Revisiting the MLBTR Archives: February 2012

Burnett. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Burnett. (Leon Halip/Getty)

Now that the calendar has flipped to February and Spring Training is creeping closer and closer, it’s time for another trip through the MLB Trade Rumors archive. February can be a sneaky busy month for rumors and transactions. Teams are looking for last minute roster fillers and free agents rush to take whatever jobs they can find. Lots of small moves happen in February.

The Yankees addressed their rotation in one fell swoop in January 2012, when they acquired Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda on the same day. They then spent much of February shopping A.J. Burnett, who they no longer needed, and making minor signings for the bench and Triple-A depth. Time to look back at the surprisingly busy month that was February 2012.

February 2nd, 2012: AL West Notes: Rangers, Trumbo, Morales, Mariners

The Mariners inquired about Yankees prospect Mason Williams during the Michael Pineda trade talks, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (via Twitter).

At the time, Williams was 20 years old and coming off a .349/.395/.468 (148 wRC+) batting line with three homers and 28 steals in 68 games with Short Season Staten Island. Baseball America ranked him the 85th best prospect in the game right around the time this rumor came out, four spots ahead of Chris Archer. That wasn’t Mason’s peak as a prospect — that came the following year — but he was someone on the rise.

I would have traded Williams for Pineda instead of Montero a hundred times out of a hundred back then. Williams was a super tooled up and interesting young player. Montero was an elite prospect who raked during his September cameo in 2011. I was ready for Montero to go all Miggy Cabrera on the AL East when they traded him for Pineda. Alas. By the way, Williams has Montero beat in career fWAR (+0.5 to -0.8) and bWAR (0.0 to -0.1).

February 7th, 2012: Yankees Sign Bill Hall

The Yankees have signed utility infielder Bill Hall, based on his tweet, “IT’S OFFICIAL IM A YANKEE!!!!!!!! #IwannaRing!!!!”  He signed a minor league deal, tweets Erik Boland of Newsday.  Hall is a client of Gaylord Sports Management.

I have nothing to add to this. I just thought the “IT’S OFFICIAL IM A YANKEE!!!!!!!! #IwannaRing!!!!” stuff was pretty funny. Hall was very excited to be a Yankee … then he got released at the end of Spring Training and spent the season in Triple-A with the Orioles. Life comes at you fast.

February 8th, 2012: Yankees Sign Russell Branyan

The Yankees signed first baseman Russell Branyan to a minor league deal with a spring training invite, reports Dan Martin of the New York Post.

Oh man, I completely forgot the Yankees had Branyan. They were looking for a cheap left-handed designated hitter at the time and Branyan was as good a candidate as anyone. He split 2011 between the Diamondbacks and Angels, hitting .197/.295/.370 (84 wRC+) with five homers in 146 plate appearances. Still, Big Russ could do this:

Branyan, who was 36 at the time, never did play for the big league Yankees. He was hurt and played only 33 games with Triple-A Scranton in 2012, during which he hit .309/.438/.655 (199 wRC+) with eleven homers. Branyan didn’t play at all in 2013, resurfaced in the Mexican League in 2014, and has been out of baseball since.

February 9th, 2012: East Links: Yankees, Jones, Cespedes, Rays, O’s

The Yankees want Garrett Jones from the Pirates in any trade involving A.J. Burnett reports ESPN’s Buster Olney, but Pittsburgh isn’t interested in moving him and talks haven’t progressed (Twitter links). Yesterday we learned that the Pirates are not on Burnett’s no-trade list.

The Yankees were after Jones a long time before finally getting him as part of the Martin PradoNathan Eovaldi trade. They tried to get him from Pittsburgh a few times and tried to sign him as a free agent during the 2014-15 offseason. You’ll notice a trend in this post. The Yankees tried to trade Burnett for a bunch players who ended up wearing pinstripes at one point anyway.

February 13th, 2012: AL East Links: Vlad, Theo, Red Sox

Vladimir Guerrero has made it known to the Yankees that he wants their DH spot,” tweets ESPN’s Buster Olney, but Raul Ibanez remains the frontrunner.

