Mailbag: Sabathia, Montgomery, Ellsbury, Wood, Pineda

I’ve got 14 questions for you this week, in the penultimate mailbag before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. Feels good. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is where you can send us your questions, comments, links, guest post proposals, whatever.

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

Ben asks: Is CC Sabathia a Hall of Famer and does he go in as a Yankee?

Right now, no on the Hall of Fame. Sabathia was on a Hall of Fame track earlier in his career, but those dreadful 2013-15 seasons really threw a wrench into things. Sabathia is sitting on 223 wins and getting over 250 feels like a must — heck, Mike Mussina can’t get in and he has 270 wins, how long until someone does that again? — and he probably can’t afford to let his career ERA climb any more. It was 3.50 (125 ERA+) prior to 2013. Now it’s 3.70 (117 ERA+). Also, Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system says Sabathia is well below the established Hall of Fame standards for starting pitchers.

Now, should Sabathia actually get into the Hall of Fame at some point, it’s possible he could go in as a Yankee. He did come up with the Indians and win his Cy Young with Cleveland, but he has more top five Cy Young finishes with New York (three to two) and the same number of All-Star Games with each team (three). And Sabathia also won his World Series with the Yankees. Here are the side-by-side stats:

GS W-L IP ERA ERA+ FIP bWAR fWAR
Indians 237 106-71 1,528.2 3.83 115 3.72 27.5 30.2
Yankees 228 106-68 1,509 3.75 114 3.72 25.6 28.6

Holy cow that’s close! Barring injury, Sabathia will have made more starts and thrown more innings with the Yankees than the Indians by the end of the upcoming season. He could have more bWAR and fWAR too. Crazy.

Sabathia has said he wants to keep pitching as long as he’s healthy. If he spends a few more years with the Yankees, preferably on perpetual one-year contracts a la late career Andy Pettitte, he could very well wind up with the interlocking NY on his Hall of Fame bust. I never would have guessed it. Then again, Sabathia has to get into the Hall of Fame first, and right now it appears his case is borderline at the absolute best.

Several asked: Is Jordan Montgomery comparable to Andy Pettitte?

A few people asked this after the Montgomery prospect profile went up earlier this week. Montgomery and Pettitte are similar in that they’re tall fastball/cutter/changeup/curveball left-handers, and that’s really about it. I get why Yankees fans are eager to see the next Pettitte, but he’s a borderline Hall of Famer, and it’s not fair to Montgomery to compare him to Andy. Let Jordan Montgomery be Jordan Montgomery.

The differences between the two are the quality of their cutter and curveball, and their overall command. Pettitte was a master at busting righties in on the hands with the cutter, a pitch Montgomery only learned two summers ago. Pettitte also had a true out-pitch curveball, and better command across the board. Montgomery has a chance to be a rock solid big league starter for a long time! Pettitte was a borderline ace for a while and an above-average starter for close to two decades though. It’s hard to compare any prospect to him.

Jaremy asks: Since Ellsbury broke the record for catcher’s interference last year – if it was factored into batting statistics (I believe it isn’t a factor for OBP), would it be enough to make Ellsbury a league average hitter?

It’s not factored into batting stats at all. A catcher’s interference goes into the books as an error on the catcher and the hitter is not charged with an at-bat, so, if anything, it helps the hitter’s AVG and SLG by removing an at-bat. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .263/.330/.374 last season. If we count his 12 catcher’s interferences as a time on base equal to a walk or hit-by-pitch, his batting line jumps to .263/.340/.374. Ten extra points of OBP. Ellsbury’s OPS+ goes from 88 to 94 — calculating wRC+ is way too complicated, so we’ll stick with OPS+ — so no, they wouldn’t have been enough to make him a league average hitter.

Andrew asks: Are you surprised that Travis Wood hasn’t latched on anywhere yet? We know he’d be a pretty good fit with us, but do you think there’s any chance he winds up here?

Based on my experience following baseball far too closely for far too long, when a potentially useful player is unsigned this late into the offseason, there’s usually a reason. Maybe Wood’s medicals don’t check out or teams are unwilling to bet on him repeating his success against lefties from a year ago. Or maybe he just wants a ton of money. Wood is not attached to draft pick compensation, so that’s not an issue. If the Yankees could scoop him up as a potential swingman, say on a one-year deal worth $3M or so, it would probably be worthwhile. Would any other club top that offer and/or give Wood a clearer path to the rotation? So far the answer seems to be no.

Wood. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Wood. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Jonathan asks: As a fan its frustrating to watch the Yankees try to “contend” when everyone knows they have no chance of getting anywhere past the wild card. If you were the GM would you have traded Tanaka and Dellin last year, essentially punting until 2018? They could really use a couple of top 25/50 pitching prospects. The system may be loaded but no one projects as higher then a 2 starter even in the best case scenario, and those are ridiculously expensive (and risky) in free agency.

Who’s to say they have no chance of getting past the wildcard? You mean to tell me the Yankees, with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman backing up Masahiro Tanaka, don’t have a chance to win a wildcard game? Come on now. Get to the postseason and you have a chance to win the World Series. ( I have no idea why people continue to say the wildcard isn’t really the postseason. It’s so silly. The players get postseason shares and everything.)

As for the question, I’ve said repeatedly I’d be open to trading anyone on the roster, including Tanaka and Betances. In fact, if they’re not going to sign Tanaka to an extension soon, trading him is probably the smart move. I also appreciate the team’s attempts to remain competitive rather than tank. Everyone loves the idea of a tear down because you can dream on the future, but that’s all you have, dreams about the future. The current club in that scenario is a disaster and no fun to watch. You could argue the Yankees should have torn things down after, say, 2013. And if they had, maybe they’d have a farm system as good as the one they have right now? Yeah, no complaints here.

Dan asks: Assuming expansion, what are the chances MLB moves to an East/West conference format like NBA, NHL & MLS? You could keep the existing divisions intact, just reorganize each league geographically. (e.g., NL East joins the American League and AL West to National League.) Plus, going back to only playing teams in your league should mean less jet lag, fewer 10pm starts and meaningful interleague play. And, just maybe, we finally get DH in both leagues!

I can’t see it. The National League and American League are too ingrained in the sport to change now. And besides, how much will switching to an East-West format help anyway? Teams only play two series a year against clubs in the other two divisions in their league these days, so it wouldn’t reduce travel that much. The AL-NL format has been in existence for over a century now and it’s one of those things that defines baseball. Old school fans are freaking out about the possibility of adding the DH to the NL even though it would, unquestionably, increase scoring and add more excitement. Imagine how much of an uproar there would be if the league tried to eliminate the AL and NL to go with an East-West format? Gosh.

Andrew asks: If we define a successful major league starting pitcher as someone who is league average of better for at least four years, do you think Jordan Montgomery or Chance Adams is more likely to succeed?

This is an interesting question. Adams is the better prospect in my opinion, but I’d go with Montgomery as being more likely to put together four league average or better big league seasons. He’s a safer bet to remain in the rotation long-term. Adams, on the hand, has the higher ceiling, though it also comes with a little more risk because he’s on the short side and his fastball is pretty straight. He could end up fly ball and home run prone in the big leagues. I’m more confident in Montgomery remaining a starter, even if he has a lower ceiling than Adams.

Ryan asks: Yankees get 90 home runs and 9.5 WAR from Sanchez, Judge and Bird (ZiPS has them at 7 WAR) And 25+ starts from four of their starters, how many games do they win and do they make the playoffs?

I suppose that depends on the quality of those 25+ starts from each guy, right? If Tanaka is Tanaka, Sabathia and Michael Pineda repeat what they did last year, and one of the kids gives the team 25 average or better starts, I could see the Yankees winning 89 or so games, which would put them right on the postseason bubble. Maybe I’m underselling the Yankees in this case since they always seem to be a few wins better than everyone projects. Either way, the club’s ability to contend this year will depend heavily on the kids. If they can limit the growing pains, the Yankees have a real chance to contend.

Sam asks: Have you heard about the new type of TJ surgery some injured pitchers qualify for, that cuts recovery time down dramatically? Early evidence shows it might even have a better percentage of full recovery outcomes. Seth Maness is looking to be the first MLB pitcher to have had the surgery & return to the big leagues. You should research this if you haven’t heard about it. It’s definitely worth a post on RAB.

Yeah, I’ve heard about it. Not every player is a candidate for the new procedure. It only works with a tear near the bone, not in the middle of the ligament. Derrick Goold has some details:

The “UCL repair with internal brace construction” – its full clunky name – begins with repairing the ligament and anchoring to the bone. A bracing system is then constructed out of tape to help promote healing in the area. That’s the recent advancement, one made possible by Arthrex tape. Paletta said he and others are borrowing from procedures used to repair ankles and knees to address an injury in the elbow. The clear benefit of this “primary repair” is that it addresses the native ligament, and thus doesn’t require a graft and the time that takes for a rebuilt ligament to assimilate.

Dr. George Paletta, who performed the surgery on Maness, told Goold he’s performed roughly 150 of these surgeries, and so far it has a 100% success rate. Thirty-two of those pitchers have pitched two full seasons since their surgery. These days of a 12-month rehab for Tommy John surgery are basically over. It’s a 14-16 month rehab now. Teams are being extra cautious. This new procedure can get players in game action in about seven months, according to Paletta.

I don’t know whether anyone with the Yankees has had this procedure or is a candidate for it — Tanaka has a partial tear, but we don’t know where that tear is in the ligament, exactly — but the important thing is that this seems to be a legitimate alternative to Tommy John surgery, assuming the conditions are right. That’s exciting. The more we can keep the best arms on the field, the better.

David asks: After looking over your preseason top prospects from 2016 I started looking for information on Austin DeCarr and Jeff Degano but found very little. Can you tell what’s happened to them?

DeCarr, 21, returned from his Tommy John surgery last June, and pitched to a 4.12 ERA (4.14 FIP) with 17.4% strikeouts and 9.6% walks in 39.1 innings with Short Season Staten Island. I’m not sure where he’ll begin 2017. It could be back in Extended Spring Training, or maybe the Yankees think he’s ready for full season ball and send him to Low-A Charleston. We’ll find out in April. The important thing is he’s healthy.

Degano, on the other hand, is a mess. He has the yips. It was odd when the 24-year-old wasn’t assigned to a full season team to begin 2016, then, when he showed up to Rookie Pulaski in June and walked 25 batters (with ten wild pitches) in only 5.2 innings, it made sense. He faced 47 batters with Pulaski, so that’s a 53.2% walk rate. Yikes. He’s broken. The yips are a tough thing to overcome and I have no idea where Degano is right now in trying to get back to normal. Hopefully he can right the ship. He has a promising arm.

Ryan asks: Mike, were you surprised by the lack of veteran or reclamation project SPs/ RPs on the non-roster invites to Spring Training? I thought a few minor league deals would have been dealt out. Only real surprise was that Pete Kozma is back.

