Yankees Spring Training Report: Full Update of Surprises, Busts and Injuries

Peter Richman@ peter_f_richmanCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2014

Yankees Spring Training Report: Full Update of Surprises, Busts and Injuries

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    Prior to Sunday, the New York Yankees' prolific offense had begun to give way to a brief slump during spring training action, even leading to the wrong end of a no-hitter by the Miami Marlins. On the other side of the ball, though, the story has continued to center on several strong outings from the pitching staff.

    Now, just two weeks of spring training are all that separate the Bombers from Opening Day in Houston, and accordingly, from whittling down the remaining personnel to the 25-man roster.

    They headed to Tampa, Fla., needing to answer a few identity questions: The No. 5 starter, Brian McCann's primary backup, the extra utility infielder and the shape of the bullpen.

    Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman have been dealt a fairly reasonable sample size through 22 games. But many of the trends thus far have translated into some further, trickier storylines in the process.

    Is the best candidate for backup catcher actually much better trade bait to bolster the infield? Will the hottest hitter—and biggest surprise—during camp be shopped around, shipped out or sent down rather than slotted into the roster? And have a few pitchers' successes suddenly exiled David Phelps toward middle relief, or even a trade of his own?

    With the sense of urgency only increasing daily at this point of spring, let's break down some of the notable developments as we look ahead toward how the final 12 games, and subsequent decisions, might unfold.

    Beginning with the biggest team surprises and busts that have materialized, this spring training report will focus on players' statistics in the context of their expectations coming in. It'll end with a brief injury update, taking note of the progress of current recoveries as well as any recent reports. 


    2014 spring training statistics and information courtesy of Yankees.MLB.com, and pre-2014 statistics from Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

    Peter F. Richman is a Featured Columnist for the New York Yankees and a lifelong fan. Join him for more discussion on Twitter: 

Biggest Surprises: Batters

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    2014 Spring Training Statistics

    Biggest SurprisesPos.ABHRBIHRBBSOBA
    1. Yangervis Solarte2B29158234.517
    2. Adonis GarciaOF22104004.455
    3. Jose Pirela2B2183112.381
    4. Francisco CervelliC25126324.480



    Yangervis Solarte, 2B

    You've heard his name on a near-daily basis this spring—and with good reason. Out of 14 games in which Solarte has appeared, he's gone hitless in just three of them, has racked up four multi-hit performances and added three more singles on Sunday. He's by far proven to be the best hitter in camp, and more than that, he's easily the biggest surprise. 

    The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal and gave him a non-roster spot for the spring, adding him to the mix of infielders vying for a 2014 backup role. He's also never appeared in a single big league game, playing eight seasons in the farm systems of the Twins and Rangers (.286/.336/.397). But he's leading the team in hits, average, RBI and on-base percentage, having struck out just four times in 29 at-bats.


    Adonis Garcia, OF

    The 28-year-old outfielder has been in the Yankee system since 2012, reached Triple-A Scranton for 50 games last year and received one of four non-roster-outfield invites to camp.

    With his below-average frame (5'9", 190 lbs) and adequate minor league career line (.261/.309/.395), he seemed to be added competition and an extra body for the Grapefruit League—and someone who'd have to play alongside higher-touted prospects like Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Tyler Austin, Ramon Flores and of course Zoilo Almonte.

    But he has played just as well as Almonte and better than Flores—both of whom will likely start the year in Triple-A—and he's significantly outperformed every other outfielder, including the everyday starters. His two stolen bases in two attempts lead the team; he's second among Yankee outfielders in average, hits, OBP (.455) and slugging (.500); he's tied for second in runs and RBI.

    His best game came on March 2 against Toronto, when he went 3-for-4 with a double, a stolen bag and two runs. On Sunday he went 1-for-2.


