Rosenthal: Tigers asked about Andrew Miller before K-Rod trade

"Trade rumors are dumb." (Patrick Smith/Getty)
“Trade rumors are dumb.” (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Earlier today the Tigers made a move in hopes of improving their perpetually shaky bullpen, acquiring Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers for an infield prospect. K-Rod, who is somehow still only 33, had a 2.21 ERA (2.91 FIP) in 57 innings this past season. There is $9.5M left on his contract and the last thing a rebuilding team like the Brewers needs is an expensive closer.

A few hours before the trade Ken Rosenthal reported the Tigers had inquired about the availability of Andrew Miller, though they weren’t comfortable with the asking price. Rosenthal says the Tigers are not eager to move the players they acquired in the David Price and Yoenis Cespedes trades, who are basically their top prospects. Detroit also checked in on Aroldis Chapman.

The Yankees are said to be “shopping everyone,” and it makes sense to at least see what the market is for Miller given the haul the Padres received for Craig Kimbrel last week. In addition to the Tigers, the Diamondbacks have also asked about Miller in recent weeks. I’m sure a bunch of other clubs have as well. High-end relievers are always in demand. The asking price is high and it should be. Also, for what it’s worth:

I suppose it’s possible the Yankees and Tigers could rekindle their Miller trade talks at some point — after all, the Tigers need relievers, plural — though unless the Yankees lower their asking price, I don’t think it’ll happen. And there’s no reason to lower the asking price. Miller’s great and his contract isn’t onerous. If he were on another team and being shopped, we’d want the Yankees to get him.

The Yankees tend to keep things pretty close to the vest — the Aaron Hicks trade came of nowhere, for example — and the fact all these Miller rumors are leaking leads me to believe there are no serious talks. If things go quiet, it could either mean they’re in serious talks or nothing is going on. I guess that’s part of the intrigue. We’ll see.

Devil’s Advocate: Reasons the Yankees should trade Brett Gardner

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

Once again, there has been a lot of talking about a possible a Brett Gardner trade this offseason. It’s been going on for a few years now, mostly because he is one of the few players on the roster with actual trade value. He’s the only veteran Yankee making real money with any sort of trade value. People like to talk trades and Gardner’s tradeable.

We’ve already heard the Yankees have discussed Gardner with the Mariners, though it sounds like those talks were preliminary more than anything. (Seattle’s recent Leonys Martin pickup may end those talks.) There’s been speculation other clubs like the Angels, Cubs, Nationals, Tigers, and even the Mets could be suitors for Gardner. Lots of contending clubs — and that’s Gardner’s market, teams trying to contend, there’s no reason for rebuilding clubs to get him — have a need in the outfield.

Even with his second half slump, Gardner was one of the Yankees’ best players this past season, hitting .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) with 16 home runs and 20 steals in 151 games. Only 15 players in baseball had 15+ homers and 15+ steals in 2015. Gardner was one of ’em. I have a tough time seeing how the Yankees could trade Gardner and actually improve, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring.

As with any player, the Yankees are smart to listen to offers to Gardner. You never know when a team may be desperate and willing to overpay. (Overpay in your eyes, anyway.) Although I’m not necessarily hoping the Yankees trade Gardner, there are reasons it could be a good idea. Here are four in no particular order.

Avoid Decline Years

Gardner turned 32 in late-August and plays a hard-nosed style, so much so the Yankees are reportedly worried he wears himself out over the long season each year, leading to his second half slumps. His offensive production has actually held fairly steady since becoming a full-time player in 2010 …

Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

… though normal age-related decline figures to set in fairly soon, if it hasn’t already. Also, Gardner’s defense is not as strong as it once was. Both the eye test and stats confirm that. Gardner is still a really good defender, he’s hardly a liability out there, but he’s closer to league average than elite at this point.

And, of course, there’s the decline in stolen bases, which is pretty normal. Gardner swiped 47 and 49 bases in 2010 and 2011, respectively, missed most of 2012 due to an elbow injury, and has hovered around 20 steals a year from 2013-15. Stolen bases tend to peak very early in a player’s career, so it’s no surprise he isn’t stealing as many bases as he once did.

Gardner right now is still a really good player. He’s solidly above-average overall and is arguably the best all-around player on the Yankees. He’s no worse than their what, third best all-around player? That’s right now though. What about next year and the year after that and the year after that, all of which are guaranteed under his contract?

