The Yankees came into the offseason wanting two relievers and they have added two relievers. Last week the Yankees agreed to a three-year, $27M contract with Adam Ottavino. That comes two weeks after they re-signed Zach Britton. The bullpen’s looking pretty good right now and my list of six things the Yankees still have to do this winter is down to five. Here are some thoughts on the Ottavino deal.
1. There are three things I really like about Ottavino. One, he misses a ton of bats. This is a big deal for me. I want as few balls in play as possible in the late innings of a close game. At all times, really, but especially in the late innings of close games. Last year 336 pitchers threw at least 50 innings. Ottavino had the ninth highest strikeout rate (36.3%) and 20th lowest contact rate (68.1%). That’ll work. Two, he dominated left-handed batters last season. Held them to a .174/.319/.241 (.252 wOBA) batting line with 32.4% strikeouts and 47.1% grounders. (Five intentional walks are inflating the OBP a bit. Remove them and it’s a .291 OBP.) Relievers without a significant platoon split are my jam. And three, Ottavino knows all about pitching in a tough environment. Pitching in Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general is no fun. It’s a very hitter friendly home ballpark in a division with three other hitter friendly ballparks. It’s not easy. Well, Ottavino spent the last seven years of his career calling Coors Field home, so he knows all about pitching in a tough park, where every mistake could wind up over the fence. That doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to succeed in Yankee Stadium, of course. I just like that he has experience in a very difficult home ballpark. It’s one fewer mental adjustment he has to make, in theory.
2. I’ve linked to it before and I’m going to link to it again: Ottavino turned his career around in a vacant Harlem storefront last offseason. It’s a wonderful story. I suspect many players would benefit from that level of self-analysis. I mention this again because it clearly shows Ottavino is into analytics and state-of-the-art training methods, and the Yankees are one of the most analytically inclined teams in the game. The Rockies … are not. (In October, Marc Carig and Eno Sarris reported the Yankees employ approximately 20 analysts. The Rockies have four.) I’m looking forward to seeing how Ottavino and the Yankees work together. Or, rather, seeing the results of their efforts, because we usually don’t get to peek behind the curtain to see the process. Maybe the result is not Ottavino getting better, the way he did last year. Maybe the result is simply maintaining that level of performance deeper into his career. We are talking about a reliever entering his mid-30s, after all. Long story short, Ottavino and the Yankees appear to be a very good fit for each other given their commitment to analytics and using data to get better. Not many players are open to these ideas, which is fine. To each their own. Ottavino is and now he’s with one of the top analytic organizations in the game.
3. That all said, Ottavino does come with risk. Considerable risk, I’d say. There’s a reason he had to rebuild himself last offseason and that’s because he stunk in 2017. He is one season removed from a 5.06 ERA (5.16 FIP) with a 16.1% walk rate in 53.1 innings. Colorado left him off their 2017 NL Wild Card Game roster. This is about as spectacular a meltdown as you’ll see:
4. Potentially stupid question: Is Ottavino a luxury? I mean, there’s always room for another high-end reliever in the bullpen, especially these days, but there are only so many high-leverage innings to go around. Dan Szymborski wrote about this following the Adam Warren trade. Long story short, as effective as Warren was last year, he was far down the bullpen depth and pitching in low-leverage spots. It was a waste of his ability. So, rather than continue using Warren that way, the Yankees cashed him in as a trade chip and let cheaper relievers (Luis Cessa and A.J. Cole) pitch in those situations. That’s the argument against “too many good relievers.” There aren’t enough high-leverage innings for everyone. I don’t agree with it but I do understand it. There are three reasons I don’t consider Ottavino a luxury. One, injuries and poor performance happen, and I want as many quality options as possible going into the season. At the deadline I’d rather be the team in position to trade away an Adam Warren than the team that needs an Adam Warren, you know? Two, starters are throwing fewer innings with each passing season, which means more innings for the bullpen. Inevitably, many of those extra bullpen innings are high-leverage innings. And three, every inning in the postseason should be treated as a high-leverage inning. That’s really what the super bullpen idea is about. The postseason. I know the Yankees had a super bullpen last year and I know they lost in the ALDS. That doesn’t mean they should stop building super bullpens. In October, when every single inning means something, the more quality relievers a team has, the greater their chances of success. Across the 162-game regular season, yeah, maybe Ottavino is a luxury. I don’t consider him a luxury for the postseason though, and besides, these are the Yankees. They should be all about luxury items.