    Jose Pirela, 2B

    Pirela is a 24-year-old second baseman and one of six non-roster infielders who were invited to Tampa. The Venezuelan native has been with the Yankees since 2007. His best year was in 2012 at Double-A Trenton, where he slashed .293/.356/.448 and collected eight homers, 19 doubles, 33 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 82 games. He's also swiped 30 bags once in High-A (2011) and had 27 doubles a year ago, finishing with a five-game spell in Scranton (7-for-23).

    This spring, he's accumulated the fifth-most hits and fifth-best average on the team, and he's added a double, a home run and three RBI while striking out just twice. He's one of the bigger surprises considering he came in with little experience, low expectations for the final infield spot and hasn't had more than two at-bats in a game this spring. Yet, he's clearly made the most of his limited plate appearances.


    Francisco Cervelli, C

    Cervelli is included in the list of biggest surprises, not because we didn't know he had the potential to show off his bat this spring; it's because no one expected him to distance himself from his backup competition so forcefully this early. 

    After a 3-for-3 day on Sunday in Panama, his average is up to .480 and Solarte is the only player with more hits. His three homers, 22 total bases and 1.399 OPS lead the team, and his six RBI, OBP and slugging (.880) are all second. Three of his 10 games have gone for multiple hits, he's driven in at least a run in five of them and on March 12 he hit two solo homers on back-to-back at-bats.

    His competition, John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine, are a combined 7-for-49 (.143) with one extra-base hit and nine strikeouts.



    There is one major takeaway here: There's a chance neither Solarte nor Cervelli is on the Opening Day roster. Unless Eduardo Nunez hits a big-time slump the last two weeks of spring, he's done enough to establish himself as the extra utility infielder, having hit .286/.310/.500 with a homer, double, triple, three RBI, only two strikeouts and just one error coming at shortstop.

    As hot as Solarte's been, the reality is that he has no big league experience and likely will begin the year in Scranton, poised to make an opportune impact in the Bronx should injury occur.

    Cervelli, on the other hand, sits in a precarious situation because of his spring success: All at once, he is both playing too well for the Yankees not to stick with him as a confident option behind McCann, and is playing too well for another team not to consider offering young talent—where the Yankees need it more—in exchange for him.

Biggest Busts: Batters

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    2014 Spring Training Statistics

    Biggest BustsPos.ABHRBIHRBBSOBA
    1. Austin Romine2550025.200
    2. John Ryan MurphyC2425114.083
    3. Russ Canzler3B/1B1931019.158 
    4. Mason WilliamsOF2344014.174 



    Austin Romine, C

    Among this group, Romine is the biggest bust because he came to spring training with the highest expectations out of them. While Murphy probably has more long-term upside, Romine has more big league experience, having essentially split the role with Chris Stewart last year (60 games).

    He came to Tampa needing to prove his 2013 hitting (.207/.255/.296) was an anomaly, and that he deserved a major league spot for Opening Day. But his numbers in 11 games and 25 at-bats have said the opposite. Behind the dish, he already has a passed ball and threw out one of two base-stealers.


    John Ryan Murphy, C

    Murphy joins the party with his .083 average in 24 at-bats. Fortunately for him, one of his two hits was a three-run homer back on March 2, but he's gone hitless in every game since (18 AB, 3 SO, 0 BB).

    Like Romine, Murphy has a passed ball and has thrown out just one of three base-stealers. He batted a decent .266/.331/.407 in five minor league seasons but was just 4-for-26 with nine strikeouts in a 16-game September call-up last season. So, as with Romine, Murphy's spring trends may be representative of real weakness to hit higher-level pitching at this stage.


    Russ Canzler, 3B/1B

    The 27-year-old non-roster utility man is certainly a bust, though not the biggest one given the expectations. He's played only 29 big league games (.271/.304/.396) and was signed to a minor league deal in October. He can play both corner-infield spots, so he was a nice spring addition to consider as insurance for Teixeira—given the caveat that he could show some production and defensive prowess.

    But his nine strikeouts are the most on the team (tied with Pete O'Brien), and his OBP is second worst. In nine games, he's struck out at least once in five of them, multiple times in three of them and in his most recent game on March 13, he went 0-for-3 with three punch-outs. He's also added a fielding error playing first base.


