- Cary Greene
The Two Elephants in the Room
Spring Training Thoughts
by Cary Greene
March 18, 2023
The Two Elephants in the Room
Spring Training Thoughts, by Cary Greene
Experienced fans know not to make too much of Spring Training results, but every year, perhaps a fringy player on a Non Roster Invite might stand out, which makes it a bit tough of Yankees GM Brian Cashman because he has to determine whether or not he wants to clear a spot on the roster to accommodate someone who’s forced his way onto the Yankees radar with their play.
Sometimes injuries to players already on the roster open tiny windows of opportunities for NRI players and other times, the NRI player just looks too good during Spring Training to pass on, risking having to DFA the player and lose them to another team through waivers. If you missed my most recent piece on Framing the Yankees Injury Issues, give it a look because it really opens the door to today's topic.
There’s no question that injuries require a team to dip into its organizational depth. Often, NRI players are veterans who the Yankees hope to catch “lightning in a bottle” with, but the flip side of the coin is that NRI players can also be prospects who the Yankees might want an extended look at - or in some cases, the Yankees will plug a hole and probably option or even DFA the prospect if necessary, once the injured player returns.
In recent memory, a great example of a NRI player who forced his way onto the Yankees roster with a really solid spring two years ago was lefty reliever Lucas Leutge (who was DFA’d this offseason and traded to the Braves for two minor leaguers, one of them, right-hander Indigo Diaz (24) was Atlanta’s No. 22 prospect per MLB Pipeline.
Luetge was one of the most consistent relievers in the Yankees bullpen over the past two seasons, posting a 2.71 ERA over 107 games, baffling opposing hitters with an ability to induce weak contact with dazzling spin rates but low pitch velocities. Why would the Yankees trade a well liked lefty reliever who was so consistent and effective? Mainly because Cashman signed righty Tommy Kahnle to a two-year deal earlier this winter.
Non Roster Invitee Number One
This spring, the Yankees have several NRI players who came into camp and have been getting a good number of at-bats, which signals that the Yankees are evaluating them. Now, with all the injuries factored in, some of them might actually break camp with the Bombers, actually making the roster. How much time they wind up getting kind of winds up on the various timelines of all the injured players.
Willie Calhoun, a 28-year old left handed who was a fourth round, 2015 Draft pick by the Dodgers and who has shined the brightest amongst the Yankees NRI player, is now projected by Fangraphs to make the team out of Spring Training. Slashing .370/.469/.519 with a .988 OPS so far this spring, Calhoun has gone 10 for 27 so far and he’s third on the team in Spring Training at-bats - a clear sign that the Yankees are looking at him seriously.
Offensive projections for Calhoun in 2023 are smidge better than they are for Aaron Hicks, who’s presently slashing .231/.259/.385 as he’s gone 6-26 with 1 home run and is projected to have .306 wOBA and 100 wRC+.
Perhaps the Yankees may elect to start the season using Calhoun, Hicks and Oswaldo Cabrera to provide some left-handed balance in the lineup. At best,Calhoun is probably a stop gap solution.
Glaring positional needs for the Yankees are at shortstop, center field and left field. A positional roster spot has als opened up as the Yankees need to cover for center fielder Harrison Bader (strained oblique) and the team also needs to address who their third-string catcher will be, so they can cover for Ben Rortvedt (shoulder surgery - aneurysm), who will be out a long time.
The Yankees also need a fifth starter with Carlos Rodon (strained forearm) and Frankie Montas (needs shoulder surgery) both expected to be out for some time. The bullpen also has a number of openings with Scott Effross (TJS), Tommy Kahnle (Biceps Tendinitis) and Lou Trivino (strained elbow) all out. Not surprisingly, 23% of the Yankees 26-man roster will need to be filled with good old Yankees depth.
Today, the main purpose is to discuss the two elephants in the room while saving a pitching discussion for another day. I’m always a big fan of reverse engineering the solution so before I suggest a few things, let me state what my perceived goal is for the 2023 season, the start of which looms in the foreboding rain clouds of the April calendar. The battered, tattered, Yankees got splattered in the ALCS by the Astros. The goal is to win the World Series and if I were Cashman, that would be all that mattered.
Which Areas Held the Yankees Back Last Season?
