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AL East: Spring Training preview part I

With pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training in a week-and-a-half it is time to preview the AL East teams as they currently stand. This week BP looks at the Yankees and Red Sox. The Yankees will be retooling and rebuilding around Gary Sanchez while their arch-rivals, the Red Sox, and Mookie Betts are going for it all.

New Kids in the Bronx

Team: Yankees   Spring Training Site: George M Steinbrenner III Field, Tampa, Florida
Pitchers & Catchers Report Date: 2/14  Remainder of Squad Report Date: 2/18
First Spring Training Game:  2/24 vs. Phillies

INFIELD

Going around the horn, 3/4 of the Yankees infield is set. Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro give the Yankees a strong defensive and, surprisingly, offensive duo up the middle. GM Brian Cashman knew that he was getting a terrific gloveman when he acquired Gregorius from the Diamondbacks, but it’s unlikely he could have predicted the offensive output Gregorius produced last season.

After struggling at the start of the 2015 season, Gregorius turned his year around. Last year, the 26-year old had a breakout season at the plate, hitting 20 home runs and 32 doubles. He also drove in 70 runs and scored 68 runs. With five steals in six attempts, it’s not a stretch to think he’ll become a consistent 15-15 or 20-20 player as his game continues to improve. It’s also important to note that in his first two seasons in the Bronx, Gregorius struck out just 85 times and 82 times in close to 600 plate appearances each season.

Castro’s numbers were remarkably similar to Gregorius’ 2016 season. He topped 20 home runs for the first time, legged out 29 doubles, knocked in 70 runs and scored 63. Chase Headley will man the hot corner despite not putting up the power numbers that third basemen traditionally produce. He’s in the third year of a (bad decision) four-year, $52MM contract.

The Yankees’ biggest infield concern is across the diamond at the “kiddie corner”. For now, it’s a two-man competition between Greg Bird and Tyler Austin. Bird is coming back from shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the 2016 season. The 24-year-old gave the Yankees a glimpse of what he could do in 2015 when he produced 11 home runs and 31 RBI in 46 games. He also put up very solid splits of .261/.343/.529. As long as he’s healthy, he’s ahead of Austin on the team’s depth chart. But, Austin isn’t going to hand him the job.

Austin brought excitement to the Bronx in his August 2016 debut. He and outfielder Aaron Judge became the first teammates to hit back-to-back home runs in their first Major League at-bat. (And, the crew of Bronx Pinstripes was fortunate to have witnessed it from the right field bleachers!) Austin struggled for the remainder of August but finished out the season in good fashion in September and October. He slugged .617 as part of .994 OPS in his final 20 games of the year.  Austin also came through in the clutch down the stretch as the Yankees battled for a playoff spot. He delivered a walk-off home run to beat the Rays on Sept. 8 and his eighth inning home run off Boston’s David Price was the game winner later in September.

OUTFIELD

Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury return as the starters in left field and center field. The Yankees explored trading Gardner over the winter, but couldn’t find a trade partner. A major impediment to dealing Gardner is the $26MM he’s guaranteed through 2018 (including a $2MM buyout for 2019). His drop-off in stolen bases and slugging pct. isn’t helping either.

The biggest question mark in the outfield is: will Aaron Judge be able to handle right field on a full-time basis? Judge cuts an imposing figure, but after a good start in the Majors last August, he slumped badly. The right-handed hitter was 7-18 in his first five games in the Majors but eked out only eight more hits in his final 66 at-bats of the season. An injury on September 13th knocked him out of action for the rest of the year. This season, the Yankees are counting on him to replicate his minor league power numbers. It remains to be seen how many at-bats he will be given to prove himself.

Austin will compete for at-bats in the outfield as will Aaron Hicks and Mason Williams. Newly-signed DH Matt Holliday could see some time in the outfield as well.

CATCHER

Barring some unforeseen circumstance, manager Joe Girardi will be writing Gary Sanchez‘s name in the lineup five days a week. There are even heavier expectations on “El Gary” after his remarkable power surge in the last two months of the season.

