Buying at the trade deadline [2017 Season Review]

Without the 2017 deadline, there's no thumbs down! (Getty Images)
Without the 2017 deadline, there’s no thumbs down! (Getty Images)

In 2016, the Yankees sold at the trade deadline, signaling time for a rebuild. A year later? The tables had turned with the Yankees as buyers looking to bolster a club already in playoff contention.

Through two big deals and a few smaller ones, Brian Cashman was able to give the Bombers an extra boost they needed for the stretch run, October and beyond.

July 19
Yankees receive: Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle
White Sox receive: Blake Rutherford, Tyler Clippard, Ian Clarkin and Tito Polo

In one move, the Yankees solved multiple problems. Need another corner infielder in case Greg Bird doesn’t come back? There’s Frazier. Need to bolster the bullpen that’s gotten slightly overused? Robertson and Kahnle. It was a perfect move.

It did cost the Yankees, but not irreparably. They had to deal Rutherford just a year after drafting him in the first round. While he has plenty of potential, he’s yet to show any power. Clarkin and Polo likely wouldn’t have been protected in the Rule 5 draft, so they were expendable (Clarkin was added to the White Sox’ 40-man, Polo was not after getting hurt in the Arizona Fall League).

And somehow Tyler Clippard got himself traded to the Astros and won a World Series ring. Go figure.

We’ve already written about Frazier, D-Rob and Kahnle‘s respective impact in our season review series, but each has potential impact beyond this season. Robertson is under contract for 2018 while Kahnle won’t be a free agent until 2021. That’s a lot of value, even if the Yankees don’t re-sign the ToddFather.

As far as 2017, they each filled their roles to a tee. Frazier fixed the Yankees’ last hole in the lineup and brought energy to the club (Thumbs Down!). Robertson and Kahnle were studs down the stretch and in the postseason.

July 30
Yankees receive: Jaime Garcia
Twins receive: Dietrich Enns and Zack Littell

Garcia represented a fill-in for the Yankees’ rotation, an extra arm to allow Jordan Montgomery to throw fewer innings in the second half. As a rental, there was no expectation of him sticking around and it’s not like the Yankees expected him to start in the postseason.

He ultimately gave the Yanks 37 1/3 kinda-sorta average innings over eight forgettable starts before throwing 2 2/3 innings in ALDS Game 1. Remember that outing? He wasn’t bad, walking two and striking out three while absorbing eight outs.

Enns made two appearances for the Twins, allowing four runs (three earned) on seven hits over four innings. He was probably getting DFA’d or outrighted in the offseason, so he was highly expendable.

Littell less so. The 22-year-old righty acquired for James Pazos had a remarkable year between High-A and Double-A in 2017. Between the Yankees’ and Twins’ organizations, he threw 157 innings, struck out 142 and had a 2.12 ERA while going 19-1.

He is a new member of the Twins’ 40-man roster. He may not have made the Yankees’ roster this offseason, but he could be someone the Yanks regret dealing.

Playoff Sonny (Abbie Parr/Getty)
Playoff Sonny (Abbie Parr/Getty)

July 31
Yankees receive: Sonny Gray and International Bonus Pool Money
Athletics receive: Dustin Fowler, James Kaprielian and Jorge Mateo

This deal made all the sense in the world. Getting 2.5 years of Gray for three prospects, two of whom were injured and one likely blocked.

Who knows if Kaprielian can stay healthy at this point? He has the stuff to pitch in the majors if he ever does stay on the mound, but that’s seeming less and less likely. Fowler had a pretty bad knee injury and the Yankees had Clint Frazier, not to mention Gardner, Judge, Hicks and Ellsbury in the majors (and now Giancarlo!).

Mateo seemed to have broken out after reaching Double A Trenton, but he was blocked by plenty of outfielders, just like Fowler.

So the Yankees dealt from a position of strength and added Gray, who had two playoff starts after a solid end to the season. He had some homer issues, but he’s still a good middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Yankees and much more affordable than similar arms on the current free-agent market. Even with the strong potential of all three players given up, it’s a deal the Yankees should make every time.

The other trades

– While the Yankees picked up bonus money in the Gray deal, they also dealt two possible Rule 5 picks for extra money in July. They dealt RHPs Matt Wotherspoon and Yefry Ramirez to the Orioles for a lot of Baltimore’s pool as the O’s don’t really wade into the international market.

Considering the fact that Shohei Ohtani is now a Los Angeles Angel, these moves didn’t quite work out. The Yankees can still use some of the pool on other prospects, including the few remaining ex-Braves, but they couldn’t reel in the big fish of the international market and are left holding a little too much bonus money. Oh well.

