Update: Yankees agree to minor league deal with Jon Niese

(Getty)
(Getty)

Monday: Ken Davidoff has the financial details. The deal will pay Niese a $1.25M base salary at the big league level, with another $750,000 available in incentives. He has separate incentives based on whether he is a starter or reliever, though the max value of the contract remains $2M either way.

Sunday: The Yankees have added some veteran rotation depth. According to multiple reports, the club has agreed to a minor league contract with left-hander Jon Niese. He is reportedly in Tampa and either has taken his physical already, or will do so soon. Niese’s season ended in late-August due to knee surgery, so the physical isn’t necessarily routine.

Niese, who turned only 30 in October, had a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 121 innings spread across 20 starts and nine relief appearances for the Pirates and Mets last year. As I wrote in our Scouting the Market post a few weeks back, Niese pitched through knee pain for much of the season. He said it started bothering him in June, and, well:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
First 12 starts 71 3.93 5.10 15.8% 7.7% 55.0% 1.52
Last 17 games
50 7.74 6.35 16.5% 9.8% 45.8% 2.34

It’s impossible to know how the injury — Niese had a torn meniscus and had the knee scoped, so he should be good to go by now — affected Niese on the mound, though the timeline matches up. Niese said it started bothering him in June and that’s when his performance went in the tank. The minor league deal means it’ll cost the Yankees nothing to see if he can return to his 2012-15 form (3.79 ERA and 3.78 FIP) with a healthy knee.

The Yankees will reportedly look at Niese as both a starter and reliever, which makes sense. They have two openings in the rotation and a few more in the bullpen. The club has been looking for another lefty reliever pretty much all winter, and while Niese has spent most of his career as a starter, he has relieved in the past. He was in the bullpen for the Mets 2015 postseason run, for example.

I’m a fan of the move. I don’t expect Niese to come in and throw 180 innings far-above-average innings, but he’s been a ground ball lefty throughout his career, and those guys are always welcome at Yankee Stadium. The minor league deal is no risk. Healthy Niese could prove to be a nice little pickup.

Open Thread: February 20th Camp Notes

I missed this last week, but the Yankees have announced single-game tickets for the 2017 season go on sale next Monday, February 27th. The Mastercard pre-sale period begins this Wednesday, February 22nd. Baseball is coming, folks. Make sure you get your tickets. Here are the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Jon Niese passed his physical and his minor league deal is official, the Yankees announced. There are now 67 players in big league camp, though Richard Bleier remains in limbo after being designated for assignment. Niese said he was surprised he had to settle for a minor league deal, and added he signed with the Yankees because he sees a good opportunity to make the team. Joe Girardi said Niese is competing for a bullpen spot, not a rotation spot. [Jack Curry, Erik Boland]
  • One more note on Niese: he’s an Article XX(B) free agent because he has six years of service time and signed a minor league deal. That means two things. One, the Yankees have to pay him a $100,000 bonus at the end of Spring Training before sending him to the minors. And two, his contract automatically includes a June 1st opt-out if he is not on the big league roster.
  • Here, via Brendan Kuty, are the day’s pitching assignments, hitting groups, and fielding groups. Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa both threw simulated games while Michael Pineda, Tyler Clippard, Justus Sheffield, and Chance Adams were among those to throw live batting practice. Greg Bird took someone deep during a sim game (video).
  • Hensley Meulens, the former Yankee, said Didi Gregorius is going to play second, short, and third with the Netherlands during the World Baseball Classic. He’ll also get at-bats as the DH. Meulens is the team’s manager. The Netherlands has Jonathan Schoop at second, Andrelton Simmons at short, and Xander Bogaerts at third. [Jon Morosi]

This is the open thread for the evening. The NBA is still in their All-Star break and none of the local hockey teams are in action, so all you’ve got tonight are a handful of college basketball games. Talk about anything here as long as it’s not religion or politics.

False Alarm: Aaron Judge has not eliminated his leg kick

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It wasn’t until Saturday that position players were due to report to Tampa for Spring Training, though, like several others, outfielder Aaron Judge showed up to camp early. He spent the offseason working with hitting coach Alan Cockrell (and others?) on his lower half, and that work has presumably continued in Tampa in recent weeks.