Based on his 2016 performance, Austin Romine has the inside track on the backup job. Kyle Higashioka could pressure him after a 21-HR/81-RBI season split between Trenton and Scranton last year. It’s likely the Yankees would want to take a longer look at Higashioka in Triple-A where he produced 10 HR and 30 RBI in just 39 games.

The Yankees have also invited non-roster catchers Eddy Rodriguez, Carlos Corporan, Francisco Diaz and Sebastian Valle to spring training, but none of them will be in the backup competition.

ROTATION

The givens for the rotation are Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia.  Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, Adam Warren, Luis Severino and Luis Cessa will duke it out for the final two spots in the rotation. Girardi and Cashman will then have to decide who ends up in the bullpen and who gets demoted to the minors. The hope is that Severino’s off-season work with Pedro Martinez pays off.

BULLPEN

Aroldis Chapman is back as closer after earning a World Series ring with the Chicago Cubs. That means Dellin Betances is back to a setup role, which has earned him three straight All-Star appearances (Now if only Andrew Miller returned). Left-hander Chasen Shreve will be on the staff as well as another lefty specialist. Barring future moves, Tommy Layne will have the inside track on that spot.

DH and BENCH

Holliday will get the primary at-bats at DH. The remaining ABs will help rest the regulars.

Rob Refsnyder, Ronald Torreyes, Donovan Solano, Ruben Tejada, and Pete Kozma will vie for utility spots.

PROSPECTS THAT COULD IMPACT THE 2017 SEASON

Pitchers James Kaprielian and Justus Sheffield, and outfielder Clint Frazier are on the horizon.

Building the Perfect Beast

Team: Red Sox  Spring Training Site: JetBlue Park, Ft Meyers, Florida
Pitchers & Catchers Report Date: 2/13 Remainder of Squad Report Date: 2/17
First Spring Training Game:  2/24 vs. Mets

The Boston Red Sox won the AL East last season with a high-powered offense, a pretty good rotation and an iffy bullpen. The Sox front office went to work this offseason and put together a team that, on paper, should steamroll the rest of the division for a second straight AL East title. Even without retiree David Ortiz, who regularly produced 30+ HR/100+ RBI seasons, the Red Sox still have plenty of firepower in their lineup.

INFIELD

The lineup’s biggest question mark falls squarely on third base. Can Pablo Sandoval resurrect his career? Boston signed “Kung Fu Panda” to a five-year, $95MM contract prior to the 2015 season. He responded with the worst season of his career. That was until the 2016 season rolled around. A three-time World Series champion with the Giants, Sandoval reported to camp last year completely out of shape. To make matters worse, after just six regular season games he underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.

Sandoval has shown off a much more fit physique in the offseason and his shoulder is reportedly healthy. As for his competition, there isn’t much. Travis Shaw and Aaron Hill are gone. Versatile utility man Brock Holt is much more valuable in that role. Right now, the job is Sandoval’s to lose.

The concerns regarding the right side of the infield are: age, health and the ability to repeat or come close to repeating last year’s performance. First Baseman Hanley Ramirez was one of three Red Sox to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100+ runs in 2016. Ramirez also played in 147 games, the most action he had seen in four years.

Primarily hitting in the five spot in the batting order, Ramirez had plenty of RBI opportunities due to the four hitters ahead of him. And, some of those opportunities came as a result of pitchers working around Big Papi, who hit cleanup.

Ramirez will be the primary DH this season, with free agent acquisition Mitch Moreland getting most of the playing time at first base. In his sixth year with the Texas Rangers last year, Moreland won his first Gold Glove Award . The 30-year-old is a 20 HR/20 doubles hitter that had his best season in 2015 but tailed off last year. He’ll need to be more consistent this year or he could lose at-bats, especially in NL parks where there is no DH.

Dustin Pedroia arguably enjoyed a bigger revival than his fellow 33-year-old Ramirez in 2016. Pedroia’s hard-nosed style had taken a toll on his body. The 2008 AL MVP had seen a downturn in his production in 2014-2015. Injuries to his legs and wrist played a large part in his lower offensive output.

