The beginning of the end of the Jacoby Ellsbury era

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three and a half years later, I still don’t understand what compelled the Yankees to sign Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year contract worth $153M. A top Scott Boras client signing the week before the Winter Meetings is never a good sign. The offer was too good to be true for Ellsbury to sign that early. My guess is the Yankees overrated three things: Ellsbury’s ability to repeat his monster 2011 season, his durability (many of his injuries with the Red Sox were fluky), and the value of succeeding in a tough market like Boston.

Whatever it was, the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that contract, and three and a half years later, they wish they hadn’t. He is no better than the fourth best outfielder on the current 25-man roster, and once Aaron Hicks returns from his oblique strain, Ellsbury will be the fifth best outfielder on the roster. Ellsbury has sat in each of the last three games and six of the last ten games. Clint Frazier has been too good early in his MLB career to take out of the lineup, and Brett Gardner has been better than Ellsbury overall this season.

“I realize the way I started the first two months of the year, played very well, then I had a concussion, hurt my neck and the last three weeks my production hasn’t been the same since I ran into the wall,” said Ellsbury to Randy Miller over the weekend. “But it’s only three weeks, so for the first two months I played very well and I’m looking forward to getting back to what I was the first two months.”

As Ellsbury said, he missed a month with a concussion earlier this season and he hasn’t hit since returning. He’s gone 11-for-62 (.177) with a double and a triple since coming back. He got hurt and he stopped hitting, and it’s not the first time this has happened. Ellsbury got off to a tremendous start in 2015, tweaked his knee, missed six weeks, and didn’t hit the rest of the year. He did the same thing several times with the Red Sox. This is the reality of Jacoby Ellsbury:

  • 2015: 83 OPS+
  • 2016: 87 OPS+
  • 2017: 80 OPS+

That is three years and nearly 1,400 plate appearances of .258/.324/.361 (84 OPS+) from a player on a $153M contract. Ellsbury derives a lot of value from his defense, there’s no doubt about that, but the Yankees did not give him that massive contract simply to run down balls in center field. Mason Williams could do that for the league minimum. The brought in Ellsbury for two-way excellence.

The contract tells us the Yankees believed Ellsbury would be an impact player and he’s been anything but. We’ve seen flashes of it, but that’s it. Flashes. And this is on the Yankees. They misevaluated him and they put the contract in front of him. Ellsbury did what anyone in that situation would do. He took the massive payday. Ellsbury is eating up precious luxury tax payroll space and tying up a roster spot because the Yankees screwed up, plain and simple.

The recent benchings suggest the Yankees are beginning to acknowledge that screw up, and won’t let it continue to hurt them. The contract is a sunk cost. The Yankees are paying it no matter what. That doesn’t mean they have to play him though. Ellsbury is not in the lineup because he doesn’t belong in the lineup. The Yankees have better players available. Does Joe Girardi want to sit Ellsbury? No. Of course not. It’s an uncomfortable situation. But he’s done it before. Ellsbury sat in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game in 2015, remember.

“I am going with the hot hand … Clint is playing well and I will keep using him,” said Girardi to George King over the weekend. “It’s tough to tell a player who has had a really good career that you are going with someone who is younger and has the hot hand. That is never an easy conversation, but it is part of the game. The big thing is that we aren’t saying it’s permanent, but when (Ellsbury) gets his chances, it’s important he plays well.”

Given Ellsbury’s recent benchings and the fact the Yankees have two oh so awesome young outfielders in Frazier and Aaron Judge, it’s only natural to think this is beginning of the end of Ellsbury’s tenure in pinstripes. It’s not impossible to come back from this, but it doesn’t happen often with players Ellsbury’s age. Step one is getting benched. Step two is getting pushed out the door. How will that happen? There are four possibilities, realistically:

  1. Release Ellsbury and eat the $80M or so left on his contract. Not happening. Maybe if there were one year left on his contract, but three? Nope.
  2. Trade Ellsbury in a bad contract for bad contract swap that gives the Yankees a player who better fits their roster, like a starting pitcher.
  3. Eat a bunch of money and trade Ellsbury for fringe prospects. A straight salary dump. Save whatever money you can and go from there.
  4. Attach Ellsbury to a top prospect as a way to get another team to take on a big chunk of his contract in a trade. I don’t see this happening.