    Mason Williams, OF

    Williams has been one of the bigger busts of the spring since he's among the higher-touted prospects who have just not shown up. In the Yankees' second set of roster cuts on Wednesday, his Double-A outfield teammate, Slade Heathcott, was optioned to Triple-A, and Gary Sanchez was sent to Double-A, joining Jose Ramirez (Triple-A), Francisco Rondon (minor league camp), Nik Turley (Triple-A) and, as of Sunday, Manny Banuelos.

    Among Yankee outfielders with at least 15 at-bats this spring, Williams has the second-worst average and OBP, and despite being known for his speed, was caught stealing in his only attempt. He's not the biggest bust since he's shown off his leather in center and has racked up two doubles and four RBI in spite of only four base hits.

    But hitting on the interstate while guys like Adonis Garcia, Ramon Flores and Almonte continue to widen the performance gap leaves much to be desired.



    The biggest story here focuses on Romine and Murphy's poor starts. Their battle with Cervelli isn't relatively close with two weeks remaining, and they may not represent the best trade bait at this point.

    The Yankees may have sat too long on dealing one of their catchers for an infielder, a scenario I discussed with regards to the Diamondbacks as ideal partners a few weeks ago. If you're Kevin Towers, the Arizona general manager, you'd want Cervelli in a deal for Didi Gregorius or Chris Owings because trading for Romine or Murphy suddenly comes with greater risk based on the spring numbers. 

    In the last week of February, he told AZCentral.com's Nick Piecoro of trading one of his two shortstops: "If it’s the right, top-notch catching prospect. Someone we could have right behind Miggy [Miguel Montero]."

    But if you're Girardi and Cashman, you'd be much more cautious about sending away the real top-notch catcher, Cervelli, and being left with the bats of Romine or Murphy if McCann needs a day off—or worse, a replacement for an extended period. 

Biggest Surprises: Pitchers

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    2014 Spring Training Statistics

    Biggest SurprisesIPERHHRSOBBERA
    1. Chris Leroux9.0040900.00
    2. Yoshinori Tateyama6.0040710.00
    3. Matt Daley5.1020710.00
    4. Vidal Nuno6.0131611.50
    5. Adam Warren8.2281922.08



    Chris Leroux, RHP

    The 6'6" 29-year-old was brought in on a minor league contract and invited to spring as another arm to stockpile the bullpen competition. He was a seventh-round pick of the then-Florida Marlins in 2005, has pitched 401.2 minor league innings, 69.2 in the big leagues and in 2013 totaled 22 for Japan's Yakult Swallows (h/t RiverAveBlues' Mike Axisa) before a shoulder injury derailed his year. 

    Strikeouts have been his calling card with a fastball, heavy-slider combination, as he put up 8.1 K/9 in the majors (63 total) and 8.4 in the minors (375 total). With just a career 5.56 ERA (3.32 FIP), he's well outperformed expectations this spring.

    His nine strikeouts are bested by only Ivan Nova (16 SO, 13.1 IP), David Phelps (11 SO, 13.2 IP) and Masahiro Tanaka (10 SO, 9.1 IP). He's struck out at least one in all six games, recorded two strikeouts in three of them and has allowed a hit in only three of them, even recording a one-inning save on March 8.



    Yoshinori Tateyama, RHP

    The 28-year-old is just 5'10", 165 pounds, but he's another non-roster invitee known for his strikeout rates who has so far been excellent. His only blemish this spring was a two-hit outing (1 SO, O ER) and one walk to his record. 

    Opponents are batting just .182 against Tateyama, and he has yet to surrender a run in five games. He had a terrific season in Triple-A last year, posting a 2.83 ERA with 86 strikeouts (10.1 K/9), 14 walks and a 1.153 WHIP in 76.1 innings, but in 61 big league innings he owns just a 5.75 ERA. 


