Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 14, 2019

Potential Alone Won’t Win A Roster Spot

A NOTE TO READERS: As evidenced below, On Sports and Life is currently in warmer climes than New Hampshire. Because of these travels, there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Thanks as always for your support.

It was quiet at the New York Yankees minor league complex on Tuesday morning. The sprawling facility, with its four fields laid out like a lucky clover, the four home plates surrounding a central observation platform where coaches and fans can watch scores of prospects pursue their dreams in multiple workouts and games all going on at once, sits adjacent to Dale Mabry Highway, the broad thoroughfare that runs north-south through Tampa as if laid out with a straightedge.

On the map it’s not far at all from this training facility to the team’s major league Spring Training camp surrounding Steinbrenner Field. The latter sits barely a half mile away on the other side of Dale Mabry, only a few long Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton home runs to the north and six busy lanes of traffic to the west. But in career terms, the two complexes are light years apart, existing in different galaxies of the Great Game. As morning turned to afternoon on Tuesday and the late winter sun worked to burn through gray cloud cover, the contrast was also reflected in the bustle of activity at the big league camp that was a far cry from the sleepy atmosphere a few blocks south.

Hours before the exhibition match between the Yankees and the visiting Orioles, throngs of fans flock the grounds, watching various workouts on the two practice fields or waiting in the outfield seats for home run balls as batting practice gets underway on the Steinbrenner Field diamond. On a field just outside the main stadium more than a dozen pitchers play catch in the outfield while fans line the fence along the foul line, clamoring for autographs. A few yards away coaches are running a large group of players through defensive drills on the infield.

The ground ball workouts continue even as the pitchers depart and groups of players take turns stepping into the cage surrounding home plate for batting practice. Because the Yankees have yet to make substantial cuts at this year’s spring training, many of those taking swings are unfamiliar even to the most devoted fan. Soon enough these hitters will receive the news they least want to hear and will pack their duffels for the short trip down the highway to the minor league facility. But one group of three is instantly recognizable. Batting in turn are backup catcher Austin Romine, first baseman Greg Bird, and outfielder Clint Frazier.

Having turned thirty during the offseason, Romine is the oldest of the trio. He’s also the one with the most time with the big club. Drafted by New York in 2007, he made his major league debut in September 2011. After missing most of the following season with a back injury, Romine shuttled between the Bronx and the Yankees AAA affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders for three years before finally winning the backup job behind starting catcher Gary Sanchez in 2016. The demands of the position mean that even backup catchers see a fair amount of action over the course of the longest season. That reality coupled with injuries to Sanchez in both 2017 and 2018 led to Romine appearing in almost half the team’s games each of the last two years. While there is nominally a competition for backup catcher at every spring training, there’s little doubt that Romine will again be with the club when it heads north in two weeks.

The potential for Romine’s two batting practice partners is much higher, but their immediate future is far less certain. Like the backup catcher, Bird has spent his entire career in the Yankees organization, having been drafted by the club in 2011. Frazier was a highly touted prospect for Cleveland, who came to New York in 2016 as part of the trade that sent reliever Andrew Miller to Ohio. With his power from the left side of the plate and capable defense at first base, Bird was tagged as the eventual replacement for Mark Teixeira, while with his five-tool skillset Frazier was touted as a “can’t miss” big leaguer when Cleveland made him the fifth overall selection in the 2013 draft.

When given the chance both have shown glimpses of their considerable upsides. Thrust into a starting role soon after his initial callup when Teixeira suffered a season-ending leg injury in 2015, Bird slugged eleven homers in just forty-six games and posted a very promising OPS of .871. But in the ensuing offseason he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and the resulting surgery sidelined him for the entire next year. Since then he has been unable to complete a full season without further injury. In 2017 it was a broken foot and last year surgery to his right ankle. When Bird has made the Yankees lineup his numbers have not matched his promise. In limited play over the last two years his batting average has failed to eclipse .200.

Faced with that lack of production the Yankees turned to the Luke Voit down the stretch last season, and the unheralded player, acquired in a deadline trade with St. Louis, made the most of his opportunity. In just thirty-nine games Voit smashed fourteen home runs and recorded an eye-popping 1.095 OPS. As this year’s training camp opened GM Brian Cashman announced that while the competition for the starting job at first base was open, Voit had a “leg up” based on his late season heroics.

Promoted to the majors on July 1, 2017, Frazier had two hits, including his first big league home run, in his very first game. He became just the second Yankee, after some guy named DiMaggio, to start his career with nine extra base hits in less than fifteen games. But in the early days of last year’s spring training Frazier suffered what was first diagnosed as a mild concussion from running into an outfield wall while making a catch. The injury proved anything but mild, and he wound up missing most of the year while dealing with blurry vision and memory loss. Finally cleared for play at the start of this camp, Frazier now confronts a jammed Yankee outfield, with Judge, Stanton, Aaron Hicks and veteran Brett Gardner all ahead of him on the team’s depth chart.

It’s now two weeks until Opening Day in the Bronx. Cashman, manager Aaron Boone, and the rest of New York’s talent evaluators face some hard choices in the coming days. With just twenty-five roster spots, the team likely has room for only one full-time first baseman. While Bird has had a fine spring and appears to have finally overcome his injuries, Voit has been nearly as solid. Similarly, it will be hard to squeeze five outfielders into the available roster space, and the likely logic is that after missing almost all last season, Frazier can get much-needed playing time in AAA.

Batting practice ends, and the three teammates head for the Yankees clubhouse. Soon enough the major leaguers will be at home in their far more luxurious facility in the Bronx. A breakout performance in the next few days, or the intervention of fate in the form of an injury could still change minds. But for all the promise and potential of Greg Bird and Clint Frazier, when New York gets ready to again play Baltimore, this time in a game that counts, it’s likely that only the journeyman Austin Romine will have a locker in that clubhouse.

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