CC Sabathia hopes to continue pitching beyond 2017

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Hands down, one of my favorite things about last season was CC Sabathia‘s resurgence. It was tough watching him struggle the last few years, but last season Sabathia developed a cutter and made the transition to finesse pitcher. Hopefully he gives the Yankees more of the same this coming season. They’ll need it to contend.

Not surprisingly, Sabathia recently told Pete Caldera that as long as he’s healthy and feeling good, he plans to continue playing. This is the time of year when we begin to hear stories like this. CC was also surprisingly non-committal about remaining with the Yankees long-term even though his family lives in New Jersey full-time.

“If anything, it made me want to play as long as I can. As long as I’m healthy and feeling good, I want to play,” said Sabathia when asked about Mark Teixeira‘s and Alex Rodriguez‘s farewells. “I don’t think there would be anything sentimental (about 2017 possibly being my final season as Yankee). If it’s my last year (here), I’m sure I’ll pitch here again, whether it’s in a different uniform or whatever.”

Usually we hear players say they want to wear pinstripes the rest of their careers. I know Teixeira said that last year, when he was still in “I want to play until I’m 40” mode. It’s kinda refreshing to hear Sabathia be so candid. He knows this is a business, he’s been through free agency and all that before, and he understands the business could lead to him pitching elsewhere after 2017.

The Yankees are in need of pitching beyond 2017 since both Sabathia and Michael Pineda will be free agents after the season, plus Masahiro Tanaka can opt-out. Hopefully a few of the kids emerge as reliable rotation options this year. That would be cool. And even if it happens, there’s always room for a veteran innings guy on the staff. I can’t imagine the Yankees ever going with five kids in the rotation.

Sabathia’s new cutter and knee brace, not to mention his sobriety, give us some tangible reasons to believe his success last year was sustainable. He’ll never be an ace again, but if he can be a league average starter for 170+ innings, that’s a nice little rotation piece. If he has another solid season, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Yankees try to bring Sabathia back in 2018, presumably on a one-year deal. Hard to think of a better one-year veteran.

Saturday Links: Severino, Breslow, Gardner, Headley

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Five weeks from today, Yankees position players are due to report to Tampa for Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers have to report four days prior to that. Spring Training is slowly approaching. Emphasis on slowly. Anyway, here are some nuggets to check out.

Yankees believe Severino is too bulky

Earlier this week, Brian Cashman the Bryan Hoch the Yankees believe Luis Severino may have added too much muscle last winter, so they suggested he work on his flexibility this offseason. I remember seeing videos of Severino last offseason (this one, specifically) and thinking he was noticeably bigger. There is such a thing as too big though. Too much muscle can limit flexibility and affect mechanics.

Now, that said, I don’t think Severino’s issues last season were solely a product of him adding too much muscle. Concerns about his overall command have lingered since his prospect days. He also lost feel for his changeup, and that can happen to anyone, not just a kid who may have bulked up too much. Hopefully Severino trims down a bit and is better able to streamline his delivery going forward. That should help his command.

Yankees will be among teams to scout Breslow

According to Peter Gammons, the Yankees will be among the teams on hand for veteran reliever Craig Breslow’s workout on January 23rd. New York is said to be looking for a lefty reliever, so Breslow fits. The veteran southpaw had a 4.50 ERA (3.93 FIP) in 14 innings with the Marlins last year before being released at midseason. He hooked on with the Rangers and spent a few weeks with their Triple-A affiliate after that.

Interestingly enough, Gammons says Breslow is working out with Rich Hill this offseason, and like Hill, he’s dropped his arm slot and is working to increase the spin rate of his breaking ball. That’s basically how Hill went from independent league player to ace-caliber starter two years ago. He dropped his arm slot, and, more importantly, he starting spinning the hell out of his breaking ball. Hill is essentially a curveball pitcher with a show-me fastball now. That isn’t to say Breslow will have as much success as Hill, but when you’re nearing the end of your career and want to hang around, it’s worth trying.

Cashman doesn’t expect Gardner or Headley trade

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Not surprisingly, Cashman told Hoch and Brendan Kuty he does not expect to trade Brett Gardner or Chase Headley before Opening Day. The Yankees have rejected all the offers they’ve received so far, I’m guessing because they were of the “eat a bunch a money and take this fringe prospect” variety. “I think the teams that had interested took their best shot,” said the GM.