    Matt Daley, RHP

    Daley isn't the biggest surprise because he put together an excellent 2013 across High-A, Double-A and Triple-A (2.02 ERA, 12.5 K/9) and had a strong stint (6.0 IP total) in pinstripes in 2013 (0 ER, 8 SO, 12.0 K/9, 0 BB).

    But he still must be considered since he's a non-roster pitcher making a definite impact this spring. 

    With his six strikeouts in 5.1 innings, his per-nine rate sits at an outstanding 12.4 with two weeks remaining. And with the final one or two bullpen spots up for grabs, he's making a strong case based on his camp and his big league experience (2009-11 with Colorado, 80.1 IP, 80 SO).


    Vidal Nuno, LHP

    Nuno is easily one of the strongest pitchers this spring, but he's not one of the absolute biggest surprises since he entered camp as one of four names vying for the No. 5 role in the starting rotation.

    But thus far he's proven beyond just solid, and he's possibly on his way to cementing a big league role regardless of starting or relieving. The fact that the Yankees are short on lefty arms only helps his cause.

    He's made only two starts this spring, but struck out three in each of them, walked one and allowed just one run on a solo shot—which was one of only three hits allowed this spring.

    He shined on Sunday, going four innings of one-hit, one-walk ball.


    Adam Warren, RHP

    Like Nuno, Warren arrived to Tampa as a candidate—albeit a dark-horse one—for the fifth starter, so his success shouldn't be a shock. But he's been also been a pleasant surprise so far; in three starts (8.2 IP), he's struck out nine, walked two and allowed two runs. 

    The worst it's gotten for Warren was allowing half of his hits (four) and a solo homer on March 5, but even in that outing he struck out two and didn't walk anyone in 2.1 innings.

    He won't be the fifth starter, but the strength of his performance, along with Nuno, has only tightened the competition. If nothing else, he's close to convincing the Yankees that they should be more than comfortable fitting him into the bullpen for 2014.



    The most important storyline here surrounds the bullpen and centers on Nuno. If the Yankees carry seven arms—and, entering camp, you considered David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Preston Claiborne, Matt Thornton, Warren and Phelps as the favorites—two spots had remained open. 

    But Nuno has shown Yanks brass that he deserves a big league role, even if it comes in the bullpen, making spot starts down the line. His spring has not only put more focus on the battle for No. 5, but it's also narrowed the potential availability in the bullpen and added more pressure on the contenders.

    If the Yankees slid Nuno into primary relief duty, you have to wonder where that leaves Phelps and Warren—especially if someone like right-hander Dellin Betances continues to excel (9.0 IP, 8 SO, 1.00 ERA), and with a lefty like Fred Lewis pitching well (6.1 IP, 5 SO, 0 ER), in a competition and bullpen picture currently saturated with righties.

    And last Saturday, Girardi even tipped his cap to those two, per Chad Jennings of The LoHud Yankees Blog: "Girardi talked this morning about how well the pitching staff has done this spring. Asked for specific guys who have made a strong impression, Girardi mentioned two names: Dellin Betances and Fred Lewis." 

Biggest Busts: Pitchers

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    2014 Spring Training Statistics

    1. Robert Coello3.011933433.00
    2. Chase Whitley 4.27814413.50
    3. Manny Banuelos1.07712363.00
    4. Matt Thornton 2.13701011.57
    5. Preston Claiborne 5.23100504.76



    Robert Coello, RHP

    A few weeks ago, I included Coello on a list of players in serious danger of being cut or demoted. To his credit, it was based solely on a horrendous third of an inning (5 H, 5 ER, 1 HR), and since then he has pitched 2.9 more. 

    The good news is he backed up that first appearance with a scoreless, hitless inning.

    But he blew a save two days later, allowing three hits, two homers and four earned runs in a third of an inning. Then he allowed two more runs and two walks in another third on Saturday. He was a low-risk signing for a thin bullpen, but he looks to be an all-but certain bust.


