Wells makes decisive ascent, Hamilton hurls hope in Yankees setback

Austin Wells in action in the Yankees vs. Rays game on March 7, 2024.

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With spring training winding down, the New York Yankees find themselves grappling with a crucial decision: who will back up starting catcher Jose Trevino? Both contenders for the role, Austin Wells and Ben Rortvedt, are left-handed hitters with distinct strengths and weaknesses.

Rortvedt boasts a clear advantage defensively, particularly behind the plate. His experience and lack of minor-league options solidify his case. However, his limited big-league opportunities haven’t yielded impressive offensive results.

Wells, a highly regarded first-round pick in 2020, brings a potent left-handed bat to the table, as evidenced by his power display during his major league debut last September. While his hitting prowess is undeniable, he’s still a work in progress defensively, especially when it comes to throwing out baserunners.

Yankees catcher Ben Rortvedt is at the Yankees-Twins game on Feb 27, 2024.
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The Yankees face a dilemma – prioritize immediate defensive stability with Rortvedt or invest in Wells’ long-term potential despite his defensive rawness. As of now, the organization is keeping its cards close to its chest, leaving the starting catcher debate unresolved until the season opener approaches.

Wells surges ahead in backstop battle

The competition for the backup catcher position behind Jose Trevino intensified on Thursday night as Austin Wells put on a breakout performance. Facing the Detroit Tigers in a Grapefruit League matchup, Wells went 2-for-3 with a two-run double and a solo homer. This impressive showing is a significant turnaround from his early struggles in spring training, where he began with a meager 2-for-13 average in his first six games. His recent hot streak has boosted his batting average to [insert current batting average after the game].

Last season, Wells established his potential in the minor leagues, compiling a .240 batting average with 17 home runs and 72 RBIs across 96 games at Double-A, Triple-A, and even a brief stint in Low-A. He carried this power over to his brief stint with the Yankees in September, hitting four home runs and driving in 13 runs in just 19 games. While his overall MLB average settled at .229, he maintained a respectable .742 OPS.

While Wells has taken a step forward offensively, Ben Rortvedt remains in the competition. He has gone 3-for-10 with a .300 batting average in his six spring training appearances. However, it’s important to consider his career regular season struggles, where he has managed just a .146 average in 71 games.

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The Yankees’ catching picture could become even more interesting with the upcoming return of starter Jose Trevino. Trevino is slated to make his spring training debut on Sunday after recovering from a strained calf. His return adds another layer to the competition, as the Yankees weigh their options for the backup role.

Mixed results for Yankees

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Luke Weaver got the starting nod for the Yankees on Thursday, but his outing was short-lived. He allowed three runs in just 1.1 innings of work, including a booming 396-foot, two-run homer by Tigers’ Andy Ibanez. Despite a shaky spring training with a 6.75 ERA in three appearances, Weaver is projected to land a spot on the Yankees’ Opening Day roster as their long reliever. The well-traveled pitcher spent 2023 bouncing between three teams, including a stint with the Yankees in September. He re-joined the team this offseason as a free agent, signing a one-year, $2 million deal with potential performance bonuses and a club option for 2025.

On the offensive side, Giancarlo Stanton had another rough outing. Starting in right field, he went 0-for-2 with a strikeout, a popup to shortstop, and a walk. This extends his slump to 1-for-15 with three strikeouts in just six games. To make matters worse, Stanton appeared sluggish while attempting to chase down a deep fly ball in right field.

Meanwhile, infielder Oswald Peraza‘s fight for a coveted Opening Day roster spot has been temporarily sidelined by a nagging right shoulder issue. Peraza experienced discomfort while playing shortstop on Wednesday and underwent an MRI to rule out any structural damage. While his bat hasn’t come alive yet (0-for-7 with four strikeouts in three games), a healthy Peraza could still be optioned to Triple-A if he recovers in time for the Yankees to finalize their season-opening roster.

The Yankees’ lead evaporated in a frustrating sequence of events in the bottom of the fourth inning against the Tigers on Thursday. With the score tied 4-3 and two outs, a wild pickoff attempt by reliever Victor Gonzalez went awry, allowing Andy Ibanez to score from second base. The errant throw was compounded by a misplayed cutoff throw by second baseman Oswaldo Cabrera, enabling Ibanez to cross home plate and tie the game.

The Yankees will be without reliever McKinley Moore for the beginning of the regular season. The right-hander, acquired via waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies on February 16th, has been sidelined by a knee issue that has prevented him from participating in any spring training games. Moore, a towering figure at 6’6″ and 225 pounds, possesses 10 games of major league experience, split between the Chicago White Sox in 2022 and the Phillies in 2023.

Outfielder Luis Gonzalez is finally set to see some action after a two-week absence. The non-roster invitee will make his spring training debut on Saturday, having recovered from back problems that limited him to just 29 minor league games in 2023. The left-handed hitter owns a career .250 batting average with four home runs across 107 major league games, previously seeing time with the Chicago White Sox (2020-21) and the San Francisco Giants (2022). His return provides additional depth for the Yankees’ outfield competition as they approach the regular season.

Ian Hamilton showcased his overpowering presence on the mound on Thursday, striking out a staggering five batters in just two innings of work. This dominant performance has fueled speculation that Hamilton, a breakout star in the bullpen last season, could see a more prominent role in the upcoming season.

Drawing comparisons to the versatile Michael King, Hamilton could be deployed as a multi-inning weapon for the Yankees. His ability to overpower hitters with his strikeout repertoire would be a valuable asset, allowing him to eat up innings and provide relief to the starting pitchers when needed.

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