Spring Training is in full swing and three days from now the Yankees open their Grapefruit League season. The first four spring games will be televised. Hooray for that. Here are some thoughts.
1. I don’t have much to say about Manny Machado signing with the Padres. His (and Bryce Harper’s) free agency has been exhausting. There’s not much to say other than the Yankees should’ve signed Machado. He is a 26-year-old established star who fills a position of need and whose peak aligns perfectly with the Yankees’ championship window. The Yankees should always be in on players like that. Alas. What’s the plan on the left side of the infield long-term? Hope Miguel Andujar can be average at third base, and hope post-Tommy John surgery Didi Gregorius signs an extension and ages gracefully? Gleyber Torres is available as a shortstop backup plan, though that just opens up a hole at second. Machado at short until Gregorius returns, then Machado at third base made all the sense in the world. The championship window is as open as it’s going to get and hey, maybe the Yankees will surprise us all and sign Harper. I’m not counting on it. The Yankees developed a homegrown core and reset their luxury tax rate, then spent their free agent dollars on J.A. Happ, DJ LeMahieu, and a couple relievers. An offseason of half-measures.
2. The Yankees are a file-and-trial team — after filing salary arbitration figures, they cut off contract talks and go to a hearing — but they broke away from that to sign Luis Severino to his four-year extension last week, literally minutes before their scheduled arbitration hearing. Joel Sherman says the Yankees are only willing to discuss a multi-year extension after filing salary figures, not a one-year deal, so let’s call them a modified file-and-trial team. Anyway, after the Severino deal, the next question is: Who’s next? The Yankees have several extension worthy players on the roster. My hunch is this is their extension priority list:
- Aaron Hicks (free agent after 2019)
- Didi Gregorius (free agent after 2019)
- Aaron Judge (free agent after 2022)
- Dellin Betances (free agent after 2019)
- Gary Sanchez (free agent after 2022)
- Gleyber Torres (free agent after 2024)
- Miguel Andujar (free agent after 2023)
Who plays center field after 2019 if not Hicks? Judge can play center here and there but I wouldn’t want him out there full-time. Ditto Clint Frazier. Re-signing 36-year-old Brett Gardner and putting him in center full-time gets a nope from me. If they need to replace Hicks, I’d rather the Yankees roll the dice on a buy-low guy like Byron Buxton than sign someone like Leonys Martin. They should just re-sign Hicks though. He’s in his prime and he’s one of the best center fielders in the game. Sir Didi’s elbow complicates things but the Yankees love him and I think they want to keep him long-term. I have Betances below Judge only because Dellin can be unpredictable and he’ll be 32 on Opening Day 2020. Maybe Betances will take a sweetheart deal right now, something like three years at $9M per season. Otherwise I think the Yankees will wait. As for Judge, the sooner the Yankees sign him, the larger the discount, in theory. Should he repeat his 2018 season in 2019, minus the wrist injury, he’ll be in line for something like $10M in his first trip through arbitration next winter. It’s not crazy to think his arbitration salaries could go $10M to $20M to $30M. How willing are the Yankees to give Judge an extension now and raise his luxury tax number this year — as far as we know, neither Judge nor any other pre-arbitration-eligible player has signed a 2019 contract yet — because an extension would push them into the second luxury tax tier, meaning every $1 they give Judge will equal $1.32 in salary plus luxury tax. Keep in mind Judge already has lucrative endorsement deals with Adidas and Pepsi. Locking in that first big baseball contract may not be a top priority. My hunch is, unless Judge is willing to take a discount too good to pass up (five years at $15M per season?), the Yankees will ride out his final dirt cheap pre-arbitration year before getting serious about an extension next year. The priority is likely the impending free agents, specifically Hicks and to a slightly lesser extent Gregorius.
