With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them.
Co-closers: Dellin Betances, 26 (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 1 save, 70 games), Andrew Miller, 29 (5-5, 2.02 ERA, 1 save, 73 games)
Set-up man: David Carpenter, 29 (6-4, 3.54 ERA, 3 saves, 65 games)
Lefty specialist: Justin Wilson, 27 (3-4, 4.20 ERA, 70 games)
The Yankees have had somewhat of a revolving door at the closer position for the past three seasons and 2015 will the fourth consecutive season they will be featuring a new closer or closers.
In 2012, an early-season injury to Mariano Rivera forced the Yankees to use Rafael Soriano as the team’s closer. In 2013, Rivera returned to health to complete a great final chapter to Hall-of-Fame career. And in 2014, David Robertson assumed the closer’s role and all he did was go 4-5 with a 3.08 ERA and convert 39 of his 44 save opportunities.
However, Robertson was unhappy that the Yankees did not look to extend his contract. So he declined their qualifying offer and signed a four-year, $46-million deal with the Chicago White Sox on Dec. 9.
Once again the Yankees will be auditioning another new closer in 2015.
The obvious choice is Betances after his meteoric rise from a spring training curiosity to the devastating setup weapon he became in 2014. The numbers speak for themselves.
He allowed only 46 hits and 24 walks in 90 innings. Batters hit an anemic .149 against him. He fanned 135 batters. The 6-foot-8, 265-pound right-hander dominated hitters from Opening Day to the end of the season.
The question then becomes could he do what he did last season in the ninth inning in 2015?
Manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild believe that he can but they are not going to leave that question to chance without a Plan B.
On Dec. 5, the Yankees signed left-hander Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36-million contract with the intention of making him a setup man for what was Robertson at the time. Miller struck out 14.87 batters per nine innings and held opponents to a .153 batting average for the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles last season.
For now, Girardi says that although the Yankees would prefer to have one set closer when they begin the season, they are not averse to having Betances and Miller work as co-closers.
“I’m sure we’ll have a lot of meetings about that,” Girardi told reporters last Sunday. “We’ll decide what’s best. We want to see how they’re both throwing the baseball at the end of spring training. There will be just a lot of discussion of how we feel our team is built. Could they be interchangeable? Yeah.”
There is no doubt that however they are used both Betances and Miller have great stuff and are nearly impossible to hit consistently. That gives the Yankees two powerful weapons at the back end of the bullpen.
Betances was originally drafted as a starting pitcher out of New York City and his high-octane fastball seemed to have him on a fast track to the Yankees’ starting rotation. But control problems plagued him and got worse as he progressed through the minor-league system
His status as a top prospect diminished until the Yankees decided to try him in the bullpen in 2013. That turned everything around. Betances found a delivery that he could repeat and that devastating fastball and slider combination left batters baffled.
He impressed Girardi in a spring game when he faced Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion of the Blue Jays with the bases loaded and retired both of them to get out of the jam unscathed. It was inevitable Betances would make the roster as a reliever from that point on.
That led to Betances’ impressive first season with the big club and his reward could be eventually becoming the team’s closer.
Ironically, Miller’s career path was very similar.
Miller was a former No. 1 draft pick of the Detroit Tigers who just could not harness his control as a starter. After a short and unsuccessful stop with the then-Florida Marlins, Miller reached rock bottom when he was 6-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 12 starts with the Boston Red Sox in 2011.
Miller walked 41 batters in just 65 innings.
Then the Red Sox shifted him to the bullpen and he has not looked back. From 2012 through 2014, Miller has developed into what could be considered the most devastating left-handed relievers in all of baseball.
His walks have dropped, his strikeouts have increased and Miller is now in line to perhaps share a closers role – a job he also has never had before.
The Yankees are obviously thrilled they have both of these pitchers available for the ninth inning.
A curious thing happened after the 2014 season. For the first time in a very long time, the Yankees basically reshuffled the deck on the rest of the bullpen. David Phelps, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton and Preston Claiborne are gone.
