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Thoughts a Week and a Day Before Opening Day

Happy Wednesday, friends. We are rapidly approaching Opening Day, but there are still Spring Training games before then. Here is the broadcast schedule through the rest of the Grapefruit League to hold us over for the rest of the week.

Here’s hoping that the Yanks can stay healthy in that time, too. Anyway, on to today’s thoughts.

1. Opening Day Next Week: Opening Day is one week from tomorrow, which is wild. It really snuck up on me this year. Still, I am excited for the season – and you should be, too. The games are really going to matter right away. The Yankees are the hands-on favorite to win the American League East, and they’ll have a chance to emphatically make that case nearly right away: 19 of the team’s first 25 games (76%) are inter-divisional matchups.

Now, those aren’t exactly spread out evenly, either. Here is how it breaks down:

  • Baltimore Orioles: 7 games (3 at home)
  • Tampa Bay Rays:6 games (3 at home)
  • Toronto Blue Jays: 6 games (3 at home)

Notably missing is the Red Sox, so the Yanks are getting a big chunk of their non-Boston divisional rival games out of the way early. That is significant. Tampa got worse since we last saw them, but I won’t count them out. (Baseball Prospectus tags them for 86 wins; FanGraphs says 84.) Toronto, on the other hand, got better, but is dealing with a Yankee-like deluge of injuries right now. (BP has them at 84 wins; FanGraphs 88.) Both will be looking to challenge the Goliath Yankees and will have a chance to make their mark early on.

While it is a long season – and it feels nice to be able to say that again after last year’s weirdness – this still feels important. As Matt noted, there are four off-days, not counting an inevitable rainout. The good news for the Yankees is that this means they can turn to team ace Gerrit Cole more often than not.

The bottom line is that these early games are going to matter. The Yankees, barring a major surprise, will be the best team in the American League East, if not the entire league. It would be awfully nice for the team to get out to a hot start and put some distance between themselves and their closest competition right way. The schedule means they’ll have a great opportunity to do so. Let’s hope they don’t miss it.

2. Bullpen Depth: Justin Wilson’s injury is really frustrating, isn’t it? We haven’t heard anything new since he left the game with ominous shoulder tightness on Monday, so it’s possible he’s avoided structural damage, but it’s still not great. Even if all goes well, there is almost no chance that Wilson is ready to go by Opening Day at this point and “shoulder tightness” almost never goes well.

In terms of on-field performance, you can see all you need to see in this chart of his pitch velocity this spring:

Folks, that is what you call a downward trajectory. And you can see that he was struggling to get over 92 miles-per-hour or so after touching 95 in his mid-spring appearances. Not great! Anyway, now we wait. Maybe this won’t be so serious after all.

In any case, this is testing the Yankee pitching depth in a rather serious way in the short-term at the very least. The Yanks are already down Zack Britton, remember, so Wilson was going to be tasked with important innings as it was – and he was likely going to do a good job. In his last ~170 innings since 2017, Wilson has been considerably above-average. His injury is potentially a big loss.

That’s two high-leverage relievers gone and we’re not even at Opening Day yet. It’s frustrating, especially given the way the last few years have gone injury-wise for the Yanks. And while we can’t predict injuries, it does just further solidify my anti-Ottavino trade opinion. Otto was annoying, sure. But I’d rather like his depth right about now rather than the nebulous salary cap space.

Anyway, back to what matters: how to fill out the bullpen. When Britton went down, I said it became obvious that Lucas Luetge was a lock for the team and that’s even more true now. Still, though, that leaves two additional spots to fill.

With Adam Warren hurt and Brooks Kriske and Albert Abreu optioned to Triple-A Scranton, that leaves Nick Nelson, and Mike King in addition to Luetge. Those three feel like the only real options right now, although I suppose Tyler Lyons has a shot. My guess is that the Opening Day bullpen looks like this:

  • Aroldis Chapman
  • Chad Green
  • Darren O’Day
  • Jonathan Loaisiga
  • Luis Cessa
  • Lucas Luetge
  • Nick Nelson
  • Mike King

That’s considerably less depth that we thought a few weeks ago. Let’s just hope that Britton and Wilson come back soon and that the rest of the arms stay healthy. That would be nice, for once.

3. Bench Spot: The only other true competition right now is the last bench spot. Mike Ford was never really an option, but now he definitely is not. He was optioned to Triple-A the other day. That leaves us about where we started, with Mike Tauchman, Jay Bruce, and Derek Dietrich as the only contenders.

I’ll be honest: coming into camp, I wanted and expected Dietrich to win the job. He definitely hasn’t earned it, though. He’s just 4-for-24 this spring, with an ugly .167/.394/.292 line. At least he’s walked 5 times. That helps and is nice. And he still offers a lot of versatility, which shouldn’t be discounted. At the same time, though, he hasn’t been good. He may have played himself out of contention.