The Yankees can and probably will continue to gauge the market for Gardner and Headley in Spring Training. Another team could lose an outfielder and/or their third baseman to injury, creating a need. Then again, how often does that actually happen? We talk about that possibility every year and yet it rarely happens. Even when teams do suffer those major injuries, then tend to stay in-house rather than make a desperation trade. Eh, we’ll see. The Gardner situation is far more pressing than the Headley situation given the Yankees’ young outfield depth.

If the Yankees are unwilling to extend Tanaka, they have to put him on the trade market right now

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Five years ago the Yankees played the entire summer knowing their best starting pitcher could opt-out of his contract and leave as a free agent after the season. This coming season, they’re going to do the exact same thing. Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out clause is going to loom over the 2017 season the same way CC Sabathia‘s loomed over the 2012 season.

The circumstances are different yet similar. The 2012 Yankees were expected to contend, and sure enough they won 95 games and went to the ALCS. The 2017 Yankees are kinda sorta in a rebuild, but they’re still trying to win, so much so that they spent $13M on a designated hitter and a heck of a lot more on a closer this offseason. The 2012 and 2017 outlooks may be different, but ultimately, the Yankees are still fancying themselves contenders.

A few weeks ago I wrote the Yankees should explore an extension with Tanaka this offseason, and that remains my preference. Yeah, I know, the elbow!!!, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, but Tanaka is several years younger now than Sabathia was when he signed his extension, and I think there’s a pretty good chance Tanaka will age better than Sabathia given their body types and pitching styles. It’s in the post. Go ready it.

Anyway, earlier this week Brian Cashman confirmed that no, the Yankees have not discussed exploring a contract extension with Tanaka this offseason. They haven’t even discussed it internally, nevermind approach Tanaka’s representatives about a deal. Mike Mazzeo has the quote:

“We have a significant contract with Masahiro Tanaka,” Cashman said Tuesday night at the opening of Orangetheory Fitness in Manhattan. “Hopefully he has a great year, and then he’ll have a decision to make. If he doesn’t, then he won’t. I think he pitched like a Cy Young award candidate last year, and I certainly hope he does so again this year. But at this point we’ve had no discussions internally to pursue any kind of extension.”

It doesn’t surprise me at all the Yankees have yet to discuss extending their staff ace. That’s not really their style. The only three players they’ve extended before free agency over the last 10-15 years are Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and Sabathia, and Sabathia was literally minutes from opting out when he agreed to his extension. The Yankees waited until the last possible moment.

Assuming the Yankees don’t reverse course and sign Tanaka to an extension, I see this playing out one of four ways:

  1. Tanaka pitches well and doesn’t opt-out. (Nope.)
  2. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and still opts out. (Also nope.)
  3. Tanaka pitches well and opts out.
  4. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and doesn’t opt-out.

I would be very surprised if Tanaka pitches poorly while being perfectly healthy this coming season. He’s never not been really good when actually on the mound. Sure, the elbow might finally give or whatever, but as long as he’s on the bump, history tells us he’ll be effective. Health is a bigger variable than performance for me. As long as he stays healthy, he’s opting out.

Under no circumstances can the Yankees go into the upcoming season planning to let Tanaka walk as a free agent next winter. If they try to re-sign him and fail because another team blows their offer out of the water, so be it. But if the plan is to play out the season with Tanaka, then let him walk because the elbow is just too much of a red flag, it would be complete madness. It would be so insane that I’m confident it won’t happen.

Remember, under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees can only receive a draft pick after after the fourth round (after the fourth round!) for Tanaka or any other qualified free agent next offseason. You can’t let Tanaka go for that. That pick has so little value. If the Yankees are wary about an extension — remember, they know Tanaka and his elbow better than anyone — then they have to be willing to trade him.

Think about it. The free agent class is so very weak right now. It was weak at the start of the free agency, and now that Rich Hill and Ivan Nova are off the board, the pickin’s are slim. Jose Quintana is available and the asking price is high, which is scaring away some teams. Tanaka is not as valuable as Quintana because of his contract status and injury history, but the Yankees could still get a significant piece or two for him. No doubt.

