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2014 Yankees ZiPS Projections

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If you’re interested, Dan Szymborski published his ZiPS projections for the current Yankees roster over at FanGraphs today. The graphic above includes the WAR projections. Just to be clear, projections are not predictions. The system is just spitting out an estimation of each players’ current talent level. I wouldn’t take the projections to heart even though ZiPS has been the most accurate of the various systems (on a macro scale) for a while now. Just look at ‘em for fun.

Some quick observations: Holy cow that infield is awful. ZiPS has Ellsbury hitting 14 homers, which would be awesome. The system likes Dean Anna and J.R. Murphy (both 1.6 WAR) but hates Brett Marshall (-3.1 WAR (!)). I wonder if any other player projects that poorly. After David Robertson, the current bullpen is just about replacement level or worse. ZiPS thinks Derek Jeter is toast (0.4 WAR) while Alex Rodriguez has a tiny something left in the tank (1.0 WAR).

As the disclaimer in the ZiPS post says, don’t add up the projected WAR total and use that to come up with an expected 2014 win total. The system doesn’t work like that. If it did, the Yankees would be pretty screwed. Click the link to scroll through the individual projections if you’re so inclined.

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A real catcher. (Maddie Meyer/Getty)

Hooray, a real catcher. (Maddie Meyer/Getty)

Boy have things changed since we last looked at the Yankees’ payroll situation. They lost Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson to free agency but responded with four significant signings (plus one smaller one) of their own. There was also the non-tender deadline, which brought about some change. These last few weeks have been quite busy for the Bombers.

Needless to say, the chances of the Yankees staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold next season have taken a big hit. The team has been talking about staying under the threshold (at every opportunity, it seemed) for a good two years now, plus just about every move they made was geared towards achieving that goal. Just look at the way they structured the money in the Vernon Wells trade last spring.

Here is an updated look at the team’s payroll situation heading into next season. These are “luxury tax hits,” not actual 2014 salary. The two can be different. For reference, here are Part One (January), Part Two (August), and Part Three (November) of the series.

Yes, Kuroda’s translator counts against the luxury tax, at least according to Dan Martin and Ken Davidoff. I know, it’s silly, but it is what it is. Eight-five grand doesn’t sound like much, but it is one month’s worth of the league minimum salary. That means one fewer September call-up if the team wants to stay under the luxury tax threshold. Like I said, silly.

Anyway, add the guys under contract to the arbitration eligibles to the possible bonuses to the “other” and you get $212.995M. The 15 guys on the 40-man roster — there are 41 players listed above because the Beltran deal is not official yet, but they will have to make a move to accommodate him once the deal is final — but not on the active 25-man roster are usually estimated at $2-5M, so let’s use the high end and go with $5M. Now we’re up to $217.995M. The Bombers opened this past season at $228.1M and ended it at $236.2M, in case you’re wondering.

Obviously, the Yankees are not getting under the threshold without A-Rod getting suspended for all of next season. Not unless they trade Teixeira and Ichiro or something. Subtract out Alex’s salary and homer bonus and we’re down to $184.495M. Basically $4.5M under the luxury tax. Feel comfortable saying Jeter won’t win the MVP? I think that’s a safe assumption — he hasn’t won an MVP yet and is now coming off what amounts to a lost season at age 39. Eliminating the “win MVP” bonus from his contract frees up another $4M and brings us down to $180.495M.

What does that $180.495M buy the Yankees? Here is the projected 25-man roster as of right now:

Catcher Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
McCann 1B Teixeira LF Gardner Sabathia Robertson
2B Johnson or ? CF Ellsbury Kuroda Kelley
DH SS Jeter RF Beltran/Soriano Nova ? (Warren)
 Beltran/Soriano 3B Johnson or ? ? (Phelps) ? (Huff)
? ? (Betances)
Bench ?
C Cervelli OF Ichiro ?
IF Ryan OF Wells

There are eight total ?s but we can eliminate four with internal solutions. Those are the guys in parentheses. Phelps, Warren, Huff, and Betances — Huff and Betances are both out of minor league options (can’t go to Triple-A without passing through waivers) and that could give them a leg up when cut day comes around at the end of camp — will all earn something close to the league minimum, so that’s another $2.2M or so spent right there with four ?s still to be answered.

I assume those four ?s will go to veteran players yet to be acquired. That would be ideal, anyway. I guess they could go with Cabral and Clairborne for those final two bullpen spots, or maybe re-sign Matt Daley, but that would be a really sketchy relief corps behind Robertson. The Yankees would have just $6.305M to fill those four holes ($189M – $180.495M – $2.2M), which isn’t much. A big name starting pitcher like Masahiro Tanaka or Matt Garza or whoever isn’t happening without going over the threshold. Ditto Omar Infante. We’re talking $6.305M for a second/third baseman, a starter, and two relievers. Plus they’ll need to leave a little something for midseason call-ups and additions. Gonna be tight.

I see only three ways the Yankees could realistically trim payroll. They could dump Cervelli and replace him with the cheaper Romine or Murphy, but if they were going to do that, they would have non-tendered Frankie last week. That would only save about $450k anyway. The other two ways to clear some payroll space are by trading Gardner and/or Ichiro. There is “significant interest” in Gardner and the team is shopping Ichiro, so the wheels are in motion. Saving even $3M by dealng Ichiro would be a win. They could replace him with Almonte at the league minimum and see basically no drop in production (Steamer and Oliver projections both have them as sub-1.0 WAR players in 2014, if you care). Zoilo would add some nice versatility to the bench as a switch-hitter as well, but I digress.

Obviously this whole exercise is just an estimate, a ballpark figure. We can only be so precise from the outside. The arbitration-eligible guys could come in at a higher or lower salary than projected, for example. Ditto the benefits package all 30 teams must pay. Maybe the Yankees are comfortable saying Jeter won’t even finish in the top six of the MVP voting, nevermind win it. That would free up another $2M of potential bonus money. (I’m an idiot, disregard that last part.) There’s plenty of wiggle room here, but I think we can say that while staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold is still possible, it will be very difficult to actually pull off following the team’s recent moves.

