Weekend Open Thread

Only three more weeks until Yankees pitchers and catchers report to Tampa for Spring Training, folks. It’s getting closer and closer. Here are the weekend links:

  • Here’s a must read piece for Jorge Arangure, who recently traveled to Cuba and is writing about the experience. This post is part one of the series. There’s a little bit of baseball in the story, but mostly it is about the living conditions, how the country is changing, and how badly the people want it to change. It’s a really great read. Make sure you check it out.
  • Really interesting post from Ben Lindbergh on how the continually growing strike zone is hurting offense around the league. It’s not just that more low pitches are being called strikes, but now hitters have to protect against those pitches, and they’re very hard to square up.
  • Over at Baseball Prospectus (no subs. req’d), Chris Crawford wrote about the general lack of elite college hitters available in the draft. It comes down to three factors: more top hitters are signing out of high school, the new “deadened” bats they use in college kill power, and college coaches prioritize winning over development.
  • Some quick hit links: Ben Humphrey compiled each team’s payroll obligations from 2015-20, Bill Petti has a two-part series on how teams can get the most out of analytics (part one, part two), Eno Sarris looked at young hitters who see the fewest fastballs, Jeff Sullivan examined baseball’s most and least shiftable teams, and Grant Brisbee explained why you should root for Alex Rodriguez.

Friday: This is your open thread for the night. The Devils and Nets are both playing and there’s one college basketball game on the schedule. Goodnight to get out of the house. I’m going to a monster truck show. Totally not my thing, but a friend had an extra ticket, so I’m going. Talk about whatever you like here.

Saturday: Once again, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers and Devils are both in action, plus there’s the usual slate of college hoops as well. Talk about those games or anything else.

Aaron Judge tops Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)
Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)

One day after releasing his top 100 prospects list, Keith Law published his top ten prospects for each team on Friday. Here is the index and here is the Yankees list. The individual team lists are Insider only. Here is New York’s top ten:

  1. OF Aaron Judge (No. 23 on the top 100)
  2. 1B Greg Bird (No. 80 on the top 100)
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. RHP Luis Severino
  5. OF Tyler Austin
  6. SS Jorge Mateo
  7. RHP Domingo German
  8. LHP Ian Clarkin
  9. C Luis Torrens
  10. 3B Eric Jagielo

Also, based on the write-up, we know 2B Rob Refsnyder, 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jacob Lindgren, SS Tyler Wade, RHP Brady Lail, and RHP Ty Hensley are prospects 11-16. Law is lower on Severino and higher on Austin than most, but otherwise the top ten (top 16, really) seems pretty straight forward. No major surprises. You could argue someone should be a spot higher or whatever, but it’s not worth it.

With Stephen Drew in Refsnyder’s way at second base, Law lists Lindgren as the mostly likely prospect to have an impact in 2015. OF Mason Williams is the “fallen” prospect, the guy who was once one of the best in the game but is now an afterthought. Law’s sleeper for the Yankees is Mateo, who he says is “so well-regarded in the industry that other teams have already targeted him in trade talks.” He adds that Mateo has “tremendous tools, is an 80 runner and plus fielder who shows above-average raw power in BP.”

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system right now — seven of Law’s top ten and nine of his top 12 are position players — and that’s a good thing because quality position players are hard to find these days. Even better, several of those position players will be at Double-A or higher this coming season, including Judge, Bird, Sanchez, Austin, Jagielo, and Refsnyder. There’s a clear path for some of those guys to get MLB at-bats in the next year or two, and the team’s apparent commitment to getting younger means they’re going to get a chance. That’s exciting.

Eddy: Yankees sign Scott Baker to minor league contract

Baker the Home Run Maker. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Baker the Home Run Maker. (Leon Halip/Getty)

5:41pm ET: Baker will earn $1.5M at the big league level, reports Jon Heyman. That’s standard “scrap heap guy who used to be good” pay.

3:00pm ET: According to Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed veteran right-hander Scott Baker to a minor league contract. I assume he received an invitation to Spring Training. The team should be announcing their Spring Training invitees very soon anyway, possibly later today.