Yes and no. When I put together my little non-roster preview, I had the Yankees signing as many as four extra pitchers. Then, once I laid out the Triple-A Scranton roster situation, I saw the Yankees have basically no room for guys like that. They’re going to have to send Triple-A caliber arms to Double-A to start the season because there’s simply no room for them in Scranton. These things have a way of working themselves out, of course, but the Yankees are pretty deep on the mound. I’m so used to teams scooping up depth arms that I never bothered to notice the Yankees don’t really need them.

Also, keep in mind free agency is a two-way street. Free agent pitchers and their agents are surely looking at New York’s depth chart and wondering where the heck they would fit in. You could guarantee, say, Travis Wood a big league spot as a swingman. What about guy looking to hang on who is willing to start in Triple-A in exchange for a potential call-up down the road, like Anthony Swarzak last year? That guy may look at the club’s pitching depth and say forget it, I’ll have a better shot elsewhere. The Yankees have sneaky good pitching depth right now, so good they don’t really need a veteran reclamation project guy.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Daniel asks: How does payroll work for Spring Training? Is it a huge deal for the NRI guys, financially speaking?

Players don’t get paid in Spring Training. Or in the offseason or postseason, for that matter. They get paid during the regular season only. (I remember Sabathia had it put into his contract that he gets paid year-round, but I can’t remember hearing anyone else doing that.) Teams have to provide players a place to stay and meals during Spring Training, and I’m pretty sure transportation to and from the park too.

For most big leaguers, that’s no big deal. They pass on the housing the team provides and rent their own condo for the spring, drive their own cars to the park, whatever. For rookies, that stuff is a little more important. Much like the regular season, big league camp accommodations are way better than minor league camp accommodations. Players don’t get paid, so they’re not getting a higher salary as a non-roster player, but they get a nicer place to live and better meals/more meal money.

Yogi asks: We’re starting to hear about the results of arbitration hearings, but I can’t seem to find the date for Dellin’s hearing. Has a date been set? Any chance the hearing doesn’t happen until after pitchers report? I would think both parties would want to get it finished and get to work.

I haven’t seen anything. I’m sure it’s been set though. We just don’t know about it. The way these things usually work is one day we hear the player and the team had their hearing that day, and the next day the panel’s decision is announced. That’s what happened with Fernando Abad. On Monday it was reported Abad and the Red Sox had their hearing that day, then Tuesday morning the ruling was announced. (The Red Sox beat Abad and will pay him $2M instead of $2.7M.) The hearings have started, so I assume Betances’ is any day now. Chances are we’ll hear they had their hearing that day at some point, with the decision coming the following morning.

Rich asks: So if Yanks repeat last year’s results leading up to the deadline, besides the obvious guys (Clippard, CC, etc.), wouldn’t moving Pineda make the most sense?  And if so, what type of prospect package could he yield?  Has to be more than Nova did, right?  Also, any rumblings on an Eovaldi reunion on a multi-year incentive deal like they’ve done in the past?

I answered a similar question last week and completely forgot about Pineda. Yes, trading Pineda at the deadline would be a smart move if the Yankees are out of it. He’s an impending free agent and it’s hard to think he’ll be a qualifying offer candidate. Remember, thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the most the Yankees could get for any qualified free agent next winter is a pick after the fourth round. Not nearly enough of a reward to be worth the risk.

Pineda’s value at the trade deadline is going to depend entirely on how he actually pitches. If he repeats what he did last year, could he get any more than what the Yankees acquired for Ivan Nova? The best case scenario would be the Andrew Cashner trade. He was an enigmatic impending free agent like Pineda last summer, when the Marlins traded arguably their best prospect (Josh Naylor) to get him. Then again, Miami has a history of paying big in trades. Hey, maybe that works for the Yankees. The Marlins were said to have interest in Pineda last trade deadline, and they could have interest again this year. Either way, yes, trading Pineda would be a no-brainer if the Yankees are out of it.

Mailbag: Expansion, Hall of Fame, Traded Prospects, Draft

There are 13 questions in this week’s mailbag. For some reason there were a lot of “couldn’t the Yankees trade Starlin Castro for Jose De Leon???” questions in the inbox this week and … no. Just no. Anyway, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions throughout the week.

bobby-abreu-expansion
Traded to the Phillies for Kevin Stocker later that day. (@RaysBaseball on Twitter)

Drew asks: It seems like there is enough ML talent that the league could institute an expansion draft. When do you think MLB could see an expansion draft, and how would the process work?

Commissioner Rob Manfred insists the Rays and Athletics need new parks before MLB expands again, and I get that. You’ve got to take care of the teams already in the league before adding two more. MLB could probably expand right now though. The game is flush with cash, there are plenty of viable cities (San Antonio? Portland? Las Vegas?), and MLBPA will happily take all the extra jobs.

The expansion draft rules have been a little different each time MLB has expanded. Back in 1997, when the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks joined the league, each existing team was allowed to protect 15 players from the expansion draft. That covered both 40-man and non-40-man roster players. Players selected in the two most recent amateur drafts (1995 and 1996) were exempt from the expansion draft, and players set to become free agents after 1997 didn’t have to be protected. There were three rounds to the expansion draft, and each team could only lose one player per round. Also, they could protect three additional players after each round. Got all that? Good.

So, based on those rules, these are the I would protect if I were running the Yankees and MLB held an expansion draft this year:

I feel like I might be missing someone obvious, but that seems to be it. Blake Rutherford, James Kaprielian, and Chance Adams are all exempt because they were acquired in the two most recent amateur drafts. Also, I assume players with no-trade clauses have to be protected. Technically a no-trade clause is a no-assignment clause, and being selected in the expansion draft is an assignment. CC Sabathia has a no-trade clause but will be a free agent after the season, so he doesn’t need to be protected.

Historically, teams have loaded up on pitching during the expansion draft, which is why I’m opting to protect Montgomery over Andujar in the first round. As a near MLB ready southpaw, Montgomery would be a goner in the expansion draft. No doubt about it. There’s at least a chance of keeping Andujar through the first round. My guess is the Yankees would lose Cessa or Green in the first round. I have no idea who I’d leave out of the original 15 to protect them, however. There’s no reason to protect Brett Gardner and Chase Headley. Losing them for nothing would suck, but expansion teams traditionally don’t take veterans on big contracts in the draft.

I think (hope) we’ll see MLB expand and add two teams within the next ten years. It would even out the leagues at 16 teams apiece and eliminate the need for constant interleague play. Also, as someone who writes about baseball, I think covering an expansion draft would be fun as hell.

Michael asks: Last year the Yankees hosted an orientation type meeting for highly regarded prospects. They called it the “Captain’s … something”. Sorry but I do not remember the actual name. It seemed like a good idea last year but I have not seen anything to indicate they are repeating it this year. Have you seen anything yet?

Captain’s Camp, and they’ve done it a few years in a row now. I haven’t seen anything about it this year, though in the past we didn’t hear about the event until it was over, so who knows. Players are starting to head to Tampa — Rutherford, Austin, and Ben Heller are already there, based on their Twitter feeds — so it’s possible Captain’s Camp will begin fairly soon.

I have no reason to think the Yankees have shelved Captain’s Camp. They just had their Winter Warm-Up event last week, which featured many top prospects, plus MLB’s rookie development program was the week before that — Torres was there, not sure who else though — so the kids have been pretty busy. With Spring Training now fewer than three weeks away, I’m guessing Captain’s Camp will start fairly soon. I’m sure we’ll hear about it when the time comes.

Update: Severino, Sheffield, Adams, Dermis Garcia, and Wilkerman Garcia are also among those already in Tampa, reports Erik Boland.

Mark asks: Mailbag question for you – who is your biggest surprise comeback/break out player on the Yanks for 2017?

Severino is an easy call for comeback player, isn’t he? Maybe not in the entire league, but for the Yankees. He was terrible as a starter last season, truly awful, so performing like a league average starter in 2017 would qualify as a huge improvement and a comeback in my eyes. As for the breakout player, I’ll pass on taking the easy way out with Judge and instead say Cessa. I’m a fan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. He throws four pitches and he throws strikes, and I’ll take my chances with that. With fewer meatballs over the plate to curb the home run problem going forward, the Yankees could really have something there.

(Stephen Brashear/Getty)
(Stephen Brashear/Getty)

Marc asks: All the HOF talk has me thinking, does Robinson Cano make it into the HOF and if he does, does he go in as a Yankee?

Yes and yes. Cano just turned 34 in October and he’s well on his way to 3,000 hits (2,210 at the moment), 600 doubles (479), 400 homers (278), a lifetime .300 average (.307), and +75 WAR (+62.4). Seven All-Star Games and five top six finishes in the MVP voting helps too. I think Robbie is about 95% of the way to the Hall of Fame. He’s already built an excellent foundation and now just needs to hang around and compile a little more, and since there are still seven years left on his contract, he’ll get plenty of opportunity to do so.

There’s a chance Cano will retire having played more games as a Mariner than as a Yankee — he needs to average 129 games per season over the final seven years of his contract for that to happen — though he had his best years in pinstripes and emerged as a true star as a Yankee. He also won his World Series ring in New York. Barring something crazy, like two MVPs and a few World Series titles these next seven years, Cano should go into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.

(For what it’s worth, Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system says Cano is just short of the established Hall of Fame standards for second basemen. With another good year or two, he’ll get over the threshold.)

Dan asks (short version): I was thinking about the 2017 trade deadline. If the team is not doing good by July, what Yankees players could you see on the move for the July trade deadline and for what kind of packages?. Personally, I can see Betances, Holliday, Clippard, and probably Tanaka as well.

Brian Cashman was asked about the possibility of selling again this summer at the team’s town hall last week. It was a typically long and wordy Cashman answer, so I’m not going to transcribe it, but you can see his answer at the 27:30 mark of this video. The short version of his answer is: “It was really hard for Hal Steinbrenner to sell at the trade deadline and he might not be willing to do it again. I’ll recommend selling if I feel it’s necessary though.”

If they are out of the race and decide to sell, Matt Holliday and Tyler Clippard are the two obvious trade candidates as veterans approaching free agency. I don’t think Clippard will fetch much (remember what the Yankees gave up for him?), though maybe Holliday rakes and gets them a Carlos Beltran caliber return. Sabathia could be another candidate as an impending free agent. Maybe he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause to join a contender, assuming he repeats his 2016 success in 2017.

Remember, the Yankees tried to sign Chapman to an extension last season, and Hal only agreed to trade him after he declined an extension and said he wanted to become a free agent. Selling at the deadline was not necessarily Plan A. I’m not convinced the Yankees will do it again if they’re out of the race. If they do, Tanaka and Betances are obviously the top trade chips. I think it’s more likely guys like Holliday and Clippard would go.

Jackson asks: Comparing the trades the Yanks made at the deadline with the ones made recently this off season (e.g., Forsythe for Deleon), is there any doubt now that the best returns, if you’re a seller, are gotten during a pennant race? That being the case, don’t expect trades of any consequence by Cash, for e.g., BG, Headley, Dellin or Tank until the end of July, right?

