Poll: Second-Guessing the Matt Holliday Deal

(MLB.com)
(MLB.com)

When the Yankees signed Matt Holliday to a one-year, $13 MM deal back in December, the consensus was largely positive. Or, at the very least, a bit better than lukewarm. Holliday was coming off of a down year and was soon to be 37-years-old, but he was probably the best DH option this side of Edwin Encarnacion (who would require a large commitment and a surrendered draft pick) and Carlos Beltran. And that’s before you factor in his reputation as a great teammate and mentor for younger players (insert joke about ‘veteran presents’ here), which was undoubtedly a consideration for the Yankees in the midst of their youth movement.

A bit over two months later, however, the Yankees signed Chris Carter – a player whose best role would be that which Holliday was slated to play. The immediate reaction revolved around DINGERS!, but was followed promptly by questions about when and where the 30-year-old would play. His $3.5 MM salary (along with an extra $500,000 in bonuses based on plate appearances) is veritable chump change to this team (if not all organizations at this point in time, given the influx of cash into Major League Baseball), so it might not matter if he’s riding the bench more often than not. Moreover, there are always injuries: Tyler Austin succumbed to a broken foot already, Greg Bird missed the entirety of 2016 with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and the aforementioned Holliday has missed 50-plus games in each of the last two seasons. Phrased differently, opportunities for playing time are never too far away in the big leagues.

All that being said, the Carter signing – and the subsequent discussions – reminded me of the criticisms hurled at the Blue Jays when they signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 MM deal. The signing happened what felt like hours after free agency opened, and was greeted with derision as much better options (including their own Encarnacion) remained on the market. It only looked worse in the weeks to come, as comparable-at-worst DH options were scooped up on cheap one-year commitments, eventually turning disastrous when Encarnacion signed with the Indians for 3-years, $60 MM. If it wasn’t clear that the Blue Jays jumped the gun way back in November, it certainly was once the new year rolled around.

And so the question becomes whether the Yankees jumped the gun with Holliday.

It’s a bit different here, on a few levels. The Yankees are not striving to contend this year, so Holliday’s off-the-field qualities mean a bit more to them. Moreover, they didn’t prevent themselves from signing a better option to a comparably superior deal. Carter was better than Holliday last season, but that doesn’t quite matter because (1) they still signed Carter, and (2) the projection systems see them as a toss-up.

Should we be looking at the opportunity cost differently, though?

Holliday will likely earn $9.5 MM more than Carter this year. If the Yankees could have signed Carter to this deal all along, it stands to reason that they would have had at least another $9.5 MM to spend – if not the full $13 MM, considering that Holliday’s deal didn’t prevent them from signing Carter. With that extra money they could have signed Brett Anderson as a reclamation project, or Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, or Jason Hammel to solidify the back of the rotation (or both Anderson and Hammel). Or they could have signed one of Anderson and Jerry Blevins (or Hammel and Blevins, if they had the full $13 MM to spend). There are several permutations out there that would have improved their rotation and bullpen.

This is laden with assumptions, of course. I’m comfortable saying that the Carter deal could have come to fruition regardless, given that the Brewers couldn’t get anything for him at the trade deadline or prior to non-tendering him, but everything else is guesswork. Even so, it seems clear that the Yankees could look better as a whole with Carter as the starting DH and between $9.5 MM and $13 MM invested elsewhere.

Did the Yankees act too soon by signing Holliday?
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Revisiting the MLBTR Archives: March 2012

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

Is it really March already? Geez. I feel like New Years was last week. Anyway, now that we’re in a new month, it’s again time to go back through the MLB Trade Rumors archives. We’re now in March 2012, and March is traditionally one of the slowest months for free agent and trade rumors. The offseason is over and teams usually wait a few weeks into the regular season before getting serious about acquiring upgrades.

The Yankees wrapped up their 2011-12 offseason business in February, when they traded A.J. Burnett following the Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda pickups. They also filled out their bench with low cost veterans like Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez. The rotation looked great and an offense that ranked second in baseball with 5.35 runs per game in 2011 was mostly intact. There were plenty of reasons to be excited in March 2012. Let’s dive into the rumors.

March 1st, 2012: Quick Hits: Burnett, Sizemore, Posey, Yankees

Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner confirmed to reporters, including Marc Carig of the Star-Ledger, that he is intent on lowering payroll below $189MM by 2014 for luxury tax purposes (Twitter link).

