“I believe we need another starter.”
Yankees fans know this, but it still felt good to hear it from ownership. Had the Yankees planned to pick from scrapheap options, Hal Steinbrenner might have said something else. I think our young guys are up to the task, he might have said. Instead he came right out and acknowledged the need for another starter.
By “another starter,” Steinbrenner does not necessarily refer to Tanaka. He could refer to Paul Maholm, Joe Saunders, or even Johan Santana: low-cost guys who could provide the team a few alternatives to in-house candidates.
But after hearing such a proclamation from the owner himself, are fans really going to accept one of those retreads? Chances are fans wouldn’t accept one of those retreads even absent Steinbrenner’s statement. We’ll be even less accepting given his overt praise of Tanaka. “This is a great, young pitcher. I’m sure he’ll come here and do great things with someone.”
So do whatever it takes to sign him.
It is absolutely clear to everyone, from the casual fan who tuned out after the Beltran signing to ownership itself, that the current crop of starters won’t get the Yankees through the 2014 season. Supplementing that crew with a few back-end, at best, pitchers and minor league signings will not change the scenario much. They need Tanaka, Jimenez, Garza, or (shudders) Santana.
Perhaps Steinbrenner is just trying to keep expectations low with his “we’ll see what happens.” It certainly seems as though at least one Yankees official is trying to tamp expectations: “Just because he had great success over there doesn’t mean he’s going to be lights out here. We’ll find out soon enough, but it’s not like he’s a sure-fire thing. I’d like to think so, but I’m not convinced.”
There is a certain necessity in keeping expectations low. Many teams remain interested in Tanaka, so the Yankees are anything but guaranteed to sign him. They’d clearly like to, and if forced to interpret Steinbrenner’s remarks I’d say that they’ll go pretty far in their efforts to obtain his services. But if a team like the Cubs blows them out of the water, they need to cover themselves. And so we get Steinbrenner hedging a bit, and we get anonymous officials trying to lower the bar.
Don’t let this game of expectations confuse the reality, though. The Yankees absolutely need Tanaka. If they don’t land him, they’re almost forced to try for one of the remaining trio. Anything else would, put a serious damper on an otherwise solid off-season, as a rival official said.
“If you don’t get Tanaka, it kind of nullifies some of what you’ve added to the offense.”
Just nine days remain in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. Chances are we’ll know the winner even before that, since nine days is the deadline by which he must sign on the dotted line. He could come to an agreement within a week.
Speculation has run rampant, but we’ve had little in the way of actual reports about Tanaka. It seems as though his agent, Casey Close, has done a good job of preventing leaks from MLB teams. A few “reports out of Japan” have circulated, but since the original “reports out of Japan” indicated Tanaka wouldn’t be posted at all, it’s easy enough to dismiss those.
It does seem as though most media outlets agree that the Yankees and the Dodgers hold the best shots of signing Tanaka. Early in the process the Mariners looked like a good bet, and the Diamondbacks continue to linger. But right now, it would be a surprise to see him sign anywhere in between the two coasts.
At this moment the Yankees could be in an advantageous position. Ken Rosenthal reported this morning that the Dodgers attention is now on their own ace, Clayton Kershaw. With arbitration figures due on Friday, the Dodgers are eager to lock up Kershaw, likely to a record deal.
This situation could present the Yankees with an opportunity: make Tanaka an offer in mold of the one they made CC Sabathia in 2008. No, it shouldn’t be six years and $140 million, but it should certainly be a bold and aggressive offer, one Tanaka would have trouble rejecting. It shouldn’t be their best offer, either; as we saw with Sabahtia, there has to be at least a little upward flexibility.
Given that Tanaka has nine days to sign, regardless of an offer, he could simply defer a decision until after the Kershaw situation becomes clearer. But that shouldn’t stop the Yankees from stepping in and making an aggressive move while the opposition focuses elsewhere. Strike now.
The BBWAA announced that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Craig Biggio fell just short at 74.8 percent, which is only two votes shy.
Don Mattingly lives to appear on another ballot, collecting 8.2 percent of the vote. Mike Mussina, in his first year, got about 20 percent of the vote. It won’t get easier for these two, or any of the other guys on the ballot, next year when John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez make their first appearances.
