Scouting the Free Agent Market: Ryan Howard

(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Hi everyone. Just to introduce myself, I’m a 23-year-old Penn grad from New Jersey. As Mike mentioned on Wednesday, I interned at The Players’ Tribune a couple summers ago. I’ve been following RiverAveBlues since 2008 and have been a Yankees fan for much longer. I also write at CSN Philly, so fittingly my first post here is about a former Phillie.

In under three weeks, the Yankees will be reporting to Spring Training. Based on comments from Brian Cashman and the general Yankees vibe of the last couple years, it’s unlikely they’ll make another major addition prior to camp, particularly with the team’s mandate to get under the luxury tax line in the next couple seasons.

However, there’s always room for guys who would come in on minor league deals with camp invites. One of the biggest names who is likely amenable to this arrangement is former NL MVP Ryan Howard. The 37-year-old first baseman is a far cry from that MVP season and he received a farewell from the Phillies at the end of last season, but he is not retired. Ken Rosenthal profiled him as he’s working to prove himself and stay in the game, hoping to find a part-time 1B/DH job in the American League. Could the Yankees use him? Time to examine that question further.

Offensive Performance

You’re not getting 2006-2011 Ryan Howard. For that six-year stretch, he averaged 33 home runs and 133 RBI with a 139 OPS+. During that stretch, Howard was a cornerstone for the Phillies’ playoff runs and 2008 World Series title. He was the NLCS MVP in 2009, although it’s hard to forget Damaso Marte’s dominance of him in the 2009 World Series.

So what is Howard now? He is no longer a full-time player, in large part because he can no longer hit left-handed pitching. He always had a platoon split, but it has become more dramatic as he’s aged. In 2016, he had -4 OPS+ against lefties in just 35 plate appearances, hitting an unseemly .121/.143/.212 (-14 wRC+). Simply put, if Howard is playing for the 2017 Yankees and getting significant playing time against lefties, something has likely gone seriously wrong.

And there’s a lot from his 2016 season to dislike. Specifically, the first two months. They were dreadful. Howard looked like a beaten down version of himself and it seemed like last season was the end of the road. In April and May, he struck out in over a third of his 158 plate appearances. May 2016 was probably the worst month of his career, sporting a .421 OPS and a 6 wRC+.

After the Phillies called up their first baseman of the future, Tommy Joseph, Howard was demoted into a part-time role and began to thrive when the calendar flipped to June and July. He still struck out a fair amount in the second half (30.3 K%) but his .262/.324/.608 (142 wRC+) performance in that time was a throwback to the Howard of old. During that period, his hard contact and line drive percentages perked up. He finished the season with 25 home runs, his third straight season with at least 23.

Statcast gives more reason to believe that Howard’s second half is real. On 207 batted-ball events, Howard had 33 barrels, or highly well-struck balls essentially, good for 9.1 percent of his plate appearances. That is 10th in all of baseball last year, one spot behind Giancarlo Stanton (Gary Sanchez is third). His exit velocity was 92.5 mph, tied for 3rd in the majors. Power is Howard’s calling card and even with his struggles, that’s one thing he is sure to provide.

Here’s his spray chart heat map from last season via Baseball Savant. He pulls the ball on the ground a lot and a little less in the air, but he’d still benefit from the short porch. As with many lefty power hitters, he deals with the shift a fair amount.

ryan-howard-spray-chart

As you may have guessed, his base running is well below average, even for a first baseman. His age doesn’t help, nor does the Achilles’ injury he suffered in 2011 (more on that below). He hasn’t stolen a base since 2011. Even before his injury, he was consistently a net negative on the base paths and that would certainly continue in 2017.

Defensive Performance

Just like on the bases, Howard’s speed, or lack thereof, hurts him in the field as well. Looking at FanGraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding for the last four seasons, Howard makes almost none of the plays rated unlikely to impossible and gets just 42.3 percent of the plays rated about even. Bird had similar numbers in his 2015 stint, but in a 10th of the sample size.

For first basemen with at least 1000 innings over the last four seasons, Howard is 39th out of 43 players in UZR/150 innings. Howard’s arm is rated poorly and he had a below average season in 2016 at coming up with scoops. He’s certainly no Mark Teixeira. Ultimately, playing him in the field is not a desired outcome. He’d ideally be a DH for any team, but his bat could make up for his first base deficiencies.

Injury History

Howard has spent parts of four seasons – 2007, ’10, ’12 and ’13 – on the disabled list. The most famous and significant injury was his Achilles tear in the final at-bat of the Phillies 2011 NLDS Game 5 loss to the Cardinals. He didn’t return until July the next season.

