Yankees Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2017

Yankees Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

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    Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge.
    Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Pitchers and catchers with a predilection for pre-planning (say that five times fast) have already begun packing their bags for Florida and Arizona. Spring training is almost here, people, and not a moment too soon.

    As we prepare for the glory of fresh-cut grass and exhibition baseball, let's zoom a lens on the New York Yankees.

    The Yanks, as you're no doubt aware, are in the midst of a youth movement and will balance their budding rebuild with an annual mandate to compete. 

    New York's camp will feature a handful of intriguing position battles, a rising star behind the dish looking to avoid a sophomore slump and talented youngsters hoping to break through all over the roster.

    Stretch out those hammies, do a little long toss and proceed when ready.

Key Position Battle: First Base

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    Yankees first baseman Greg Bird.
    Yankees first baseman Greg Bird.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Mark Teixeira's retirement opens a hole at first base. The safe money is on Greg Bird to fill it, but that's no sure bet.

    Bird debuted with the Yankees in 2015 and slashed .261/.343/.529 with 11 home runs in 46 games, but missed all of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

    The 24-year-old saw action in the 2016 Arizona Fall League and gave a positive update on his recovery in a video posted on the Yankees' official Facebook page in November.

    "The doctor told me when he did the surgery, 'You're going to be amazed at how good this thing is going to feel when it's all said and done,'" Bird said in the video. "Technically it's not all said and done yet and it's already catching me off guard at times with how unbelievable it is in a lot of ways, so I'm excited."

    Bird will need a strong, healthy spring to win the job outright, because he's got competition.

    Tyler Austin made his MLB debut last season after raking at Triple-A and left an immediate impression, homering in his first at-bat. He finished with a modest .241/.300/.458 slash line in 31 games but was plain in his desire to win an everyday gig in 2017.

    "I'm not going into this settling for a backup role," Austin said recently, per Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media.

    Further complicating the picture, on Monday the Yankees signed Korean first baseman/outfielder Ji-Man Choi to a minor league contract with a spring training invite, per Jee-Ho Yoo of the Yonhap News Agency.

    Choi played in 54 games with the Los Angeles Angels last season, hitting .170 with five home runs. He owns an .896 OPS with 40 home runs across six minor league seasons, however, and could muscle into the picture with an impressive exhibition showing, particularly if Bird faces any setbacks and/or Austin struggles.   

    Prediction: Bird will win the job with Austin making the team as a backup at first base and the corner outfield spots, where he also saw action in 2016.

Storyline: The Evolution of Gary Sanchez

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The word "revelation" gets tossed around too liberally in professional sports. But there is simply no other way to describe Gary Sanchez's 2016 season.

    In 53 games with the Yankees, Sanchez posted a 1.032 OPS with 20 home runs, gunned down 41 percent of would-be base stealers and finished second in American League Rookie of the Year balloting.

    "Honestly speaking, this first time around, I felt confident against every pitcher I faced," Sanchez told me in November. "I didn't feel overmatched against anybody. Now, having said that, next year is when they're going to start seeing me a second, third, fourth time, so now the challenge is they're going to adapt and adjust to me."

    He's right. Baseball is a game of adjustments, to recycle the cliche. Sophomore slumps aren't inevitable, but the term exists for a reason.

    The biggest question with Sanchez is whether his power is for real. In his minor league career, he averaged a home run every 27.4 plate appearances. In his brief MLB tenure, he's homered every 11.5 PAs.

    Steamer projects 26 home runs for Sanchez in 2017, per FanGraphs. While that wouldn't match his Ruthian 2016 pace, New York would certainly take it. 

    Defensively, Sanchez's hose is undeniable. But he graded out as a slightly below-average pitch framer, per StatCorner, so that's another area to keep an eye on this spring.

    Clearly, Sanchez has the potential to become the most special, instantly impactful backstop since the San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey burst onto the scene in 2010. 

    Watching that potential unfold should be a lot of fun.

Key Position Battle: Right Field

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    Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks.
    Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks.Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    Of all the position scrums in Yankees camp, the battle for right field might be the most intriguing.

    Like Austin, Aaron Judge homered in his first big league at-bat last season, teasing the game-changing power his strapping frame suggests.

