Thoughts four weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training

Need baseball. (Presswire)
Need baseball. (Presswire)

In just four not-so-short weeks, the Yankees will open Spring Training and pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa. Can’t come soon enough. I don’t even care that it’s a non-news day. I’m ready for this offseason to be over and something that resembles baseball to begin. Anyway, I have some random thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. This isn’t really something we can quantify at the moment, but I think we can all agree the Yankees will take a huge defensive hit at first base this coming season. Mark Teixeira, even at the very end of his career, was a dynamite defender over at first. He saved countless errors with great scoops — the fancy Baseball Info Solutions data I have access to through CBS tells me Teixeira was third among all first basemen in “sure-handedness” (scoops, picks, etc.) over the last three years, behind Eric Hosmer and Adrian Gonzalez — and was a vacuum on hot shots hit his way. Neither Greg Bird nor Tyler Austin is much of a first base defender. They were always bat-first prospects. I do expect Bird and Austin to out-hit the 2016 version of Teixeira, by quite a bit too, but in the field, they’re a big step down. Hopefully the offensive upgrade outweighs the defensive downgrade. I still think it’ll be a bit of a shock to the system when we see fewer throws in the dirt get scooped and fewer hard-hit grounders turn into outs.

2. Speaking of defense, do you think the Yankees would be better off flipping Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury? It’s hard to say. Gardner spent only one season, 2013, as New York’s full-time center fielder, so it’s been a while since we’ve seen him out there on any everyday basis. Also, Ellsbury’s experience in left field is very limited. He’s played only 86 games and 563.2 innings in left field in his career, and none since 2010. Aside from the fact this would probably never ever ever happen, I don’t think it would be worthwhile. Left field in Yankee Stadium is tricky, especially during day games when the sun peeks out from over the stands, and Gardner has it down pat. Ellsbury’s learning curve would be steep. On top of that, I think Ellsbury has more range, which plays better in center field. A few years ago the Yankees discussed flipping Gardner with Curtis Granderson because Gardner was the superior defender, and they did do it for a handful of games, but not many. In that case it made sense because Gardner was clearly a better defensive outfielder. With Gardner and Ellsbury, I don’t think it’s nearly as clear cut. This is just something that crossed my mind. The numbers might say it’ll save the Yankees a few extra runs per year, but once you factor in potential adjustment periods, it might not be worth the trouble. Like I said though, not happening anyway.

3. I wonder whether the Yankees will revisit the “Starlin Castro at third base” experiment this Spring Training. The plan got put on hold last spring after the team realized Castro was still rough around the edges at second base — I always thought asking him to learn third only a few months after learning second was too much, too soon — but now that he’s played a full season at second, they may try it again. It’s a good idea in theory. Why not make your players more flexible, if it all possible? As Matt mentioned over the weekend, it’s not like the Yankees are loaded with options at third base. Ronald Torreyes is the incumbent backup, and then there’s, uh. Ruben Tejada? Donovan Solano? I don’t think anyone wants to see those guys in the lineup full-time. At least if Castro can play third, he could slide over should Chase Headley get hurt, then the Yankees could roll Rob Refsnyder out there at second. I’d rather see Refsnyder at second and Castro at third than Castro at second and Torreyes/Tejada/Solano at third. (Refsnyder at third doesn’t seem to doable in the eyes of the Yankees.) It’s worth trying Starlin at third in Spring Training. Whether the Yankees go through with it is another matter.

4. The 2017 Hall of Fame class will be announced Wednesday, and my official prediction is three players will be voted in this year: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Trevor Hoffman, while both Vlad Guerrero and Ivan Rodriguez fall fewer than ten percentage points short of the 75% needed for induction. I don’t have a Hall of Fame vote yet, I’m still eight years away from that, but if I did, I would have voted for Bagwell, Raines, Guerrero, Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez, and Larry Walker this year. I’ve written our Hall of Fame case posts for Walker at CBS the last few years (here is this year’s) and I managed to change my own opinion from not a Hall of Famer to Hall of Famer. He’s fifth among outfielders in WAR over the last 50 years, you know, behind only Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Reggie Jackson. Also, only 31% of his career plate appearances came in Coors Field, so the ballpark didn’t inflate his career numbers that much. Anyway, those are my ten. As you can see, I’m not one of those folks who believe keeping someone out of Cooperstown is an appropriate punishment for performance-enhancing drugs. As far as I’m concerned, Manny got caught (twice) and served his punishment (twice) and that’s that.