The Astros stand out to me as the perfect trade partner. Houston has gone all-in this offseason and they’re said to be in the mix for Quintana. They just don’t want to give up the prospects Chicago is seeking. I get it. Tanaka would satisfy their need for a frontline starter and do so at a lower price, plus they have Brian McCann, the guy who has caught Tanaka the last three years. The learning curve would be much smaller. Those two know each other.

Either way, the sooner the Yankees make a decision about Tanaka’s future, the better. Are they going to extend him? Great, then get down to business right now and try to avoid waiting until Tanaka has all the leverage like Sabathia did following his 2012 season. Are they unwilling to extend him? That’s fine too, as long as the Yankees put him on the trade market right now. Waiting until the deadline is risky.

Cashman says the Yankees have discussed bringing back Nathan Eovaldi

(Steven Ryan/Getty)
(Steven Ryan/Getty)

Thanks to his relatively new splitter, the 2016 season was supposed to be a breakout year for Nathan Eovaldi. Instead, he struggled to keep the ball in the park all summer — at one point the Yankees demoted him to the bullpen — then he blew out his elbow in mid-August. Eovaldi managed to tear the flexor tendon clean off the bone. Ouch. He also needed his second career Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees released Eovaldi after the season because, well, there was no reason to keep him around. He would have qualified for free agency after the 2017 season, so it’s not like he would have remained under team control once healthy. The Yankees would have paid Eovaldi a hefty sum (projected $7.5M through arbitration) to rehab, only to have him hit free agency after the season. With 40-man roster space needed, releasing Eovaldi was a no-brainer.

The release doesn’t automatically end the relationship between Eovaldi and the Yankees. In fact, earlier this week Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty the Yankees have had discussed a possible reunion with Eovaldi’s agent. From Kuty:

“Obviously, he’s a free agent, and we’ve had some discussions with Nate Eovaldi about trying to find a solution that works for both sides. But he’s still a free agent and there’s competition for him. Other than the injury, you couldn’t say enough about him. His makeup’s off the charts. His work ethic was off the charts. He was a performer for us. But, unfortunately, injury hit. But he’s on the free market, and he’s weighing a lot of different decisions. Yes, I’ve talked to (Eovaldi’s agent) Seth Levinson several times regarding him.”

The elbow injury and subsequent surgery means Eovaldi is not a 2017 option. He won’t help the Yankees or any other team this season. Whoever signs him will do so with an eye on 2018 and possibly beyond. Some quick thoughts on the Eovaldi situation:

1. Of course the Yankees should look to re-sign him. Pitching is a finite resource, there’s only so much of it to go around, and the Yankees are lacking it. Both at the moment (depending on your faith in the kids) and in the future, beyond 2017, after CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda and possibly Masahiro Tanaka become free agents. Eovaldi is essentially a lottery ticket for the future. Buy him now and hope he pays off down the line. As long as the Yankees don’t count on him for anything — “We don’t have to worry about a fifth starter for 2018 because Eovaldi will be back.” — it’s an obvious move.

2. The Yankees have done stuff like this before. Over the years the Yankees have signed plenty of injured pitchers with the idea of having them contribute a year or two down the line. Jon Lieber is the most notable example. He had Tommy John surgery in August 2002, the Yankees signed him to a two-year deal in February 2003, rehabbed him that year, then got a solid 2014 season out of him. Worked out perfectly.

Of course, most other times it didn’t work. Octavio Dotel didn’t pan out. Neither did David Aardsma nor Andrew Bailey. Not Matt Daley either. Tommy John surgery is a significant risk. I know the procedure itself is relatively routine, but the rehab isn’t. Sometimes guys take a while to get back to full strength, which was the case with Dotel. Sometimes they never get back to normal. That’s what happened with Aardsma. The risk will inevitably be reflected in Eovaldi’s contract.

3. Contract precedents exist. In each of the previous two offseasons, the Royals signed a pitcher who was rehabbing from a major arm surgery, so they’re Eovaldi’s contract benchmarks. The pitchers:

  • Kris Medlen: Signed a two-year deal worth $8.5M with a mutual option for a third year in December 2014. Medlen had his second career Tommy John surgery in March 2014 and returned to the mound in July 2015.
  • Mike Minor: Signed a two-year deal worth $7.25M with a mutual option for a third year in February 2016. Minor had shoulder surgery in May 2015 and made eight rehab starts in 2016 before being shut down.