– In exchange for Rob Refsnyder, the Yanks acquired Double A first baseman Ryan McBroom in mid-July. Refsnyder had been DFA’d and McBroom was a non-prospect. He did fill a hole as depth after the team had run through multiple first basemen in the majors. McBroom had previously hit some homers against the Trenton Thunder, so it was good to get him out of the opposing dugout.

– Along the same lines as the McBroom deal, the Yankees dealt LHP Tyler Webb for Garrett Cooper. Cooper filled in for Chris Carter/Greg Bird for a month or so before going down with injuries. Webb gave up a grand slam on literally his first pitch with the Brewers. Seriously!

– Lastly, at the waiver deadline, the Yankees acquired Erik Kratz from the Cleveland Indians to be their depth catcher. He had two hits in two at-bats, produced 0.1 WAR and mostly rode the bench before being outrighted off the roster this offseason.

2018 Outlook

For next year, the Yankees still have Gray, Kahnle and Robertson as well as, to a lesser extent, McBroom and the bonus pool money. McBroom is hitting over .400 in Mexico right now!

But at the 2017 deadline, Cashman acquired a starter and two late-inning relievers for 2018. He has plenty of prospects left if he wants to add further at next season’s deadline.

As for the prospects traded away, it’ll be nice to see what Fowler can do in the majors this year. The rest of the prospects dealt are either further away from the show or are unlikely to even reach the majors in 2018. Regardless, monitoring their development from afar will be a pleasant side gig for Yankees fans.

The back of the bench [2017 Season Review]

Higgy looking for hits (Al Bello/Getty Images)
Higgy looking for hits (Al Bello/Getty Images)

We’ve gone through just about every player who made an appearance for the Yankees this year. The good ones. The bad ones. Now let’s get to some of the players in between, the players who are easy to forget. These are the players that you miss on the 2017 New York Yankees Sporcle quiz.

First, let’s go a little more in-depth on a few players I went over in the miscellaneous first basemen review and then touch on the true bottom of the roster.

Rob Refsnyder

While Refsnyder had a five-game stint at first base, the Yankees didn’t use him primarily at first this year. He was called up on May 2 to replace an injured Greg Bird on the roster. Six days later, he was sent down for Chad Green.

In all, Refsnyder was up-and-down three times in May, once for the single-admission Derek Jeter/Mother’s Day doubleheader and another time to take the spot of Jacoby Ellsbury post-concussion.

I’ve already gone into his inability to hit this year. It was painful. But his fielding also reared its ugly head. The moment that sticks out was when he replaced Dustin Fowler after the rookie’s devastating knee injury. Refsnyder almost immediately misplayed a ball in right field during a game the Yankees lost by one run.

The dream was that Refsnyder could be a Zobrist-type, but he could neither hit nor field particularly well and it’s why he’s currently on his third organization in the last year (Yankees to Blue Jays to Indians). He played six games against the Yankees with the Blue Jays in the final two months of the year and went 2-for-12.

Tyler Austin

With 40 more at-bats in 2017, Austin is six at-bats shy of no longer being a rookie. And after a sub-par season due to injuries, it’s worth wondering where he fits in New York.

Two separate DL stints this season really set him back from a chance to prove himself as at least a bench bat, if not the righty side of a platoon. Now, he’ll likely start 2018 in Triple A if he makes it through the offseason on the 40-man roster.

Fun note: He is Pikachu in Didi’s postgame tweets. I don’t think any of these other players got an emoji.

Kyle Higashioka

Higashioka had an impressive 2016 in the minors, earning himself the opportunity as the No. 3 catcher out of spring. His calling card in 2016 was his power, although we didn’t get a chance to see it in the majors.

In his age-27 season, he walked twice and picked up no hits in 20 plate appearances while playing nine games in April. He got the chance after Gary Sanchez went down with a forearm injury, but Higgy couldn’t hack it in an extremely short sample size after debuting in the Yankees’ home opener.

As he did for much of his minor league career, Higashioka dealt with injuries for much of the season. The team had to have hoped he’d turned the corner health-wise in his breakout 2016, but alas, he was unable to do so.

The team had to seek out a new third catcher for September after he couldn’t make make it back from his back injury. Now he’ll have to prove himself again to make it through 2018 on the 40-man.

Mason Williams

The former top prospect spent his final games in pinstripes this season. Sad to see his time as a Yankee come to an end, but he became expendable this season with the team’s glut of young outfielders.

He made five starts in June and picked up four hits, stealing two bases. No extra-base hits though, which has been part of his issues. He just couldn’t hit for much pop, nor could he work many walks.

