Scouting the Free Agent Market: Joe Blanton

(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Spring Training is underway, and the Yankees have what feels like several dozen pitchers jockeying for position on the Opening Day roster. That may not be terribly far off the mark, to be fair, considering that the team has thirty-plus pitchers in camp (thirty-three between the 40-man roster, non-roster invitees, and the recently signed Jon Niese) – but there is a very real sense that the back of the rotation and two middle relief roles are up for grabs.

The smart money is on one of the losers of the rotation battle to be shuffled into a relief role, alongside someone that stands out in the pre-season as a whole. And, ultimately, that second role won’t be set in stone, as that pitcher will probably ride the shuttle between the Bronx and Scranton for the better part of 2017. The Yankees tend to round out their bullpens with scraps, after all.

At this point in the off-season, however, there is a shockingly good reliever that is somehow still available for straight cash in Joe Blanton. It’s not terribly often that one can end one of the 25 best relievers in baseball via free agency in late February, but here we are. The only real question is … why?

Injury History

Blanton has been a portrait of good health over the last five years (with one obvious caveat that I’ll get to in the next section). He last spent time on the disabled list in 2011, when he was dealing with a right elbow impingement that kept him off the field from late April through the first week of September. Since that season, Blanton has spent exactly zero days on the disabled list.

Recent Performance

The Angels released Blanton at the end of Spring Training in 2014, when he posted a 7.08 ERA in 20.1 IP. This came on the heels of his atrocious 2013 season (132.2 IP, 6.04 ERA, 5.12 FIP, -2.0 bWAR, -0.5 fWAR), so it isn’t terribly surprising that they elected to eat the last year and $8.5 MM of his contract. The A’s signed him to a minor-league deal a week later, and he made two starts at Triple-A before retiring.

Blanton got the itch to play again during the 2014-15 off-season, and the Royals obliged, signing him to a minor-league deal. He found his way onto the roster in May, and spent the rest of the season in the Majors, making 36 appearances (four starts) split between Kansas City and Pittsburgh. All told, he pitched to the following line: 76 IP, 2.84 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 25.6 K%, 5.2 BB%.

It was more of the same in 2016, which Blanton spent with the Dodgers after signing a one-year, $4 MM deal. He ranked 6th in the Majors with 80 IP out of the bullpen, with a 2.48 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 25.4% strikeouts, and 8.3% walks. The greatest difference came in his groundball rate, which plummeted from 48.6% in 2015 to 32.5% last season.

His overall line the last two seasons is impressive, to be sure, but it becomes somewhat staggering if you remove his four starts with the Royals, and focus exclusively on his time in the bullpen. To wit: 137.1 IP, 2.29 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 3.7 K/BB, 26.1 K%, 7.0 BB%, 0.7 HR/9. Those numbers were not too heavily slanted by playing half of his games in pitcher-friendly parks these last two years, either, as he posted a 2.40 ERA, 3.0 K/BB, 24.0 K%, and 8.1 BB% away from his home ballparks.

Present Stuff

Blanton’s stuff has remained fairly steady as a full-time reliever. Take a look at his month-by-month velocity over the last two seasons (and keep in mind that his four starts were in late June and early July of 2015):

brooksbaseball-chart

And on a more granular level, his stuff actually ticked-up from 2015 to 2016, perhaps as he grew more acclimated to a regular role as a one-inning reliever:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

The biggest difference between 2015 and 2016 was pitch selection, as, by Brook Baseball’s reckoning, Blanton scrapped his sinker almost entirely in favor of more curves and sliders:

brooksbaseball-chart-2

This usage rate jibes with his batted ball profile, given the aforementioned drop-off in groundballs. It did not have any other noteworthy impact on his production, however, as he was borderline dominant in each of the last two seasons.

Contract Estimate

Way back in November, both FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors pegged Blanton’s deal to be at 2-years, $14 MM. That feels unlikely now, given that we’re more than a week into Spring Training and he remains unsigned.

There is the possibility that Blanton values himself highly, given his performance, and is playing the waiting game. After all, pitchers get hurt all the time, and there are still teams looking for a closer (the Nationals are still in talks with the White Sox for David Robertson, for example). It’s pure conjecture, of course, but Blanton has walked away before and, at 36-years-old, it’s entirely possible that he is only willing to pitch on his terms.