The first reports of the austerity plan arrived a few weeks before this nugget. It started out as a little thing, then it continued to gain steam over the next year or two. The Yankees still haven’t gotten under the luxury tax, as you know, mostly because they reacted to their yucky 2013 season by committing $438M total to Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran. (That doesn’t include the $20M release fee for Tanaka.)

Given what we know now, those four signings have worked out fairly well overall. The Ellsbury deal is pretty bad and will only look worse over time. Both McCann and Beltran were productive during their time in pinstripes though, and they were traded for some pretty good prospects. Tanaka has been pretty damn awesome when healthy, which has been most of the time. At the same time, the Yankees have played one postseason game since handing out those contracts, and you know the team’s ultimate goal is playing in October. Either way, the austerity play went bye bye in 2014. The Yankees are poised to try again in 2018.

March 7th, 2012: Mariano Rivera May Announce Decision Before All-Star Break

“I think maybe it will be before the All-Star break,” legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post regarding an announcement of whether he will pitch in 2013.  Rivera wants to be certain of his decision, which he seems to have already made privately.  Rivera said that when he does retire, “It would be nice that you tell the fans, so every stadium you go to, the fans will be there to show their appreciation and you appreciate the fans.”

Mo never did get a chance to announce his decision that year. He blew out his knee on the Kauffman Stadium warning track on May 3rd, ending his season. Rivera later said he was planning to retire following the 2012 season, and the injury changed his mind. He didn’t want to go out like that. Thank goodness. Had Rivera not changed his mind, this never would have happened …

… and that would have sucked.

March 10th, 2012: Levine: Yankees Plan To Keep Cano And Granderson

With the Yankees planning to get under the $189MM luxury tax threshold by 2014, many have wondered if the club will be able to retain both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson after their contracts expire following the 2013 season.  Today, team president Randy Levine flatly stated that the team has a plan in place to retain both stars, writes Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.

I literally lol’d when I saw this headline. I guess the plan was a) never make Granderson a competitive offer, and b) hope Cano is willing to take a discount. Swing and a miss, that was.

In all seriousness, this is a nice reminder plans can and do change. Levine made these comments 20 months before Granderson and Cano actually became free agents, and I’m sure the Yankees had every intention of retaining both at the time. Then Granderson missed a ton of time with hit-by-pitch related injuries in 2013 and Cano continued to raise his earning potential with his performance. Something something best laid plans.

March 11th, 2012: Cafardo On Phillies, Blanton, Lannan, Ramirez

With several teams in the market for a center fielder, Cafardo asked a National League scout if the Yankees would entertain a deal for Brett Gardner.  Gardner is currently slated to start in left field for the Yanks but a National League scout said that at some point the club might seek out a more traditional left field option.

Does the scout make those comments if the Yankees were playing Granderson (41 homers in 2011) in left and Gardner (49 steals in 2011) in center instead of vice versa? Granderson’s production certainly qualified him as a “traditional left field option,” and hey, Gardner in center and Granderson in left would have been a better defensive alignment too. Each position has a traditional offensive and defensive profile, but it’s okay to break from the norm once in a while.

March 15th, 2012: AL East Notes: Ibanez, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Orioles

Raul Ibanez doesn’t have emotional, historical or financial ties keeping him on the Yankees’ roster, so Joel Sherman of the New York Post wonders how long the club will stick with Ibanez if his struggles continue. But as Sherman point out, it’s still just March 15th.

Ibanez was so, so bad in Spring Training 2012. He hit .150/.190/.333 in 63 plate appearances, and it wasn’t until the final week of camp that he finally hit a ball out of the park. Ibanez wasn’t particularly great in the first half either, hitting .240/.298/.457 (98 wRC+) before the All-Star break. For a bat only dude, that ain’t good. Gardner hurt his elbow making a sliding catch in April though, leaving the Yankees short an outfielder the rest of the season. I wonder if they would have moved on from Ibanez at some point had Gardner been healthy. Fortunately for the Yankees, they kept Ibanez and he got molten hot at exactly the right time in September (and October).

March 16th, 2012: Yankees Notes: Pineda, Ibanez, Willis

The Yankees offered Dontrelle Willis a minor league deal this offseason, Sherman tweets. The Yankees might look into signing Willis, who was released by the Phillies this morning.