Therefore, I’d first identify what held the Yankees back from winning a championship last season? Was it really just that the Astros pitching was flat out too good? Were the Yankees just too banged up to field a competitive team? While it’s certainly true that the offense stalled out badly against the Astros in the ALCS, the starting pitching also failed miserably at keeping the Astros offense in check. Identifying what went wrong might help to fix the problem and Game One of the 2023 season represents the first step towards addressing things.
Regarding the Yankees playoffs lineup last season, it was unbalanced and missing a few very key pieces like DJ LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi. Not to mention, Matt Carpenter’s timing was off and in retrospect, he probably shouldn’t have been put on the roster. Unfortunately, Cashman couldn’t even put Hicks on the playoffs roster last offseason because of how badly he was hitting.
In a surprising and fairly controversial Deadline deal, Cashman traded the fairly solid and reliable lefty starter Jordan Montgomery for the often injured ball hawk, center fielder Harrison Bader. With Bader now injured yet again, at bare minimum, the Yankees need a temporary solution in center field.
After kicking the tires on just about every left fielder who made sense for the Yankees this offseason, Cashman ultimately failed to offset the losses of both Benintendi and Carpenter, who together made up 66 percent of the team’s best left-handed hitters and he’s once again - you guessed it - counting on Aaron Hicks.
Banking on Hicks Again
Banking on the streaky Aaron Hicks, who is often injured himself, to eat innings in center field while Bader is out sounds like a remarkably bad plan. In fact, it’s never a good plan to count on a below league average offensive player who’s really supposed to be in more of a bench role and considering the injury track record of Hicks, it seems like the Yankees should really sit down and think this plan through. Plus, the Yankees don’t know when Bader can make it back and they don’t know if he’ll be effective. Aaron Judge missed 62 games in 2019 with a strained Oblique - that’s 38% of the season folks.
Is an Oblique Injury Serious?
More serious oblique strains can require surgery and players can miss three to four months, but the timeline for Bader’s return is listed by CBS Sports as being about 6 weeks, which sounds like it may be a grade 2 strain.
For those wondering, the External Oblique originates on the sternum, external surfaces and inferior borders of the lower eight ribs. It inserts on the pubis and iliac crest of the hips in an area of the body called the “core” and is responsible for compression of the abdomen, controlling the flexing and rotating of the trunk area of the body.
Like nearly all injuries, there is an increased chance of reinjury and with oblique injuries, the chances are pretty high that it may recur. I’ve read studies that suggest that chances of reinjury is around 12 percent. A big part of hitting involves the rotation of the hips (thoracic rotation) and also make the flexing of the pelvic area very painful, so obviously an oblique injury can very much negatively affect a players ability to drive the baseball. Considering Bader’s injury was the result of an awkward swing, the possibility may exist that the injury could recur over the course of the season.
Uncertainty in Center Field
Compounding the uncertainty of Bader is that left field also needs to be addressed. I’m not convinced Hicks, Calhoun and Cabrera are going to be the answer if the goal is to win a World Series. The Yankees have been getting Aaron Judge reps in left field, because they finally realize that having a mobile left fielder with range is an asset in Yankee stadium, just like the same is true in right field at Fenway Park.
Assuming Judge plays mostly left field at the stadium, the Yankees may want to play Giancarlo Stanton in right field, using Oswaldo Cabrera as a spot starter and late game defensive replacement. Considering Judge is a better center fielder than Hicks, the Yankees plans to use Judge in left field may fall through as they could be forced to play the reigning MVP in center field for as long as Bader is out. Is this the best solution?
The Two Bookends
Starting with the strategy in center field, Cashman has an opportunity to reverse engineer a championship. Because Hicks isn’t a player the Yankees can count on, Cashman should plan on using his two bookends, Judge and Stanton, the way I’ve been dreaming of since Stanton was first acquired. Since both Stanton and Judge bat right-handed, some outfield balance is badly needed - but implementing a plan like this would require the Yankees to have a center fielder.
Blowing His Opportunity
If Estevan Florial was tearing up Spring Training, the Yankees might want to give him a chance, seeing as how he’s out of options and will have to be DFA’d if he doesn’t make the Active Roster out of camp. Unfortunately, this spring, despite the Yankees giving him the third most at-bats on the team, he’s played well below the Mendoza line as he’s gone 4 for 29 and is batting .138 with an anemic 518 OPS and a 44.8 percent strikeout rate.
