Possible Roles for the Yankees Latest Acquisitions

The Yankees have recently added three high upside / high risk players via trade:  Starlin Castro, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green.  Given the uncertainty surrounding these players… it’s tough to say exactly what kind of production the Yankees will get going forward, but what are some possible roles that they could play in 2016 and beyond? Starlin Castro

Possible Roles Taking on ~$10 million in 2017 payroll while pinching pennies elsewhere probably indicates that the Yankees see Castro playing a major role.  Still, given the ups and downs of his career, I’d imagine Castro will have to earn playing time rather than having it handed to him.

Castro has the positional versatility to fill any number of roles.  Exactly where and how often he plays in 2016 is likely to be determined not only by his level of play, but also in part by the level of play of his teammates (especially Dustin Ackley, Rob Refsnyder, Chase Headley, and Didi Gregorious).

Role What it says about Castro’s play   What it says about the play of others
Starting 2B Playing well and/or Refsnyder / Ackley playing poorly
Super-UTL* Playing at least well enough to earn playing time and At least three other IFs healthy and playing above replacement
UTL* Playing poorly and/or At least three other IFs playing well
Starting SS/3B Playing at least well enough to earn playing time and/or Didi and/or Headley is injured or struggling

*I’m defining ‘super-UTL’ as someone who plays full-time or nearly full-time, just across multiple positions vs. ‘UTL’ as your traditional back-up IF who plays sporadically more because someone else needs a day off than because you want him on the field.

Best Case 2016 Role Sitting here today, we can't predict exactly how Castro and his teammates will play going forward.  We can ask, though, what's the best outcome for the Yankees?  Several outcomes are possible, each with a different probability of coming to pass.  As fans, what outcome should we be rooting for?  What's the value of each outcome to the Yankees?

Getting a good starting 2B at ~$10M annually would certainly be a nice outcome for the Yankees.  If Castro averages, say, 3 WAR over the next four seasons, we will probably consider this trade a ‘win’ or at least ‘tie’ for the Yankees.  However, the best outcome for the team may be a little different from the outcome that best ‘wins’ the individual trade.  The best outcome for the team depends not only on Castro's play, but also on the play of his teammates.

Viewed through this lens, I think a super-UTL scenario might actually be the best case for the Yankees.  This outcome would mean that the Yankees have good enough options at 2B, 3B, and SS that they can allow Castro to rove between different positions even if he's playing well.

Now, super-UTL is more a dream than an actual MLB role.  Teams rarely have enough good infielders not to just stick their good one(s) at one position full-time.  Good players tend to prefer having a set position to moving around from night to night.  And few organizations show creativity in deploying super-UTLs (how many teams besides the Rays do it at all?).

However, I think the best case for the Yankees is one where Didi, Headley, Ackley, and Refsnyder are all healthy and playing well, so that… even though Castro is playing well himself… Castro can move around to play mostly 2B, but also some 3B and some SS.

Castro might still play 140, 150 games and he might play more of them at 2B than any other position, but being able to deploy Castro across positions could give the Yankees the flexibility to do some fun things.  Besides occasionally resting Didi (against LHP) and Headley (against RHP, presumably), the Yankees could also work out some sort of super-rotation there they occasionally use Castro at 2B, Refsnyder in LF, and Hicks in CF against a LHSP.

Beyond 2016, Castro could continue in the super-UTL role or fill whatever hole opens up due to injury, ineffectiveness, or the departure of another IF.  For example, Headley continues to decline?  Castro is your primary 3B and you stick with Refsnyder/Ackley at 2B.  Refsnyder gets traded?  Castro plays more 2B.

Most Likely 2016 Role I assume that the Yankees will give Castro every chance to earn the 2B job.  I think the Yankees expected a starting caliber IF when they gave up a dirt cheap, versatile pitcher with a good MLB track record and took on Castro's salary.

The Yankees have been innovative enough to throw around concepts like a rotating DH and super-UTL in the past, so maybe they'll take advantage of Castro's versatility even if he does well...  maybe the plan was to get a super-UTL.  But I kind of doubt it.  Cashman said he would only bring in a 2B who can play on both sides of the ball, and he has a decent candidate to do so now.

It's probably more likely that Ackley and maybe even Refsnyder rove between multiple positions on a regular basis than Castro, but we'll have to see how all three play going forward before we really know.  There's just a lot of variability in that group of three 2B.  I wouldn't be shocked if any of the three has a 4 WAR year in 2016 or a -1 WAR year.  And that's before even considering the variability around the rest of the IF.

Player Steamer 2016 wRC+ Steamer 600 2016 WAR
Starlin Castro 90 1.4
Rob Refsnyder 103 2.5
Dustin Ackley 100 2.1

Opinions are likely going to be split on who should be the Yankees starting 2B.  The good news is that the Yankees have all three of these guys.  Over the course of the season, the Yankees should be able to find a 2B situation that works.  The Yankees might even find a starting 2B and two good bench players.