A little more than a week ago videos hit Twitter showing Judge taking batting practice, and in those videos he had no leg kick whatsoever. Judge had a normal sized leg kick in 2015 and a much bigger leg kick in 2016. Now he was using no leg kick. I wrote an entire post about it. It seemed Judge had again tweaked his leg kick as part of his continued adjustments to big league pitching.

As it turns out, that was a false alarm. Judge has not changed his leg kick. Or at least he didn’t eliminate it completely, as the videos suggested. Here’s what Judge told Pete Caldera about his offseason work recently:

“Just kind of working on being consistent, repeat the swing, repeat the mechanics,’’ Judge said of his offseason work. And he’s not abandoning the left leg kick he adopted as a timing mechanism.

“Somebody posted a video about me that I was changing my stance,’’ Judge said of his flat-footed stance earlier in workouts. “That was just kind of warming up, making sure my swing feels right.’’

Well, so much for that, huh? Keep in mind this doesn’t necessarily mean Judge hasn’t changed his leg kick at all. It just means he hasn’t eliminated it completely. That would have been a pretty drastic change. I was pretty shocked to see no leg kick when I first saw the videos. It sure seemed like a pretty big deal. That’s what I get for jumping to conclusions.

Either way, leg kick or no leg kick, the goal for Judge remains the same. Win the right field job in Spring Training and keep it for the next six years. That’s what the Yankees want to happen and I’m guessing that’s what most fans want to happen. Judge, like every young player, is still figuring out what it takes to succeed at the big league level, and these continued lower half changes are part of that process.

The Dellin Betances fiasco may lead to the arbitration system finally getting an update

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the weekend the Yankees beat Dellin Betances in arbitration and will pay him $3M this season instead of the $5M he was seeking. That $3M represents a record salary for a setup man in his first year of arbitration. No other setup man received even $2M as far as I can tell. That $5M Betances and his camp were requested is closer money.

The arbitration system, which has been around since 1974, is pretty old-fashioned. From what I understand there are a list of approved statistics each side can use to state their case, and for relievers like Betances, there is no more valuable stat than saves. Dellin has spent the first three years of his career as an incredibly valuable multi-inning setup man, which is why he went to arbitration with only 22 saves. That cost him.

Bullpen usage is changing around baseball and has been for a few years now. Starters are throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, putting that much more emphasis on the bullpen. High-end relievers like Betances are in very high demand, which is why the Yankees were able to get such great prospect packages for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller at the deadline last year. Great relievers are more valuable than ever.

Following the arbitration ruling Saturday, Yankees president Randy Levine called a wholly unnecessary conference call to rip Betances and his agent Jim Murray. It was pretty ridiculous, though I’ve said all I have to say about that. What Levine did do — aside from upset Betances, of course — is draw attention to the outdated absurdity of the arbitration system as it pertains to relievers. Ken Rosenthal put it best:

Saves? Really? Somewhere in the baseball universe there is a place where saves are still viewed as a primary measure of a reliever’s performance? A place, no less, where it is determined how a reliever gets paid?

The Betances arbitration ruling, which likely would have blown over and been a one-day story had Levine not opened his mouth, is the kind of high-profile case that could spur the MLBPA into action. They could seek an update to the arbitration rules, making them more fair to relievers given their increased importance. After all, in real world value, Betances is a heck of a lot closer to a $5M a year reliever than a $3M a year reliever. (He’s more like a $17M a year reliever, but I digress.)

There are two issues with updating the arbitration system. For starters, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement just took effect, which means we’re still five years away from MLB and MLBPA being able to rewrite the rules. This isn’t something that can happen right away. Arbitration is collectively bargained and the owners have no reason to open the new CBA and change arbitration mid-term. Any changes will have to wait.

Secondly, how do you go about properly valuing relievers in arbitration? Looking at WAR is only slightly better than looking at saves in my opinion, mostly because I think WAR undervalues relievers in general, and especially high-leverage monsters like Betances. Here are three stats I’d like to see incorporated into arbitration for relievers:

  1. Leverage Index: Leverage Index tells us how important the situation is based on game state. Entering the eighth inning with a one-run lead and a man on second with no outs is a heck of a lot different than starting the eighth with a four-run lead, even though it’s still the eighth inning. Here is the 2016 Leverage Index leaderboard.
  2. Strikeout Rate: Pretty straight forward. The single best thing a pitcher can do is strike the hitter out, because it takes the defense right out of the equation. When you’re pitching in the late innings, not letting the other team put the ball in play is a pretty great recipe for success.
  3. Inherited Runners Stranded: This is a tricky one because the closers who start the ninth inning with a clean slate don’t inherit many runners. Middle relievers and setup men usually get the call in the middle of an inning. Clearly though, stranding inherited runners is important.