    Chase Whitley, RHP

    Back in January, I credited Whitley as one of the Yankees' dark-horse prospects who could sneak onto the roster. He's a 2010 15th-round pick by the Yankees, and 2014 will be his age-25 season, as he looks to build on a solid 2013 campaign in Triple-A (67.2 IP, 3.06 ERA, 8.2 K/9).

    Needless to say, that idea is relatively weak at this point.

    For all his size and strength (6'3", 215 lbs), Whitley has recorded just four strikeouts in six appearances and has allowed a home run, eight hits and four walks.

    His worst stretch came in his first and third appearances, both of which were one inning: In the first, he allowed four runs on three hits and no strikeouts, and in the third game he allowed two runs on two hits with one strikeout.


    Manny Banuelos, LHP

    A lot of optimism was surrounding Banuelos a few weeks ago, as he headed to Tampa after recovering from Tommy John and ready to regain his pre-injury form that had placed him among the most touted of any prospect in baseball (No. 13 by MLB.com pre-2012). 

    As ESPNNewYork's Wallace Matthews writes, "Before spring training began, Yankees GM Brian Cashman raised the possibility that Manny Banuelos, the 23-year-old lefty coming off Tommy John surgery, might make the major-league club as the second lefty out of the bullpen with strong showing in camp."

    But the Yankees weren't willing to test him a third time this spring, as Cashman optioned Banuelos to the minors prior to Sunday's action, per Matthews' report.

    In his first appearance, in two-thirds of an inning, he surrendered three runs on two hits, including a homer and a walk. In his second appearance, a third of an inning, he allowed four more on two hits and two walks.


    Matt Thornton, LHP

    The Yankees signed Thornton as Boone Logan's replacement as the primary lefty specialist. But after four appearances, two of which were shaky, the hope is he progresses through his up-and-down start.

    He's not one of the biggest busts, since Girardi hasn't made any indication Thornton's job could be up for grabs, but his inconsistency and oftentimes inefficiency raises a little doubt as a sure-thing, late-inning arm.

    In his second appearance he gave up two runs on four hits, and in his most recent game on Sunday, he took over for Tanaka and promptly gave up a run on two hits and a wild pitch.

    His biggest problem, getting behind in counts, was all-too-clearly highlighted on Sunday: He got behind the first batter 2-0 and served up a double. He fell behind the next, 2-0, and gave up a single. Then bounced his first pitch to the third batter.


    Preston Claiborne, RHP

    One of the preseason favorites for the back end of the bullpen, Claiborne's 2014 spring has been lackluster. Like Thornton, there's too much expectation around his role this season to definitively label him a bust. 

    It's not because of an inflated ERA or inability to get the strikeout (5 SO in 5.2 innings). Rather, what raises a red flag is just how much he's been knocked around, allowing two or more hits in three of his six appearances—and 10 total.

    He had a disaster of an outing in two-thirds of an inning on March 13, allowing three runs on four hits with no strikeouts.



    Most significantly for Girardi and Cashman will be monitoring whether Thornton and Claiborne can settle in over the final two weeks of camp. 

    As with the No. 5 role, Girardi could realistically work with a revolving door of roles and faces in the bullpen as 2014 unfolds.

    And there have been plenty of sparkling performances by several pitchers hoping for a big league spot—like Nuno, Betances and Warren—where Thornton or Claiborne could be relegated to a lesser role while the hotter pitchers get the green light. 

Injury Updates

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    Derek Jeter, Ankle

    We know the Yankee captain's bat isn't yet 100 percent (4-for-30, 8 SO), but the health of his ankle looks good to the naked eye.

    In game action he's looked smooth and comfortable, both running down the line—on his 20 groundouts—and playing shortstop.

    But Jeter is known to keep a poker face and play down any language of caution, so it's been tough to get a true read. In his second game of the spring on March 1, Jeter faced his first opportunity to prove his ankle had recovered. As NJ.com's Brendan Kuty puts it: "Jeter—and the ankle he swears is healthy—was tested in the field. The Yankees' captain made an unassisted double play on a grounder up the middle, tagging the runner and firing to first." 