Baker, 33, was the designated “soak up innings and take a beating when we need someone to do it” guy for the injury riddled Rangers last year. He had a 5.47 ERA (4.78 FIP) with a great walk rate (1.56 BB/9 and 4.2 BB%) but a below-average strikeout rate (6.14 K/9 and 16.6 K%) and a microscopic ground ball rate (25.3%) in 80.2 swingman innings for Texas.

At his best with the Twins from 2007-11, Baker had a 3.98 ERA (3.86 FIP) with a few strikeouts (7.41 BB/9 and 19.8 K%) and fewer walks (2.13 BB/9 and 5.7 BB%). He’s always been a big time fly ball pitcher (34.1% grounders from 2007-11) and these last two years he’s been incredibly homer prone (1.69 HR/9 and 25.7 HR/FB%).

Baker had Tommy John surgery in April 2012 and didn’t get back on a mound until July 2013 due to setbacks and complications. Last year he worked with an upper-80s sinker, a low-80s slider, and a low-80s changeup according to PitchFX. He’s definitely not a great fit for Yankee Stadium given his extreme fly ball tendencies and inability to miss bats.

The Yankees obviously need rotation depth because Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and CC Sabathia (knee) all carry injury concerns. Baker isn’t very good, but it is only a minor league contract, so there’s no real risk. He’s not even guaranteed to make it through camp and head to Triple-A. Baker might opt to purse an opportunity elsewhere if he doesn’t make the team.

RAB Live Chat

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: No. 1

Over the last two weeks we subjectively ranked and analyzed every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you disagreed with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 2, 3-5, 6-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

After two weeks and 39 players, we’ve finally reached the number one spot on our 40-man roster rankings. The most important player in the organization, both for this coming season and the next half-decade as well. There is no right answer for an exercise like this, but I am guessing most of you agree with the player who claims the top spot. I have a hard time seeing how it could be anyone else, really.

Also, shout-out to the Yankees for not making a 40-man roster move these last two weeks. That would have thrown a wrench into this little series, but it wouldn’t have changed the top spot. Well, a blockbuster trade might have, but realistically that wasn’t going to happen. Anyway, without further ado, here is the final entry into our 40-man roster ranking series.

No 1: Masahiro Tanaka

2015 Role: Ace. It took very little time for Tanaka to show he is that caliber of pitcher last season. He really is the total package. Tanaka has primo stuff — highlighted by his devastating split-finger fastball — and top notch command, which allows him to pile up strikeouts, limit walks, and keep the ball on the ground. Plus he’s a stone cold assassin on the mound. He pitches with conviction and nothing seems to rattle him.

In his first season as big leaguer, Tanaka struck out 26.0% of batters faced and walked only 3.9% of batters faced, the 11th and 7th best rates among the 120 pitchers to throw at least 130 innings in 2014, respectively. Only Clayton Kershaw (14.1%) and Francisco Liriano (13.6%) had higher swing-and-miss rates (13.4%). Tanaka also got a ground ball 46.6% of the time. This was a big time performance in his first season with the Yankees and the club wants to see more this coming season.

Of course, Tanaka’s outlook for the 2015 season is marred by the partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. Tanaka suffered the injury in early-July and four different doctors recommended rest and rehab rather than Tommy John surgery. He missed three months, made two token “hey look my arm still works” starts the end of the regular season, and will come to Spring Training as a healthy player. That’s what Brian Cashman and the Yankees keep saying. Tanaka is a healthy player. He completed the rehab regimen and the doctors gave him the okay to pitch.

With any luck, Tanaka will be like Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana, who pitched for years with a partially torn UCL before needing Tommy John surgery. (Santana hasn’t had surgery yet and is still pitching with the partial tear.) At some point the elbow is going to give out. It could be this year, next year, or ten years down the line. For obvious reasons, the Yankees hope Tanaka’s elbow holds up this summer and he remains a force atop the rotation.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Long-Term Role: Short-term ace or long-term question mark. Tanaka just turned 26 in November, so as long as he stays healthy, there is every reason to believe he will be one of the top pitchers in MLB. But, beyond the thing with his elbow, Tanaka’s contract structure clouds his long-term future with the Yankees.

