Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The 2015 Jeter-less Yankees - Who Are They?

The Jeter maze is probably easier to figure out than next year's squad.

This has not been a happy summer of Yankees’ baseball. It’s not helped by the fact that the summer is flying buy either. Football is around the corner and the final 1-1/2 months of the regular season is here. The Yankees semi-salvaged their road trip to Baltimore and Tampa Bay with a pair of wins this past weekend, but they enter Tuesday’s play a long 7.5 games behind the AL East leading Baltimore Orioles. They’re still in the wild card race (three games back of Detroit), but there are many others in the mix.

The fans are restless, bored, and unenthusiastic. It’s hard to blame them though. This current squad of Yankees has been turning in some dull efforts. It’s a team that can’t stay healthy, struggles to hit, and has a patchwork rotation.

It makes you wonder what things will be like next year. It will be the first Jeter-less Yankees team since 1995. (Yes, he had a cup of coffee with the team, but his impact wasn’t felt until a year later.) So the first thing to consider is:

Who will be the Yankees starting shortstop in 2015?
That is a difficult question to answer. There was speculation when Stephen Drew was acquired from Boston that the Yankees would try to re-sign him for next season to take over at his natural position, shortstop.

Earlier this year, it looked like Yangervis Solarte might be the answer. Then he flamed out and is now a member of the San Diego Padres.

All-Star Troy Tulowitzki, who wears the number 2 in honor of his idol, basically came out and said he wanted out of Colorado and would like to be the next Yankees shortstop. There are several problems with that, not the least of which is the guaranteed $118MM he is owed through 2021. He’s injury prone and in fact, underwent season ending surgery last week to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. At this point, how quickly he is ready to play next year is anyone’s guess.  Oh, and let’s not forget…he’s still a member of the Colorado Rockies.

The veterans that are potential free agents include the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez, the Nationals’ Asdrubal Cabrera, and the Orioles’ J.J. Hardy. The best option of the three is Ramirez, the former star with the Florida Marlins. Ramirez earned $16MM this year, a season in which his production has dropped off some from last year, when he suffered a shoulder injury. Ramirez will be 31 when next season starts. Health and wanting a long-term, big money deal are the drawback.
Cabrera’s numbers have steadily slid since his 2011 All-Star season and Hardy has just 7 HR in 112 games after having averaged 25 HR the prior three seasons.

Who will be manning second base and third base?
Things get really sticky here. Yankees principal owner Hal Steinbrenner stated last week that he expected Alex Rodriguez to be back as the Yankees third baseman in 2015. Can you really see that happening? Despite the fact they owe A-Rod $61MM, do you really think they want to deal with the circus that will come to town with him? It’s odd not to think the Yankees will attempt to either buy him out or eat a chunk of his salary and deal him to a team like the Florida Marlins. A-Rod would be in his hometown area and maybe the Marlins would have a drawing card. For his part, A-Rod would probably like to return to the Bronx just to stick it to the team he feels conspired with Major League Baseball to get him suspended. He’s going to have to weigh that against a mixed reception from the fans.

Barring an unusual circumstance, Martin Prado becomes the regular second baseman. (Perhaps third baseman if A-Rod departs.) Acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline, Prado has two years and $22MM left on his contract.

Free agent options for the two positions include Chase Headley, acquired at the deadline from the San Diego Padres. After a hot start, Headley entered this weekend with just eight hits in his last 47 at-bats, for a .250/.349/.375 slash line with 2 HR and 8 RBI in 20 games. His defense at third base, however, has been superb.

Pablo Sandoval is the biggest name among the pending free agents at third base, though his hitting has curtailed a bit the last couple of years. After making $8.2MM this year, “Kung Fu Panda” will be looking for a long term, big money deal.  He’s under 30-years of age, practically unheard of in the Bronx these days, and is a switch-hitter.

Among the second baseman that could become free agents are the Tampa Rays’ Ben Zobrist. The team will likely pick up his bargain basement $7.5MM option, but if they don’t, Zobrist will bring versatility to any team he joins. This season alone, Zobrist has played both corner outfield positions and both middle infield positions. The last two seasons, he has not shown the power or speed he had in previous years, but he could still put up 15 HR and 10-15 steals.

Will there be a healthy body in the starting rotation?
CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda. That’s a starting five that can go toe-to-toe with any starting five in baseball. But Nova never made it past April, Sabathia’s season ended on May 10, Pineda was out from April 24 to August 11, and Tanaka made his last start on July 8. The oldest of the group, the 39-year old Kuroda, is the only member of the staff to take his regular turn.