According to David Waldstein, Hal Steinbrenner has given the okay to go over the threshold despite his recent public insistance that it remains their goal. Perhaps he’s softened his stance given how much revenue declined from 2012 to 2013 ($58M in ticket sales alone). They have already spent as if A-Rod is being suspended, after all. The Yankees have some payroll space left before getting to $189M, but they also have some roster holes to address. Their next move will be telling — if they sign a starter to a big money deal, forget it. They’re going over. If they sign someone cheap or shed salary in a trade, they might plan on seeing this thing through.

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Exclusive photo of the first time Cano heard about the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Exclusive photo of the first time Cano heard about the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Starting at midnight tonight, free agents will be free to negotiate and sign with any team. The offseason will finally get underway in earnest — up until now it’s been a lot of waiting and boring procedural stuff. Now the Yankees and the other 29 clubs can get down to business for real.

With that in mind, it’s worth figuring out how much money New York has to work with this winter. They’re trimming payroll and intend to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold next year, a threshold they can’t pass at all next season. The payroll is calculated at the end of the year for luxury tax purposes. They don’t get to spend freely after staying under on Opening Day or anything sneaky like that.

The Yankees have many holes to address and, for the first time in a long time, a finite amount of money to do it. Don’t get me wrong, the team never had a truly unlimited budget, but it sure felt like they did at times. None of us were worried about a hard payroll number, that’s for sure. This offseason will be a new experience. Here are the club’s current contract commitments for next season:

Just to be clear: those are luxury tax numbers, which are based off the average annual value of multi-year contracts. Some players will actually take home a different salary next summer — the money in the Wells trade was structured in such a way that he won’t count towards the tax this year despite a $21M salary — but that is how much they will count against the tax.

I tend to be conservative with this stuff, but I wouldn’t expect even a perfectly healthy, in-his-prime A-Rod to hit the 60 homers he’d need to hit to trigger his second $6M milestone bonus. The team does have to plan for the first milestone though — he’s only six homers away, which is easily doable — ditto Jeter’s awards-based bonuses. That stuff counts towards the luxury tax. Between the guys under contract, the arbitration-eligible, and bonuses, the Yankees already have 14 players locked in at $127.91M for 2014. Add in the $12M or so every team has to contribute towards player benefits and it’s really $139.91M for 14 roster spots.

That $139.91M leaves the team $49.09M to spend on the remaining 26 40-man roster spots. The 15 players on the 40-man but not on the 25-man active roster are usually estimated at $2-5M total (they earn a lower salary in the minors), so assuming the high-end of that range leaves us with $44.09M for the final eleven 25-man active roster spots. Non-tendering Nix and Stewart would free up another $2.4M but also create two more spots to fill. With Cervelli, Romine, and Murphy around, I see no reason to keep Stewart at that price. Nix is a fine utility man but that projected $1.4M salary is a bit steep. Let’s assume those two are non-tendered. We’re now sitting on $46.49M to fill 13 25-man active roster spots.

So what 13 positions, exactly, does the team need to fill with that money? Here’s a look at the roster as it stands right now:

Catcher Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Cervelli 1B Teixeira LF Soriano Sabathia Robertson
2B ? CF Gardner Nova Kelley
 Designated Hitter SS Jeter RF Ichiro/Wells Phelps Warren
? 3B A-Rod ? ?
? ?
Bench ?
C Romine or Murphy OF Ichiro/Wells ?
IF Nunez ?

I think it’s safe to assume Nunez, Phelps, and Warren will make the roster and fill three of those 13 open spots. Phelps and Warren have earned spots and the Yankees love Nunez. He’s not going anywhere. Either Romine or Murphy can fill in as the backup catcher. All four are in their pre-arbitration years and will make something close to the league minimum, leaving the Yankees with roughly $44.29M to answer those remaining nine ?s.

One of those nine ?s is at second base, meaning Robinson Cano. I feel it’s inevitable that he’ll sign a fat new contract, probably something in the $20-25M average annual value range. Splitting the middle and calling it $22.5M leaves the Yankees are left with $21.79M to fill their remaining eight roster spots. They are going to need to save some payroll space for midseason call-ups and acquisitions (trades, waivers, etc.), so let’s make life easy and call it an even $20M for those eight spots. Still with me? Good.

Obviously the two open rotation spots are the biggest concern. The Yankees have some cheap internal options for those last four bullpen spots — specifically Claiborne, Cabral, Huff, Betances, Daley, and Nuno — though I would like to see them add a veteran late-inning guy to pair with Robertson and Kelley. The bullpen has more openings but is not as much of a priority as the rotation at this point. It’s easy to see the appeal of Masahiro Tanaka here — his posting fee is expected to be gigantic but it doesn’t count towards the luxury tax. Only his contract counts towards the tax. Assuming he signs for a $10M average annual value like Yu Darvish, that’s a bargain for someone who many people expect to be a number two-ish starter. He’s a very luxury tax friendly option for the pitching-needy Yankees.

If the Bombers wind up spending $10-12M on Tanaka or another starter, they’ll be left with $8-10M for the remaining seven spots. Betances (league minimum) figures to get one bullpen spot because he’s out of options. The Yankees could find a fifth starter and long man out of the Warren, Huff, Nuno, and Marshall foursome with the other two guys going to Triple-A as the sixth and seventh starters. They’ll be needed at some point, no doubt about it. It’s worth noting Huff is out of options and would need to clear waivers to go to Triple-A. Either way, the fifth starter and long man would make something near the league minimum in this scenario. That leaves $6.5-8.5M for the last four ?s, which are a DH (Mark Reynolds?), another bench player (preferably a lefty bat with some pop), and two relievers. Maybe Huff makes the team as a lefty specialist with another guy filling in as the long man. That’s an option.

