It’s no secret that the majority of Spring Training games are worthless. Almost every performance, good or bad, can be written off… usually the only impactful occurrences are injuries. But, baseball fans love Spring Training—mostly because it means that baseball is back and their favorite players are playing games again. As great as that is, though, spectators often need to have a reason to watch the game, and incentives can be hard to come by. Still, there is one compelling thing that should compel fans to keep an eye on the game: position battles. Whether it’s the last spot on the bench or a spot in the starting rotation, there are plenty of alignments that are initially decided based on Spring Training. Let’s take a look at the most significant battles to watch this Spring.
Likely the most publicized battle going into March will be for the final rotation spot. It’s not the most inspiring of candidates vying for the fifth starter role, but that doesn’t mean that whoever it is won’t be a key cog in the Yankees’ season. Who takes the mound every fifth day is just as important whether it’s the ace or the last pitcher on the staff. The biggest name on the list is former-ace C.C. Sabathia. After leaving the team late in the season to rehab from alcoholism, there has been nothing but good news from the 35-year old. Sabathia claims to feel the best he’s felt in three years and is “light years” ahead of his normal offseason training program. This is good to hear, but it certainly feels like déjà vu for the Yankees, who may be tired of three straight seasons of an ERA over 4.70. Being a former fixture in the rotation may give Sabathia a slight edge, but it’s hard to count on much production from the aging pitcher. That’s why the Yankees also have a former rotation-mate, Ivan Nova, in the thick of this battle. Nova’s nickname, Supernova, came true last season when he looked like an imploding star on the mound. Unable to live up to his 2013 performance, Nova had a 5.07 ERA and feeble 6.03 K/9 over 94 innings. Nova gets a bit of a pass because he was returning from Tommy John surgery, so his performance this Spring will be the best way for the Yankees to evaluate him.
Favorite: C.C. Sabathia
Next Up: Ivan Nova
Dark Horse: Luis Cessa, Brady Lail
Although not as exciting as the fifth starter showdown, the backup catcher certainly isn’t an unimportant role. This race will come down to shiny-new-toy Gary Sanchez (who Yankees considered a rusty oldish toy until a huge resurgence in 2015), the boring-but-decent Austin Romine, and Carlos Corporan, the winner of the “He’s a Yankee now?” award. Fans will undoubtedly be rooting for Sanchez, who is back on top prospect lists and features standout tools in his power and arm behind the plate. If he makes the big league team, Sanchez will instantly become one of the better bats on the bench as well. The thing holding Sanchez back at the moment is his glove. Although it did take a step forward last year, the general belief is that his defense isn’t yet major league ready, like his bat it. It may serve him better to get at bats and repetitions behind the plate every day in Triple-A, than to sit on the big league bench. His role may depend on how Austin Romine looks. Romine has been blocked by the now-traded J.R. Murphy for a couple of years now, and only has 183 MLB plate appearances despite being 27 and debuting in 2011. Romine falls under the category of ‘good enough,’ as although he lacks much big league experience, the bat and glove would play fine in a backup role. He doesn’t have much upside and isn’t someone that the Yankees would look forward to playing when McCann needs a breather, as evidenced by his .260/.311/.379 batting line last year in Triple-A. That said, if he shows he’s capable of being the backup catcher, the Yankees may opt to let Sanchez develop in the minors for another half season or so.
Favorite: Gary Sanchez
Next Up: Austin Romine
Dark Horse: Carlos Corporan
This battle isn’t as clear as the backup catcher role, as a number of things can happen to change this race. For now, the Yankees are hoping that Starlin Castro can both start at second base and serve as the backup shortstop and third baseman if needed. Castro has proven to be a solid defender in the middle of the diamond, but third is more of a question mark. He has logged no innings there in the majors and just seven games in the minors (in 2007). If Castro can play third, then the Yankees can take on another second baseman from their bevy of options, such as Rob Refnsyder, Pete Kozma or Donovan Solano. If Castro proves unable to play third base, things get weird. The Yankees will need someone that can play there and, well, they don’t have a single person who really can. The only candidate in the big leagues that is on the 40-man roster is Kozma, who has only spent 64.1 innings there and had a 7 wRC+ — making him by far the worst hitter in the majors last season. It’s not a great scenario to be in, but the Yankees are hedging their bets on Castro. Or, they could ask Headley to play 162 games.
If Castro can play third base
Favorite: Rob Refnsyder
Next Up: Peter Kozma
Dark Horse: Donavan Solano, Ronald Torreyes
If Castro can’t play third base
Favorite: Peter Kozma
Next Up: Rob Refsnyder
Dark Horse: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Final 3 Bullpen Spots
There’s no denying that the Yankees have a special bullpen when it comes to the final few innings of the game, but the whole bullpen can’t be made up of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller; especially if Chapman is suspended. I already took an in-depth look at the myriad of candidates to form a bridge to the elite pitchers, but let’s run through who could make it. Shreve will earn a roster spot, but his role will hinge on whether he can get past last season’s late collapse. At this point, it’s hard to say for sure whether or not he’ll be able to recapture his previous magic. For now, though, he can be expected to be the fourth pitcher in the bullpen.
Next up is likely Bryan Mitchell, who threw 24 innings in the big leagues last season. The Yankees really like his talent, and think he can either be a back end starter or good reliever. Mitchell’s season went downhill after being hit by a comebacker in the head, but if he can bounce back from that there is a good chance he breaks camp with the club.
Branden Pinder threw 27.2 innings out of the bullpen and had a lot of success, including a 2.93 ERA. His peripheral numbers (including a 4.72 FIP) were ugly, though, and he’s on the cusp of making the roster. The same can be said for Nick Rumbelow, who has plenty of upside but may not be ready for the big leagues just yet.
New York’s 2014 first-round pick, Jacob Lindgren, should be able to make the team if he’s healthy after having bone spur surgery last season, but that’s not a guarantee. His control will also need to be good enough, but we won’t know how he looks until Spring Training starts.
Nick Goody and James Pazos were nothing short of electric while in Triple-A, as each had ERA’s under 1.30 in Triple-A, automatically making them considerations for a bullpen role. Neither have over-the-top upside, but their eye-popping stats will surely get them a long look. It’s likely that the Yankees will just go with the hot hands out of camp and throughout the season, making the middle innings a fluid spot for the team. The battle is wide open, and will be fun to watch this March.
Favorites: Chasen Shreve, Bryan Mitchell, and Jacob Lindgren
Next Up: Branden Pinder, James Pazos
Dark Horse: Nick Rumbelow, Nick Goody
Lead photo: Adam Hunger / USA Today Sports