That seems to be the case, though I can’t help but wonder whether this past trade deadline was just an anomaly. The Yankees got far more for a half-season of Chapman than the Royals got for a full season of Wade Davis or the Rays got for two seasons of Logan Forsythe. The Yankees were dealing with a desperate Cubs team, a team clearly built to win right now with a 108-year-old monkey on its back. Same with the Indians and Andrew Miller. They haven’t won a title since 1948. The pressure was on.

Things really fell into place for the Yankees last July. They had two extremely valuable assets in Chapman and Miller, and two very motivated buyers in the Cubs and Indians. Yes, I definitely think teams have more urgency to improve midseason than they do in the offseason — clubs seem much more willing to be patient in December and January, when everyone is 0-0, but things change when the standings are staring you in the face — but I don’t think we can expect Chapman/Miller caliber trades every year. Those seem to be special cases.

Bruce asks: When a player is added to the 40 man roster does the 6 year period of control before free agency start at that point, or when added to 25 man roster…or when? If 40 man roster, a player in low minors like Mateo might spend 3 more years in minors, meaning only 3 years of team control at Major league level.

Nope, it’s six years of service time, and players only accrue service time while on the MLB active roster or MLB disabled list. Mateo was added to the 40-man this offseason, so his time in the minors in 2017 won’t count as service time. It’s six full years in the big leagues before free agency. Betances was added to the 40-man roster in November 2010, spent the next three years in the minors before finally sticking in the show for good in 2014, and now he’s halfway through his six years of MLB control.

A.J. asks: If social media was around in the ’90s when the Yankees traded a ton of high-ranking prospects, which player traded would have caused the most outrage from fans? I’m thinking Eric Milton, Russ Davis, or Ed Yarnall. Thoughts?

The first name that jumped to mind is Ruben Rivera. The Yankees traded him to the Padres for Hideki Irabu in April 1997 — San Diego won Irabu’s rights through the posting system, but he refused to pitch for them — and from 1995-97, Baseball America ranked Rivera no worse than the ninth best prospect in baseball. And, in 1996, he hit .284/.381/.443 (107 OPS+) in 46 games, his first extended taste of the show. The Yankees had a revolving door in left field and a budding megastar, then they traded him. The internet would have broken.

Milton and Davis are two other really good candidates. Milton was New York’s first round pick in 1996 (20th overall). He pitched very well in the minors in 1997 and was ranked the 25th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America following the season. Then the Yankees traded him for Chuck Knoblauch, who went from a 143 OPS+ in 1996 to a 110 OPS+ in 1997 with the Twins. I don’t think that would have gone over well at the time.

Davis went to the Mariners in the Tino Martinez trade. The Yankees traded Davis, a three-time top 100 prospect per Baseball America, and Sterling Hitchcock, a two-time top 100 prospect, for Martinez, who was a year away from free agency. The team had late career Wade Boggs at the hot corner and they had just traded Davis, their long awaited third basemen of the future, for Tino. Imagine how the internet would have reacted to that nowadays. Teams definitely value prospects much more highly than they did in the 1990s. That’s for sure.

Anonymous asks: How about Jake Peavy as a low risk signing?

Not a bad idea, though the Padres are reportedly trying to bring Peavy back, and I think he’d return to San Diego before subjecting himself to Yankee Stadium and the AL East. Peavy is nearing the end of the line. He’ll turn 36 in May and last summer his fastball averaged 88.9 mph, and he had a 5.54 ERA (4.36 FIP) in 118.2 innings. He’s never been much of a ground ball guy, and when you combine a lack of grounders (36.4% in 2016) with an upper-80s fastball, you get a lot of homers (1.37 HR/9 in 2016) even in an extreme non-homer stadium like AT&T Park. Now that Brett Anderson is with the Cubs, I really don’t like any of the available free agent starters. Jon Niese seems most appealing.

(Keith Allison on Flickr via Creative Commons license)
(Keith Allison on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

Michael asks: Talk is always about the Yanks signing Harper or Machado in 2019, but is there any chance (assuming they get under the luxury tax in 2018) that they could sign both?

Is there a chance? Sure. I’d never rule it out. That said, if Bryce Harper and Manny Machado stay on their current trajectories, they’re probably going to be $400M players in two offseasons, and I’d bet against any team handing out two $400M contracts in one offseason. Then again, I never expected the Yankees to sign Sabathia and Mark Teixeira back in the day, when $150M contracts were still rare. If the kids like Sanchez and Torres and Judge develop into the players we hope, giving the Yankees a strong young (and cheap) core, I could see them splurging for both Harper and Machado, especially since they’ll both be in their mid-20s. That would be fun, huh?

Lou asks: With HOF voters limited to 10 votes, has voting option of “reserve for future consideration” been considered? So guys like Posada don’t get squeezed by the 10 vote limit? It would seem to me to smooth the voting out, and allow writers some time to contemplate a candidate.

Nothing like that has been considered as far as I know. The BBWAA tried to get the ballot expanded to a maximum of 12 votes a year or two ago, but the Hall of Fame said no, so the rule of ten remains. John Harper recently suggested a three-year minimum stay on the ballot and I like that idea. That would have given Jorge Posada a chance to stick around a little longer and possibly build momentum. (Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton, and Kevin Brown were all undeserving one-and-dones in recent years too.) It’s going to be a few years until the ballot starts to unclog, so this will remain an issue a little while longer. Voters will essentially have to choose their ten “most deserving” players until then, which is absurd.

Rubaiyat asks: Is there a chance for Jorge to still make the HOF? I know he’s dropped off the ballot, but could one of the new subcommittees elect him in?

Yes, there’s still a chance, but it’s a slim one. Last year the Hall of Fame revamped the Veterans Committee into four subcommittees. Posada falls under the Today’s Game Era Committee, which covers players from 1988 to the present. The committee met last month and doesn’t meet again until December 2018. It’s a 16-person committee and 12 votes are needed for induction. There’s no guarantee Posada will even be on the next Today’s Game ballot — he has to pass through a screening committee first, which will determine whether he’s even worthy of further Hall of Fame consideration — but it’s his only shot at induction at this point. (Aside from getting in as a manager.) I don’t expect Posada to get in either way. An appearance on the Today’s Game ballot would be cool though.

Adam asks: Fully understanding that it’s way too early to start thinking about the 2017 draft, as a fun exercise do you have any early predictions of who we might hear about the Yanks being connected to at No. 16.

Bet on Southern California kids. I’m not joking. Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer is a SoCal guy and he goes back to that well often. Four of New York’s last six first round picks have been SoCal kids (Rutherford, Kaprielian, Kyle Holder, Ian Clarkin) and one of the other two was from Central California (Judge), which should count as half-credit or something. This goes back to the days of Ian Kennedy and Gerrit Cole too. When in doubt, bet on the prospect from Southern California.

MLB.com released their top 50 prospects for the 2017 draft a few weeks ago, and among the 50 are 12 kids from Southern California: HS RHP/SS Hunter Greene (No. 1 on MLB.com’s list), HS SS/OF Royce Lewis (No. 3), HS RHP Hans Crouse (No. 20), HS OF Calvin Mitchell (No. 21), HS SS Francis Parker (No. 26), HS RHP/C Hagen Danner (No. 27), HS OF Garrett Mitchell (No. 31), UC Irvine 2B/OF Keston Hiura (No. 37), UCLA RHP Griffin Canning (No. 39), HS LHP/1B Nick Pratto (No. 42), HS RHP Jeremiah Estrada (No. 43), and HS RHP Kyle Hurt (No. 48). Wondering who the Yankees will draft with the 16th overall pick this summer? Those 12 names are as good a place to start as any.

Mailbag: Depth Chart, German, Bird, Farm System, Straily

Only five more weeks until the first Grapefruit League game. Almost there, folks. Anyway, we’ve got eleven questions in the mailbag this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is where you can send us any questions.

Torreyes is set to back up a few positions in 2017. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
Torreyes is set to back up a few positions in 2017. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

Michael asks: Injuries always happen. Seems like there are a few places we’re vulnerable. What’s your opinion of what will happen if injuries happen in spring training this year – a DL stint, not out for the season – to, Chase Headley, Gary Sanchez or more than one member of our three ‘for-sure’ starters in the rotation (seems like one always gets hurt)? (re; possible Sanchez injury, would Higashioka back up for a month?)

I think the Yankees would respond to any short-term injury — in this case, I’m thinking six weeks or less qualifies as short-term — by going with internal options. Long-term injuries are another matter. The Yankees might pounce and sign Luis Valbuena should Headley blow out his knee during an offseason workout, for example.

Since we’re on the subject, let’s lay out the Yankees’ depth chart at each position and go four deep. This pretty much answers the “who would play if _________ gets hurt?” question. There’s quite a bit of overlap at some positions.

Starter Backup Third String Fourth String
Catcher Gary Sanchez Austin Romine Kyle Higashioka Wilkin Castillo?
First Base Greg Bird Tyler Austin Rob Refsnyder Ji-Man Choi
Second Base Starlin Castro Ronald Torreyes Ruben Tejada Donovan Solano
Shortstop Didi Gregorius Ronald Torreyes Ruben Tejada Donovan Solano
Third Base Chase Headley Ronald Torreyes Ruben Tejada Donovan Solano
Left Field Brett Gardner Aaron Hicks Tyler Austin Rob Refsnyder
Center Field Jacoby Ellsbury Aaron Hicks Brett Gardner* Mason Williams
Right Field Aaron Judge Aaron Hicks Tyler Austin Rob Refsnyder

* Last year Joe Girardi showed he’d prefer to keep Gardner in left field whenever possible, so if Ellsbury were to go down with an injury, I think Hicks would take over in center field.

I’m leaving out designated hitter because that’s a unique position. Should Matt Holliday get hurt — or worse, play the outfield regularly — I think the Yankees would rotate players in and out at DH, with Austin and Hicks seeing increased playing time. Otherwise the depth chart is pretty straight forward until you get the fourth string, and I don’t think anyone has a great fourth string option at any position.

As for the rotation, well, you just start going down the depth chart and calling up kids. There are the three veterans (Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda), the four kids (Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green), the two Triple-A top prospects (Jordan Montgomery, Chance Adams), and two Triple-A non-top prospects (Ronald Herrera, Dietrich Enns). I don’t think the Yankees will put Adam Warren in their Opening Day rotation, but he’s an option too. Whenever there’s an injury to a starter, you just go right down the list and pick the next in line.

Chase asks: My question is a bit morbid, but does a Tanaka elbow pop early in the season completely change the season goals for the yanks. I think it makes a wildcard unattainable, which allows full attention on young player development and could signal a sell off of everything not nailed down. I guess the short version is Tanaka is the yanks MVP.