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

Now, for the elephant in the room: A-Rod. If he is suspended for all of next season, his $33.5M tax hit ($27.5M salary plus $6M bonus) is wiped off the books and the Yankees suddenly have a ton of extra money to spend. Someone like Brian McCann or Carlos Beltran or Matt Garza becomes a realistic option. Heck, they’d be able to afford two of those guys with Rodriguez off the books. If he is suspended for only part of the season, the salary portion of his tax hit would be pro-rated but the team would still have to prepare for that full $6M milestone bonus. Either way, A-Rod being suspended for any length of time leads to considerable payroll savings, though the Yankees would have to find someone else for third base. That’s a trade the team would be happy to make.

In addition to what feels like the inevitability of Rodriguez being suspended for some number of games, it’s also unlikely Jeter will reach all of the bonuses in his new contract. The Yankees have to go into 2014 prepared just in case he does, but this is something they can monitor as the season progresses. If July rolls around and it’s obvious he’s not an MVP candidate — seems silly to say now, but remember, he was in the MVP conversation as recently as 2012 — that’s suddenly $4M the team can allocate elsewhere, specifically towards a trade deadline pickup. That’s a nice chunk of change to have available at the deadline.

After running through all of this, it seems like the Yankees have enough payroll space to make one big Tanaka-sized splash in addition to re-signing Cano this winter. A-Rod’s appeal hearing will resume in mid-November, meaning the ruling may not come down until mid-December, after the Winter Meetings. They’ll have a lot more money to spend if he is indeed suspended, but some of the top players figure to be off the board by then. More than anything, I think this little exercise — which is just an estimation, remember, these numbers are not exact — shows just how much the Yankees will need a) Teixeira and Sabathia to rebound, b) Nova to put together a full productive season (not a half one like 2011 and 2013), and b) youngsters like Phelps, Warren, and various catchers to step forward and contribute. That seems like a lot to ask.

Previous 2014 Payroll Breakdowns: Part One (January 2nd) and Part Two (August 7th).

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(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

If the Yankees are serious about successfully completing the Hail Mary pass that is their playoff hopes, they’ll need to win for the remainder of the season. For the first time all season, they’ve had a roster that resembles something competitive, despite still not being at full strength. Last week, Joe discussed a couple ways the team could improve their chances as it pertains to the pitching staff.

Today, I’m here to discuss another idea that seems to be gaining popularity — specifically, upgrading the lineup from within. It’s time for Joe Girardi to give Austin Romine more opportunities. This doesn’t necessarily mean Romine has to be the full-time catcher after this year; if the team wants to pursue the likes of Brian McCann, by all means, they should. We’re talking right now.

Let’s start with Chris Stewart. Through 277 plate appearances this season, he’s batted .231/.305/.302 (.276 wOBA, 68 wRC+). He’s managed four home runs all season (.070 ISO) and has been valued at 0.8 fWAR. He doesn’t walk a ton and doesn’t strike out a ton, but he also doesn’t really get on base. I’m not claiming he’s a bad catcher, but I don’t think he’s cut out to be the main guy.

It seems pretty clear by this point that the team values his defensive contributions. In terms of fielding metrics, FanGraphs lists him at 4.3 Fld (based on UZR) which is good but not great. Even though I personal question the legitimacy of fielding metrics in general, particularly as they pertain to catchers, I’m willing to concede that Stewart is probably a capable catcher defensively in general (though he has only thrown out 28% of base runners which is slightly below average, and it seems like he’s bobbled more pitches than one would expect out of a defensive-oriented guy).

What’s interesting though about Stewart is that he’s basically been utilized far more this season than he ever has throughout his career at the MLB level. In 2011, he started 67 games with the Giants (183 plate appearances), which was significantly more than he had prior with any of his former teams (the Padres, Yankees, Rangers, and White Sox). This year, he’s already played in 86 games (and counting), and has already accumulated about 100 more plate appearances (and counting). Anecdotally, Stewart has looked gassed at times. If this theory is indeed true, it would make sense that he would be struggling by this point in the season. After all, he does play a very demanding position.

Interestingly enough, Stewart’s splits seem to support this theory to some degree. Through the first half of the year, Stewart produced a .283 wOBA (73 wRC+). While the first half of the season wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, the second half of the year (at least thus far), by comparison, has been considerably worse (.260 wOBA, 57 wRC+). Although Stewart has picked up his production in August, his July was completely abysmal (.200 wOBA, 16 wRC+). Hilariously, his lone home run this month was the first one he hit since May. Although August has been better for Stewart (.316 wOBA, 96 wRC+), he’s also had several more breathers.

On the other hand, Romine is young, healthy, available and has shown increasing value of late. Of course it’s a gamble; I’m sure the fact that he was awful early on in the season hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence in Girardi either. I think the team is in a position though where it has to take risks that could pay off if they’re serious about remaining in the hunt – even if those risks only provide incremental benefit.

Admittedly, Romine’s overall season stats aren’t exactly inspiring (.227/.271/.327, .265 wOBA, 61 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). He’s hit one home run, walks very little (5.0 BB%), strikes out at a fair pace (25.6 K%) and has been graded as below average defensively (-0.2 Fld), though the same caveats about defensive metrics apply to Romine as well, in addition to the small sample size disclaimer (23% caught stealing rate for what that’s worth).

So what’s the draw you may ask? It’s simple; Romine is the hot bat and has been for a while. If he cools off, fine, sub him out without blinking. But for now, take advantage of him and get offense from a position traditionally void of offensive production. During Romine’s eight games started in July, he produced a .385 wOBA (143 wRC+). In August, through eight games he’s improved further (.395 wOBA, 150 wRC+). Am I claiming Romine is the next Posada? Of course not, nor do I have those expectations. I’m just saying give the kid’s bat a chance with more frequency as Stewart really hasn’t giving the team any incentive not too.