Or, alternatively, that he’ll sign yet another minor-league deal by the time you’re reading this.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

The short answer is yes. Blanton has been, by most any measure, one of the twenty-five best relievers in baseball over the last two years. The Yankees have at least two openings in their bullpen, and adding a reliever of his quality would undoubtedly improve its depth and performance considerably. There’s also the added wrinkle that a successful Blanton could be dealt at the trade deadline if and when the Yankees become sellers, and more contenders are hit with the natural attrition that strikes most bullpens. And, depending on Scranton’s roster composition, his presence would allow Luis Severino or Bryan Mitchell (or whoever else isn’t in the rotation) to stay stretched out as a starter in Triple-A.

A longer answer may be no, however. The Yankees have a great deal of pitching depth in the upper minors, and it would likely behoove them to figure out what sort of quality that quantity represents. They currently have Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Mitchell as the leading candidates for two rotation spots. Two of those four will likely be considered for the bullpen, along with J.P. Feyereisen, Giovanny Gallegos, Ben Heller, and Jonathan Holder. And this ignores Jordan Montgomery (who will almost certainly pitch in the Majors this year), Jon Niese, and a few other pitchers that are an injury or poor performance away from consideration.

Does the upgrade that Blanton offers this year – performance and potential trade value included – negate the potential value of the Yankees sorting through the stockpile of arms currently in Spring Training? I’m not sure. And would the Yankees even be interested? It doesn’t seem likely. But it’s an intriguing consideration nonetheless.

Tyler Wade, Top 101 Prospect

(Beverly Schaefer | The Trenton Times)
(Beverly Schaefer | The Trenton Times)

On Monday morning, Baseball Prospectus released their annual Top 101 Prospects list. It was a particularly exciting list for Yankees fans, as nine of the team’s prospects made the cut – more than any other team in baseball. That was not necessarily unexpected, given that Keith Law and Baseball America placed six and seven Yankees, respectively, on their top-hundreds, and noted that a few more just missed the cut. What was surprising, however, was the name sitting at number 101 on BP’s list: Tyler Wade.

The last time we saw Wade, he was slashing .241/.391/.278 with 10 steals in 18 games (69 PA) in the Arizona Fall League. He did so while learning a new position – or three, depending upon your point of view – as he played all three outfield positions for the Scottsdale Scorpions. And, by all accounts, he took to the outfield grass quite well, demonstrating range and the ability to track the ball off of the bat.

As a result of this, few doubt Wade’s ability to serve as a true super-utility player at the highest level. While there are undoubtedly some kinks to work out, his transition to the outfield went as well as anyone could have expected, and his ability to play solid defense at second base and shortstop has never been in question (though his arm does limit his ability to make the tougher throws at short). There’s a great deal of value in a player that can provide more than adequate defense in the infield and the outfield, and Wade stands to do so – and up the middle, at that.

Offensively, the best description of Wade’s game that I’ve read comes from Mike’s 2017 Preseason Top 30 Prospects list: “It’s almost like a mini-Brett Gardner offensive skill set, minus the high-end speed — Wade is a good runner but not a truly great one — and before Gardner started socking double-digit dingers a few years back.”

Wade spent the entirety of the 2016 season at Double-A as a 21-year-old, where he hit .259/.352/.349 (101 wRC+) with 5 HR, 27 SB (8 CS), 11.3% walks, and 17.7% strikeouts. That’s essentially his career norm, as he’s a career .267/.350/.344 hitter with 10.4% walks and 18.7% strikeouts in 1907 minor league plate appearances, averaging 3 HR and 32 SB per 650 PA. It’s kind of uncanny, isn’t it?

His lack of power is noteworthy, and it stems from both his build and his approach. The most generous scouting reports will throw a 35 to 40 on his raw power (on the 20-80 scale, with 50 being average), and there’s no real uppercut to his swing. He’s something of a slap-and-dash hitter, as well, and MLBfarm reveals that 50.92% of his batted balls were of the groundball variety. The combination of well below-average power and hitting the ball on the ground puts a very real cap on his actualized power potential.

Despite his modest offensive potential, the BP staff has been a fan of Wade for quite some time. They referred to him as “the perfect utility player” last April, and named his as a candidate for the 2017 Top 101 a couple of months later. In the second piece, Elvis Andrus with less defense was mentioned as a comp, and it was said that “Wade offers high upside combined with a high floor.”

And, lo and behold, Wade made the BP Top 101 just seven months later.

The question here is twofold, though – should we have expected this, and is it deserved?