After the Achilles injury, he clearly lost a step, evidenced by his lack of stolen bases, not that he was fleet of foot to begin with. He’s actually been pretty healthy in recent seasons, partly thanks to a reduced role. If he is in a platoon role at first base and DH, his health shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

Miscellaneous


I feel I’d be holding out on you if I didn’t show you Howard’s workout video from this offseason. His personal trainer begins it by saying his goal was “not to create a better baseball player, but to create a superhuman who also happens to play baseball” with an amused Howard looking on. Despite the hilarious quote, the video is actually a good peek into Howard’s workout routine and his viewpoint on his ‘breakup’ with the Phillies. Take a look.

Contract Estimates

The Phillies declined their $23 million team option for 2017, buying Howard out for $10 million. Overall, Howard received $135 million over the last five seasons. Not bad.

As mentioned at the outset, Howard’s likely looking for a MiLB deal with a camp invite. Likely one including an opt-out date towards the end of the spring.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

At first glance, the answer is no. If Greg Bird is hitting in spring training and looks like he did prior to his shoulder surgery, the answer is almost definitely no. But if Bird isn’t quite himself or the team determines he needs more time in AAA, well, then it gets a bit tricky. Tyler Austin could certainly take the first base job, but the Yankees very well may decide in that scenario to platoon him with … you guessed it, a veteran like Howard.

A DH platoon with Matt Holliday doesn’t make sense in terms of roster flexibility. Two players that can essentially only DH and pinch hit? Not optimal. Then there’s the fact that Holliday has almost no noticeable split and, in fact, has had years with reverse splits.

Howard, in theory, could accept AAA assignment and get brought in if the Yankees dealt with injuries at first, but it’s doubtful “The Big Piece” would take that demotion, even if it means returning to where he career took off (Scranton was the Phillies’ AAA affiliate when Howard rose through their system). The Yankees also signed 1B Ji-Man Choi to an MiLB deal that’ll likely mean Choi will be Scranton’s first baseman.

So Howard would have to earn his spot in the spring and Bird would likely have to lose it. With Howard, you want to catch lightning in a bottle, hoping that he can be like another Phillie position player turned Yankees DH. Howard’s 2016 second half may have just been a mirage, but a camp invite is probably worth the chance to determine whether that’s true.

Thursday Notes: Mendoza, Montgomery, Prospect Lists

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The seemingly never-ending offseason continues. I guess the good news is the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game is four weeks from tomorrow, and yes, that game will be broadcast on the YES Network. Four weeks and one day until actual baseball is on your television. It’ll be glorious. I’ll post the full Spring Training broadcast schedule once all the networks announce their plans. Until then, here are some newsy nuggets to check out.

Hector Mendoza declared a free agent

Cuban right-hander Hector Mendoza has been declared a free agent by MLB, reports Jesse Sanchez. Sanchez says Mendoza is expected to wait until his 23rd birthday on March 5th to sign, at which point he would be a true free agent unaffected by the international spending restrictions. Every team, including the Yankees and other clubs currently limited by international bonus penalties, would be able to sign him to a contract of any size at that point.

Back in April 2015, Ben Badler (subs. req’d) ranked Mendoza as the 12th best prospect in Cuba, one spot ahead of current Dodgers farmhand Yasiel Sierra. “At his best, he throws 90-94 mph with downhill plane, with solid strike-throwing ability and fastball command for his age … His 76-80 mph curveball is a solid-average pitch,” says the two-year-old scouting report. It also mentions Mendoza features a changeup and figures to start long-term.

Sierra signed a six-year deal worth $30M last February — he then pitched to 5.89 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 88.2 innings split between High-A and Double-A last year, and reportedly didn’t impress scouts either — so I guess that’s the benchmark for Mendoza. The Yankees have steered clear of the big money Cuban player market the last few seasons, so I’m not expecting them to get involved. And, frankly, I didn’t even know the guy existed until a few days ago.

Teams asking for Montgomery in trades

According to George King (subs. req’d), Brian Cashman confirmed teams have asked for left-hander Jordan Montgomery in trade talks this offseason. “He is a starter and left-handed. His name comes up,” said the GM. Not only that, but Montgomery has already has success at Triple-A (albeit in 37 innings) and is close to MLB ready, making him even more desirable. Here’s my prospect profile.

It can be really easy to overlook a guy like Montgomery given the strength and depth of the Yankees’ farm system, but he’s come a long way as a prospect the last few seasons. He’s added a cutter and also gained quite a bit of velocity, going from 88-91 mph in college to 93-95 mph in 2016. The Yankees seem to have a knack for getting guys to add velocity. Their throwing program must be good. We’ll see Montgomery in the Bronx in 2017. I’m sure of it.