    Judge tailed off, however, and finished with a .179/.263/.345 slash line in 27 games. The 24-year-old posted an .845 OPS with 56 home runs in 348 minor league games and ranks as New York's No. 4 prospect, according to MLB.com.

    The club will give him a long look this spring. He's got the backing of principal owner Hal Steinbrenner.

    "My expectations are he's going to be my starting right fielder this year," Steinbrenner said on the YES Network in November, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. "That's a big deal and a big opportunity. I know he's going to make the most of it."

    Judge, though, is far from alone in the right field mix. 

    Aaron Hicks grades as an above-average defensive right fielder but hit just .217 last season and turned 27 in October. Still, the Yankees higher-ups are clearly high on him. In July, general manager Brian Cashman compared him favorably to Boston Red Sox All-Star Jackie Bradley Jr., per ESPN.com's Andrew Marchand

    If Hicks can put it together at the plate the way Bradley did in 2016, he could easily vault to the top of the depth chart.

    The dark horse in this race is 25-year-old Mason Williams, who has hit .292 in 20 games with the Yankees over the past two seasons while logging innings at all three outfield positions. It would take a torrid spring to win a starting gig, but Williams has a decent chance of sticking as a backup who can also spell veterans Brett Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center.

    Prediction: Hicks, who is out of options, remains on the 25-man roster and gets starts, but Judge begins the season as the Opening Day right fielder. Steinbrenner has spoken. 

Player to Watch: Clint Frazier

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Clint Frazier isn't going to crack the Opening Day roster, but his spring performance should give the Bronx faithful a preview of coming attractions.

    Acquired from the Cleveland Indians at the 2016 trade deadline in the Andrew Miller deal, Frazier sits atop the Yankees' impressive prospect heap, according to MLB.com. Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter has him No. 2.

    Either way, the 22-year-old boasts an enviable combination of raw power and speed with a strong arm and the defensive ability to stick in center field.

    With his flowing red locks and brimming confidence, he's got the potential to take New York by storm.

    "I play like my hair is on fire," Frazier said, per Kevin Kernan of the New York Post. "It's fiery, like my personality. It's big hair, and I try to make my personality big. I think it represents me because it's different, I'm different, it's unique to who I am. It makes me one of a kind."

    So far, Frazier has backed up his bravado with results, posting an .803 OPS across all levels. A big spring showing will only increase the excitement.

Key Position Battle: The Starting Rotation

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    Yankees right-hander Bryan Mitchell.
    Yankees right-hander Bryan Mitchell.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    First, let's stipulate that the top three spots in New York's starting rotation will be held by Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda. Injuries could change that calculus, obviously, but it helps simplify an otherwise muddled picture.

    Assuming the Yankees don't add any more arms before the start of spring, here are the leading candidates for the final two rotation slots:

    • Luis Severino (RHP): The 22-year-old Severino wobbled in 71 big league innings last season, posting a 5.83 ERA. He's averaged nine strikeouts per nine innings with a 31-12 record and 2.51 ERA over 401 minor league frames, however, and has the stuff to be a front-line starter. 
    • Bryan Mitchell (RHP): A hard thrower with a plus curveball and cutter, Mitchell has struggled with his command, issuing 4.2 walks per nine innings in 65.2 MLB innings. He turns 26 in April, so this could be a make-or-break spring. 
    • Adam Warren (RHP): Warren posted a 3.26 ERA in 29 games out of the Yankees' bullpen last season after boomeranging back from the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline. The 29-year-old made 17 starts for New York in 2015 and could factor into the mix if Severino and Mitchell stumble.
    • Luis Cessa (RHP): Cessa made nine starts for New York in 2016 and put up a 4.35 ERA overall in 17 appearances. His most likely landing spot is in the bullpen, but a superlative spring could land him in the starting corps.
    • Chad Green (RHP): Like Cessa, Green came to the Yankees from the Detroit Tigers last December in exchange for reliever Justin Wilson. Also like Cessa, his best bet to crack the Opening Day roster is as a bullpen arm. Green posted a 4.73 ERA in 12 games with the Yanks in 2016 but averaged an impressive 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He did make eight starts and will get a look as a rotation option.

    Prediction: Severino and Mitchell win the final two rotation spots, but it's a revolving door until the trade deadline, when the Yankees may be compelled to make a move.

       

    All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.