The answer to the former is somewhat straightforward, as BP all but choreographed it over the last ten months or so. In addition to the aforementioned articles, they slapped Wade with an overall future potential of 55 as a starter at second or in center their Yankees Top 10 Prospects list, which would essentially make him a solid average to slightly above-average regular. They key word there is ‘starter,’ which brings visions of Ben Zobrist, Steve Pearce, and Sean Rodriguez playing everyday at different positions. They note that scouts rave about “his energy, playing style, and instincts,” and the value of a competent offensive contributor with strong defense at two up the middle positions is undoubtedly fairly high.

The second question is far trickier to answer. I am inclined to chalk it up to personal preference, noting that each list is different and every scout has a player that they like or dislike more than others. Additionally, we don’t know how close he was to making the lists of Baseball America or Keith Law. However, we do know that John Sickels did not include Wade in his Top 200 prospects, though ten other Yankees do.

And should we take anything away from the team’s handling of Wade? That is, shifting him between positions and leaving him at Double-A for the entirety of the season? The answer is almost certainly no, given that almost every Yankees shortstop prospect has played elsewhere – and that includes Gleyber Torres, even if it was only for one game. It does seem that the team views him as a utility player, as Brian Cashman routinely praises him for his versatility and athleticism, and notes how well he handled his outfield learning curve. As has been said before, though, that could me a great deal of nothing – after all, Cashman’s not going to call him the second baseman, shortstop, or center-fielder of the future.

Inevitably, this is most noteworthy for the discussion that it brings. Is the ranking justified? If so, what are we missing? If not, what is BP missing (or exaggerating)? Or are we as fans simply putting too much stock in lists of this nature? Regardless, we will probably see Wade in the Majors at some point this season, and he’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster after the season – so we should find out something sooner rather than later.

Prospect Profile: Domingo Acevedo

(MiLB.com)
(MiLB.com)

Domingo Acevedo | RHP

Background

Acevedo was signed out of the Dominican Republic in November of 2012 for the bargain bin price of $7,500. And that price isn’t the most suspect aspect of the signing, either. Rather, what stands out the most is that Acevedo signed at roughly 18-and-a-half years old, two-plus years after we see most players signed via international free agency. There is precious little information out there as to why he was signed so late, comparatively speaking, but the simplest explanation is often the best – meaning that Acevedo simply wasn’t viewed as much of a prospect between when he first became eligible back in 2010 and when he put pen to paper. To wit, he never cracked Baseball America’s top-thirty international prospects, nor was he mentioned in any of their write-ups prior to making his professional debut.

Update – Commenter Chip found out that Acevedo did not start playing baseball until he was 16 due to family commitments. I suppose that means that I was technically correct in saying that he wasn’t much of a prospect prior to signing, if only because he wasn’t an actual baseball player for all that long.

Pro Career

Acevedo was already 19 by the time he made his professional debut in 2013, when he spent the entirety of the season in the Dominican Summer League. He was a few months older than the average player at the level as a result, and he performed like a men among boys. Acevedo allowed a 2.63 ERA (1.95 FIP) in 41.0 IP, with a 24.2% strikeout rate against just 6.2% walks.

The Yankees sent Acevedo to the Gulf Coast League in 2014, but it was essentially a lost season. He tossed just 15.1 IP across five starts due to a variety of arm issues (which may be best described as dead arm), missing the better part of seven weeks after the calendar turned to July. There were reasons for optimism nevertheless, as he hit triple-digits in that limited action, and posted a 31.3% strikeout rate and 2.14 FIP.

It was on the heels of the abbreviated 2014 season that Acevedo first started appearing in the consciousness of Yankees fans and writers, and it’s not difficult to see why; after all, he was a towering 6’7″ figure that could throw a baseball 100-plus MPH. That’s enough to, at the very least, pique one’s curiosity.

Acevedo was assigned to Low-A Charleston to open 2015, and made one appearance before injuries struck again. It was a simple matter of blisters, luckily, and he was back in action on June 24, albeit for Short Season State Island. He spent the remainder of the 2015 regular season at that level, pitching to a 1.69 ERA (2.85 FIP) in 48.0 IP, to go along with 27.2% strikeouts and 7.7% walks.

Acevedo was sent to the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost time, and continue to impress in yet another small sample size. He tossed 12.0 IP across seven appearances (all in relief), allowing a 2.25 ERA in the hitter-friendly environs of the desert and striking out 22.0% of batters faced.