Both contracts were backloaded — Medlen made $2M in year one and $5.5M in year two, Minor made $2M in year one and $4M in year two (the rest of the guaranteed money was tied up in the option buyouts) — which makes sense, because those two were rehabbing most of year one. An Eovaldi deal figures to be structured in the same way.

Of course, neither the Medlen nor the Minor contracts have worked out as hoped. Medlen had a 5.12 ERA (4.44 FIP) in 82.2 innings in his two years with Kansas City. Minor had a 5.74 ERA (5.52 FIP) in 42.1 minor league innings last year, and now we’ll see what he does this coming season. That isn’t to say they were bad signings by the Royals. They rolled the dice and weren’t rewarded. Medlen and Minor are just a reminder of the risk involved.

Cashman indicated other teams are in the mix for Eovaldi — the Rays were connected to him at one point earlier this offseason — which kinda stinks, because he might chase after every last dollar. When you’re only 26 and your elbow has already blown out twice, and your career earnings are under $10M, maxing out your next contract might not be a bad idea. The Yankees know Eovaldi and are apparently comfortable bringing him back. Hopefully that feeling is mutual and they work something out.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jon Niese

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Things have been awful quiet around the Yankees since the Aroldis Chapman signing, which both makes sense and is kind of annoying. The club was never going to spend big for a free agent bat, and trading top prospects for an impact pitcher was always unlikely, meaning there isn’t a whole lot going on at the moment. Tinker with the margins of the roster. That’s about it.

A small army of cheap veteran starters remain on the free agent market, and with the Yankees set to rely on young pitchers in two of the five rotation spots, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they swooped in to sign one before free agency. Among those still looking for a job is former Mets southpaw Jon Niese, who turned 30 back in October. He’s not the most exciting name out there, far from it, but is he a fit for the Yankees? Let’s give him a look.

Injury History

This is the best place to start, I think. Niese’s season came to an abrupt end on August 23rd last year, when he faced four batters in a spot start before being forced to exit with left knee pain. He had season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus the next day. After the injury, Niese told reporters he’d been pitching through knee pain since June, and it was bad enough that he needed the knee drained and a few cortisone shots along the way.

Aside from last season’s knee injury — by all account Niese’s rehab is going fine, and given the typical rehab timetable of a meniscus repair, he should be ready to go by now — Niese has dealt with on and off physical problems over the years. No arm surgeries, but not stuff you can easily ignore either:

  • 2009: Missed two months with a torn right hamstring.
  • 2010: Missed six weeks with a strained right hamstring.
  • 2011: Missed a month with a right intercostal strain.
  • 2012: Healthy!
  • 2013: Missed nearly two months with a small rotator cuff tear. He only needed rest and rehab.
  • 2014: Missed two weeks with elbow inflammation, then another two weeks with a shoulder strain later in the season.
  • 2015: Healthy!

The hamstring woes were kinda fluky — he tore the hamstring running over to cover first base — and Niese has had no hammy problems since. The arm injuries in 2013 and 2014 are more concerning, even though they’re a few years in the past now. Niese returned from the rotator cuff tear in 2013 and was marvelous (3.00 ERA and 3.11 FIP in 66 innings), so that’s encouraging. His arm hasn’t given him any trouble since 2014. Some scary stuff in there. No doubt.

Recent Performance

The Mets traded Niese to the Pirates for Neil Walker last offseason, then the Pirates traded him back to the Mets for Antonio Bastardo at the trade deadline. All told, he made 20 starts and nine relief appearances in 2016, and pitched to a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 121 total innings. Yikes. HOWEVA, look at the breakdown:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
First 12 starts 71 3.93 5.10 15.8% 7.7% 55.0% 1.52
Last 17 games
50 7.74 6.35 16.5% 9.8% 45.8% 2.34

Remember all that stuff about pitching with knee pain since June and needing cortisone shots and all that? Guess when Niese made his 12th start. Yep. June. That 12th start was the end of a five-start stretch in which Niese allowed six runs total in 31 innings. He was great. Then, suddenly, he crashed and allowed 28 runs in his next six starts and 30.2 innings. Hmmm.

Now, we can’t say anything definitive here, but it sure seems to me pitching through knee pain — it was Niese’s left knee, his push-off knee — may have compromised Mr. Niese’s performance. Call me crazy. His home runs were up all year — everyone’s home runs were up in 2016 — and that’s a red flag. Otherwise those first dozen starts were typical Niese. A below average rate of strikeouts, but plenty of grounders and not a ton of walks. That’s Niese.

