and you can bet Joe and the rest of his coaching staff are paying close attention to how he performs in that setting.  There's an obvious need for another reliable right-handed reliever and Mitchell has stood out head and shoulders above the rest of his Triple-A competition in the role.  He's always had the stuff for the job, now he's starting to show that he may have figured out the command and the finer points of pitching to be successful in the job.  If he's able to translate these early strong performances into regular season success, the Yankee bullpen could be scary good.

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The Fun Yankees Middle Infield

The thing I'm most looking forward in the 2016 New York Yankees season is watching how Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro progress. They have a chance to be an extremely exciting and fun duo to watch this season.

Sure, the obvious answer to what I'm most looking forward to the most should probably be watching the fireworks show that is Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, but there's no mystery about how awesome they will be this season. Gregorius and Castro, on the other hand, have had many ups and downs in their careers, but if both are on top of their games they can form one of the best double play combos in MLB.

The overall stat lines for Gregorius and Castro from last season aren't going to get anybody super pumped, but you have to look at how they improved as the season went along and think that maybe a light turned on. Gregorius didn't look like a MLB player for the first two months of the season between his non-existent bat, boneheaded plays running the bases and even errors on defense where he was supposed to shine. Perhaps it took him just a while to get used to playing in New York and replacing Derek Jeter because he took off in a big way in the second half. Gregorius hit .294/.345/.417/.762 while playing the shortstop position defensively as one of the best in baseball. This strong second half allowed him to finish with a 3.1 WAR, which was good for fourth in MLB among shortstops. That could not have been thought to be possible by even the most optimistic person after May. It also shows the waste land that the position is league wide.

Castro has more of a pedigree than Gregorius with three All-Star game appearances and 991 hits before his 26th birthday. However, he has faced many ups and downs in his career that ended up with Chicago being down on him following a team-friendly extension. Castro struggled so much at the beginning of last season that  he got his shortstop position pulled from him and was benched.  This seemed to be a turnaround for him as he moved to second base and caught fire to end the year. In August, Castro posted a .296/.315/.437/.752 line before exploding in September with a .369/.400/.655/1.055 line with .442 wOBA and a 185 wRC+. The last time Castro had a poor season in 2013 he bounced back in a big way in 2014.

It's been exciting this spring to see both players pick up right where they left off as Gregorius is 6-for-16 and Castro is 8-for-19. Coincidentally, if both Gregorius and Castro improved on their plate discipline that could take them to the next level. Neither is a big power threat, so walking more and improving their on-base percentages could be a huge plus. Gregorius has a career 7.1 percent career walk rate and Castro is at 4.9 percent. Gregorius swung at 37.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last year and Castro was right behind at 36.2 percent. For comparison's sake, the Yankees' most patient hitter, Mark Teixeira, only swung at 25.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last year. Teixeira and the other veterans should try to work with these guys on their plate discipline because it's the next step in their development. They're always going to be more aggressive and not have as good as a natural hitting eye as Teixeira, but getting in more hitters counts is never a bad idea.

Gregorius has definitely flown way more under the radar this spring, which is a great thing for him. The interesting thing is if Gregorius keeps progressing like this the next couple of seasons what will the Yankees do with Jorge Mateo? Mateo showed off his natural talent early in spring training with a couple of bombs off his bat and his blazing speed. Castro seems to have second base locked down for the foreseeable future, so if Mateo can't be moved to the outfield the Yankees would have a fantastic trade chip with him or Gregorius.

This is a nice problem to have and not something to concern yourself with yet, just something intriguing down the line. For now, just enjoy watching two young and athletic guys in the middle of the infield for the Yankees this year because it could be a lot of fun compared to the garbage we have seen since prime Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano left.

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: 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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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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Prospect Musings A Few Days Away From IIATMS Prospect Week

[caption id="attachment_80183" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Dustin Fowler 2015 Courtesy of Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com[/caption] It's been a busy week preparing for Prospect Week 2016.  There's wild stuff going on behind the scenes that you guys don't even know about.  I'm talking serious spreadsheet action.  The festivities kick off on Monday and there will be some more details on the whole schedule for the week coming later, but to get the prospect juices flowing I thought I'd touch on some of the trends I've noticed as we've worked on the list and some of the individual players I'm higher on and lower on than most.  It's like a free look into the Brad Vietrogoski IIATMS Top 30 war room.