He was designated for assignment on June 29 to make room for Dustin Fowler. He spent the rest of the year in Scranton where he continued to show very little power but still produced with his legs (19 steals in 24 attempts).

Williams is now with the Cincinnati Reds, having signed with the club as a minor league free agent after the season.

Williams steals a base on Kozma! (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Williams steals a base on Kozma! (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Pete Kozma

Kozma may be the easiest 2017 Yankee to forget. He wouldn’t have made the roster at all if it wasn’t for Didi’s injury during the World Baseball Classic/Spring Training.

He played just 11 games in pinstripes and made just 10 plate appearances. He had just one hit and one walk. Didn’t do anything remarkable. He was DFA’d to make room for Didi on April 28 and spent the next 3.5 months with the Rangers. He was cut from their Triple A squad in mid-August.

Erik Kratz

The Yankees needed a third catcher down the stretch, so Kratz was acquired at the waiver deadline. He played in just four games and had just two at-bats. He delivered in both of them with a single and a double, finishing the season with a sterling 2.500 OPS. That’s good for a 600 wRC+. Oh snap!

He hung around the team during the postseason and stood up for Aaron Judge in a postgame interview after ALDS Game 5. That’s about it for his brief Yankees career.

The litany of below-average first basemen [2017 Season Review]

Believe it or not, Chris Carter got a hit on this one. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Believe it or not, Chris Carter got a hit on this one. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The Yankees had a lot of first basemen this year. Too many? Too many.

In total, 11 different people manned first this year with Greg Bird probably the finest after he overcame his ankle issues. Chase Headley is the runner-up there, filling in admirably there once Todd Frazier took third base from him.

But there were many others at first. And so let’s dive in, beginning with the person who could have claimed the job for himself if he hadn’t hit so poorly.

Chris Carter

Carter signed in mid-February with the Yankees. At the time, the plan was simple: Bird would be the starting first baseman while Carter was the backup who’d get some tough lefties as well as some time at DH. Not much glamour for a guy who’d just led the National League with 41 home runs in 2016, but it was $3.5 million he wasn’t getting elsewhere.

So when Bird went 6-for-60 in April and landed on the disabled list, the job was Carter’s to lose. And boy did he lose it!

In 62 games for the Bombers, the slugger didn’t live up to his reputation, hitting for 14 extra-base hits in 208 plate appearances, including just eight home runs. Meanwhile, he found a way to strike out even more than he did in Milwaukee while drawing fewer walks. His .201/.284/.370 (73 wRC+) line doesn’t do it justice. He was hovering below or at the Mendoza line for the entire first half.

Of course, this wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue if he was a good defensive player. However, that’s never been Carter’s calling card. He had a -2.3 UZR at first.

Carter did come up with some clutch hits in pinstripes. He came up with a much-needed seeing-eye single to give the Yankees a run in a 3-2 win over the Cardinals on Apr. 15. A week later, he hit a go-ahead pinch-hit three-run shot to put the Yankees up for good against the Pirates.

And on May 3, he had a bloop single to tie a game against the Blue Jays.

Finally, on June 15, just a week before he was designated for assignment, he tied a game against the Athletics with a solo homer in the eighth inning. After an 0-for-4 with three strikeouts game, he was DFA’d on June 23. However, he was brought back a week later when Tyler Austin strained his hamstring. This stint would be short-lived as he was again DFA’d after going 0-for-2 with a walk against the Blue Jays on July 4. From there on out, it was a mix of first basemen in the Bronx.

Rob Refsnyder

While Carter was struggling in late May, the Yankees decided to give Rob Refsnyder a go at first. However, he was somehow less adequate with the bat than Carter. In four starts from May 30 through June 4, he went just 2 for 13 with a walk. That’s a .154/.214/.231 line. Yikes.

While he’d play a little too much in the outfield for the rest of the month, he wouldn’t get any more time at first base, a place where he actually wasn’t too bad in 2016, at least relative to the rest of his performance. His last game in New York was July 2 before he too was sent packing like Carter. The Yankees traded Refsnyder to the Blue Jays for minor league first basemen Ryan McBroom.

Ji-Man Choi

Ah, the Ji-Man Choi era. This was perhaps the best part of the season. He started at first the day after Carter was DFA’d, literally taking his spot on the roster. His first at-bat was an unremarkable groundball to first, but he struck gold with a homer into the bleachers in his second at-bat.

He’d hit a homer in his second game against the Brewers — a much less impressive ball that cleared the short porch in right — and that was about it for him in New York. After the second homer, he went hitless for seven straight at-bats until pick up a pair of hits — and a sacrifice fly — in his final game, a 3-0 win over the Red Sox on July 16.