3. The Yankees have quite a few Comeback Player of the Year candidates, huh? I didn’t realize it until I looked over the roster the other day. Troy Tulowitzki hasn’t played a big league game in nearly 20 months now and that makes him the team’s top Comeback Player of the Year candidate. Then again, Gregorius is coming to take Tulowitzki’s job at some point, which will throw a wrench into things. Danny Farquhar would be the top Comeback Player of the Year candidate on most teams but it’s not certain he’ll ever even pitch for the Yankees this year. The bullpen is stacked, so he could go to Triple-A and wind up with another club at midseason after using the opt-out clause I assume is in his contract. Is Gary Sanchez a Comeback Player of the Year candidate? Or is he just a young player who had a sophomore slump? I feel like a player needs to have a longer and more established track record to win the award. Not just one great year and two otherworldly months. With a strong season though, I could definitely see Sanchez getting some Comeback Player of the Year love. Jordan Montgomery will return too late in the season to make a run at the award but, if he’s great after returning and helps the Yankees reach the postseason, he’ll get support. I suppose we could throw Tommy Kahnle into the mix, though it seems unlikely a middle reliever will win it. Jonny Venters did last year but that’s only after coming back from three (!) Tommy John surgeries and a fourth elbow procedure. I don’t think Judge (injury) or Severino (bad second half) are Comeback Player of the Year candidates. They were too good overall. Frazier is coming back from concussion issues but he’s not an established big leaguer, so he can’t win the award. He’d just be a young player breaking out. Tulowitzki and I guess Sanchez give the Yankees two potential Comeback Player of the Year candidates. Farquhar’s a possibility and Montgomery is a long shot. Two Yankees have been named Comeback Player of the Year (Jason Giambi in 2005 and Mariano Rivera in 2013) but they haven’t had a serious candidate for the award since Alex Rodriguez in 2015 — Prince Fielder won it and deserved to win it that year, sparing MLB from giving the award to a guy coming back from a performance-enhancing drug suspension — and that will hopefully change this year. Tulowitzki and Sanchez battling for the award would be a good thing for the Yankees. (My money is on Miguel Cabrera and Yu Darvish winning the two Comeback Player of the Year awards.)
4. I make sure to mention Tyler Wade whenever discussing the open bench spot and yet he still feels like a forgotten man to me, so much so that I totally forgot about him in my top 30 prospects list two weeks ago. Well, more accurately, I incorrectly assumed he exhausted his prospect eligibility and didn’t bother to check. That’s my bad. Wade only has 124 career big league at-bats, just short of the 130 at-bat rookie limit, so he is prospect-eligible. (Wade exhausted his rookie eligibility through service time last year.) Anyway, I went back and added him to the top 30 list, so go check that out. As for the open bench spot, I think Wade might get it by default. With Jacoby Ellsbury still not healthy, Wade’s primary competition is Clint Frazier and Greg Bird. Frazier missed so much time with injuries last year that sending him to Triple-A for regular at-bats makes more sense — at least initially — than using him part-time or in a platoon role in the big leagues. No matter how much you want them to, the Yankees won’t bench Brett Gardner for Frazier. Not at the outset of the season. Triple-A is the best place for Frazier to start the year given how much time he missed last year. Thairo Estrada is in a similar situation. Also, Aaron Boone hinted last week that the Yankees won’t carry both Bird and Luke Voit on the roster. Two first base only guys isn’t a great idea in the age of eight-man bullpens and three-man benches. That leaves the final bench spot to Wade, Kyle Higashioka (nah), a non-roster invitee (maybe?), or a player yet to be acquired (probably not happening). Whoever gets the final bench spot doesn’t figure to play a whole lot. When an outfielder needs to sit, Giancarlo Stanton will slot in. When an infielder needs to sit, DJ LeMahieu will slot in. Given the current roster, the final bench guy is an emergency player, not someone the Yankees figure to use strategically all that often. Wade can at least run and play defense, and my guess is the Yankees are willing to let him sit on the bench for days at a time than they are Bird or Frazier or even Estrada. All that seems to point to him getting the final bench spot, at least on Opening Day.