MLB.com’s top prospects by position

Over the last few days MLB.com has been releasing their annual positional prospect lists. That is, the ten best prospects at each position. Several Yankees farmhands make appearances on the various lists. Here’s a quick recap:

I’m a bit surprised the Yankees only had one player on the outfield list, but eh, whatever. The shortstop list is stacked as always. Torres is one spot ahead of Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. Mateo is one spot ahead of Twins shortstop Nick Gordon, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft.

James Kaprielian failing to crack the top ten righties shouldn’t be a surprise. He did miss just about the entire 2016 season, after all. Also, I’d be more bummed about not having a top catcher prospect if, you know, Gary Sanchez didn’t exit. But he does and that’s cool. Same thing with first base and Greg Bird. Landing five prospects in the various top ten lists is pretty cool.

Update: On Twitter, Jim Callis says Blake Rutherford ranks 14th among outfielders in MLB.com’s upcoming top 100 prospects list.

Spring Training is getting shorter

Starting in 2018, Spring Training will be a whole two days shorter, reports Ronald Blum. Huge news, eh? As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the regular season will increase from 183 days to 187 days starting in 2018, and the shorter Spring Training will help make that happen. The goal was to add more off-days “in a way that doesn’t just chew up offseason days,” said MLBPA general counsel Matt Nussbaum.

The players have been pushing for more in-season off-days for a while now, and at one point they proposed shortening the season to 154 games. I’m not surprised that didn’t happen. The owners would be giving up four home games each, plus television contracts would have to be revised because they include a minimum number of broadcasts and things like that. Lots of logistical issues to work through. So anyway, two fewer days of Spring Training in two years. Yippee.

Before the Yankees can think about Harper or Machado, the farm system has to come through

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Next year, as in 2018, the Yankees hope to get their payroll under the $197M luxury tax threshold. They’ve been hoping to get under for years, and 2018 will be the best opportunity to do it because CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez will be off the books, maybe Masahiro Tanaka too. That’s a lot of big dollar contracts going away, and the Yankees are poised to replace those expensive veterans with cheap kids.

Once the Yankees get under the luxury tax threshold and reset their tax rate, the assumption seems to be they’ll dive back into free agency and make some big deals. Coincidentally enough, if the team does reset their tax rate in 2018, it’ll happen just in time for the epiphany free agent class of the 2018-19 offseason. That’s the Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, et al class. Possibly the best free agent class ever.

Last week Brian Cashman was asked about that 2018-19 free agent class during the team’s town hall event. Cashman can’t talk about players under contract with other teams, like Harper and Machado — “You trying to get me suspended?” he joked — but he did speak about the possibility of the Yankees becoming big spenders in the near future. Here’s what Cashman said at the town hall. His full answer was quite long (video link):

“First and foremost, as you seeing we’re transitioning from contracts that we vested heavily in — and it did pay off for us in ’09, and you rob Peter to pay Paul — so at the end of the day we are going to be in a position to do a number of things, and maybe turn the clock back to be big-game hunters that we — and you — have been accustomed to being.

“But our hope is, in the meantime, that some of the high-end ceiling position players like you see in a Gary Sanchez — I know the talk of the big free agent class of 2018 already had been discussed before the 2016 season started like, ‘Oh, the Yankees are going to wait and reset the clock and go after these guys’ — and since this time, you saw one of our golden nuggets pop out of our system and establish himself as potentially one of the high-end young players in the game.

“If we could have a few more of those, it’ll allow us to have a lot of different choices to see what’s on the open market at the time. And who’s to say the rumors out there are the necessary ones? We all want what we have in that system to become what the younger guys in this game are as they’re approaching free agency and had their success and established themselves. We want our guys to be those guys six years from now. And hopefully this crew, and some of those guys in this crew, can become those guys.

“Therefore, you’re not having to rely on going to marketplace and pay a steep price regardless of what their talent level is. Out of respect for the other team’s talent, I can’t speak to those guys that are potentially future free agents, but I can tell you this: our hope is that the young guys that we have in our system become some of the young great players in the game going forward. That’s what we’re doing.”

There’s a lot going on there. Cashman’s good at saying a lot of words without revealing too much. In a nutshell, Cashman said they hope all the prospects in the system develop into productive big leaguers so they don’t have to go out and spend big to sign Harper or Machado or whoever. They want to develop their own Harper or Machado, or at least approximations of Harper and Machado.

That’s all well and good, but we all know not every prospect will work. It would be cool if they all did. That’s just not how baseball works though. The Yankees have accumulated a ton of prospect depth over the last year or so, so even when a few players inevitably flame out, they have others who could step in to fill those shoes. Aaron Judge doesn’t work out as the right fielder of the future? Well there’s Clint Frazier. Gleyber Torres isn’t all he’s cracked up to be? There’s still Jorge Mateo.