In 2016, Pedroia had a good first month and his success continued from there. His home run total was the highest it’s been since 2012. He topped the .800 mark in OPS for the first time since 2011. Most importantly, he appeared in 154 games after he only played in 95 games in 2015.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts continued his climb to stardom last year with a 22-HR/89 RBI season. He’ll need to work on his stamina after a fade out over the last two months of the regular season.

OUTFIELD

No one could have foreseen the production the Red Sox received last season from Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. Betts, my pick for last year’s AL MVP, enjoyed a tremendous breakout season in his second full year in the Major Leagues. A .318/.363/.534 split was accompanied by 31 HR and 113 RBI. Betts also stole 26 bases in 30 attempts (86.3% success rate) and scored 122 runs. In playing in all but four games, Betts garnered Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards, made the All-Star team, led the AL in total bases and finished second to the Angels’ Mike Trout in the MVP vote. There’s no reason to think he won’t put up similar numbers this season.

Bradley had a miserable rookie season in 2014, hitting below .200 in 127 games. He made a significant improvement in 2015 and was an All-Star last season. His 2016 line of 26 HR, 30 doubles, 87 RBI, 94 RBI and .486 Slugging pct. seems about right for him. He needs to cut down on his strikeouts (143 last year) in order to raise his game up another notch. He’s also a tremendous asset with his glove.

The MLB Network recently named left fielder Andrew Benintendi as the no. 1 prospect in baseball. Not a bad addition to an already power-packed team. The seventh overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft, Benintendi made his Major League debut a year later. He appeared in 34 games for Boston with an .835 OPS and 14 RBI in 105 at-bats. That was in addition to the 9 HR and 76 RBI he contributed between Double-A Salem and Triple-A Pawtucket.

If Benintendi needs more seasoning at Triple-A, the Red Sox will turn to a combo of Chris Young, Holt, and others.

Catcher

Injuries and ineffectiveness cast Sandy Leon into a starring role for the Red Sox last season. Leon had two straight seasons with a sub-.500 OPS. Then suddenly out of the blue (or red), Leon hit .310 last year with 7 HR and 35 RBI and an .845 OPS. He also added 17 doubles and two triples in 252 at-bats.

Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez will compete for the backup stop. Both have been highly touted, but thus far have not produced enough offense at the Major League level. On top of that, both have been hampered by physical problems the last two years.

DH and BENCH

Ramirez gets the bulk of the at-bats at DH. Holt, a catcher, and Young will be the chief contributors off the bench.

ROTATION

All-Star Chris Sale joins a rotation that already features 2014 AL Cy Young winner David Price and 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. The offseason trade with the White Sox cost Boston plenty, including prospect Yoan Moncada, who has been ranked as the no. 1 or no. 2 overall prospect in baseball. Sale will prove the cost was well worth it. Knuckleballer Steven Wright was a pleasant surprise in 2016 until a shoulder injury cost him the last month of the season and a spot on the postseason roster. Two weeks ago, manager John Farrell said he expects Wright to be ready when pitchers report on Feb. 13.

Competing with Wright for spots in the rotation are Drew Pomeranz, who the Red Sox acquired from the Padres last July, and Eduardo Rodriguez. Two of the three should be able to provide more consistency than Clay Buchholz did.

BULLPEN

The Red Sox bullpen is the biggest concern about the team. De facto closer Craig Kimbrel converted 31 of 33 opportunities last year, but it seemed he was shaky in many of those games. His six losses only added to that perception. Knee surgery cost Kimbrel three weeks in July and an All-Star appearance.

The very reliable Koji Uehara left via free agency, but the Sox acquired Tyler Thornburg from the Brewers to strengthen the pen. The right-hander saved 13 games but was primarily a setup man for the Brew Crew. He averaged 12.1 K/9 IP last season and held the opposition to just 38 hits in 67 innings pitched.

Joe Kelly was a flop as a starter, but his 14 relief appearances last season gave Farrell hope that he may have a significant role after all.

PROSPECTS THAT COULD IMPACT THE 2017 SEASON

Benintendi is the obvious choice.

 

Next week: Part II of our AL East Spring Training preview – Orioles and Blue Jays

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