Dontrelle Willis! I don’t remember the Yankees being on him on at all. Willis was pretty far gone by this point too. His last good season was 2006, and from 2008-11, he had a 6.15 ERA (5.46 FIP) in 199 total innings. I assume the Yankees were looking at the then 30-year-old Willis as a reliever — he held left-handed batters to a .123/.169/.200 (.168 wOBA) batting line with 33.3% strikeouts, 3.3% walks, and 58.3% grounders in 2011, albeit in a limited sample. D-Train continued pitching in the minors and independent ball until 2014. He never pitched in the big leagues after 2011 though. It went so bad, so fast with him.

March 16th, 2012: Yankees Sign Andy Pettitte

A year after retiring, Andy Pettitte is back in pinstripes. The Yankees announced that they signed the 39-year-old left-hander to a minor league contract. Pettitte, a Hendricks Sports client, can potentially earn $2.5MM on the deal, which doesn’t include incentives. 

I’ll never forget the moment we learned Pettitte was coming out of retirement. Joe and I were in the middle of recording the RAB Podcast (RIP) when Jack Curry broke the news on Twitter. We were both just kinda speechless, so we scrapped that podcast and started writing about the signing instead. It was a pretty crazy afternoon. Pettitte’s un-retirement came out of nowhere. There were no rumbling at all. If anything, there was the opposite. Pettitte was in camp as a guest instructor that year and he told everyone he had no interest in playing again. Funny how that works.

Andy’s return — he threw another 260.2 innings with a 3.49 ERA (3.64 FIP) after coming back — was pretty awesome. I was kinda worried he’d come back and get knocked around, and it would all look like one giant mistake, but nope. He was great.

March 17th, 2012: Yankees Links: Pettitte, Garcia, Posada, Wise, A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez told Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com that he’d like to own a baseball team one day (Twitter link). According to the game’s bylaws, A-Rod will have to wait until he’s no longer under contract with one of the 30 clubs to do so.

I too would like to own a baseball team one day. My chances aren’t as good as A-Rod’s though. Being an owner is pretty good work if you can get it. The national television contracts and revenue sharing system make it basically impossible to lose money. I feel like it’s only a matter of time until A-Rod gets involved with an ownership group and purchases a team. Same with Derek Jeter. A-Rod stays in Miami and buys the Marlins while Jeter stays in Tampa and buys the Rays. Sounds good to me.

March 20th, 2012: Yankees Notes: Pettitte, Hughes, Nova, Damon

There was a split between upper management and the field staff over whether to sign Johnny Damon or Raul Ibanez, Tom Verducci of SI.com writes. Damon told the Yankees he would play for whatever they were offering Ibanez, but it wasn’t enough.

Interesting! I don’t remember hearing this. I assume the front office wanted Ibanez since, you know, he’s the guy they actually signed. Plus it makes sense that Joe Girardi and the other members of his staff would prefer Damon since they had him for a few years, and won a title with him. Ibanez went on to hit .240/.308/.453 (102 wRC+) with 19 homers in 2012, plus he had all the postseason heroics. Damon hit .222/.281/.329 (70 wRC+) with four homers for the Indians that year and was released in August. Score one for the front office nerds.

March 21st, 2012: Spanish Links: Vazquez, Wandy, Jorge Vazquez

Slugging Yankee prospect Jorge Vazquez is growing impatient with the minor leagues and would like to try Japan or Korea if there’s not a place for him in the major leagues, according to the president of the Mexican League’s Tigres de Quintana Roo, where Vazquez played in 2007 and 2008. “If they don’t give him an opportunity this year, he wants them to trade him, or to go to [play] baseball in the east,” Cuauhtémoc “Chito” Rodríguez told Fernando Ballesteros at Puro Béisbol. “He doesn’t want to continue on in Triple A anymore, not just with the Yankees, but with any other organization as well.” Vazquez made a case for being MLB-ready in 2011, putting up a .262/.314/.516 line with 32 homers at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

That .262/.314/.516 (121 wRC+) line in 2011 also came with a 33.2% strikeout rate and a 6.0% walk rate. He was repeating the level too. Remember how much everyone freaked out about Aaron Judge‘s strikeouts in Triple-A in the second half of the 2015 season? He had a 28.5% strikeout rate and an 11.2% walk rate. Vazquez was an extreme free swinger. The Yankees ended up releasing him at the end of Spring Training in 2012 and he’s been playing in Mexico ever since. He hit .319/.403/.513 (146 wRC+) with six homers in 33 games last year, and, as far as I can tell, he’s under contract to play again this year too.