Masahiro Tanaka might be on our minds, but he’s no sure thing. Plenty of teams will bid for his services, and more than one source considers the Mariners, not the Yankees, as the frontrunners.* If they don’t land Tanaka they’ll certainly have to look elsewhere for a starter. Even if they do, it wouldn’t hurt to add another reliable arm to the fold.
*The Yankees simply can’t lose Tanaka to the Mariners, can they? Imagine losing the top pitcher and the top hitter on the FA market to the friggin’ Mariners. I can’t see Yankees’ ownership letting that happen.
Earlier in the off-season, after the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, we heard rumblings about Homer Bailey of the Reds. After losing Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds need both a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. They have ample pitching, and might not be able to sign Bailey beyond 2014, after which he becomes a free agent. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer speculates that the Reds could create some payroll space for more moves (GM Walt Jocketty says they’re out of money) by trading Bailey and his projected $9 million salary. If that’s the case, the Yankees will certainly be on the phone.
- After a rough start to his career, Bailey has turned into a fine pitcher. He might not be an ace, but he’s solidified himself as a No. 2 or No. 3 option in the last couple of seasons.
- In the last two seasons Bailey has shown great durability, making 65 starts and throwing 517 innings, 12th most in baseball. His 3.58 ERA ranks 35th (out of 74) among qualified starters, and his 5.7 bWAR ranks 29th out of 80 pitchers who made at least 50 starts over the last two seasons.
- Fearful of an NL pitcher entering the Yankee Stadium bandbox? Bailey has made his home starts at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, which has had a higher home run park factor than Yankee Stadium for the past three years.*
- Bailey has a relatively clean bill of health. After some shoulder issues earlier in his career — he missed time with inflammation in 2010 and an impingement in 2011 (plus a shoulder sprain while hitting that year), he has missed no time in 2012 or 2013.
- In the last few seasons Bailey has started employing a two-seamer more frequently, resulting in more ground balls (though he is by no means a ground ball pitcher). An increase in that trend can go a long way in Yankee Stadium.
- Bailey won’t come for free, of course. The Reds value him greatly, and have even discussed an extension with him. Chances are they can’t afford him, but he is a good pitcher on a contender. They don’t get dealt often.
- Brett Gardner might seem like a surplus player at this point, but he can, and likely will, play an important role on the 2014 Yankees. Without a permanent DH, the Yankees will have plenty of at-bats for four outfielders. Absent Gardner, that becomes Ichiro (or perhaps, best case, Zoilo Almonte). That’s quite a downgrade.
- Because it appears the Reds don’t need to deal Bailey, they could demand more than just Gardner, which makes the deal even less palatable.
- Looking for a con for Bailey himself…it’s sometimes a dicey proposition adding a fly ball NL pitcher to Yankee Stadium, but Bailey does show signs that he can adapt.
In himself Bailey looks like a fine option for the Yankees. Even if they don’t trade for him, they could seek him out when he hits free agency after the 2014 season. Of course, with a third straight strong campaign he could be in line for a nine-figure contract.
The Yankees are handcuffed. It’s not as bad as feared earlier this off-season. They managed to add a number of players who will help in 2014 and beyond. But at the moment, despite their stated need for a right-handed infield bat, the Yankees will not make a move. The reason, once you break it down, is fairly obvious.
On the roster the Yankees have 11 position players under contract, though only one catcher. The backup catcher brings the total position players to 12, one short of the typical 13 they carry during the regular season. It might seem as though they have room for one more, but this projection doesn’t account for the man in limbo, Alex Rodriguez. Given the roster numbers, the Yankees really can’t do anything until they know his fate.
At this point, a complete overturning of the suspension is the best-case scenario. It didn’t always feel that way; with the shackles of Plan 189 looming, a full-season suspension seemed like the only way the Yankees could spend this off-season. Yet they’ve spent plenty of money before knowing how Fredic Horowitz will rule in the A-Rod matter. If he overturns the suspension completely, or even reduces it to 50 games, the Yankees will soar past the $189 million luxury tax limit without making a single other move.
“I think if people think there’s some sort of benefit by losing that talent, I mean, you can’t replace it. It’s not like, all right, well, Alex is gone. If he winds up getting suspended and it’s upheld, how do you replace that? It’s not easy.
“It’s not like, all right, we’ll take that money and go in this direction. I think … our fan base saw when we lost significant players at various positions, it was not easy to plug holes because the talent just doesn’t exist.”
