The first couple of weeks of spring training are generally pretty irrelevant. Pitchers throw bullpen sessions, batters hit fastballs, athletes make statements they make every year. In New York Yankees‘ camp most years, Spring Training in general is irrelevant.
Until 2013, the lineup had no openings and half the bench were veteran presences who were not going to be cut (like Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez). Sure, there was always the age concern, but it usually didn’t rear its ugly head until the season was already underway. Short of a Michael Pineda-like fluke elbow injury, or the oblique attack of 2008, it’s a rarity anything serious happens to a bunch of veterans in the spring.
That’s why this February and March will be so different.
It starts with Pineda. Just seeing his form these first few days are important. While velocity isn’t necessarily valuable yet, making sure he’s comfortable throwing the ball is a start. Once Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera get underway, paying attention to how they go about normal body movements will be something to gauge. Jeter needs to be able to move side to side and though Rivera’s arm has no damage at 43 years old, zeroing in on his near-flawless delivery will be important to see how the knee responds.
It’s not just the injuries either. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are out of options. Austin Romine has the highest ceiling of all three catchers. Though the upside isn’t “Yankees’ caliber”, the battle for behind the plate has numerous repercussions. Already, we have noticed Romine’s back is healthy, Cervelli rejected the Italian national team in the World Baseball Classic and Stewart may be the front-runner to start.
Keep in mind, if Stewart doesn’t start with Cervelli as his backup, one of them is getting placed on waivers and unlikely to clear them. Yet, if Romine has a big spring and stays healthy, it would be a shot in the foot to keep him in AAA.
The bench isn’t yet complete. Yes, someone like Eduardo Nunez and one of the aforementioned catchers have spots, but the last outfield spot is still wide open. Who will be the right-handed DH platoon? Everyday, all eyes will be on Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner, two undeniable starters who must stay healthy for the Yankees’ plan, at least to start the year, to make any sense.
Will Matt Diaz make the team as a right-handed DH platoon or simply a right-handed outfielder? What about Juan Rivera Will Melky Mesa be placed in with all the group A’s? Does that mean he may make the team as a prospect with a lower ceiling but speed and defense the Yankees could use off the bench?
What about Dan Johnson? Zoilo Almonte? Recently signed, Shawn Kelley? Clay Rapada is out of options, so it’s likely the Yankees start the year with him as a second lefty out of the bullpen, but what happens when Cesar Cabral, the pitcher with a higher ceiling, capable of facing righties, is healthy enough? If Rapada struggles does someone like Kelley have an even better shot to latch on?
Kelley was acquired in a trade, does that mean he has a leg up on someone like Cody Eppley, one year proven in the AL East? If David Phelps beats out Ivan Nova for the final spot in the rotation, does that mean Nova gets demoted? Does that open a door for Adam Warren to take Phelps’ role last year as a long-man/swing man in relief?
Can David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain stay healthy long enough to secure the seventh inning? If both are solid, who has the upper hand? When will Girardi throw them and will it be together? Will Mariano spend more time with Dave Robertson because the Yankees favor Robertson as Rivera’s replacement?
Where will Nunez get his playing time? Shortstop? Third? How much will Youkilis play at first base? Will Gardner get time early on in center? Will he get any time in center? Does either scenario mean Gardner and Granderson will switch positions?
Rumor has it old friend Chien-Ming Wang has been throwing for the Yankees, will he be signed and invited to Spring Training on a minor league deal? Is that the name Cashman will use this year as the veteran depth starter we are so confident will be there in AAA?
Ultimately, nothing will be decided until the end of March and it’s unlikely Joe Girardi gives many helpful hints in the next four or five weeks.
However, even early indications can be important in a camp with so much uncertainty and so many backup options. Conceivably, there can be indications of change at every position except first base, second base and right field in that backups may be battling, players may switch position or an underdog can beat out a favorite. Someone new can even join the team any day now.
The scores mean nothing and the results may not mean much more, but sometimes actions speak louder than words before the season begins, and little indications can give away bigger decisions.
Those nuances begin from the start.