This offseason is the best time for the Yankees to explore an extension with Masahiro Tanaka

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

By any measure, Masahiro Tanaka is not just the best starting pitcher on the Yankees, he’s one of the best starting pitchers in all of MLB. He’s New York’s best starter since CC Sabathia was in his prime, and their best right-handed starter since Mike Mussina was in his prime more than a decade ago. Tanaka turned 28 last month and is very much in what should be the best years of his career.

Looming next offseason is Tanaka’s opt-out clause, which will allow him to forego the final three years and $67M left on his contract and test free agency. Given the market for pitching these days, opting out is a certainty as long as Tanaka is healthy. Jeff Samardzija led the league in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed back in 2015 and still landed a five-year deal worth $90M. I mean, come on.

A few years ago the Yankees dealt with Sabathia’s opt-out clause, which he leveraged into a contract extension. They added one guaranteed year to his original deal, plus a vesting option. The 2017 season is the vesting option year. Sabathia’s extension has not worked out as hoped, but that doesn’t mean you walk away from every pitcher with an opt-out. You have to consider these things on a case-by-case basis.

Signing Tanaka — again: one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball — to an extension has to be a consideration for the Yankees this offseason, before the opt-out comes into play. And before we go any further, let’s list some key differences between Tanaka now and Sabathia at the time of his opt-out:

  1. Age: Tanaka just turned 28 and will pitch all of next season at that age. Sabathia was 31 when he signed his extension and he turned 32 during the first season of the deal. Heck, Sabathia was as old as Tanaka is right now when he originally signed with the Yankees during the 2008-09 offseason. Pretty big difference in age, eh?
  2. Body Type: I love Sabathia, but the dude is 6-foot-7 and somewhere around 300 lbs., and that massive frame has taken its toll on his right (landing) knee. Not too many pitchers that size have pitched as deep into their 30s as Sabathia. He’s an outlier. Tanaka is far from it. We don’t have to bank on Tanaka being an outlier with his frame, because baseball history is littered with pitchers who stand 6-foot-3 and 215 lbs.
  3. Pitching Style: Sabathia at his peak was a pure power pitcher who dominated with a mid-90s fastball and a nasty slider. Tanaka is more of an artist. He doesn’t operate with overpowering velocity. He outsmarts hitters by commanding an array of offspeed pitches. That command and feel for pitching will ostensibly allow Tanaka to age gracefully, a la Andy Pettitte.

But Mike, what about the elbow? Ah yes, the elbow. The elbow that hangs over every pitch Tanaka throws and every blog post written about him. Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament in 2014, successfully rehabbed the injury, and has pitched to a 3.26 ERA (3.72 FIP) in 353.2 innings since. Turns out the doctors knew what they were talking about. Tanaka didn’t need Tommy John surgery. Weird.

Anyway, the fact Tanaka’s elbow has held up in the two years since the injury doesn’t mean the Yankees can simply ignore it when evaluating his long-term future. Health should play a pretty huge role in determining whether to sign a pitcher long-term. Three quick thoughts on the elbow:

1. The Yankees know Tanaka better than anyone. All we know about Tanaka’s elbow is what the Yankees have chosen to tell us. They know his health and the status of the elbow ligament better than anyone. We could sit here and say extending a pitcher with a bum elbow would be crazy, but the Yankees and their doctors are looking over the medicals, and they may feel comfortable long-term. Truth be told, stick any 28-year-old pitcher in an MRI tube and you’ll find something scary, including partial ligament tears. Many pitchers have them and don’t even know it because they’re asymptomatic.

2. There’s some give and take here. Would the Yankees be taking a risk signing Tanaka to an extension because of the elbow? Of course. And that risk should be reflected in the contract, either in terms of fewer years or (most likely) fewer dollars. There should be some give and take on both sides. That doesn’t mean Tanaka has to agree to a discount. He might say thanks but no thanks, I’ll try my luck at free agency, and I wouldn’t blame him one bit. But if he wants a big deal now, the Yankees will probably push for a slight discount given the elbow.

3. There are ways to build protection into the contract. A Lackey clause, specifically. When the Red Sox signed John Lackey to his five-year contract way back when, they included a clause in the deal that gave them a sixth year club option at the league minimum should Lackey have Tommy John surgery at some point during the life of the contract. He did and they picked up the option. Lackey had a preexisting ligament injury at the time of his signing and the league minimum option year was Boston’s way to protect themselves. The Yankees could apply a Lackey clause to a Tanaka extension, and again, he doesn’t have to accept it.

Alright, so after all of that, what will it take to sign Tanaka to an extension right now? I really have no idea what Tanaka and his agents will want. Ideally, the Yankees would tack something like two years and $50M on top of his current deal, but that essentially gives Tanaka and five-year deal worth $117M covering 2017-21. That’s not much better than Samardzija money. Unless Tanaka is truly concerned about his elbow, I can’t see him taking that. He’d beat that in free agency.