Yes, absolutely. Tanaka is the Yankees’ best and most important player. Any realistic path to the 2017 postseason involves him having another ace-caliber season. Without that, it’ll take a minor miracle for the Yankees to contend. So yes, if Tanaka’s elbow gives out in Spring Training, it changes the season outlook dramatically. I can’t speak for everyone, but my focus going into the season is on the kids anyway. Should Tanaka go down, I’m guessing more than a few folks will shift gears from “can they win?” to “let’s see how the kids develop.” Tanaka is far and away the team MVP. No doubt about it.

Sal asks: Domingo Acevedo gets a lot of the press, but what about Domingo German? Any news on him? He was old for his level, but decent results first 50 innings back from TJ.

German was the prospect the Yankees received in the ill-fated Nathan EovaldiMartin Prado trade. He blew out his elbow in Spring Training 2015, so it wasn’t until June 2016 that he took the mound for the Yankees in an official game. German, 24, had a 3.29 ERA (3.82 FIP) with 19.6% strikeouts and 5.9% walks in 54.2 innings split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. Baseball America says he hit 100 mph with his fastball, so that’s encouraging.

Last offseason the Yankees non-tendered German and re-signed him to a minor league contract while he rehabbed from his Tommy John surgery. They were impressed enough with what they saw in those 54.2 innings last season that they re-added him to the 40-man roster to prevent him from becoming a minor league free agent. German has two great pitches in his fastball and changeup, though his slider is a work in progress.

It’s entirely possible German will never figure out a reliable breaking ball, and if that happens, he’s likely headed for the bullpen full-time. He still has two minor league options remaining, so the Yankees can afford to be patient and let German work as a starter both this coming season and next. My guess is he’ll start back with High-A Tampa and receive a quick promotion to Double-A Trenton. German is kind of a forgotten arm in the system. Kid can bring it.

German. (Presswire)
German. (Presswire)

John asks: With the Yankee farm system being highly regarded these days it got me wondering about the success of other clubs with high ranking systems in the past. Do teams that have the best farm systems generally turn out to be winning teams? And how long does it historically take for a stacked farm system to pay dividends at the MLB level on a wins basis?

There have been several studies about this over the years — Sky Andrechek’s is one of the best, though it’s a bit old now (Matt Swartz did one too) — and they’ve almost all found top farm systems correlate extremely well to big league success in subsequent seasons. A great farm system doesn’t guarantee success because there are other factors at play, like veterans on the roster and whatnot, but generally speaking, a top tier farm system bodes extremely well going forward. The top systems tend to have top prospects and depth, so the odds of producing several quality big leaguers are quite good. That frees up to money to do other things and improve the roster even more. Farm system rankings are completely subjective, remember. The consensus says the Yankees have one of the best systems in the game though, if not the best, which suggests they’re in great shape moving forward.

Chip asks: Looking at the list of MLB Free Agents, who do you think could be this year’s Eric Chavez? The once really good player who just randomly appears on the list of Yankees non-roster players at Spring Training. It can’t be Ruben Tejada, because he was never really that good. I’m thinking someone like Ryan Howard or maybe CJ Wilson would qualify.

The first year the Yankees signed Chavez, he basically just showed up to camp. There were no rumors at all, and on the day position players reported to Spring Training, the team announced he was in camp as a non-roster player. It was a complete surprise. I remember thinking Jimmy Rollins would be that player last year, but then the White Sox signed him in late-February.

This year, if the Yankees pull a stealth signing like that, I think it’ll be a pitcher. C.J. Wilson is a good candidate, though I think the Yankees would go after a healthy pitcher who could step on the mound right away. Wilson is coming off elbow and shoulder surgeries. I keep coming back to this name, but Jorge De La Rosa seems like the guy to me. The Yankees were connected to him numerous times over the years, and a veteran lefty used to pitching in a tough environment (Coors Field) seems like a solid bet for a minor league deal. Edwin Jackson, Chris Johnson, and (gasp!) Stephen Drew could be other candidates.

Ross asks: Given that Greg Bird might need more time to get his timing back, it had me wondering, how long would he need to be in the minors next season for the Yankees to get that year of service time back?

Bird picked up 53 days of service time in 2015 — and a full year of service time last year while on the big league disabled list, but that’s besides the point — which means he’ll need to spend about 65 days in the minors to delay free agency another year. Two months, basically. It might be worthwhile, you know. If Bird still looks rusty in Spring Training, sending him down until June to “buy back” the year the team lost to the injury last season wouldn’t be a terrible idea. It gives Austin two months of regular at-bats in the big leagues and allows Bird to get back on track in a low-pressure environment.

The Yankees kept Severino in the minors just long enough to delay his free agency last year, though they had to send him down at midseason because he stunk. Bird is coming off an injury, and sending him down on Opening Day to regain his timing may be their only opportunity to send him to the minors. If he’s healthy and rakes, they can’t send him down. I mean, they could, but it would look fishy. The Yankees have the money to pay Bird when the time comes, so maybe this isn’t a big deal. But, if he winds up in the minors again for whatever reason, 65 days is the magic number.

Michael asks: Gary Sanchez for Jose Quintana straight up. Who says no?

Both teams. I think the Yankees would sooner trade minor league prospects like Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres than Sanchez, who plays an extremely valuable position and has had big league success, albeit in a limited sample. At the same time, the White Sox are not wrong to demand more for Quintana than just Sanchez. How much more? Well, that depends. But I don’t think asking for more is unreasonable. I think both teams would pass on this one. The Yankees want to keep the high-end catcher and the White Sox want more than one player for by far the best available starting pitcher on the trade market.

Craig asks: How is it that the White Sox can get 2 top 20 pitching prospects for Adam Eaton? I like him as much as the next guy, but he doesn’t seem like a game changer. I know Gardner is older and more expensive, but they seem like very comparable players. If we threw in money could we have landed even one of these guys for Brett Gardner?

Nah, Eaton is quite a bit better than Gardner. It’s not just the age and production, it’s the contract too. Here are their stats over the last two years (this makes Gardner look better and Eaton look worse):

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ XBH HR SB-CS fWAR bWAR
Eaton 1,395 .286/.362/.430 117 103 28 32-13 +9.7 +10.2
Gardner 1,290 .260/.347/.381 102 80 23 36-9 +5.1 +6.7

Gardner turns 34 in August and is owed $23M over the next two seasons with a $12.5M club option for a third year. Eaton turned 28 last month and is owed $18.4M over the next three seasons with $9.5M and $10.5M club options for an additional two seasons. Pretty huge difference there, especially when you consider their on-field performance.

Personally, I think the White Sox did extremely well for Eaton, and I’m not a big Lucas Giolito fan. They sold as high as possible on Eaton — his WAR jumped last year because he moved to right field, and now that he’s going back to center, his good but not great glove will cost him some — and turned him into three good arms. If the Yankees could have one of those young arms for Gardner, I’m sure they would have jumped all over it.

Paul asks: I asked a version of this in last week’s chat. I keep hearing that the Yankees have a very deep farm, but I don’t know how deep that is. There are 30 teams, and let’s talk about each team’s top 30 prospects. That’s 900 total prospects. How many of the top 900 prospects in baseball are in the Yankees’ system? Anything over 30 is good. Is it 35? 45?

I’m not sure I can answer this, though keep in mind the top 30 prospects in each system do not automatically equal the top 900 prospects in baseball. Right now players like Ben Heller and the Holders (Jonathan and Kyle) are just outside my top 30 Yankees prospects — that’s subject to change before I post the final list, I always go through multiple iterations — but I’m certain they’d be in the top 30 for most other teams.

Look at the Angels, for example. MLB.com says Nate Smith, their fifth best prospect, has a ceiling of a fourth or fifth starter. That’s their fifth best prospect. Smith might not crack New York’s top 30. This is nothing more than a guess, but ballpark figure, I’d bet something like 50-55 of the top 900 prospects in baseball are Yankees right now. Maybe even a little more. The system is crazy deep with players who project to be average or better big leaguers, and those types of dudes are more valuable than they great credit for.

Stan Draily. (John Sommers II/Getty)
Stan Draily. (John Sommers II/Getty)

Joe asks: For months was hoping Yankees would pursue Straily from Cincinnati. Now he’s been traded to Miami. What would’ve been a similar comp trade wise that cash could’ve put together? Thoughts on him as a pitcher?

I both can and can not believe the Marlins gave up that much — three of their top ten prospects, per MLB.com! — to get Dan Straily. Dan Straily! I can believe it because Miami always seems to pay big in trades. I can’t believe it because, well, it’s Dan Straily. He was bouncing around waivers last offseason.

Straily, who turned 28 last month and comes with four years of team control, had a fine season for the rebuilding Reds last year, pitching to a 3.76 ERA (4.88 FIP) in 191.1 innings. Look under the hood and you’ve got a pitcher who:

  1. Averaged 89.2 mph with his fastball.
  2. Walked 9.2% of batters faced last season and 9.3% in his career.
  3. Doesn’t keep the ball on the ground or in the park (32.0 GB% and 1.46 HR/9 in 2016).

That is not someone I would be looking to bring to Yankee Stadium and the AL East. If he were on waivers again, fine, scoop him up as depth. But trade three legitimate prospects for him? Not a chance. Luis Castillo and Austin Brice, the two best prospects going to Cincinnati, are on par with Acevedo and Heller, I’d say.

The goal should be finding the next Dan Straily via waivers or free agency or whatever, not trade actual prospects for the real Dan Straily. The Marlins have a history of doing that, paying big to acquire some other team’s random older breakout player. It’s too bad Miami has like no prospects left. The Yankees could hook them up with a shiny new Austin Romine or Ronald Torreyes or something.

Rich asks: To me, Tyler Austin looks like he is physically built and has the offensive profile to play third base. Do you think a) you could agree with that analysis and b) Girardi would give him some reps in the hot corner this spring if they’re still not comfortable with Castro as the back up 3B?

He has the offensive profile for third base, for sure, but he can’t play third. Teams, especially the Yankees, do not hesitate to move prospects to more valuable positions if they think the player can handle it. That’s why Refsnyder was moved from right field to second base, and why Adams went from reliever to starter. Heck, they even tried Peter O’Brien at third base. If they think it’s possible, they’ll try it in the minors.

Austin did play some third base in the minors. Thirty-five total games, in fact, with 24 of the 35 coming back in 2011, when he was in rookie ball. He played three games at the hot corner in Triple-A last year because the roster was thinned out due to injuries and promotions, and they really didn’t have anyone else. Austin doesn’t have the defensive tools for third. His reactions aren’t quick enough and his arm isn’t accurate enough. The Yankees could stick Austin at third in an emergency, but as far as playing there regularly, it won’t happen. He doesn’t have the tools for it.

Mailbag: Cashman, Teixeira, Torres, Darvish, Sheffield

Got 15 questions for you in this week’s mailbag, though I tried to keep the answers short. Didn’t always succeed. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions. The email address is perpetually sitting in the sidebar in case you ever forget.