No infielder on the market comes close to even an aged and injury-prone A-Rod. Even Yankees fans who hate the man’s guts should be rooting for him to stand at third base on Opening Day. We root for the laundry, right? Mark Reynolds or Jeff Baker might successfully play a role on the 2014 team with A-Rod suspended, but neither will match him in terms of overall production. Since they are role players, chances are they’ll remain on the board until the decision. Even if not, missing out on them is no huge loss.
True, the Yankees also seem handcuffed by the Masahiro Tanaka situation, but that’s another post for another day (or maybe today, who knows). That handcuffing seems a bit more damaging for a number of reasons, including the implications on spending. But with A-Rod, a complete overturn or even 50 games is a pure win for the 2014 team, while a full-season suspension leave them looking for an inferior right-handed-hitting infielder.
Once it became clear that they weren’t making progress with Robinson Cano, the Yankees acted. They moved quickly on Jacoby Ellsbury, but weren’t quite done yet. As Newsday’s David Lennon said, the Yankees were ready to act the night before Cano signed with Seattle. Once the signing was confirmed, it was pretty obvious that they’d sign a hitter in short order. When we learned that hitter was Carlos Beltran, it was no surprise. The Yankees had been linked to Beltran not only earlier this off-season, but also in 2011 and 2004. The fit seemed obvious.
Yet it appears Beltran might not have been the Yankees’ top choice. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan shares an anecdote that shines a different light on the situation.
In the aftermath of Robinson Cano’s defection to Seattle, New York presented Choo a seven-year, $140 million deal, three sources outside the Yankees’ organization told Yahoo Sports. When Boras countered asking for more money – one source indicated he wanted “Ellsbury money,” or $153 million over seven years – the Yankees pulled the offer and signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal.
With four starting outfielders now in the fold, it’s unlikely that the Yankees will get back into Choo talks. It wouldn’t seem a wise use of resources, given the needs of the pitching staff. But it’s interesting to see that the Yankees were willing to spend $20 million per year for seven years on Choo, rather than the $15 million per year for three years on Beltran.
It might seem foolish to turn down such money, but Boras is known for doing right by his clients. Chances are Choo will stay on the market for the time being; with at least a half dozen, and more realistically a dozen, teams pursuing Masahiro Tanaka, there could be a few losers with money to spend. At that point, one of them will probably ante up “Ellsbury money” to get the deal done.
Jack Curry of YES reports that the Yankees have signed left-handed reliever Matt Thornton to a two-year, $7 million contract. It might seem as though he replaces Boone Logan, who recently signed a three-year deal with the Rockies, but Thornton probably isn’t the setup man we saw the past few years in Chicago. Today his value is more as a lefty specialist.
A former first-round pick (Seattle in 1998), Thornton struggled upon promotion to the big leagues. In Spring Training 2006 the Mariners swapped him for fellow first-round disappointment Joe Borchard. The White Sox easily got the better of that deal, as Thornton blossomed into an effective reliever who worked his way into late-inning roles.* From 2008 through 2010 Thoronton threw 200 innings with a 2.70 ERA, which amounted to the third-highest bWAR in that time frame among relievers (Mariano Rivera, of course, was first).
*White Sox GM Rick Hahn, then the assistant GM, spoke to a room of FanGraphs writers in 2010; Mike and I were both in the audience. In talking about why Thornton succeeded in Chicago after failing in Seattle, Hahn said that they didn’t try to make Thornton into a pitcher he wasn’t. Paraphrased, Hahn said, “He told us he wanted to throw the ball as hard as he could right down the fuckin’ middle, so we let him.” It sure seemed to work.
In recent years Thornton has slipped quite a bit. At a time when strikeout rates have risen his has fallen, from a peak of 12 per nine in 2010, to 6.2 per nine last year. That production dip has come mostly against right-handed hitters. After holding them to a .254 wOBA in 2010, he grew worse in each of the last three years, all the way to a .370 wOBA against righties in 2013. It is pretty apparent now that Thornton is a lefty-only guy, making him a bit less versatile than Logan, who played more of a full-inning setup role during his final two years in New York.
Through the years Thornton has remained durable, serving just two DL stints since suffering a herniated disc all the way back in 2003. The first was for forearm soreness in 2010, which is always cringe-worthy. Obviously he’s avoided the dreaded Tommy John Surgery that often follows such a diagnosis. His other stint was last summer, with an abdominal strain. They happen, though it can’t be encouraging. The Yanks will need Thorton at full strength to make a difference.