5. I’m sure this is something only I care about, but with the center field area at Yankee Stadium undergoing massive renovations this offseason, I hope we get a true dead center field camera angle.¬† Here’s the current home YES Network camera angle and the home FOX Sports Midwest (Cardinals) camera angle, which is one of my favorites:

yes-vs-fox-camera

Several teams have a true dead center field camera angle these days (Cardinals, Braves, Orioles, Red Sox, Pirates, Rockies) and it’s so much better than the old school offset camera angle. You get a much better look at pitch movement — not just breaking balls either, it’s eye-opening to see how few fastballs are truly straight — and left-right pitch location. Pitches that look like they catch the corner on the offset camera angle are often off the plate, and the dead center angle shows that. The dead center camera makes for a much more enjoyable baseball-watching experience, in my opinion. I hope we get one now that center field at Yankee Stadium is being overhauled.

6. In each of the last few seasons the Yankees had a longtime minor leaguer break out and become a legitimate prospect. Last year it was Kyle Higashioka. The year before it was Ben Gamel and Dietrich Enns. I’m guessing lefty Daniel Camarena is that player in 2017. He missed the entire 2015 season after having bone spurs removed from his elbow, and he returned last season to pitch to a 3.55 ERA (3.52 FIP) with 19.8% strikeouts and 4.2% walks in 147 total innings, most at Double-A. Not the sexiest numbers, though he was coming back from elbow surgery, so we need to grade him on a curve. Camarena is not an out-of-nowhere player. The Yankees gave him a well-above-slot $335,000 bonus as their 20th round pick out of a (surprise surprise) Southern California high school in 2011, so they like him. Camarena is a true three-pitch pitcher who always stood out most for his ability to locate his 90-ish mph fastball. He also throws two quality secondary pitches in his curveball and changeup. Southpaws with three pitches who can spot their fastball are worth keeping around. Camarena is healthy, he had success at Double-A last year, and he’ll be a minor league free agent after the 2017 season. Hopefully he forces the Yankees to make a 40-man roster decision come November.

Monday Night Open Thread

Earlier today the Yankees announced their first (annual?) Winter Warm-Up event, in which players and prospects will meet with fans throughout New York this week. Gary Sanchez was at the Bullpen Deli outside Yankee Stadium today. Mike Mazzeo has the story. The rest of the events this week are a surprise. This is pretty great. The Yankees don’t have any sort of winter event, like a FanFast or something, and I’ve felt their fan outreach has been lacking over the years. It’s good to see them get out in the community like this and stay in touch with fans, and maybe even cultivate some new ones.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. None of the local hockey or basketball teams are playing, so you’ve got some college hoops and not much else. Talk about whatever here. Just don’t be a jerk.

Yankees sign Ji-Man Choi to minor league contract

(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

According to Yonhap News Agency, the Yankees have signed first baseman Ji-Man Choi to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. He’ll make $700,000 at the big league level with another $400,000 in incentives. The Yonhap report says Choi turned down a “substantial amount of money” to remain with the Angels.

Choi, 25, elected free agency last week after Billy Eppler’s squad dropped him from the 40-man roster. Anaheim selected him from the Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason. Choi hit .170/.271/.339 (67 wRC+) with five homers in 54 games and 129 plate appearances with the Angels in 2016. It was his MLB debut. He began his career with the Mariners back in the day.

At one point last summer the Angels placed Choi on waivers and offered him back to the O’s, but Baltimore declined to take him back, so the Halos sent him to Triple-A. Choi hit .346/.434/.527 (157 wRC+) with five homers in 53 Triple-A games last year. He’s a left-handed hitter who has outfield experience in addition to first base, though he’s no defensive wiz.

The Yankees appear set to go with a Greg BirdTyler Austin platoon at first base next season, meaning Choi figures to play first base for Triple-A Scranton. As best I can tell, Choi has a minor league option remaining, so the Yankees will be able to send him up and down as an injury replacement, if necessary.

