Assorted Baseball Thoughts

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Hey, baseball! You’re unofficially back and that’s all sorts of awesome. It’s still a while before things really count, but it’s nice to have the game back in our lives on a daily basis, even if it’s just in the form of players doing workouts or taking batting practice or throwing bullpens. Dinner, so to speak, is finally on the stove and we’re beginning to smell it as its scent wafts up to us, enticing us to walk down into the kitchen (even if it won’t really open until April). So, in celebration of the season, here are some assorted thoughts about baseball goings on and whatnot.

How about that Aaron Judge homer? Or Gleyber Torres knocking two doubles and scoring from second (!) on a wild pitch? Or Clint Frazier going oppo on a triple? In the long run, these things mean absolutely nothing. I know it; you know it; the players themselves (probably) know it. But, regardless, it’s nice to see. Spring Training already gives us that nebulously fuzzy feeling of optimism and that only gets heightened when prospects and young players perform well.

While on the topic of young players, whom do you guys think is more likely to start the year in AAA: Judge or Greg Bird? There are cases for both players needing more work. Judge still swings and misses a lot and Bird will need to find his power stroke after missing an entire year; it’s plan to see why those two things could/should be worked out in Scranton rather than the Bronx. Both have nominally capable “replacements” in Aaron Hicks and Chris Carter, though Carter is much more a sure thing than Hicks at this point. I don’t think either of them ends up in AAA to start the year, though, and despite arguments for it, in a year in which the Yankees are transitioning, it’s okay to see some growing pains at the highest level.

The World Baseball Classic is back this year and it’s still something that I like but don’t love at this point. I get why it exists and I think the commissioner and his office genuinely do want to grow the game internationally–as they well should from a business point of view–but the whole thing still feels a bit stilted and awkward and I can’t place why. As a fan of soccer, I enjoy tournaments that the WBC tries to mimic–the World Cup, the European/Copa America tournaments, the Champions League, the FA Cup, etc.–but I just can’t fully buy into the WBC. I think I’d like it a lot more if it were styled after the Champions League with club teams rather than international teams. The only problem there is lack of competition. Only teams from the US, Japan, Cuba, and Korea would really be able to hack it in such a tournament, as teams from the other leagues in the world aren’t anywhere near good enough to hang with the best of the best from those leagues. I suppose, then, that there really isn’t much to do about changing it. Eventually–when no Yankees play in the damn thing–I’ll learn to love it.

Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)
Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)

Speaking of changes, MLB is doing away with the intentional walk process and I feel very…ambivalent about it. I don’t necessarily like it, but I don’t feel nearly strong enough about it to make a stink. At the end of the day, it’s a fairly meaningless change that won’t do much to take away from the game and won’t do much to improve it. It’s a fairly transparent move, in fact, so MLB can say ‘Look! See? We’re making changes!’ without having to do anything radical or spend any money. Regardless of my personal feelings, pace of play is a concern of MLB’s and they’re going to do what they can to speed up play, though I’m not sure how much it’ll help. Will casual fans become die hards or will new fans be born because games go from three hours to two hour and forty five minutes? Eh.

To grow the game, MLB needs to think outside just the field of play. I love baseball not just because it was introduced to me by my family, but because I played it growing up. For many kids in this country–especially kids of color and those in urban environments–the cost of playing baseball is prohibitive. Pumping money into youth leagues of all shapes and sizes–even subsidizing some of them–is one way for MLB to grow both with young people and people of color, demographics the sport has lacked recently.

Additionally, MLB needs to tap into why young people like certain sports. Over the last five years or so, I’ve taught every grade from 7-12 (though only as a day sub for 8th grade) and kids like players more than they like teams. I was the same way when I was younger–I had basketball and football jerseys from a dozen different teams and kids today are no different. They talk about players and stars more than they talk about teams. MLB hasn’t done the greatest job of promoting its new crop of stars and that’s going to hurt them as they compete against star-driven leagues like the NBA and the NFL. Allow player personalities to shine on the field and give them exposure off the field. It’s 2017; act like it, MLB.

Thoughts prior to the first Grapefruit League game

Spring Training is weird. (Presswire)
Spring Training is weird. (Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees return to action with their first Grapefruit League game of the spring. Hooray for that. The game will air on both YES and MLB.tv. Prepare for all the small sample size analysis you can handle, even though we all know better. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this, the final day without baseball until November.