This signing will not end the Yankees’ search for bullpen help. Joel Sherman notes that they also want to add a late-inning reliever. Given the risk with the Thornton signing, they might prefer Joaquin Benoit to the injured Jesse Crain. Who knows: maybe they’ll go nuts and sign both. But whatever the case, as with Roberts, Thornton is a complementary signing. They still have a ways to go, even as far as bullpen construction goes.
Yankees fans might remember the Brian Roberts in the video above, but that’s not the Brian Roberts the Yankees signed today. According to Jon Morosi and Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees have agreed to a one-year deal with Roberts, worth $2 million plus incentives. That’s a relatively low-risk deal, giving them a potentially serviceable player without the commitment required to sign Omar Infante*. But in order for this to work, the Yankees need to spend in a few more areas.
*I’ve seen a lot of people asking why the Yankees didn’t match or trump the Cardinals’ offer for Mark Ellis. Who’s to even say the Yankees even knew the Cardinals made Ellis an offer? The Cardinals are the class of MLB right now. If I were the 37-year-old Ellis and the Cardinals offered me $5 or so million, I might take it without looking elsewhere.
An infield consisting of Mark Teixeira plus some rotation that includes Roberts, Derek Jeter, Brendan Ryan, and Kelly Johnson just isn’t going to get the job done. Given his injury history it’s doubtful Roberts can play an everyday role. Limited to part-time duty, the Yanks would need someone else to cover reps at second. If that’s Johnson, they’ll need someone to cover reps at third. Adding Eduardo Nunez to this rotation does little to bolster it, so outside help is still necessary.
When word broke last night, Rosenthal said that a Roberts signing doesn’t mean the end of the Yankees’ infield pursuit. They could still add Mark Reynolds, he says, a player who seems to fit in that he provides right-handed power and can play third base — though “play” is a relative term here. His defense at third has always been suspect, and that’s not likely to get better as he ages. But in the short-term, the Yankees could do a lot worse.
The wild card here is Alex Rodriguez. Asked to guess, I still think he gets a 50-game suspension, which would give the Yankees another decent option in that infield rotation. Then again, A-Rod hasn’t exactly been a bastion of durability in the last few years. Joe Girardi will have to manage both him and Roberts carefully in order to keep them on the field (and A-Rod not clogging the DH slot). If A-Rod is suspended, the Yankees absolutely should look into other options. Rosenthal mentions Mariners 2B Dustin Ackley, though he’s another reclamation project. The options do seem thin at this point.
If the Yankees are going to get by with low-cost fliers in the infield, they have to spend elsewhere in order to fortify other weaknesses. If they sign two relief pitchers — Joaquin Benoit and Jesse Crain would work — and also Masahiro Tanaka, they could be in decent shape. In other words, spending money to fill three of four needed positions, while taking a flier on the other, isn’t such a bad deal. But with the flier coming first, we have to hope that they do spend the money on those other needs.
As for Roberts himself, it’s difficult to expect much at this point. At 36 years old, and with his injury slate, he’s not going to come close to his numbers from his late 20s. Even if you give him a break and don’t count his first games back from a hamstring injury last year, he still hit only .253/.321/.404 in his final 252 PA. That’s probably better than what the Yanks would get from in-house options Dean Anna, Jose Pirela, and Corban Joseph. It might also be better than Omar Infante. But it’s not a given that Roberts can reproduce these numbers. Even if he can, it won’t be over 600 PA. His replacement could drag down the second base situation.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Roberts at this point. From 2007 through 2009 he played in 470 of 486 possible games, producing a 114 OPS+ and stealing 120 bags. In 2010 he missed 91 games with an abdominal strain. The next year he suffered a concussion that he says he didn’t truly recover from until some time in late 2012. Even when he came back in mid-2012, before he underwent surgery to repair his hip labrum, he says he didn’t feel 100 percent. Even when he did feel like himself in 2013, he tore a hamstring tendon, requiring surgery that caused him to miss 79 games.
Perhaps Roberts can make it through 400 PA this season without issue. We’ve seen it before. But to count on it is not sound strategy. If this move makes them more comfortable spending money on two relievers and a starter, it could work. They’ll need another cost-effective infield move to make it work, but it still could work. But by itself, this move still leaves the Yanks wanting.