5. I am curious to see what the bullpen roles will be this season. They tend to change year-to-year — at this point last year not many folks were counting on Dellin Betances taking over as the unquestioned eighth inning guy again — and pitchers work themselves into roles organically. They just kinda happen. I can see these being the bullpen roles going into the season:
- Closer: Aroldis Chapman
- Eighth Inning: Dellin Betances
- Seventh Inning: Zach Britton and Adam Ottavino (based on matchups?)
- Fireman: Chad Green
That leaves Jonathan Holder and the two still to be determined relievers for all other situations. They’re the “only when losing” relievers, basically. David Robertson was so great as the fireman and now I’m not sure who fits best in that role. Betances is an easy target for stolen bases. Ottavino still walks a few too many. Britton allows a few too many balls in play for my liking. Green was used in that role quite a bit last season and I imagine he’ll get the first crack at it this year. We’ll see. Like I said, bullpen roles tend to change throughout the season, so there’s no sense sweating them in January. I could see what I’ve laid out above being the roles going into the year, then the Yankees adjusting as necessary. This’ll all work itself out and I’m curious to see how.
6. Do the Yankees have the best top-to-bottom pitching staff in baseball right now? Sounds crazy, I know, but it might be true. On paper, at least. Who knows how things will play out on the field. Here are the top projected 2019 pitching staffs according to FanGraphs:
- Yankees: +22.8 WAR
- Indians: +21.9 WAR
- Astros: +20.3 WAR
- Mets: +19.9 WAR
- Dodgers: +19.6 WAR
Reminder: Projections are not predictions. They are an attempt to estimate a player’s current true talent level and right now the numbers think the Yankees have the most pitching talent in baseball. It’s not all because of the bullpen either. The Yankees have the third highest projected rotation WAR in baseball. Again, we’ll see how it plays out on the field, because injuries and other unexpected things happen, but that is pretty cool. Sonny Gray is going to be traded and I’d like the Yankees to bring in a veteran swingman/sixth starter type — I’ve banged on the Francisco Liriano drum a few times this winter and there’s no reason to stop now — and I suspect they will. Otherwise I feel great about the bullpen and very good about the rotation top four. I’m also more confident in CC Sabathia than many folks seem to be. Maybe the anti-Sabathia folks started following baseball in the ALDS. Well, whatever. Over the weekend Bob wrote the Yankees have an underrated pitching staff. That is true. This isn’t a good pitching staff. This is a great pitching staff with a chance to be one of the very best in the game.
7. Does the Ottavino signing mean anything for Betances long-term? Betances will be a free agent next offseason and the Yankees already have three big money relievers on the books in Britton, Chapman, and Ottavino. Those three will combine for $39.2M against the luxury tax payroll the next three seasons. Would the Yankees really give a market rate contract to Betances and spend something like $50M annually on four relievers? Maybe they would. Two things to consider here. One, Betances will make $7.25M this year, so the Yankees are already at $46.45M for four relievers in 2019. A market rate contract means Dellin would get something like a $5M raise after the season, and the extra $5M or so may not be a dealbreaker for the Yankees. And two, Chapman can opt out of his contract after the season, potentially freeing up $17.2M annually. That would obviously impact the team’s spending plans. The first two seasons of Chapman’s contract have been very good overall but also a bit of a mixed bag. In both seasons he spent a month on the disabled list (shoulder in 2017, knee in 2018) and had to be removed from the closer’s role for a few weeks. If that happens again this year, and his velocity continues to drop, I don’t see Chapman opting out. Walking away from two years and $34.4M would be awfully risky given how teams are treating free agents. With a good and a healthy season though, Chapman could opt-out, especially if Craig Kimbrel manages to cash in huge. We’ll see. Ultimately, the single biggest factor in the Yankees’ decision whether to re-sign Betances will be Dellin’s performance this year. With another great season, it’ll be awfully tough to let him walk, especially since we’re only talking a $5M or so raise on top of what he’s currently making. I don’t think the Ottavino (or Britton) deal means anything for Betances’ future with the team.