The Judge and the GM. (Presswire)
The Judge and the GM. (Presswire)

Daniel asks: What do you think Brian Cashman‘s legacy will be, and how much will it ultimately depend on this “transition” period carrying the Yankees to another championship?

Man, I have no idea. Cashman is very underrated as a GM. He gets overlooked because of the team’s payroll, and any success the Yankees have had under him has been written off as a product of the budget (or because someone else built the team). We’re not idiots. We know money doesn’t guarantee success. Look at the Phillies and the Angels. Or even the Red Sox. How many times have they finished in last place the last few years? Money helps, but it ain’t everything.

This rebuild may define Cashman’s legacy more than anything that’s happened over the last 20 years. If it succeeds, he’ll finally get some recognition as one of the game’s most successful executives. If it fails, well then it’ll only reinforce the notion he needs a big payroll to win. Cashman has been, by a pretty big margin, the most consistently successful big market GM. His worst teams have won 84 games, and he was able to field those clubs while still building the farm system into what it is today. Cashman’s legacy is complicated. Personally, I think he doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves.

Ross asks: I feel like the Yankees minor league pitching isn’t getting enough love. Here are top 6 teams in ERA in full-season ball for all leagues.

minor-league-era

The top 6 teams came from 6 different leagues (which surprised me), but all four of the Yankees full-season teams finished in the top 6 of 120 full-season teams. This is with their top 2 pitching prospects (Sheffield and Kaprielian) barely pitching for the Yankees in 2016.  What do you think the state of the Yankee minor league pitching is and if the stats are misleading?

The stats are misleading a bit. I definitely wouldn’t use ERA, either on the team level or individual level, to gauge prospect status. A Diamondbacks affiliate is third on that list and their system is terrible. The Yankees did have a ton of great individual performers this year — they had two of the top four and five of the top 17 minor leaguers in ERA, not counting the Mexican League (min. 100 IP) — and that’s awesome. Let’s not confuse great performance for great prospects though.

Also, keep in mind New York’s four full season affiliates all play in pitcher friendly home ballparks. Every one of them. George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa is the closest to a neutral park. Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton can be brutal for hitters, especially lefties, at night when the breeze is blowing in from the Delaware River beyond right field. That’s why what Greg Bird did there (.256/.366/.484 with 13 homers in 76 games) was so impressive.

Don’t get me wrong, the Yankees do have a lot of really good pitching prospects. James Kaprielian and Justus Sheffield are the headliners, but others like Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams are future big leaguers too. Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu are the high upside plays. The low team ERAs in 2016 probably speaks to the farm system’s pitching depth to some degree, but I wouldn’t glance at that leaderboard and confuse it for prospect status. The Yankees have some good pitching prospects, but the team ERAs would lead you to believe they’re deep in top arms, and they’re not.

Chris asks: There are many reports about the Rangers and the Cubs being the leading suitors for Tyson Ross. Shouldn’t the Yankees be in that group as well? I know he was injured most of last year, but assuming he comes back to full strength (big assumption), he fits the bill of a young starter who would be controlled for more than a year to slot into the rotation, right?

Ross isn’t under control for more than a year. He’ll be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season. And he’s not that young either. He turns 30 in April. That said, of course the Yankees should be in the mix for him. They could use more pitching and Ross theoretically offers more upside than the Jon Nieses and Doug Fisters of the world. Chances are these guys are all low cost one-year contract candidates. Ross can potentially bring the greatest reward.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge Tyson Ross fan, so if the Yankees miss out, I’m not going to lose much sleep over it. He walks a ton of batters, he throws an extreme amount of sliders, and his delivery is ugly as sin. A breakdown felt inevitable. Last year’s shoulder injury — the injury that sidelined him after Opening Day, not the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery he had in October — may have been the beginning of that breakdown. If he’s willing to come to New York on a one-year deal, cool. If not, eh, there are other fish in the sea.

Greg asks: Do you think Mark Teixeira gets no. 25 retired for him or a plaque in Monument Park?

Nah. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees reissue No. 25 as soon as this year. Maybe they’ll give it to Clint Frazier in Spring Training. I know Teixeira was part of a World Series team, but if No. 25 wasn’t retired for Jason Giambi, it sure as heck won’t be for Teixeira. Teixeira was a good player and a fun dude for several years. I’m guessing he’ll have a blast at Old Timers’ Day. He’s not Monument Park worthy in my opinion though. Good Yankee, for sure, but not an all-time great.

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Rubaiyat asks: Would it be a better idea to move Gleyber Torres to 3b or another position and keep Didi? Or keep him at short and trade Didi for prospects?

I’m going to take the easy way out and say “worry about this when the time comes.” Who knows what the landscape will be when Torres is actually ready to help the Yankees. That’s at least one year away, possibly two. Manny Machado could be a Yankee by then, in which case putting Gleyber at short and trading Didi Gregorius makes sense. Or maybe Gregorius continues to refine his offensive game and blossoms into a .290/.330/.450 hitter with 25+ homers annually, in which case Torres becomes the trade bait. Patience. This isn’t worth thinking about now.

Greg asks: A lot of prospect lists have Blake Rutherford as a top 5 prospect in the org. Does he have enough perceived value to headline a trade for an ace? I don’t necessarily want to see him go, I’m just curious how prospect ratings correspond with trade value.

I learned a while ago that prospect rankings and trade value rankings are not the same thing. Rutherford is a great-looking prospect, but I can’t remember the last time a rookie ball kid was the headliner in a trade for an impact big leaguer. Prospects closer to the big leagues have more trade value than the kids in the low minors. Does that mean Dietrich Enns has more trade value than Rutherford? Of course not. Talent matters. Prospect rankings are a measure of potential. Trade value is real world value, and teams have to consider the risk of a prospect not making it. Rutherford has a ton of ability, but he’s so far away from MLB and there’s still so much time for things to go wrong. That risk likely prevents him headlining a package for, say, Jose Quintana.

Jacob asks: What would Gleybar Torres have to become for the Cubs to regret the trade? Or does the ring mean they will never regret it?

I can’t pretend to know what last season was like for a Cubs fan. I’m spoiled as hell. I grew up with my favorite team winning championships left and right. So many Cubs fans waited their entire lives to see not just a World Series win, but a pennant. Just a pennant. Hopefully we’ll be able to look back at some point and determine this was a lopsided trade in favor of the Yankees according to WAR or whatever. I’m guessing the vast majority of Cubs fans don’t care one bit. This has a chance to be the mother of all win-win trades.

Alex asks: Unless the Yankees are in serious contention by the 2017 trade deadline, do you think Betances is all but a goner? It seems silly to keep him when you already have Chapman and could get another Frazier/Torres like prospect and more in return.

It’s going to depend on a lot of things. How far out of the race are the Yankees? How are the kids looking? Are we seeing progress, enough that serious contention in 2018 looks likely, or are they all crashing and burning? How does Dellin Betances himself look? I’m guessing one of the reasons the Yankees went ahead with their deadline sell-off last year was the fact they knew they’d have a chance to sign a top reliever in the offseason. Wade Davis is far and away the best reliever slated to hit free agency next year. After him it’s, uh, Addison Reed? And is spending huge for another reliever a smart move anyway given the luxury tax situation?

I am in no way opposed to trading Betances (or pretty much anyone on the roster at this point). The Yankees very clearly value having multiple dominant relievers in the bullpen though, and if they don’t feel confident in their ability to replace Betances in some way prior to 2018 — remember, they tried to sign Chapman to an extension before trading him! — they might not be willing to part with Dellin at the deadline. A lot of factors are going to go into any decision to trade Betances, either at the deadline or at some point after that.

Frederick asks: Any chance the Yanks go for someone like Brandon McCarthy or Anibal Sanchez in a salary dump type of move?

I think they’d just sign a free agent instead. You’ll end up with similar expected production and the cost figures to be lower too. Why taken on Sanchez and his ZiPS projected 4.77 ERA (4.33 FIP) at $16.8M when you could sign, say, Doug Fister and his ZiPS projected 4.53 ERA (4.73 FIP) for something like $6M? Unless the Tigers eat a ton of money and take a non-prospect in return, I wouldn’t bother. (And why would they do that?) Just sign a free agent. Same thing with McCarthy, who has two years left on the deal. I wrote a Scouting The Market post about him earlier this winter, before it became clear all these iffy reclamation project starters would still be looking for jobs in mid-January.

Bird. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Bird. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Jonathan asks: We hear all about catchers, pitchers, middle infielders, and well, Andujar…but very little about first base beyond Bird/Austin. Is it just a PR thing or are the lower level 1B prospects not as good relative to the prospects at other positions?

First base prospects are a weird group. Most first basemen land at the position because they couldn’t play elsewhere. Joey Votto was a catcher. Miguel Cabrera was a shortstop. Edwin Encarnacion and Chris Davis were third basemen. So was Teixeira. Greg Bird was a catcher and so was Tyler Austin back in the day. MLB.com’s top 100 list includes only four pure first basemen at the moment, which is pretty normal. That’s not an unusually low number.

As for the Yankees, their best first base prospect beyond Bird (technically no longer a prospect) and Austin (still qualifies as a prospect) is, uh, Mike Ford? Maybe Miguel Flames if he can’t hack it behind the plate. Or Dermis Garcia if the hot corner doesn’t work out. The Yankees, like every other team, focus on up-the-middle talent because those positions are hardest to fill. There’s always a Chris Carter (former third baseman) or Mike Napoli (former catcher) sitting in free agency these days. There aren’t many middle infielders or top notch catchers though. The Yankees aren’t deep in first base prospects at all and in no way is that a problem in my opinion.

Seth asks: Which baby bomber do you personally think will outperform their expectations in 2017?

Aaron Judge seems obvious to me. For some reason I feel like most people expect him to hit .175 with about 275 strikeouts in 2016. Judge doesn’t get enough credit for his pure hit tool. Yeah, he’s going to strike out, that kinda happens when you’re 6-foot-7 with a huge strike zone and long arms, but I could totally see Judge hitting .230 or so with 25+ bombs in 2017. People will complain about that, I’m sure, but for a dude in his first full season in the show? Sign me up. Judge will be a good litmus test for the rebuild. Let’s see how patient fans really are willing to be.

Bob asks: In light of the Yankees need for starting pitching in 2018 and thereafter, wouldn’t it be better to force the development of several young pitchers in 2017 as opposed to signing a one year retread who only delays the inevitable?

Nope. You can’t force development. That’s when bad things happen. Running a young pitcher who clearly isn’t ready to be successful at the MLB level out there every fifth day is counterproductive. Maybe the Yankees won’t run into this problem with any of their young starters next season. That would be amazing. And if that’s the case, the Yankees aren’t going to let some veteran starter on a one-year contract stand in the way. There’s no such thing as too much pitching, especially when you’re trying to break in several young starters at once. I’d rather have the depth and not need it than need it and not have it.

Erick asks: What are your thoughts on Yu Darvish a year from now? He has been pretty good since coming over. We don’t what will happen with Tanaka, could we have two Japanese pitchers in 2018? Even three if you go completely crazy and imagine Otani getting posted.