The Yankees might have to add something closer to three years and $90M to Tanaka’s contract to get his attention. Top free agent starters are getting $30M a year now, remember. Zack Greinke, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer are all there right now. If the Red Sox approach Chris Sale or the Giants approach Madison Bumgarner about an extension, their annual salary demands will be begin with a three. That’s the market now.

Adding three years and $90M to Tanaka’s contract puts him at six years and $157M total from 2017-22. That’s Cole Hamels (six years, $144M) and Jon Lester (six years, $155M) money. Seems much more reasonable to me. Let’s call it six years and $160M total with a Lackey clause added at the end. That takes Tanaka through 2022 and his age 33 season if the elbow holds up. That’s just young enough to land another nice contract, a la James Shields two years ago.

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

Now for the two big questions. One, why would Tanaka do this? Money, duh. He’d forego free agency for a large guarantee now. Tanaka would be trading his maximum earning potential, meaning a free agent bidding war, for the guaranteed cash upfront. Keep in mind Tanaka has already made a fortune playing baseball. The Yankees have paid him $66M the last three years, plus there’s whatever he made in Japan. He’s presumably comfortable enough financially that he can roll the dice in 2017 and shoot for the big free agent payday next winter. And if he gets hurt next year, he won’t opt out and will still have $67M coming to him. It’s a good spot to be in, that’s for sure.

And two, why would the Yankees do this? To keep their ace and avoid a free agent bidding war. A bidding war is bad news. Next offseason’s free agent pitching class looks much better than this year’s at the moment — Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish are both scheduled to hit the open market after next season — but that won’t hurt Tanaka. Ace caliber starters are always in demand and teams will be lining up to pay him. Mark Melancon‘s market wasn’t hurt by Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen this winter, was it? Nope. Arrieta and Darvish won’t take money away from Tanaka next offseason and vice versa.

The chances of Tanaka eclipsing five years and $138M — my proposed six-year, $160M deal minus the 2017 season — as a free agent next winter are pretty damn good, I think. The Yankees want to avoid that. They want to get out ahead of market and sign Tanaka without having to worry about the Dodgers or Nationals or whoever swooping in to sign him. Also, the Yankees are short on pitching beyond 2017. Extending Tanaka would help solve that problem.

This offseason is the best time to sign Tanaka to an extension because it’s pretty much the only time to sign him to an extension. Sure, the two sides could negotiate a new deal during the season, but players usually try to avoid that. They like to focus on baseball and not contract talks once Spring Training begins. Maybe Tanaka is different. Maybe he’s more than willing to talk contract during the 2017 season. Who knows.

Waiting until next offseason, right before the opt-out, gives Tanaka all the leverage. That’s what happened with Sabathia years ago. The Yankees had their backs up against the wall because they didn’t want Sabathia to actually use the opt-out and create a bidding war. Waiting until after next season would give Tanaka that same leverage. The Yankees at least have some leverage right now. There’s less urgency. They don’t have to sign him, after all.

I don’t expect the Yankees to get serious about an extension with Tanaka this offseason. They seem too dug on in getting under the luxury tax threshold in the near future, and a big money contract would complicate that. Also, it’s not really the club’s M.O. to sign players to extensions. Brett Gardner is the only notable exception in the last eight or nine years. If the Yankees are going to go against the grain though, Tanaka’s the kind of player you do it for.

Extension or no extension, Tanaka is the Yankees’ best player and therefore most indispensable player. The pending opt-out makes 2017 a huge season for both Tanaka and the team. He wants to put himself in the best possible position going into free agency, and the Yankees want him to pitch well because it’ll help them win. The better he pitches, the more likely he is to opt-out though. It’s a Catch-22. An extension now would solve a lot of problems.

King: Yankees have asked Tigers about Justin Wilson

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

According to George King, the Yankees are among the teams to check in with the Tigers about left-hander Justin Wilson. Detroit is kinda sorta trying to get younger and trim payroll — they salary dumped Cameron Maybin to clear a spot for JaCoby Jones earlier this offseason — and cashing in Wilson as a trade chip given the current bullpen market seems like a good idea.

The Tigers are looking for “controllable Major League arms” for Wilson, says King, and the Yankees passed because they found that too prohibitive. Funny how things have turned out, eh? The Tigers gave up two controllable arms (Luis Cessa and Chad Green) to get Wilson last winter, and now they’re looking to flip him for basically the same package. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this.

1. When did the Yankees ask about Wilson? Was it before or after agreeing to a deal with Aroldis Chapman? If it was before, the Yankees may have only been doing their due diligence and looking at backup plans in case Chapman went elsewhere. If it was after, then we know they’re still seriously looking to improve their middle relief. Earlier this winter Brian Cashman indicated he wants to improve his bullpen beyond adding a closer, so it’s entirely possible the Yankees are thinking Chapman and Wilson, not Chapman or Wilson.