1. The best part of Spring Training games is the prospects, hands down. We’ll watch the veterans all summer. Spring Training will be our only chance to see most of the kids this year. Gleyber Torres figures to get some starts at shortstop when Didi Gregorius is away at the World Baseball Classic, and that’ll be cool. Jorge Mateo will run around center field and both James Kaprielian and Justus Sheffield will throw a few innings each as well. I’m most interested in seeing Clint Frazier, Chance Adams, and Jordan Montgomery, personally. Frazier in particular. Those three all have a chance to help the Yankees during the regular season — at least moreso than Torres, Mateo, Kaprielian, and Sheffield — and I haven’t seen much of them previously. Frazier has the talent to be an impact hitter, and while neither Adams nor Montgomery will be an ace, they can be useful big league starters, and gosh do the Yankees need some of those. I’m looking forward to getting some eyes on the near MLB ready kids.

2. The fourth and fifth starter competition officially begins tomorrow — Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren, Luis Severino, Chad Green, and Luis Cessa are starting the first five Grapefruit League games in that order — and my official prediction is Severino and Cessa get the two rotation spots. Warren and Mitchell go to the bullpen and Green winds up in Triple-A. I’ll be pretty surprised if Severino doesn’t get a rotation spot, to be honest. He seems to have a leg up on everyone else simply because he’s the youngest and offers the most long-term upside. Severino becoming a capable big league starter would be a wonderful thing for the Yankees, and I’m guessing they’ll give him every opportunity to make it happen. Using Spring Training to settle position battles is sorta silly, though in this case I don’t think it’s a big deal. The rotation candidates all have MLB experience and odds are they’re all going to get a chance to start games this summer anyway. Whoever wins the rotation spots on Opening Day won’t automatically get to keep them all season.

3. A few weeks ago I mentioned the Yankees will face a severe 40-man roster crunch after the season, big enough that they have to consider trading some prospects just to avoid losing them for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft. The dream scenario is packaging three or four prospects together and trading them for one quality player, though that doesn’t happen often. There aren’t too many teams willing to take on three fringe players and commit 40-man roster spots like that. What about trading a prospect for a draft pick though? The 14 Competitive Balance picks are tradeable, you know. (Only during the regular season for whatever reason.) In my top 30 prospects post I mentioned Dustin Fowler as a possible trade candidate given the team’s outfield situation. Would you trade Fowler to, say, the center field needy Athletics for their Competitive Balance pick, the 33rd overall selection? That slot comes with nearly $2M worth of bonus pool money. It sounds like a neat idea, but you know what? I’d rather have Fowler, a two-way center fielder not far away from the big leagues, than the 33rd overall pick. This is just an idea I was kicking around. Dealing prospects for draft picks, rather than an actual player, to help clear up the 40-man logjam.

4. I have a weird feeling Carter Capps will be a Yankee at some point this season. They tried to get him from the Marlins at the trade deadline two years ago, presumably as a potential alternative to their proposed Mateo-for-Craig Kimbrel trade with the Padres. Capps is with the Padres now. He blew out his elbow last spring and had Tommy John surgery, then was traded to San Diego as part of the Andrew Cashner deal. The hard-tanking Padres bought low and are looking to get value out of him now, and it stands to reason Capps will be on the trade block at some point. Capps, in case you’ve forgotten, is the guy with the ridiculous yet somehow legal hop-step delivery:

Between his call-up and a late-season elbow injury in 2015, the 26-year-old Capps had a 1.16 ERA (1.10 FIP) with a 49.2% strikeout rate and a 5.9% walk rate in 31 innings. Fifty-eight strikeouts in 31 innings! Crazy. Capps averaged 98.9 mph with his fastball that year, and Perceived Velocity, a Statcast metric that adjusts for the pitcher’s extension, says his fastball played like 101.5 mph. That hop effectively adds 2.6 mph to his fastball because he’s releasing the ball closer to the plate and giving the hitter that much less time to react. The cost to get Capps — he’d be a good candidate for the “bundle a few prospects together to get one player” idea given San Diego’s deep rebuild, no? — shouldn’t be as high as it was in 2015 because he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and is closer to free agency (he’ll be eligible after 2018). The Padres have ripped their roster apart and healthy Capps is one of their few remaining tradeable pieces. The Yankees had interest in him in 2015. I dunno, just feels like something will come together at some point.

5. Nothing has been officially announced, though earlier this week reports said MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to make intentional walks automatic this season. Rather than making the pitcher throw four wide ones, the manager gives a signal from the dugout and the batter goes straight to first. First of all, if the signal isn’t holding up a rubber chicken, then GTFO. Secondly, I don’t love the rule change, but it’s not the end of the world. Intentional walks are a competitive play and I feel the pitcher and catcher should have to execute. At the same time, intentional walks happen so infrequently — one every 46 innings in 2016! — that we’ll barely even notice. Also, the distribution of intentional walks is highly concentrated. Nearly 20% of all intentional walks last year were issued to the No. 8 hitter in the National League, the guy hitting in front of the pitcher. I wonder if we’ll see a slight uptick in the number of intentional walks this year because giving the signal is so much quicker than throwing the pitches. General rule of thumb: the easier something is, the more people will do it. More intentional walks means more baserunners, and that will inevitably lead to more runs. Could be cool.

6. Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters earlier this week MLB may unilaterally implement rule changes next season, specifically with regards to pace of play (i.e. a pitch clock) and the size of the strike zone, which is apparently something they’re allowed to do per the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Manfred complained the MLBPA keeps rejecting proposals. Unilaterally implementing rule changes won’t sit well with the players, and the last thing anyone wants is bad blood in labor relations. That said, MLBPA gave a ton of concessions with the current CBA — they’re fighting harder to protect pace of play than the bonuses of amateur players! — and they backed themselves into this corner. MLBPA chief Tony Clark is a really smart and nice guy from what I understand, but the union could really benefit from having an actual labor professional in charge. The union keeps giving concessions rather than pushing for a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Instead of trying to fix the revenue distribution problem, MLBPA essentially agreed to a salary cap. The new luxury tax penalties are so harsh that no team will exceed them. Not a great couple weeks and months for the union.

The Dellin Betances fiasco may lead to the arbitration system finally getting an update

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the weekend the Yankees beat Dellin Betances in arbitration and will pay him $3M this season instead of the $5M he was seeking. That $3M represents a record salary for a setup man in his first year of arbitration. No other setup man received even $2M as far as I can tell. That $5M Betances and his camp were requested is closer money.

The arbitration system, which has been around since 1974, is pretty old-fashioned. From what I understand there are a list of approved statistics each side can use to state their case, and for relievers like Betances, there is no more valuable stat than saves. Dellin has spent the first three years of his career as an incredibly valuable multi-inning setup man, which is why he went to arbitration with only 22 saves. That cost him.

Bullpen usage is changing around baseball and has been for a few years now. Starters are throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, putting that much more emphasis on the bullpen. High-end relievers like Betances are in very high demand, which is why the Yankees were able to get such great prospect packages for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller at the deadline last year. Great relievers are more valuable than ever.

Following the arbitration ruling Saturday, Yankees president Randy Levine called a wholly unnecessary conference call to rip Betances and his agent Jim Murray. It was pretty ridiculous, though I’ve said all I have to say about that. What Levine did do — aside from upset Betances, of course — is draw attention to the outdated absurdity of the arbitration system as it pertains to relievers. Ken Rosenthal put it best:

Saves? Really? Somewhere in the baseball universe there is a place where saves are still viewed as a primary measure of a reliever’s performance? A place, no less, where it is determined how a reliever gets paid?

The Betances arbitration ruling, which likely would have blown over and been a one-day story had Levine not opened his mouth, is the kind of high-profile case that could spur the MLBPA into action. They could seek an update to the arbitration rules, making them more fair to relievers given their increased importance. After all, in real world value, Betances is a heck of a lot closer to a $5M a year reliever than a $3M a year reliever. (He’s more like a $17M a year reliever, but I digress.)

There are two issues with updating the arbitration system. For starters, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement just took effect, which means we’re still five years away from MLB and MLBPA being able to rewrite the rules. This isn’t something that can happen right away. Arbitration is collectively bargained and the owners have no reason to open the new CBA and change arbitration mid-term. Any changes will have to wait.

Secondly, how do you go about properly valuing relievers in arbitration? Looking at WAR is only slightly better than looking at saves in my opinion, mostly because I think WAR undervalues relievers in general, and especially high-leverage monsters like Betances. Here are three stats I’d like to see incorporated into arbitration for relievers:

  1. Leverage Index: Leverage Index tells us how important the situation is based on game state. Entering the eighth inning with a one-run lead and a man on second with no outs is a heck of a lot different than starting the eighth with a four-run lead, even though it’s still the eighth inning. Here is the 2016 Leverage Index leaderboard.
  2. Strikeout Rate: Pretty straight forward. The single best thing a pitcher can do is strike the hitter out, because it takes the defense right out of the equation. When you’re pitching in the late innings, not letting the other team put the ball in play is a pretty great recipe for success.
  3. Inherited Runners Stranded: This is a tricky one because the closers who start the ninth inning with a clean slate don’t inherit many runners. Middle relievers and setup men usually get the call in the middle of an inning. Clearly though, stranding inherited runners is important.

I’m not sure how you can best evaluate relievers in arbitration. I do know saves, a terrible stat that influences managerial decisions (!), isn’t the best way to go. Betances is clearly one of the best relievers in baseball and he should be compensated like one, which means closer money. The same way Miller was paid like a top reliever when he hit free agency with one career save.

The Betances-Levine stuff never should have happened Saturday. The arbitration process causes enough grief as it is. Levine piled on top of it and created more bad blood. If there’s anything good that can come out of it — good for the players, that is, not teams — it’s that maybe it created such a stir that the union will push to change how relievers are judged through arbitration. It’s a little too late for Betances to benefit from any changes, though at least this entire mess won’t go for naught.