I have a hard time thinking the Rangers will actually let Darvish leave when he becomes a free agent next year. If they do, it would kinda worry me. What do they know that we don’t? Also, I wouldn’t get my hopes up expecting the Yankees to spend big on a free agent next offseason, not with the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold looming. The time to get Darvish was five years ago when he was in his mid-20s. He’ll be 31 when he hits free agency next year, and have Tommy John surgery in his not too distant past. Meh. Call me crazy, but I’d rather spend that money on Masahiro Tanaka.

Haven't used this one in a while. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Haven’t used this one in a while. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Luiz asks: Can we compare Sheffield with Banuelos? Both are southpaw pitchers listed at 5-foot-10, with big stuff, clean medical history, etc.

Manny Banuelos was a better prospect than Justus Sheffield at the same age. The key differences were their changeups and command. Banuelos had a phenomenal changeup and his command was big league caliber when he was a 20-year-old. For whatever reason that command disappeared when Banuelos reached Double-A in 2011 and it never came back. And he got hurt. A lot. Banuelos hurt his back and his elbow in 2012 and he hasn’t stopped getting hurt since. Sheffield and Banuelos are similar in that they’re short lefties, but there aren’t too many similarities beyond that. Banuelos was much more advanced as a prospect at the same age.

Michael asks: Among the contenders for the 4/5 spot in the rotation, who in your opinion needs more time at Triple-A? I agree that a de La Rosa or a Brett Anderson would do the team good, but I’m wondering if they might really need a guy like that, or if they’re at a stage where they can let Cessa/Green/Mitchell figure it out in the majors.

Probably Luis Severino. His changeup vanished last year and his command was pretty bad most of the summer. Luis Cessa seems most MLB ready to me. He has four pitches (and actually uses them) and is willing to pound the zone (4.9% walk rate in 2016). He might throw too many strikes. Cessa could possibly benefit from expanding the zone when he’s ahead in the count. That could help his strikeout and homer rates. I’m not really sure what more Bryan Mitchell can take from Triple-A at this point. I think his chances of landing the bullpen long-term are pretty high because he just hasn’t been able to develop a changeup, but he should be pretty good there given his fastball/curveball combo.

Mailbag: Untouchable Prospects, Santana, Bautista, HOF

Welcome to the first RAB mailbag of the new year. We’ve got 14 questions for you this week. As always, the place to send your questions is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com.

Andujar. (Not No. 79.) (Leon Halip/Getty)
Andujar. (Not No. 79.) (Leon Halip/Getty)

Dan asks: They say a team needs to know which prospects to trade and which to hold onto when making deals. Who would you say are the top 5 prospects we should try to hold on to and who are the top 5 who you could cope with losing if they were dealt? Just to clarify, I’m not talking about organizational players, I’m talking about actual prospects who you think are less likely to work out.

I’ve written this a few times myself. The Yankees have a great farm system right now, arguably the best in baseball, but of course everyone won’t work out. That’s baseball. In a perfect world you keep the good ones and trade the bad ones before they have a chance to show they’re not going to make it. Sell high, as they say.

Of course, it’s damn near impossible to tell which guys are going to work out and which ones will bust. Being able to predict the future would make life boring. Personally, I’d be most willing to part with position players with contact issues and/or defensive questions, and most pitchers (due to injury risk). So, based on that, here are my lists:

I’d put Justus Sheffield in the keeper pile because among of the Yankees’ best pitching prospects, he’s the healthiest and most advanced. A healthy Kaprielian would be an easy call over Sheffield, but Kaprielian missed almost the entire 2016 season with an elbow issue, and that’s scary.

Mateo is a difficult one because he didn’t have a great 2016 season and he did strike out a fair amount in High-A (21.3%), especially for a guy whose game is going to be putting the ball in play and running like hell. The tools are incredible though, probably the best in the system, and he still is only 21. He’s a keeper for me.

I should make it clear that just because I have those five players listed in the “trade” category, it doesn’t mean I want them gone. I’d prefer to hold on to Frazier and Judge because they’re potential middle of the order bats close to MLB. I’m just saying that in a potential blockbuster trade, say for Jose Quintana, I’d prefer to trade them before the others.

Frank asks: I just finished reading an article on FanGraphs and noticed that Michael Pineda had a 3.2 fWAR and Jake Arrieta had a 3.8 fWAR in 2016. Can you explain how this even remotely makes sense?

It’s good to slap together a quick WAR primer every now and then. There are two major versions of WAR: FanGraphs (fWAR) and Baseball Reference (bWAR). For pitchers, fWAR is based on FIP, which only looks at strikeouts, walks, and home runs. It eliminates balls in play based on the assumption the pitcher has no control over whether his defense makes the play. Nowadays we know some pitchers are better at limiting hard contact than others, which affects whether the defense can make the play, so FIP is a bit outdated.

bWAR is based on actual runs allowed, not FIP. That’s why Pineda (4.82 ERA) had +1.2 bWAR in 2016 while Arrieta (3.10 ERA) was at +3.4 bWAR. Pineda has always had incredible strikeout and walk rates, so his FIP is consistently lower than his ERA. fWAR overrates Pineda. Anyone who’s watched him the last three years knows he’s prone to fat mistake pitches and is far more hittable than the strikeout and walk numbers would lead you to believe. I use bWAR almost exclusively for pitchers. Tell me what happened, not what theoretically should have happened.

Lucas asks: B-Ref says Ellsbury had the 2nd best Defensive season of his career last year. Just from watching him he seemed to have really fallen off last year. What gives?

The defensive metrics were all over the place with Jacoby Ellsbury last year for whatever reason. Here are the numbers:

  • DRS: +8 (third best season out of ten)
  • UZR: +0.7 (seventh best season)
  • FRAA: -14.5 (worst season)
  • Total Zone: +1 (sixth best season)
  • Defensive WAR: +1.2 (second best)

Yeah, I don’t know either. My eyes told me Ellsbury was still a solid defensive center fielder last season, though not as good as he was two or three years ago. That’s normal. He turned 33 in September and guys tend to slow down at that age. Johnny Damon‘s transition to left field started at age 33 and he was there full-time within a year. Ellsbury figures to make a similar transition soon enough, which is another reason Brett Gardner almost has to be traded.

P.J. asks: I realize it’s premature since 2017 hasn’t even started but jumping ahead to next winter’s FA class. Do you think the Yankees would have any interest in Carlos Santana as a DH on say a 3 or 4 year deal @ $15MM per? The roster spot would be open and he really isn’t blocking any Yankee player.

I love Santana. One of my favorite hitters in the game. Last season he hit .259/.366/.498 (132 wRC+) with 34 home runs and exactly as many walks as strikeouts (99 each, or 14.4% of his plate appearances). Santana will turn 31 shortly after Opening Day and he’s been a consistent 20+ homer/90+ walk player. And he switch-hits. That’s cool. Matt Holliday is on a one-year contract, so the Yankees have an opening at DH going forward, and Santana could also spent time at first base as well. He’d be a nice caddy for Greg Bird going forward.

Slamtana. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Slamtana. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Next winter’s free agent class is loaded with power corner bats again and I wonder if Santana will get stuck waiting for a contract a la Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, and Chris Carter this year. The qualifying offer will approach $18M next year and I’m not sure the Indians will risk it, especially since there’s a chance Santana won’t sign a $50M+ contract. In that case Cleveland would only get a supplemental third round draft pick, not a first rounder. I definitely have interest in Santana though. Dude can rake.

Al asks: If the Dodgers are willing to trade a premium prospect for a RH second baseman, why don’t the Yankees gauge their interest in Castro? I’m not down on Castro, but if the Yankees could get De Leon or Bellinger, that might be a smart move. We could live with Refsnyder or Utley for a year until one of the middle infield prospects is ready.

The Yankees aren’t getting a premium prospect for Starlin Castro. They traded Adam Warren to get him last year. What did Castro do in 2016 to raise his stock from Warren to someone like Jose De Leon? He hit a career high 21 homers and that’s about it. His (lack of) approach will still drive you nuts, and now he’s more expensive and another year closer to free agency. The Dodgers are willing to trade De Leon (and others) for Brian Dozier because Dozier is a considerably better player than Castro. Castro’s not worth a premium prospect at all. If a team offers one, the Yankees should trade him immediately. It’d be a great one-year flip.

Brady asks: I’m reading reports that Bautista would sign a 1 year deal at or above the QO threshold (~$17M). That’s a very good player on a short term contract. I know the outfield is crowded, but how do you not make a 1/17 offer? What are the draft ramifications?

The free agent compensation rules are the same this offseason, so the Yankees would have to surrender their first round pick (16th overall) to sign Bautista. I don’t want the Yankees anywhere near him, even on a one-year contract. That’s a move you make when you’re ready to win the World Series right now, not when you’re trying to develop your next young core. Signing the 36-year-old Bautista means the 24-year-old Judge has to go back to Triple-A, and that’s not something a smart rebuilding team does. And you know what else? Not many people like Bautista either, especially around these parts. Let’s stick with the young, exciting, likable players. Could be cool.

Dave asks (short version): Am I crazy to think that adding Robertson & Quintana makes us a solid Wild Card contender?

They very well might. Jose Quintana could be as much as a five-win upgrade over whichever young kid he replaces in the rotation, and David Robertson over the last guy in the bullpen could be another win as well. Maybe two. Assuming the Yankees don’t give up anything off their MLB roster in the trade, Quintana and Robertson could represent an additional 5-7 wins in 2017. I think the Yankees are somewhere in the 82-84 win range right now. Add those two, and suddenly the Yankees are looking at a win total in the 87-91 win range, which means postseason contention.

Mark asks: If Sabathia pitches to the tune of 10-12 wins and a 4.00 era in 2017, is it worth offering him $8m 1 year deal for 2018? I picture him being the sort of Kuroda/Pettitte type to keep signing 1 year deals if he is feeling well and continues to master the art of pitching. Or do you think he has made enough money that there isn’t enough incentive to keep playing? He doesn’t seem like the David Cone type, pitch until they take the jersey away.

If CC Sabathia pitches effectively in 2017 and is open to returning on a one-year contract in 2018, the Yankees should totally bring him back. They’re going to need the pitching, and Sabathia would be the perfect one-year contract candidate. The Yankees know him and vice versa, so there would be no adjustment period, and Sabathia would be a pretty great clubhouse guy to have around the kids. He’s basically Andy Pettitte at this point. If he wants to keep pitching and is effective, then keep putting those one-year contracts in front of him. There will always be room in the rotation for a solid veteran starter, especially a lefty in Yankee Stadium.

Kenny asks: Mike, you have mentioned a lefty reliever as a small priority (even though I think Layne is more than fine, remember the Toronto game?)but what about Charlie Furbush? Converted starter with AL experience and a funky delivery who would probably come cheap off of a season where he didn’t pitch because of rotator cuff issues.