Of course, the small sample size disclaimer applies to Romine’s offensive contributions as well. But isn’t it worth considering the idea at this point? At the very least, if Girardi wants to approach this matter conservatively, he could always just level out the playing time between the two catchers rather than giving Romine the starting gig altogether. It may not be desirable for those two players on am emotional level, but it may be what’s best for the team. Changing the roles of Stewart and Romine probably won’t be the ultimate factor that decides the fate of the season, but if it could help, the team should consider it. Unfortunately, it seems like Girardi isn’t quite as sold on the idea.

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Outside of a major arm injury, I’m not sure things could be going any worse for CC Sabathia this year. The big left-hander is sitting on a yucky 4.73 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 160 innings across 24 starts, thanks in large part to a sudden Hughesian affinity for the long ball — Sabathia has already allowed a career-high 25 homeruns (1.41 HR/9 and 14.5% HR/FB) this year, and that includes a 1.63 HR/9 (16.9% HR/FB) away from homer happy Yankee Stadium. In the second season of his five-year extension, CC is having the worst year of his 13-year-career.

Early on, back in April, fastball velocity was believed to be the root cause of his problems. Sabathia came out of the gate sitting in the 88-89 mph range, occasionally hitting 91 or 92, but his heater has picked up some oomph as the weather warmed up and the season progressed. Here, look:

Sabathia velocity

Sabathia’s fastball isn’t what it was even two years ago, but it has been trending upward in recent months. In his most recent start, he averaged 92.6 mph and topped out at 94.0 mph. That’s plenty. Velocity, the pure radar gun reading, is not the reason the Yankees nominal ace has been pitching like a number five starter.

One possible (and suddenly popular) explanation has been his weight loss. Sabathia is a big dude with broad shoulders and a big ass, he’s built to carry a lot of weight, but he’s shed upwards of 30 pounds in each of the last two offseasons. Losing weight is a good thing, especially when you’re talking about a pitcher with a twice surgically repairing landing knee. That doesn’t mean pitching with fewer pounds is easy though, it requires an adjustment.

“The weight loss has created a balance problem for him,“ said one evaluator to Nick Cafardo recently. “He’s all over the place. He’s learning how to pitch in that body, a body he’s really never had. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him other than that. Sometimes you pitch at a certain weight all your life and then someone has the brilliant idea that you should lose weight because it’s putting stress on your knees, you do it, and then you’re dealing with something else.”

According to PitchFX, Sabathia’s average release point has dropped 1.68 inches from 2012 to 2013 after dropping 2.04 inches from 2011 to 2012. His release point has also drifted an additional 1.8 inches towards first base from last year to this year. Think about the hands on a clock; his release point was sitting at one o’clock last year but has slid down and further out towards two o’clock. That slight change in arm slot seems small but it can make a huge difference, especially when you’re talking about the bite on a slider or the ability to drive a fastball downhill.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

“The consistent problem is the command,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Andy McCullough two weeks ago. “Even though his strike percentages are okay, it’s what’s going on in the strike zone. A lot of his fastballs and changeups are cutting. Which is a major problem for him.”

That cutting action hasn’t really shown up in PitchFX — Sabathia’s fastball has an extra half-inch or so of horizontal movement this year, which is nothing — but is something Rothschild has mentioned as a problem for several weeks now. It also seems like something that could be attributed to the lower release point. Dropping the arm creates more movement, it’s just the physics of this whole pitching thing. That’s why sidearmers and submariners always have those ridiculous fall off the table sinkers and frisbee sliders.

So the question now is why has his release point (and his arm slot) dropped? Is it because of the weight loss? Is it the toll of over 2,800 career regular season and postseason innings? Is it the result of his offseason elbow surgery? Is Sabathia muscling up in an effort to create the velocity he’s lost over the years? I don’t know. It could be none of those things or it could be all of those things. Pitching mechanics and deliveries are weird like that. They’re these fine-tuned yet never quite perfect unnatural acts, and sometimes stuff goes wrong for no apparent reason.

If the problem is Sabathia’s recent weight loss, then it’s probably a good thing because it should be easily correctable. I’m not talking about gaining the weight back, that’s kinda silly. The weight loss is healthy and he should keep it off. It’s a good thing because it’s something he can adjust to and iron out with enough reps. It’s been a challenge so far, but no one said it would be easy. I suspect Sabathia’s career workload and offseason elbow surgery are playing a part in his awful season though, and although I have faith in the big guy to figure it out, I can’t say for certain that he will.

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Mariano Rivera has accomplished an awful lot in his Hall of Fame career, but one thing he had never done prior to these last few days was blow three consecutive save opportunities. I guess that’s not really much of an accomplishment. Anyway, Rivera blew a one-run lead against the White Sox on Wednesday before squandering two-run leads against the Tigers on Friday and Sunday. The Yankees managed to come back to win the two games against Detroit.

“There’s always going to be a first time. I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” said Rivera to Chad Jennings when asked about the three straight blown saves. “It’s not surprising. You’re talking about professional hitters. At the same time, I’m not putting the ball where I want it.”

PitchFX confirms Rivera has not had a dip in velocity recently nor has his trademark cutter lost any bite — the pitch is still sitting in the low-90s with roughly 2-4 inches of horizontal break. Nothing out of the ordinary there. As Rivera indicated, it’s all about location. Here is the game-tying hit he surrendered to Adam Dunn on Wednesday:

Rivera vs. Dunn

(92.5 mph with 2.8 inches of break)

Notice where Austin Romine wanted the pitch — down and on the outside corner — compared to where it actually ended up. Thigh high and right down the middle, pretty much. That was an 0-2 pitch, and you probably remember the first two strikes were called on borderline outside cutters. Maybe even pitches that were off the plate. Romine and Rivera went back to that well a third time but Mo didn’t execute.

Dunn slapping a ball the other way for a single is a rarity. That just isn’t his game. Miguel Cabrera hitting homeruns is not; it’s just what he does. Over the weekend, the reigning AL MVP took Rivera deep not once, but twice in the blown saves. Here’s his two-run shot from Friday, which tied the game:

Rivera vs. Cabrera Friday

(93.9 mph and 4.8 inches of break)

That was a pretty epic at-bat, as you probably remember. Cabrera fouled two balls off his leg and was hobbling around badly between pitches — at one point he was using his bat like a cane — yet he managed to remain in the game. The game-tying homer came in a 2-2 count after Rivera busted him inside repeatedly, hence the two foul balls of the leg. Chris Stewart set up inside one more time but Rivera again missed his spot, this time knee-high and out over the plate. That’s a pitch great hitters like Miggy will crush, and in this instance it left the park.

