With the start of Spring Training almost here, anticipation is building for the 2016 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing this week with the middle-infield spots.The Yankees' double-play combination has been a work in progress since the final night
With the start of Spring Training almost here, anticipation is building for the 2016 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing this week with the middle-infield spots.
The Yankees' double-play combination has been a work in progress since the final night Robinson Cano peeled off his pinstripes, creating a sequence that saw Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew paired with the retiring Derek Jeter in 2014, then introducing Didi Gregorius as the new shortstop last year.
After a shaky opening act in the field and on the bases, Gregorius found his groove and made the shortstop position his own. The Yankees made a deal with the Cubs in December, acquiring two-time All-Star Starlin Castro and giving the organization what it believes can be a winning tandem up the middle for years to come.
"Everything got me going in the right direction," Gregorius said. "I don't take what happens on the offense to the defense, so for me, I don't think that was the issue at all. For me, just going out there at the plate, being more selective. On defense, being a little bit better, making sure of the ball before I start making plays. So for me, that's one thing that's been helping me out."
Gregorius, who turns 26 on Feb. 18 , ended the season batting .265 with a .318 on-base percentage, nine home runs and 56 RBIs in 155 games. His numbers against left-handed pitching improved, to which Gregorius has credited his work with Alan Cockrell, now the Yanks' primary hitting coach.
Gregorius also contributed several highlight-reel defense plays, thanks to his slick fielding and strong arm. The Yankees repeatedly stressed that they did not need Gregorius to compare himself to Jeter, but rather to play up to his own capabilities.
"I think our perception coming in was, he was going to play a very good shortstop and had the ability to hit, and was going to hit for power at some point," manager Joe Girardi said. "That was our thought process when we traded for him, but when he got off to that slow start, I think people started to worry a little bit. In my eyes ... it's kind of what we envisioned when we traded for him."
Gregorius said that he leaned on the Yanks' veteran core for comfort and advice, particularly Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran.
"I'm here to ask questions, trying to get better," Gregorius said. "I talk to Al, I talk to Beltran, I talk to all those guys. They have way more time than me. I pick their brains, ask them about certain situations, where I should look, that kind of stuff."
Castro has played 844 big league games at shortstop, giving the Yankees a solid Plan B at the position, but New York is banking on Castro continuing to improve at second base. He made 29 starts at the position late last season for the Cubs and looked like a different player in the estimation of both organizations.
Having yielded his starting shortstop job to newcomer Addison Russell, Castro batted .345/.368/.574 with six homers and 25 RBIs in 50 games after Aug. 4. Overall, Castro batted .265 with 11 home runs, 69 RBIs and a .296 on-base percentage in 151 games.
Girardi said that there may be a learning curve for Castro, in terms of some defensive shifts, but the Yanks project Castro to be an above-average defender at second base. They also plan to toy with the idea of having Castro play some third base this spring, providing an option to back up Chase Headley.
"The first two games that I played there, I feel like a little bit weird," Castro said. "After that, the most difficult thing that I feel like is the double play. After I played three or four games there, I feel pretty good. I think I've been really good at third, too. I'll keep working hard, and I think I can play second base."
At the time of the Dec. 8 trade, which sent right-hander Adam Warren and infielder Brendan Ryan to Chicago, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman lauded Castro's youth (he turns 26 in March), positional flexibility and a history of hitting left-handed pitching (career .759 OPS).
"He's a very talented guy offensively," said Jim Hendry, who previously served as the Cubs' GM and now works as a special assistant to Cashman. "I think we all think his better days are ahead of him. History will tell you, a guy 26 to 32, he's got a chance to be his most productive. Very athletic kid, first-class kid. And I think he'll fit in great."
There is a thought that Castro's flexibility could allow the Yanks to use their final roster spot as a revolving door of sorts, calling up position players based upon need or carrying 13 pitchers at times.
Prior to the Castro deal, the Yankees had prepared to roll with a platoon of Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder at second base, with Ackley garnering the majority of starts against right-handed pitching and Refsnyder seeing lefties. Ackley is still expected to be on the roster, capable of playing second base, first base and all three outfield positions.
Refsnyder, who is rated as the Yankees' No. 4 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, could be ticketed for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Cashman has said that, in that case, he would be viewed as an insurance option while the Yanks provide the rookie with more development time to complete his transition from the outfield.
"There's a lot of things to learn," Girardi said. "Will he grow in the position? Absolutely. And the more he plays, the better he's going to get."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.