- The first thing that stands out to me after putting together this year's list is how much upper-level talent the Yankees have right now.  It feels like they've got more legit future potential MLB guys in Triple-A and Double-A than they've had in a long time, and that's without Eric Jagielo, Rookie Davis, and Jake Cave, who all would have been top 20 guys in our rankings.  By my count, 5 of the top 10 and 8 of the top 15 Yankee prospects are going to open this year in Triple-A SWB.  That's solid.

- As for those prospects lost to the trade market this offseason, if you're wondering where I would have had them, here you go: Davis 6th, Jagielo 7th, Cave 21st.  I also had Bryan Mitchell 13th up until a few days ago when I finally realized he exceeded his rookie eligibility in 2015.

- Another overall organizational trend that carries over to this year is the high level of Triple-A outfield depth.  We saw Ramon Flores, Mason Williams, and Slade Heathcott all get shots in the big leagues last year and 2 of those 3 will be back in SWB this year along with Aaron Judge and Ben Gamel.  I'm curious to see how the playing time breakdown will work once the regular season starts, and I'm even more curious to see how the call-up pecking order settles out.  I have to think Williams is the early favorite, but Judge could easily jump him if he hits better and Gamel's "do a little bit of everything" style makes him a very viable call up candidate now that he's on the 40-man.

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Worrying About Chase Headley

[caption id="attachment_80096" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Headley vs SEA 2015 Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] Less than three weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting and I continue to feel good about the 2016 Yankees.  Despite avoiding the MLB free agent pool like the plague, Cash managed to improve major areas of need on the roster and added youth and depth of talent to supplement the aging core.  There's still one player left for him to snag to complete the roster, but I don't actually expect that signing to happen.  The Yankees appear to be set with what they've got to open the year and once again they are going to face a ton of questions.

As far as the questions about the lineup go, I feel good about most of the answers.  I don't expect Jacoby Ellsbury to be as bad as he was in 2015, and the addition of Aaron Hicks should help keep both Ellsbury and Brett Gardner fresher for the later months of the season.  Despite the obvious and measurable signs of permanent decline, I still expect Brian McCann to pop 20+ homers and drive in runs this season.  I think Teix is going to come back and keep raking, even if his production is down a bit from last year's torrid pace, I think Didi and Starlin Castro are going to take a step up, and I even think A-Rod and Carlos Beltran are going to continue to contribute positively as offensive players.

The only guy in the lineup who really worries me is Chase Headley.  He wasn't envisioned as a major offensive factor when the Yankees re-signed him last offseason, but I think everybody was expecting more than a .259/.324/.369 slash line and 91 wRC+.  Bare minimum I think we were all expecting Headley to maintain his ability to get on base and be a flexible lineup option for Joe when matchups were favorable.  Instead he saw his BB rate drop to an average level and his power continue to dwindle.  After being hot or cold for most of the season, Headley finished September at his absolute coldest, posting a .475 OPS and a 28.5% K rate in 123 plate appearances.

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It’s Not a Blip: McCann is Old and Declining

[caption id="attachment_80021" align="aligncenter" width="525"]McCann HBP 2015 Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] Every off-season, you get emptily hopeful pieces like this one that must’ve taken Newsday reporter Steven Marcus several minutes to write:

McCann wasn’t satisfied with his .232 batting average. “I don’t like looking up there and seeing I’m hitting around .230,’’ he said Friday from Orlando, Florida, where he was participating in a charity golf tournament. “I’ve got to get better. I’d like to hit .300 with 30 [homers].

Don’t scoff yet at Marcus cobbling an “article” out of a 5-minute call Brian McCann returned during a slow moment of charity golf: maybe Marcus got a real scoop on McCann’s new strategy to skyrocket his hit rate after seasons of .230, .256, .232, and .232? Here’s the money quote he grabbed from McCann: “‘I think Tex says it the best: walk more and hit for extra-base hits. The game today is about getting on base and driving runs in.’” So the Marcus scoop is that McCann plans to raise his batting average by improving the non-batting-average components of his OPS: his walk and extra-base-hit rates. In related news, I plan to lose weight by putting lifts in my shoes. Publishing dreck like that is an important part of how, when you put up a paywall for online access to your major-market newspaper, you get only 35 (!) paying subscribers.