2. If the Yankees still want a lefty, just sign a free agent. During the Winter Meetings last week we heard the Yankees want to add a lefty reliever this offseason to join (or replace?) Tommy Layne. Not just Chapman, but a middle innings guy for left-on-left matchup work. Wilson is certainly qualified to do that — he’s overqualified, actually, since he can get out righties as well — but why trade prospects for a lefty reliever when there are so many free agents available?

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
Jerry Blevins 127 .220/.278/.284 .251 30.7% 6.3% 50.6% 0.29
Mike Dunn 186 .250/.321/.353 .299 24.2% 7.5% 31.1% 0.59
J.P. Howell 198 .262/.318/.324 .284 22.2% 5.6% 66.4% 0.38
Boone Logan 205 .172/.276/.254 .245 34.2% 8.8% 57.0% 0.18
Justin Wilson 179 .276/.351/.368 .314 23.5% 7.8% 51.7% 0.44

Those are 2015-16 numbers against left-handed batters. Four of those players are free agents. Why trade prospects for Wilson when someone like Blevins or Logan can do the job just as well, if not better? Perhaps the “gets righties out too” part is too great to ignore. The Yankees have a matchup left-on-left reliever in Layne. If they are planning to carry two middle southpaws, it would be nice if one could get righties out, and Wilson can do that. The other four guys in the table generally can not.

3. Wilson wasn’t as good in 2016 as he was in 2015. During his one season with the Yankees, Wilson was really awesome. He was a legitimate high-leverage reliever Joe Girardi shoehorned into the seventh inning role, but Wilson could have easily gotten outs in the eighth or even ninth inning. And sometimes he did. This past season though, Wilson’s performance took a step back.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
2015 61 3.10 2.69 27.1% 8.2% 43.8% 0.44
2016 58.2 4.14 3.18 25.9% 6.8% 54.9% 0.92

Improved ground ball and walks rates coupled with a slight decline in strikeout rate is generally a good thing, I’d say. For Wilson this year, it wasn’t. He was more hittable overall — opponents hit .223/.293/.309 against Wilson in 2015 and .263/.316/.392 in 2016 — and it showed up in his ERA.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Wilson had some elbow problems this summer. He was shut down for a few days with soreness in June, then, in August, he needed a cortisone shot. Wilson was so inconsistent this past season that Bless You Boys took a deep dive. It’s entirely possible the Yankees traded Wilson at exactly the right time, before he started to break down.

4. The trade looks pretty good now, doesn’t it? Understandably, many folks didn’t like the Wilson deal when it went down. He was pretty great for the Yankees and they traded him for two unknowns. I myself had never heard of Green, and I’m as big a baseball nerd as you’ll find. Cessa’s name might have rung a bell only because he was the second piece in last year’s Yoenis Cespedes trade.

This past season, Cessa and Green showed bonafide Major League stuff during their relatively brief big league cameos. Maybe they’re only relievers long-term — I think Cessa has a much better chance to start than Green at this point in time — but they are big leaguers, not prospects, and that’s pretty great. Turning a reliever with three years of control into two pitchers with six years of control each was a nifty, albeit unpopular at the time, move by Cashman.

Potential trade partners for Brett Gardner dwindling due to hot stove activity

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees right now are very much open to trading pricey veterans for prospects. They sold big time at the deadline and continued selling in the offseason by sending Brian McCann to the Astros for two Single-A pitching prospects. The Yankees have reportedly dangled Brett Gardner and Chase Headley in trade talks this winter, and I’m sure they’d love to move Jacoby Ellsbury too, but, you know.

Two teams that stood out as obvious suitors for Gardner addressed their outfield needs last week. The Nationals traded for Adam Eaton and the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler. Both clubs needed a defensively competent center fielder — Gardner plays left for the Yankees in deference to Ellsbury, but he could still handle center full-time, no problem — and a top of the order on-base guy. The Nats and Cards went in another direction.

Gardner is a good player, not a great one, and the two years and $23M left on his contract is not unreasonable. And besides, the Yankees have shown a willingness to eat money to facilitate trades. They did it with Carlos Beltran at the deadline and McCann a few weeks ago. Salary shouldn’t be a problem. The problem is finding a team that actually needs Gardner, a defense first outfielder with on-base skills. Here are the remaining potential trade partners I came up with.

Baltimore Orioles

Adam Jones needs some help. (Adam Glanzman/Getty)
Adam Jones needs some help. (Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Current Outfield: Adam Jones in center and Hyun-Soo Kim in left, with Joey Rickard and Rule 5 Draft picks Anthony Santander and Aneury Tavarez candidates for right. They also have the option of moving Chris Davis to right field and playing prospect Trey Mancini at first.

Why Would They Want Gardner? He’s a heck of a lot better than Rickard and the Rule 5 Draft kids — Santander has never played above High-A — and he’d give the O’s a legitimate leadoff hitter, something they really lack. Jones was their leadoff hitter most of this past season. Yeah. Also, the Orioles have an opening at DH, remember. They could put Gardner in left, Kim at DH (where he fits best), and stick with the kids in right.