The Yankees never did sign Vlad — he hooked on with the Blue Jays, played a handful of minor league games in 2012, then retired — but this rumor reminded me just how badly I wanted them to sign Guerrero back during the 2003-04 offseason. He had just turned 29 and had hit a) .330/.426/.586 (152 wRC+) with 25 homers in 2003, and b) .324/.405/.581 (145 wRC+) with 98 homers from 2001-03. George Steinbrenner wanted Gary Sheffield though, so the Yankees signed Sheffield and Vlad went to the Angels. Bah. I mean, Sheffield was pretty great, but he was no Vlad.

February 14th, 2012: A.J. Burnett Rumors: Tuesday

The Hafner for Burnett deal is no longer on the table, MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch tweets.

Like I said, the Yankees tried to trade Burnett for a bunch of guys who ended up being Yankees at some point anyway. Travis Hafner was entering the final year of his contract and had just hit .228/.346/.438 (118 wRC+) with 12 homers in 66 games around injuries in 2011. He would have slotted in as the team’s left-handed hitting designated hitter in 2012. Instead, Hafner had to wait until 2013 to get that job.

February 15th, 2012: Latest on Jorge Soler

TUESDAY, 2:18pm: The Yankees have serious interest in Soler, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney tweets.

12:33pm: Many teams remain involved in the bidding for 19-year-old Cuban prospect Jorge Soler, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (on Twitter). The Cubs have been extensively linked to the outfielder, but they’re not the only club involved. 

Has it really only been five years since Soler was a free agent? Seems like it was much longer ago. Anyway, the Yankees did what they usually do with a big name Cuban free agent, which is bring him in for a workout and feign interest, but ultimately don’t come particularly close to signing him. The Cubs gave Soler a nine-year deal worth $30M, and while he would go on to develop into a top prospect, he’s yet to put it together at the MLB level. Chicago traded him straight up for Wade Davis this winter, which still blows my mind. Somehow the Yankees got much more for a half-season of Aroldis Chapman than the Royals did for a full season of Davis.

February 15th, 2012: A.J. Burnett Rumors: Wednesday

The Yankees tried to convince the Angels that Burnett could be their fifth starter, according to Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com.  The Yankees would have obtained Bobby Abreu in the proposed trade, but Burnett rejected the deal because he’d prefer to play on the East Coast.

Abreu played for the Yankees before the Burnett trade, but I’m still counting this. The Yankees tried to trade Burnett for a bunch of dudes who played for them at one point or another. Abreu, who was about to turn 38 at the time, had lost all his power by this point — he hit .242/.350/.342 (96 wRC+) with eight homers in 2011 — and he was so bad in 2012 that the Halos released him before the end of April. The Yankees and Angels had a deal though. Burnett for Abreu. Burnett said no because he and his wife preferred the East Coast though. That was his right.

February 18th, 2012: Yankees Sign Clay Rapada

The Yankees have signed lefty reliever Clay Rapada to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training, reports David Waldstein of The New York Times (Twitter links). MLB.com’s Zack Meisel first reported that the two sides were nearing a deal. The Meister Sports Management client was released by the Orioles a few days ago.

The Yankees are said to be looking for a cheap lefty reliever these days, and five years ago, they were in the exact same position when Rapada fell into their laps. He was nails in 2012, throwing 38.1 innings in 70 appearances (lol) with a 2.82 ERA (3.20 FIP). Lefties hit .183/.263/.255 (.238 wOBA) with 28.7% strikeouts and 44.9% ground balls against him. Pretty awesome for a scrap heap pickup. Rapada hurt his shoulder in Spring Training 2013 and spent the next few seasons bouncing around the minors. He retired following the 2015 season.

February 19th, 2012: Pirates Acquire Burnett From Yankees

After more than a week of back-and-forth discussion, the Yankees and Pirates formally announced the deal that will send A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh.  The trade allows the Bombers to unload $13MM of the $33MM still owed to the veteran pitcher over the next two years.  Aside from shedding payroll, the Yanks also receive outfielder Exicardo Cayones and right-hander Diego Moreno in the trade.