The Yankees would trade Ellsbury today if it were at all possible. It’s not though. Any team looking for an outfielder would presumably turn to a cheap rental like, say, Jay Bruce. The plan to trade Ellsbury figures to begin in earnest in the offseason, when the Yankees will have more time to negotiate and perhaps more financial flexibility. The problem then is that there will lots of other outfielders available as a free agents. Outfielders like Ellsbury aren’t hard to find. What can you do? The Yankees put themselves in this situation and they’ll deal with the consequences.

As poorly as the last month or so has gone for the Yankees overall, they are very clearly a team on the rise with a lot of exciting young talent. Think about it, how long have we waited for the farm system to produce one difference-maker like Judge? Since Robinson Cano, basically. Now the Yankees have Judge and Frazier and Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino. And there’s more coming! There’s still a lot of work to be done for the Yankees to make the jump from fringe contender to World Series threat, but man, they are set up really well right now.

Ellsbury is not part of the long-term solution. I mean, I suppose he could make that one mechanical change that turns his entire game around a la Curtis Granderson in 2010, but the chances of that happening are so small. We haven’t seen nearly enough of the good Ellsbury over the years, and now that he’s approaching his mid-30s, it is increasingly unlikely we will see the good Ellsbury for a meaningful length of time. The Yankees have too many quality young players to keep Ellsbury in the lineup, and his recent benchings are an indication are preparing to move on.

Thoughts six days before the 2017 trade deadline

The best photo. (Presswire)
The best photo. (Presswire)

The Yankees are finally back home after the All-Star break and that long road trip. Tonight they’ll open a nine-game homestand with the first of two against the Reds. Four of those nine games are against the Rays. That’s a pretty darn big series by late-July standards. The Yankees and Rays are neck-and-neck in the standings. Anyway, I have some thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. The trade deadline is six days away now and rotation help is, pretty darn clearly, the top priority for the Yankees. I expect them to bring in a starter. Maybe only a low cost rental, but someone. Beyond a starter, I hope the Yankees also go out and add another bat at first base. Matt Holliday hasn’t hit at all since coming back from his illness, and at his age, there’s always a chance this is the beginning of the end. Another first baseman would also allow the Yankees to scale back on Todd Frazier and Chase Headley as their performance warrants. Headley’s been hitting well of late, but what if he slips into another deep slump? Also, a new first baseman would mean more lineup depth and less reliance on Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, two kids in their first long 162-game MLB season. Adding another first baseman, particularly a left-handed hitter, makes way too much sense to me. I prefer Yonder Alonso but Lucas Duda would work too. And because basically no other contender needs a first baseman or designated hitter, the Yankees are in position to sit back and let the market come to them before the deadline. They can make an lowball offer, and whoever accepts it first, gets it. The alternative for the A’s and Mets is losing their rental first baseman for nothing as free agent after the season. Neither Alonso nor Duda is a qualifying offer candidate. Not with how slowly the first base market moved last offseason. They’d both jump all over the qualifying offer. That works to the Yankees’ advantage. Adding a first baseman strikes me as one of those things that, if the Yankees don’t get it done before the deadline, we’ll be wishing they did.

2. Speaking of Headley and Frazier, right now I think the Yankees have their defensive assignments backwards. Headley should be at third and Frazier should be at first. Frazier is a better third baseman than Headley, at least statistically, but not by much. Not enough to negate the big defensive downgrade at first. We’ve already seen Headley’s inexperience at first base cost the Yankees a run. Friday night he ranged too far to his right to field a ground ball he should have let the second baseman handle, then missed the bag when he had to rush back. Frazier has much more experience at first base and is less likely to screw something up. Headley’s throwing has been fine for weeks now, and his range is sneaky good at third, particularly to his right. I say go with two players at positions they’re familiar with rather than one guy at a position he’s familiar with and another who is crashing coursing at a new position. Headley’s inexperience at first base has already cost the Yankees one run. They don’t want it to happen again. Let the guy with plenty of first base experience play first base.