I’m not sure how you can best evaluate relievers in arbitration. I do know saves, a terrible stat that influences managerial decisions (!), isn’t the best way to go. Betances is clearly one of the best relievers in baseball and he should be compensated like one, which means closer money. The same way Miller was paid like a top reliever when he hit free agency with one career save.

The Betances-Levine stuff never should have happened Saturday. The arbitration process causes enough grief as it is. Levine piled on top of it and created more bad blood. If there’s anything good that can come out of it — good for the players, that is, not teams — it’s that maybe it created such a stir that the union will push to change how relievers are judged through arbitration. It’s a little too late for Betances to benefit from any changes, though at least this entire mess won’t go for naught.

Bryan Mitchell: Starter or reliever?

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

There are rarely real battles for important rosters spots in Yankees Spring Training. Sure, there’s usually a race for the utility infielder spot or the last spot in the bullpen, but we don’t often see a significant role up for grabs. However, from the outside looking in, it appears that the competition for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation is an honest-to-goodness competition.

As Mike wrote last Wednesday, how that battle shapes up could very well shape the Yankees’ bullpen. After all, you have more than two guys fighting for just two spots. That brings me to Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell very likely would have played a larger role — initially in the bullpen — for the 2016 Yankees if he didn’t injure his toe towards the end of the camp. He ultimately made just five appearances, all starts coming in September. Now he could see himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot to begin the year.

Mitchell in a lot of ways seems like an afterthought, but he’s a pitcher with some real talent. After all, pitchers with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and power curveball don’t grow on trees. (He has a third pitch but more on that later). While he has a 4.52 ERA in 65 2/3 big-league innings, he’s shown enough stuff and performance to make me believe he can be viable MLB pitcher. The question becomes: Is he a starter or a reliever?

Case for Mitchell the reliever

Mitchell, who will turn 26 on April 19, only really has one season with bullpen experience, that being his 2015 campaign, in which he split time between Triple A and the majors. In 29 2/3 innings, Mitchell struck out 29 batters but had an ugly 6.37 ERA. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Through Aug. 17, Mitchell had a 3.86 ERA over 21 innings (15 1/3 in relief) and had been effective, particularly in low-leverage multiple-inning outings.

His Aug. 11 game was his best. Coming into the 12th inning of a tied game on the road, Mitchell marched through the Indians order, struck out five, allowed two hits and two walks (one intentional) but worked himself out of trouble and kept Cleveland off the board. It was a gutsy performance by a rookie thrown into a tough situation.

And then it all fell apart his next appearance. Asked to make a spot start on Aug 17, Mitchell took a line drive from Eduardo Nunez off the face in the second inning. He somehow only missed 11 days, but his performance cratered afterward, allowing 12 runs in his last 10 appearances. He walked over a batter an inning and gave a glimpse of where his game can go wrong.

Still, though, Mitchell showed a lot before his broken nose. He can clearly give the team length, something they will need out of the bullpen with their current rotation, and he had cut down on his walks for the most part, something that has always been an issue for him. MLB.com gave his control a 40 grade prior to the 2015 season while ranking him 14th among Yankees prospects. However, they were pretty positive on his raw talent, saying he had “some of the best stuff” in the system and saying that he “should be able to carve up hitters” with his fastball and curveball.

That’s where the crux of the “Mitchell should be a reliever” argument lies. Both his fastball and curveball are plus pitches and he would be able to shorten his repertoire in the bullpen, cutting out his ineffective changeup. His fastball has hit 98 in the bullpen. If he can set hitters up with his fastball, his curveball can be a nice one-two punch as his out pitch.

It’s easy to make a lot of Adam Warren comparisons here, probably too easy. Warren is a definite success story for the Yankees while Mitchell hasn’t proven himself yet. For 2017, Mitchell would be more likely to emulate 2013 Warren than 2014-15 Warren. That means his value in relief is likely to be maximized by his ability to produce multiple quality innings rather than needing high leverage situations that Warren excelled in over the 2014-15 seasons. The Yankees seem to be taken care of at the moment in the backend of the ‘pen.