And there it is. Most trades involving the Yankees these days come together quickly. We’ll hear a rumor or two, then bam, the deal is done. Some come out of nowhere, like the John Ryan MurphyAaron Hicks swap. A press release just showed up in everyone’s inbox when that trade was made. The deal was done. No rumors at all.

The Burnett trade was not like that. This one dragged on for a little while. Burnett went on to have two good years with the Pirates, throwing 393.1 innings of 3.41 ERA (3.17 FIP) ball from 2012-13, while the Yankees received little more than salary relief from this trade. Moreno hung around the system for a few years and did reach the big leagues in 2015. You may remember his 5.1 innings of no-hit relief against the Rangers:

The Yankees release Moreno last summer and he’s since hooked on with the Rays. Cayones was one of the two players the Yankees sent to the Angels for Vernon Wells in 2013. The Halos released Cayones after the 2015 season and as far as I can tell he hasn’t played anywhere since. (The other player the Yankees traded for Wells, lefty Kramer Sneed, spent last year in indy ball and the Mexican League.)

February 20th, 2012: Yankees Notes: Chavez, Martin, Rivera

Catcher Russell Martin told Daniel Barbarisi of the Wall Street Journal he talked this winter about a three-year deal with the Yankees, but the discussion never progressed beyond the initial stages.  Martin avoided arbitration with a $7.5MM contract for 2012.

At this point the “no extensions” policy was in full effect, though the Yankees were willing to make an exception for Martin. Quality catchers are hard to find. The two sides never did reach a deal and Martin left as a free agent following the 2012 season. We were then subjected to a year of Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli before Brian McCann arrived.

I wonder how the long-term catching situation would have shaken out had the Yankees and Martin agreed to a three-year deal. It would have meant no Stewvelli in 2013, first and foremost, but also no McCann. It could have played out like this:

  • 2012: Martin and Stewart
  • 2013: Martin and Cervelli
  • 2014: Martin and Cervelli
  • 2015: Murphy and Austin Romine
  • 2016: Murphy and Romine
  • 2017: Gary Sanchez and Murphy

Eh, who knows. Fun to think about it. I’m glad the Yankees have Sanchez now and we didn’t have to sit through any more Stewvelli than we had to.

February 21st, 2012: Yankees Sign Raul Ibanez

The Yankees have found their new designated hitter, officially announcing an agreement with Raul Ibanez that was first tweeted by ESPN’s Buster Olney yesterday.  The framework for a deal was done weeks ago with the ACES client, tweets Joel Sherman of the New York Post, who pegs the value at $1.1MM.  Plate appearance incentives can bring the total to $4MM, tweets Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.

After being unable to trade Burnett for a lefty hitting designated hitter, the Yankees signed Ibanez. And you know what? He kinda stunk for most of the season. Ibanez was hitting .235/.303/.437 (95 wRC+) on August 31st, which, when combined with his terrible defense (Brett Gardner missed most of 2012 with an elbow injury, forcing Ibanez to play the outfield fairly regularly), meant he was sub-replacement level. Then Raul started smacking clutch dingers left and right in September and October. That was pretty cool. He made everyone forget about those rough few months in a hurry.

February 22nd, 2012: Yankees Notes: Rivera, Betances, Rodriguez

Joel Sherman of the New York Post doubts the Yankees will spend on the best free agent closer available, though it’s a strategy they might have chosen in the recent past. Brian Cashman believes it’s unwise to sign relievers other than Rivera to significant contracts, and the GM aims to keep payroll under $189MM by 2014.

How times have changed, eh? Then again, you could argue Chapman is the closest thing we’ve seen to Rivera in terms of year in, year out dominance. Also, the game has changed a lot these last five years. Teams lean on their bullpens much more heavily now than they did in 2012. For example, relievers threw 34.0% of all innings back in 2012. Last season it was 36.7%. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but that number is only trending up.

February 22nd 2012: Yankees Sign David Aardsma

11:21am: The Yankees have signed 30-year-old right-hander David Aardsma, the team announced. It’s a Major League deal worth $500K that includes a club option for 2013. The deal includes $500K in incentives and the 2012 option is worth $500K, Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times tweets. Aardsma underwent Tommy John surgery last July and won’t be ready to contribute until midway through the 2012 campaign.