3. Is it possible changes to the baseball are to blame for Masahiro Tanaka‘s struggles? I don’t necessarily mean the ball being juiced and flying out of the park. Research by Ben Lindbergh and Mitchell Lichtman showed the balls being used this year are not the same as the balls being used in the past based on several criteria. One of them is the height of the seams. The seams are not raised as much. Not to get super nerdy, but the seams are what make a pitch move. There’s a friction between the seams and the air molecules. Change the size and shape of the seams and you’re going to change the way the ball moves. Could the smaller seams explain why so many more of Tanaka’s splitters and sliders have hung up this year? I suppose it’s possible. It seems unlikely though. The difference in the seams isn’t that big. I was just reading something about the balls being juiced the other day and that popped in my head. Tanaka relies on his non-fastballs so much that anything that could change the flight of the ball could have a big impact on his performance.

So glad he's back. (Presswire)
So glad he’s back. (Presswire)

4. I think my favorite thing about the new-look bullpen — aside from the general awesomeness and added depth — is that it is basically Joe Girardi proof. Girardi assigns his relievers specific innings and rarely deviates from that plan, for better or worse. There have been too many instances over the years in which someone other than the team’s best reliever (i.e. Dellin Betances) was on the mound in a crucial situation because it wasn’t that reliever’s inning. How many seventh inning leads or tie games slipped away earlier this year because it was Tyler Clippard‘s inning? Too many. Now, that’s not a problem. Betances, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman are all more than qualified for high-leverage work. As long as it’s late in the game and the score is reasonably close, one of those guys will be on the mound, and that’s great. They’ll still have their assigned innings, whatever they are, and it won’t really matter because they’re all really good. The bullpen is assigned innings proof.

5. There’s been lots of talk these last few weeks about the Yankees’ record in one-run games. They’re 9-19 in one-run games so far this year, the second worst one-run game winning percentage in baseball. Only the rebuilding Phillies have been worse. While one-run losses are pretty damn annoying, one-run games are largely coin flip games that aren’t a particularly good measure of a team’s true talent level. Bill James has written a ton about that over the years. One-run games are often decided by one mistake pitch, or a second baseman making too slow a turn to complete a double play, or an umpire’s tight strike zone. Things like that. The unspoken narrative seems to be that teams that win a lot one-run games have better execution and are tougher. Would it have been better if Clint Frazier hit a two-run double instead of a three-run walk-off homer against the Brewers, giving the Yankees a one-run win? Or how about Chapman not stranding the runner at third Sunday? Let that man score and the team’s record in one-run games improves! No, of course that’s not better. A team’s record in games decided by three or more runs better reflects their talent, and this year the Yankees are 46-22 in games decided by at least three runs. All those 19 one-run losses tell you is that the Yankees have been one swing away in more than 40% of their losses this year. When they win, they tend to win with several runs to spare. And when they lose, it’s often a winnable game that is within reach.

6. It was a really minor trade that most likely won’t amount to much of anything, though I did find it kinda interesting the Yankees targeted a first baseman in the Rob Refsnyder deal. The Yankees got caught with their pants down a bit at first base this year. They’ve got Headley starting there now. A few weeks ago Austin Romine — Austin Romine! — started three straight games at the position. Ji-Man Choi was the starter for a little while. They had to go out and trade for a guy like Garrett Cooper. The Yankees don’t want all this to happen again. Greg Bird and Tyler Austin have had a tough time staying healthy the last few seasons, plus first base is a weak spot throughout the organization, so the Yankees are adding some depth there. Remember, Cooper and Austin could very well lose their 40-man roster spots as part of the roster crunch this winter, which means they could be out of the organization come next Spring Training. That’s not an issue with Ryan McBroom, the guy the Yankees got for Refsnyder. He’s the kinda player you want to already have in your organization so you don’t have to scramble after an injury like the Yankees have so many times this season.

DotF: Sensley crushes two homers in Pulaski’s loss

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the standings, so let’s do that today. The minor league regular season ends in roughly six weeks, so the affiliates are entering crunch time in the various postseason races. Here are the day’s notes:

  • LHP Justus Sheffield (oblique) has resumed some exercises but is still not throwing, reports Sean Miller. There’s a chance Sheffield will return before the end of the season, though the Yankees aren’t going to rush it. My guess is the Yankees will send him to Arizona Fall League to make up for the lost innings.
  • Also from Miller: RHP Domingo Acevedo is nearing his innings limit and will have his starts capped from here on out. “Acevedo can only go five from now on,” said Double-A Trenton manager Bobby Mitchell. Acevedo has thrown a 108 innings this year after throwing 93 last year.
  • C Kyle Higashioka (back) received a cortisone shot recently and is doing better, according to D.J. Eberle. He’s been out a month now. With Higashioka sidelined, veteran journeyman C Eddy Rodriguez is the No. 3 catcher by default. I wonder if the Yankees will make a small deal for a depth catcher at some point.
  • RHP Freicer Perez was in this week’s Monday Morning Ten Pack (subs. req’d). “While Perez does have the tools to be a potential starter, his lack of workable secondaries makes it more likely that his future lies as a high-leverage reliever … Perez has the ceiling of a quality middle reliever because of his ability to pump his fastball to plus-plus velo,” says the write-up.
  • OF Jake Cave was named the Triple-A International League Offensive Player of the Week. He went 15-for-26 (.577) with two doubles and two homers last week. I wonder whether Cave has played himself into some trade value this year. Usually the answer is no in these cases. Any team could have had Cave and kept him as a two-time Rule 5 Draft over the winter, but they all passed.

Triple-A Scranton (3-2 loss to Norfolk) they’re 63-38 and have a 1.5 game lead in the North Division

  • CF Mason Williams: 0-4, 1 BB, 2 K
  • LF Jake Cave: 2-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — 20-for-37 (.541) with two doubles and three homers during his ten-game hitting streak
  • 3B Miguel Andujar: 1-4, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K — first game as a dad
  • DH Billy McKinney: 2-5, 1 RBI, 1 K
  • RHP Domingo German: 2.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 1/0 GB/FB — 37 of 62 pitches were strikes (60%) … he spent a lot of time sitting in the big league bullpen as the eighth reliever, so they have to get him stretched back out now
  • RHP J.P. Feyereisen: 2.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 2/1 GB/FB — 38 of 62 pitches were strikes (61%) … 62 pitches? wonder if they’re stretching him out or something
  • LHP Chasen Shreve: 1.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0/2 GB/FB — 20 of 30 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Monday Night Open Thread

The Yankees flew back home last night following their long eleven games in ten days road trip, and today they enjoyed an off-day. Off-days always feel good coming off a win, especially a series win. Anyway, with no Yankees baseball tonight, I recommend checking out Kevin Kernan’s piece on the budding bromance between Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier. I’m so glad those two are Yankees. They’re so much fun.

Here is the open thread for the night. The Mets are out on the West Coast and ESPN is showing the Rockies and Cardinals. That’s about it. Talk about those games, Judge and Frazier, or anything else that isn’t religion or politics right here.

The Yankees reportedly checked in on Giancarlo Stanton and it’s not as crazy as you may think

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees have checked in with the Marlins about slugger Giancarlo Stanton. The two sides aren’t close to a deal and it’s unclear how serious the Yankees are about a potential trade. This could have been a due diligence thing. That said, the Marlins are selling and the team itself is in the process of being sold, so it stands to reason everyone is available. It never hurts to listen, right? Right.

Stanton, 27, is hitting .271/.356/.578 (137 wRC+) with 30 home runs this season, most among all non-Aaron Judge hitters in the big leagues. He’s right smack in the prime of his career and he’s averaged 45 home runs per 162 games since Opening Day 2014. The guy is a monster. He’s also owed $295M from 2018-27. Goodness. The contract includes an opt-out after 2020, though Stanton would be leaving $218M on the table by walking away. Opting out is far from a guarantee, even if he continues to stay healthy and play well.

There’s a few interesting angles to the reported Stanton interest. For starters, the Yankees seem to be pretty well set on the outfield corners going forward with Judge and Clint Frazier. They’re definitely set in right field. We know that much. The jury is still out on Frazier, as impressive as he’s been early in his MLB career. I suppose there’s also the designated hitter spot, though tying that up with a big money player signed long-term isn’t a great idea (See: Rodriguez, Alex).

Secondly, Stanton’s contract would hurt the team’s chances to get under the luxury tax threshold next season. The original 13-year, $325M contract came with a $25M average annual value and luxury tax hit. That’s not the luxury tax hit the Yankees would assume, however. They’d take on a luxury tax hit closer to $30M once you adjust for the timing of the trade, assuming they didn’t change the calculation in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement.