After a recent game, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, “He’s gonna get opportunities here,” “We’ll see how it all shakes out.” Afterwards, Florial spoke about his situation, saying, “I know what’s going on,” “I need to go out there and be the best I can. I know what type of player I am. Doesn’t matter what has happened, I know I’m gonna be OK because I know what I can do when they give me the opportunity to play.”
The clock is getting close to striking midnight on Florial’s time with the Yankees. He has less than two weeks to prove that he’s worthy of a spot on the 26-man roster. Otherwise that opportunity likely will be with another organization. Harrison Bader’s oblique injury handed Florial a golden opportunity, but it’s unfortunately easier to prevent bad habits and Florial’s issues with strikeouts have been with him throughout his entire minor league career to date.
Florial is competing with outfielders like non-roster invitees Calhoun and Rafael Ortega (who is batting .222 with two homers). Utilityman Oswaldo Cabrera also is in line to play in the outfield again this year while shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa is adding center field to his repertoire this spring as well. Veteran Aaron Hicks is in line to start in left on Opening Day, unless he’s in center with Aaron Judge in left and Giancarlo Stanton in right.
“I’m going to control what I can,” Florial said. “Right now, it’s going out there and giving the best that I can. At the end, they can make the decision.”
Other than hitting a home run the other day, Florial has done nothing this spring but show the Yankees that they should consider DFAing him soon and that’s really a cryin’ shame based on how toolsy of a prospect he is, but I’m afraid the Yankees may think it’s the end of the line for him.
It does seem like the Yankees will soon cut ties with Florial and elect to go with Calhoun and his hot 27 at-bat showing in the Grapefruit league to date, as part of a left field platoon with Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge..etc.
The albatross that is Aaron Hicks’ contract means he can’t be traded so like Edith Bunker was stuck with, or cursed with perhaps, Archie Bunker for a husband, the Yankees appear to be similarly glued to Hicks. DFAing Hicks would be massive news and wouldn’t make Cashman look too bright, considering he extended him back in 2019. Therefore I do expect the Yankees to break camp with Hicks once again on the roster. Personally, I think doing that is pointless. Hicks isn’t deserving of a spot on a World Series championship caliber team.
Opening the season with Hicks and Calhoun added to a mix of Judge, Stanton and Cabrera doesn’t seem to scream, “World Series champs” does it? There is however another alternative.
The First Elephant
The Yankees have a lot of depth behind Florial and Hicks and that depth has surfaced this Spring, in the name of Jasson Dominguez - who is the first elephant in the room I wanted to discuss today.
Based on the number of at-bats the Yankees have found for Dominguez so far this spring (21), he’s not being used quite as much as other players the Yankees are considering, like the aforementioned Calhoun (27) and Florial (29). I watch things like this because it signals which players the Yankees are looking at the hardest and usually, the players on the bubble are often the ones who get the most play in Spring Training.
Personally I don’t think the Yankees will promote Dominguez to start the year, but they should. The real problem is service time of course and Dominguez isn’t even on the 40-man roster. Cashman would need to clear a roster spot if Dominguez were anointed the starter in center field on opening day.
Complicating the matter is that Estevan Florial doesn’t just need to be kept on the 40-man roster, but he needs to make the team or, as mentioned, he gets DFA’d. Since the Yankees can’t move Hicks, Florial is likely gone and so that opens a 40 man roster spot. With Bader starting the season on the Disabled List, that also opens a 40 man roster spot, which Calhoun would likely occupy as the Yankees give him an extended look/opportunity.
When Bader returns, Calhoun would likely be DFA’d, so the Yankees would view Florial’s roster spot as a way to perhaps accommodate someone else who forces his way into the conversation.
Is the First Elephant Ready for the Jungle?
Dominguez is getting an extended look this spring. He’s been ripping Grapefruit League pitching, which we all know is basically rated somewhere slightly below Triple-A level, clubbing the baseball to the tune of a thunderous 1.500 OPS while going 9-21 (.429) with 4 home runs and 9 RBI’s. He’s also a switch-hitter who happens to play centerfield at this stage of his career. The Yankees have the perfect storm brewing here because Spring Training has basically been a micro-stint at Triple-A for Dominguez already.