March 22nd 2012: DePaula Obtains Visa; Yankees Deal Still In Place

Rafael DePaula is finally on the verge of beginning his professional baseball career. The pitching prospect agreed to sign with the Yankees for $500K in November, 2010, but hasn’t had a visa until now, so the deal hasn’t been completed. Agent Charisse Espinosa-Dash told MLBTR today that DePaula has his visa and that the original deal is expected to go through once the Dominican right-hander passes a physical.

The DePaula signing came with a lot of headache and very little reward. It took about 18 months for the contract to be finalized due to visa issues — DePaula had been previously suspended for lying about his age, which tends to gum up the works — and once he was able to play, his top prospect status didn’t last long. The Yankees traded DePaula as the second piece in the Chase Headley trade a few years back. DePaula, 26 next month, had a 2.66 ERA (2.17 FIP) with 32.8% strikeouts and 8.3% walks in 64.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year. It was his first season as a full-time reliever. DePaula was not selected in December’s Rule 5 Draft for the second straight year. Lot of hype, little payoff. Such is life.

March 23rd, 2012: Quick Hits: Nationals, Blue Jays, Soria, Carpenter

Joba Chamberlain dislocated his right ankle and lost a life-threatening amount of blood yesterday, Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News reports. The injury will end Chamberlain’s season and could threaten his career.

Ugh, the Joba ankle injury. That was brutal. Joba was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at the time of the trampoline accident, so the ankle injury didn’t delay his return all that much. He returned on August 1st and had a 4.35 ERA (4.01 FIP) in 20.2 innings the rest of the season. Chamberlain had a 3.70 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 382 innings before the Tommy John surgery and ankle injury, and he has a 4.05 ERA (4.29 FIP) in 173.1 innings since. He’s in camp as a non-roster players with the Brewers this spring. Prospects will break your heart, yo.

March 24th, 2012: Quick Hits: Phillies, Garcia, Abreu, Beras, Mets

Word is that the Yankees offered Freddy Garcia to the Marlins but Miami wasn’t interested, tweets Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com.  Garcia, who is a trade candidate following the club’s signing of Andy Pettitte, is signed to a one-year deal worth $4MM plus incentives.

In 2011, the Yankees had so little pitching they were signing guys like Garcia and Bartolo Colon out of near retirement. In 2012, they had so many arms they were able to trade Burnett and shop Garcia. Sweaty Freddy never did go anywhere though. He had a 5.20 ERA (4.68 FIP) in 107.1 innings spread across 17 starts and 13 relief appearances for the Yankees year. Yuck. In hindsight, letting Colon go and keeping Garcia was a huge mistake. You’re lying if you said you knew Colon would still be pitching in 2017 (!) though.

March 25th, 2012: Phillies Have Interest In Yankees’ Ramiro Pena

With second baseman Chase Utley sidelined with no timetable to return, the Phillies plan to start Freddy Galvis and are hoping to bolster their infield depth behind him.  With that in mind, General Manager Ruben Amaro & Co. have some interest in Yankees utilityman Ramiro Pena, according to George A. King III of the New York Post.

That’s 2009 World Series Champion Ramiro Pena to you. He had his moments as an up-and-down utility man from 2009-11. Pena spent just about the entire 2012 season in Triple-A, where he hit .258/.325/.328 (85 wRC+) in 101 games. The Yankees dropped him from the 40-man roster after the season and Pena went on his way. Rakin’ Ramiro did play in the big leagues last year, you know. With the Giants. He hit .299/.330/.425 (103 wRC+) with a homer in 30 games while they were dealing with some infield injuries. Pena signed with the Hiroshima Carp, Kuroda’s former team, over the winter.

March 28th, 2012: Yankees Sign Jack Cust

The Yankees have signed Jack Cust to a minor league contract, reports Sweeny Murti of WFAN (on Twitter). Last night we heard that the TWC Sports client was likely to sign with an NL team, but the Yankees apparently swooped in.