New York gave Tanaka a seven-year contract worth $155M last winter that includes an opt-out after the fourth year. And why do players use opt-out clauses? To get more money. So if Tanaka stays healthy and productive, he’ll opt out of his contract following the 2017 season and seek a bigger deal. Re-signing him could be a headache since you’re talking about a massive contract for a pitcher approaching 30, especially if the elbow hasn’t given out and you know it’s still coming eventually.

But, if Tanaka’s elbow does blow out at some point relatively soon and he scuffles these next few years, he’ll take the guaranteed money and be a question going forward. The opt-out is almost a no win situation. I know people like to say you could get the best years of his career and let someone else pay through the nose for his decline, but that doesn’t really happen with the Yankees. They want to keep their star players and are more likely to pay a steep price to keep Tanaka than let him walk. If he is healthy and dominant enough to justify opting out, the team’s history suggests they’ll try to bring him back.

Alright, so that said, Tanaka’s role for at least the next three seasons continues to be ace. The elbow is an ugly cloud over everything, but hey, any pitcher can blow out at any time. I guess Tanaka is no different in that regard. The Yankees emphasized youth this offseason but it really started last winter, when they paid a handsome price to land Tanaka because he wasn’t just dominant, he was dominant and only 25 years old. Elbow issues or not, a 26-year-old ace with potentially six more years left on his contract is an easy call for the most important player on the 40-man roster.

Friday chat reminder

It’s Friday, so that means it’s chat day. Let’s plan on starting at 2:30pm ET, though there’s a chance I may need to push it back a half-hour or so. I’ll keep you updated if that’s the case.

Update: Yeah, let’s make it a 2:45pm ET start time instead. That works better for me. See you then.

Mailbag: Cano, Ford, Viciedo, Offense, Mo, Tanaka, NL

Got ten questions for you in this week’s mailbag. You can send us a question at any time via the “For The Mailbag” form in the sidebar. We can’t get to all of them, but we’ll do our best.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Arnav: Which cap do you expect Robbie to wear if he makes the HoF?

Robinson Cano will actually spend more years with the Mariners (ten) than the Yankees (nine) when it’s all said and done. That said, I’m assuming the last few years of his current contract will be ugly, and he will have compiled most of his numbers in pinstripes. Even if he gets to 3,000 hits — a very real possibility at this point — more than 1,600 came with New York. He racked up 45 WAR with the Yankees and could finish his career with 70 WAR or so, putting him in Ron Santo, Alan Trammell, and Barry Larkin territory. More than anything, Cano became Cano in New York. That’s where he made his name and that’s the team I think most people associate him with. That could change if his next nine years are insane, but right now, before the 2015 season, I’ll say a Yankees hat.

Ralph asks: I love this site, but I’m feeling a little old school. Can you explain these new acronyms (wRC+, LOOGY, etc)?

Of course. Here’s a real quick primer on some of the acronyms we commonly use here at RAB. If there are any others you’d like to know, leave ‘em in the comments and I’ll add as many as I can to the post.

  • wRC+: Weighted runs created. It’s a measure of total offense relative to league average. Doubles really aren’t the same as two singles (which they are according to slugging percentage), for example, and wRC+ sorts all of that out while adding adjustments for ballpark and other stuff. 100 means league average. The bigger the number, the better.
  • LOOGY: Lefty One Out GuY. A lefty specialist reliever. A Clay Rapada/Mike Myers type.
  • FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching. A measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness based on strikeouts, walks, and homers only. The things he can control without the help of his defense, basically. FIP is scaled to ERA (so a 5.00 FIP is just as bad as a 5.00 ERA, etc.) and more predictive going forward.
  • K% and BB%: Strikeout and walk rates. Instead of the more common K/9 and BB/9 — strikeouts and walks per nine innings — it’s just strikeouts and walks per batters faced. In 2014, the league averages were 20.4 K% and 7.6 BB%.
  • GB%: Ground ball rate. Unlike K% and BB%, GB% is percentage of ground balls per ball in play, not per batters faced. The MLB average in 2014 was 44.8 GB%. So if I face 100 batters, strike out 30, walk ten, and get 30 ground balls, I have a 30 K%, a 10 BB%, and a 50 GB% (half the 60 balls in play). Got it? Good.