Gardner will decline at some point because all players decline at some point. The Yankees have almost certainly gotten the best years of his career and now they may be in position to avoid his decline phase — decline is not always gradual, remember — through a trade.

Shed Salary

I absolutely hate the idea of the Yankees shedding salary in order to make other moves, especially since payroll has not increased significantly over the last decade even though the new Yankee Stadium opened six years ago, but that’s the world we live in. Gardner is owed $38M over the next three seasons, including the $2M buyout of his $12.5M club option for 2016.

That’s not a huge contract — 18 outfielders have contracts with a higher average annual value, and a few more will join the list this winter — but it’s not nothing either. Shedding the $13M or so they owe Gardner each of the next three years means more money for … whatever. Pitching, second base, more outfielders, whatever. There are lots of ways to spend $13M annually and the Yankees certainly have no shortage of needs. Moving Gardner saves real dollars that can be put to use elsewhere.

Clear A Spot For Hicks & Co.

Late last week the Yankees acquired Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitter with center field defensive chops who Brian Cashman called “an everyday player.” Except he won’t be an everyday player, at least not with the roster as it currently stands. Gardner is locked into left field while Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran are set to again play center and right, respectively.

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

Trading Gardner clears up left field for Hicks — I’d be favor of playing Hicks in center and Ellsbury in left, but that ain’t happening — and allows him to play everyday. Also, the Yankees have some outfield talent in Triple-A they could also explore. We saw Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams last year, and there’s also Aaron Judge and Ben Gamel (and Jake Cave) in Triple-A.

The long-term potential of those other outfielders is up for debate — Hicks appears to be on the verge of a breakout, but who knows about the other guys — but the Yankees are never going to know what they have until they give them a chance. Trading Gardner clears left field and allows the Yankees to use Hicks, Heathcott, Judge, whoever. It creates more roster flexibility, basically. And it also allows them to potentially add some more balance to the lineup with a righty hitter.

Talent Infusion

There are an awful lot of good outfielders on the market this offseason. I mean some of the best in the game. So why would a team give up players to trade for Gardner when they could simply pay money for a free agent? Because look at some of these projected prices (via FanGraphs Crowdsourcing):

  • Jason Heyward, age 26: Eight years and $184M.
  • Yoenis Cespedes, age 30: Six years and $132M.
  • Justin Upon, age 28: Six years and $120M.
  • Alex Gordon, age 31: Five years and $90M.
  • Dexter Fowler, age 29: Four years and $56M.

Suddenly three years and $38M for Gardner doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Point is, those guys are going to make major bucks, and not every team can afford them. Among the second tier outfield targets are Denard Span, Austin Jackson, Gerardo Parra, and Nori Aoki. Span and Aoki were hurt this year, Jackson wasn’t very good, and Parra’s track record as a hitter isn’t nearly as good as Gardner’s.

Mid-market teams that can’t sink $18M+ annually into an outfielder and don’t want to give up a draft pick are left to either sign a second tier free agent or trade for someone like Gardner, who has a strong track record and has succeeded in the tough AL East battles, which teams value. Plus the Yankees could also pay down part of his contract to make him even more affordable.

That’s the long way of saying Gardner figures to have plenty suitors this offseason and could bring back a nice package of players. Nothing that’ll alter the direction of the franchise, but it wouldn’t be a straight salary dump either. One year of Fowler netted Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. Two years of Seth Smith landed a high-end reliever (Brandon Mauer). A year and a half of Parra returned two solid prospects (last year’s trade). Heck, one year of Shin-Soo Choo fetched Didi Gregorius a few years back.

The Yankees are in the middle of this rebuilding on the fly thing and chances are they won’t seek prospects in return for Gardner. Prospects may be part of the package, sure, but I’m guessing they’ll want at least one player they can plug directly into their MLB roster. That’s the way they’ve been operating over the last year. MLB player for MLB player trades. Gardner could bring back two or even three young players who better fit the Yankees long-term.

* * *

I don’t love the idea of trading Gardner but the Yankees are not wrong to explore it. Far from it. It’s Cashman’s job to explore every possible way to improve the team, and sometimes that can be accomplished by trading one of the better players on the roster. Trading Gardner could help the Yankees avoid his decline years, shed some salary, and create more roster flexibility by clearing a spot for young players and adding more talent to the organization. It’s definitely something to consider.