So Are They A Fit? Yes with the caveat that they’re an AL East rival, and intradivision trades are rare. I don’t think that closes the door completely, it just makes it unlikely. For what it’s worth, Brian Cashman told Bryan Hoch he’d have no problem trading with the Orioles.

“If I can trade with the Red Sox and the Mets, I can trade with the Orioles. I can trade with anybody. If it’s in our best interest, whether it’s short- or long-term, it doesn’t matter what the other teams get. Does it make sense for us? If it happens to be them, I don’t really care.”

What do the O’s have to offer the Yankees for Gardner? Geez, beats me. Their farm system isn’t in great shape (here’s their MLB.com top 30 prospects list) and I doubt they’d be willing to give up pieces from their big league roster. I’m sure the Yankees could find some combination of minor leaguers to make it work though.

Cleveland Indians

Current Outfield: Tyler Naquin in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. Brandon Guyer and Abe Almonte are expected to hold down left field until Michael Brantley returns from shoulder surgery.

Why Would They Want Gardner? Not too many reasons at this point. The Indians seem focused on adding a big middle of the order bat to share first base and DH with Carlos Santana, and I suppose if those plans go awry, they could circle back and import Gardner to be part of a rotating DH system. He’d give them a more traditional leadoff hitter too. They used Santana at leadoff most of last season, which was somewhat a waste of his power because he batted with fewer men on base.

So Are They A Fit? Nah, I don’t think so. Naquin had a nightmare postseason but a very good regular season, good enough to finish third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and earn a starting spot in 2017. They’ll ride it out with Almonte and Guyer until Brantley returns, which could be as soon as April.

Detroit Tigers

Current Outfield: Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez on the corners, with Anthony Gose and JaCoby Jones in the mix for center. Tyler Collins could get a crack at the job too, though he’s best in a corner.

Why Would They Want Gardner? Gardner is much better than the group of players vying for Detroit’s center field job at the moment. Of course, the Tigers traded away Cameron Maybin earlier this winter, and they seem to be scaling back on payroll a bit. Salary dumping Maybin only to turn around and acquire Gardner would be a bit weird, don’t you think?

Of course, plans change, and the Tigers are looking at a more winnable AL Central right now. The Twins stink, the White Sox are selling, and the Royals might have to sell at the deadline since basically their entire core will hit free agency next winter. The Tigers won 86 games in 2016 despite going 4-14 (4-14!) against the Indians. What are the odds of that happening again? Small. Gardner would improve their chances in a much more winnable division.

So Are They A Fit? Maybe! I think the Yankees would have to eat money to make a trade happen, which I doubt would be a deal-breaker. If the Yankees ate money to trade Beltran and McCann, I’m sure they’d do the same for Gardner.

Oakland Athletics

Jake Smolinski was the A's everyday center fielder in the second half. (Stephen Brashear/Getty)
Jake Smolinski was the A’s everyday center fielder in the second half. For reals. (Stephen Brashear/Getty)

Current Outfield: Some combination of Khris Davis, Matt Joyce, Brett Eibner, and Jake Smolinski. Did you know Khris Davis hit 42 home runs in 2016? True story.

Why Would They Want Gardner? The A’s are in the market for a center fielder this offseason, it’s been reported everywhere, and they’ve most recently been connected to Jarrod Dyson of the Royals. Gardner is a very similar player (lefty hitting leadoff type with speed and defense) who happens to be much more expensive. But again, if the Yankees are willing to eat money, his contract may not be an obstacle.

So Are They A Fit? Maybe. The Athletics are a weird team that seems to be stuck between going for it and rebuilding. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they traded for an outfielder making $23M over the next two years despite losing at least 93 games the last two seasons. They’re weird like that.

San Francisco Giants

Current Outfield: Denard Span in center and Hunter Pence in right, with Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker slated to platoon in left. Gorkys Hernandez has a leg up on a bench job.

Why Would They Want Gardner? Left field is wide open. Williamson and Parker did an okay job as platoon partners while Pence was on the disabled list this summer — they hit a combined .230/.338/.402 with eleven homers in 278 plate appearances in 2016, but also struck out 28.5% of the time — though neither is a long-term building block. Williamson is the young one at 26. Parker turns 28 in three weeks.

Gardner would, at a minimum, give the Giants an above-average defender for that spacious left field at AT&T Park. In also guessing he’d outproduce a Williamson/Parker platoon at the plate over a full 162-game season. The Mark Melancon signing pushed San Francisco over the luxury tax threshold and they don’t want to go much higher, so Gardner’s contract could be an issue. Then again, the Giants are built to win right now, while Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner are still in their primes, and left field is a sore spot.

So Are They A Fit? Yes, definitely. The Giants have enough prospects to cobble together a trade package (here is their MLB.com top 30 prospects list) and the Yankees could eat money to make things work on San Francisco’s end with regards to the luxury tax. The Giants are a fit. A great fit. No doubt.

Seattle Mariners

Current Outfield: Leonys Martin in the middle with some combination of Seth Smith, Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, Mitch Haniger, and possibly even Danny Valencia in the corners.