Realistically, the Yankees will need to dip back into free agency at some point to address a need. That applies to every team. The hope is in a few years, as in the 2018-19 offseason, the Yankees will be in position to spend big on a Harper or a Machado, because that will mean each the following statements are true:

  1. Multiple prospects have panned out and become cheap, productive big leaguers.
  2. The Yankees will have gotten under the luxury tax threshold in 2018 and reset their rate.
  3. The Yankees are good enough to consider a big free agent the missing piece of the puzzle.

The first point is important for obvious reasons. The Yankees want this robust farm system to become their next championship core in one form or another. If it doesn’t happen, they’re in trouble. The second point is important because guess what? If the Yankees don’t get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018, they’re going to try again in 2019, and that likely means no big free agent contracts.

We can’t forget about the third point too. The Yankees passed on Edwin Encarnacion (and Chris Sale) this offseason because Cashman & Co. didn’t believe the time was right. And I empathize with that. Spend big and give up a draft pick to sign a 34-year-old DH when you’re ready to win right now. Gut the farm system and trade for a no-doubt ace when you have a chance to go to the World Series, not when you’re realistically a year or two away from contention, as the Yankees probably are at the moment.

My hope is the Yankees are able to develop a new young core during these next two seasons, at which point they can add Harper (or Machado, I guess) and make the jump from team on the rise to World Series contender. I’m not entirely convinced the free-spending Yankees will ever truly return, but for a 20-something elite talent like Harper (or Machado), I think they’ll be all-in, as long as the farm system comes through and the luxury tax rate is reset.

Cashman confirms the Yankees looked into signing Edwin Encarnacion

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Prior to the holidays, the Indians got maybe the bargain of the offseason when they agreed to a three-year contract worth $60M with free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. When the offseason started, I thought he would get double the guaranteed money. The market for sluggers collapsed though, and the defending American League champions got themselves a middle of the order thumper on a nice contract.

As Encarnacion sat out there waiting to be signed, it was hard not to think about the possibility of the Yankees swooping in to get him on a smaller than expected contract. New York had already signed Matt Holliday, but Greg Bird and Tyler Austin are no sure things at first base, and Encarnacion would have solved that probably capably. And added a ton of offense, which the Yankees need.

Alas, the Indians signed Encarnacion, not the Yankees. The Yankees did look into signing Encarnacion, however. Brian Cashman confirmed at the team’s town hall event earlier this week. A fan asked about passing on Encarnacion and here is Cashman’s answer (video link):

“We looked into him. We talked about it. Given where we currently are — the payroll flexibility that we’re going to try to provide ourselves moving forward, the draft pick it was going to cost us at the same time — the timing wasn’t right. And, just as important, we’ve got two kids knocking on the door that are cost effective. Are they Edwin Encarnacion? No, they’re not, but their ceilings are pretty interesting. The only way to find out about them is to provide (playing time).”

It’s a very similar answer to what Cashman said about the possibility of trading for Chris Sale during his end-of-season press conference. In a nutshell, the Yankees don’t think they’re in position to make win-now moves, like trading top prospects for Sale or spending big/forfeiting a draft pick to sign Encarnacion. The Red Sox and Indians are in that position, so they went ahead and made the deals.

With actually saying it, Cashman indicated during the town hall that 2017 is going to be something of a rebuilding year, and I think we all knew that already. They’ll have kids playing their first full season in the big leagues at catcher, first base, and right field, not to mention in the back of the rotation. There will inevitably be bumps along the way. Probably more than we expect or are willing to admit.

Signing Encarnacion would have unquestionably made the Yankees a better team. I don’t think anyone will say otherwise. But, if this coming season is going to be a transition year, you’re wasting what figures to be the most productive year of Encarnacion’s contract. He’s already 34. Decline is coming. And by time the Yankees are ready to contend, they’d have Encarnacion tying up a roster spot at big dollars while providing declining production.

Who knows. Maybe Encarnacion will age like David Ortiz and never miss a beat. I’ll always bet against it though. Using first base to find out about Austin and especially Bird is far and away the most sensible move for the Yankees at this point in time. If they were on the playoff bubble and a win or two away from being real World Series threats, then by all means, sign the big free agent and give up the pick. That’s not the case though. Not right now.

CC Sabathia hopes to continue pitching beyond 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Links: Severino, Breslow, Gardner, Headley

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

Yankees believe Severino is too bulky

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

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

Yankees will be among teams to scout Breslow

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

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

Cashman doesn’t expect Gardner or Headley trade

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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