Like I said, if there’s anything else you want to see, let me know in the comments.

Frank asks: Mike Ford got a pretty positive write-up in McDaniel’s prospect piece. Is there a reason(s) why Ford doesn’t get more “prospect” love?

I think it’s the stigma of being an undrafted free agent — those guys very rarely amount to anything — and the general lack of information about him. Ford was both the Ivy League Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year at Princeton in 2013, yet it’s still hard to find a reliable scouting report on him. Ford is two months younger than Aaron Judge though, and he had a monster 2014 season, hitting .292/.383/.458 (138 wRC+) with 13 homers and more walks (52) than strikeouts (46) between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. Given his status as a former unknown, Ford is going to have to prove himself at every level as he climbs the ladder. He’s an interesting guy to watch, but not any sort of top prospect. Not yet, anyway.

Viciedo'h. (Jason Miller/Getty)
VicieD’OH. (Jason Miller/Getty)

Chris R. asks: Any thoughts on the recently released Dayan Viciedo?  He is only 25 so there is some potential there for improvement.

The White Sox designated Viciedo for assignment earlier this week and if he winds up getting released, I’d be fine with him on a minor league contract. The Yankees don’t have anywhere else to put him, really. Viciedo is a DH who’s hit .250/.294/.425 (94 wRC+) in his three full MLB seasons. That includes a .274/.318/.487 (115 wRC+) line against lefties, but “right-handed platoon DH” is hardly a guy worth a roster spot. Besides, the Yankees already Alex Rodriguez for that role anyway. I know he’s only 25, but age isn’t a get out of jail free card. Viciedo has been pretty bad the last three years and shown no improvement (he’s actually gotten worse each year). A minor league deal is fine, but I’m not giving him a 25-man roster spot.

Dan asks: We have heard a lot about declining offense in MLB. Are there similar trends taking place in the minors and foreign baseball leagues?

Let’s start with the hard data. Here is average runs-per-game total (for one team, not both teams in a game combined) in the five best pro baseball leagues in the world over the last five seasons.

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
MLB 4.38 4.28 4.32 4.17 4.07
NPB (Japan) 4.32 3.28 3.26 3.99 4.12
KBO (Korea) 5.08 4.62 4.24 4.74 5.62
IL (AAA) 4.51 4.34 4.30 4.23 4.36
PCL (AAA) 5.22 5.56 5.13 4.83 5.03

MLB offense is trending down. We knew that. The Triple-A International League has held fairly steady the last four years and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League has had some pretty big year-to-year fluctuations while still staying close to that overall five runs per game rate. I’m not sure how useful the Triple-A data is though because there is so much roster turnover each year.

The Japan numbers are crazy. NPB started using a new ball in 2011 — they wanted to use something closer to the MLB ball, which is slicker and has higher seams — and it took a huge bite out of their offense. They went through a mini-Deadball Era until they switched back to a livelier ball for 2013. The problem? The league never told the players’ union they changed the balls in 2013 and eventually the commissioner had to resign as a result. KBO also switched to a livelier ball for the 2014 season and offense shot up.

The two main leagues overseas decided to fix their offensive issues by changing the baseball itself and that seems like the easiest and quickest fix. I don’t know if it’s the best fix, but I like it more than eliminating shifts. Embrace creativity! Besides, I don’t think an extra seeing eye ground ball single or two per game is going to put much of a dent in the league-wide offensive numbers overall anyway.

Gus asks: Everyone always talks about Jeter potentially wanting to own a team but we never hear anything about Mariano Rivera‘s future with relation to MLB.  Do you think that he may ever come back to the Yankees on either a full-time or even limited basis and in what capacity?