For all of this, Baseball America named him the third-best prospect in the New York-Penn League following the 2015 season, behind Andrew Benintendi of the Red Sox and Victor Robles of the Nationals.

Acevedo headed back to Charleston to open 2016, where he continued to dominate. He made eight starts at the level, pitching to the following line: 42.2 IP, 34 H, 7 BB, 48 K, 1.90 ERA, 2.02 FIP, 25.0 K-BB%. The Yankees promoted him to High-A Tampa in June, and it was more of the same – plenty of strikeouts (26.0%), low walk totals (7.2%), and solid run prevention (3.22 ERA) in 50.1 IP.

All told, Acevedo finished the 2016 season with a 2.61 ERA, 45.3 GB%, 5.9 BB%, and 27.2 K% in a career-high 93.0 IP. The only blemish on the season was his continued injury woes, as he missed time with leg and back maladies.

Scouting Report

When Acevedo first signed, he was about 6’6″ and a slender 190 pounds. He now checks in at 6’7″ and around 220 pounds (depending on the source – estimates range from 200 to 240), having filled out his gigantic frame with a fair bit of muscle. And, as one would expect from a pitcher of his size, he sits in the 95 to 97 MPH range with his fastball, and regularly flirts with the 100 MPH mark. Some scouts have clocked him as high as 103 on the gun, which elicits all sorts of strange feelings.

The fastball can run a bit true when Acevedo is trying to hit his spots, but it usually has a bit of late run to it. He controls the pitch quite well on the whole, pounding the strikezone and challenging hitters at the letters. Regardless, it’s a true plus-plus pitch that several scouts have thrown an 80-grade on.

Acevedo’s best secondary pitch is his mid-80s change-up, which has very good separation from his fastball and a bit of sink. He throws it for strikes with ease, and manages to pick up swings and misses, as well. It’s a solid average offering that flashes plus when he’s on the top of his game.

And then there’s the slider. Acevedo’s slider is a staggeringly inconsistent offering, in terms of both its velocity and shape. The discrepancy may be the fact that most scouts label the pitch as a slider, whereas Acevedo calls it a curve – so it may be a classification error of a sort. At its best, the pitch sits in the mid-to-upper 80s, with a sharp break that is closer to a cutter than it is a curveball. As is the case with his fastball and change-up, Acevedo consistently throws the pitch for strikes – it just doesn’t always look the same.

There are questions about his ability to command his offerings, due to his big velocity and bigger limbs, but he has made steady progress throughout his professional career. It’s the typical ‘command vs. control’ issue, but it’s promising to see Acevedo hitting triple-digits and maintaining sterling walk rates.

It’s also important to note that Acevedo does a surprisingly good job of repeating his delivery. He can get unbalanced at times, especially late in games, but his mechanics are far more advanced than most pitchers of his size and age – comparing his delivery to that of Dellin Betances at the same age, for example, is night and day. Nobody would call his mechanics perfect, yet there is room for optimism here.

2017 Outlook

If the Yankees follow their usual M.O., Acevedo will likely head back to Tampa to open the 2017 season. However, with continued success and a fewer nagging injuries, I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up at Double-A Trenton by Memorial Day. Acevedo, James Kaprielian, and Justus Sheffield could spend time in the same rotation this season (probably at Double-A), which would be an absolute blast.

My Take

Acevedo has several hurdles to overcome to reach ceiling, which may well be as a second or third starter. The fastball/change-up combination, above-average control, and mostly strong mechanics are encouraging, as is his ability to shake-off rust. However, his lack of a third pitch and injury history – even if his arm has been mostly fine since he returned to action in 2014 – is disconcerting. And, for that, he’s a divisive prospect, as evidenced by his ranking 15th on Mike’s Preseason Top 30 Yankees prospects, and 79th on John Sickels’ Top 200 MLB prospects list.

In short, there’s massive boom or bust potential here. I’d give him every opportunity to start, and rest assured that he has the tools to be a dynamic reliever if it comes to that.

Prospect Profile: Giovanny Gallegos

(Robert Pimpsner)
(Robert Pimpsner)

Giovanny Gallegos | RHP

Background

The 25-year-old Gallegos was signed by the Yankees for $100,000 in January of 2011. As per Baseball America, he was a part of a “package deal” with the Mexico City Red Devils, alongside Luis Niebla (now a member of the Rockies organization). The deal itself received little hype at the time, as is the case with most signings from the Mexican League. Gallegos underwent Tommy John Surgery before making his professional debut with the Yankees.