The homerun Cabrera hit on Sunday did not tie the game, but it did turn a two-run lead into the one-run lead for the Yankees. Again, Rivera missed his spot in a bad way:

Rivera vs. Cabrera Sunday

(92.5 mph and 3.5 inches of break)

Stewart and Rivera mixed things up in this at-bat after getting beat on Friday, pitching to both sides of the plate rather than pounding Cabrera inside. The 2-2 pitch was supposed to be down and away — you can even argue Stewart was set up too far over the plate — and Mo simply missed up. The pitch was on the outer half as intended, but rather than come in at the knees it came in at the belt. Cabrera took advantage of the short porch and drove it out the other way.

The third homer of the weekend, the one that actually tied Sunday’s game and clinched that third blown save, was more good hitting than bad pitching. Unlike the last three pitches in this post, Rivera didn’t miss his spot by all that much:

Rivera vs. Martinez

(91.1 mph and 3.2 inches of break)

Stewart wanted the 0-1 pitch up towards the top of the zone and inside, and Rivera wound up coming up-and-in even more than desired. That’s not a bad thing, up-and-in pitches are a great way to induce weak contact. Mo has been breaking left-handed hitter’s bats with that pitch for nearly two decades now. Martinez just pulled his hands in and yanked the ball to right for the game-tying solo homer. Rivera missed his spot but not necessarily in a bad way. This pitch didn’t leak back out into the hitting zone like the others. Martinez is just a really smart hitter.

Missing location is not something we see Mo do all that often. We’re not just talking about a pitcher with great command here. We’re talking about a pitcher with historically great command. That Rivera is blowing these saves because he’s missing his spots rather than losing velocity or movement off his cutter is actually somewhat encouraging because you would expect him to work out the location problems. It’s hard to imagine Mo will struggle with his command for an extended period of time. It’s possible, sure, but tough to expect. If his stuff was disappearing, it would be a much bigger problem.

The weird thing about Rivera’s recent struggles is that they really don’t matter all that much. The Yankees’ odds of making the postseason are microscopic — 2.3% according to Baseball Prospectus, and they’re seven games back with four teams ahead of them — so a blown save here or there isn’t the end of the world regarding the club’s 2013 outlook. Rivera is also retiring after this year, so the long-term concern is nil. Still, no one wants to see him finish his career on a down note, so hopefully Mo will right the ship and soon. Since it’s just a command problem, I’m extremely confident he’ll get things sorted out very quickly.

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2014 Payroll Breakdown: Part Two

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Hooray for being (kinda) free next year? (Andy Marlin/Getty)

Hooray for being (kinda) free next year? (Andy Marlin/Getty)

For the last 18 months or so, almost every move the Yankees have made has been geared towards getting under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. They’ve gravitated towards short-term contracts, in some cases choosing future financial flexibility over roster quality. It’s cost them on the field, but they are better positioned to get under the tax threshold.

The luxury tax, if you don’t know by now, is based on the average annual value of contracts on the 40-man roster. Players who are added to the 40-man late (called up, trade, etc.) or taken off early (released, traded, etc.) have their “tax hits” pro-rated. Performance bonuses count against the tax as well, as does each team’s portion of the league’s player benefits. The benefits are expected to jump from $10.8M to about $12M for 2014. Just like that, the $189M threshold is really $177M.

This post is Part Two because I actually did a Part One once upon a time, but that was all the way back in January. Obviously a lot has changed since then and the payroll situation is worth revisiting. Let’s start by looking at the 2014 contract status of every player currently on the 40-man roster. The salaries listed are “tax hit” numbers, not their actual take-home salary. That doesn’t matter for the luxury tax calculation.

Some fancy accounting at the time of the trades brought Soriano’s and Wells’ tax hits way down. Wells is actually free, and had MLB allowed it, the Yankees would have actually received a $2M credit against the luxury tax because of the way the money was structured. That won’t happen though, he just counts as zero dollars against the tax.

Given his self-proclaimed “nightmare” season, I have to think Jeter will exercise that player option. It’s very tough to see him opting out and getting more after looking very much like a 39-year-old shortstop whose body is broken down this summer. He could try it and maybe the Steinbrenners will cave, but it would surprise me. Also, that extra $7.5M in bonuses is really $7M because he won’t trigger any incentives this year. All told, Jeter’s current contract can realistically only max out at $16.5M next year.

According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that player option year is treated as a one-year contract if exercised. It does not get lumped together with the first three guaranteed years of Jeter’s contract and averaged out. The bonuses are reachable but some ($4M for AL MVP) are more reachable than others ($500k for Silver Slugger). They’re in the contract though, and the Yankees have to account for them. Could you imagine barely staying under the threshold all year only to have Jeter blow it up by winning the MVP or something? That would be hilarious.

Anyway, adding Jeter to the “under contract” guys gives us a guaranteed $94.4M for seven players, or $101.4M when accounting for the $7M in bonuses. That leaves the team $75.6M under the $177M “real” threshold to fill 33 40-man roster spots. Fifteen of those spots will go to the extra guys stashed in the minors, where they make much less than the big league minimum. I’ve seen those spots estimated anywhere from $2-5M total, so let’s stick with the high-end and be conservative. Now the Yankees are at $70.6M to fill 18 big league roster spots.

Barring something completely unexpected, a big chunk of that money will go to Cano. His tax hit could end up in the $20-25M range. Suddenly we go from $70.6M for 18 spots to $45.6M for 17 spots. If the Yankees trust Pineda in the rotation and go with Stewvelli behind the plate again, they could fill eight of those 17 spots on the cheap with the arbitration-eligible guys. Gardner, Robertson, and Nova will be the highest paid arb guys, but none will get more than $6M or so and Gardner’s the only one who will realistically approach $5M. That trio could pull in $15M total on the high end, the other five guys about $7-8M total, just spit-balling. That brings us to $22.6M for nine remaining roster spots.