Why Would They Want Gardner? As an alternative to that hodgepodge of platoon veterans and mid-range prospects slated for the corners. The Mariners are trying to win right now. I mean, they should be. Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz aren’t going to be this productive forever, so anything Seattle can do to improve their short-term chances qualifies as a good move in my book. Gardner represents an upgrade.

So Are They A Fit? Yes in theory, no in reality. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has said his team is too left-handed at the moment, which Gardner would only exacerbate. Also, they seem committed to playing those kids in the outfield. So while there is a fit on paper here, I don’t see it happening.

Texas Rangers

Mystery Rangers outfielder. (Rick Yeatts/Getty)
Mystery Rangers outfielder. (Rick Yeatts/Getty)

Current Outfield: Carlos Gomez in center, Shin-Soo Choo in right, and Nomar Mazara in left. Delino DeShields Jr. and Ryan Rua are the depth options.

Why Would They Want Gardner? The Rangers have no first baseman or designated hitter at the moment. Adding Gardner would allow them to slide Mazara over to right field, his natural position, and put Choo at DH full-time, which is where he belongs at this point. Texas has money and prospects to trade, plus an obvious opening for Gardner in the lineup and on the field.

So Are They A Fit? Yes. Whether the Rangers are willing to make a trade is another matter. They may prefer to hang on to their prospects and address those first base and DH openings through free agency. There are still plenty of those players available.

Toronto Blue Jays

Current Outfield: lol

Why Would They Want Gardner? Kevin Pillar is still the center fielder. That much is clear. But after losing out on Fowler, the Blue Jays have Melvin Upton, Steve Pearce, Ezequiel Carrera, and Dalton Pompey penciled in as their corner outfielders. That might be the worst outfield unit in baseball. Gardner would give them a legitimate left fielder and leadoff hitter, allowing them to slide Devon Travis lower in the order, in a run producing spot. That would be a big help considering they effectively replaced Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista with Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. I’m sure that’ll work out fine.

So Are They A Fit? Yes in the same way the Orioles are a fit. The Blue Jays could use Gardner, for sure, but to get him, they’d have to swing a rare intradivision trade. It’s not impossible. Just really tough to do. There’s a reason you don’t see them often. Everyone’s afraid of losing a trade to a division rival.

Scouting the Trade Market: Nate Jones

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

Given their Winter Meetings activity, the White Sox are clearly a rebuilding team right now. They traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, and reports indicate Jose Quintana is on the block too. The Astros are said to have shown the most interest in him, and, understandably, the ChiSox have asked for basically all their top prospects. I don’t blame them. Quintana’s awesome.

The White Sox do have other veterans to trade as well, including former Yankee David Robertson. My guess is the teams that lose out on Kenley Jansen will turn their attention to Robertson. It’s another ChiSox reliever that interests me though: hard-throwing righty Nate Jones. The Yankees already have a pretty great closer-setup man tandem, but there’s no such thing as too many quality relievers. Let’s give Jones a look.

Recent Performance

Jones, who turns 31 in January, is like so many other relievers these days in that he’s a failed starter. The White Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, and after a few years as a middling minor league starter, they moved him to the bullpen and he dominated almost immediately. Jones has spent parts of five seasons in the show now. His numbers:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2016 70.2 2.29 2.93 29.2% 5.5% 45.9% 0.89 .211 .276
Career 239.1 3.16 3.11 27.0% 8.5% 47.1% 0.79 .286 .278

Jones was excellent this year. He’s been good his entire career, really, but this year he took it to another level. Not coincidentally, he was healthy this season, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Jones has always missed bats and gotten a good number of grounders, and this season he cut his walk rate. (He walked 15 in those 70.2 innings and three of the 15 were in intentional.)

This season Jones did have a pretty significant platoon split, though it’s not like lefties smacked him around the yard. They hit .198/.257/.410 against him. It’s worth noting he faced 109 lefties and gave up five homers this summer. It was two homers against 165 righty batters. Jones has always been more home run prone against lefties (career 1.22 HR/9) than righties (0.50 HR/9), which could be a problem at Yankee Stadium.

Generally speaking though, Jones was very good this past season and he’s been comfortably above-average his entire career. This is not some run of the mill middle reliever. Jones is a bonafide power reliever capable of pitching high-leverage situations.

Present Stuff

Like most relievers, Jones is a two-pitch pitcher. He’s a sinker/slider pitcher who has, at times, thrown a changeup and a curveball. Very rarely though. Jones threw seven changeups and four curveballs this past season. Total. So yeah, two-pitch pitcher. To the numbers (MLB averages in parenthesis):

% Thrown Avg. Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 62.8% 97.4 (91.3) 8.7% (5.4%) 42.5% (49.5%)
Slider 36.0% 88.8 (84.3) 27.0% (15.2%) 56.1% (43.9%)

Those are 2016 numbers, which most closely reflect who Jones is at this point in time. Right away, the velocity jumps out at you. Averaging north of 97 mph with a sinker is no joke. Same with a slider that averaged close to 89 mph. Jones got the sinker as high as 100.2 mph and the slider as high as 93.2 mph in 2016. That is pretty crazy.