Richard Bleier may be the unspoken rotation candidate

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

One thing has become pretty clear this offseason: the Yankees like left-hander Richard Bleier a heck of a lot more than I realized. They’ve kept the 29-year-old journeyman on the 40-man roster all winter, opting to instead cut ties with potentially useful young players like Jacob Lindgren and Nick Goody when space was needed. Nick Rumbelow and Branden Pinder too, though they’re rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Bleier, who the Yankees signed as a minor league free agent last offseason, made his MLB debut last summer and did solid work for New York. He threw 23 relief innings with a 1.96 ERA (2.67 FIP). Bleier spent much of the season as a low-leverage option before seeing increased responsibility in September, when the Yankees were essentially holding open auditions for the bullpen. Things were wide open there for a while.

Although he worked out of the bullpen last year, Bleier has been a starter pretty much throughout his entire career, including early last season with Triple-A Scranton. As recently as 2015 he managed a 2.57 ERA (3.32 FIP) in 26 starts and 171.2 innings with the Nationals between Double-A and Triple-A. Bleier is a starter who just so happened to pitch in relief last year. Tons of guys break into the show that way. Especially older journeymen.

The Yankees have some openings at the back of the rotation and everyone involved has said the kids will compete for those spots in Spring Training. Luis Cessa, Luis Severino, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell are the leading candidates, and Adam Warren is coming to camp as a starter too. The Yankees have a history of doing that. Anyone who has been a starter in the past comes to Spring Training prepared to start, because hey, why not?

Bleier has not been mentioned as a rotation candidate — Brian Cashman listed Cessa, Severino, Mitchell, Warren, and Green by name when asked about rotation candidates last week¬† — but again, the Yankees tend to bring anyone who could conceivably start to camp as a starter. That includes journeyman types like Sergio Mitre and Esmil Rogers. Of course, Mitre and Rogers were former top prospects. Bleier is … not one of those. Big difference there.

Also, the Yankees seem to have a type, and Bleier is decidedly not that type. They love hard-throwers who miss bats. Who doesn’t? Bleier is a finesse southpaw who lives and dies by the ground ball. In his 23 big league innings last year, he struck out 13. He struck out 25 in his 58 Triple-A innings. That 171.2 inning season he had with the Nationals in 2015? Only 65 strikeouts. That’s a 9.5% strikeout rate. Lordy.

Bleier’s thing is ground balls, and he is quite good at getting them. He had a 54.1% ground ball rate with the Yankees last year. It was 61.9% in Triple-A and 65.0% two seasons ago with the Nationals. Combine the ground balls with few walks (4.4% in MLB in 2016, 4.6% in Triple-A in 2016, 2.3% in 2015) and you can survive with few strikeouts. Your margin of error is smaller — tough to strand a runner on third with less than two outs when you can’t miss a bat — but it can work.

Since batted ball data started to being recorded in 2002, the lowest strikeout rate by a qualified starter with a better than average ERA belongs to an ex-Yankee: Chien-Ming Wang. Wanger had a 3.63 ERA (125 ERA+) in 2006 despite an 8.4% strikeout rate because he got grounders (62.8%) and didn’t walk anyone (5.8%). Then again, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-Mariano Rivera pitcher generate as much weak contact as Wang. His sinker was something else.

Other pitchers have gotten by without low strikeout rates, however. Aaron Cook had several better than average seasons (in Coors Field, no less) despite a sub-12.0% ground ball rate because he got so many ground balls. Carlos Silva did it a few times too. Mark Buehrle is the gold standard of “effective despite few strikeout” pitchers, though compared to Buehrle, Bleier looks like Randy Johnson in terms of fastball velocity.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating giving Bleier a chance to start. I just wonder if it’s something the Yankees will try. They clearly like him, as evidenced by the fact he’s, you know, still around. Guys like him tend to be among the first to lose their 40-man roster spots in the offseason. Bleier has three pitches (sinker, slider, changeup), he excels at something (getting grounders), and he has a history as a starter. When you get down to it, there’s really no reason not to try him in the rotation in camp.

The complicated arbitration case of Dellin Betances

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Last Friday, the Yankees signed all their arbitration-eligible players prior to the salary filing deadline except one: Dellin Betances. Betances, who is up for arbitration for the first time, filed a $5M salary with the panel. The Yankees countered with $3M. The $2M gap is enormous. In fact, it’s the second biggest gap in filing figures this offseason. (Drew Pomeranz and the Red Sox are $2.1M apart.)

