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Yankees mailbag: J.A. Happ, Greg Bird, defense, more

The answers to this week’s mailbag are in

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MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

I like to open these mailbags with a friendly greeting, but I should acknowledge the obviously serious news: MLB canceled spring training and delayed the start of the regular season by two weeks. This decision came in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

After much discussion with SB Nation leadership and my staff, I decided it’s best to maintain business as usual—as best we can—during this period. The answers in this week’s mailbag reflect this attitude.

I expect to run another mailbag next week, so long as you still have questions. You can send them in our weekly call or by e-mail to pinstripealleyblog [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks everyone!

Kyle Ren asks: Is J.A. Happ’s spring performance sustainable? What have you seen from him currently that would suggest it is?

Happ, 37, had a remarkable spring, allowing two earned runs over 13 innings. He struck out 16 (!!) batters, compared to just one free pass. Spring training stats aren’t a reliable forecast for regular season success, as there’s too much noise and not much signal. Justin Klugh over at FanGraphs wrote a nice piece on the subject earlier in the week.

As far as Happ’s concerned, though, there’s more than the stat line to justify optimism. Lindsey Adler recently reported (subscription required) that Happ spent the winter working with Matt Blake and Sam Briend in an attempt to rebuild his mechanics; the southpaw called it his pursuit of “whippyness”.

Consider this GIF of Happ from 2019. He throws more in an overhand fashion—his release point being rather close to his body.

This spring he looks to have a more three-quarter release point, one that’s farther away from him.

This adjustment has led to increased velocity compared to his usual spring efforts, which bodes well for the future. Happ is a fastball-heavy pitcher, so adding any oomph to his heater could translate to improved effectiveness. I find more reason for optimism in that than his Grapefruit League stats.

Greg asks: With the outfield injuries across the board, I was wondering who the starters/bench would be? What would be the best offensive alignment for the outfield? What would the best defensive alignment be?

It’s quite possible that the Opening Day Yankees will have Giancarlo Stanton available, and maybe Aaron Judge, if the club’s lucky. For the spirit of this question, though, I won’t include them.

The best offense-first outfield should look something like this:

LF - Miguel Andujar (130 wRC+ in 2018)
CF - Mike Tauchman (128 wRC+ in 2019)
RF - Clint Frazier (108 wRC+ in 2019)

I picked Frazier over Brett Gardner, who had a 115 wRC+ in 2019, based on his upside. The 25-year-old has explosive bat speed, the kind of talent that could carry an entire offense for a month or so. Just look back at what he did last April. Gardner, meanwhile, doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, suggesting he may have benefited a good deal from last year’s juiced ball.

The defense-first outfield, on the other hand, looks like:

LF - Mike Tauchman
CF - Brett Gardner
RF - Tyler Wade

The advanced stats like Tauchman better than Gardner defensively, which is why I put him in the spacious left field of Yankee Stadium. It was tough to pick a right fielder, but Wade has some experience there. He’s fast and has a strong enough arm, so he wins the job.

Paul asks: Greg Bird, Stephen Tarpley, and Chance Adams are a few players the Yankees gave up on this winter. What has happened to them? A few were picked up by other teams. My question is have they made a complete turnaround and are likely to make the team on Opening Day? Or did the complete collapse continue?

Bird, Tarpley, and Adams went to spring training with the Rangers, Marlins and Royals, respectively. Bird struggled in camp, going 3-for-29 with nine strikeouts. It’s unfortunate, but injuries appear to have stalled the first baseman’s career out. I would be pretty surprised if he made the team.

Tarpley, meanwhile, allowed four runs (three earned) over 6.1 innings of work. He still has a decent shot at making the team, though, as the Marlins lack left-handers in their bullpen. Adams, on the other hand, has had a good spring, allowing just one run over 5.1 innings. The Royals have room in their bullpen, so he could conceivably make the club. They might want to look at their arms without minor-league options first, though.

Rick asks: I wasn’t enamored with Gleyber Torres’ defense at short last year, and in the few games I’ve seen this spring, he has looked shaky at best. Among Estrada, Wade, Herrera, or someone else, who do you see as the backup shortstop?

Torres has had a rough spring with the glove, and he knows it, too. “Not really good now,” he said in a self-assessment to Ken Davidoff. The 23-year-old made five errors in Grapefruit League play, with opposing scouts criticizing his first-step reaction time to the New York Post.

The Yankees could add a defense-first backup on the roster, but I suspect they will opt for versatility. That means Wade or Rosell Herrera. I’d give Wade the edge over the two defensively, but I’d expect Torres to get the majority of innings at shortstop.

Peter summed it up eloquently in a recent post:

Ultimately, the Yankees will live with below-average play at short given what Gleyber offers at the plate. When a player has a batting ability as transcendent as he does, especially at his age, you tend to overlook the handful of misplays in the field that will inevitably come during the season. That being said, firming up on the fundamentals of defense is not a big ask and will only make Torres that much more special of a talent.

The Yankees will take his bat over a slick glove any day. I would too.