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New York Yankees spring preview: Stronger bullpen may bring improvement

By Larry Fleisher, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 20, 2016 at 2:12 PM
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In previous winters, the New York Yankees generated headlines for free agent signings. This winter the Yankees made news for being inactive in free agency.

As pitchers and catchers began reporting, the Yankees were the only team not to sign a major-league free agent. Instead general manager Brian Cashman continued a trend of trading for younger players with reasonable contracts.

It began last winter with the trade for right-hander Nathan Eovaldi and continued this year with acquisitions of higher profile young players in left-hander Aroldis Chapman and second baseman Starlin Castro.

"I think on paper we are better," manager Joe Girardi said Thursday. "Paper doesn't mean anything until you go out and compete."

Even though Andrew Miller was effective closing games last season, the Yankees obtained Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds in January. Chapman was added shortly after Castro was acquired from the Chicago Cubs for versatile right-hander Adam Warren.

The Yankees were able to obtain both because of diminished trade value.

Chapman nearly went to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the winter meetings but the deal fell through due to his pending domestic violence and gun investigations. Chapman is not facing charges but could be suspended under the new domestic abuse policy once the investigation is finished.

Castro was available because of diminished production, mental lapses and a shift from shortstop to clear room for Addison Russell. He fits the Yankee mentality of being young and having a somewhat team-friendly contract, since he is 26 years old and has four years remaining on his contract.

Another reason why the Yankees' most significant moves were trades is because the rest of their lineup, barring injury, is pretty much set. New York's regular lineup includes 40-year-old designated hitter Alex Rodriguez, 39-year-old right fielder Carlos Beltran and 36-year-old first baseman Mark Teixeira, who is coming off a fractured shin.

Instead of pricey free-agent imports being subject to the critical eye of New York fans and media, two young trade acquisitions will be in the spotlight for a team that has appeared in one playoff game over the past three seasons.

NOTES, QUOTES

POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: The Yankees have six healthy starting pitchers at the moment but could have a competition for the fifth spot between left-hander CC Sabathia and right-hander Ivan Nova. Sabathia pitched better in his final few starts before entering rehab for alcohol right before the playoffs. Nova struggled in his return from Tommy John surgery and seems more suited to fill the relief/spot starter role Adam Warren previously occupied. It seems unlikely Sabathia would go to the bullpen since he is owed $25 million this year with an option for the same amount in 2017 barring injury. Sabathia's recent numbers have not correlated someone being paid so well. After having 2014 cut short by knee surgery when he was 3-4 with a 5.28 ERA, Sabathia was not much better last season. He was 6-10 with a 4.73 ERA and allowed a career-worst 28 home runs. Nova produced similar numbers once his season began June 24 by going 6-11 with a 5.07 ERA, and the Yankees unsuccessfully tried to trade him.

ROOKIE WATCH: For a while Yankee fans have heard various things about Gary Sanchez. He signed with New York as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and showed a productive bat. But other things got in the way, such as suspensions in 2011 with Class A Charleston and Double-A Trenton in 2012. Last year, Sanchez seemingly put it all together when he hit 18 home runs and drove in 62 runs while splitting the year between Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Then he led the Arizona Fall League with seven home runs. Sanchez will not be handed the job but the Yankees sent John-Ryan Murphy to Minnesota as an incentive for him to win it. If he does become the understudy to Brian McCann it is possible he could emerge as the starting backstop when McCann's contract expires following the 2018 season.

COMEBACK TRAIL: Last year Alex Rodriguez was on the comeback trail following a one-year suspension for PED usage. This year, CC Sabathia will be trying to regain some semblance of his previous form after getting treatment in an alcohol rehabilitation center last October. When he exited the Connecticut facility, Sabathia began getting into baseball shape in November, and he has thrown two bullpen sessions before pitchers and catchers reported. Even with the optimism about changes to personal habits, the Yankees need to see the results and not the pitcher who was a combined 9-14 over the last two years.

PLAYER NOTES

--RHP Masahiro Tanaka offered some clarification into why he had offseason surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow, saying through his interpreter: "Going into this season, I wanted to be as healthy and effective as possible. That is why I elected to take the bone spur off. Tanaka also added pitching with the bone spur hindered recovery time after starts. Tanaka has thrown 290 1/3 innings and missed a combined three months in his first two seasons with the Yankees. He was 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA last season despite missing a month with wrist tendinitis and a strained forearm. In his rookie season, Tanaka was 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA before landing on the disabled list with a partial tear in his elbow.

--LHP Aroldis Chapman is not facing any criminal charges on allegations he choked and shoved his girlfriend last October. He still might face a suspension under the new domestic violence policy of Major League Baseball. If and when a suspension is administered, Chapman said he will appeal any ban and that he met with investigators in the offseason. Chapman will be the third different closer for the Yankees since Mariano Rivera retired following the 2013 season. Over the past six seasons, Chapman has 546 strikeouts, tops among any reliever. He has a 2.17 career ERA and his fastball once was clocked at 105 miles per hour.

--RHP Michael Pineda has never pitched 200 innings in a season due to various injuries but when he arrived at spring training last weekend, he told reporters it is a goal for this season. Pineda has stated it as a goal in the past but has yet to achieve it. He finished at 160 2/3 innings in 2015 due to missing a month with a forearm strain and struggled after getting 16 strikeouts against Baltimore on May 10. He began the year with a 5-0 record in his first seven outings but wound up going 12-10 with a 4.37 ERA.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our goal is to win the World Series bottom line. I appreciate how hard our guys played last year and how they never gave up. We didn't get to where we wanted. We lost. We got beat by a very good pitcher who we didn't seem to solve last year. But our goal is to win the World Series. That's why we come to spring training." -- Yankees manager Joe Girardi, on what the team hopes to achieve this season.

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