I completely forgot the Yankees had Cust for a while. He never did play for them in the big leagues, but he did hit .249/.400/.475 (147 wRC+) with 20 homers in 98 games with Triple-A Scranton before being released. My lasting memory of Cust will be his baserunning gaffes against the Yankees back in 2003:

The Yankees led the game 5-4 in the 12th inning at the time. Had Cust not fallen down (twice!), he would have scored the game tying run. I miss the days when the O’s were a punching bag. Don’t you?

March 28th, 2012: Yankees Claim Craig Tatum Off Waivers

The Yankees have claimed catcher Craig Tatum off waivers from the Diamondbacks, the team announced. The 29-year-old backstop has been claimed off waivers three times in the last few months, first by the Astros, then by the D’Backs, and now by the Yankees. Their 40-man roster is now full.

I am an embarrassingly huge baseball nerd, so it’s not often a transaction involves a player I’ve never heard of, especially if said player once played for the Yankees. I have zero recollection of Tatum though. None at all. Apparently the Yankees claimed him from the Diamondbacks, outrighted him off the 40-man roster a few days later, and he played eight games with Triple-A Scranton that summer. Been out of baseball since. I remember most things and I have no memory of this happening. Now I wonder what else I’ve forgotten.

March 28th, 2012: AL East Notes: Maxwell, Moore, Red Sox

The Astros and Orioles have some interest in Yankees outfielder Justin Maxwell, but haven’t discussed a possible deal with GM Brian Cashman, George A. King III of the New York Post reports. Maxwell is out of options and could be available in trades before Opening Day.

“The stupid Yankees shoulda kept Maxwell and dumped Andruw Jones” was a thing for a while in 2012. Andruw was terrible that year, hitting .197/.294/.408 (89 wRC+) overall and .202/.294/.411 (88 wRC+) against lefties. The Yankees had no room on the roster for Maxwell, who was claimed by the Astros after New York put him on waivers at the end of camp. He went on to hit .229/.304/.460 (106 wRC+) overall that year, and .272/.387/.505 (143 wRC+) against lefties. Maxwell has bounced around since then, and he currently plays for the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization.

March 29th, 2012: Minor Moves: Bard, Sullivan, Pearce, Michaels

The Yankees have signed Steve Pearce to a minor league contract, reports Josh Norris of the Trentonian (Twitter link).  Pearce, a former well-regarded prospect with the Pirates, signed a minor league deal with the Twins in December but was released on Tuesday.

At the time Pearce was a busted former top-ish prospect. He’d hit .232/.302/.366 (78 wRC+) in 521 total plate appearances with the Pirates as an up-and-down guy from 2007-11. Pittsburgh then cut him loose after the 2011 season. Here is how Pearce’s 2012 season played out:

  • March 27th: Released by Twins (signed a minor league deal over the winter).
  • March 29th: Signs minor league deal with Yankees.
  • June 2nd: Traded to the Orioles for cash.
  • July 28th: Claimed on waivers by the Astros from the O’s.
  • August 27th: Claimed on waivers by the Yankees from the Astros.
  • September 29th: Claimed on waivers by the Orioles from the Yankees.

Pearce didn’t play for the big league Yankees the first time. He hit .318/.419/.568 (173 wRC+) with eleven homers in 73 games with Triple-A Scranton before exercising an opt-out clause in his contract. The Yankees could either trade him to the O’s for some cash, or let him complete the opt-out and go there as a free agent. They took the cash.

After coming back to New York in August, Pearce went 4-for-25 (.160) with a homer in 30 plate appearances for the Yankees. He was essentially an extra bench bat once rosters expanded in September. It wasn’t until 2013 that Pearce really established himself as a big league caliber hitter. I was hoping the Yankees would sign him this winter — for the Chris Carter role, essentially, except Pearce can also play the outfield — but alas. He’s with the Blue Jays now.

Friday Links: A-Rod, YES, Judge, Frazier, Gagne, Littell

Guest instructor Al from Miami. (Presswire)
Guest instructor Al from Miami. (Newsday)

The Yankees are, at this very moment, playing their first Grapefruit League game of the season. Turn on YES or MLB.tv to watch. Here’s our game thread. Don’t miss it. Here are some bits of news and notes to check out in the meantime.

