By Sweeny Murti
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As pitchers and catchers arrived at the Yankees’ spring training facility on Thursday, the buzz centered on a lean lefty with an extraordinary fastball.
Aroldis Chapman is built a little more like a power forward or a linebacker than a relief pitcher. I mean, you can probably fit two David Robertsons in that body. And he throws gas unlike anyone else in the game.
The downside is Chapman’s inevitable suspension under baseball’s new domestic violence policy is hanging over both him and the Yankees. Nobody seems to think it will be a terribly long suspension (perhaps 15 or 20 games), but it is coming and the Yankees will deal accordingly.
There will be some fallout — was the suspension too long or not long enough? Whatever MLB decides will serve as the precedent for a case that evolved from a police report but no criminal charges. Joe Girardi said Thursday he takes the subject very seriously as a family man, but also tried to stand by his new closer and accept him into his Yankee family, even if he can’t absolve him of his sins.
Chapman’s Yankees career will soon be about strikeouts and saves. But until then, his playing status will hang over camp as the biggest shoe waiting to drop.
— The Yankees used 31 pitchers last season. They began this spring with 31 in camp, including 10 non-roster invitees. Based on the way the Yankees shuttled relievers in and out last season, I’m guessing a fair amount of attention will need to be paid to every one of the pitchers in camp. Because any one of them could end up in the Bronx through some set of circumstances by season’s end.
Among the non-roster invitees is 2015 first round draft pick James Kaprielian, who is still a couple weeks away from his 22nd birthday. I’ve had multiple people in the organization tell me he can move quick enough to impact the big league roster at some point this season. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard this much excitement about a starting pitching prospect, with regards to his arm and his makeup.
— Betances told reporters that he took two months off from throwing this winter instead of his normal one month, due in part to the tougher workload last season when he had a career-high 74 appearances. Betances has proven himself over the last two All-Star seasons, but it will be interesting to watch how he comes along in the early going here.
— Masahiro Tanaka said his goal is 200 innings. He hasn’t gotten close to that in his first two seasons with the Yankees, tossing 136 1/3 in 2014 and 154 in 2015. It is the goal of every starter, but the Yankees have six starters for five spots and none of them can be considered a lock for 200 innings.
There have been five times in Yankees history in which even one pitcher has failed to log 200 innings in a non-strike season, including 2014 and 2015. The high man last year was CC Sabathia with 167.1 innings. In the strike-shortened 1994 season Jimmy Key threw 168 innings.
Brian Cashman likes to call starting pitching “the keys to the kingdom.” The Yankees will need a little more certainty in this group if they want to unlock the big prize.
— Gary Sanchez will be given every chance to lose the backup catcher’s job. His hitting will be less important than his catching, which many observers feel has improved. Sanchez has always had a strong arm, but his receiving skills will make or break his way onto this team. So it will be worth paying special attention to the work Sanchez and Tony Pena put in this spring.
Pena has been a part of the Yankees coaching staff since 2006, but this year resumes duties as catching instructor for the first time since 2013. Pena is a great communicator and energetic coach, exactly what Sanchez needs right now. It is also worth noting that Gary Tuck was held in high regard during his time in that role over different tenures, most recently from 2014-15.
I asked former Yankee catcher John Ryan Murphy last spring about what made Tuck such a good coach. Murphy thought about it, then said the best way he could describe it was, “He’s the kind of coach you don’t want to let down, you don’t want to disappoint.”
Opening Day is still six and a half weeks away. Enjoy the beginning of spring training. Then sit back and relax. We’re going to be here for a while.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN