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.

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.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Yankees fans, here is your daily opportunity for outrage: David Robertson told Chuck Garfien he expects the White Sox to be better than the Yankees this coming season. “I think so. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that … We’ve got a great squad right now. I’m looking forward to know the guys and seeing how they perform out there,” said D-Rob. I don’t know about you, but I was totally expecting Robertson to tell the media he thinks his old team is better than his new team. The nerve of some guys, you know?

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers, Islanders, and Knicks are all playing, and I’m sure there’s some college basketball on somewhere. Talk about those games, Robertson’s unwillingness to diss his new team, or anything else right here.

Kyodo: “So far so good” for Tanaka during offseason workouts

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

Pitchers and catchers are three weeks and one day away from reporting to Spring Training (!), which means the Masahiro Tanaka Elbow Watch will soon be in full swing. The Yankees lost their ace for three months last season due to a small tear in his UCL, though doctors recommended rest and rehab rather than Tommy John surgery.

Given the history of the rehab approach, it feels like it’s only a matter of time until Tanaka’s elbow gives out completely. It could be in Spring Training, in June, or in 2020. It has not happened this offseason, however. Tanaka has been working out as usual all winter and he told Kyodo everything is going well. “So far so good — including that (the elbow),” he said.

Tanaka is back home in Japan and he’s been working out with former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates at the club’s training facility. Kyodo says Tanaka has been doing the usual — running sprints, fielding drills, etc. — in addition to his offseason throwing program, which includes breaking balls. This isn’t high intensity, game action type of throwing, that stuff usually doesn’t happen until Spring Training, but he is throwing nonetheless.

Tanaka’s health is the biggest x-factor or the 2015 Yankees. He’s a difference-maker when healthy — easily the best pitcher in the AL East and one of the top four or five in the entire AL — and staying on the mound would improve the team’s outlook greatly. We’re all going to be holding our breath every start (hell, every pitch) though. That’s just the reality of the situation.

Passan: Yoan Moncada could be cleared to sign within two weeks

(ObstructedView.net)
(ObstructedView.net)

Free agent Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada has not yet been cleared to sign by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, but there is growing hope he will be allowed to sign within two weeks, reports Jeff Passan. Moncada has already established residency in Guatemala and has been declared a free agent by MLB. Once he gets OFAC clearance, he can officially sign a contract.

However, as Ben Badler and Jesse Sanchez report, MLB currently requires Cuban players to receive a “specific license” before signing, not a “general license.” The league has accepted general licenses in the past — Yasiel Puig signed using a general license — but they changed their policy within the last few years. According to Badler and Sanchez, Moncada already meets the requirements for a general license. If he has to wait for a specific license, forget about the two weeks thing.

Earlier this week, MLB sent each team a memo stating their policies remain the same. They still require players to receive a specific license, though they are working to OFAC to clarify whether a general license is sufficient. Here’s the memo, courtesy of Sanchez:

“MLB is aware that the Cuban Assets Control Regulations published by the U.S. Treasury on January 16, 2015, may affect the unblocking process for Cuban Players,” Major League Baseball said in a statement earlier in the day. “MLB has important questions regarding how the new regulations apply to the unique circumstances of Cuban Players based on our significant experience in this area, and our discussions with OFAC in prior years. MLB is committed to following the laws of the United States, and will not change its policy requiring that Cuban Players receive a specific OFAC unblocking license until it confirms with all relevant branches of our government, including OFAC, that any new approach is consistent with the law. We hope to receive clarity on this issue as quickly as possible.”

So anyway, this is a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. MLB decided they wanted players to have the specific license a few years ago even though the OFAC’s policies say it isn’t necessary. Moncada doesn’t have the general license just yet but he does meet the requirements, so he could receive it at any moment. Hence the two weeks thing. But, since MLB wants the specific license, he may have to wait longer.

As far as the Yankees are concerned, the deadline for Moncada to be unblocked by the OFAC — in a way that satisfies MLB — is June 15th. (It really is sometime before that because the two sides need time to negotiate.) Because the Yankees exceeded their spending pool for the 2014-15 international signing period, they can’t sign a player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. If Moncada signs before June 15th, he’ll count towards the 2014-15 signing period and they can sign him for whatever they want. If not, he’ll count towards 2015-16 and $300,000 ain’t getting it done.

The expectation is that Moncada will receive a $30M to $40M bonus, which would smash the record for a player bound by the new international spending rules (Yoan Lopez, $8.25M). His bonus will be taxed at 100% no matter which team signs him because they will exceed their pool, so he’s a $60M to $80M investment. Moncada will be like any other young international amateur signing — he gets his bonus up front, then goes into the farm system as a non-40-man roster player. Once he reaches MLB, he’ll go through three pre-arbitration years and three arbitration years like everyone else.

By all accounts, the 19-year-old Moncada is a budding star, a switch-hitter with power and speed and high-end athleticism. The Yankees had him in for a private workout at some point recently, as did the Red Sox, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Rangers and Brewers, according to Sanchez. The Rays, Cubs, Phillies, and Cardinals also have interest in Moncada, though it’s worth noting the Cubs exceeded their spending pool last year and would need Moncada to wait until after July 2nd — the start of the 2015-16 signing period — to sign him.

The Yankees are considered the “heavy favorites” to sign Moncada even though they haven’t signed a big name Cuban player since Jose Contreras. Moncada’s talent is obvious — assuming the scouting reports are accurate, of course — and since he’s still only 19, he’s a potential franchise cornerstone type of player. And there’s also plenty of time for his development to veer off course as well. That’s the reality of the situation. At this point, I’m just ready for this whole thing to be over. I have Moncada (and Cuban player in general) fatigue.

Judge and Bird crack Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list

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

Over at ESPN, Keith Law released his list of the top 100 prospects in baseball today (subs. req’d). Cubs 3B Kris Bryant claimed the top spot, with Twins OF Byron Buxton and Astros SS Carlos Correa rounding out the top three. The Yankees had two players in the top 100: OF Aaron Judge (No. 23) and 1B Greg Bird (No. 80). Law’s list might be the only top 100 that includes Bird this spring.

“Judge has a short swing, surprisingly so given the length of his arms, and very strong command of the strike zone … he should be able to hit 30 without needing to get bigger or stronger,” wrote Law while more or less saying Judge’s biggest flaw is that he hasn’t yet learned when to really cut it loose and tap into his huge raw power. “He’s an above-average defender in right, faster than you’d expect, with the arm to profile there and the potential to post strong triple-slash numbers if he can make that one big adjustment.”

As for Bird, Law says he is a “high-IQ hitter with outstanding plate discipline and understanding of how to work a pitcher, giving reason to think he’ll continue to post high OBPs even though he’ll probably hit only .250-260 with a lot of strikeouts.” He also notes Bird makes “hard contact to all fields, rarely putting the ball on the ground because he squares it up so frequently.” As always, the concern with Bird is his defense at first and his lingering back issues, which forced him out from behind the plate a few years ago. Some of his defensive trouble is due to a lack of experience, some is due to a lack of athleticism.

Judge ranks third among all outfielders (behind Buxton and Cubs OF Jorge Soler) and Bird ranks third among all first baseman (behind Mariners 1B D.J. Peterson and Mets 1B Dominic Smith). The most notable omission from Law’s list is RHP Luis Severino, who will undoubtedly show up on (all) other top 100 lists this spring. Law has said repeatedly that he loves Severino’s arm but believes he is destined for the bullpen long-term because of his delivery and the fact that he doesn’t use his lower half all that much. Law seems to be the low man on Severino and the high man on both Judge and Bird.

In addition to the top 100, Law also posted his annual farm system rankings earlier this week (subs. req’d). The Cubs claimed the top spot and the Tigers the No. 30 spot. The Yankees ranked 20th, exactly the same as last year. “The Yankees’ system still has more talent than production, as several key prospects continued to have trouble staying on the field, but a very strong 2013 draft class and a blowout year on the international front have the system trending up again,” said the write-up. With two first round picks this June and that massive international haul set to debut this summer, it’s all but guaranteed the Yankees will climb the system rankings this year.