Choi was sent down after that and would be removed from the 40-man roster later on. In his six games, he went 4-for-15 with two homers, a double, two walks and a sac fly, good for a .267/.333/.733 line. That’s a 162 wRC+, second on the team behind Aaron Judge for players with at least 10 plate appearances.

Cooper (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Cooper. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Garrett Cooper

After Carter was let go, Brian Cashman looked for cheap first base help and found it with Garrett Cooper, who was in Triple-A with the Milwaukee Brewers. A 26-year-old tearing up the Pacific Coast League isn’t a huge shocker, but it was something the Yankees didn’t have, so they traded left-handed reliever Tyler Webb to get him.

Cooper started at first in the Yankees’ first two games after the All-Star break and struck out in five of his first seven plate appearances. He didn’t get a hit until his third game.

While he didn’t hit for any home runs with the Yankees, he did launch a lot of doubles. Five of his 14 hits were two-baggers while he also added a triple. He just didn’t walk much (once in 45 PAs) and he struck out 26.7 percent of the time.

Still, he posted a .326/.333/.488 (113 wRC+) line and likely would have held the job until Greg Bird’s return. However, he didn’t play after Aug. 16 due to hamstring tendonitis.

He was traded this offseason to the Marlins to free up 40-man space. We’ll always have his eight hits in three days against the Blue Jays this August.

Tyler Austin

Austin could have been the Yankees’ starting first baseman for multiple months this season. All he needed to do was stay healthy.

However, he broke a bone in his left foot during Spring Training and was out until June. He was called up to replace Carter and hit a home run in his third game back, just to strain his right hamstring a day later. Oh well.

Austin got another week of starts at first base and DH in August when Cooper went down and picked up two hits in his first game back. However, once Bird was healthy, it was back to the bench for the 26-year-old Austin. Unlike everyone listed above, he’ll be back in 2017 as of now, although he’ll likely be in Triple-A to start the year if he makes it through the offseason.

Other adventures with first base

I’ll be brief, but here are the other highlights at first base outside of Bird and Headley.

Gary Sanchez played three innings over two games at first base. He made seven putouts in seven chances. No errors!

Matt Holliday started seven games at first and made two errors. He was not smooth in the field and it would have been fitting if the Yankees had put together a Carlos Beltran-esque ceremony to retire his glove.

– Despite having 82 starts at first in his career, Todd Frazier didn’t play a single inning at first for the Yankees.

Austin Romine started four games at first base. He actually didn’t look too bad at first and as crazy as it is to say now, it was a relief to see him there compared to their other options at the time.

– And finally, the best moment at first base non-Bird/Headley edition all year: Bryan Mitchell’s unfortunate inning. Perhaps my favorite Yankees loss of the year.

Tommy Kahnle: The former Trenton Thunder reliever returns [2017 Season Review]

Even when it's not the Wild Card Game, he always looks this hyped up. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Even when it’s not the Wild Card Game, he always looks this hyped up. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Four years ago — when he was striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings with the Trenton Thunder — it was easy to imagine Tommy Kahnle being an impact reliever with the New York Yankees.

A year ago? That was tougher to imagine.

Kahnle’s 2017 season is a story of a reliever figuring things out and arriving in a place able to showcase his talents.

Before the trade

There’s a reason Kahnle wasn’t highly sought after prior to the 2017 trade deadline. The former Rule 5 Draft pick had long struggled with his command, walking north of a batter every other inning even in the minors. LaTroy Hawkins, former Yankee (and nearly every other team), called him “one of his worst teammates ever.” His high velocity, accompanied by top-notch strikeout rates, made him an interesting prospect, one on which both the Rockies and White Sox took a chance.

What changed in 2017 were the walks. In 36 innings with the White Sox, he walked just seven batters after walking 20 in nine fewer innings a year prior. Meanwhile, he actually upped his strikeouts, K’ing a shocking 42.6 percent of batters while more than halving his walk rate. Surely some of this was small sample size noise, but it looked like a legitimate turnaround.

And so on July 19, he was flipped with more well-known players Todd Frazier and David Robertson to the Yankees for Blake Rutherford, Tito Polo, Ian Clarkin and Tyler Clippard. Despite Frazier and Robertson’s respective reputations, Kahnle seemed to be the centerpiece of the deal. Under team control for 3.5 seasons and not even arbitration eligible, he was both cheap and effective. The two veterans had larger contracts with shorter terms.

An ugly August

Kahnle pitched in his first game after the trade and struck out two batters in an inning. He struck out eight batters over six outings before allowing a hit and didn’t walk anyone until his 11th game in New York. But beginning in late July, he gave up a fair number of hits.