Besides, Dominguez is one of the most talented prospects the Yankees have had in a long while. Cashman should think about winning a World Series and he sure could use a switch hitting center fielder with real in game power.
Dominguez is absolutely going to go through growing pains as he faces real big league pitching and the league adjusts to him, but the Martian has shown an excellent eye at the plate and he’s demonstrated very good strike zone recognition. He may never be the next Mike Trout, but he sure looks like he’s capable of helping the Yankees right now and let’s face it, they need the help. With a full MLB season under his belt, Dominguez might actually be prepared for postseason pitching, but for this to happen, the Yankees need to put him in position to do that.
With Judge in left field a lot, Dominguez playing center field and Stanton in right field (with Cabrera helping out as well), the Yankees could depend a whole lot less on Bader and Hicks and by the end of the season, Dominguez could become a lineup balancing stalwart for the Yankees. Doing that does scream, “World Series champs!” - doesn’t it?
The cool part of a plan to promote Dominguez is that he would occupy Florial’s roster spot and it would cost the Yankees nothing this season - though they would lose service time for sure so they’d pay through the nose at a later date if he blooms into the superstar he could easily become.
My point is - promoting Dominguez is easily possible but again, I doubt the Yankees will do it.
Continuing the Reverse Engineering
For the next order of business according to my reverse engineering a championship roster, I point to what is really the most glaring problem in the Yankees universe - who’s the shortstop going to be?
I think by now, most fans are starting to realize that Isiah Kiner-Falefa is destined to be a backup going forward as he truly does look like what he really is and that is - a utility player. He’s not a starting big league shortstop on a world championship team.
Fans paying attention to Grapefruit League box scores might be starting to question whether or not Oswald Peraza’s bat is good enough to make him an everyday player. They might also notice that the Yankees seem to be preparing Isiah Kiner-Falefa for a utility role, serving not only as insurance for the aging Josh Donaldson and DJ LeMaheiu, If either of those two players goes down, Kiner-Falefa becomes an important depth piece.
This spring, Peraza has gone 4 for 20, batting .200 (but with a .733 OPS thanks to a recent home run) while basically highlighting some of his StatCast deficiencies in the process. I know the Yankees have been high on him but the scouts I know feel his floor may be as a utility player.
One thing it seems most everyone agrees on is that Peraza is a pretty slick fielder with good foot speed and a plus arm. Personally, I think it’s way too early in his development to make any conclusions about his long term positional fit, much less determine what his ceiling is. Even the StatCast data from last season is based on a very small sample size.
I do think Peraza could also be a valuable piece on a World Series team as soon as this season, but in case his developing bat has a steeper learning curve than his advanced glove does, it would behoove the Yankees to consider moving him around the infield and also seeing if his speed, glove and arm could also play in both center field and left field.
If Peraza learned to play the outfield, he might increase his value, which is already pretty high due to his infield versatility. I also think he should get plenty of time at shortstop this season.
The Second Elephant
Enter Anthony Volpe, who’s looked fantastic at shortstop and who’s also shown the Yankees that he’s got one heck of a good bat. Presently being tied for the team lead in at-bats shows the Yankees really are looking long and hard at Volpe. He’s 10 for 30 so far this spring with 4 doubles, 2 home runs, a .333 average and a 1.1126 OPS.
If the Yankees want to win a championship, they should consider installing Volpe at shortstop and be willing to let him grow and mature against big league pitching. There will absolutely be some growing pains with such a young player, but we’re talking about a highly regarded hitting prospect, one of the best in MiB.
Volpe doesn’t quite have the strike zone maturity of Dominguez as Volpe’s Spring Training 23.3 percent K-Rate shows but his 20 percent BB-Rate indicates he’s absolutely been willing to show the Yankees he’s willing to take his walks.
Against the better pitching that awaits when the season starts, Volpe’s K-Rate will determine whether he gets optioned to Scranton or not. Across two levels last year (Double-A and Triple-A), Volpe’s K-Rate was 23.1%, but the bulk of his at-bats (422 of them) came at Double-A.
If the Yankees are convinced that Volpe is the best option, he very well might find himself installed as the starting shortstop when camp breaks and it would signal that the Yankees intend to see if they can get him comfortable with the job right out of the gate. It also might signal that the Yankees want a longer look at both Peraza and Volpe, with perhaps each player getting playing time where the Yankees need them on a given day.