A-Rod to meet with YES

At some point this spring Alex Rodriguez will meet with executives from the YES Network, report George King and Bryan Hoch. The exact reason for the meeting is unclear. It could be something, it could be nothing. Maybe just a meet-and-great or some promo work. Or maybe the two sides will discuss a broadcasting role. YES has a small army of ex-Yankees on their rotating panel of analysts.

Rodriguez has done analyst work with FOX the last two postseasons and he’s been really good. Critics have praised him and diehard fans seem to like him too. A-Rod certainly knows the game and he seems comfortable talking about it in depth on camera. Again, I have no idea why exactly Alex and YES are meeting. It really could be nothing. I selfishly hope it’s about potential broadcasting work though. That would be awesome.

Judge among Law’s top impact prospects for 2017

Keith Law (subs. req’d) recently ranked his top 19 prospects based on potential 2017 impact. Not surprisingly, Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi and Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson sit in the top two spots. They’re the two best prospects in baseball in my opinion, and both are locked into big league starting jobs this year. Aaron Judge is seventh on Law’s list and Clint Frazier is among the honorable mentions.

I expect (Judge) to take some time to bring (his strikeouts) down this year, but that’s been his history with each promotion in pro ball. Judge is a giant, at 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, so his strike zone is just as big, but he has enormous raw power and is an above-average right fielder. As long as the contact he makes continues to be hard contact, he’ll have value even if he’s among the league leaders in Ks.

I don’t think the Yankees will hesitate to send Judge to Triple-A to start the season if they feel it’s best for him. I also think they understand he’s going to come with growing pains. We saw them late last year and they’re not necessarily over. At some point they’re just going to have to stick it out with Judge and let him work through the problems, and perhaps that means a .205 average with 185 strikeouts in 2017. Perhaps moreso than any other young player in the system, Judge is going to require a lot of patience, both from the Yankees and fans.

Gagne considering comeback attempt

Eric Gagne, who turned 41 last month, is considering a comeback attempt, according to Ken Gurnick. Gagne hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2008 — he was one-and-done on the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot — but he has thrown in various independent leagues the last few years, and he’ll pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Gagne’s agent told Gurnick he sat 93-95 mph in indy ball last year (eh) while Jon Heyman hears he’s throwing 92-93 mph in bullpen sessions right now.

Gagne at his peak was one of the most dominant forces in baseball history. From 2002-04 he had a 1.79 ERA (1.57 FIP) with 38.6% strikeouts and 6.1% walks in 247 innings. During his 2003 Cy Young season he struck out 137 and walked 18 unintentionally in 82.1 innings. Insane. This is the time of year for comeback attempt stories, and hey, if Gagne looks good during the WBC, I’m sure some team will offer him a minor league deal. Maybe even the Yankees.

Littell among top “control” prospects

A few weeks ago Matt Eddy put together a list of the best “control” prospects in the minors. In this case control is not referring to the ability to throw strikes. FIP is based on three things the pitcher controls: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Eddy removed strikeouts and examined the best prospects at limiting walks and homers, and he also threw in the ability to hold runners for good measure. Zack Littell ranked third on his list.

Of the dozen prospects traded by the Mariners this offseason, Littell looks like one of the more promising. The Yankees acquired the 21-year-old North Carolina prep in a straight-up trade for lefty reliever James Pazos. Littell brings a cerebral approach to the mound, which helps his high-spin fastball and above-average breaking ball play up.

I’m still amazed the Yankees were able to get a solid starting pitcher prospect for Pazos, who throws hard and doesn’t do much else. Littell did not make my top 30 prospects list but Baseball America ranked him 24th in the system in their 2017 Prospect Handbook. The Yankees managed to use the industry’s obsession with lefties and velocity to turn Pazos and Justin Wilson into three pretty nice young arms at a time when reliable starters are hard to find and not cheap to acquire. Neat.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Joe Blanton

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

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

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

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

Injury History

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

Recent Performance

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

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

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

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

Present Stuff

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

brooksbaseball-chart

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

brooksbaseball-chart-1

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

brooksbaseball-chart-2

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

Contract Estimate

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

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

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

Does He Fit The Yankees?