Weirdly, that high-octane sinker doesn’t generate many grounders. Jones does get a good amount of swings and misses with the sinker, but not grounders. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s not like Jones pitched poorly this year — just unusual. Maybe it’s more of a true four-seam fastball that had just enough movement to trick PitchFX into thinking it’s a sinker? Video is scarce — unfortunately no one made a highlight video of a relatively unheralded setup reliever — but let’s look at some anyway:

Okay, that’s a sinker, not a four-seamer. You can clearly see the pitch run away from the left-handed batter. I’m not quite sure why Jones didn’t get many grounders with his sinker this season — he had a 28.6% grounder rate with the sinker last year, so it was even worse — but it happened. It’s not a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned because Jones was so good anyway, just a little weirdness. (Here’s video of his slider, if you’re interested.)

Injury History

Like so many other hard-throwing relievers these days, Jones has had some arm problems in his career. Nowadays it seems the guys who haven’t had an arm injury are the outliers. Anyway, here is Jones’ injury history:

  • 2010: Missed about two weeks in May with shoulder tendinitis while in Double-A.
  • 2014: Landed on the disabled list three games into the season with hip problem. He had relatively minor back surgery in early-May to shave down a bone that was causing nerve irritation and the hip issue.
  • 2014: Blew out his elbow in mid-July and needed Tommy John surgery. He was working his way back from the back procedure when the ligament snapped.

The good news: Tommy John surgery is the only serious arm issue. Jones’ shoulder has been fine since that little two-week stint on the minor league disabled list nearly seven years ago. Also, the back surgery wasn’t a structural issue, like a herniated disc. It was an arthroscopic procedure and Jones was throwing less than six weeks later. He wasn’t far away from rejoining the White Sox when the elbow gave out.

Now, that said, Jones is a guy with a herky jerky delivery who needed elbow reconstruction not too long ago. That’s a red flag, no doubt. Every single reliever is a risk these days. They all seem to get hurt. Jones appears to be in the clear at this point — his stuff and performance have bounced back well following Tommy John surgery — but he is slightly more risky than most relievers because his elbow was rebuilt less than three calendar years ago.

Contract Status

Interestingly enough, the White Sox signed Jones to a long-term extension while he was rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery. You don’t see that often. A team signing a player long-term as he’s rehabbing from major surgery. The ChiSox figured it was worth the risk, and I’m sure Jones appreciated the long-term security. Here’s the remainder of the contract:

  • 2017: $1.9M
  • 2018: $3.95M
  • 2019: Club option at league minimum ($555,000 per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement)
  • 2020: $3.75M club option
  • 2021: $4.25M club option

The contract also includes all sorts of escalators and bonuses. If Jones doesn’t need another elbow surgery by the end of the 2018 season, the contract options jump to $4.65M in 2019 and $5.15M in 2020, and the 2021 club option becomes a $6M mutual option. The ChiSox built in some protection in case the ligament gives out again. Jones can earn another $5.25M through bonuses based on games finished totals that, realistically, no pitcher could reach as a setup man. We’re talking 30+ games finished a year. He’d have to become a closer to trigger those.

So, all told, Jones can max the contract out at $26.9M over the five years if he stays healthy, becomes a closer, and neither side declines the mutual option. If the Yankees were to acquire Jones and use him as a setup man exclusively, and his elbow stays healthy, they’d owe him $15.65M from 2017-20 with the $6M mutual option for 2021. (Every option in the contract includes a $1.25M buyout.) Got all that? Point is, Jones is a contractual bargain relative to other top relievers.

What Would It Take?

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Gosh, it’s going to be really tough to pin down a trade benchmark for Jones given his recent Tommy John surgery and unique contract. Here are some relievers who were recently traded with at least four years of team control remaining:

  • Ken Giles: Traded with a top 20 org prospect (Jonathan Arauz) for a young big league starter (Vince Velasquez), a big league swingman (Brett Oberholtzer), a top ten org prospect (Mark Appel), a top 20 org prospect (Thomas Eshelman), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Harold Arauz).
  • Trevor Gott: Traded with a non-top 30 org prospect (Michael Brady) for Yunel Escobar in a salary dump.
  • Craig Kimbrel: Traded with Melvin Upton for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, a top 50 global prospect (Matt Wisler), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Jordan Paroubeck).

Yeah, this doesn’t help us much. Kimbrel was firmly established as one of the best relievers in baseball when he traded from the Braves to the Padres, if not the best. Gott had one year in the show as a middle reliever and was traded in a salary dump. Giles had five years of control remaining, not four, and that package is all over the place. That’s the deal that raised the price for late-inning bullpen help.