To use his words, the pink elephant in the room here is A-Rod. If his suspension is overturned, he and his $27.5M tax hit — he’s only 13 homers away from his first $6M bonus, so the team would really have to prepared for a $33.5M tax hit — will be on the roster and splitting time between third base and DH. If his suspension is upheld and he misses the entire year (believed to be the most likely scenario, but who really knows?), suddenly the team has an extra $27.5M to play with. They will need a replacement third baseman, however. The difference between a suspension and no suspension is $22.6M for nine roster spots or $56.1M for ten roster spots. It’s the difference between digging through second tier free agents or going on a nice little free agent shopping spree in the winter.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the team re-signs Cano, Jeter picks up his option, and A-Rod does indeed wind up missing the entire season due to suspension. This is the roster they’d be looking at based on the guys they have under contract/control:

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Cervelli 1B Teixeira CF Gardner Sabathia Robertson
Stewart 2B Cano RF Ichiro Nova Kelley
SS Jeter LF Wells/Soriano Phelps Claiborne
3B Nix OF Mesa or Almonte Pineda Nuno/Warren
Designated Hitter IF Nunez Nuno/Warren Betances
Wells/Soriano IF Adams or Cruz ?

There’s plenty of room for improvement with that roster, so having that $56M-ish to spend is more necessity than luxury. A legitimate starting catcher, a starting third baseman, an outfielder better than Ichiro/Wells/Soriano, a veteran starting pitcher or two, and a handful of relievers would be on the offseason shopping list. If A-Rod is not suspended, they still need all of that stuff (except for a third baseman), but will have only half the money to spend.

The Yankees have an awful lot of cash coming off the books this offseason, which is a very good thing as far as the payroll plan is concerned. The downside to having that money free is all the holes they have to fill. There’s a reason all that money is available — a whole bunch of important, centerpiece-type players are becoming free agents. The offseason should be fun because there figures to be busy with lots of moves, but make no mistake: the Yankees are not in a good position to get under that luxury tax threshold and remain competitive if A-Rod misses anything less than the entire season.

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The importance of Mark Teixeira

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(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees made a huge splash in the free-agent market back in 2009, landing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher (via a trade), and A.J. Burnett. Each player contributed in a huge way and helped the team bring the 27th World Series Championship back to New York. Teixeira, specifically, had a monster year in 2009 as he batted .292/.383/.565 (.402 wOBA, 142 wRC+) with 39 home runs. FanGraphs valued him at 4.9 WAR (trailing only Miguel Cabrera and Kevin Youkilis among AL first baseman).

Since then, Yankee fans have watched Teixeira steadily decline. Over the past few seasons he’s become increasingly one-dimensional offensively even though his defense has remained very reliable. He’s been far more prone to hitting the ball down the first base line (presumably aiming for that enticing short porch), which in turn, has made him increasingly more susceptible to the defensive shift. Consequently, his batting average has ticked downward by about 40 points from where he has historically hovered prior to coming to New York. Discouragingly, we’ve also seen Tex struggle against right handers the past few seasons as well (last season he batted .239 as LH batter verse righties, .224 in 2011, .244 in 2010, and .282 in 2009), and then show an unwillingness to adapt his approach.

Fortunately for the Yankees, they haven’t exactly been hurting for offense for the last decade or so. During Tex’s tenure in pinstripes alone, the Yankees have been among the top three teams in all of baseball in terms of wOBA and wRC+. At least until now; 2013 is a new animal altogether. For the first time in what seems like forever, the offense is most certainly not the strength of the team. The Yankees rank 21st in AVG, 19th in wOBA, 24th in wRC+, 19th in K%, and 19th in BB%. Ironically, the only offensive category that the Yankees favorably crack the top 10 in this season so far is in home runs (68 in total, eighth best in MLB — so much for the #toomanyhomers meme).

This is where Tex steps in, and where I personally think he could play a huge role if he can rebound a bit. Immediately, he (and Youkilis) will provide some additional patience to the lineup. As of now, the Yankees have averaged 3.79 pitches per plate appearances – for perspective, 2012′s squad averaged 3.89 Pit/PA, 3.92 in 2011, 3.92 in 2010, and 3.88 in 2009. Power and patience. That’s the Yankees model. It works, and Tex knows how to do it.

With Vernon Wells cooling off and Travis Hafner always one step away from injury, Robinson Cano has been forced to shoulder much of the load in the power department. Home runs are always a good thing and one part of Tex’s game that has always been solid is deep out-of-the-park hits. With a little luck, it may help stem the tide a bit further until the rest of the Walking Wounded return. A few consecutive singles are nice. They’re even nicer when a 4o0-foot blast brings them home.

Additionally, Cano, Lyle Overbay, Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson and Hafner are really all the Yankees have for left-handed threats. Gardner’s been better of late with the bat, but he’s not the guy who’ll be driving in runs nor is that his role. Given Ichiro‘s struggles, Granderson’s injury, and Hafner’s durability concerns, it’ll be very nice to add another guy capable of batting left-handed. Even if Tex’s splits this season are similar to his last few, he’ll also still likely be an offensive upgrade over Overbay (despite the fact that Overbay is having a great year by his standards thus far). Moreover, having another switch-hitter available provides that much more lineup flexibility for Girardi.

Defensively, Tex provides some options too. As we’ve seen the last few days, Overbay could get some opportunities in right field, which will help mitigate Ichiro’s exposure. When Overbay is at first, Tex can give Pronk a spell at DH which provides him rest and aligns him closer to the situational hitting role he was originally hired for. This also limits the need for Youkilis at first on the depth chart, which can only help given his injury tendencies. Third base and shortstop are still points of concern, but that was basically always the case. At least with Tex at first, you know some of those inevitable throwing errors to first may have a chance of being erased.