Pro Career

Gallegos finally made organizational debut in June of 2012, as a member of the GCL Yankees. He appeared in 12 games (four starts), and pitched to a 1.67 ERA in 27 IP. That ERA may sell his small sample size dominance a bit short, as he allowed just 22 base-runners and one home run in that time, while striking out 22. Gallegos followed that up by pitching for his hometown Yaquis de Obregon in the Mexican Pacific Winter League (LPW), where he struggled to the tune of an 8.44 ERA (albeit in just 5.1 IP).

He moved up to the short-season NYPL in 2013, where he spent the entirety of the regular season in the starting rotation. Gallegos made sixteen starts, and pitched to the following line: 65.1 IP, 71 H, 14 BB, 43 K, 4.27 ERA, 4.44 FIP. It was an uninspiring line, to say the least, but it was a full, healthy season that was once again followed by a stint in the LPW (he put up a 4.26 ERA in 6.1 IP).

The Yankees continued to move Gallegos up the ladder in 2014, and he spent the season with Low-A Charleston. The result was another middling season, as he posted a 4.57 ERA in 88.2 IP, spread over 29 appearances (six of which were starts). A silver lining was beginning to show, though, as Gallegos posted a 1.93 BB/9 for the second season in a row, which played a large role in his much better looking 3.45 FIP. He wrapped-up the 2014 calendar year pitching in the LPW, cruising to a 1.69 ERA in 16 IP.

Gallegos broke out in 2015, the majority of which he spent at High-A Tampa. In 53.1 IP at the level (all in relief), he had a 1.35 ERA, 26.9 K%, 3.5 BB%, and a 2.13 FIP. He ranked in the top-five in the Florida State League in ERA, FIP, K%, BB%, and K-BB%, and he didn’t allow an earned run in his last eleven appearances (or 17 IP). Gallegos floated between Double-A and Triple-A, too, posting a 3.72 ERA and 5.0 K/BB in 9.2 IP in the upper minors.

He struggled mightily in the LPW that winter, with an atrocious 10.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 9 IP. Thankfully, that did not carry over to 2016.

Last year saw Gallegos earn his place on the Yankees 40-man roster (thereby avoiding the Rule 5 draft), owing to his 1.27 ERA in 78.0 IP between Double-A and Triple-A. His overall numbers look somewhat video game-y, as he had more strikeouts (106) that hits, walks, and home runs combined (70). The lone blemish on his season was a 36.53% ground ball rate, which had precious little impact on the bottom line.

Scouting Report

Gallegos is a 6’2″, 210-pound right-handed batter and thrower, with a surprisingly well-rounded arsenal. His fastball sits in the 92-95 MPH range with a bit of run, and his above-average mid-70s curveball is his go-to secondary pitch. He’ll also throw a high-70s slider and low-80s change-up in longer outings, and both pitches can flash average when he’s on.

As one would suspect based upon his numbers, Gallegos has well above-average command and control. He attacks hitters within the zone, and does a fine job of painting the corners (particularly on the inner-half). That applies to all four of his offerings, as well, though upwards of ninety-percent of his pitch selection revolves around the fastball and curve.

Gallegos’ inability to find consistency with his slider and change-up led to the Yankees removing him from the rotation, and the results support that decision. And that doesn’t just apply to the numbers, either, as his velocity sat in the 87 to 89 MPH range as a starter, which simply isn’t enough without a ton of sink and a couple of plus off-speed pitches.

2017 Outlook

Gallegos is on the 40-man roster, and there’s every reason to believe that he will be afforded an opportunity to make the team’s roster in Spring Training. (He will play for Mexico in the WBC, however.) The bullpen may well have upwards of three slots open to competition, and I’d be shocked if he didn’t at least follow in the proud tradition of shuttle riders of Yankees past. I suspect that we’ll see a fair amount of Gallegos in the show this year.

My Take

If Gallegos ends up being a competent reliever, he may well represent a steal for $100,000 a half-dozen years ago. I don’t think that he has the profile of a light’s out reliever that could fill a set-up or closer role, but I do see him as more capable than the fungible sorts that the Yankees churn through with gusto. The fact that he has averaged better than one and two-thirds innings per outing as a reliever could prove immensely useful to this year’s team, too.

Update: Yankees agree to one-year deal with Chris Carter

(Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Update (7:04pm ET by Mike): The deal is worth $3.5M guaranteed, not $3M, says Ken Rosenthal. The plate appearance incentives can push the total value to $4M.