I, like many others, was irrationally excited about the Aardsma signing. He had a few nice years with the Mariners, then blew out his elbow. The Yankees picked him up and rehabbed him, and were rewarded with one whole inning in 2012. And he gave up a homer to J.P. Arencibia in that one inning too. It was worth a shot, but it didn’t work out. Aardsma has bounced around the last few years and is currently unsigned.

February 27th, 2012: Yankees Sign Eric Chavez

Eric Chavez is returning to the Yankees for 2012, officially signing a one-year, $900K deal with incentives.  Chavez, 35, will reprise his role as a backup corner infielder and DH for the Yanks. The left-handed hitter posted a .263/.320/.356 line with two homers in 175 plate appearances in the Bronx in 2011, his first season in New York after spending 13 in Oakland.

Chavez’s second season with the Yankees was far better than the first. He hit .263/.320/.356 (80 wRC+) with two homers in 2011, which obviously isn’t great. Chavez then managed a .281/.348/.496 (126 wRC+) line with 16 homers in 313 plate appearances in 2012. Hell yeah. He played a fair amount of third base too while Alex Rodriguez nursed various injuries. Chavez played two years with the Diamondbacks after that before joining the Yankees as a scout. Billy Eppler poached him and now Chavez is an assistant general manager with the Angels.

February 27th, 2012: AL East Notes: Johnson, Pettitte, Blue Jays

Andy Pettitte visited Yankees camp and told reporters, including MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, that he doesn’t plan on making a comeback. Pettitte said he’s “loving life” away from the ballpark and enjoying time with his family.

Good times. Good times. Pettitte un-retired 18 days after this report. He said he got the itch to continue playing after coming to Spring Training as an instructor, and the rest is history. That was pretty cool. I remember Joe and I were recording an episode of the RAB podcast (RIP) when news of the Pettitte signing broke, and we were both just kinda speechless. I’m pretty sure we scrapped that podcast all together so we could write about Andy’s return. That was fun.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luke Hochevar

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

We are just two weeks away from Spring Training and things are pretty quiet. All the big free agents (but not The Big Piece!) are off the market and most teams are merely filling out their benches, bullpens or simply taking flyers on intriguing talents. The Yankees haven’t made a significant move since they signed Aroldis Chapman a month and a half ago, and it is easy to wonder whether they’re going to make any more before camp starts.

One place where the Yankees have room for improvement is middle relief. Beyond Chapman and Dellin Betances, they have Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard and then an army of unproven young pitchers. Veteran relievers looking to catch on somewhere are in abundance right now. Let’s take a look at Luke Hochevar, who once won the clinching game of a World Series but is coming off a significant injury.

Injury History

There’s a reason the Kansas City Royals didn’t pick up Luke Hochevar’s option this winter despite another strong season for the 33-year-old righty. That reason is a significant surgery, his second in four years. He had surgery in August to fix thoracic outlet syndrome, which involves the compression of nerves near the neck and upper chest/shoulder. Pitchers from Matt Harvey to Tyson Ross to former Yankee Phil Hughes have dealt with TOS in the last year while it essentially ended the career of Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. However, Royals reliever Chris Young overcame the surgery for an effective second act to his career.

The surgery involves the removal of a rib near the shoulder (here’s more from the Cleveland Clinic if you’re interested). The recovery time takes about six months, so Hochevar is on track to be ready for Spring Training, provided that someone has actually signed him.

Unfortunately for Hochevar, this isn’t his only major surgery in recent years. He lost his entire 2014 season and part of 2015 to Tommy John surgery, four years after he had suffered a partial tear of the UCL ligament but rehabbed it to return. His performance post-TJ surgery was well below his breakout 2013 numbers and are cause for concern. A pitcher two surgeries removed from his best season is no doubt a risk and that likely plays a large role in why he’s on the market right now.