And third, the Yankees would have to give up some pretty damn good prospects to get Stanton. The Marlins are not going to take okay-ish prospects in a straight salary dump. It would be shameful. MLB should just fold the franchise if that happens. If the Marlins are going to trade Stanton, literally the greatest player in franchise history and someone who is still in the prime of his career, they’re going to do it because they get blown away with an offer.

My guess is the Yankees checked in because they check in on everyone, and hey, there’s always a chance the Marlins offer Stanton on favorable terms. You’ve got to ask to find out. That all said, what about looking at this through the Bryce Harper lens? Harper, another prime-aged superstar, will be a free agent after next season and the Yankees are expected to be very involved. Players that good and that young are hard to find. You go all-out to get them.

Harper is going to smash contract records and will almost certainly be the first $40M per season player in baseball history. He might get a $500M contract. It’s very possible. Compared to Harper’s upcoming contract, taking on Stanton at $295M from 2018-27 could be a downright bargain. Harper is the better player, but is he $10M+ per year better? Peak Harper and peak Stanton might not be so different, and peak Stanton is available right now (in theory).

I don’t think the Yankees have serious interest in Stanton right now. I think they made the call because they make every call. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. Ultimately, I think the luxury tax plan and keeping the top prospects is too important to swing a Stanton trade right now. Harper will cost a ton of money, but it is just money, and the Yankees have plenty of it. They could wait a year to sign Harper for nothing but cash whereas Stanton costs money and prospects.

Yankeemetrics: The curse is over (July 20-23)

(AP)
(AP)

Ace Sevy
Back in Pacfic time zone where their current collapse began more than a month ago, the Yankees took the first step towards pulling out of the tailspin with a 4-1 win over the Mariners on Thursday.

If there is one west coast locale where the Yankees might be able to right the ship, it would be Seattle. They entered this series 49-28 all-time at Safeco Field, the best record by any team in the history of the stadium. The Yankees had won six straight series at the park, their longest active road series win streak against an AL club, and hadn’t dropped a series there since 2011.

Luis Severino dazzled in the matchup with Felix Hernandez, outdueling the Mariners longtime ace with seven brilliant shutout innings. It was his seventh start of at least seven innings and no more than one run allowed this season. The only other guys in the majors that matched that number through Thursday were Max Scherzer (7) and Clayton Kershaw (10).

It was also his third scoreless start of at least seven innings, an impressive feat for the 23-year-old pitcher. In the last 50 years, the only other Yankee as young as Severino with three or more scoreless starts of seven-plus innings in a season was Dave Righetti in 1981.

He dominated with a blazing fastball that averaged 98.3 mph, per Statcast, his highest average fastball velocity in any start in his career. Severino also tied his career-high with 10 whiffs on his fastball, and his four-seamer swinging strike rate of 19.6 percent was his highest in any of his 41 major-league starts. As you can see in the chart below, he was bringing the high heat, with all 10 of those swinging fastball strikes coming on pitches above the letters:

severino-whiffs

The hitting hero of the night was Brett Gardner, who broke a scoreless tie in the sixth inning with a solo shot to right field. Gardner finished the night 1-for-3 vs. King Felix, and is now hitting .361 against him, the third-highest batting average among the 53 guys that have faced him at least 40 times. The two ahead of Gardner? Mike Trout (.367) and David Ortiz (.410).

(Getty)
(Getty)

Best birthday present ever
Baseball has its share of small-sample-size statistical quirks and one of the oddest is the fact that CC Sabathia entered Friday’s game 0-3 with a 6.99 ERA in five starts on his birthday.

The baseball gods, though, were in Sabathia’s favor on Friday night as he finally broke his birthday curse against the Mariners. He was in vintage form, grinding through five innings, allowing seven baserunners but yielding just one run. Let’s run through some notable #FunFacts in honor of CC’s sweet birthday victory:

  • first Yankee starter to earn a win on his birthday since Joe Cowley in 1984 against the Mariners
  • first Yankee starter to allow one run or fewer on his birthday since Ron Guidry in 1981
  • And, at age 37, Sabathia is the oldest Yankee pitcher to win on his birthday since a 37-year-old Red Ruffing in 1942

Aaron Judge delivered the best birthday present ever to Sabathia in the fifth inning, when he ended in his 10-game homerless drought in style by clobbering a monstrous homer into the last rows of the upper deck in left field.