Update (3:08pm ET by Mike): According to Bob Nightengale, the Yankees have agreed to a one-year deal with Carter, pending physical. It’ll pay him a $3M base salary plus incentives. Carter gets a $500,000 signing bonus plus an extra $100,000 each for 250, 300, 350, 400, and 450 plate appearances.

Original Post (12:30pm ET): As per Jerry Crasnick of ESPN and Baseball America, the Yankees have some semblance of interest in former Brewer and current free agent 1B/DH Chris Carter. The front office has been in contact with Carter’s agent, Dave Stewart (yes, that Dave Stewart), but that accounts for all that we know at this point in time.

Carter was non-tendered by the Brewers early in the off-season, on the heels of a solid 2016 in which the 30-year-old batted .222/.321/.499 (112 wRC+) and led the National League in both home runs (41) … and strikeouts (206). The Brewers decision was likely influenced by his poor defensive contributions and expected $8 MM-plus price tag, as Carter’s iron glove at first limited him to just 0.9 fWAR. They are in the midst of a tear-down and rebuild, so it makes sense that they would look to invest their payroll and playing time elsewhere.

The question for the Yankees is rather simple – where would Carter play?

Carter has been a 1B/DH almost exclusively since 2014, though he has played 79 games in the outfield in his career. Unsurprisingly, the 6’5″, 245-plus pound slugger was an unmitigated disaster out there, with a career -29.7 UZR/150 (or an ugly .951 fielding percentage, if you want to keep it simple). In short, unless the Yankees are feeling particularly adventurous, Carter’s role would be a back-up/platoon partner for Greg Bird at first.

The likelihood of Carter settling for a back-up or platoon role may not be all that great, as Ken Rosenthal recently reported that Carter is “looking for more at-bats than he probably would get from the Dodgers, who likely would play him at first base against left-handed pitching and give him an occasional start in left field.” Rosenthal also spoke with the aforementioned Stewart, who said that “[i]t’s going to be important for Chris to get significant playing time.”

That expectation also suggests that Carter is looking for a guaranteed Major League deal. He made $4.175 MM in 2015, and was subsequently non-tendered by the Astros. The Brewers picked him up for just $2.5 MM last year, and now here we are. Carter was non-tendered after the free agent predictions list came out in early to mid-November, so there isn’t much guesswork out there. Do we compare him to Matt Holliday, who the Yankees signed for $13 MM? What about Mitch Moreland, who was picked up by the Red Sox for $5.5 MM? Or will he have to settle for something less, considering that it’s a week before Spring Training and other RHH 1B/DH types like Mike Napoli (though, he has been linked to the Rangers) and Billy Butler are still available?

As of now, there are two distinct possibilities that stand out to me. The first is that the Yankees are looking for an insurance policy for Bird and/or Tyler Austin, and are merely doing their due diligence. And the other is that this is a tried-and-true example of a player’s agent using the Yankees name to try to put his player front and center (which we are playing into with this very post). Either way, it’s fun to imagine Carter crushing baseballs into the Bronx skyline.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: C.J. Wilson

(Ben Margot / Associated Press)
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

With Spring Training a week and change away, the Yankees seem to be comfortable with the status quo. That is, a rotation featuring Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and two of Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Jordan Montgomery, Adam Warren, Dietrich Enns, and Chance Adams. Despite the team’s commitment to the rebuild/reload, many remain skeptical that the team will head into a new season with forty-percent of the rotation in the hands of relatively inexperienced pitchers; and yet their commitment to maintaining a (comparatively) low payroll and the lack of options available may not give them much of a choice. If only there was some way to scrape the bottom of the bargain bin and find some experience…

…enter C.J. Wilson. The 36-year-old wrapped-up his 5-year, $77.5 MM deal with the Angels last season, after producing roughly league-average marks across the board (96 ERA+, 2.0 bWAR/2.9 fWAR per-162). Of course, that’s a bit misleading, as he hasn’t pitched since 2015. Which leads to:

Injury History

Despite some misgivings about Wilson transitioning from reliever to starter back in 2010, he was the portrait of durability for five seasons. He made at least 31 starts and tossed at least 175.2 IP every season from 2010 through 2014. It looked to be more of the same in 2015, as he made his first 21 starts without incident. Unfortunately, his season ended after his July 28 start, as he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his left (pitching) elbow.