Recent Performance

Hochevar the reliever has been an effective part of a competitive Royals team in the last few seasons. The former No. 1 overall pick made his debut in 2007 against, who else, the Yankees and was a struggling starter with ERAs well above 4.50 from 2008 to 2012.

The conversion to a reliever in 2013 was a revelation. He threw 70 1/3 innings that season, striking out 82 batters and allowing just 60 baserunners en route to a 1.92 ERA (2.96 FIP). He was buoyed a bit by a .214 BABIP, which can be explained in part by a career-best 21.6 percent hard contact rate.

After undergoing Tommy John, Hochevar’s numbers took a step back in 2015 and ’16. His strikeout percentage fell from 31.3 percent in 2013 to 22.9 and 26.5 percent in ’15 and ’16, respectively. His BABIP rose to .298 in 2015 and his ERA shot up to 3.73 (4.00 FIP). He produced a remarkably similar season in 2016 with a 3.86 ERA (4.06 FIP). His peripherals improved with better strikeout and walk rates, but his home run/fly ball rate rose to 12.8 percent. Perhaps the most alarming factor was the rise in hard contact percentage from 24.3 percent in 2015 to 39.4 percent in 2016.

He only threw 37 1/3 innings in 2016 after 61 1/3 (including postseason) in 2015. Hochevar was back to striking out more than a batter per inning and he sported a WHIP of just 1.07 in 2016, but his stuff may have taken a step back.

Present Stuff

When Hochevar was a starter, he had 5-6 pitches, but he cut his repertoire down to just three primary pitches as a reliever, eliminating an ineffective slider and changeup. He now relies on two fastballs (a four-seamer and a cutter) while using a curveball with knuckle curve grip. His fastball velocity jumped from 92.6 mph to 95.5 when he converted to relief pitching, but it is down to 94.4 post-TJ surgery.

Originally a seldom-used pitch, his cutter is now thrown over 40 percent of the time (46.8 last year). The cutter sits in the high 80s and is his go-to pitch because inducing a lot of swings and misses for a cutter. His four-seam fastball wasn’t as effective in 2016 after it used to be his most-used pitch before his Tommy John surgery. The curveball, which he throws with a knuckle curve grip, sits between 75-80 and can get swings and misses. Here are the whiffs per swing for each of his pitches in the last two years, via Brooks Baseball.

brooksbaseball-chart

Last season, his knuckle curve was his most effective pitch with batters posting a paltry 31 wRC+ against it. The opposition hit .205/.280/.329 (76 wRC+) vs. his cutter but had a 208 wRC+ against his four-seamer. His slider, which he only threw 26 times (compared to over 100 times for each of the other pitches), was hit around to the tune of a 244 wRC+. The less he uses the slider, the better.

If you want to see what his stuff looks like, check out the video below. He gets two strikeouts on his curveball and one on a cutter. He really has a lot of bite on the cutter.

Contract Estimate

As mentioned above, the Royals declined their option on Hochevar this offseason. It was worth $7 million and they chose instead to buy him out for $500,000. Assuming Hochevar is, in fact, healthy and ready to go for the spring, he would likely get a one-year, incentive-laden deal. Almost definitely less than that $7 million option, but maybe something around $3-4 million?

If Hochevar wants to bet on himself a bit more, there could also be a team option for the 2018 season. It’s also not hard to see the reliever market bottoming out and relievers like Hochevar having to settle for one-year deals or even MiLB deals.

Does He Fit The Yankees

Hochevar was weirdly connected to the Yankees before the trade deadline this year in conjunction with Carlos Beltran rumors. It didn’t make too much sense for Hochevar, who at the time just had an option for 2017, to be the headline of a return for Beltran, but the rumors may signify some interest from the Yankees’ front office.

Beyond their top four, the Yankees don’t have anything too reliable in their bullpen, not that Hochevar can necessarily be relied upon next year. He would represent a possible upgrade in the middle innings over rookies and other younger 40-man options like Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder. Hochevar can throw multiple innings — he did it only 13 times over the last two years, plus three more times in the 2015 playoffs — but he has thrown fewer and fewer innings each of his last three seasons.