Report: Yankees not willing to spend big on Ben Zobrist

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

It’s the offseason, which means the Yankees don’t want to trade their best prospects, don’t want to spend big on free agents, and don’t want to surrender their first round pick. They like their team and are comfortable with their roster. It’s the same stuff we hear every winter and no, it’s not always true. There’s just nothing better to say without being self-defeating.

So, naturally, the Yankees say they’re not willing to meet Ben Zobrist’s asking price this offseason, report Dan Martin and Ken Davidoff. New York tried to acquire Zobrist from the Athletics at the trade deadline but balked at Oakland’s asking price: Rob Refsnyder and Adam Warren. Martin and Davidoff say the Mets are more likely to pursue Zobrist than the Yankees.

Zobrist, 34, hit .276/.359/.450 (123 wRC+) with 13 home runs and more walks (11.6%) than strikeouts (10.5%) in 535 plate appearances for the A’s and Royals this past season. He also missed a few weeks due to minor knee surgery. Zobrist played second base, third base, and the two outfield corners in 2015. He’s played shortstop and center field as recently as 2014.

Brian Cashman said the Yankees are seeking “more balance” at second base, which means if they do make a move, it’ll be for a more well-rounded player than Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley. They have offense first second basemen. Zobrist certainly fits given his strong defense, and his versatility means he could play pretty much anywhere. Every team has a need for a guy like Zobrist.

For what it’s worth, the FanGraphs crowd projects Zobrist to get three years and $42M. MLBTR projects three years and $51M. There is no draft pick involved — Zobrist was ineligible for the qualifying offer because he was traded at midseason — so it’s a straight cash deal. The Yankees have plenty of cash. They just want people to think they don’t.

Zobrist has slowed down a bit offensively the last few years and he is entering his mid-30s, so I certainly understand any hesitation to pay him $14M+ a year for the next few years. At the same time, it’s a relatively short-term deal, and Zobrist would add a ton of much-needed flexibility to the roster.

Kimbrel trade shows Yankees smart to listen to offers for Andrew Miller

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

Late last week, the Padres started their payroll purge by trading their top two relievers. Joaquin Benoit and his $8M salary went to the Mariners for two prospects, then, on Friday, Craig Kimbrel and the $25.5M left on his contract were shipped to the Red Sox for four prospects. Just like that, Padres GM A.J. Preller shed $19.5M in 2016 salary.

By all accounts the Red Sox gave up a significant package to get Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in the game. ranked OF Manuel Margot and SS Javier Guerra as the 25th and 76th best prospects in baseball, respectively. OF Aaron Judge and SS Jorge Mateo are ranked 17th and 87th, for comparison. Keith Law (subs. req’d) said he views both Margot and Guerra as top 50 prospects.

Furthermore, Alex Speier said he ranked LHP Logan Allen as the 12th best prospect in Boston’s system in the upcoming 2016 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. IF Carlos Asuaje, the fourth piece heading to San Diego, is not a top or even mid-range prospect, but he is a big league ready utility man who Padres GM A.J. Preller confirmed will be given every opportunity to win a roster spot in Spring Training.

So that’s two top 100 position player prospects, a strong lefty pitching prospect, and a big league ready utility man for two guaranteed years of Kimbrel plus an option for a third. And the Red Sox took on his remaining salary. Prospects are prospects, and there’s a chance the Padres get nothing out of this trade, but at this very moment it looks like they landed themselves quite a haul.

And that is exactly why the Yankees are smart to listen to trade offers for closer Andrew Miller, as they have reportedly done this offseason. Seeing Miller’s name on the block was a bit surprising, but deep down we all know everyone is available for the right price. It would take a lot to trade Miller — one report indicated the Yankees want three young MLB ready players — for obvious reasons. After all, the Kimbrel deal shows the trade value of elite relievers.

The Kimbrel trade also means one less elite closer is on the trade market for teams to consider. There are none in free agency — not unless you really love 33-year-old Darren O’Day going forward — and Aroldis Chapman is the best on the trade block. Others like Mark Melancon and Ken Giles could be available too. But, aside from the pre-arbitration-eligible Giles, Miller has by far the most favorable remaining contract situation among top reliever trade chips.

