Starting Spot, Bench, Pen Yankees Only Unknowns

With the first exhibition a day away the New York Yankees pretty much have answered all their roster questions.

By investing $475 million on free agents this winter they have turned a team that was ravaged by injury in 2013 into a possible contender in 2014.

The rotation is almost set with C.C. Sabathia heading up a group that includes a Japanese sensation in Masahiro Tanaka and holdovers Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda.

The starting lineup is set with shortstop Derek Jeter returning from injury along with first baseman Mark Teixeira. Free agents Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson will primarily play second and third base, respectively. Fellow free agent Brian McCann gives the Yankees the best hitting catcher they have had since Jorge Posada retired.

The outfield was strengthened with the free-agent signings of Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carlos Beltran in right. Brett Gardner, fresh off signing a new four-year extension, will move back to left and last year’s key acquisition, Alfonso Soriano, will be the primary designated hitter.

The bullpen is pretty set with David Robertson being asked to fill the mighty big cleats of the best closer the game as ever seen in Mariano Rivera.

With him are free agent left-hander Matt Thornton, who will assume the role of the departed Boone Logan. Shawn Kelley will also try to build on what was a fairly good first season with the team.

The Yankees even added to the bullpen with the signing of oft-injured former closer Andrew Bailey, who could easily slip into Robertson’s setup role if he is sound.

The bench already will have backup middle infielder Brendan Ryan and catcher Francisco Cervelli. Ichiro Suzuki, who suddenly became the odd man out of a job with the new outfielders looks to have the backup outfield spot assured unless he is traded.

So there are few jobs left to fill. But here they are and the players who are competing for them:

NO. 5 STARTER

The Candidates: Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno.

Pineda, 25, has missed two complete seasons following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in 2012. The Yankees hope and Pineda believes it is time for him to resume what was once a promising career. The velocity may not be what it was in his rookie season in 2011 when he was an American League All-Star and he had nine victories, 173 strikeouts and a 3.73 ERA with the Seattle Mariners. But the Yankees hope that his stuff is still effective enough to get out major-league hitters. If Pineda proves that this spring the job is really his. That is why they traded Jesus Montero for him. Now it is time for results.

Phelps, 27, has spent the past two seasons as the Yankees’ long man and spot starter out of the bullpen. He has done the job pretty well. He is 10-9 with 4.11 ERA in 55 games (23 of them starts) the past two seasons. But Phelps had his 2013 season interrupted by a right forearm strain that sidelined him for two months. But he is 100 percent this spring and he will get a chance to win the final spot in the rotation. However, he likely won’t get it if Pineda shines. The reason is that Phelps’ numbers the past two seasons have been better out of the bullpen than as a starter. Phelps actually might move into a short relief role, where he could even end up setting up Robertson at some point. Phelps, barring injury, will leave spring training with a role. The only question is what role.

Warren, 26, surprisingly made the team out of spring training last season and he was the team’s long reliever. Warren also pitched very well. He was 3-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 34 games (two starts). Warren is excellent insurance if Pineda is not ready because Warren is actually better suited as a starter than Phelps. But his value as a long reliever is excellent. So a likely scenario is that Pineda becomes the starter, Warren keeps his long man and spot starting gig and Phelps shifts to the bullpen again. It is hard for Warren not to want to start. Obviously he does. He will get a lot of chances to do it. Do not be surprised if you see very little of Sabathia, Tanaka and Kuroda early this spring. The reason is you will be seeing a lot of these four pitchers instead.

Nuno, 26, won the James P. Dawson Award last spring as the team’s most impressive rookie after going 1-1 with a 0.61 ERA in 14 2/3 innings over seven games. That does not even include the five shutout innings he tossed against the Yankees when he was offered to the Dominican Republic for an exhibition game before the World Baseball Classic. Nuno was sent out to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he was 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA in five games before he was summoned to fill a spot in the bullpen. In five games with the Yankees (three of them starts), Nuno was 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA over 20 innings. Nuno subsequently had his season ended by a groin injury. Nuno is the real wildcard in this equation. His fastball barely reaches 88 miles per hour yet he keeps hitters off-balance and doesn’t walk many either. But if Nuno loses out to any of the other three he likely will be returned to Scranton, where he will be available should an injury occur. Nuno is not as experienced pitching out the bullpen and the Yankees prefer he remain stretched out as a starter.

BACKUP INFIELDER

The Candidates: Eduardo Nunez, Dean Anna, Scott Sizemore and Russ Canzler.

Nunez, 26, has had huge opportunities after he batted .265 with 22 steals in 112 games in 2011. In the past two seasons, Nunez has blown those chances. In 2012, his inconsistent fielding got him sent to Scranton and Nunez injured his right hand and missed a huge chunk of the summer. In 2013, the Yankees lost Jeter for most of the season as he battled to get back from a severe ankle injury. Nunez was handed the job early but it went downhill in a hurry after he got injured himself. Nunez hit .260 in 90 games but he did not have that same fire he had in 2011. It was a shame because Nunez worked on a new throwing motion and cut down on his errors. The Yankees sealed Nunez’s fate by deciding to keep Ryan, who can also play second base. That means the only way Nunez can make the team is as a right-handed portion of a platoon with Johnson at third base. This is Nunez’s last shot with the Yankees and he could very well be dealt away before the spring is over.