Phelps was dealt to the Marlins in the trade where the Yankees acquired starting right-hander Nathan Eovaldi and first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones. Kelley was shipped to the San Diego Padres for minor-league right-hander Johnny Barbato. Thornton was waived last August and is now with the Washington Nationals. Claiborne was released and signed with the Marlins.
So behind Miller and Betances will be a whole new cast of characters.
The team’s primary setup man will be Carpenter, who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves along with left-hander Chasen Shreve for left-hander Manny Banuelos, who was once considered the best pitching prospect in the Yankees’ organization.
Carpenter comes to the Yankees highly recommended by Brian McCann, who was his primary catcher in 2013 when Carpenter was 4-1 with a 1.78 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 65 innings over 56 appearances.
Carpenter’s numbers slipped considerably last season but he is very excited to be reunited with his former battery mate.
“B-Mac is the kind of guy that you love going to battle with,” Carpenter told reporters. “He’s a team guy, he busts his butt out there, he’s everything you could ask for in a leader, especially a catcher. To be reunited with him, it’s going to be really, really special.”
The Yankees also made a deal for a second left-hander by trading veteran catcher Francisco Cervelli to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Wilson, who like Carpenter had a sensational 2013 season.
Wilson, a converted starter, was 6-1 with 2.08 ERA in 58 games with the Pirates in 2013. Last season his numbers slipped a bit but general manager Brian Cashman said Wilson will remind Yankee fans of Boone Logan, who had a very successful stint with the Yankees as their primary left-hander.
Beyond these four, the makeup of the rest of the bullpen will be up for grabs this spring, although Adam Warren eventually will be part of it. It is just unclear when that will be because Warren is slated to pitch as a starter in spring training.
The Yankees are looking to possibly use Warren as a sixth starter in the first six weeks of the season because several Yankee starters are coming off injuries and the Yankees face a stretch in late April and early May in which they are scheduled to play 30 games in 31 days.
Warren, 27, is coming off a sensational year in the bullpen. He was 3-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 69 games, all in relief. Between Warren’s ability to pitch in almost in any role, including that of a starter, and the fact that he pitches effectively in those roles, it is easy to see why he was one of the few relievers the Yankees opted to keep for 2015.
Warren will be a big help either in the middle or late innings when he finally is shifted back in mid-May.
Right-handers Chase Whitley (25), Esmil Rogers (29) and Bryan Mitchell (23) also will get opportunities to start this spring. All three have started in the past but Whitley is better suited to be a relief pitcher. Rogers has not fully developed as a starter or a reliever but he has been better in the bullpen. Mitchell is a capable starter but the Yankees will evaluate him for both roles this spring.
Mitchell likely will be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre so that he could be available as a emergency starter this season. The Yankees really like his ability.
There are several relievers on the 40-man roster who will get a look this spring including Danny Burawa, Jose De Paula, Branden Pinder and Shreve.
Burawa, 26, is a right-hander who was 3-1 with a 4.70 between Double-A Trenton and Scranton last season. De Paula, 27, was signed out of the San Francisco Giants system and the left-hander was 4-3 with a 4.21 ERA at Triple-A Fresno in 2014. Pinder, 26, is a right-hander who was 3-0 with 2.04 ERA in three minor-league stops last season, ending with a stint in Scranton. Shreve, 24, was acquired along with Carpenter in the Banuelos trade and was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA at stops in Double-A and Triple-A in 2014.
Most of the time non-roster pitchers are invited into camp for a look but they don’t make the team. But the Yankees invited a veteran right-hander reliever to camp who was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2009 and a two-time All-Star with the Oakland Athletics.
He is 30-year-old Andrew Bailey, who saved 75 games in 84 opportunities for the A’s from 2009 through 2011, but has suffered through a series of injuries that have hindered his effectiveness and kept him off the field.
Bailey was released by the Red Sox in July 2013 after posting a 3-1 record with 3.77 ERA in 30 games. Bailey suffered a torn capsule and labrum in his right shoulder and underwent surgery in 2013. The Yankees signed him to a minor-league contract in 2014 knowing he would be unavailable to pitch until 2015.