Chapman and Melancon will be free agents next winter after earning huge salaries next season. (MLBTR projects $10M for Melancon and $12.9M for Chapman.) Miller is owed $9M per year for the next three years. He’ll earn approximately as much from 2016-18 that Kimbrel is guaranteed from 2016-17. And the performance is very comparable. Here’s the last two seasons:

Andrew Miller Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel is widely considered the best closer in baseball and he’s earned that reputation the last few years. On a rate basis though, Miller has been every bit as good — if not better, really — as Kimbrel the last two seasons. Heck, you could argue the Red Sox just traded four prospects to get Kimbrel to make up for the mistake of not re-signing Miller a year ago.

Anyway, the point is both Miller and Kimbrel are excellent relievers, among the four or five best in the world. Kimbrel was just traded for a monster prospect package, so it makes sense for the Yankees to at least listen to offers for Miller. Plenty of teams are seeking bullpen help. (Plenty really means every, in this case.) The Yankees don’t have to trade Miller. Brian Cashman & Co. wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t listen though.

I think the Kimbrel trade was something of a perfect storm. The Padres wanted to cut payroll and the Red Sox are trying to get out of last place and back into contention, so there’s a sense of urgency. They hired Dave Dombrowski to run the front office this summer, and Dombrowski is known to target big name players and use his prospects as trade currency, not to fill the big league roster. Everything all came together for this trade.

The Yankees might not find that perfect storm trade for Miller. I’m sure they’ll field plenty of offers for the lefty. The question is can they get what they want? Remember, the Yankees plan to contend next year. They’re rebuilding on the fly. They’re getting younger and trying to stay relevant too. Not every rebuild as to be an Astros style total tear down. That is one way rebuilt. It is not the way to do it.

Trading Miller for prospects makes the Yankees worse in 2016 (and 2017?) and possibly better long-term, but the Yankees don’t want to be worse next year. That’s why they’re said to be seeking MLB ready players in any trade. If they don’t get a package to their liking, they’ll simply keep Miller. After all, if the Yankees didn’t have Miller and another team made him available, wouldn’t we want the Yankees to go after him?

Thanks in part to the Royals, bullpens have become a major focal point the last few years. Starters are throwing fewer innings and the need for multiple high end relievers has become a necessity for contention, not a luxury. Teams are paying big for bullpen help — look at the Kimbrel trade and look at Miller’s contract too, it smashed records for a non-closing reliever — and it’s possible some team will pay big for Miller, in a way that improves the 2016 Yankees.

Rosenthal: D’Backs among teams to inquire about Andrew Miller

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

Earlier this week we heard the Yankees are “shopping everyone,” including Andrew Miller, and now Ken Rosenthal reports the Diamondbacks are among the teams to inquire about the lefty closer. Talks are in the extremely preliminary phases — Rosenthal says the two sides haven’t exchanged names yet.

The D’Backs are a weird operation. They’ve been .500 or worse the last four years and they’ve made moves that send the message they’re both going for it (adding Jeremy Hellickson) and rebuilding (trading Miguel Montero, etc). Arizona reportedly tried hard to land Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline this season, so I guess their interest in Miller is not surprising.

Rosenthal mentions the D’Backs have some young starters and infielders who could interest the Yankees, though that is his own speculation. That makes sense though, right? The Yankees could use young arms — like every team! — and there’s an opening at second base, at least until Rob Refsnyder proves otherwise. Those positions figure to be the points of emphasis this winter.

Looking over Arizona’s 40-man roster, I’m not sure which young starters fit aside from righty Chase Anderson (4.30 ERA and 4.14 FIP in 2015) and lefty Robbie Ray (3.52 ERA and 3.53 FIP). Righty Archie Bradley is the big name but he threw only 65 ineffective innings this past season due to a shoulder strain. The Yankees are all about buying low on talented guys, but a pitcher with shoulder trouble is a different animal than a guy underperforming.

The only two infielders who stand out are third baseman Jake Lamb and second baseman/third baseman Brandon Drury. Lamb is a personal favorite, I think that dude is going to mash long-term (92 wRC+ in 107 games in 2015), and Drury’s an interesting guy with great minor league stats and a scouting report that doesn’t quite match up. He’s Refsnyderian, in a way.

