There’s no doubt that several Yankees will be using the next few weeks as a proving ground to earn themselves some big league playing time. We’re just a week away from games, so it could be useful to identify a handful of players who badly need to have a solid showing in spring training, lest they find themselves stuck in the minor leagues, or worse yet, on the waiver wire.
After such an abysmal 2018 season, some might think that Gary Sanchez is an easy target for this list, but I’m not going to include him in this piece simply because his job isn’t at stake. As bad as he was last season, the Yankees are not going to give Austin Romine the starting job, nor are there any prospects close enough to the bigs that could reasonably force Sanchez to another position. Regardless of spring training performance, Gary Sanchez is going to be the Yankees’ catcher in 2019.
On the other hand, there is a handful of players that have a lot of playing time riding on their performances this spring. Greg Bird is an obvious choice. Bird just hasn’t lived up to his strong 2015 debut. Last season, it seemed pretty clear that three surgeries in three years had taken their toll. He was below league average in both exit velocity and hard hit percentage, which simply won’t cut it at a bat-first position. Bird has revamped his offseason workout plan with a primary goal of staying healthy through 2019.
Giving a strong spring training performance is nothing new to Bird. He put up a 1.098 OPS in during exhibition games in 2017. He’ll need to do something similar this season to remain in the first base conversation for the outset of the 2019 season. If not, Bird’s likely destined for Triple-A.
Similar to Bird, Tommy Kahnle had early success with the Yankees, but he hasn’t been able to follow it up. After arriving in the 2017 trade that also brought Todd Frazier and David Robertson to the Bronx, Kahnle was immediately a force out of the Yankees’ bullpen. That success, however, didn’t follow him to 2018.
Kahnle’s fastball velocity was down considerably this past season. In 2017, he consistently sat 98-100 mph, but the pitch clocked in the 94-96 mph range in 2018. Diminished velocity, combined with some trouble throwing strikes, made Kahnle a non-option. To be fair, he did miss considerable time last season with shoulder inflammation. Perhaps he’ll regain his 2017 brilliance now that he’s totally healthy again.
The right-hander is going to have to bring it this spring because he’s out of minor league options, which makes it much more difficult for Kahnle to be an up-and-down guy this year. Without a strong spring training, Kahnle could quickly find himself in another organization.
Finally, both Clint Frazier and Brett Gardner could use solid camps, but for different reasons. On the one hand, Frazier is playing for the start of his big league career. He’s mostly been in Triple-A since the end of the 2016 season, and hasn’t minced words about his aspirations for 2019. Make no mistake, he wants Gardner’s job.
Frazier certainly could be the starting left fielder at season’s end, but if he wants the job on March 28th, then he needs to bring it this spring training. The 24-year-old has yet to establish a foothold in the Yankees’ lineup in the two small stints he’s spent in the majors. Now that the concussion is totally behind him, Frazier could jump up a place or two on the depth chart with a solid camp.
On the other hand, Brett Gardner is, in a small way, playing for his life this season. Gardner is undoubtedly in the twilight of his career, and he struggled a bit last season. He put up a 2.5 fWAR, which shows he does still have value, but it’s mostly with the glove at this point. Gardy put up a career-low 90 wRC+ in 2018. If he continues to falter this season, it might make promoting Frazier that much easier.
Scarier still, Gardner is a 35-year-old player on a one-year deal. There’s always the chance Gardner is still a serviceable big leaguer in 2020, but given the state of free agency, it’s no guarantee he gets a big league contract next year. A bad start to spring training this year could spell the beginning of the end for him, especially if Frazier plays well.
Whether these guys are trying to regain some lost value, attempting to establish themselves in the big leagues, or trying to extend their careers by one more year, there’s potentially a lot riding on this spring training. No, spring training games are not super meaningful in the grand scheme of the season, but they can mean a lot for individual players. How these four guys perform in the coming weeks will certainly be something to keep an eye on.