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Yankees spring training position battles

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The Yankees are in flux right now, and, as a result, they have quite a few roster spots up for grabs.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For most players on most teams, spring training doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it’s a vital time for getting back up to speed on the field, but, aside from injuries, much of what happens during late-February and March will have little impact on the 162+ games which follow. That doesn’t mean every team can float through the next couple months without making some crucial roster decisions, though.

A club in flux, like the Yankees, will likely have a busier spring training than most teams. New York isn’t quite sure what they are right now, though one thing is for certain: the Yankees aren’t a strict win-now team like the Nationals or Mariners. Because of that, they’ll have the luxury to make decisions from a future-slanted perspective. When choosing between two players, the team can pick a potential asset down the road, such as Jonathan Holder, over an arm who may hold more present value, like Richard Bleier.

This makes the Yankees an interesting team to watch this preseason, as they could prioritize development (and possibly a couple extra losses) over present ability. At the same time, the Yankees also have a glut of young, big-league ready players, and the lack of clear options should also present an enviable dilemma for the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. With that in mind, let’s look at New York’s roster battles for this spring.

Backup Catcher

This may not be the most exciting or particularly important of position battles to see, and I’m fairly certain who the winner will be, but the backup catching gig is probably going to be discussed during the spring, so it’s worth briefly mentioning. Austin Romine is extremely likely to win the job, as a player without minor league options competing against Kyle Higashioka, who has zero big league experience, but remember when I mentioned that the Yankees can stress youth and development? Higashioka hit 21 home runs in just 102 games last season between Double-A and Triple-A, tied for best in the system, with a 134 wRC+. His defense is solid enough, and given the massive jump in power—which seems legit—Higashioka could be a very solid backup with a chance for more. This is far more intriguing than Romine’s average defense and .242/.269/.382 line last season, but the unknowns surround Higashioka mean he’ll likely be sent to Triple-A to at least start next season.

Favorite: Austin Romine

Runner up: Kyle Higashioka

Dark horse: Jorge Saez (AAA) has solid pun potential?

First Base

While backup catcher may have been about youth vs. certainty, this is all youth. The Yankees have two talented first basemen in Tyler Austin and Greg Bird, and will have a tough decision to make at the end of spring training. If, a little over a year ago, you had told me this would be a serious battle, I’d have thought you were crazy. Bird was coming off a powerful rookie season, bashing 11 home runs in 46 games to the tune of a 137 wRC+, and Tyler Austin had seemingly cemented his status as a non-prospect after hitting .235/.309/.311 with almost no power in Triple-A.

Then, a lot of good and bad happened. Devastatingly, Greg Bird required surgery to repair a torn labrum, and was lost for the season. Luckily, Tyler Austin experienced a massive resurgence with an incredible 201 wRC+ in Triple-A and seized the Yankees’ starting first base job by the end of the season with league-average offense in his rookie year.

Bird’s pedigree and instant success at the big league level should give him the edge in spring training, though he looked (understandably) rusty in the Arizona Fall League while rehabbing against minor league pitchers and is recovering from a power-sapping injury. It’s unlikely that what Tyler Austin does this spring will matter—rather, how Bird looks at the plate after missing a year will be the ultimate deciding factor. Either way, though, both players should get decent playing time: Bird probably won’t be able to hold a full-season workload next year, Austin could see some time in the outfield, and the two could also get at bats at designated hitter if Matt Holliday is injured or plays a bit of outfield as well.

Favorite: Greg Bird

Runner up: Tyler Austin

Dark horse: An unretired Mark Teixeira, but with more kale

Right Field

Ah, another big battle, and I’m not just saying that because one player involved is 6’7”. While we all know who’d win in a real fight between the two Aarons, Judge and Hicks, their figurative skirmish on the diamond is far closer. Both players showed great upside going into 2017, and then flopped in the big leagues. The difference is that Hicks struggled over a full season as a 27-year-old in his fourth year in the majors, while Judge was exploited by pitchers in a 27-at-bat cup of coffee.

Hicks still shows solid upside with good speed, some pop, and an outstanding arm and range that would play at all three outfield positions, but he’s yet to be an average hitter in the MLB. I’m the high man on Hicks, and still see a guy who could play plus defense with double digit home runs and steals, but last season was ugly and may have been his first and last chance to start in New York. The former Twin did improve in the last couple months of the season, but his .217/281/336 line and lack of hard contact was discouraging.

Judge also saw his stock take a hit after striking out nearly half the time while in pinstripes (an absurd 44.2% rate), but the long-limbed top prospect deserves plenty more chances to succeed with the Yankees. He’s taken time to adjust at other levels, and given the massive strikeout Judge is saddled with, the team will have to be patient with him. Judge had the best exit velocity in the big leagues last season (min. 95 at bats) and flashed huge power, so he could eventually be an impact bat in the middle of the Yankees’ order. While the chances of him whiffing too much next season and being over-exposed are very real, the upside and pedigree mean he deserves the nod over Hicks, who has upside and pedigree of his own but may have blown his shot. If that’s the case, Hicks could still find a fair number of at bats as the fourth outfielder.