Jon Heyman says the Yankees recently asked one team for three MLB ready young players in exchange for Miller — that seems like a perfectly reasonable opening ask to me, starting negotiating from there — which makes sense. They don’t want prospects. They want players who can help right away. The D’Backs have some interesting young starters and infielders — what about Ray plus Lamb or Drury? is that in the ballpark for an elite closer signed to setup man dollars for the next three years? — and I could see at least the makings of a match there.

The Yankees have limited flexibility this offseason, both in terms of roster spots and payroll, and the common phrase so far has been “open to anything.” We’ve heard Brian Cashman say that a few times already. We saw firsthand how dynamic the Miller-Dellin Betances tandem can be, though I definitely think there is some merit to moving Miller. He threw more sliders (54.1%) than fastballs (45.9%) in 2015 and missed a month with a forearm problem. That’s a red flag.

Miller does not have a no-trade clause and literally every team in baseball is looking to add an elite reliever this winter, even the Royals. The D’Backs are one possible trade partner but far from the only one. With Darren O’Day representing the best reliever on the free agent market, the Yankees have pretty great leverage. They can ask a lot for Miller because there are few alternatives out there.

Sherman: Yankees have discussed Brett Gardner trade with Mariners

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

The Yankees have had trade talks with the Mariners about outfielder Brett Gardner, reports Joel Sherman. Talks are not all that advanced and no deal is imminent. New Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has reportedly been after Gardner for a while, dating back to his time as interim GM of the Diamondbacks in 2010. Seattle is trying hard to land an athletic center fielder this offseason.

“At the end of the day, I am legitimately really open to any idea,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch. “I’ve had a lot of bad ones, either thrown by me or on the receiving end from somebody else to me. But that’s what we’re here for, to throw a lot of (stuff) out there and see what sticks.”

Sherman says — not specifically related to a potential Gardner trade, just in general — the Yankees are seeking high-end starting pitching they can control beyond 2017. (Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi can all become free agents after 2017.) He notes New York ramped up their scouting of Mariners lefty James Paxton at the end of the regular season and in the Arizona Fall League.

Paxton, 27, had a 3.90 ERA (4.31 FIP) in 67 innings for the Mariners this past season while missing roughly three months with a strained tendon in his left middle finger. He was limited to 74 innings last season (3.04 ERA and 3.28 FIP) due to a severe lat strain. Between MLB and the minors, Paxton has thrown only 160.2 innings from 2014-15 due to injuries.

The Yankees owe Gardner $39.5M through 2018 while Paxton is under team control through 2019. In a world where Colby Rasmus is expected to land a three-year deal worth $42M, Gardner at three years and $39.5M is pretty damn reasonable. The Yankees would clear payroll — why are the Yankees worried about clearing payroll? — and add another injury prone starter to the pile with a deal like this, which may or may not be under discussion.

In a vacuum, I think Gardner for Paxton is close to the ballpark but not quite in it. The Mariners would have to sweeten the deal somewhat. Gardner is solidly above-average for his position and Paxton is little more than potential. And no, trading Gardner then signing a free agent like Jason Heyward does not mean the Yankees should settle for less in return for Gardner. His trade value doesn’t change.

Anyway, I’m sure the Yankees have received plenty of calls about Gardner this offseason, and since he’s pretty much the only veteran on the team with actual trade value, expect to continue seeing his name in trade rumors this winter. That they acquired another outfielder this afternoon in Aaron Hicks only adds fuel to the fire.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jeff Samardzija


At the moment, the Yankees have seven starters for five rotation spots. That includes Ivan Nova and Adam Warren, who are depth arms and not oh gosh we need to clear a rotation spot for him arms. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off offseason elbow surgery, however, and the trio of Nathan Eovaldi (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), and Michael Pineda (forearm) all got hurt in the second half.

Those seven starters come with seven question marks — Nova stunk this year, Warren has never spent a full MLB season as a starter, Luis Severino is a 21-year-old kid — and while adding rotation help may not be a top priority this offseason, it would make sense to at least explore the market. After all, the Yankees had those seven guys this past season and they still needed Chase Whitley, Chris Capuano, and Bryan Mitchell to make some starts.

The 2015-16 free agent class is loaded with starters. You’ve got aces, mid-rotation guys, reclamation projects, you name it. We haven’t seen a free agent class this deep with arms in a very long time. One of those arms is right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who is coming off a disappointing season but nevertheless is expected to receive a significant contract this winter. The Yankees have already been connected to him. Let’s dive in.

