With all due to respect to Christmas, this is actually the most wonderful time of the year. It's been over four months, but Yankee baseball is finally back. Today, the Yankees' pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training in Tampa. While we won't get "real" baseball until Opening Day on April 4th against the Houston Astros, spring training is still a great time of the year to get back into baseball and follow all of your team's emerging storylines.
Heading into spring training for the Yankees, there's a number of stories already developing, and there's plenty to watch for. So without further ado, here's a brief guide of what Yankee fans should follow heading into the most wonderful time of the year.
Masahiro Tanaka's right elbow
This, unfortunately, is becoming one of the more prominent stories of spring training. Tanaka had a bone spur removed from his right elbow in November that apparently dated back to when he was in Japan. Over the past week, Tanaka has thrown off a mound for the first time since the surgery and reportedly looked good in a bullpen session. So, things are good so far, but the word is he's not a lock for Opening Day. Tanaka's elbow is a hot button issue for Yankee fans; ever since he partially tore his UCL, the concern has been that he's just a pitch away from Tommy John. Hopefully, his elbow is more of a non-story this March, but we'll all be keeping an eye on it.
The health of veteran players
Injuries are always a concern during spring training, but the Yankees have more to worry about than most teams given their age and injury histories. Last year, the Yankees were fortunate to have guys like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran stay healthy in March. They didn't all stay healthy for the entire season, but they combined to play 395 games and provided solid production when healthy. Everyone would sign up for that again in a heartbeat. However, A-Rod is 40 and his body won't be as fresh as it was entering last season, Teixeira continues to land on the DL, and Beltran is 38 with injury questions of his own.
Who will be the backup catcher?
This looks like a two-man race between Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine. Sanchez seems to have the leg up after a strong Arizona Fall League, but he certainly hasn't locked the spot up. Romine has major league experience and has proven to be a solid defender. His bat leaves a lot to be desired (career 41 wRC+), but that is just a 77 game sample, and you could likely do worse for a backup catcher. Also of note, Romine is out of minor league options, so would have to clear waivers if they sent him to Triple-A.
Sanchez, on the other hand, is viewed as one of the Yankees' top prospects, perhaps even the best. In 22 Arizona Fall League games, Sanchez hit seven homers, knocked in 21 runs, hit .295 and had a .357 OBP. Safe to say it was an impressive showing. Just 23, he could provide value as a righty power bat backing up McCann and perhaps stealing some starts against lefties.
Sanchez is definitely the more promising of the two and will eventually be their starting catcher, but don't be surprised if Romine has a good spring and makes this a legitimate competition.
How will the top prospects perform?
In my opinion, the most exciting part of spring training will be getting to see heralded prospects such as Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, James Kaprielian, and Sanchez take the field. We've already seen Judge and Sanchez in spring training, but it'll be interesting to see if Sanchez can grab that backup catcher spot, and if Judge hits any balls to the moon.
Yankee fans will be getting their first looks at Mateo and Kaprielian with the big league club, though. Mateo has the tools to get fans excited with his blazing speed, and the first-rounder Kaprielian shined in Staten Island and looks like he'll be a solid 3 starter in the not-so-distant future.
Sanchez is the only one with a realistic shot to make the team, but getting a glimpse into the Yankees' future will surely be intriguing. There will also be midlevel prospects in Tampa like Dustin Fowler, Tyler Wade, and Brady Lail that will be looking to make their marks.
Who will get the 25th roster spot?
The Yankees don't have a ton of positional battles, but the race for the 25th roster spot will definitely be fun to watch. Rob Refsnyder is the favorite, but he's far from locked in. Sanchez/Romine, Dustin Ackley, and Aaron Hicks make up the first three bench spots. They can still use a backup infielder, but if Starlin Castro can learn to play third, it may not be necessary. The Yankees have hinted that carrying 13 pitchers is not out of the question. It's not a move I like, but it's a possibility.
If they do use it on another offensive player, it would have to be an infielder since they have five outfielders. Refsnyder is the most likely candidate given his talent and (brief) major league experience. Pete Kozma and Ronald Torreyes could be other possibilities, but for now, it seems like Refsnyder's job to lose.
Who fills out the bullpen?
Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances make up a historic backend, but after that it's foggy. Chasen Shreve struggled down the stretch, but showed enough to probably secure a spot. Bryan Mitchell has control issues, but possesses some nasty stuff and could be a weapon out of the bullpen. Ivan Nova figures to be the long man if not in the rotation. If those three make it, the seventh spot is up for grabs between guys like James Pazos, Nick Rumbelow, Brandon Pinder, Kirby Yates and others.
Ideally, the Yankees won't suffer any major injuries and their prospects will impress, but regardless of what ends up happening, we can all agree it's just great to have baseball back.