It was hit so high, so far … that it broke Statcast, literally, as MLB’s sophisticated measurement system didn’t spit out any numbers for the distance or exit velocity. We do know that the pitch he clobbered was a 76.3 mph curveball, the slowest pitch he’s hit for a home run in his career.

So close, yet so far away
It was too good to be true. Riding an actual winning streak and with a chance to clinch a series win on Saturday night, the Yankees got stung with another frustrating loss in Seattle. They rallied twice — erasing 4-1 and 5-4 deficits to tie the game — but never were able to take the lead, and lost 6-5 in heart-breaking fashion on Nelson Cruz’s game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the 10th.

Let’s dig deeper into this recent stretch of excruciating late-inning close losses:

The Yankees fell to 9-19 in games decided by one run, the second-worst record in the Majors and tied for the second-most losses through Saturday. The only team worse in both stats is the Phillies at 11-26. Fifteen of those 19 losses have come on the road, and an unfathomable 14 of them have been against teams with a .500 record or worse — a number that leads all of MLB after Saturday’s slate.

And, of course, the one-run losses have really been piling up over the last two months. They’ve lost 14 of their last 16 games decided by a run dating back to May 29 — so, after some quick math, they were 7-5 in one-run games for the first two months of the season and are 2-14 over the last two months.

Saturday was their fifth walk-off loss, one more than last year. All five have come since June 13, the most suffered by any team in that span. And three have been on the west coast, one each in Seattle, Anaheim and Oakland. Strange but true: this is just the second time ever they’ve lost walk-off games to each of them in the same season (it also happened in 2006).

Even in the depressing loss, Aaron Judge was still doing Aaron Judge things. He crushed a 396-foot home run to right field, showing off his ridiculous oppo-field power. Ridiculous is actually an understatement. After Saturday’s game, he was slugging 1.140 to the opposite field, easily the highest in baseball among qualified hitters. For reference, the league slugging percentage on balls hit to the opposite field is .474. Holy moly, what a beautiful hit spray chart:

aaron-judge-3

Streaks are meant to be broken
See yaaaaaaa …. The Yankees finally ended their torturous month-plus baseball nightmare and won their first series since June 9-11. They snapped a 10-series winless streak, their longest since August/September 1991, just weeks before Stump Merrill was fired.

And thankfully I don’t have to tweet this stat again:

Brett Gardner got the offensive fireworks started early with his third leadoff homer of the season, and you could almost smell a victory dance … entering Sunday, the Yankees were 13-0 when Gardy went yardy. Didi Gregorius added two solo dingers for his first career multi-homer game, putting the Yankees up 3-0.

#FunFact alert: Didi is the first Yankee shortstop to hit two or more homers against the Mariners.

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Mariners soon erased that lead, but the Comeback Kids struck again. Unlike Saturday, this time they were able to complete the rally. Clint Frazier‘s bases-loaded double in the sixth inning broke a 4-4 tie and made sure the Yankees plane ride back east would be a happy one.

That was Frazier’s second go-ahead hit in the sixth inning or later this season, or two more than Jacoby Ellsbury has in 2017. Following Sunday’s game, Frazier now has 11 extra-base hits in 61 at-bats this season, or just two fewer than Ellsbury has in 197 at-bats.

Thanks to his game-winning two-base hit, Frazier also earns our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series: He has a double in three straight games, the youngest Yankee outfielder to do that since Mickey Mantle in 1953.

Scouting The Trade Market: Lance Lynn

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

The 2017 non-waiver trade deadline is exactly one week away, and already the Yankees have swung a pretty significant seven-player trade with the White Sox that, more than anything, added high-end depth to the bullpen. I know Todd Frazier is the biggest name, but that trade was about Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson. Adding those two has already paid dividends.

With the bullpen addressed, the single biggest item left on the shopping list is a starting pitcher. Michael Pineda is done for the season and Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, and Caleb Smith have combined to start three of the last seven games. No one wants that to continue. Getting another starter is a top priority. You don’t make that trade with the ChiSox only to skimp on the rotation.

One rental starter who could possibly be available prior to the trade deadline is Cardinals righty Lance Lynn. St. Louis isn’t have a great season overall (47-51), though they’re only 4.5 games back in the NL Central, and I don’t think it’s in their DNA to throw in the towel and sell. Lynn being available is far from certain. It’ll probably take a bad week this week. Let’s see whether Lynn is the fit for the Yankees in case the Cardinals do decide trade him away.