Fallback 2016 Role A RH platoon bat for the Yankees LH heavy IF is a solid fallback option even if Castro struggles.  Castro hasn’t had significant platoon splits the past three seasons, but on his career he has produced a 106 wRC+ against LHP and a 93 wRC+ against RHP.

It’s not the ideal outcome, but even if he struggles Castro should be an improvement over Brendan Ryan as a traditional UTL.  In this sense, Castro potentially solves a real roster building dilemma: getting a back-up SS who can hit (at least a little bit).  If the Yankees do use Castro as their primary back-up SS, it potentially makes the roster more dangerous by replacing a Pete Kozma type with a guy who can potentially have a larger impact at another position.

Luis Cessa and Chad Green

Possible Roles The Yankees options are a little less exciting with the two pitching prospects they picked up for Justin Wilson.  The key questions regarding role come down to 1) starting or relieving and 2) AAA or MLB.

I’m going to lump these two pitchers together.  Luis Cessa is considered the better prospect and his command gives him a better shot at starting than Chad Green… but the Yankees options with both are fairly similar.  Each is a fireballer who figures to begin 2016 in the AAA rotation, and each may have to move to the ‘pen long-term because of a lack of secondary stuff.

Best Case 2016 Roles Second half rotation reinforcements.  Best case, essentially what Luis Severino did in 2015.  But somewhere on the 2015 Severino – 2014 Shane Greene – 2010 Ivan Nova continuum.

The Yankees head into 2016 with decent rotation depth, but also with serious question marks in their rotation.  Cessa and Green give them two solid prospects in the AAA rotation who could potentially work their way to the big league rotation this summer.

Now, this scenario would mean that one or more of the Yankees starters ahead of these guys gets replaced… but across an entire rotation, what are the odds that no one gets hurt or struggles?

So, while it would be amazing if everything comes up rainbows and butterflies for Tanaka, Severino, Eovaldi, Pineda, and CC/Nova in 2016…  I still feel ok calling an internal upgrade a best case for the Yankees.  It could be that one of the big league starters is hurt or struggling, but it could also just be that Cessa and/or Green is beasting.

Most Likely 2016 Roles My guess is both spend the vast majority of the season in the AAA Scranton rotation.  Maybe Cessa, who is on the 40-man, makes one or two spot starts at the MLB level.  Cessa figures to join the Yankees bullpen when rosters expand in September, if not sooner, and maybe Green will follow the same path.  But most likely, I think these guys are spending 2016 in AAA getting ready for 2017.

I think that this is the most likely case just because the Yankees already have decent depth ahead of these two and at least some depth around/behind them.

Tanaka, Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino, CC, and Nova all have recent experience in the Yankees rotation.  Should a rotation spot open up early in the season, Bryan Mitchell might get first dibs since he’s arguably further along in his development than Cessa or Green.  Brady Lail and Jaron Long will also compete for a call-up, and Rookie Davis and Dan Camarena might not be far behind.  (James Kaprielian, Domingo Acevedo, and maybe Ian Clarkin have the potential to shoot through the system, as well, though it’s fairly unlikely.)

In terms of Cessa or Green breaking into the Bronx out of the ‘pen…  well, the Yankees bullpen depth is pretty well documented.  After trading away Warren and Wilson, the team could theoretically reach a point where Cessa or Green is needed in the 2016 MLB bullpen.  More likely, I think, the Yankees will continue giving these two the chance to work as starters and try out their two dozen other MLB-ready relief prospects.

Fallback 2016 Roles Sticking out the whole 2016 season in the AAA rotation seems like a fallback option, but I’m going to argue that’s the plan.  The real fallback is giving up on one or both of these guys as a starting pitcher and going the bullpen route.  (I could be wrong, with Green particularly, and the Yankees might have acquired one or both of these guys with a likely move to the 'pen in mind...  I just think the need is more acute for long-term rotation pieces, so I assume adding rotation options was the primary goal in bringing these two in.)

A move to the 'pen likely means that Cessa/Green can’t hack it in the AAA rotation and/or the Yankees bullpen depth has fallen apart.  Neither is a particularly good outcome, but even if things don’t work out the Yankees have two more names that they can potentially throw into the bullpen mix.

It’s a crowded mix, but that’s the point.  Some of these prospects will never succeed.  Some will succeed for a time, and then fail.  Prospects are highly variable... relievers are highly variable... so RP prospects are, you guessed it, highly variable.  The goal is to have so many bullpen possibilities that even after some natural attrition, the Yankees still have enough guys succeed to have a good bullpen.  (Or even have so many RPs succeed that they can start using previous successes as trade pieces, as they have recently with Kelley, Warren, and Wilson.)