    Girardi added: "It shows me his mobility is there. He's not favoring anything, wincing."


    Mark Teixeira, Wrist

    In early February, Teixeira said he was confident he'd return in 2014 as the same player, per ESPNNewYork's Matt Ehalt. And on March 11, per The Star-Ledger's Jorge Castillo, Tex said: "I really couldn’t be happier with how I feel right now. I’ve swung at good pitches, I’m taking good swings, my BP’s been solid. Nothing’s happened that I’ve said, ‘Lets reassess something.’ It’s boring, but it’s good."

    No one, including his surgeon, expected him to be fully recovered by mid-March, but he appears to be right on track. Despite going just 2-for-14 in six games back, he has a double, an RBI and has drawn four walks.

    Brendan Kuty of NJ.com writes: "The 33-year-old said that while his health is just about back to normal, he's still rehabbing his wrist as if it were weak. Some days he'll use any combination of heat and laser treatments and stretching to help strengthen it."

    According to Kuty, Tex sees his biggest test as playing live games, saying he wishes to play the final five of spring in a row "to show himself that he's ready to go."

    And, per The Associated Press' Mark Didtler (via the Rutland Herald), Tex said on Saturday: "I’m really excited about the way the wrist feels. How it’s bounced back from the increased workload. I haven’t taken any steps backwards, which is very positive. I’m just very happy overall."


    Michael Pineda, Shoulder

    Pineda explained in February, per John Harper of the New York Daily News: "Yeah, yeah. I’m feeling really good. Everything’s the same (as it was before the surgery). I’m the same Michael Pineda." 

    In 4.2 innings, he's recorded nine strikeouts, one walk, four hits and no earned runs. He made his first spring start on Thursday, going 2.2 innings and allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out five. 

    The biggest concerns about Pineda had to do with his weight and his velocity; the first of which seemed resolved when he showed up in shape, and the second of which Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork sums up best: "The velocity on his fastball, which was the first sign of his shoulder problems during his first spring training camp with the Yankees in 2012, was less than dazzling. Pineda hit 92 mph twice and most of his fastballs were clocked in the 89-90 range."

    But Matthews adds: "He threw strikes—27 out of 48 pitches—and his breaking ball appeared sharp, especially an 81-mph curve that struck out Quintin Berry in the third."

    The biggest takeaway is that the Yankees' most likely scenario involves a patchwork No. 5 role as 2014 wears on, and it comes as a result of the velocity, and thus his full health, not being quite back to their pre-injury levels.

    Girardi tipped his hand about a multi-headed fifth starter after a comment about Pineda's workload, per Matthews: "Hypothetically, let's just say he was a starter at some point, you'd have to adjust, because you're not going to get 200 innings out of him. I know they've talked about it. I'm sure if it becomes a factor and he's part of our club, we're going to have to see how it works."



    Eduardo Nunez, Brian Roberts and Jacoby Ellsbury all appear to be fine after getting dinged up over the weekend. On Friday, Nunez's left leg took the bulk of a take-out slide while covering second, and he was pulled from the game. He missed Saturday but got the start Sunday, going 2-for-3 with a stolen base.

    Roberts fouled a pitch off his knee on Friday but told reporters he was fine, per NJ.com's Brendan Kuty, and he went 2-for-3 on Saturday. The New York Daily News' Bill Madden writes: "For now, it is fingers-crossed for Roberts," as in 2013 he "pulled a hamstring his third game of the season and wasn’t seen again until June 30."

    If you were watching YES Network on Sunday, Ellsbury's tight calf was being discussed so intently, you'd think he fractured his leg. He was scratched from the lineup Sunday and won't play Monday, but the scrutiny seems unwarranted. 

    "We just want to knock this thing out before anything serious develops," said acting manager in Tampa, Rob Thompson, per NJ.com's Brendan Kuty. And Ellsbury clarified, per Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News: "If this was regular season, I’d be playing, for sure."