The Yankees have done a fantastic job of not just staying alive, but staying competitive with role players while some of their headliner names have been side-lined. However, some of these role players (i.e. Jayson Nix, David Adams, Wells, Overbay) are clearly playing above their norms, or in some cases, have already begun to be exposed. Who knows how long the team can continue to win with these guys starting all the time. Now that some of the marquee players are beginning to return from their various injuries, it’s time for them to step up and contribute. Hopefully they’ll be able to sustain the success, and be a lot less likely to falter down the road. I hope Tex gets the ball the rolling.

Categories : Analysis, Players
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(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

The Yankees 2013 offseason was “interesting,” to say the least.  It involved a couple big names departing to greener pastures Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and several apparent retreads joining the NY ranks in their stead.

Among these acquired castoffs was Vernon Wells, who the Yankees – in seeming desperation – elected to pay $13.9M over the course of the next two seasons (though the bulk of the money owed was front-loaded to 2013).  This was despite Vernon’s rash of injuries and meager .258 on-base percentage over the prior two seasons (apparently his 2011 .248 OBP was the lowest among all outfielders with at least 500 plate appearances since 1904 … so there’s that).  To put it mildly, most of us had our doubts about the deal on a lot of levels.

However, as John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman vehemently claim, “You simply cannot predict baseball!”  Wells had recovered from his varying ailments (a torn ligament in his right thumb most notably), he focused on improving his offensive production by applying a shorter, more direct swing — all of which would presumably be enhanced by the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

By mid-April, Vernon was batting in the heart of the order to the tune of .300/.366/.544 with six home runs.  He was looking like a rejuvenated version of his former self and an early Comeback Player of the Year candidate — all while inadvertently making Cashman look less like a ninja and more like a genius.

May has been somewhat of a different story though.  Consider the grid below, compliments of Baseball-Reference.

2013 Totals 49 46 186 24 49 6 0 10 4 2 14 29 .263 .313 .457 .770 4 .264 100 112
Last 7 days 5 5 22 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 .091 .091 .091 .182 1 .111 -51 -49
Last 14 days 11 10 43 3 6 2 0 0 0 1 1 9 .140 .159 .186 .345 1 .176 -8 -4
Last 28 days 24 22 92 10 21 2 0 4 2 2 4 14 .228 .260 .380 .641 2 .230 66 76
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/29/2013.

The numbers aren’t pretty, which is particularly hard to stomach considering he’s the guy often times backing up Robinson Cano in the lineup.  A quick glance at Vernon’s April and May spray charts (provided by Texas Leaguers) confirms what our eyes have witnessed these past few weeks: he’s been hitting into far more ground outs in May (23%) then he did in April (12.87%).  There have been far more ground outs hit towards the second baseman as well than there were last month - so it’s not like he is getting overly pull happy either (not that that would necessarily help him in NY).

vw spray chart aprvw spray chart

In terms of the ground outs, it’s possible some of his May struggles have been exasperated by an atrocious BAbip  (considering his career norm is .279).  I’m leery of over-simplifying BAbip to the term “luck,” but regardless of how one wants to define the stat, Vernon has certainly not been the benefactor.  Even if his stats do regress to what we’ve seen over the past few seasons from him, Vernon’s BAbip would still qualify as unusually low.  Eventually, some of these balls should get through the defense.  And considering that his recent struggles are by very definition inherently limited in sample size, it wouldn’t take much to get those numbers moving back in the right direction.

For what it’s worth, Texas Leaguers shows us that opposing pitchers will have thrown approximately the same amount of fastballs (fastballs including both two and four-seamers, cut fastballs, and split-fingered fastballs) by month’s end as they did in April.  As to be expected, the vast majority of the fastballs seen were four seamers, and in that particular category he’s been proportionately only a few percentage points less effective at putting the ball in play in May (24.5%) than he was in April (29.6% in play) — nothing super drastic – though it is worth noting that opposing pitchers have been throwing more for strikes this month than last.  The problem is the balls he is making contact with are simply not being hit well.

Anecdotally, there is also the possibility that his stance has opened up a bit again, thus resulting in longer swings.  This would result in less time to see (and swing at) the pitch, which could explain the uptick in weaker ground outs. Perhaps he needs to re-explore the adjustments he made in the offseason.  If he’s not seeing the pitches as well, it’d make sense that he’d be hitting the ball with less conviction more often.  This could be the kind of  “quick fix” solution that resolves itself overnight.  Unfortunately, that’s also the type of mechanical flaw that I’m sure both he and Kevin Long are constantly watching for and are proactively trying to prevent.  It also strikes me as weird that he could go suddenly to different ends of the spectrum against a certain type of pitch.

So where does this leave us?  Has Vernon turned back into the pumpkin (or worse) that most of us expected from day one, or is this just an unfortunate slump (that is being brought to attention a bit more than it probably should be given the team’s overall offensive struggles of late)?  Frankly, it’s too soon to make any meaningful conclusion.  At this juncture, this is merely an observation that’s worth keeping an eye on.  If we find ourselves watching a still-struggling Wells come the All Star break, we’ll probably know where things are heading though.  In the meantime, let’s hope get can keep it together at least until Curtis Granderson‘s able to return.

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(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Robinson Cano‘s impending free agency is going to be the rain cloud hovering over the Yankees’ heads this season. Sorta like CC Sabathia‘s opt-out clause two seasons ago, how it was always looming in the back of everyone’s mind. The club’s situation is much less dire two years ago though. We all knew the Yankees were going to go all-out to re-sign their ace when he did use — or in reality, threatened to use — the opt-out. If Sabathia signed elsewhere, it would not have been due to a lack of effort on the team’s part.