From July 29 to Aug. 30, he gave up 17 hits and walked five in 12 1/3 innings. He continued to get strikeouts, 14 to be exact, but he allowed a .327/.383/.481 line. He essentially turned the opposition into 2009 Derek Jeter.

Kahnle’s worst stretch in pinstripes came in three outings from Aug. 18-23 against the Red Sox and Tigers. While recording just five outs, he gave up five runs on seven hits, one home run and two walks, striking out just one. Before that stretch, he’d allowed the go-ahead inherited runner to score in a crushing loss to Boston on Aug. 13 and hadn’t seemed like the surefire middle inning reliever the Yankees had acquired.

His fastball and slider velocity both trended down in August by about 0.8 mph, which may have been due to fatigue. He’d thrown in 20 games over his last 43 days by the end of the month. He was already at 57 total appearances after throwing in just 52 games between AAA and the majors in 2016 and 57 in 2015.

A return to form

After his slight downturn, Kahnle was removed from most high leverage innings in September and subsequently began to thrive. His velocity didn’t jump, but he cut down on the usage of his slider. He’d used it 25.3 percent of the time in July. But once he came to the Yankees, he cut it down to 15.2 percent in August and 5.8 percent in September. Meanwhile, he increased his reliance on his changeup in August and became fastball heavy in September.

For the final month of the year, he allowed just eight hits in 10 innings (though he walked five) and gave up just one run. He struck out 15 of 41 batters faced and didn’t give up a single extra-base hit. That was the Kahnle the Yankees were expecting in the trade.

It was perfect timing for the Bombers, who would need his arm in October.

Postseason excellence until the end

With Dellin Betances out of the mix, Kahnle moved up a spot in Joe Girardi‘s circle of trust in the postseason. He returned the favor by not giving up a run until the Yankees’ last game.

In the Wild Card Game, he recorded seven outs, his most of the season and highest total since his rookie season. While he struck out just one batter, he retired every batter he faced and provided the bridge from Robertson to Aroldis Chapman to secure the Yankees’ advancement. He also got a bit lucky on a peculiar grounder down the first-base line.

His shining moment was likely ALDS Game 4. Entering the game with two on and none out in the eighth inning, he proceeded to strike out five of the next six batters en route to his first (and only) save of the year. He was dominance personified and allowed the Yankees to save Robertson and Chapman for the crucial Game 5 two days later.

Kahnle pitched two scoreless innings in ALCS Game 2 before throwing three scoreless in the Bronx over Games 3 and 5. He allowed some hard contact in the last outing as he worked past his career-high in innings. He’d previous thrown 68 2/3 with the Rockies in 2014, but eclipsed that with 74 between the regular season and playoffs this year.

So that fatigued reared its ugly head in Game 7 against the Astros. He allowed three runs, tarnishing his unblemished postseason and turning a 1-0 game into a 4-0 game. With the way Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers were pitching, it may not have mattered, but it felt like the nail in the coffin for the Yankees.

2018 Outlook

Kahnle remains under Yankees control for a while and figures to keep his prominent spot in the bullpen, provided he can keep up his 2017 breakout. His walk rate certainly climbed post-trade and he’ll have to prove whether his turnaround in command was for real or a mere flash in the pan.

Still, even with an elevated walk rate, Kahnle was still an effective reliever for the Yankees and will continue to be a key cog in middle relief. His first full year in pinstripes is a big opportunity for the 28-year-old righty.

Michael Pineda: Flashes of promise before Tommy John surgery [2017 Season Review]

(Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Going into the 2017 season, Michael Pineda had one year left on his contract and had an opportunity to earn himself a lot of money with a strong year. Even if he maintained his previous performance, his high strikeout and low walk rates likely would have convinced a team to give him a significant multi-year deal.

But unfortunately, his season is the story of what can go wrong, even with his numbers improving.

Near-perfect opener

The Yankees have had a wide array of pitchers start their home opener in recent years. You have the aces like Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. You have the duds who take the ball due to injuries like Carl Pavano. Somewhere in the middle is Pineda.

He was coming off a weak start in Tampa Bay and was facing the exact same Rays squad. The Yankees had received almost exclusively mediocre starting pitching through their first six games and their 2-4 record reflected the so-so expectations for the team going into the season.

And with all that, Pineda came out and damn near threw a perfect game. He recorded 20 straight outs to start the game before an Evan Longoria double broke things up.

Before October, it may have been the loudest Yankee Stadium got this season. The crowd was into Pineda’s game. Really into it. Martha Stewart got into it, too. Clapping for strike three, applauding him after each inning and then handing him a standing ovation after the first hit.