I’m sure he’ll be back as a guest instructor in Spring Training at some point, but I’ve never thought of Rivera as someone who would return to baseball full-time after his playing days are over. Either as a coach or a special advisor to the GM or anything like that. I’ve always thought Rivera was more likely to dedicate his post-playing career life to building churches and charity work, that sort of stuff. I’m sure Mo will eventually be a regular Spring Training guest instructor, and I’m sure he’ll be involved in outreach programs for the Yankees and MLB, but a full-time baseball man? I would be surprised. That’s just my opinion.

Rob asks: Rumor is the Yankees are looking to fight A-Rod‘s home run bonuses based on his steroids suspension. Couldn’t teams write that sort of thing into contracts? That parts or all of a contract is void if there’s a positive test for PED’s? Wouldn’t it make sense since PED use is a risk for the teams as well?

Nope. All PED-related discipline is handled by the collectively bargained Joint Drug Agreement. I think voiding a contract for PED reasons is a zero tolerance item for the players’ union. I think they’d go on strike before allowing that to happen. Making contract more easily voidable is not a precedent the union wants to set. MLB and the MLBPA agreed to beef up PED suspensions last year — first and second offenses went from 50 and 100 games, respectively, to 80 and 162 games — and the JDA is by far the best and toughest PED system in the four major sports. Letting teams void contracts for a failed test is a can of worms I do not expect the MLBPA to allow to open. Not unless MLB agrees to let players opt out of their contracts if they feel underpaid, of course.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Dan asks: How do you think the clubhouse is going to receive A-Rod.  The only guys who are still on this team from the last time he played are CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, John Ryan Murphy (for about a month), Ivan Nova (who will miss at least 2 months) and Brett Gardner.  It seems like it would have been better for him to come back to a team where the guys know him for more than just his reputation.

Don’t forget Brendan Ryan! He played with A-Rod a bit too in 2013. Dellin Betances too, I think. Anyway, I really have no idea how Alex will be received in he clubhouse. Some days I think it think he’ll fit right back and other days I wonder if the new guys will be uncomfortable. A-Rod has always been really good with young players though, both on the field and off the field, so maybe his presence in the clubhouse won’t be a big deal. A-Rod is a gym and baseball rat and he’s worked with a lot of young players — Robbie Cano took his game to another level after Alex got him to work harder, most notably — in addition to taking them out to dinner or buying them suits, that sort of stuff. The ol’ mentor thing. I’d like to think he would be accepted after serving his time, but who really knows. I don’t think there will be outright mutiny or anything like that though.

Daniel asks: What do you think are the percentage probabilities that Tanaka will be the same pitcher he was in the first half of last year for a whole year, succumb to Tommy John, and stay on the field but not be the same pitcher?

I’ll say … 20% he stays healthy and is the same guy, 60% he has his elbow rebuilt, and 20% he stays healthy but is not the same pitcher. Tanaka was insanely good last year — he had a 1.99 ERA (2.74 FIP) in his first 14 starts before the elbow started to become an issue — and I’m not sure we can realistically expect that over a full season. He had a 2.47 ERA (3.03 FIP) in 19 starts before that disaster in Fenway Park to close out the season, so maybe that’s the best realistic case scenario for 2015. As for the elbow, I’m just not very optimistic right now. I think it’ll give out at some point and soon. Not sure how anyone could expect differently.

D.J. asks: What series with a National League team are you looking most forward to watching?

Definitely the four-game home and home series with the Marlins from June 15-18. I love their outfield — it’s not just Giancarlo Stanton; Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna are two of the best young outfielders in baseball as well —  and I irrationally love Henderson Alvarez. He throws in the mid-90s with nasty offspeed stuff, couldn’t miss a bat to save his life, and still dominates. I enjoy it because it’s so unconventional. Their bullpen is really fun too, they’ve got a lot of different arm angles (Steve Cishek), big velocity (Bryan Morris), and big breaking balls (A.J. Ramos). Jose Fernandez might be back by time that series against the Yankees rolls around as well. Miami has themselves a fun up and coming roster this year.