Keeping in mind that Peraza is on the 40-man roster but does have 1 option remaining whereas Volpe technically doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster until after the season is over, if Volpe was promoted then Cashman would likely need to clear a roster spot if Dominguez is used to occupy Florial’s roster spot and Calhoun is plugged into Bader’s roster spot for the time being.
I don’t anticipate Dominguez will make the team out of camp, though I obviously think he should. The Yankees likely will say something along the lines of, “It wouldn’t be fair to interfere with his development” or, “We wanted to make sure he gets lots of reps” or whatever else the party line that’s fed to Boone to in turn spin to the media winds up sounding like.
Fingers crossed though, I’m all in on Dominguez making the team as the starting center fielder. Finding a way to carry Volpe would require another maneuver that Cashman might find embarrassing. The weak link in the infield would likely need to be cut, so perhaps Kiner-Falefa would be traded or Josh Donaldson would be DFA’d. I would think trading Kiner Falefa would be the more likely move because let’s face it, not a team in baseball wanted Donaldson this offseason, he makes way too much.
All it would take is for Cashman to move on from the redundant Kiner-Falefa and Anthony Volpe would have played his way right onto the big stage.
With the intriguing bats of Dominguez and Volpe in the Yankee lineup when camp breaks, the Yankees lineup suddenly looks a whole lot different and come October, a move like this might pay huge dividends. The Yankees have urgent needs right now due to injuries and question marks that just aren’t going away.
Not to mention, the bench suddenly looks pretty dynamic with the highly versatile pair of Cabrera and Peraza liking up with Kyle Higashioka and Josh Donaldson - who I’m convinced will have to be offed one way or another in favor of a left handed power bat who could serve mostly as a DH.
What’s needed here by the Yankees is a patient approach that's willing to live with both of the youngster’s inevitable growing pains and besides, both Dominguez and Volpe can also be optioned back to the minor leagues for some polishing if either experiment fails. I’m just not sure the alternative of Kiner-Falefa at shortstop and Hicks in center field is the solution that pays dividends in October.
In a best case scenario, if Dominguez is playing well when Bader returns, the Yankees could use Bader as the team’s fourth outfielder and move Hicks to the fifth outfielder spot. In the worst case scenario, Dominguez could be optioned back to Triple-A and he’d have benefitted from getting his first real cup of coffee.
Meanwhile, Volpe might wind up being the Yankees first, young, legit shortstop since Derek Jeter came up. If he struggles, he could also be optioned to Scranton if needed, whenever the Yankees need a roster spot. For that matter, Oswald Peraza could also be optioned so the flexibility of carrying such young players gives Cashman infinitely more maneuverability than the typical Cashmanesque move where he acquires, then plugs in a fringy big leaguer who completely blocks organizational prospects from getting some needed time and exposure to advanced pitching.
I believe that one of Cashman’s greatest flaws is that due to the process he uses, his approach winds up stunting many of the organization’s best prospects' developmental trajectories.
It remains to be seen as to what exactly the Yankees will do with these two fabulous opportunities they have. Will the desire to hang onto the toolsy Florial mean the Yankees might prefer to let Dominguez get reps in Triple A for the time being? Will the Yankees start the season with Kiner-Falefa as the starter at shortstop and let Peraza function as a utility player for the time being, while allowing Volpe to “finish” at Triple-A instead of giving him an immediate opportunity?
Time will tell, but again, if I’m reverse engineering a championship, it’s best to get high end prospects acclimated now, rather than wait. If Austin Wells can crash the party after the All-Star break, the Yankees would likely be rolling into the playoffs with both Dominguez and Volpe injecting tons of life into a team that once lacked balance. I’ll leave you with a look at what a Yankees World Series lineup might look like come October!
1. LeMahieu 3B
2. Judge LF
3. Rizzo 1B
4. Stanton RF
5. Dominguez CF
6. Torres 2B
7. Wells DH
8. Trevino C
9. Volpe SS
Bench: Peraza-U, Cabrera-U, Higashioka-C, Bader-OF
*Hicks and Donaldson both DFA’d - wouldn’t impact luxury tax implications as all replacements are internal.
** Bader would be a pinch runner and a defensive replacement, same with Peraza and Cabrera, while slow afoot, could also be a defensive replacement.