The Red Sox just gave up a young-ish player off their MLB roster (Travis Shaw), a top ten org prospect (Mauricio Dubon), a non-top 30 org prospect (Josh Pennington), and a player to be named later for three years of Tyler Thornburg, who like Jones is a good reliever with an injury history. That feels like the starting point for Jones. The Thornburg package. He won’t come cheap. I know that much. No good reliever does these days. The Yankees won’t be able to swing a deal by cobbling together a package of three or four guys from the bottom of their 40-man roster.

So What About The Yankees?

Even after agreeing to a deal with Aroldis Chapman last week, the Yankees are reportedly in the hunt for even more bullpen help. Nothing significant, they’re not going to sign Kenley Jansen or anything like that, but they want to beef up the middle relief. Ideally, they want a left-hander to pair with (or maybe replace?) Tommy Layne. Jones is not a southpaw, but he’s really good, so good that handedness doesn’t matter.

The Yankees already have a strong relief crew with Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard behind Chapman. Adam Warren is a fine fourth bullpen option, has been his entire career, though the Yankees may need him in the rotation. Adding Jones to Betances and Clippard would give the Yankees three really good setup relievers — Joe Girardi can have a sixth inning guy! — next year, and two really good setup relievers in the following years. (Clippard will be a free agent next winter. Betances and Jones would still be around.)

The real question is whether it’s worth giving up the prospects to acquire Jones given his contract and injury history, and really, we can’t know the answer to that until we get some idea of what the White Sox want. The Yankees don’t need Jones. He’d be a luxury. They’re in position to hang back and see how his market develops before deciding whether to get involved. New York doesn’t have to rush into any sort of decision. That’s good.

Problem is, Jones will probably be long gone before the prospect price drops low enough for the Yankees to get involved. I don’t think they want to give up any prospects for a reliever, especially not after signing Chapman. Maybe if they’d whiffed on Chapman and passed on Jansen because of the draft pick, Jones would make more sense. He’d be a really great addition to the bullpen. No doubt. My guess is the Yankees will find the cost prohibitive.

2016 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Thursday

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The 2016 Winter Meetings wrap-up today from the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. Late last night the Yankees swooped in and agreed to re-sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year contract worth $86M, which is easily the largest reliever contract in history. Now the team can move on to other business, like adding rotation and middle relief help.

“I’ve got a lot of different things going on,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch. “Listen, they’ve got a time frame in free agency. They’re going through their process. In the meantime, I’m doing a whole bunch of other stuff at the same time. I’ve had several conversations with various agents today and a lot of club activity at the same time.”

On Wednesday we learned the Yankees have cast a wide net for bullpen help and have checked in on White Sox closer David Robertson and free agent Sergio Romo. Also, they want Ruben Tejada and Nick Rumbelow on minor league deals. We’ll once again keep track of the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here, so make sure you check back often. I can’t promise a ton of updates. The final day of the Winter Meetings is traditionally the slowest. All time stamps are Eastern Time.

  • 9:30am: When asked about recent rumors involving Brett Gardner and the Orioles, Cashman said he wouldn’t have a problem making a trade within the AL East. “If I can trade with the Red Sox and Mets, I can trade with the Orioles,” he said. Interestingly, Cashman said he tried to trade Ivan Nova to the O’s at the deadline. [Pete Caldera, Hoch]
  • 10:29am: Cashman doesn’t expect to pursue any more position players this offseason. The focus is pitching. “It’s unlikely for us to make any changes on the position player side unless we trade Gardy,” said the GM, who added he’s rejected offers for Chase Headley. [Caldera]
  • 11:23am: Not surprisingly, Cashman said the Yankees are basically out of spending money this offseason after signing Chapman. Good thing the free agent class stinks, huh? [Andrew Marchand]
  • 12:24pm: Once again, Cashman reiterated he’s not optimistic about improving the rotation this offseason. “I don’t anticipate adding any starting pitching. I’d love to if I could but I doubt it’s realistic,” said the GM. [Marchand, Erik Boland]

Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.

2016 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Wednesday

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

There is one full day remaining in the 2016 Winter Meetings and so far the Yankees have done, well, not a whole lot. Things can come together pretty quickly though. Last year at this time we were all lamenting the lack of activity, then bam, the Starlin Castro and Justin Wilson trades went down.

“The free-agent stuff, you just have to stay close to it, because that can move fast,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch. “The trade stuff, there have just been certain teams that keep pursuing specific guys, so that’s been hot. There have been a couple different dynamics that have developed. Whether they lead anywhere or not, we’ll see.”

On Tuesday we learned the Yankees made contract offers to both Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, which is interesting. I’m kinda curious to see what happens if they both accept at the same time. We’ll again keep track of the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here, so check back often. All time stamps are Eastern Time.