It goes without saying, but it was the best Pineda has looked in pinstripes. Even better than the 16 strikeout game against the Orioles. He had supreme command of both his fastball and slider and rode them hard for 7.2 innings. He gave up two hits, but the last one, a Logan Morrison solo home run, effectively knocked him out of the game.

The win was the second of seven straight for the Bombers and kicked off a tremendous start to the year for Pineda.

Promising couple months

While Opening Day was his best outing of the season, it wasn’t unique for Pineda’s start to 2017. It’s easy to forget after he missed the second half, but he was one of their best pitchers for the first two months.

Six of his first 10 starts were quality starts. No more than four earned runs in any of the 10 games, three earned or fewer in nine of 10. At the end of May, he had a 3.32 ERA and looked the part of it. He hadn’t allowed more than six hits in an outing since his Apr. 5 game vs. Tampa Bay and had gone six innings or more in eight of his starts.

His home run issues were popping up again. He’d allowed long balls in eight of his first 10 outings and gave up six in five May starts. Perhaps part of his success was fool’s gold as nine of his 11 homers were solo shots and other two came with only one man on base. Still, with an elevated strikeout rate and the home run environment around baseball, there was room for optimism that he’d returned to his 2012/2014 form.

Some duds and an injury

Things took a turn in June. Pineda allowed five or more runs in four of his final seven starts. Nine homers in that span. His strikeout rate dipped and his walk rate rose.

And the hits went way up. Pineda’s first 59.2 IP of the year: 50 hits. Last 36.2: 53. Batters hit .335/.365/.538 off him in that span. Once the calendar had flipped from May, it appeared that hitters were taking the ball off a tee from him.

He still somehow beat the AL Champs in Houston, albeit with plenty of hard contact not falling in, while pitching a superb game against Boston. But the Angels, Rangers and Blue Jays got to him in abundance.

Pineda’s season came to an end when he allowed five runs (three homers) in three innings against the Blue Jays on July 5. Reports came soon after that he would undergo Tommy John surgery, which ended his season. It’s unclear how much his late-season performance was a result of his elbow injury and how much was worse pitching. Guess we’ll never know, but I bet at least some of it was. It’s tough to maintain consistency with your elbow hurting.

Pineda finished his season with a 4.39 ERA, 1.9 home runs per nine and a 4.38 K/BB rate. Basically, a typical Pineda line. But for a second there, it looked like we’d get something different.

2018 Outlook

Hitting free agency right after undergoing Tommy John surgery is never an ideal scenario. Pineda is likely looking for a two-year deal, perhaps with the second year being an option. If he’d continued his first couple months, his always promising peripherals would have led to tens of millions on the free agent market. Some team would have bet on him keeping it up. Instead, he’ll have to settle for a deal worth less than $10 million perhaps.

With the Yankees contending in 2018 and looking to get under the luxury tax, Pineda’s time with the Yankees is almost certainly over. Assuming he doesn’t return (or go back to Seattle), all four players in the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero deal will no longer be in the Yankees or Mariners systems. What a strange ride it’s been since that trade.

The homer-prone ace with a flourishing finish [2017 Season Review]

ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)
ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)

After a strong 2016, it’s hard to argue that Masahiro Tanaka‘s overall numbers in 2017 weren’t disappointing. He pitched to a 4.74 ERA (107 ERA-) and allowed 35 home runs, fourth worst in baseball. Still, with the way he closed out the year, the 29-year-old starter left Yankees fans with a smile on their faces heading into next year.

Flailing in the first half

Tanaka was the perfect example of why spring training means next to nothing. He had arguably the best spring of any pitcher in baseball, then fell flat in first game of the year. He allowed five of the first six batters to reach in Tampa before allowing a pair of homers later in the game. Overall, he lasted just eight outs and gave up seven runs. Yikes.

He picked up his game towards the end of the month, closing his April with a shutout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Outdueling Chris Sale, he only struck out three yet never allowed Boston to threaten while inducing plenty of weak contact.

But that wasn’t a sign of things to come. May treated Tanaka poorly. He allowed four runs or more in all but one of his six starts, including six runs or more in three of them. On Derek Jeter Day (and Mother’s Day), he allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings vs. Astros. Luckily, he wouldn’t have to face them again, right?

In a nine-start stretch from May 2 to June 17, he allowed 18 home runs. Yikes. That included four (!) three-homer games. It seemed like every game had a few balls crushed, even at spacious road parks like Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.

Returning from the Yankees’ hellish, mid-June West Coast trip, Tanaka put together a few dominant starts to end first half (not to mention him striking out 18 during two starts on that trip). He matched Yu Darvish out-for-out on June 23, tossing eight shutout innings while striking out nine. He held the Blue Jays to one run in seven innings before a less-than-stellar outing against the Brewers to close the first half with a 5.47 ERA.