Recent Performance

Like I said, the soon-to-be 31-year-old Samardzija had a disappointing 2015 season with the White Sox. The idea players cost themselves money with poor performance gets thrown around too much — no, those two bad weeks in September won’t kill a guy’s free agent value — but Samardzija definitely did. He was potentially looking at $100M+ this offseason. Anyway, here are his last three years.

2013 213.2 4.34 3.77 23.4% 8.5% 48.2% 13.3% .309 .342
2014 219.2 2.99 3.20 23.0% 4.9% 50.2% 10.6% .279 .292
2015 214.0 4.96 4.23 17.9% 5.4% 39.0% 10.8% .302 .357
2013-15 647.1 4.09 3.73 21.4% 6.3% 45.6% 11.5% .297 .332

Okay, so which one is the real Samardzija? Is it the guy who was okay at best in 2013, the guy who was an ace in 2014, or the guy who led the league earned runs and total bases allowed in 2015? For some reason I feel like the answer is none of the above. The truth is probably somewhere between 2014 and 2015, which is an incredibly wide range of possible outcomes.

I think it’s important to note the White Sox had one of the worst defenses in baseball this season, which surely contributed to Samardzija’s trouble preventing runs. They turned relatively few balls in play into outs behind him. The bad defense doesn’t explain a five percentage point drop in strikeout rate or the ten (!) percentage point drop in ground ball rate*, however.

* Samardzija went from 0.82 HR/9 last year to 1.22 HR/9 this year, and that’s all due to the sudden lack of ground balls. His HR/FB% rate was basically identical those two years.

Let’s take a deeper look at at the type of contact Samardzija has given up the last few seasons and see what’s going on there.

GB% FB% LD% IFFB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
2013 48.2% 31.4% 20.4% 10.1% 36.5% 23.0% 17.8% 28.2%
2014 50.2% 30.5% 19.3% 10.6% 38.0% 24.4% 19.9% 24.7%
2015 39.0% 39.8% 21.2% 10.1% 40.2% 26.4% 18.7% 26.7%
2013-15 45.6% 34.1% 20.3% 10.2% 38.3% 24.7% 18.8% 26.5%
MLB AVG 45.3% 33.8% 20.9% 9.5% 39.1% 25.7% 18.6% 28.6%

Samardzija’s hard and soft contact rates have been right in line with the league average the last few years. Same goes for pull and opposite field rates. If there was a lot of hard contact or a spike in pull rate — suggesting hitters were getting around quicker on his stuff — it would be a significant red flag.

Fly balls are not necessarily a bad thing — most fly balls are catchable, routine plays — and Samardzija has gotten a bit more infield pop-ups than the league average pitcher the last three years. Pop-ups are almost as good as strikeouts. They’re as close to a sure out as there is in this game. Still, Samardzija’s ground ball rate fell and his fly ball rate climbed big time in 2015, and that’s something we can’t ignore.

Something caused those changes in Samardzija’s fly ball and ground ball rates this year. They’re just the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Samardzija’s stuff and pitch mix may have the answers, or at least point us in the right direction.

The Stuff

At this point of his career Samardzija is a true five-pitch pitcher. He stopped toying around with a changeup and a curveball a few years ago, instead settling on a splitter and slider as his go-to secondary pitches. Three different fastballs — four-seamer, sinker, cutter — round out his repertoire. Here’s a real quick average velocity breakdown from Brooks Baseball:


That’s a pretty significant drop in four-seamer velocity, right? Samardzija lost 1.3 mph off his heater last season. The velocity drop on his other pitches — sinker (.52 mph), slider (.97 mph), cutter (.64 mph), splitter (.90 mph) — is not as severe but is still notable. Samardzija was still one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball last season, that’s important to remember, but there was enough of a velocity drop across to board to make you notice.

Samardzija’s pitch selection the last three years is pretty interesting. Most guys who throw five pitches really throw like three pitches and occasionally flash the other two. That’s not the case with Samardzija. He throws all five regularly. Here’s the data, again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija pitch selection

Samardzija threw all of his pitches at least 12.7% of the time last year and didn’t throw one more than 24.7% of the time. He doesn’t throw the splitter to righties and he doesn’t throw the slider to lefties, which makes sense, but otherwise Samardzija uses everything. This isn’t Tanaka throwing that slow curveball four or five times a game, for example.