The Mariners traded Pineda, Cliff Lee, and Doug Fister all within 18 months of each other, and pretty much all they had to show for those trades was Furbush. Brutal. Furbush was pretty darn good for Seattle from 2012-15, pitching to a 3.23 ERA (3.02 FIP) with 27.9% strikeouts and 8.2% walks in 175.1 innings, but he missed the entire 2016 season with shoulder problems and was non-tendered last month. He’s worth a minor league contract, sure, but the Yankees aren’t in position to guarantee him a roster spot. Not after the shoulder injury and not with 40-man roster space at a premium. Aside from Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins, healthy Charlie Furbush is probably the best lefty reliever in free agency right now, but is healthy?

Furbush. (Joe Sargent/Getty)
Furbush. (Joe Sargent/Getty)

Joe asks: These days it seems that pitching prospects don’t get taken seriously unless they throw 95. Is there anyone coming up through the Yankee system who has the potential to be another Jimmy Key- meaning someone who may turn into a quality starter without lighting up any radar guns?

Not really. Ian Clarkin and Dietrich Enns are probably the closest thing to a Jimmy Key type in the system right now. Depending which scouting report you read, Clarkin’s fastball hovers around 90 mph these days, down a few ticks from before his elbow injury in 2015. Enns has never been a hard-thrower. He’ll top out at 91 mph on his best days. Neither Clarkin nor Enns has Key’s pinpoint control and dead fish changeup, so don’t expect them to match his success. Teams look for prospects who throw hard because a) you can’t teach it, b) velocity gives you more margin for error, and c) pitchers lose velocity as they age, so the guys who are sitting in the upper-80s in their early-20s might not have much staying power in the show.

Paul asks: What kind of year would Holliday have to have for the Yankees to consider offering him a qualifying offer?

I don’t think it’s possible. I mean, yeah, I suppose Holliday could have a freak .330/.500/.750 season like Barry Bonds or something, but that won’t happen. The Yankees are going to pay luxury tax in 2017, and per the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, they will only be able to receive a draft pick after the fourth round for any qualifying free agent. The upside of getting a draft pick after the fourth round (140th overall range) isn’t nearly great enough to risk having a soon-to-be 38-year-old Holliday accept the $18M or so qualifying offer next winter. Way too much risk, not enough reward. Even a bounceback to his 2014 levels (.272/.370/.441/132 wRC+) wouldn’t make him qualifying offer worthy.

Mark asks: I wanted to ask a question regarding former top prospects who seemingly have fallen out favor, namely Mason Williams and guys like Jake Cave, etc. Do guys like these have any trade value left? Or, are they a wait and hold to see if they can gain value in the future? Another Yankees blog (sorry I’ve been seeing other blogs on the side) suggested that they move Mason Williams for some pitching which seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

They have close to zero trade value. Cave just went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Any team could have had him and kept him — as a two-time Rule 5 Draft guy, he could have elected free agency rather be returned to the Yankees, at which point his new team could have just re-signed him with no strings attached — and yet no one did. Williams is going to be 26 in August and his track record of excellence is very short. He’s got a major shoulder injury in his recent history too. Who is giving up a pitcher for him? I mean a decent pitcher, not a similar busted prospect. Williams is more valuable to the Yankees as a depth option than anything he could realistically fetch in a trade. It’s not 2012 anymore. Guys like Williams and Cave have a negligible amount of trade value.

P.J. asks: Is there a reason 20 year old Thairo Estrada might have been complete ignored by MLB Pipeline when they ranked the Yankees Top 30 Prospects back in August? And is there a chance he could make the list when they update their list in the next month or so?

Estrada was a victim of the system’s depth. MLB.com ranked him 28th in the system before 2016, so he was on the bubble anyway, then the Yankees went and made all those trades to bolster the system. I’m a huge Thairo fan, yet when I sketched out the first draft of my annual preseason top 30 prospects list, he didn’t make the cut. There’s just so much depth in the system right now. Estrada could definitely make it back into the top 30 at some point. Maybe not in Spring Training, but later in the season or next winter, once more prospects graduate and the system inevitably thins out a bit.

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
Javy. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Mike asks (short version): Why are some retired players left off the Hall of Fame ballot? I noticed Javier Vazquez is not on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot and believe it or not, he had a career 53.9 fWAR which is 65th all time, but Tim Wakefield Is on it and his career fWAR was just 27.4. Both finished their careers in 2011. Of course I am not saying Vazquez is a HOFer or anything, but I’m wondering why he was left off but someone like Wakefield was put on.

First a player needs to spend ten years in the big leagues to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Then they need to pass through a six-person screening committee (all BBWAA members) to actually be placed on the ballot. The screening committee determined Vazquez did not deserve to be on the Hall of Fame ballot, which was egregious. Vazquez is, by a huge margin, the greatest Puerto Rican born pitcher in MLB history. It’s not close. Some numbers:

  • Wins: 165 (Juan Pizarro is second with 131)
  • Innings: 2,840 (Jaime Navarro is second with 2,055.1)
  • Strikeouts: 2,536 (Pizarro is second with 1,522)
  • WAR: +43.3 (Roberto Hernandez is second with +18.5)

Vazquez isn’t a Hall of Famer, but holy crap how does the screening committee leave him off the ballot? Matt Stairs is on the ballot. Casey Blake is on the ballot. Arthur Rhodes is on the ballot. Vazquez belongs. So did Chan-Ho Park a few years ago. Park was the first Korean player in MLB history, yet he was left off the ballot. Hall of Famer? No. But at least deserving of being on the ballot. The screening committee generally does a good job. Vazquez and Park are the two major oversights in recent years.

Mailbag: Other top NPB players who could come to MLB

The mailbag inbox was pretty empty this week thanks to the holidays. That’s okay, because every so often we get a great question that is worth its own post, and that was the case this week. So, rather than the usual multi-question format, we’ve got one question and one big answer this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions.

Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)
Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)

Dan asks: Are there any other players on the Japanese market besides Otani that we can be excited about in the future?

There are definitely a few, but none come close to Shohei Otani in terms of potential big league impact. He is truly in a class all by himself right now. Otani is the best player in Japan and has the tools to be an ace-caliber pitcher in MLB, if not a reliable hitter as well. I’m curious to see if a team will let him hit and pitch when the time comes. That just might be what it takes to sign him.

Anyway, most of the top talent in Japan in terms of big league potential is on the mound right now. These things to tend to be cyclical, and right now there are more high-end arms than high-end bats. Check back in a few years and the opposite will probably be true. So, with that in mind, here are five non-Otani players in Nippon Pro Baseball who could interest MLB teams in the near future. This isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s just a few of the most notable. The players are listed alphabetically.

RHP Kohei Arihara

Arihara, 24, just finished his second season with the Nippon Ham Fighters, during which he had a 2.94 ERA with 103 strikeouts (16.1 K%) and 38 walks (5.9 BB%) in 22 starts and 156 innings. He runs his fastball up to 96 mph and uses a wide array of offspeed pitches, and while nothing he throws is a truly dominant offering, Arihara has good command and really knows how to pitch.

Arihara has gotten plenty of extra scouting exposure recently as Otani’s teammate. Once he gets some more experience under his belt — he missed time in college with elbow injury, which is obviously a red flag — Arihara will be a candidate to come over to MLB. His upside may be limited, but there’s a chance for mid-rotation production here.

RHP Shintaro Fujinami

Back in 2012, Otani and Fujinami were the top two prospects in the NPB draft, and plenty of folks at the time preferred Fujinami because his secondary pitchers were more advanced. Otani went first overall — Fujinami was selected by four teams in the first round, then was awarded to the Hanshin Tigers after a lottery drawing (the NPB draft is weird) — and has since developed into the better NPB player and MLB prospect, but Fujinami is damn good himself.

The 22-year-old Fujinami had a 3.25 ERA in 26 starts and 169 innings in 2016, striking out 176 (24.0 K%) and walking 70 (9.6 BB%). Control has been his biggest issue — he’s walked 9.2% of batters faced in his four NPB seasons — but he misses plenty of bats with a 92-95 mph fastball, a mid-80s splitter, and a low-80s slider. His 221 strikeouts a year ago were by far the most in the Central League, Japan’s non-DH league. Only one other player had more than 175 strikeouts. (Randy Messenger had 194.)

Fujinami is widely considered the second best MLB prospect in Japan, but he’s in the same boat as Otani. He’s only 22, which means he’ll be subject to the international hard cap for the next three years. Also, Fujinami is five years away from qualifying for international free agency, so he’ll have to go through the posting system to come over at any point before the 2021-22 offseason. It’s not only Otani who is getting screwed over by the hard cap.

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

A few years ago Kikuchi, now 25, was considering jumping to MLB straight out of high school, which would have been unprecedented. (Junichi Tazawa was undrafted out of high school, played one year in a Japanese independent league, then chose to forego NPB for MLB.) NPB doesn’t like the idea of the best young Japanese players not playing in Japan, so nowadays anyone who signs with an MLB team out of high school is banned from NPB for at least three years. Not surprisingly, no one has done it.

Anyway, Kikuchi has spent the last six seasons with the Seibu Lions and has career has been up and down, mostly due to shoulder problems. He had a 2.58 ERA with 127 strikeouts (21.3 K%) and 67 walks (11.3 K%) in 22 starts and 143 innings this past season, though the blazing mid-to-upper-90s fastball that made him such a hot commodity as a teenager now resides mostly in the low-90s. Kikuchi relies on his three offspeed pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) to get most of his outs these days.

It’s no secret Kikuchi wants to come over to MLB at some point — he met with several clubs, including the Yankees, back in 2009 when he considered coming over after high school — and since he’s 25, the international hard cap won’t apply to him. It’s up to Seibu to post him because he’s still three years from international free agency. Kikuchi is not the tippy top MLB prospect he was a few years ago, but lefties who can miss bats are always going to get a look.

RHP Takahiro Norimoto

Three years ago the 26-year-old Norimoto took over as staff ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles after Masahiro Tanaka left via the posting system. His last two seasons have been eerily similar:

IP ERA Strikeouts Walks Homers
2015 194.2 2.91 215 (26.9%) 48 (6.0%) 14 (0.65 HR/9)
2016 195 2.91 216 (26.3%) 50 (6.1%) 12 (0.55 HR/9)

Freaky. Norimoto has big stuff but not big size. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 178 lbs., and fair or not, teams are always wary of undersized righties. Durability is a concern, and so is fastball plane. Teams worry short pitchers will be fly ball and home run prone because they can’t pitch downhill. Still, Norimoto has a mid-90s fastball and can miss bats with both his splitter and slider. That’ll play.

Norimoto signed a three-year extension worth $1.72M per season last month, so he’s not coming over to MLB anytime soon. That’s a shame. He wouldn’t have been subject to any international spending restrictions because of his age. Not the bonus pools this signing period or the hard cap that takes effect next signing period. Womp womp. Norimoto will be 29 before he’s eligible to come over to MLB.