Anna is a year OLDER than Nunez but has never received a single at-bat in the majors. Yet, Anna chances of making the team may be better than Nunez. Anna was traded to the Yankees by the San Diego Padres in return for right-hander Ben Paulus. The reason Anna is intriguing is that he led the Pacific Coast League in batting in 2o13 with a .331 average with nine homers and 73 RBIs. Anna also bats left-handed and he can play second, third, shortstop and the two corner outfield spots. He lacks speed and range in the field but his fielding is above average. So a good spring could catapult Anna into a backup spot with the Yankees. He could be valuable in that Roberts has spent the past four seasons battling injuries. He also could win the primary starting spot over Johnson at third. The Yankees can’t wait to see what Anna can do this spring.

Sizemore, 29, was a hot minor leaguer like Anna in 2009 when he batted .308 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs at two stops in the Detroit Tigers’ minor-league system. He was handed the starting second base job for the Tigers in 2010 and he promptly handed it back by hitting .224 in 48 games. He did not fare much better by hitting .245 in 110 games for the Tigers in 2011. For the past two seasons Sizemore has had two separate surgeries for a torn ACL in his left knee. He reinjured the ACL just 10 days into the 2013 season with the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. Sizemore is working out with the Yankees but he is not going all-out just yet. Sizemore has hopes of winning a job as a backup at second and third base. As a right-handed hitter, Sizemore could be of use if he could recapture his old form. The odds are not in his favor but Sizemore is not one to give up that easily.

Canzler, 28, is different from the other three because he can play first base. With Teixeira coming off surgery to repair the sheath in his right wrist, having someone on the roster who can first would be a plus. The current depth chart lists Johnson as the backup there but Johnson has started only two games in his career there. That was why the Yankees re-signed Canzler to a minor-league contract after they cut him loose from the 40-man roster when the team signed designated hitter Tracis Hafner last February. Canzler spent the 2013 season at Triple A, first with the Baltimore Orioles and later with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He batted a combined .252 with 12 homers and 62 RBIs in 125 games. Canzler’s real value is that he can play both corner infield and both corner outfield spots. That means if the right-handed slugger is impressive he could end up in a platoon with Johnson at third and back up for Teixiera at first. That is why Canzler bears watching so closely this spring.

FOUR BULLPEN SPOTS

The Candidates: Cesar Cabral, Preston Claiborne, Bailey, Phelps, Warren, Nuno and Dellin Betances

Robertson is a lock at closer. Thornton and Kelly seem to safe as late-inning options. The Yankees are also very high on the first two names on the candidate list, Cabral and Claiborne. Both made their major-league debuts last season and both impressed manager Joe Girardi. Cabral, 25, missed all of the 2012 season and most of 2013 after fracturing his left elbow in his final spring appearance in 2012. The big left-hander is deadly to left-handed hitters and the Yankees covet a specialist as they had in Clay Rapada in 2012. Something they did not have in 2013. That why it is almost certain that Cabral will make the team, barring injury.

Claiborne, 26, did not walk his first major-league batter until his 15th appearance. He also carried a 2.13 ERA into August before he was shuttled from Scranton to New York five times. His control left him and he got shelled hard in his final 11 games. But the Yankees think very highly of Claiborne. With Logan and Joba Chamberlain gone, the Yankees have a need for Claiborne in their bullpen. Girardi only wants to see the youngster attacking the strike zone consistently this spring to add him to the roster.

Bailey, 29, is the former closer for the A’s and the Boston Red Sox. However, a series of injuries have derailed his once-promising career. After saving 75 games for the A’s from 2009 through 2011, Bailey was acquired by the Red Sox but he endured an injury-plagued 2012 season, pitching in only 19 games and recording a 7.04 ERA. He began 2013 well but ended up having right shoulder surgery in July. The Bosox opted to cut him from the roster by not tendering him a contract. He will not be ready to pitch to start the season. But the Yankees are hoping he may be able to bolster the bullpen later. If he comes back healthy he could very well become the team’s setup man.

The other two bullpen spots likely will go to the losers of the No. 5 starter competition – with the exception of Pineda. If Pineda is not ready to pitch in the majors the Yankees likely will keep him for some while in extended spring training in Tampa, FL. They then would ship him to some rehab assignments before they choose to bring him up later in the season.

That leaves Phelps, Warren and Nuno to fight for the last two spots in addition to a former top-rated starting prospect in Dellin Betances. Betances, 25, was shifted into a bullpen role last season after he struggled with his command as a starter. The result is that Betances is on the verge of becoming a dominant relief pitcher with much better control. He made his major-league debut in September after posting a 6-4 record and a 2.68 ERA with five saves at Scranton. Betances struck out 108 while walking 42 over 84 innings in 38 (six starts) games . Betances looks to be a budding future closer candidate and the Yankees could have him up sometime in 2014 if he does not make the team this spring.

 

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