Case for Mitchell the starter

Why does Mitchell work in the rotation? Beyond a fastball that still sits in the mid-90s throughout his starts (dips to 94.6 third time through the order), Mitchell has developed his cutter as a more effective secondary pitch. He still uses his four-seamer 43 percent of the time, but he actually used his cutter more often than his curveball (24.7 to 21.4 percent) in 2016. His curveball was still his out-pitch, but Mitchell utilized his cutter as a swing-and-miss secondary pitch more often as the opposing lineup turned over.

The sample size is key to note: We have only 65 2/3 major league innings of data from Mitchell, about 55 percent as a starter and the rest as a reliever. His cutter, which was his best pitch by wRC+ against in 2016, showed improvement statistically from year over year in that sample, a sign that Mitchell might be more than just a two-pitch pitcher. However, it could easily be noise rather than a major breakthrough. We need to see a full season of him in the majors before you draw any real conclusions on his cutter.

If you tend to believe the 2016 number more than anything, Mitchell can be a viable back-end starter. He had two scoreless outings (with seven walks in 12 innings), two less than stellar starts and one quality start where he took the loss. The five games were against the Blue Jays (2x), Red Sox (2x) and Dodgers, so he had to face some stiff competition along the way.

Conclusion?

When I began this exercise, I thought Mitchell was best suited for relief. Part of that is definitely the Cleveland game from 2015 sticking in my mind. I still lean that way, but I’m certainly curious as to what he would do at the end of the rotation. Is his cutter a real solid weapon or is that reading too much into too few data points? Remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: Mitchell isn’t a future ace. Yet in all but the best of rotations, the No. 4 and 5 pitchers are going to have some major warts. For Mitchell, it’s his control. If he sticks as a starter, he’ll have to conquer the ability to throw strikes more consistently. Even if that doesn’t happen, Mitchell has the makings of a strong reliever who can help make up for the Yankees’ lack of length from their starters.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 20th, 2017

Spring Record: 0-0
Spring Opponents This Week: Fri. vs. PHI (on YES, MLB.tv), Sat. @ PHI (on MLB.tv), Sun. vs. TOR (on YES, MLB.tv)

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Open Thread: February 19th Camp Notes

Today was the first full squad workout of Spring Training. Position players reported yesterday and everyone was out on the field working today. Hooray for that. The Yankees will play their first Grapefruit League game in just a few days. Here’s what went on down in Tampa:

  • If you’re interested in such things, Brendan Kuty posted the day’s batting practice groups, fielding groups, and pitcher assignments. Masahiro Tanaka and Chad Green were among those to throwing live batting practice. Adam Warren, who has already thrown multiple live BP sessions, threw a bullpen. He seems to be ahead of the other pitchers and that could mean he’ll start the Grapefruit League opener Friday. We’ll see.
  • The Yankees have added outfielder Billy McKinney to their non-roster invitees, the team announced. There are 66 players in big league camp now, though Richard Bleier is currently in limbo after being designated for assignment. The Yankees will be without Tyler Austin (foot) and Mason Williams (patella tendon) for a little while, so McKinney gives them another outfielder. He was part of last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade.
  • Brett Gardner, the longest tenured player in the organization and longest tenured member of the big league roster, said he tried not to pay attention to trade rumors over the winter. “On one hand, obviously I don’t want to get traded. But, on the other hand, the fact that maybe some other teams have interest in me, I see that as a compliment. But I don’t want to play anywhere else. I want to be here,” he said. [Mike Mazzeo]
  • Joe Girardi said he is still debating whether to split up Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the lineup. If he does, he wouldn’t bat them first and ninth, because that means lefties hitting back-to-back. I guess it’s okay if the lefties hit back-to-back when they hit first and second, but not ninth and first. /shrugs [Bryan Hoch, Jack Curry]
  • Dellin Betances said he’s putting the arbitration situation behind him and doesn’t feel the need to talk to team president Randy Levine. “I don’t regret anything I said yesterday. I had to get it off my chest,” he said. [Erik Boland, Curry]
  • Clint Frazier is pushing the limits of the hair policy (photo), though Girardi said it is fine at that length. No big deal. [Andrew Marchand]

Here is the open thread for the rest of the day. The NBA All-Star Game is on tonight (8pm ET on TNT) plus the Devils and Islanders are playing each other. There’s a handful of college hoops games on too. Talk about that stuff, the day in camp, or anything else here, just not religion or politics.