Position: Relief pitcher
40-man roster: Yes
In 2015: The Yankees’ top draft pick in 2014 entered the season barely having pitched professionally, but carrying expectations that he could immediately contribute at the big-league level. It didn’t work out quite that easily for him, though.
He opened the year with the RailRiders, posting solid numbers across the board — a 1.23 ERA and 11.9 strikeouts per game to go along with three saves in 15 games. But once he got to New York in May, things began to unravel a bit. In seven innings with the Yankees, he allowed three home runs, and he wound up having surgery to clean out his elbow. He was shut down for the year after that.
What’s to like?
That slider, of course
When he came out of Mississippi State and wound up as a second-round selection in 2014, the Yankees didn’t exactly consider Lindgren a project. He had a reputation for piling up strikeouts in the SEC, and that slider was a big reason why. It flashed as an unhittable pitch at times in 2015 with the RailRiders, but it’s a testament to the pitch that, even though he didn’t command it consistently and Triple-A hitters were able to lay off it at times, that it was still such a weapon. The Yankees have plenty of lefties to choose from in the bullpen throughout the organization, but outside of Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, I’m not sure they have a better pitch from a lefty than Lindgren’s slider.
Lefties can forget it
The worst-case scenario for a healthy Lindgren is that he is probably just a situational lefty, and not a guy who can pitch as a set-up man or closer. But he already has shown he can excel in that role. Lefty hitters were 3 for 24 against him in the International League and 0 for 7 in the big leagues. He has a delivery that creates deception, and by the time lefties pick up the slider, it’s too late to put a decent swing on it.
What’s to worry about?
Here’s the scouting report I had on Lindgren heading into last season: Devastating slider. Fastball that could touch the mid-90s.
A few years ago, another lefty reliever who was taken high in the draft, Royce Ring, came through Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, sporting an 80 mph fastball and memories of the time scouts thought he’d be a dominant closer with the mid-90s fastball he had during his college days. Turned out, he said, that some pitchers lose steam off their heater when they are pitching more than once a week in college. Go figure.
So with that in mind, I never expected Lindgren would be a mid-90s fastball guy here. Thought it was unrealistic. But to be entirely truthful, I was a little surprised we hardly ever saw him sit in the low-90s. He was 87-88 in early April, which wasn’t troubling. But when the Yankees called him up, he was 88-89, and I figured he’d be a few ticks up from that in May. He wasn’t much better in New York, either. I actually had a few people who follow the team ask me why his fastball was down in the Bronx when, in actuality, it was up a bit at times.
Bottom line is, he’s a little bit different a pitcher than he was at Mississippi State, because he has to be. I would expect more experienced hitters will take hacks at the fastball if they can spot the slider. When you don’t have great command — and Lindgren doesn’t — you better be more than just a one-trick pony against the best hitters in the world. Last year, I made this comparison a bit, and I stand behind it: Lindgren looked like a left-handed version of Mark Montgomery, who continues to get hitters out in Triple-A because of the slider, but there are plenty of doubts about his fastball.
Lindgren did have elbow issues, and although they hardly required a reconstructive surgery, it was probably unexpected that he’d need a clean-out so early in the season. It will be interesting to see how he responds from the injury. And, it’s probably telling in that regard that he was one of the first cuts from Yankees camp this spring, when most everyone figured he’d be competing for a spot in the bullpen to open the year.
What to look for in 2016
Lindgren clearly is going to start off the 2016 season no differently than he started 2015: In the RailRiders bullpen, trying to show he’s ready to break into the big league pen to stay.
The difference is that he’s going to need to show he’s healthy this time. He’s going to need to show he has improved his command. He’s going to have to show he isn’t just about the slider. He may have to show the loss of velocity was due to his elbow issue. If he does, he can be a late-inning reliever in the big leagues, no question. That’s his ceiling. If he doesn’t get there, he’s still potentially a very useful big-league pitcher. His role just becomes more limited.
This is an older video of Lindgren, obviously from 2014, but you can see the slider pretty well, and it’s obviously a terrific pitch.
Here are some highlights from Lindgren’s big-league debut against Kansas City. He had good stuff that day.