Wilson was slated to be ready in time for Spring Training in 2016, as the surgery was said to be a complete success. It’s never quite that easy with pitchers, though, and his rehab started and stopped several times, as he experienced pain in his left shoulder. An MRI dismissed it as tendinitis, and a return engagement was set for May or June. That proved to be too ambitious, as Wilson’s season ended before it started, and he had surgery to repair fraying in his labrum and rotator cuff.

Wilson began a throwing program in December, and there is talk that he’ll have a showcase for teams within the coming weeks. A timetable for his return to a big league mound remains up in the air, however.

Recent Performance

Prior to going down with his elbow injury in 2015, Wilson was bouncing back nicely from his subpar 2014. Prior to his last start (from which he was removed with elbow pain), he had pitched to a 3.59 ERA (3.77 FIP) in 128.0 IP, with a 20.1 K%, 8.1 BB%, and 43.1 GB%. Those numbers are right in-line with his career norms, with the exception of his ground ball percentage. To wit:

wilson-gb

Wilson was good to great at burning worms for the majority of his career, but his ground ball rates have dipped to merely mortal levels of late. He has never been better than average at racking up whiffs or avoiding walks, so keeping the ball on the ground was the key to his success. The fact that he was mostly effective despite the lack of grounders in 2015 is an encouraging sign, though.

All told, in his six-ish seasons as a starting pitcher, Wilson threw 1171.1 IP of 3.76 ERA (3.78 FIP) ball, with close to league-average strikeout (20.3%) and walk (9.7%) rates.

Current Stuff

It’s difficult to know what Wilson’s current stuff is, because we haven’t seen him throw a pitch in nearly 17 months. Prior to the injuries, however, his velocity remained fairly steady.

brooksbaseball-chart

Wilson’s four-seamer, change-up, curveball, and slider all remained fairly steady during his time as a starting pitcher, which is a good (if surprising) sign. His sinker velocity has dipped about two MPH since 2010, including nearly a full MPH between 2014 and 2015. His cutter has fluctuated in usage and velocity, as well. That may explain his decreased ground ball tendencies; whether or not it was a product of bone spurs and a frayed rotator cuff and labrum remains to be seen.

If we assume that Wilson would return with his stuff mostly intact, we would be discussing a true six-pitch pitcher, as he has thrown all six of his offerings at least 5% of the time as a starter. His ability to mix and match has allowed him to keep batters off-balance in the past, inducing weak contact even when the sinker wasn’t sinking.

Contract Estimate

You couldn’t see it, but I assure you that I just shrugged.

Neither FanGraphs, nor MLB Trade Rumors, nor ESPN hazarded a guess at Wilson’s potential contract for 2017, and his market has been mostly quiet. The Marlins have been linked to him a few times, but nothing more substantial than tepid interest has been discussed. With a handful of healthy arms remaining on the market, it’s difficult to imagine teams breaking down the door to offer Wilson something more than an incentive-laden deal – and perhaps a minor league deal with an opt-out, at that. Barring desperation from some team or a ridiculously brilliant showcase from Wilson, I don’t see him getting more than that.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

I was interested in Wilson back when he signed with the Angels, and that intrigue still exists. It has been significantly tempered, of course, yet there are reasons to believe that he could fit in well with the Yankees.

Wilson was a solid starting pitcher the last time he took the mound, and his velocity indicators were mostly good. He’s 36 and hasn’t pitched in nearly a year and a half, which is disconcerting, but he also has less mileage on his arm than most starters of his age. A left-handed starting pitcher in Yankee Stadium will always be in demand, and Wilson’s track record suggests that he could be a match (particularly if his ground ball rates recover). Small sample sizes and selective endpoints be damned, it’s fun to note that Wilson sports a 2.73 ERA in 62.2 IP in Yankee Stadium,

There is no easy or legitimate way to explain away the risk, and I wouldn’t suggest that we should even try to. The opportunity cost is likely to be quite low, though, and depth is never a bad thing. And even if the best-case scenario is a return engagement in the bullpen, Wilson has held lefties to a .201/.284/.286 slash line in his career, and has experience closing.

Prospect Profile: Nestor Cortes

(MiLB.com)
(MiLB.com)

Nestor Cortes | LHP

Background

Cortes (22-years-old as of December 10) was born and raised in Hialeah, the sixth-largest city in the state of Florida. He attended Hialeah High School, which is at least semi-well-known for winning back-to-back state titles in baseball in 2001 and 2002, and for being the alma mater of former Yankee Bucky Dent, the knuckleballing Charlie Hough, and Gio Gonzalez (who transferred after his junior season). Cortes was no slouch in high school, and was named a Louisville Slugger Pre-Season High School All-American and a Florida All-Region 1st Teamer by Perfect Game USA heading into his senior year, and winning the Most Outstanding Player award in the prestigious Sunshine Classic a few months later.

