It's here. At long last, it's finally here. It's been exactly 180 days since the Yankees were shut out by Dallas Keuchel to end their 2015 season. Now today they'll get a chance to right that wrong as they take the field to kick off their 2016 season against Keuchel and the Houston Astros again. Well, weather permitting they'll do that. Weather not permitting, I'll have wasted some valuable PTO at work and I'll have to burn more to watch Opening Day Part Deux tomorrow.
But for now we're sticking with positive vibes only and assuming that they will get the game in today. The Yankees put the finishing touches on their Opening Day roster over the weekend, and to me it's both very similar and very different to last year's roster and the rosters of the past few seasons. There's still the aging core that's going to make or break the team and there are still tons of questions in the rotation, but there is a continuation of last year's commitments to youth and the implication that the playing time balance will be more evenly distributed amongst the regulars and key bench players this season in an attempt to keep everybody (especially that aging core) healthy and productive. In no particular order of importance, here are some more of my thoughts on the 25-man crew that will take the field today to start the 2016 season.
- Did CC Sabathia deserve the 5th starter spot on merit? Certainly not. But his paycheck and veteran status were never going to be ignored, and there is the argument to be made that the team should at least give him a few starts to get it together after his strong finish to 2015. It's not like Ivan Nova was pitching better than CC then and his 6-shutout innings in his final ST start wasn't enough to erase his previous inconsistency, nor should it be. Joe adjusted his strategy with CC last year and utilized him as a 5-6 inning pitcher. There's no reason to think he won't do that again this season and it'll be on Sabathia to prove he can be effective enough in that role to keep his job. If he bombs, get him out of there.
- The challenge for Joe is going to be figuring out how best to use Nova out of the 'pen. On paper he should be effective in a shorter role, using his hard sinker and big curveball to generate swings and misses and lots of ground balls. But that's the same formula he's never been able to master as a starter, so who really knows? I'd like to see Nova get a shot as the Bryan Mitchell/Adam Warren multi-inning middle reliever and I think that's how Joe will try to use him early to keep him as stretched out as possible. You never know when another injury could strike and Nova is the clear cut #6 starter behind CC. But if those injuries don't come, Nova is going to have to prove he can be trusted with some important relief innings at some point. If he doesn't, he could fade into Bolivian.
- I absolutely love the decision to start Aaron Hicks today against the lefty. Love it. It's a smart, simple, logical baseball decision completely removed from things like salary, experience, tenure with the team, etc. It's the exact opposite of the CC rotation decision and it suggests that Joe and the rest of his staff has learned from last season. It's not just about giving the really old guys like A-Rod and Beltran extra rest. It's about giving all the older veteran players rest and playing to the more favorable matchups as a way to facilitate that rest. Aaron Hicks mashes lefties, Brett Garder and Jacoby Ellsbury really don't. Hicks is 100% healthy, Gardner and Ellsbury have dealt with slight injuries all spring. Go with the guy who's the better matchup and give those valuable veterans an extra day off early.
- As for who gets that day off? Flip a coin. Ellsbury has been dealing with lingering soreness in his wrist from the HBP and Gardner had a slow start to his spring working back from a bone bruise. It's not that big a deal to choose either one of them to sit in my opinion, and it shouldn't be treated as such. If I were making the lineup card out, I'd sit Ellsbury today. But it's going to be Gardner's turn soon enough and it'll be Beltran's turn eventually too. We're going to be seeing a lot of Aaron Hicks this season, rest assured.
- I'm really jazzed to see Starlin and Didi together on the middle infield today. I don't think the Yankees have ever had an up-the-middle pair this young and athletic in my lifetime. Even in the earlier Cano years when Derek Jeter wasn't a complete stiff, he was never the pure athlete that Didi is at short and I think Castro has shown he can be just as good at second base as Cano was in his prime. And if they both come out of the gate swinging hot bats like they were in ST? That'll get the people going and get a little juice flowing in that dugout.
- He's going to have to coax some innings out of his new guys while Chapman and Mitchell are out, so who becomes the newest inductee into the Joe Girardi Circle of Trust? My guess is Kirby Yates based on his strong spring and MLB track record. Joe leaned on Chris Martin a lot early last season after he was the surprise bullpen selection. I wouldn't be shocked to see Yates get the same treatment while Joe brings the younger Barbato and Cessa along more slowly.
- How much playing time does Austin Romine get? Obviously McCann is going to start today, but does Romine become the automatic catcher against lefties as an easy way to give Mac days off? Is Romine's bat good enough to justify that plan?
- Also, where is Dustin Ackley going to get his at-bats? The team is pretty well covered in the outfield and Ronald Torreyes gives them plenty of backup depth around most of the infield. Is Ackley the official backup first baseman? Right now I see him as this year's Garrett Jones, a lefty matchup bat without a clear role in which to do damage. Hopefully Ackley is able to take to that role if he ends up only getting a few ABs a week.
- Curious to see how far Joe pushes his starters the first turn or 2 through the rotation. With the exception of Severino, none of them finished ST on a high note and none of them have really pitched deep into a game yet. If we're looking at a lot of 5-6 inning starts for the first few weeks, that's a lot of early pressure on this bullpen to perform. It shouldn't take too long to figure out who Joe can trust and who's going to be riding the SWB shuttle.
- Tanaka's going to look good today and go at least 7 innings. Just a hunch.