In 2015, his last healthy season, Niese managed a 4.13 ERA (4.41 FIP) with 14.7% strikeouts, 7.1% walks, 54.5% grounders, and 1.02 HR/9 in 176.2 innings. That’s not great by any means, but it is serviceable. You could stick that dude in the back of your rotation and not sweat too much. That’s the guy whatever team signs Niese will be hoping to get this coming season, when his knee is presumably healthy.

Present Stuff

Niese is a five-pitch pitcher who uses three fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter), a curveball, and a changeup. He tinkered with a slider a few years back, but it didn’t work, so he gave up on it. Niese has never been a hard-thrower — his average four-seamer velocity peaked at 91.8 mph back in 2011 — and these days his four-seamer and sinker sit right around 90 mph. Here’s his 2016 game-by-game average velocity chart, via Brooks Baseball:

jon-niese-velocity

That dip at the end there screams “ow ow ow my push-off knee hurts so much.” The Pirates moved Niese to the bullpen in July and his velocity never did spike. And even though his knee started bothering him in June, it never showed in velocity. If you’d have looked at that graph on August 1st, you wouldn’t have been able to tell Niese was nursing a knee injury or had changed roles. His velocity held steady.

There’s nothing too exciting about Niese. His curveball doesn’t buckle knees and hitters won’t be so far out in front of his changeup they’ll break their bat on their back. He is what he is. A generic back-end starter who relies on ground balls and won’t wow you with pure stuff. Here’s some video:

That knee injury and the fact Niese pitched through it for several weeks is pretty much the only reason I wrote him up as a possible free agent target. I saw it as something that could explain his poor overall performance, and sure enough, the numbers kinda fit the timeline. How exactly did the knee injury affect Niese though? There’s no dip in his velocity. Let’s look at this four-seamer and sinker location, via Baseball Savant:

jon-niese-fastball-heat-map

In his first dozen starts, Niese kept his fastballs down in the zone, which is what you’d expect from a guy who lives and dies by the ground ball. After that, ostensibly when his knee started barking, Niese was much more prone to leaving his fastball up in the zone. That right there can help explain why his performance declined so much. He was throwing more hittable pitches, and since he lacks premium velocity overall, hitters made him pay.

Contract Estimates

Niese did not appear on a single top 50 free agent list this offseason, not one, so we have no contract estimates. Generally speaking, reclamation project starters have been getting one-year deals in the $5M range over the last two or three years, and Niese fits there. The Mets declined his $10M option after the 2016 season, and I’m guessing they gauged the trade market to see if anyone wanted him at that price. When there was no interest, they cut him loose. One-year and $5M seems like a decent framework. Maybe he’ll have to settle for a minor league contract.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

It ultimately depends on the price and health of his knee. It was a fairly routine procedure — Niese had the meniscus tear scoped like so many other athletes — and while you can never guarantee a return to full health, this is one of those surgeries with a high success rate. It’s not like taking on a dude coming off Tommy John surgery. If he’s healthy and the price is right, sure, sign him up as depth.

Keep in mind the Yankees have had interest in Niese in the past. They tried to get him from the Mets during the 2011 Winter Meetings, which was obviously a very long time ago. The Yankees liked the 25-year-old version of Niese back then. Do they like the 30-year-old version now? I’m guessing they like that he’s a lefty who gets ground balls, that he’s pitched in New York, and that he’s shown the versatility to start or relieve. (Niese was in the bullpen during the 2015 postseason.)

The question is, as always, whether Niese wants to try to rebuild his career in Yankee Stadium, which is something very few pitchers seem willing to do. The Marlins have been connected to Niese several times this winter and they might be a more preferable destination as an NL team in a big ballpark. I’m a fan of adding pitching depth. I’ve said that a million times. Healthy Niese might be the best pitcher available right now. If he’s open to coming to the Yankees, he’d be a fine low-cost pickup.

Cashman says it’s “99% likely” the Yankees will not add a starter before Spring Training

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

All things considered, this has been a pretty quiet offseason for the Yankees. They did make one notable trade (Brian McCann) and two pricey free agent signings (Matt Holliday, Aroldis Chapman), but otherwise things have been really slow for a solid month now. That’s what happens with a weak free agent class and trade prices sky high.