Favorite: Aaron Judge

Runner up: Aaron Hicks

Dark horse: Don’t get too excited about Clint Frazier yet, but he’ll be in big league camp

40% of the Starting Rotation

This has been the most discussed battle of all, and it looks more like a Royal Rumble than a two-man match. The Yankees have plenty of interesting arms to slot behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda in the rotation, and there will be four players pitching for two spots. The best of all has to be former top prospect Luis Severino, who was being talked about as the ‘next Yankees ace’ last offseason but was demoted to Triple-A by mid-May.

Sevy was huge for the Yankees in the second half of 2015, with a 2.89 ERA and 8.09 K/9 in 11 starts, but last year showed some of this was luck. Still, his 8.50 ERA as a starter was shocking, and a result of regression in Severino’s secondary pitches and command, along with a serious adjustment by big league hitters. He was essentially a two-pitch pitcher who struggled to spot his fastball in 2016, which sounds like the profile of a reliever, not a starter. The Yankees seemed to agree, and stuck him in the bullpen late in the season, where he was dominant. The success there means Sevy will have a shorter leash as a starter, but his electric stuff will warrant at least one more chance out of the starting rotation—the Yankees simply can’t give up on this good of an arm when he’s just 22 years old. Severino could certainly be sent to Triple-A to start next season, though, if he struggles in the Spring.

Even if Severino is the 4th starter, there is a spot for Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell to compete for. Cessa had the best 2016, with a 4.01 ERA out of the rotation, and looks the part of a classic fifth starter that doesn’t strike out many batters, and, if home runs are kept under control, is at the very least a good placeholder. He’s probably the favorite to make the rotation at this point, given his performance for the Yankees last year. Green has more upside than Cessa, as he struck out 10.25 batters per nine innings last season after dominating Triple-A. But, like Cessa, he was victimized by the long ball, and ended up with a 5.94 ERA in eight starts.

Mitchell had the most buzz going into the season, but missed much of the year with a broken toe. He returned to toss five starts at the end of the year, though, and despite walking more than he struck out, somehow had a 3.24 ERA. To say this is unsustainable is an understatement, though with a normal offseason and Spring, Mitchell does show some solid upside. Unfortunately, he’s more of a two-pitch pitcher right now, and is the most likely of the trio to end up in the bullpen.

Favorites: Luis Severino, Luis Cessa

Runner ups: Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell

Dark horse: Don’t get too excited about James Kaprielian and Chance Adams yet, but they’ll be in big league camp

A lot of the Bullpen

The complexion of the bullpen will primarily depend on how the rotation shakes out, as the two arms who miss out at starting jobs will be shifted to the bullpen (unless it’s Severino, who would probably be sent to Triple-A to hone his command and changeup further). Beyond the losers of the rotation battle, who would likely end up being long or middle-relievers of the team, the Yankees also have the closing job (Aroldis Chapman) and primary set-up man (Dellin Betances) locked down. Tyler Clippard should also get some high leverage innings, and Adam Warren is next in the pecking order. That leaves two or three spots open, whose candidates include, but are not limited to, Tommy Layne, Johnny Barbato, Richard Bleier, Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve.

Tommy Layne figures to be the next best bet to make the team after throwing 16 innings of 3.38 ERA ball last season. He was death to lefties and should land on the 25-man as the lefty specialist who can also give some quality middle relief. He isn’t a lock, though, as his job is threatened by a guy who had a K/9 under 4 between Double-A and Triple-A for the past two seasons. That’s right, our friend Richard Bleier is the unlikeliest of Yankees to pitch well, but encountered huge big league success as a 29-year-old rookie with a 1.96 ERA in 23 innings last year. Given his anemic whiff rates and 90 mph fastball, it’s hard to see that ERA continuing, but lefties also couldn’t touch this southpaw. It’s unlikely both him and Layne make the big league team, but one of them will.

Behind those two is Chasen Shreve, who has plenty of major league experience, which…isn’t necessarily a good thing. Ever since an excellent first half in 2015, Shreve’s been crushed by big leaguers and had a 5.18 ERA last season. The ‘track record’ will earn him another legitimate audition, but the ship on Shreve may have sailed.

Then comes the prospects: Johnny Barbato, Ben Heller, and Jonathan Holder. Holder figures to be the best of them, but, like the other two, has almost no big-league experience. This trio will get looks from the team, and, as much as I hate to suggest performance matters in spring training, it will really influence whether these guys end up in Triple-A or the MLB on Opening Day.

Favorites: Tommy Layne, Jonathan Holder

Runner ups: Richard Bleier, Chasen Shreve

Who the hell knows: Johnny Barbato, Ben Heller, and Jonathan Holder

Dark horses: Every pitcher in Double-A and Triple-A, because even Richard Bleier had a 1.96 ERA last year