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

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

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

Reports: Rays sign Nathan Eovaldi to one-year deal plus option

(Tasos Katopodis/Getty)
(Tasos Katopodis/Getty)

According to multiple reports, the Rays and Nathan Eovaldi have agreed to a one-year contract worth $2M. It’s a big league deal, so he’s going on their 40-man roster. The contract includes a club option for 2018, and since Eovaldi won’t pitch at all in 2017, the option is key. Tampa Bay will rehab him and hope it pays off one year from now.

Eovaldi, who turns 27 tomorrow, underwent his second Tommy John surgery last August. He also had surgery to repair his flexor muscle, which he said was torn completely off the bone. Yikes. Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees discussed a reunion with Eovaldi earlier this winter. Apparently he had other ideas.

The Yankees released Eovaldi back in November to clear a 40-man roster spot. He was projected to earn roughly $7M through arbitration in 2017 before becoming a free agent next winter, so keeping him made no sense. Why pay the guy $7M to not pitch next year when he could leave as a free agent after the season? Exactly.

Eovaldi spent two seasons with the Yankees, throwing 279 innings with a 4.45 ERA (4.11 FIP). He had his moments, specifically in the second half of the 2015 season, otherwise Eovaldi remained an enigma. So long, Nasty Nate. Good luck when you’re not facing the Yankees.

Reports: Yankees made a “strong push” for Sergio Romo

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

According to Jesse Sanchez, the Yankees made a “strong push” for free agent right-handed reliever Sergio Romo before he agreed to a one-year deal with the Dodgers over the weekend. Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman report the Yankees never did make a formal offer to Romo, who wanted to stay close to home on the West Coast anyway.

Romo, 34 in March, had a 2.60 ERA (3.80 FIP) with 28.2% strikeouts and 6.0% walks in 30.2 innings last year. He missed two months with a flexor strain, the same injury that sidelined James Kaprielian most of the season. Romo pitched in winter ball in Mexico this offseason to show teams he’s healthy and effective. I’ve got some thoughts on this.

1. Romo is exactly the kind of pitcher the Yankees target. The Yankees are firm believers in DIPS Theory, which says pitchers should be evaluated based on things they control (strikeouts, walks, homers) and not so much on things out of their control (did the defense make the play?). That’s good, though these days we know pitchers do have some control over the type of contact they allow (see: Michael Pineda giving up rockets despite a sexy FIP). The Yankees know that too.

Anyway, Romo has long been a guy with phenomenal strikeout and walk rates. From 2010-16, a span of seven seasons and 371.2 innings, he had a 2.70 FIP with a 29.0% strikeout rate and a 4.8% walk rate. That’s the kind of pitcher the Yankees (and every team, really) loves. Lots of strikeouts and few walks. Furthermore, Romo has been throwing high-leverage innings for the Giants for the better part of a decade. He closed out a World Series (2012) and helped win two others (2010, 2014). The whole “how will this guy perform under pressure?” question has been answered.

2. Romo has his limitations at this point, however. Romo is not your typical reliever in that he never threw all that hard. His sinker sat in the upper-80s during his prime, and last year it was down to 85.9 mph on average. Romo succeeds by throwing his no-dot slider (GIF via Reddit)…

sergio-romo-slider

… a ton. I’m talking roughly 60% of the time in recent years. He pitches backwards. His slider sets up his sinker, not the other way around. The continued loss of velocity and the fact he’s never been much of a ground ball guy (career 38.8%) gives Romo less margin for error nowadays. His 1.47 HR/9 and 13.9 HR/FB% last year were both career highs — that was in pitcher friendly AT&T Park too, remember — and over the last three seasons lefties (.362 wOBA) have had much more success against him than righties (.232 wOBA).

At this point of his career, with his best years almost certainly in the past, it’s fair to consider Romo a middle innings right-on-right matchup guy, not a late-innings high-leverage option who faces batters on both sides of the plate. The presence of Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances ensured Joe Girardi wouldn’t have had to use Romo as a high-leverage reliever. The Yankees didn’t sign him though, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Whatever.

3. The Yankees are still looking for help. This became clear when they signed Chris Carter. The Yankees hadn’t done anything of note since (re-)signing Chapman during the Winter Meetings, but that didn’t mean they weren’t trying to improve the roster. I mean, I don’t think anyone seriously believed they stopped trying to get better. Their interest in Romo is a reminder that they remain engaged in the market though.