Ok, enough easy shots at lazy journalists who deserve it. Onto the real question, which is multiple-choice: McCann in 2016 is – ...(a) likely to improve, because Teixeira shared his secret plan, “hit more better”; ...(b) likely to improve, because it’s just a blip that his 2014-15 was worse than his 2008-13; ...(c) unlikely to improve, but that’s ok because batting average is just one component of value, and overall he’s still a strong player; ...(d) unlikely to improve, because he’s in real decline; ...(e) I love Newsday, so STF up, Scott.

Let’s not take (a) and (e) seriously, because if you believe those, then your name is Mrs. Marcus and I’m very sorry for insulting your husband. So the title of this post gave away my punch line: it'd (d); there’s a big bucket of evidence McCann is in real, long-term decline, not suffering a random drop in performance that he’s likely to recover from in 2016.

(1) He’s not hitting the ball as much, or as well. In 2015, his K rate reached a new high (18.1%, after a prior career rate of about 14.6%), his line drive rate reached a new low (16.7%, after a prior rate of just over 20%), and both his 2014 and 2015 hard contact rates also reached new lows (31.0% and 31.5%, after about 35%). It’s easy to say a one-year decline in outcomes (lower BA, fewer HR, etc.) is a blip if the hitter is making as much good contact as ever and not striking out more; in that case, the outcome decline probably reflects bad luck, like fielders happening to be in the right place 10-20 more times than last year. But with McCann, we have a very consistent picture of a hitter in real decline: striking out more, while hitting fewer line drives (the contact most likely to yield hits), and making less hard contact generally.

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Should the Yankees Consider Justin Upton?

[caption id="attachment_79992" align="aligncenter" width="570"]Justin Upton Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] (Editor's Note- This post originally appeared on ESPN's SweetSpot yesterday evening.  Thanks to the mothership for giving us a shout out)

The New York Yankees have yet to add any unrestricted free agents of note this offseason and have made it known that they are waiting until their big contracts come off the books until they go back into the high-priced free agent pool. They have managed to improve through trades for Starlin Castro and Aroldis Chapman, but not spending any money has left the team still weak in a few areas and with many questions.

There is, however, a free agent out there in his prime who could be exactly what the Yankees need to make another playoff push in 2016.

The top areas of concern may be the middle of the order and right-handed power. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran all turned back the clock in 2015 and were extremely productive when healthy. Rodriguez was the biggest surprise, coming off a full year suspension to hit .250/.356/.486 with 33 home runs and a 129 wRC+. Teixeira was having an All-Star season after his wrist was finally healthy, hitting .255/.357/.548 with 31 home runs and a 141 wRC+ until a fractured leg abruptly ended his season at the end of August. Beltran proved he still could produce after playing through an injury in a disappointing first year in the Bronx. He stayed healthy all season and came through with his usual big hits toward the end of the season. Beltran finished 2015 with a .346 wOBA and a 119 wRC+.

Betting on all three to repeat in 2016 is risky, given their advanced ages and injury histories. Once Teixeira went down, so did the Yankees' offense. The lineup lost all balance and it was amazing to see how much it missed him. It was September and the Yankees had other players wearing down, but Teixeira could have made a big difference. The Yankees hit .233/.309/.393 with a 92 wRC+ as a team in September, which showed just how thin a tight rope they were walking when one of their big hitters went down.

For 2016, the Yankees are relying solely on Rodriguez and switch-hitters Teixeira and Beltran for their right-handed power. Castro will help balance the lineup, but doesn't help in the power department. Aaron Hicks could be an overall upgrade over Chris Young, but Young had lethal power from the right side against left-handers. The Yankees traditionally build around lefty power because of their ballpark and that's wise; however, they need more balance when facing tough lefties, as Dallas Keuchel showed in shutting them down in the wild-card game.

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