I am not at all surprised to see Samardzija threw his cutter significantly more often last season. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is renowned for teaching the cutter and getting his pitchers to emphasis it. Cooper taught Jose Quintana and Gavin Floyd a cutter in recent years and turned their careers around. Samardzija always threw a cutter, but he nearly doubled his usage of the pitch this season from just two years ago.

And perhaps that is part of the problem. The additional cutters — and additional sliders, I’m guessing some of those sliders were cutters that maybe broke more than usual and wound up being classified as sliders — came at the expense of sinkers more than anything, and hey, that might explain the sudden drop in Samardzija’s ground ball rate. Then again, his grounder rate was down across the board, on all his pitches. Again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija ground ball rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (37.9%), sinker (49.5%), slider (43.9%), cutter (43.0%), splitter (47.8%).

So much for the idea that fewer sinkers led to fewer grounders. Well, no, that is true to a certain extent for Samardzija, but the ground ball inducing ability took a step back with all five of his pitches last season. That is tied to the velocity loss at least somewhat. How much, exactly? I don’t think we can say.

Cutters have a reputation for sapping arm strength — Eno Sarris wrote a great piece about this back in April — and I guess there’s something to the idea of scaling back on Samardzija’s cutter usage going forward. That could lead to increased effectiveness overall and maybe a slight bump in velocity, but I don’t think we can say that with any certainty.

For the sake of completeness, let’s look at the swing-and-miss rates of Samardzija’s various pitches, once again with the help of Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija whiff rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (6.9%), sinker (5.4%), slider (15.2%), cutter (9.7%), splitter (14.9%).

Samardzija’s four-seamer is a great swing-and-miss pitch. It was this past season even with that lost velocity. There’s something to be said for having the ability to throw a fastball by a hitter. It’s a great skill to have. Samardzija also gets a better than average whiff rate on his sinker and cutter, but the slider and splitter? Comfortably below average.

Lefties hit Samardzija hard this past season and the swing-and-miss rate on his splitter dropped off big time. I’m guessing those two things are related. Is it possible the reduced effectiveness of the split-finger fastball is tied to the increased cutter usage? Sure. It takes (slightly) different mechanics to throw different pitches, and suddenly throwing more cutters than ever could have affected his other pitches.

One thing we have to keep in mind: Samardzija still has pretty nasty stuff. He still throws very hard despite the velocity loss, he uses five pitches regularly, and he misses bats with his fastball. This isn’t a guy going out there with Freddy Garcia stuff.

Injury History

Samardzija has never been hurt in his pro career. Not even in the minors. No arm injuries, no pulled hamstrings, no stubbed toes, nothing. He’s a big — listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 lbs. — strong guy and an incredible athlete, all of which points to durability. Any pitcher can get hurt at any time, but there’s nothing in Samardzija’s history that will make you cringe.

Furthermore, Samardzija turns 31 in January but he has significantly fewer innings on his arm than the other top free agent starters. He split his time between football and baseball in college, and he spent the 2008-11 seasons working mostly in relief with the Cubs. Buster Only (subs. req’d) had a great little nugget in yesterday’s blog post.

Among the upper-tier starting pitchers in this year’s free-agent class, Samardzija has easily thrown the fewest pitches in the majors, partly because he served as a reliever his first four years with the Cubs. Here’s where he compares with other top free-agent starters in total MLB pitches during the regular season:

Zack Greinke: 33,189 pitches
Johnny Cueto: 22,786
David Price: 22,724
Jordan Zimmermann: 16,793
Jeff Samardzija: 15,906

Greinke is the oldest of the group by several years, hence that big workload. Price and Cueto have been workhorses throughout their careers, so it makes sense they’re essentially tied for second. Zimmerman has thrown more pitches than Samardzija despite missing a season due to Tommy John surgery.

All pitchers have wear and tear on their arms by time they reach their 30th birthday and Samardzija is no exception, but his arm has not endured the workload of other top free agent starters because he split his time between two sports as an amateur and spent significant time as a reliever after first reaching the show. That may mean he’ll hold his stuff into his mid-30s, a little longer than you’d normally expect.