  • 9:30am: Chapman apparently has a $92M offer in hand. Goodness. That is offer is not from the Yankees, though they’re pursuing him aggressively and are “determined” to get a deal done. [Bob Nightengale, Jon Heyman]
  • 9:30am: The Yankees did talk to the White Sox about Chris Sale before he was traded to the Red Sox, but they weren’t going to go all out to get him. “As long as we stick to the plan, we’ll be better off in the long run,” said Cashman. [David Lennon]
  • 9:30am: The Yankees have spoken to the ChiSox about David Robertson. I assume he’s a backup plan should Chapman and Jansen fall through. The White Sox are rebuilding, and obviously the Yankees know Robertson and are comfortable with him. [Sweeny Murti]
  • 9:30am: Brett Gardner is “seen as a possible fit” for the Orioles, though they’d want the Yankees to eat some money. This sounds like speculation more than anything. I have a hard time thinking Gardner will be traded to a division rival, but who knows. [Heyman]
  • 9:40am: The Yankees are interested in signing infielder Ruben Tejada to a minor league contract. They’ll need to sign at least one stopgap infielder for Triple-A this offseason, possibly two. Also, the Yankees are trying to re-sign Nick Rumbelow as well. [George King]
  • 10:07am: It sounds as though adding a closer is the team’s top priority, so much so that the Yankees will put all their other business on hold until that’s resolved. They need to see exactly how much money will be left over, I assume. [Brendan Kuty]
  • 11:00am: Cashman reiterated he doesn’t expect to land a starter at the Winter Meetings. “I don’t anticipate it. It’s a tough market and the price tags are extremely high. We could play on a lot of things because we have a lot of prospects people desire and we desire them, too. I would say it’s less likely for us to acquire a starter,” said the GM. [King]
  • 11:23am: The Rockies have agreed to sign Ian Desmond. This is notable because Colorado is forfeiting the 11th overall pick, which means the Yankees move up from 17th to 16th. Here’s the full draft order. [Ken Rosenthal]
  • 12:20pm: Along with the Yankees, both the Marlins and Dodgers are in on Chapman and waiting to hear his decision. Chapman is New York’s top target. [Heyman]
  • 12:42pm: I don’t think this will matter, but the Yankees are one of the eight teams included in Jay Bruce’s limited no-trade clause. He could block a trade across town. [James Wagner]
  • 4:57pm: The Yankees are one of several teams to show interest in free agent righty Sergio Romo. If the Yankees miss out on Chapman and Jansen, Romo could be a setup option behind Dellin Betances. [John Shea]

Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.

Update: Yankees sign Matt Holliday to one-year deal

Beard's gotta go, Matt. (Jeff Curry/Getty)
Beard’s gotta go, Matt. (Jeff Curry/Getty)

Wednesday: The Yankees have officially announced the signing, so Holliday passed his physical and all that. He can block a trade to one team, according to Chris Cotillo: the Athletics. I guess Holliday didn’t enjoy his time with the A’s a few years ago, huh? Anyway, the 40-man roster is now full, which means the Yankees won’t be making a pick in tomorrow’s Rule 5 Draft, not that they were expected to make a pick anyway.

“The opportunity to play for such a historic franchise and such an amazing organization was really appealing,” said Holliday to Erik Boland and Pete Caldera. “I was excited about the opportunity to be a Yankee. I think this team has got a chance to be very competitive … It’s a talented young group of players that played amazing baseball the last two months when everybody kind of counted them out.”

Sunday: The Yankees have their veteran designated hitter. According to Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract worth $13M with free agent outfielder Matt Holliday. The team hasn’t announced the move, which usually means it’s pending a physical. That’ll come soon enough.

Reports indicate the Yankees wanted Carlos Beltran back at DH, but he signed a one-year deal with the Astros over the weekend. Holliday, while not a switch-hitter, is similar to Beltran in that he’s a veteran bat with a history of hitting for power and maintaining relatively low strikeout rates. He also has a strong reputation as a clubhouse guy, which is cool because the Yankees have a lot of young players who need mentorin’.

Holliday, 37 in January, hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 110 games around a broken thumb this past season. The thumb was broken by an errant pitch in August. Holliday was supposed to miss the rest of the season, but the Cardinals activated him for the final homestand so he could say goodbye to the St. Louis fans, and he managed to hit an opposite field homer with a broken thumb:

Holliday has spent almost his entire career as a left fielder, but he’s a brutal defender these days, so much so that the Yankees should only use him out there in an emergency. They have enough outfield depth — even if Brett Gardner is traded — to avoid using Holliday in left, I think. He does have some first base experience, but not much. Holliday should be a DH and a DH only. Plain and simple.

Believe it or not, this is only the Yankees second Major League free agent signing since re-signing Stephen Drew in January 2015. The other signing? Tommy Layne in August. The Yankees infamously sat out free agency entirely last offseason. My guess is they’re not done spending this winter, with smaller deals like this continuing to be the focus. We’ll see what happens.

Now that the Yankees have their DH, they figure to focus on pitching at the Winter Meetings this year. Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Starters and relievers. All of it. They’ve been connected to the top free agent closers so often this winter that it’ll feel like an upset if they don’t land one of them. The rotation? That’ll take a little more creativity. The free agent class stinks.