Resurgence for #TANAK

But he would only fall so far. Tanaka lowered his ERA in six consecutive starts soon after the break, beginning with a near-perfect start against Tampa Bay in July at home. He hadn’t allowed a baserunner for 5.2 innings before allowing a single to Adeiny Hechavarria. He’d give up a homer to Lucas Duda, but struck out 14 and allowed just the one run in eight innings.

Tanaka held both the Mariners and Red Sox to one run in seven innings in consecutive starts before a clunker in Texas. After see-sawing between great and bad starts in September, he finished his regular season on the highest of notes, striking out a career-high 15 and surrendering just three hits in seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays.

For the season, tanaka struck out a career-best 194 while seeing his velocity increase across the board. His swinging strike rate was easily his best.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

However, his other peripherals (walks/HRs) and his hit rates both worsened en route to a poor regular season. Still, consecutive seasons of 30+ starts for a pitcher with injury concerns is a milestone nonetheless.

A dominant postseason

It’s easy to forget about regular season struggles when you ace your way through the postseason. With the Yankees facing elimination in ALDS Game 3, Tanaka gave them exactly what they needed for seven scoreless innings. He splittered the Indians to death and allowed just four baserunners. He got out of his only jam (started by an Aaron Judge-aided triple) with a pair of strikeouts, including one of Jay Bruce, who had hurt the Yankees significantly in Games 1 and 2. It was just a marvelous outing from the veteran starter.

Tasked with beginning ALCS Game 1, he allowed just five baserunners in six innings, but it wasn’t enough against a dominant Dallas Keuchel. His two runs allowed came on a string of hits in the fifth inning. He went away from his splitter and kept Houston off balance with his four-seamer. Regardless of the defeat, it went a lot better than his start against the same squad in May.

And then there was his Game 5 start. No offense to the Jays or Rays regular season games, or any other Tanaka start for that matter, but this was his best start since coming over from the NPB considering the circumstances. He put the Yankees one game from the World Series and put himself in line for ALCS MVP. Still relying on the fastball, he kept the ball on the ground and struck out eight. Still miss the moments when we could think about him vs. Clayton Kershaw in WS G1.

Side notes

Just a couple things to mention about Tanaka’s season. First, he continued to decrease his straight fastball usage, this year by four percent from 31.6 to 27.6 percent of the time. He upped his slider and cutter usage to make up for it and now throws the slider more often than the four-seamer. He uses his splitter just 1.3 percent less than his four-seam fastball.

Second, his home-road splits were stark. Having better stats at home is common. But for a homer-prone pitcher whose home games take place at Yankee Stadium? It’s surprising that he would have a 3.22 ERA, 112 Ks and 15 homers in 95 innings at home vs. a 6.48 ERA, 82 Ks and 20 homers in 83.1 innings on the road.

Finally, just wanted to mention that Tanaka remains a strong fielder. Pitcher fielding is such a small part of the job that it can be overlooked and he’s never been a finalist for a Gold Glove. However, he is very smooth off the mound and has made just one error in his four years in New York.

2018 Outlook

Figured I’d be writing this with Tanaka as a free agent, but as you likely know, he opted into the final three years of the deal. Three years for $67 million seems like less than he would have received on the open market, so it’s a solid deal for the Yankees. One has to wonder if his camp was worried about his medicals, but his elbow has held up just fine the last three years, so hopefully it will continue to do so for a long while.

Based on his entire tenure in pinstripes, it seems like Tanaka’s poor first half of 2017 is an outlier rather than a harbinger of bad seasons to come. The way he returned to form and then dominated in the postseason displayed the Tanaka we expected out of the spring. And if there was any doubt he could pitch in a big game, this October erased those worries completely.

For next year, Tanaka should be back at the front of the rotation alongside Luis Severino … and maybe Shohei Otani. He remains as homer-prone as ever but has learned to pitch effectively even if he gives up a long ball or two.

Aaron Hicks: Fourth outfielder to starting in center [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Going into 2017, you would have been forgiven if you chalked up the John Ryan MurphyAaron Hicks deal to a lose-lose with both players going bust in their new environments. Hicks hit .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in his first season with the Yankees while fulfilling mostly a part-time, fourth outfielder role.

Despite his clear tools, his breakout in 2017 was nonetheless surprising.

Forging an opportunity

Just like in 2017, Hicks was the fourth outfielder to start the year. He nearly outhit Aaron Judge in spring training while trying to win the right fielder job, putting up a .268/.379/.518 line.