The Yankees extended him an invitation this spring and Bailey will have an opportunity to test where he is in his rehab. If he is healthy, Bailey could be a valuable addition to the bullpen. Though his closing days are over he could land a spot to pitch in the middle innings. If he is anywhere close to the pitcher he was in Oakland the Yankee bullpen will be even more formidable.
Another intriguing pitcher to watch this spring will be former starting prospect Jose A. Ramirez, 25, who was converted to relief because of recurring oblique injuries.
Ramirez was once a very highly touted prospect as a starter and he did make his major-league debut with the Yankees as a reliever last season. He was 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA in eight appearances in relief.
At Scranton, the Dominican right-hander was 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA in nine appearances after spending an early part of the season on the disabled list with an oblique strain.
The Yankees see their 13th-ranked prospect as a full-time reliever and they hope it does for Ramirez what it did for Betances. Ramirez just maybe could make a leap to the majors this season because of his change-up, which is the best in the organization – including those in the majors now.
He also features a plus fastball though he lacks overall command and he is working hard to develop his slider. Because he has struggled to work more than 115 innings the Yankees believe keeping in the bullpen will lessen his injury issues and keep his arm fresh for a full season.
Another young pitcher to watch is 21-year-old right-hander Jacob Lindgren, who pitched Mississippi State to the 2013 College World Series title as a starter and then was shifted to the bullpen by the Yankees last summer.
The Yankees selected him with their first pick of the 2014 draft in the second round and he immediately paid dividends by advancing all the way to Trenton. In his four minor-league stops he combined to go 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA He struck out 48 batters in 25 innings.
Lindgren was able to increase his fastball speed up to 95 mph and his slider (82-84 mph) has enough bite on it to make it a wipeout pitch. It is very possible that Lindgren could make the Yankees’ bullpen in 2015 if he shows that he can throw strikes consistently in the minors.
He is ranked as the team’s No. 9 prospect.
OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: EXCELLENT
The bullpen has been the strength of the team for the past two seasons, though the team as a whole has not had much success. Even with the reshuffling of a lot of new faces and new roles in the bullpen, it remains one of the team’s strengths.
Another reason is that Girardi has been a master at selecting the best organization arms and utilizing a bullpen to the team’s advantage. No one gets overworked because Girardi is strict about not using pitchers three days in a row if he can help it.
This season the big test will be if Betances can take the reins as the team’s closer. The odds are that he is capable and he should be successful. If he isn’t Miller is there back him up. Whether they work as setup man and closer or as co-closers, the fact remains they are two very nasty hombres that hitters do not feel comfortable hitting against.
Neither pitcher also has a decided bias pitching against right-handed or left-handed batters. They are equal-opportunity strikeout artists. That will make it awful difficult for teams who are behind come the eighth inning.
Carpenter will likely ease into what was Kelley’s role last season. He will set up for Miller and Betances. Though Carpenter struggled a bit last season, he still is considered a good young pitcher with a very good arm.
Once Warren finishes his role as a starter in the early part of the season he will join Carpenter in a setup role. Though Warren came out of the minors as a starter, he has had great success pitching out of the bullpen and he can pitch multiple innings if needed.
The Yankees also traded Cervelli for a second left-hander in Wilson and he provides a great opportunity for Girardi to match him up against a tough left-handed hitter in the middle innings.
With these five players set in their roles, the other three spots are up for grabs this spring.
Whitley and Rogers have a great shot at winning two of those spots because they both are former starters. Whitley is ideal for the long-relief and spot-start role Phelps once had. Rogers has not harnessed his ability yet and time is running out. But he is veteran with a good arm.
The last spot will be decided in spring training with a lot of potential candidates.
One good thing is that a lot of those candidates such as Burawa, Pinder and Shreve are young, Behind them are a pair of up-and-coming prospects like Ramirez and Lindgren.
There is good chance you may see both Ramirez and Lindgren on the 25-man roster this season. The Yankees have developed a lot of great depth here.
END OF SERIES