The free agent market has little to offer at this point, so even though the Yankees were willing to spend X on Romo, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will turn around and spend it on someone else now. (Heck, that money may have gone to Carter.) I’m not even sure who they could go after. Joe Blanton? Travis Wood?? Those fellows represent the best available free agent arms right now, at least among guys who finished the season healthy. The Yankees want to get better and they did with Carter. There just aren’t many other ways to do it right now.

Sherman: The Yankees have “let some clubs know” Starlin Castro is available

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees have “let some clubs know” second baseman Starlin Castro is available in trade talks. This was apparently part of their efforts to trade Brett Gardner and Chase Headley earlier this winter. Seems they made any veteran making decent money available.

Castro, who will turn 27 next month, managed a .270/.300/.433 (94 wRC+) batting line with a career high 21 home runs last year, his first as a Yankee and his first as a full-time second baseman. Starlin is owed $30M from 2017-19 with a $16M club option ($1M buyout) for 2020, so he’s making decent money. I have some thoughts on this.

1. Of course the Yankees made Castro available. At this point, there is absolutely no one on the roster the Yankees should make off-limits in trade talks. Gary Sanchez is the closest thing to an untouchable, and even then it makes sense to listen. It never hurts to listen. What if the Angels come calling and say Mike Trout is up for grabs, but only if Sanchez is in the package? Exactly.

Anyway, the best way to describe Castro is … adequate. He offers promise because he’s still young and his raw talent is obvious, though his lack of plate discipline holds him back, and we haven’t seen any improvement in that department. His 3.9% walk rate last year was the second lowest of his career. His career low is 3.6% in 2015, so he’s more of a free-swinger than ever before right now.

We’re getting to the point where Starlin is what he is. This is a guy with nearly 4,400 big league plate appearances to his credit already. If he was going to improve his plate discipline, we’d probably be seeing it by now, right? At the same time, you’d hate to give up on Castro and have him blossom elsewhere. That’s not enough of a reason not to trade him though. By all means, make him available.

2. Which teams need a second baseman? Sherman’s report says the Yankees made “some clubs” aware Castro was available, which seems to indicate they phoned around and let teams with a middle infield opening know they were willing to part with Starlin. This wasn’t a mass “hey Castro is available make me an offer” text situation. It was a “hey, I noticed you need a second baseman, we’re willing to talk Castro” thing. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

The Dodgers had, by far, the biggest need at second base this offseason. They were connected to Brian Dozier for weeks and weeks before completing the Logan Forsythe trade. Looking around the league, only the Braves, Royals, Padres, and Diamondbacks appear to have middle infield openings. The Braves have top prospect Ozzie Albies coming soon and the Padres are in tank mode, so forget them.

Point is, the market for a middle infielder is fairly limited at this point, which is unusual. So many clubs are rebuilding right now that they prefer to stick with their young internal options at second (or short) rather than scoop up a guy like Castro. I don’t think Starlin has much trade value — remember, the Yankees got him for Adam Warren, not some top prospect — but still, not many teams are desperate for middle infield help.

3. Who would play second for the Yankees? Okay, so let’s say the Yankees find a taker for Castro. Who would they then play at second base? I’ll tell you the answer right now: Chase Utley. Sorry, Rob Refsnyder fans. The Yankees very clearly do not believe in his defense at second. Ronald Torreyes, Ruben Tejada, and Donovan Solano are also internal candidates, but c’mon, a cheap one-year deal for Utley would be inevitable. Maybe he and Refsnyder would platoon.

The real question is who would play second base long-term? I’m not even sure Castro is the answer himself. The Yankees have a ton of shortstop prospects on the way. Tyler Wade is going to open the season at Triple-A and many believe he’s best suited for second because of his arm. Gleyber Torres isn’t far away either. Stopgap free agents like Neil Walker and (ew) Brett Lawrie, both of whom will hit the market next winter, are always options in the interim.

The best case scenario is Starlin figures out some semblance of plate discipline and become a reliably above-average hitter going forward, as he enters what should be the best seasons of his career. That would force the Yankees to make tough decisions with Wade and Torres, among others. That’s a good thing. Too many options is a luxury. For now, Starlin simply isn’t good enough to be considered a long-term core player, and that’s exactly the kind of player you put on the trade market.