Loose Yankees Ties

Two of the reasons the Yankees have been connected to Samardzija are pitching coach Larry Rothschild and special advisor Jim Hendry. Rothschild was Samardzija’s first pitching coach with the Cubs and Hendry originally drafted, signed, and developed Samardzija when he was Cubs GM. So the Yankees have some firsthand knowledge of him.

That said, Rothschild only spent parts of three seasons with Samardzija, and he wasn’t moved into the rotation until two years after Rothschild left the Cubs. Hendry was fired as Cubs GM the year before Samardzija moved into the rotation. The relationships might not be as close as you’d expect. If nothing else, Rothschild and Hendry should be able to give the Yankees some knowledge about Samardzija as a person. His work ethic, that sort of stuff.

Contract Projections

The White Sox made Samardzija the qualifying offer last week and I expect him to reject it before Friday’s deadline, even after his down year. Samardzija should have no trouble beating that $15.8M guarantee on the open market. I know the pitching class is deep and there are plenty of alternatives, but basically every team besides the Mets is looking for rotation help this winter. The demand is still greater than the supply. Samardzija will get his.

Anyway, in addition to a hefty contract, whoever signs Samardzija will have to forfeit their highest unprotected draft pick thanks to the qualifying offer. For the Yankees, that is their first rounder, tentatively scheduled to be No. 22 overall. Here are some contract projections for Samardzija:

Based on those three, Samardzija is expected to receive roughly $17M a year for four or five years. That’s basically the A.J. Burnett contract (five years, $82.5M), which is fitting because Samardzija and Burnett can both tantalize you with their stuff and frustrate you with their results.

Remember though, it has been seven years since Burnett sign his contract with the Yankees. The market has changed a lot since then. Paying a starter $17M a year now is not the same as doing it back then. Back in 2009 only four pitchers had contracts with an average annual value of $16M+. This past season 18 pitchers had a contract worth that much annually. So yeah.

Wrapping Up

Samardzija’s best attribute is his durability. He’s never been hurt, he’s logged 210+ innings in each of the last three years, his arm is fresh, and he consistently pitches deep into games. Samardzija completed seven innings in 19 of his 32 starts this past season. The Yankees as a team had their starter complete seven innings only 35 times in 2015.

Also, Samardzija’s stuff took a slight step back this past season, though it could be tied to his increased cutter usage. He still flashes brilliance and dominates on occasion. Samardzija had four starts with a 75+ Game Score this season. The Yankees as a team had ten. Lots of innings and occasional brilliance doesn’t equal an ace, but I don’t think anyone is looking at Samardzija as an ace anyway. Four or five years and $17M per year isn’t ace money anymore.


At this point I think Samardzija is what he is. Signing him and expecting his game to take a significant step forward probably isn’t realistic. He might — I think he will, not might — be better than he was this year simply because he figures to have a more competent defense behind him going forward, but I wouldn’t count on ever seeing the 2014 Samardzija again either. He’s talented and durable and the results leave you wanting more.

The Yankees love big power pitchers who don’t walk anyone — I think Samardzija’s improved walk rate the last two years is the result of an athletic pitcher getting locked into his mechanics — and Samardzija fits the bill. He’s also played for a team in a big market with intense media in the Cubs — shouldn’t his Notre Dame football experience count too? — and has an old school give me the damn ball bulldog mentality.

“Back in the day, the game was left in the starter’s hands,” said Samardzija to David Laurila in July 2014. “If the starter pitched well, he was given his 120 pitches. The game was decided by the starting pitchers. It’s different now and I think that’s unfortunate. When you get into tough situations, regardless of your pitch count, a lot of times a reliever is brought in. I understand why – it’s to preserve the game — but you have to keep your relievers’ arms fresh too. I like the idea of the starters deciding what happens in the game.”

I think the Yankees can use rotation help, and I’m sure if you gave the front office a truth serum, they’d say they want to find a way to upgrade the starting staff as well. If nothing else, it would be nice to have one guy you could count on to chew innings every fifth day, right? Asking the bullpen to get 10-12 outs a night is no way to go through a season (again). Samardzija can give you those innings.

Sinking four or five years and $17M annually into Samardzija to be an innings dude who is ideally your second or third best starter might be tough to swallow, but I think it is fair market value. If the Yankees intend to avoid huge money free agent contracts — like the one David Price will get, for example — Samardzija might just be their best option in free agency.