Before we go any further, I should make it clear the Yankees and Betances are not automatically going to an arbitration hearing now that they’ve filed salary figures. They can still negotiate a contract of any size. Last offseason the Yankees and Aroldis Chapman were a whopping $4.1M apart with their filing figures ($13.1M vs. $9M), yet they hammered out an $11.32M deal before a hearing. The Yankees and Betances could do the same.

Now, that said, the Yankees and Betances have had difficult contract negotiations in the past. Last offseason the team offered a $540,000 salary, which was only slightly above the $507,500 league minimum. Betances rejected the modest raise because he believed he deserved more, so the Yankees renewed him at the minimum. Dellin took a stand, which was his right, and the Yankees renewed his contract at a salary of their choosing, which was their right.

Things are different this offseason because of arbitration, so if Betances is not happy with what the Yankees are offering, he can take them to a hearing and state his case. If it does get to a hearing — the Yankees haven’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang in 2008 — the two sides will make their arguments, and the three-personal panel will chose either the $5M or $3M for 2017, nothing in-between.

The big gap in filing figures tells us a few things. First and foremost, it tells us Betances and his representatives believe he deserves to be paid not just like a closer, but like a great closer. Consider that just last offseason, established closers like Jeurys Familia ($4.05M), Cody Allen ($4.15M), and Hector Rondon ($4.2M) all signed for less than Dellin’s filing figure in their first trip through arbitration. He’s looking for an unprecedented payday for a non-closer reliever.

Secondly, the filing figures tell us the Yankees are willing to pay Betances a top salary for a non-closer. That $3M is pretty damn high. Top setup relievers like David Robertson ($1.6M), Kelvin Herrera ($1.6M), and Tony Watson ($1.75M) all signed for way less than $3M in their first trip through arbitration. The Yankees are willing to pay Betances handsomely relative to other non-closers. He wants to be paid like a closer though. A great closer.

It’s important to note the arbitration process is very archaic. Things like WAR and FIP are pointless. Saves matter more than anything for relievers. Strikeouts are good, but not as good as saves. All-Star appearances matter too. Betances is going into arbitration with three All-Star Game selections, a handful of saves (22 to be exact), and a boatload of strikeouts. (Dellin led all relievers with 392 strikeouts from 2014-16. Andrew Miller is second with 326.) His case is strong, but it would be stronger with more saves.

How exactly did Betances and his representatives come up with that $5M salary? It’s not like they pulled a number out of thin air. Arbitration is based on the salaries of other players at the same service time level, and Dellin’s camp had to come up with a number they can defend in a hearing. Go too high, and the arbitration panel will side with the Yankees. This is where I’m guessing that $5M comes from:

SV IP ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 bWAR fWAR ASG
Dellin at Arb1 22 254.2 2.16 1.00 2.06 39.8 9.9 48.3 0.57 8.3 8.5 3
Aroldis at Arb1 77 198.2 2.40 1.02 2.27 40.9 12.4 42.7 0.59 6.4 6.2 2

Aside from saves, Betances compares favorably to Chapman when he went through arbitration the first time. And what did Chapman make in his first year as an arbitration-eligible player? Yep, $5M. On the nose. Dellin’s camp will have to hope three years worth of inflation — Aroldis went through arbitration for the first time during the 2013-14 offseason — can make up for the lack of saves.

There is a big problem with the Betances-Chapman comp, however. Even beyond saves, I mean. Chapman was not a normal pre-arbitration player like Betances. He signed a six-year contract worth $30.25M with the Reds and pulled in $2M in base salary in both 2012 and 2013. Chapman actually opted into arbitration. His contract included a $3M salary for 2014, so he used the opt-out to go through arbitration, where he made $5M instead.

Chapman started with a much higher base salary, and that matters. Going from $2M in 2013 to $5M in 2014 is a $3M raise. Betances wants to go from $507,500 in 2016 to $5M in 2017. That’s a $4.4925M raise. Pretty big difference there, eh? Dellin’s camp can say he deserves $5M because his numbers match up with Chapman’s. The Yankees can counter by saying Chapman only received a $3M raise, so their $3M filing figure is more appropriate, especially when factoring in saves.