The Yankees will have some position battles in Spring Training, as always, but generally speaking, the roster is kinda set. There are no glaring needs. It’s not like they traded Chase Headley and don’t have a third baseman. New York does need pitching depth the way every team needs pitching depth, they’re just unlikely to add it. Brian Cashman all but confirmed it earlier this week.

“We have stay engaged with the marketplace, but I think more likely than not — 99% likely — we are going to be going to camp with what we have,” said Cashman on Jim Bowden’s radio show Monday. “That’s Tanaka, CC, and Pineda locked in to three spots, and then five guys competing for the final two spots between — in no order — Warren, Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino.”

Cashman first said he wasn’t optimistic about adding pitching during the Winter Meetings last month, and he’s stuck to his guns. Hal Steinbrenner said pretty much the same thing. That’s typical Cashman (and Hal) though. He says he doesn’t expect to do anything all winter, then bam, something happens. Bottom line: you can never truly rule the Yankees out on anything. Anyway, I have some quick thoughts on this.

1. I still think the Yankees will add a starter. I know the Yankees insist they need to dump salary before making a move, but I don’t totally buy it. I have a hard time thinking they’ll pass up the opportunity to sign a player to a little one-year contract if something pops up. Maybe nothing will pop up! There are still so many low level starters on the market (Doug Fister, Jorge De La Rosa, Scott Feldman, Ryan Vogelsong, etc.) that surely one or two will still be on the market on the eve of Spring Training, right? Right??? Anyway, yeah, I think the Yankees will scoop someone like this up on cheap one-year contract at some point. Maybe even a minor league deal.

2. I feel pretty good about the young pitchers, actually. Cashman listed the team’s four most notable young starters in Luis Cessa, Luis Severino, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. (Adam Warren ain’t so young anymore.) We saw all four of them in the show last season. Further down in the system are Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams, and Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera. (Enns and Herrera are on the 40-man roster.) I’m a young pitcher skeptic; I always assume the worst when a young guy gets called up for the first time. I oddly feel pretty confident in this group though. I guess I was encouraged by what I saw last year. That and the fact there are so many of them. Odds are good one or two (or more!) will emerge as reliable options going forward. (I hope.)

3. Still, some veteran depth would be cool. At the end of the day, they’re still young pitchers, and their performance will be unpredictable and their workloads will have to be monitored. You don’t want to push these guys to the point where they’re at increased risk of injury, and if they struggle, you want to be able to send them to Triple-A if necessary. Development isn’t always pretty. Severino last year was a reminder of that. A veteran starter, even a scrap heap guy like Fister or De La Rosa, is a safety net in case the kids need to be shut down or sent down. And if not, great! The Yankees won’t let a scrap heap veteran stand in their way. Bottom line, the more pitching to protect the young arms, the better.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Brett Anderson

(Jamie Sabau/Getty)
(Jamie Sabau/Getty)

The offseason is not so young at this point — pitches and catchers report in fewer than five weeks! — and so far the Yankees haven’t done anything to improve their starting rotation. We haven’t even seen the token “innings guy on a minor league contract for Triple-A” signing yet. If the Yankees do make any changes to their rotation before Spring Training, chances are it’ll be a small signing, not a huge trade. That’s my feeling, anyway.

Among the remaining unsigned starters, and there are still quite a few of them, by far the most interesting to me is left-hander Brett Anderson, formerly of the Athletics, Rockies, and Dodgers. Injuries have been a problem over the years, there’s no doubt about that, but at the moment, every free agent is significantly flawed. Teams are sorting through those free agents and deciding which flaws they can live with. Does Anderson make sense for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

Injury History

Might as well start here since injuries define Anderson’s career. Last year he threw only 11.1 innings across three starts and one relief appearances mostly due to back trouble. Anderson hurt his back in Spring Training and needed surgery to repair a bulging disc. It wasn’t until mid-August that he was activated, and barely a week later he landed back on the disabled list with a blister. The blister kept him out until late-September.