When the regular season started, Hicks was better from the jump. In his first start (Apr. 8), He went 1 for 2 with a double and a walk. After Brett Gardner was banged up on a play at first, he got a chance to start full-time for a week and he took off. He homered twice to lead the Yankees to a win over the Rays. He walked six times while knocking in eight runs in a four-game span.

Impressively, he had four two-walk games in April despite starting just nine times. Since he was in the minors, Hicks was always renowned for his eye, but it hadn’t quite translated to the majors. He added a pair of three walks games on May 3 and May 11 while notching seven hits in two games in-between against the Cubs. After the May 11 game, he was hitting .333/.474/.627. That’s unreal, even in the small sample size.

Of course, while this was happening, Aaron Judge was taking the entire league by storm while Brett Gardner was beginning to show off some power. Even Jacoby Ellsbury was hitting some, so it would have been simple for Hicks to lose playing time as soon as he had a brief cold streak…

Breaking out

But then came Ellsbury’s concussion on May 24. From there on out, centerfield was Hicks’ job for the taking.

And take it he did. He put together a 21-game on-base streak from mid-May to mid-June. This included a four-hit game with three doubles and six RBI against Toronto. Just killing the ball.

He was walking consistently and wasn’t striking out nearly as much. Meanwhile, Hicks continued to hit for power, posting 10 homers and 15 doubles along with 37 walks to just 42 strikeouts through June 25.

Injuries rear their ugly head

But on Old Timer’s Day on the 25th, Hicks injured his oblique. He’d missed a few games with Achilles soreness just a few days earlier. Hicks had dealt with injuries in 2016, but none that kept him out quite as long as the oblique injury did. It robbed the Yankees of their best option in the No. 2 spot of their lineup, where Hicks had been batting for nearly three weeks.

While he was replaced by Ellsbury on the roster, it was still a blow to the team as they lost Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday around the same time. The team was left shorthanded and their lineup took a hit.

Hicks would return more than a month later on Aug. 10 and he wasn’t quite the same despite a clutch homer and outfield assist in his second game back.

He went from hitting .290/.398/.515 before the oblique injury to hitting .265/.367/.463 when he left with another oblique injury. At the time, it was thought that it may end his season. He had put up six hits on Aug. 30-31 over nine plate appearances, but it was still a disappointing finish.

However, he’d make it back for six more games (five starts) to close out the year. He robbed his second grand slam of the season in his first inning back on Sept. 26 and walked three times in the game. He’d hit homers each of the next two days and close out the year hitting .266/.372/.475 (127 wRC+), a career-best line.

You're probably wonder how I ended up here... (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
You’re probably wonder how I ended up here… (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Highlights in the field

Here are the two grand slams he robbed. One was in Anaheim in mid-June (the road trip from hell) and the other in Tampa.

Hicks had yet another strong year in the field. Despite Ellsbury’s hot streak to end the year, he earned the starting centerfield job back in part due to his far superior arm in center. It definitely discourages teams from taking an extra base on him like Eduardo Nunez tried to in August.

As for his overall fielding, he occasionally misreads a ball yet he tends to make up for it with his speed. His first oblique injury came making a play near the wall, so he made need to be more careful there moving forward.

Still, Hicks had a career-best 15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a UZR/150 of 13.5. While he had a strong year at the plate, he didn’t let himself take off plays in the field. A testament to him and his all-around game. True five-tool player.

Back in the nick of time

Returning just in time for the postseason, Hicks was right back in center field. It gave the Yankees their best defensive arrangement and a batter with a strong eye near the bottom of the lineup. Getting back into center so quickly showed that he’s well above Ellsbury in the Yankees’ plans.

And Hicks produced some big playoff moments, including a bases-loaded walk in the Wild Card Game to extend the lead and a monster home run to KO Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 2. He nearly opened the ALCS with a homer off Dallas Keuchel in Game 1, but he hit to the wrong part of Minute Maid Park. While he hit well in the ALDS (.316/.350/.526), he was mostly silent at the plate in the ALCS, finishing the postseason with a .196/.260/.304 line.

2018 Outlook

Hicks likely goes into 2018 as the Yankees starting centerfielder. He’s opened the door for the Yankees to salary dump Ellsbury while still having a more than adequate replacement.

If healthy, he has the approach at the plate that can produce something close to his 2017 production over a full year, even if maybe not quite as productive. He hit just .218/.319/.396 in the second half, still showing off his ability to draw walks but striking out a fair amount more while working around injuries.

Still, there’s less pressure on him to be a top-of-the-order hitter with Judge, Sanchez, Bird and others ahead of him. He works anywhere in the lineup with a limited left-right split (surprisingly close splits, even for a switch-hitter) and his approach at the plate.