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Four Yankees storylines to watch this spring

By tomorrow — February 18 — all Yankees should be in Tampa and accounted for (ok, with one notable exception).

I go back and forth on how important spring training really is. It’s necessary, yes, but I’ve learned not to get excited one way or the other. If a veteran looks weak at the plate, I usually lean on the back of the baseball card theory. If an unanticipated youngster tears the cover off the ball, I take the wait and see approach.

Being logical is no fun, though. So here are are four storylines to watch and overreact to during the next six weeks. (Yep — six weeks. That’s how close we are to REGULAR SEASON BASEBALL!)

1. Greg Bird and the first baseman

No, that is not the name of a horrible indie band from central Pennsylvania. It’s the storyline I’m most looking forward to seeing play out this spring.

I honestly can’t tell if Greg Bird is the most overlooked Yankee going into 2017 or the most important (still not ready to name an X-factor).

We all remember Bird’s excellence in 2015, but that was soooooo long ago. Think about what’s transpired since: Mark Teixeira suffered more injuries, more struggles, and then retired, Alex Rodriguez became a TV star but then regressed on the field and was sent home mid-summer, the Yankees had the most feared bullpen in history but then traded two-thirds of it, and Gary Sanchez set the baseball world on fire with a record amount of dingers — all while Brian Cashman was maneuvering the Yankees to being a top-of-the-league farm system.

Bird underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum last February that sidelined him for the entire 2016 season. The injury stung; at the time we were mostly concerned with Bird’s development, but as it turns out, the Yankees could have desperately used the 23-year old in the lineup when Teixeira was struggling.

Now, as we enter 2017, Bird and his taylor-made Yankee Stadium swing have the expectations of being the everyday first baseman with the pressure of returning from surgery and a season spent on the sidelines.

A labrum tear is infamous for draining a hitter’s power. While the injury is more common in pitchers (you may remember Michael Pineda missing the 2012 season), plenty of hitters have returned from surgery and been the same player. But if Bird’s power does suffer, that will put the Yankees in a world of hurt.

Greg is their main lefty power bat. Didi hit 20 homers last season, but he isn’t thought of as a power threat. Ellsbury and Gardner can be good offensive players, but again, not power guys. All of the power in the lineup is from the right side — Sanchez, Castro, Holliday, Judge, and Carter — which isn’t a bad thing, but at Yankee Stadium is unorthodox.

Should Bird struggle from the rust or pressure, or (worst case scenario) appear unhealthy, the Yankees have many options behind him on the depth chart.

As you may or may not have heard, recently signed Chris Carter led the NL in homers last season and was signed for a basement bargain price of $3.5M plus incentives. Carter will see plenty of playing time against lefties — either at DH or first base — but could turn into an everyday first baseman if Bird is not providing the Yankees what they need. Because Carter is a veteran and power hitter used to playing every day, I do not expect his spring statistics to factor much into his playing time come April.

Tyler Austin, now the backup to the backup first baseman, has his hands full this spring. He’s been in Tampa for what seems like an eternity working at the corner infield positions, but with Carter added to the roster, Austin’s road to the Bronx got much more difficult. The biggest asset Austin brings is his versatility — he can play the corner infield and outfield positions. The bottom-line for Austin, though, is that unless he hits, he will probably not make the Opening Day roster.

Finally, will we see Matt Holliday take grounders at first base this spring? Probably, but with Carter and Austin ahead of him, Holliday is nothing more than an extreme emergency first baseman.

2. Aaron Judge’s swing

After his 446-foot blast to center field in his first ever at bat, Aaron Judge swung and missed a lot. He struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats last season — exactly 50% of the time, if my math is correct.

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Those struggles were nothing new. Judge has struggled at every new level of pro ball, but made the necessary adjustments to keep advancing as a high-end prospect. Cashman and the Yankees are confident that trend will continue.

There’s been a lot of talk about Judge’s new mechanics, and prospect experts like Keith Law are buying-in. Adjustment stories and batting practice videos are great and all, but Judge must implement it on the field to make the team. If you monitor one aspect of Judge’s game this spring, make it is contact rate.

3. Rotation Royal Rumble

The big starting rotation competition last spring was between CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova — CC won despite Nova’s better performance. It turns out the Yankees made the right decision; CC had his best season since 2012 and Ivan Nova was traded for the proverbial PTBNL.

This year is a different story. Instead of holding a one-on-one, mano-e-mano competition, the Yankees will be hosting a freakin royal rumble. Five — FIVE! — pitchers will compete for two spots.

Believe it or not, the Yankees rotation has even more uncertainty than it did in 2016.

Masahiro Tanaka was already named Opening Day starter and has set tremendous goals for himself, saying he wants to reach 220-230 innings. His high came last year (199.2 — missed it by that much) when he made 31 starts, also his high in three seasons with the Yanks. Should he match or best that performance, he will undoubtedly opt-out of his contract making the team’s number-1 starter a question-mark past 2017. Sabathia and Michael Pineda are lined-up behind Tanaka — both bring uncertainty and impending free agency.

That brings us to the contestants: Luis Severino, Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, and Luis Cessa.

Severino has the most hype and most potential, which makes him the pitcher to watch this spring. Warren is more of a known commodity; the Yankees feel comfortable with him in the bullpen but he has shown glimpses of being a quality starter in the past. Mitchell, Green, and Cessa are all less sexy than Sevy and less reliable than Warren, meaning they will have to really shine in order to earn a rotation spot.

If you’re asking me to pick now, having not watched any of them throw one pitch, I’d say Severino and Warren break camp having won the competition.

4. Can Clint Frazier live up to the hype?

First, before you call me an imbecile, let me say that it is impossible to live up to hype in spring training.

But Clint Frazier is the next prospect in line to debut in the Bronx. If all goes to plan the bleacher creatures will be chanting FRA-ZIER! FRA-ZIER! sometime this summer.

Last spring, big things were expected from Gary Sanchez. Cashman recently spoke that he fully expected Sanchez to backup McCann, but Austin Romine simply outplayed him in spring. While it would take a litany of injuries and bad luck to Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Mason Williams for Frazier to find a spot on the Opening Day roster, his play this spring can make a lasting impact on the Yankees decision makers.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Rotondi

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