Last year was the fourth time in the last five years Anderson was limited to fewer than 50 innings. It was the fifth time in the last six years he was unable to throw more than 85 innings. His list of injuries is quite long and quite significant:

  • 2009 (175.1 IP): Missed a little time with finger and biceps issues, but avoided the disabled list.
  • 2010 (112.1 IP): Separate instances of elbow inflammation and a forearm strain sidelined Anderson for three months total.
  • 2011 (83.1 IP): Elbow soreness ended his season in June. He had Tommy John surgery in July.
  • 2012 (35 IP): Returned from Tommy John surgery in August. An oblique strain ended his season in September.
  • 2013 (44.2 IP): Sidelined four months with an ankle sprain and a stress fracture in his foot.
  • 2014 (43.1 IP): A broken finger and a lower back strain cost him close to five months total.
  • 2015 (180.1 IP): Healthy! Except for calf cramping that caused him to miss a start in September.
  • 2016 (11.1 IP): Back surgery and a blister kept Anderson out the entire season, basically.

Yeesh. Little of everything there. Muscle pulls and ligament tears, broken bones and bulging discs, upper body and lower body. Based on that, Anderson has to be considered a complete lottery ticket. If he stays healthy in 2017, great! If not, well, that’s kinda what you expected going in. You hope to get lucky like the Dodgers did in 2015. Maybe half as lucky.

Recent Performance

Anderson threw only 11.1 innings last year and they were 11.1 terrible innings. Terrible as in 15 runs on 25 hits and four walks. Only five strikeouts too. On the bright side, a 50.0% ground ball rate! That’s pretty good. The rest? Awful.

Now, that said, I can’t put any stock in 11.1 innings, especially when the pitcher was coming off back surgery and missed a month with a blister right in the middle of those 11.1 innings. Anderson’s only meaningful sample of innings over the last five years is that 2015 season in Los Angeles. That’s it. Here’s what he did:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2015 180.1 3.69 3.94 15.5% 6.1% 66.3% 0.90 .320 .308
Career 685.2 3.86 3.70 17.5% 6.3% 58.2% 0.83 .329 .308

So after you smush all those little 40-something-inning seasons together to get Anderson’s career rates, it looks an awful lot like his 2015 performance. He’s not a big strikeout guy, never has been, yet he succeeds by limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground. In fact, his 66.3% ground ball rate in 2015 was the third highest by a qualified starter since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002. (Derek Lowe had a 67.0% grounder rate in both 2002 and 2006).

Point is, when Anderson has been healthy, he’s been pretty effective, last year notwithstanding. Back during his prospect days, Anderson always stood out for his pitching acumen and ability to locate, not his sheer stuff. Presumably his pitchability hasn’t vanished with the injuries. It’s not like Anderson is a guy who needs to throw the ball by hitters to be successful.

Current Stuff

Because he missed so much time last year — Anderson threw 118 total pitches last year (118!) — and was either coming off injury (back surgery) or injured at the time (blister) when he was on the mound, I’m not sure 2016 PitchFX data tells us anything useful about Anderson’s current stuff. He was physically compromised.

When he’s been on the mound over the years, Anderson has consistently thrown five pitches regularly. He uses both a four-seam fastball and a sinker, plus both a curveball and a slider in addition to his changeup. Anderson’s velocity has dipped since his debut in 2009, but that’s to be expected. It would happen to anyone, not just someone who’s dealt with a ton of injuries. From Brooks Baseball:

brett-anderson-velocity

It would be a major red flag if Anderson’s velocity was down considerably last year, into the mid-80s or something. Instead, the four-seamer and sinker averaged 91.9 mph and 92.3 mph, respectively, in those 11.1 innings in 2016. They topped out at 95.6 mph and 95.2 mph as well, so the vee-low is there. That indicates the injuries haven’t damaged his arm beyond the point of no return, you know?

Because Anderson is a ground ball pitcher and not a strikeout pitcher — he’s made 115 career starts and only 12 times did he strike out more than seven batters (never more than ten) — let’s examine the ground ball rate of his individual pitches over the last two years. This tells us what healthy Anderson is capable of doing, and what he did in his most recent season, albeit in a miniscule sample size.

Four-Seam Sinker Curveball Slider Changeup
2015 54.5% 76.4% 58.8% 68.2% 59.7%
2016 50.0% 55.6% 37.5% 57.1% 40.0%
MLB AVG 37.9% 49.5% 48.7% 43.9% 47.8%

Two years ago, during his healthy season, Anderson got an above-average number of ground balls with all five pitches. That’s how you post the third highest ground ball rate by any starter in the 15 years batted ball data has been recorded. Last year, even with a bad back and a blister, Anderson got an above-average number of grounders with three of his five pitches. Yay?