How did the Yankees come up with their $3M filing figure? I have no idea. As far as I can tell, no non-closer reliever received that much in their first year of arbitration. They’re offering him an unprecedented salary for a first year eligible setup man. Kenley Jansen, like Chapman, had numbers comparable to Betances in his first year of arbitration-eligibility and he received $4.3M. That was a $3.788M raise from the previous year. Dellin is asking for quite a bit more than that.

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

It’s easy to say the cheap ass Yankees are being cheap asses, and they should just pay one of their best and most popular (and homegrown!) players what he wants to maintain a good relationship, especially after renewing him at the minimum last year. After all, what’s another $2M when you’re running a payroll near $220M? They’re going to pay Brian McCann $5.5M to play for the Astros in 2017. Why nickle and dime Betances?

That’s not how it works though. Arbitration salaries are based on the player’s salary in the previous year, so it carries over. It’s not just $2M this year. It’s $2M this year plus whatever raises on top of that Betances will receive in the next two offseasons Let’s assume Betances will get $3M raises each year going forward. I’m just pulling that number out of thin air for argument’s sake. A $3M base salary means his three arbitration years go $3M-$6M-$9M for $18M total. Start at $5M instead, and it’s $5M-$8M-$11M. That’s $24M total. And that’s the super simple version. A larger base salary means larger raises. That extra $2M in 2017 can turn into an extra $7M or $8M (or more) from 2017-19 quick.

This is why the Yankees went to hearing with Wang over a mere $600,000 in 2008. It adds up in future years. Do you know the last time the Yankees went to an arbitration hearing before Wang? It was with Mariano Rivera in 2000. He wanted $9.25M and the team countered with $7.25M. They went to a hearing, the Yankees won, and they saved a boatload of cash. And then they and Mo lived happily ever after. Arbitration hearings can be ugly — the team basically details the player’s shortcomings — but they don’t have to be the beginning of the end of the relationship either.

Also, I have to point out it’s not only the Yankees and Betances who have something on the line here. This deal could change the reliever pay scale dramatically going forward. We’re already seeing some free agent setup men get closer money (Miller, Darren O’Day, etc.). Betances could extend that salary growth to arbitration-eligible players now. We’ve seen teams use their top relievers as setup men to intentionally avoid saves and keep arbitration salaries down. Dellin can break the salary mold.

Arbitration hearings take place in mid-February, so the Yankees and Betances have several weeks to come to an agreement. I have no idea whether they’ll actually get a deal done. Dellin’s camp may think their case is airtight and they can get that $5M after being renewed at the minimum last year. I thought the Yankees would end up going to a hearing with Chapman last year given the $4.1M gap in their filing figures and that didn’t happen, so who knows?

Either way, Betances is going to end up with what sure appears to be a record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible non-closing reliever. His floor right now is $3M. That’s the worst he can do in 2017, and that’s more than any other setup man I can find at the same point of their careers. Dellin and his agent are thinking bigger though. They want closer money. And if they succeed, it will change the reliever pay scale. The MLBPA is rooting hard for Betances right now. There’s a lot of the line.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 16th, 2016

2016 Season Record: 84-78 (680 RS, 702 RA, 79-83 pythag. record), 5.0 GB of postseason spot

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Weekend Open Thread

One week closer to Spring Training. That’s what I keep telling myself. One week closer to Spring Training. This offseason has been a major drag. There’s just nothing going on. Not with the Yankees and not with any other teams either. I knew things would be slow because of the thin free agent class, but man, I didn’t think it would be this slow. Hurry up, pitchers and catchers.

Friday: Here is your open thread for the night. The Rangers, Islanders, Devils, and Nets are all in action this evening. And that’s about it. Nothing else going on. Talk about anything but politics or religion.

Saturday: This is the open thread again. The NFL playoffs continue today with Seahawks-Falcons (4:30pm ET on FOX) and Patriots-Texans (8pm ET on CBS). The Rangers and Islanders are playing too, and there’s more college basketball than anyone could humanly watch on the schedule too. Enjoy.

Sunday: For the last time, this is the open thread. Today’s NFL playoff games are Packers-Cowboys (4:30pm ET on FOX) and Steelers-Chiefs (8pm ET on NBC). Hopefully one of them is actually compelling. The Knicks are playing right now and both the Devils and Nets are playing later tonight. There are two college hoops games too. Have at it.