That leaves just Bruce and Tauchman. Bruce is 6-for-29 with 2 walks (.207/.258/.448) on the Spring. Tauchman is 7-for-26 with 3 walks (.269/.345/.615) and has clearly been the most consistent and best performer of the spring. Spring Training stats are useless and I read nothing into them, but it sure feels like they matter in these conversations, so we can’t discount them altogether. They do seem to matter for determining which players get the last spot on a team.

I don’t really know what to make of all of this though. Tauchman was atrocious last year, but may have been dealing with injury (plus the pandemic). The Yankees seem to like him, too. Bruce bounces around and is an all-offense option. (Do the Yankees need an all-offense option to fill the bench role?) Dietrich has versatility and a decent track record, but has looked bad.

This is all a giant shoulder shrug to me. We have to know by tomorrow — Bruce and Dietrich both have player options if they’re not rostered, though the Yanks could keep them around by maneuvering the IL – so I guess we’ll see. If I had to make a guess, I’m actually going to say Tauchman prevails and makes the team. That’s my gut right now. As they say, though, time will tell.

4. Players I’m Most Excited About: So, with all that out of the way, let’s wrap up with some fun stuff. I want to outline the player I’m most excited to watch this season by player category – position player, starter, and reliever. It’s a lot harder than you might expect. That’s a good thing: it means the Yankees are a very exciting team. This is all completely arbitrary, so I’m sure you’ll all have a different answer. Here goes nothing:

Position Player

Easily Gleyber Torres. Our guy really struggled in 2020, posting just a .243/.356/.368 (106 wRC+) in 42 games. Gleyber also struggled defensively, booting routine plays at short. We’ve heard a few times that he wasn’t in great shape last year, either. It makes sense. Was anyone in great shape last year? The weird season has kind of obscured the fact that Gleyber started looking a lot better in the “second half”, too. He hit .259/.377/.466 (134 wRC+) in September and he also had a strong postseason with the Yankees.

Still, it was an uncharacteristic year from 23-year-old middle infielder. I fully expect him to bounce back in a strong way this year, though, and I’m looking forward to it more than anything else from a Yankee position player.

Other contenders: Gary Sánchez, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton

Starting Pitcher

Again, this one was easy. It’s Gerrit Cole and it’s not close. Okay, that’s a bit unfair – any regular reader knows I’m enamored with Jameson Taillon – but let’s break this one down. Cole was a bonafide ace last year, but last year only somewhat counts. It was just 60 games, and while Cole started so many of the games, it just wasn’t the same. We have yet to see the Yankees new ace truly flourish for a full season and this year we’ll get to see it.

Even still, Cole was a shot in the arm in terms of excitement last year. The man is an absolute tank and he is so intense. It’s hard not to get fired up watching him. Remember this?

And this?

And this?

Okay, you get the point. But I think that’s all I need to say. We get to watch this guy pitch for 200+ innings this year – and it’s a season in which the Yankees are a title favorite. How can you not get amped up?

Other contenders: Jameson Taillon

Relief Pitcher

This one was a bit more difficult, at least for me. Again, a regular reader may have expected me to say Jonathan Loaisiga, and that is certainly true – I’m excited to watch him. That goes without saying. But I’ve been saying that basically every season since 2019, so that’s cheating a bit. I’m going to go with a bit of a dark horse candidate and say Darren O’Day.

O’Day is a bit of a forgotten addition to the Yankee pen, but he should be a good one. He has not been a bad reliever since his 2011 campaign with Texas, though he has not always taken the mound consistently. But that’s not what is exciting to me necessarily. I mean, when was the last time the Yankees had a pitcher who offered a look like this?

Look at this release point chart since 2015:

That release point, coupled with a mid-80’s fastball with which O’Day locates frequently up in the zone that still gets a ton of whiffs, makes O’Day a completely unique pitcher in recent Yankee history. I think he’ll be super fun to watch and expect the results to follow. Who wouldn’t be excited for that?

Other contenders: Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga

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8 Comments

  1. Brian M

    Watch the Yankees go with only three bench players to start the season and make us all look like jerks.

    • Dani

      Teams are limited to 13 pitchers on the active roster, so a 4+ man bench is guaranteed.

      • Nick

        They got rid of that rule this year. They can go with whatever split they want.

  2. millie gee

    That’s not an opening day relief roster because Chapman is suspended for the first two games. Green the closer? Deivi makes the roster for two games?

    • Wire Fan

      It was an on-field suspension, so they lose that roster spot for those 2 games

      I imagine they will just go with a 7 man pen.

  3. Yanks need Bruce’s power and Judge says he’s a leader in the clubhouse. He’s also a great fill in for Voit! Yanks don’t need a 6th outfielder in Tauchman right now!

    • JJ Dools

      Yes, except I don’t think Bruce is actually any good at this point. So, in theory this makes sense, but in reality he looks like toast, and he hasn’t been good over the last few seasons

      • millie gee

        Agreed. Bruce hitting under .200. I don’t think he’s going to get a major league deal from anyone. Will take the $100,000 retention money and go to alternate site

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