Current Stuff

So far this season the 30-year-old Lynn has a 3.30 ERA (4.97 FIP) in 20 starts and 114.2 innings. His strikeout (21.5%) and walk (8.3%) rates are about average, though Lynn has always been fly ball prone (42.9% grounders), and these days that means lots of homers (1.65 HR/9). He’s either going to have to start keeping the ball in the park or continue stranding runners at an above-average 82.4% clip, otherwise that ERA is going up.

As a starter Lynn has always been Bartolo Colon-esque in that he lives and dies with his fastball. So far this season 92.2% of his pitches have been some type of fastball. Either a four-seamer, sinker, or cutter. Here is his pitch selection since moving into the rotation full-time in 2012, via Brooks Baseball:

lance-lynn-pitch-selection

So many fastballs. Sooo many fastballs. And hey, that’s fine. Throwing that many fastballs can work. It has for Lynn for years. He has good velocity (low-90s and touches 96), he can locate, and he mixes in enough changeups and curveballs to keep hitters honest.

Also, keep in mind Lynn is not throwing one fastball over and over. It’s three different fastballs. A straight four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter. One stays true, one dives down, and another cuts in. Hitters see a lot of fastballs, though they don’t know which direction they’re heading. It’s not like Lynn is throwing four-seamer after four-seamer, you know?

Here’s a pretty good example of how Lynn uses those three different fastballs. The hitters do not look comfortable because those heaters are moving in all different directions.

Lynn missed the entire 2016 season with Tommy John surgery and he’s come back this year showing basically the same stuff. His velocity is down about half-a-mile an hour from 2015, though it’s not uncommon for a pitcher his age to loss a little something off their fastball over a two-year span, elbow reconstruction or otherwise. Lynn’s stuff is fine. He’s unconventional because he throws so many fastballs, but it works.

Injury History

Like I said, Lynn missed last season with Tommy John surgery. He also missed two months with an oblique strain way back in 2011, which is no big deal. Lynn averaged 189 innings a year from 2012-15 and maxed out at 203.2 innings in 2014, so before his elbow gave out, he was a workhorse. Acquiring a pitcher so soon after Tommy John surgery is inherently risky. There’s no reason to believe Lynn is riskier than any other pitcher in his first full year back from elbow reconstruction.

What Would It Take?

The Cardinals bought out Lynn’s arbitration years with a three-year extension worth $22M back in January 2015. This is the final guaranteed year on the contract — he’s making $7.5M this season — and Lynn will be a free agent after the season. He’s a rental.

I do think the Cardinals would make Lynn the qualifying offer after the season. Getting him back on an expensive one-year deal isn’t the worst thing in the world, and besides, Lynn would probably decline it. He could secure more total dollars on a multi-year deal, though the point is the Cardinals are in position to demand a greater return than the draft pick they’d receive after the season.

Last week I ran through other recent rental starter trades, and based on the benchmarks, the Cardinals shouldn’t have any trouble getting two good prospects for Lynn. Not top prospects like Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier, but good prospects. Someone from the Tyler Wade/Chance Adams/Dillon Tate pool. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Guys like Lynn don’t come that cheap.

Does He Make Sense?

Aside from Yu Darvish, Lynn is probably the best rental available at the trade deadline, assuming he is actually made available at some point. The Cardinals could rip off a bunch of wins this week and decide to keep Lynn and go for it. That’s probably what they’d prefer to do. Also, keep in mind the Cardinals traded lefty Marco Gonzales last week, so they’re down one layer of rotation depth. They might not want to trade even more pitching.

Two things to consider here. One, the Yankees probably really like Lynn’s postseason experience and the fact he was part of the World Series winning team with the Cardinals in 2011. And two, the Yankees don’t rely on the fastball, as Tom Verducci recently wrote. Would they acquire a pitcher who lives and dies with his heater when their team philosophy is to pitch backwards? Perhaps the different look wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Anyway, yes, Lynn makes sense for the Yankees because they have a rotation opening and he’s better than the Mitchells and Cessas and Smiths of the world. They have plenty of prospects to trade, so it’s not like the trade would cripple their farm system. The biggest issue here is outside the Yankees’ control: will the Cardinals sell? I don’t think they want too, and they can justify keeping Lynn given their place in the standings.