8. It seems to me the Yankees traded a third guaranteed year for a lower average annual value. Andrew Miller (two years, $25M with a vesting option) and David Robertson (two years, $23M with a club option) are roughly the same age as Ottavino and they landed two-year guarantees with a higher annual salary. Ottavino doesn’t have their track records, but it seemed to me he was in line for a similar contract. Two years at $11M to $12M per season, with some sort of third year option. Instead, he got the third guaranteed year, and the Yankees saved $2M to $3M annually. This wouldn’t be the first time the Yankees traded an extra year for a lower average annual salary and thus a lower luxury tax hit. They reportedly did the same thing with Chase Headley. Even with a higher luxury tax number, I would’ve preferred re-signing Robertson to signing Ottavino. They’re basically the same age and Ottavino’s track record is way shorter. His upside is basically what Robertson has been doing the last eight years. I am more confident in Robertson being great the next two years than I am Ottavino. That said, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the two, and ultimately the Yankees got three years of Ottavino for only $4M more than the Phillies will pay for two years of Robertson (or $2M more than the Cardinals will pay for two years of Miller). This seems like a repeat of the 2014-15 offseason. That winter the Yankees let a known commodity in Robertson walk and replaced him with Miller, a similarly dominant reliever with a much shorter track record on a cheaper contract. That worked out quite well. Passing on Miller or Robertson in favor of Ottavino is a similar decision.
9. The Ottavino signing pushes the Yankees’ luxury tax payroll to $228.5M based on my back of the envelope math. Cot’s has them at $220.2M. The Yankees are either slightly above or closing in on the $226M second luxury tax threshold and the still not complete Sonny trade will give them breathing room. The $226M threshold may be the team’s limit. They get hit with a surtax at that point — their top 2020 draft pick moves back ten spots when they hit the $246M threshold, not the $226M threshold (my bad for screwing that up earlier) — and, generally speaking, it gives them less financial flexibility going forward. I am on team sign everyone. Bring me Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and spend that money. What’s the point of creating payroll flexibility if you’re not going to use it to land stars in their prime? Anyway, the Yankees are clearly going to exceed the $206M luxury tax threshold this coming season. I didn’t think it would happen and I am happy to be wrong. Realistically, there’s no way now to get under the $206M threshold and stay there all season. Will they exceed the $226M threshold? Unless there’s a surprise Machado or Harper signing coming, I don’t think so. Trading Gray gives them about $5M in wiggle room under the $226M threshold and my number already includes an estimate for in-season injury and September call-ups, so that’s $5M for the trade deadline. It may not seem like much but it is, especially since the Yankees have shown a willingness to kick in an extra prospect to get the other team to eat some salary. The Yankees still aren’t running a payroll as high as the one they can almost certainly afford. At least now they have a payroll more commensurate with their status as a World Series contender in the game’s largest market. That’s better than nothing, I guess.
10. And finally, the big question on everyone’s mind: Will the Yankees let Ottavino wear No. 0? No player in Yankees history has worn No. 0 (or No. 00 for that matter). Last week we polled the masses and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of letting Ottavino wear No. 0.
Should the Yankees let Ottavino keep his No. 0?
— River Ave. Blues (@RiverAveBlues) January 17, 2019
Should the Yankees let Ottavino wear No. 0 and will the Yankees let Ottavino wear No. 0 are very different questions. Should they is an easy yes. It’s a uniform number. Why would a player wearing No. 0 bother anyone? They Yankees would probably sell more Ottavino shirts and jerseys with No. 0 than any other number. Will they let him wear No. 0 though? Giving a player No. 0 seems very un-Yankee-like. Then again, I never thought I’d see the day the Yankees wore throwback uniforms or gave a player his own cheering section, but that happened, so maybe they’re loosening up a bit. Eh, whatever. It’s just a uniform number and I’m not going to get worked up about it. Ottavino has worn other numbers as a big leaguer (Nos. 35 and 56 with the Cardinals and No. 37 early with the Rockies) and my guess is he’ll wear something other than No. 0 with the Yankees.