The 2016 data doesn’t help us much because again, we’re talking about 118 total pitches, and I can’t imagine scouting reports would be all that helpful either. How much can information can you take from 118 pitches spread across four appearances? There’s very little video of Anderson in action in 2016 — MLB.com has three videos of Anderson from last year, and two are of him getting hurt — so here’s a clip of good, healthy Anderson from 2015:

That version of Anderson looks pretty good! Will that guy still exist in 2017, two years and one back surgery later? Damned if I know. That’s the hope though.

Contract Estimates

Things have been extremely quiet for Anderson this winter. So quiet there’s basically nothing in his MLB Trade Rumors archive. He was listed as a possible bounceback candidate in a December post, and the post before that is an injury update from September. No hard rumors at all. Anderson hasn’t been connected to any team so far this offseason.

Even though he was pretty good in 2015 and this free agent class is thin, Anderson was not included in either MLBTR’s or FanGraphs’ top 50 free agents. The only contract estimate we have comes from Jim Bowden (subs. req’d), who pegs Anderson for a one-year deal worth $5M. I had one year and $4M in my silly offseason plan, for what’s it worth.

One year and $5M or so seems to be the going rate for reclamation project starting pitchers. Derek Holland signed for $6M earlier this winter. Last offseason Matt Latos ($3M), Doug Fister ($7M), Kyle Kendrick ($5.5M), and Aaron Harang ($5M) all signed for similar amounts. Two years ago the Dodgers spent big to sign Anderson (one year and $10M) and it worked out well. Then he accepted the $15.8M qualifying offer and it was a waste of money.

Given the decided lack of interest and his ugly medical history, it’s difficult to see Anderson getting anything more than one year and $5M or so. Maybe a desperate team stretches their budget and gives him $7M, but I don’t see it. A low base salary short-term deal with incentives based on innings and/or starts seems most likely, does it not?

Does He Fit The Yankees?

My vote is yes, and for a few reasons. One, Anderson won’t cost much money. He shouldn’t, anyway. If he holds out for big bucks, then walk away and wish him luck. Two, Anderson is still only 28 (29 in February). This isn’t some 36-year-old trying to hang on. Anderson’s still on the right side of 30 and theoretically offers more upside than the typical reclamation types you find in free agency. Three, Anderson fits Yankee Stadium well as a southpaw who get ground balls.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)

And four, and perhaps most importantly, the Yankees have the pitching depth to absorb an injury should Anderson get hurt again. They have a lot of young pitchers currently slated to compete for the fourth and fifth rotation spots, including Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams will be in Triple-A as well, ditto Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera. The arms are there to cover for an injury.

Anderson is very unique as a reclamation project given his age and the way he ostensibly fits Yankee Stadium. You needn’t look back too far to see the last time he was successful too. It was 2015, one season ago. He’d be a very nice (and affordable) upside play for the 2017 Yankees, a team banking on the upside of their young kids to have any shot at contention (and not looking to spend big to make additions).

It’s important to note the Yankees have tried to acquire Anderson several times in the past, so they seem to like him. They were reportedly one of the runners-up two offseason ago, when he first signed with the Dodgers. The Yankees also tried to trade for Anderson during the 2013 Winter Meetings and at the 2014 trade deadline. Perhaps their feelings have changed over the years, but once upon a time, there was legitimate and persistent interest.

The real question is, as always, whether Anderson wants to join the Yankees. What is his goal this season? To stay healthy and show he can be effective. At this point he can’t do much more than cross his fingers and hope he stays healthy. Pitch effectively though? Performance is something that can be affected by outside factors, such as a hitter friendly ballpark in a division with three other hitter friendly ballparks in the DH league, like Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees could always use another arm just to help lighten the load a bit on the kids. Anderson offers a smidgen of upside, unlike, say, Doug Fister or Jorge De La Rosa, and even if he gets hurt again, the Yankees would be right back where they started minus a relatively small amount of cash. The potential reward is not sky high, I don’t think Anderson is an ace when healthy or anything like that, but there’s a chance for him to be league average or slightly above. If he’s open to pitching in New York, the Yankees would be wise to scoop him up.