IF Tetsuto Yamada

Over the last three years, and especially the last two, Yamada has established himself as one of the most dominant hitters in Japan. Last season he hit .329/.416/.610 with 38 home runs and 34 stolen bases en route to being named Central League MVP. He was the first player in NPB history to win both the home run and stolen base titles. Yamada also had a Reggie Jackson moment in the postseason, swatting three home runs in three consecutive plate appearances in Game Three of the Japan Series.

This past season the 24-year-old Yamada managed a .304/.425/.607 batting line with 38 homers and 30 stolen bases for the Yakult Swallows. He’s a right-handed hitter with tremendous bat speed and quick twitch athleticism, plus he knows how to control the strike zone (17.2 K% and 14.4 BB% from 2015-16). While going 30-30 in the big leagues might not happen, Yamada has 20-20 potential, which would be pretty damn valuable from a good defensive middle infielder. (Reports indicate he fits best at second.)

Yamada has supposedly expressed interest in coming over to MLB, and since he’ll turn 25 in July, he won’t be subject to the international hard cap next offseason. The Swallows can post him and Yamada can sign a contract of any size. Unless the posting agreement gets changed again, that is. MLB seems to like making it difficult for top overseas players to play in their league for whatever reason.

It’s worth noting most of the biggest busts among Japanese players in MLB have been infielders (Kaz Matsui, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, etc.), and I’ve seen speculation that the game is so much faster here that infielders have a tough time adjusting, and their defensive issues carry over at the plate. Who knows whether that’s true. There’s risk with every signing, and it is fair to wonder whether Yamada’s big leg kick will play over here. My guess is some team will bet millions on his power-speed combination.

* * *

The Yankees have shown they will get involved in the Japanese market if there’s a player they really like, though they’re going to do their homework first. They won’t rush into anything like they did with Kei Igawa again. Otani is clearly the best Japan has to offer for a few years. Others like Fujinami and Norimoto are intriguing, though they face obstacles coming over (hard cap for Fujinami, contract extension for Norimoto).

Yamada could end up being a very big deal next offseason, assuming the Swallows agree to post him for MLB teams, which is far from a given. Middle infielders in their mid-20s with power and speed are always in demand. Even with Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro up the middle, plus a ton of shortstop prospects in the system, the Yankees may get involved should Yamada be posted. Third base is a question long-term and Yamada could help solve that (Yamada at second, Castro to third?).

Mailbag: Gray, McCann, Bargains, Quintana, Ellsbury

No, it’s not Friday. It’s still only Thursday. Sorry if I got your hopes up. I’m posting the mailbag a day early because it’s a holiday weekend and I won’t be around much starting later this afternoon. So, the mailbag goes up a day early. I have seven questions this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send questions.

Gray. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
Gray. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Chris asks: What would it take to trade for Sonny Gray? Coming off a bad year with injuries maybe his stock is a little low even though with 3 controllable years left.

My guess is the Athletics will want exactly what the White Sox got for Chris Sale. Why not ask for that? Sale is better than Gray, but they’re both excellent when healthy and under control another three years. You’re never going to get Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano if you don’t ask. Start by asking for a Sale package and negotiate down from there. One tippy top prospect and two or three strong secondary pieces feels like the minimum to me. Why trade Gray for something less? Then again, the A’s have made some terrible trades, so who knows.

I’m all in on Gray — he was the centerpiece of my silly offseason plan — and would be pretty thrilled if the Yankees acquired him, assuming he’s healthy. He missed time with trap and forearm problems in 2016. Gray’s not a conventional ace with huge strikeout numbers and a low FIP. He’s Hiroki Kuroda. A dude who knows how to pitch and is fearless on the mound. You could do a heck of a lot worse than handing the ball to Sonny Gray for a big game.

Ryan asks: When the Yankees agreed to eat $16.5 MM of McCann’s contact, could they have offered to pay his salary this year instead of over 5.5 for 2 years, and get any McCann money off the books early? Or would it all count the same for the luxury tax like A-Rod‘s front loaded contract?

When a player is traded and his former team retains salary, that salary is applied to the luxury tax payroll in terms of actual dollars, not average annual value. The Yankees made it easy with McCann. They’re paying him $5.5M next year and another $5.5M the year after. But, if they paid him all $11M in 2017 and $0 in 2018, he’d count $11M against the luxury tax in 2017 and nothing in 2018. At least that’s how the just expired Collective Bargaining Agreement worked. Not sure if the new one just changed things.

Remember though, there are two parties in this transaction. The Astros might not have wanted to be on the hook for McCann’s entire salary in 2018, which is understandable because they’re going to have some big arbitration cases to deal with (George Springer and Dallas Keuchel, most notably). The Yankees might not want to pay the full $11M in 2017 either. Yeah, it’d help them get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018, but it may not have been the best big picture financial move.

Richard asks: Do you feel the Yankees will have a significant improvement in offense this year? I do, with the addition of Sanchez, Holliday, and Bird. And, I have a funny feeling that Hicks will be much better this year.

I do, actually. Mostly because I have a hard time believing Greg Bird (and Tyler Austin?) and Matt Holliday will be as bad as Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were this past season. Is it possible? Of course. But Teixeira and A-Rod gave the team 681 combined plate appearances of .203/.276/.358 (~68 OPS+) in 2016. Yuck. Getting even league average production from Bird and Holliday would be a big step up.

Simply put, the Yankees aren’t banking on older players as much as they were a year ago. Players over 35 have a ton of downside no matter how talented. What Carlos Beltran did this past season was an extreme outlier. It was a top 20 season all-time among 39-year-olds. The Yankees will have much more youth in the lineup next year, and with youth comes upside. Are they guaranteed to reach that upside? Of course not. But when the veterans were mostly bad in 2016, I can’t help but be optimistic about the kids in 2017.

Matt asks (short version): There are some really good values still on the free agent market, do you think the Yankees still might make a few moves to bolster the roster? Brett Anderson, Doug Fister, Jason Hammel, and CJ Wilson come to mind as buy-low candidates for the rotation. Greg Holland, Sergio Romo, Joe Smith, and Boone Logan could really deepen the bullpen as well.

The Yankees say they need to move money before making any more moves, though I have a hard time thinking Hal Steinbrenner would squash a low cost one-year deal if something worthwhile came along. I do like the idea of Anderson on an incentive-laden one-year contract, though aside from him, I’m not all that excited by any free agent starters. Fister and Hammel are okay and will probably end up getting more than I’d feel comfortable paying.

I can’t imagine Holland will come to the Yankees at this point. He’s going to go to a team where he’ll have a chance to close and soon. At best, he’d be the No. 3 closer option in New York. Other free agents who stand out as potential low cost, late offseason pickups include Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Niese, Joe Blanton, and Yusmeiro Petit. Blanton was really good with the Dodgers this past season and he might end up with a nice contract. The Yankees have been connected to De La Rosa for years, and I feel like they’ll swoop in to sign him super cheap in February.

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

Ryan asks (short version): How about a three-team trade that sends Masahiro Tanaka to Team X, prospects from Team X to the White Sox, and Jose Quintana to the Yankees?

Interesting! Team X would have to be a contending team, so maybe the Astros or Nationals? Also, I don’t think the trade would be that neat. The Yankees would have to send a prospect(s) to the White Sox as well to even things out because Quintana has more trade value than Tanaka. The differences in their contracts and injury history are too great to ignore. My trade proposal sucks, but:

  • To Yankees: Jose Quintana
  • To Astros: Masahiro Tanaka
  • To White Sox: Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker, Jorge Mateo

Obvious question: why wouldn’t the Astros just kick in another prospect to get Quintana instead of Tanaka? That’s the big obstacle here. A potential three-team trade might not get off the ground because the third team may decide to keep Quintana for themselves.

As far as the Yankees go, trading Tanaka would really suck, but if the team is convinced he’s going to opt-out next winter and they’re not planning to re-sign him, they have to trade him. Letting him go for a dinky draft pick would be a mistake. Quintana is every bit as good as Tanaka if not better, and he’s signed long-term. Ideally the Yankees would have Tanaka and Quintana, but, if it has to be one or the other, I’d prefer Quintana.

Matthew asks: So the Orioles are going to sign Colby Rasmus for 1 year and he’s going to lead the league in HRs, right?? Any interest from the Yankees perspective? I’ve long been enamored with his swing in Yankee Stadium.

Rasmus to the Orioles makes a lot of sense, actually. They need corner outfield help and he’d fit well in that ballpark. The Yankees don’t have much use for him though. They have a lot of young outfielders and signing Rasmus creates even more of a logjam. The Yankees are trying to trade Brett Gardner to clear space for the kids. Imagine signing Rasmus to block them further? I can’t see it.

Also, holy crap, I didn’t realize Rasmus was so bad in 2016. He hit .206/.286/.355 (75 wRC+) with 15 homers in 407 plate appearances. Eek.

Albert asks: Say the Yankees ate 32 Million dollars from Ellsbury’s contract, 8 million a year for 4 years. Wouldn’t they be able to get a solid prospect? And even if they didn’t get much of a return, wouldn’t paying the 8 million a year for the next 4 years help get them under the Luxury Tax threshold since they will be saving about 14 Million a year? Love the site, keep up the good work!

Including the $5M buyout of his $21M club option for 2021, there are four years and $89.5M left on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s contract. Eating $32M turns it into a four-year deal worth $57.5M. Would Ellsbury get that as a free agent this offseason? I don’t think so, but I suppose it’s possible in a world where Ian Desmond got five years and $70M. I feel like the Yankees would have to turn Ellsbury into a $13M a year player to drum up trade interest, which means eating nearly $10M a year.

Eating all that money would stink, but you know what? It’s probably worth it. Ellsbury’s contract is a sunk cost. The Yankees have to pay it anyway. Eating $10M a year still sheds $13M a season, which is roughly what the Yankees would save by trading away Gardner. Let’s do the math quick. Here’s the trade Gardner/keep Ellsbury scenario:

2017 2018 2019 2020
Gardner $0 $0 $0 $0
Ellsbury $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M
Total $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M

Trading Gardner and eating zero money is a dubious assumption, but I suppose it is possible. Let’s stick with that to make the math easy. Trading Gardner would clear an outfield spot for a young player and remove his $11.72M luxury tax hit. Now here’s the keep Gardner/eat $10M a year to trade Ellsbury scenario:

2017 2018 2019 2020
Gardner $11.72M $11.72M $0 $0
Ellsbury $10M $10M $10M $10M
Total $22.72M $22.72M $10M $10M

That’s better! The Yankees save more money long-term for a slight luxury tax payroll bump up front, and they’d also get to keep the homegrown Yankee. Now, the hard part: finding a team willing to take on Ellsbury at $13M a year for the next four years. I had a hard time coming up with potential landing spots for Gardner, who has two fewer years on his contract and has been the better player the last two or three years. What’s the market for Ellsbury going to look like? Nonexistent, basically.