5. During his start-of-spring press conference last week Boone said he went to the Dominican Republic to visit Gary Sanchez over the winter. He also told James Wagner that he went to Adam Ottavino’s Harlem pitching lab to watch him throw a bullpen. A few weeks ago it was reported Boone visited Miguel Andujar in the Dominican Republic to check out his defensive work. Joe Girardi was a good manager, but I feel like we’ve heard more about Boone visiting players this year than we did during Girardi’s entire ten-year managerial stint with the Yankees. Maybe Boone is just more willing to talk about those visits. Girardi was the manager for a decade though. You’d think news of an offseason visit would get out at some point. I spent some time googling and found nothing. According to Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner, the single biggest reason the Yankees parted ways with Girardi was concern about communication. They have a young team and were worried the manager wasn’t getting through to them. Maybe this is unfair to say, but Boone is building relationships with his players in a way Girardi never seemed to. Boone had some terrible moments in the postseason last year. Believe me, I know. By and large though, he and Girardi were carbon copies on the field during the regular season. Same lineup construction, they lined up their bullpen the same way, they rested players plenty. That’s probably because the front office has more of a hand in things than we realize. The difference between the two is what happens behind the scenes, and this offseason Boone traveled around to meet with his players. I don’t remember Girardi doing that. Will it equal wins on the field? Who knows. The Yankees clearly believe it will help the team though.
6. The other day I linked off to a video of James Paxton throwing a bullpen session, and in the background you could see the Yankees had a camera set up with their analytics folks pulling data. Spin rate, spin axis, all that stuff. George King and Dan Martin say it’s an Edgertronic camera — the Yankees have one in the Yankee Stadium bullpen as well — one of several portal high-speed cameras that capture data. Rapsodo’s another popular one. Mike Petriello started a Twitter thread showing different teams using these cameras in their early Spring Training bullpen sessions. With all due respect, the news is not the teams that are using Edgertronic or Rapsodo. It’s the teams that aren’t. In 2019, every single team should be using this equipment, otherwise they’re in the Stone Age. How the data is analyzed and applied differs from team to team, and that’s what separates great teams from the not so great teams. At a bare minimum though, every single club should be collecting this information. I’m glad the Yankees have their Edgertronic set up in the George M. Steinbrenner Field bullpen area now. It’d be more notable if they didn’t though, and I’d love to learn more about how the Yankees (and other clubs) are using the data they’re capturing. Good luck getting them to peel back the curtain on that.
7. Now that all 30 teams have opened Spring Training, we have a pretty good sample of team and league executives saying silly (if not infuriating) things to defend the league-wide lack of spending. Some examples:
- Cubs owner Tom Ricketts: “We don’t have any more (money to spend). We have to have flexibility in the future.” [Bob Nightengale]
- Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos: “Did we promise we were going to spend more money, or did we promise we were going to have more flexibility?” [Jeff Schultz, subs. req’d]
- Commissioner Rob Manfred: “I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure for how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be.” [Jeff Passan]
Executives around the league have quickly become defensive about their spending and, frankly, these comments aren’t just an insult (how stupid do they think fans are?), they create other questions. What’s wrong with the Cubs’ business model that they can’t afford to increase payroll three years after a World Series windfall? What’s the point of payroll flexibility if the Braves aren’t going to spend it when their core is young and cheap? If the commissioner rejects the notion that payroll corresponds to success, why does the league need what is literally called the Competitive Balance Tax (aka the luxury tax)? The Yankees aren’t exempt from this either. In a recent MLB.com video, Hal Steinbrenner said the Yankees are passing on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper because their biggest area of need this offseason was “not an infielder or an outfielder, it was pitching.” Great. So why did they sign two infielders and an outfielder, and pass on the best free agent starting pitcher then? MLBPA chief Tony Clark issued a statement responding to Manfred’s comments and noted MLB is “operating in an environment in which an increasing number of clubs appear to be making little effort to improve their rosters, compete for a championship or justify the price of a ticket.” I’m glad he mentioned ticket prices. The union needs to get fans on their side and pointing out they are paying more than ever for tickets even though only a few teams are trying to win is a good start. Team and league executives are being defensive about their lack of spending to the point where they’re making pretty dumb comments and treating fans like idiots, which tells me they hear the complaints. Will that change their spending habits? Goodness no. They’ll live with bad press in exchange for more dollars. Ultimately, I don’t see anything changing until every team has a reason — has a need — to try to compete. Being bad is too profitable nowadays.