The calculus has changed quite a bit in those two years. The Collective Bargaining Agreement put in place last winter offers (substantial) rewards for staying under the luxury tax and the Yankees are doing all they can to take advantage, even though it harms their ability to contend. Hal Steinbrenner has a knack for saying they will continue to field a championship-caliber team, but actions speak louder than words. The current catching situation is not championship-caliber. The bench is not championship-caliber. Wilfully slashing payroll for the sake of maximizing profit is not something someone committed to fielding a championship-caliber team does.

Anyway, that desire to spend less on the team will impact the Yankees’ ability to retain Cano next offseason. Robbie hired Scott Boras two years ago and players do not hire Boras that close to free agency unless they’re looking for a huge payday. Cano is a star and he will want to be paid like one. It’s only fair. With the free-spending Dodgers looming and other contenders like the Tigers and Cardinals potentially in need of second base help, Boras shouldn’t have much trouble finding suitors for his client.

The Yankees know as well as anyone that long-term contracts to players on the wrong side of 30 have a tendency to go sour in a hurry. All they have to do is look at Alex Rodriguez for the worst case scenario, but Jason Giambi — who was more productive in pinstripes than he gets credit for — is a cautionary tale as well. Just look around the league and you’ll see scary long-term commitments to 30-somethings either going wrong or on the verge of going wrong. Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Alfonso Soriano … those clubs would like a do-over on every one of those contracts.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

Cano, who turned 30 in October, is theoretically at even greater risk of sharp decline because of his position. Second baseman take a pounding at the bag due to the blind double play pivot, something that “is even reflected in the number of uniforms their clubs have to buy for them” according to former Dodgers GM Dan Evans. To Cano’s credit, he has been extremely durable, playing in no fewer than 159 games in each of the last six seasons. We have to remember that A-Rod was once just as durable, playing in 154+ games in seven straight years before starting to break down in 2008.

According to bWAR, Robbie has been not only the most valuable position player in baseball over the last three years, but also the most valuable player period, including pitchers. His career 34.8 bWAR is the tenth highest in history among second basemen through their age 29 season. He’s been brilliant these last few years, no doubt about it, but his next contract won’t be paying him for past performance. It’ll be paying him for expected future performance, and that’s where it gets tricky.

There have been a total of 20 non-first base infielders to post between 30-40 bWAR through their age 29 season. There are 13 40+ bWAR guys and they’re all all-time greats (A-Rod, Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, etc.), but I want to look at players similar to Cano. Two of those 30-40 bWAR guys (Dustin Pedroia and David Wright) are too young to tell us anything, but here are how the others performed before their age 30 season, during their age 30 season, and then after their age 30s season.

<30 WAR Age 30 WAR 31+ WAR
Rod Carew 39.8 6.5 30.3
Nomar Garciaparra 39.7 1.1 1.2
Chuck Knoblauch 38.9 3.3 -0.2
Bobby Grich 38.8 5.7 22.8
Derek Jeter 38.7 4.1 26.5
Adrian Beltre 38.4 3.0 19.7
Lou Whitaker 37.3 3.5 30.6
Willie Randolph 37.2 3.8 22.0
Chipper Jones 36.9 5.5 39.1
Ryne Sandberg 36.0 6.9 22.0
Sal Brado 35.6 4.5 17.0
Barry Larkin 33.5 3.8 29.8
Chase Utley 33.0 8.0 12.3
Eric Chavez 32.9 0.1 1.0
Rico Petrocelli 32.6 2.3 0.8
Jimmy Rollins 32.0 1.6 6.7
Robin Ventura 31.4 5.5 15.4

The majority of those guys actually held their value well beyond their age 30 season. There will always been some decline, that’s inevitable, but for the most part they’ve been solid. There are some complete collapses — Nomar, Knoblauch, Chavez, and Petrocelli — in there to serve as the harsh reminder of what could happen as well.

Looking specifically at the second baseman, Carew had begun the transition to first base during his age 29 season and was playing there full-time by 30. Knoblauch was done as a second baseman at 31. Grich, Whitaker, Randolph, and Sandberg all stayed at the position full-time until the end of their careers. Utley, 33, is breaking down but still a full-time second baseman. Roberto Alomar, who was slightly above my arbitrary 40 bWAR cutoff point, was a star up until age 33 before completely cratering. He was a full-time second baseman the entire time.

There is nothing we can to do to predict how Cano will age. We can look at aging curves and compare him to similar players and all sorts of stuff, but there’s just no way to know. He could prosper (Whitaker), he could turn into a pumpkin (Knoblauch), he could do something in the middle (Randolph), or he could do something else entirely. Cano’s durability is reassuring … until you consider all the wear-and-tear could manifest itself in an instant. The uncertainty is what makes a potential long-term deal so scary.

Back in August 2011, I spit-balled the idea of a six-year, $120M-ish contract extension that covered the 2012-2017 seasons, or Robbie’s age 29-34 seasons. I have a hard time seeing Cano and Boras accepting those terms right now. The new CBA changed the marketplace, specifically by limiting spending on amateur players and therefore pumping more money in the big league marketplace. Add in the Dodgers factor and Robbie could be looking at Prince Fielder money (nine years, $214M) with a 2013 season that resembles his 2010-2012 efforts. That is a scary thought.

Cano is an elite player and he will be paid accordingly next winter. That’s not much of a question. The real question is how long will he remain an elite player? How long will he stay at second? One more season? Two? Four? No one knows. The Yankees already have two big albatross contracts on their hands in A-Rod and Mark Teixeira, and it’s likely only a matter of time before Sabathia joins them. Adding a fourth albatross could be crippling, especially if ownership won’t budge from their plan to stay under the luxury tax threshold. I have no reason to believe they will.

As great as Cano is right now, the Yankees need to avoid repeating history and shooting themselves in the foot with another big contract for a declining player on the wrong side of 30. The Cardinals are doing just fine without Pujols, just like the Rays are doing just fine without Carl Crawford. Texas doesn’t miss Teixeira at all. There is a price at which the Yankees should be willing to keep Cano — four years, $100M? five years, $130M? — but in this new age of “fiscal responsibility,” the Yankees can’t act like they used too. Hard and potentially unpopular decisions will have to be made.

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