The Yankees traded for Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano, plugged in David Phelps and Vidal Nuno, called up Chase Whitley and Shane Greene, and gave a spot start to Esmil Rogers. The replacements have had their ups and downs, and have been the victims of a lack of run support too many times to count.

In a perfect world, Sabathia returns next season with a healthy knee (no microfracture surgery was needed), Tanaka avoids Tommy John surgery and is in the rotation from the get-go, and Pineda remains healthy. The final two spots in the rotation would be filled in with free agents, trade acquisitions, or free agents.  Nova would not likely return until at least the mid-season point.

The Candidates
McCarthy has been outstanding since joining the Yankees. Granted, it’s a small sampling, but as of his first six starts as Yankee, McCarthy posted a 2.21 ERA, 1.282 WHIP, and had allowed three home runs in 36.2 innings pitched. If the price was right, the Yankees certainly would be interested in McCarthy, who won’t be 31-years old until next July.

Phelps was up and down in his 17 starts before he landed on the 15-day DL with an inflamed elbow. He had put together five solid starts before his final two, when it became apparent there was an injury issue. He’s due to begin a throwing program this week if he’s cleared by the medical staff.

Manny Banuelos was expected to be in the Yankees rotation by now. But poor performance and then Tommy John surgery sidelined him from May, 2012 until April of this year. Still just 23-years old, the left-hander has progressed steadily as the season has gone on. Over a period of three starts from July 22 through August 1, Banuelos allowed one earned run and three hits over 14 innings for the Double-A Trenton Thunder.  Though he was hit hard his next time out, the Yankees moved him up to Triple-A Scranton, where he allowed one run and one hit over five innings on August 12. (Banuelos had control issues in his start yesterday.) If not at the beginning of 2015 season, Banuelos is a good bet to join the Major League squad at some point during next season. The question is, will it be as a starter or reliever?

The internal long shot would be Luis Severino, who is now considered by many to be the organization’s top pitching prospect. The native of the Dominican Republic will be 21-years old shortly after pitchers and catchers report to training camp. The six-foot right-hander has struck out 118 batters over 103 innings combined at Charleston (‘A’), Tampa (‘A+’), and Trenton. The most remarkable stat for such a young strikeout artist is that Severino has walked just 25 batters. That works out to a nifty 4.72 strikeout to walk ratio. Severino’s ascension may be slowed for the remainder of the season – he’ll return tonight after being out 10 days with an oblique injury.

Free agency will see some heavy duty price wars for the services of left-hander Jon Lester and last season’s AL Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer.  Royals’ ace James Shields and Seattle’s steady right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma lead the next level of starters, many of whom will wait to see what the top guns get before agreeing to deals.

With all the money the Yankees have tied up in players with questionable health right now, it’s hard to see the team making a push for Lester or Scherzer. Iwakuma would probably be the cheaper option of the tier 2 pitchers.

Does D-Rob return?
Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman better be sure he has enough money in the pot to bring back free agent closer David Robertson. “D-Rob” has done an outstanding job in his first full season as Yankees closer, a job made even more difficult by being the replacement for Mariano Rivera. The native Alabaman has saved 33 of 35 chances and averaged a career high 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

The 29-year old earned $5.215MM this season and will get a substantial raise next season.  His departure would be a huge blow to the Yankees pen. (Many fans feel Dellin Betances is ready to step into the role already due to his 13.4 K’s per nine innings.  But this is Betances’ first full season in the Majors and it shouldn’t be assumed he’s ready for the 9th inning role.)

Who will be Brian McCann’s backup?
Francisco Cervelli has been solid as McCann’s’ backup. With injuries to McCann and first baseman Mark Teixeira (McCann has filled in), Cervelli has seen his playing time increase since he returned from the disabled list in mid-June. He’s hit .296 with an .825 OPS in 98 at-bats. The Yankees need to decide whether it will be Cervelli, John Ryan Murphy, who backed up McCann while Cervelli was out this season, veteran minor leaguer Austin Romine, or if will be a wild card entry to share the catching duties next season. With Gary Sanchez and others on their way up the ladder, one of the many Yankees’ catchers could be dealt in the offseason.

Can the Yankees trade Mark Teixeira?
Your guess is as good as mine. Teixeira has had one injury after another this season after missing most of last year with a wrist tendon injury. He’s been decent when he’s played - .768 OPS, 19 HR, 52 RBI in 87 games – but his status is nearly questionable every day.  Teixeira has two years and $45MM remaining on his contract beyond this season. He’s also got a no-trade clause in his pact. Barring a financial arrangement of some kind, Teixeira is in New York for the next two years.

Will the Yankees make the playoffs in 2015?
I have no answer for that. There are a lot more questions about next year’s team and so far, not many answers. A healthy team would be a good place to start.

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