If the Yankees truly see themselves as contenders, a move for a veteran reliever makes a lot of sense with the lack of depth in the rotation and the team’s desire for a dominant bullpen in past years. He has 10 2/3 innings of shutout playoff experience from 2015, whatever that’s worth, and likely doesn’t require a major cash outlay that would affect the team’s desire to get under the luxury tax in the next couple years.

Saturday Links: Lefty Reliever, Top 100, Captain’s Camp

Soon. (Presswire)
Soon. (Presswire)

Only three more weekends without baseball after this one. Spring Training games aren’t that far away! Thank goodness. I am so ready for this offseason to be over. Here are some links to check out today:

Yankees still looking for a cheap lefty reliever

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees remain in the hunt for a left-handed reliever, but only want a player who will take a low base salary or minor league deal. Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins, the two best free agent southpaws, are seeking two-year deals worth at least $12M, says Rosenthal. If they stick to that demand, the Yankees won’t get either. I assume Travis Wood is a non-option too given the low base salary thing.

The Yankees have Tommy Layne, Chasen Shreve, and Richard Bleier as their top middle innings lefty reliever candidates at the moment, and Brian Cashman talked up Joe Mantiply at the town hall last week. “He’s a soft-tossing situational lefty that I know that people were coming up to me saying, you snookered us when you claimed him off waivers,” he said. Would Charlie Furbush take a minor league deal after a shoulder injury sidelined him all of 2016? He might be the best available cheap southpaw.

Five Yankees on ZiPS top 100 prospects

In a companion piece to Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list, Dan Szymborski put together a list of the top 100 prospects according to his ZiPS projection system (sub. req’d). ZiPS is entirely data-driven, so you’ve got to take the projections with a big grain of salt, though I still always like seeing where the scouting reports and stats disagree.

The best prospect in baseball per ZiPS is Braves SS Dansby Swanson, who Law ranked second. Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi is first on Law’s list and seventh on the ZiPS list. The Yankees had five ZiPS top 100 prospects:

8. SS Gleyber Torres (Law’s rank: 4th)
9. OF Clint Frazier (Law’s rank: 27th)
34. OF Aaron Judge (Law’s rank: 44th)
44. OF Blake Rutherford (Law’s rank: 22nd)
65. 3B Miguel Andujar (Law’s rank: DNR)

RHP James Kaprielian and LHP Justus Sheffield made Law’s list but not the ZiPS list, though ZiPS tends to skew towards position players because they don’t carry as much injury risk. The top nine and 21 of the top 25 prospects in baseball are position players according to ZiPS, so yeah. Interesting to see Andujar a middle of the top 100 guy according to ZiPS. The system likes his low strikeout rate and developing power, it seems.

New Spring Training hats leaked

For the umpteenth straight spring, teams will wear different hats for Spring Training this season. A photo of the new Yankees hat was leaked over at SportsLogos.net and my goodness, it’s hideous:

spring-training-hat

It should be noted MLB and the Yankees have not officially revealed their new Spring Training hats, so it’s entirely possible that hat is a rejected design or something like that. I can’t. I just can’t anymore. Stop messing with the classic interlocking NY, yo.

Captain’s Camp now underway

Remember yesterday’s mailbag question about Captain’s Camp? Well now we have an update, courtesy of Brendan Kuty. Farm system head Gary Denbo said Captain’s Camp is currently underway and will run from January 18th to February 24th this year. Andy Pettitte, Alfonso Soriano, Alex Rodriguez, and Tino Martinez are among the scheduled guest instructors. Several current Yankees will help out as well once Spring Training beings. Derek Jeter has taken the prospects out to a surprise dinner the last two years and Denbo hopes he does the same this year.

Denbo came up with the idea for Captain’s Camp a few years ago and says the goal is to “develop championship-type complete players for our Major League club.” The Yankees bring in a bunch of prospects for Captain’s Camp and basically teach them how to be professionals, how to be accountable, and help them become the best player they can be. Workouts and drills are part of Captain’s Camp, no doubt, but most of it is geared towards the off-the-field aspects of being a Yankee. They’re the most recognizable brand in sports, which creates unique demands.

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.