The Yankees drafted Cortes in the 36th round (1094th overall) in the 2013 draft, and bought him out of a commitment to Florida International. The best player drafted at that position is probably Mark Johnson, who batted .232/.338/.402 (95 wRC+) over parts of seven seasons, amassing 1.4 fWAR along the way.

Pro Career

Cortes made his professional debut at the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League, and performed fairly well. He pitched to a 4.42 ERA (2.26 FIP) in 18.1 IP, allowing 22 hits and 5 walks while striking out 20. Cortes returned to the GCL in 2014, and improved across the board to the tune of 31.2 IP, 35 H, 5 BB, 38 K, and a 2.27 ERA (2.09 FIP). He appeared in just 21 games (five of which were starts) over those first two years, as the Yankees brought him along slowly.

It was in 2015 that Cortes first sprung into the consciousness of the more prospect-inclined Yankees fans, as he was borderline dominant in the Appalachian League. His 2.26 ERA was fourth among pitchers who tossed at least 30 IP, and his 63.2 IP were third in the league. He also racked up 9.3 K/9 against just 1.4 BB/9 and 6.8 H/9. As a result of his strong production, Cortes was named an Appalachian League All-Star after the season.

Cortes had what some would call a breakout season in 2016, splitting his season between Low-A and High-A, and making cameo appearances at Double-A and Triple-A. He made short work of the South Atlantic League, posting a 0.79 ERA (2.48 FIP) and 5.00 K/BB in 68.1 IP. The brilliance continued at High-A (albeit in just 28.0 IP), as he managed a 3.21 ERA (2.25 FIP) and 7.75 K/BB. All told, Cortes threw 108.1 innings of 1.53 ERA ball, with 4.79 K/BB.

Cortes also spent time in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, appearing in 6 games and throwing 7.2 IP. His 4.70 ERA and 7.04 BB/9 were ugly, but he struck out 10 batters in those innings, and didn’t allow a home run in the bandboxes and dryness of the desert.

Scouting Report

I won’t bury the lede here: Cortes is optimistically listed at 5’11” and 190 pounds. He is a solid, strong, and athletic 5’11” and 190 pounds – but it’s difficult for many to overlook his comparatively slight build.

Cortes works with a four-pitch arsenal, and is generally described as a ‘pitchability’ or ‘finesse’ southpaw as a result. His fastball sits in the upper-80s to low-90s range (reaching 93 at its best), and he has strong command of the offering. The difference between his fastball and his mid-70s change-up helps him pick up whiffs, as he does a good job of repeating his delivery and release point on both pitches. He also throws a low-to-mid 70s curve and a slider in the upper-70s.

It’s largely a command and control profile, but his fastball and change-up play up a bit due to the natural deception in his delivery. Cortes hides the ball well in his wind-up, which helps to alleviate the issues presented by his shorter frame. Preventing batters from picking up the ball for an additional split second or two mitigates the extra distance between his release point and home plate when compared to the average 6’2″ or 6’3″ starting pitcher.

2017 Outlook

Cortes will probably open the season back at High-A Tampa, though I wouldn’t be shocked if he was give a shot at Double-A; it may well depend on how he performs in the Spring. The Yankees willingness to bounce him to Double-A and Triple-A in times of need and his time in the Arizona Fall League may indicate that they’re going to be aggressive. Barring an injury or poor performance, he’ll end up at Double-A by the time the Summer roles around.

My Take

There have been some strange comparisons made with Cortes already, ranging from Manny Banuelos (both are short lefties, get it?) to Ramiro Mendoza (as he, too, bounced between starting and relieving – though Mendoza was a sinkerballer, and Cortes … isn’t). The truth is that Cortes is going to face an uphill battle finding success in the Majors, if only because the track record of success for pitchers of his build and stuff is minimal.

That being said, the Yankees are always in need of left-handed specialists, and prefer those that could handle righties in a pinch. Cortes’s deception should make him a nightmare to face for lefties, and his command and fringe-average stuff could help him be competent against opposite-handed hitters. The bullpen feels like his ultimate role, in short – but they should give him a chance to ply his trade against upper-level hitters nonetheless.