Think About the Future

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

One of the few movies from my childhood that still holds up is Tim Burton’s “Batman” from the late eighties. For whatever reason, a line that stuck out to me was one from Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier (not yet the Joker) near the end of the film’s first act. Just before becoming the Joker, he yells to a corrupt cop, “Hey, Eckhardt, think about the future!” before shooting him. The Yankees have done a pretty good job thinking about the future. They’ve shown restraint with long-term contracts (the Aroldis Chapman deal notwithstanding) and, last season, committed to the future by trading away Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran to help revitalize the farm. They also gave significant playing time to Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, and look poised to do the same this year with those guys, and some pitchers (Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, etc.). Then this happened and I’m tempted to yell to Randy Levine, “Hey, Randy! Think about the future!” (Please note that I do not want to shoot–nor do I want you to shoot–Randy Levine)

That the Yankees beat Dellin Betances at an arbitration hearing is nothing too special. Though the Yankees have rarely gone to arbitration, this thing is standard operating procedure for the rest of baseball. It’s frustrating that a team as rich as the Yankees was petty with one of their best and most popular players over two million dollars, especially considering just how rarely the Yankees hand out pre-arb/pre-FA contracts, but that’s the business. That the team president, though, essentially took a victory lap to dunk on Betances and his agent is appalling. The arbitration process itself is awkwardly acrimonious and contentious enough without an executive and agent airing the hearing’s dirty laundry for the fans to see and for the player to relive.

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

Maybe the Yankees aren’t used to this sort of thing. After all, it’d been a long time since they’d been to an arbitration hearing and they haven’t had a lot of young players worth fighting over. They were smart enough to lock up Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano to contracts as to avoid this ugly process, but what Levine said gives me great concern going forward.

For the first time in a while, the Yankees are going to have a glut of young players and they’ll all be reaching arbitration around the same time. I don’t want to read minds, but it’s hard to imagine that guys like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luis Severino, and Aaron Judge have comfortable feelings about the arbitration process and their bosses after Levine’s outburst yesterday. And, frankly, that’s the best case scenario. The worst case–from the player’s point of view–is that it’ll scare them into not going to arbitration and just take whatever the Yankees offer. After all, who’d want to be wrongly blamed for slagging ticket sales and missing the playoffs? Maybe, Randy, just maybe, ticket sales are down because the prices are too high and the team is in transition. Maybe, Randy, just maybe, the team hasn’t made the playoffs much recently because of design.

The organization has more or less gotten it right with their plan to rebuild and look forward. However, comments like the ones Levine made yesterday are harmful. While they may not do much in terms of dissuading free agents to come play for the Yankees, there’s still an insidiousness to them. They affect the players who have the least leverage in the game–not counting minor leaguers–whom the Yankees can “exploit” for cheap before not signing them to big contracts. In a year plus that has seen Lonn Trost bash non-rich fans (exactly a year ago yesterday!), Brian Cashman exploit domestic violence for a cheap trade, and Hal Steinbrenner downplay fan concerns about said domestic violence, this is just the cherry on top of a very unappetizing sundae. The past is the past, and that’s where these comments should stay, but, please, Yankee front office, think about the future.

Randy Levine rips Betances after arbitration hearing, says he “doesn’t have the stats” to ask for $5M

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

Earlier today it was announced the Yankees have beaten Dellin Betances in their arbitration case. The three-person panel sided with the team following yesterday’s hearing, which means Betances will earn $3M next year, not the $5M he was seeking. That $3M is a record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible setup man.

Because beating Betances in arbitration apparently wasn’t enough, team president Randy Levine jumped on a conference call Saturday and ripped Betances and his agent Jim Murray for what he considered an unrealistic salary request. A few of the highlights:





Murray told Joel Sherman that Levine didn’t even pronounce Betances’ name correctly during the arbitration hearing, calling him Dylan instead of Dellin. “The Yankees hid behind the system. It is really unfortunate,” said Murray to Sherman.

First things first: the Yankees were not wrong to take Betances to an arbitration hearing. They felt he was worth one number, he felt he was worth another, and arbitration is a collective bargained part of the process. It’s not the team’s fault the arbitration system is archaic and overvalues saves.

Arbitration is an unfortunate part of the game, but it is part of the game. There’s a reason the two sides usually try like hell to avoid it. What is not part of the game, however, is holding a conference call to trash one of your best and most beloved players. That’s total garbage. Betances never once has complained about his role and his heavy workload, and he does a ton of stuff with the team in the community. The guy has been a model employee.

Beating Betances in arbitration should have been enough. Once that happened, the Yankees should have moved forward and worked to repair their relation with Dellin. Instead, Levine went out of his way to kick dirt on Betances and minimize his accomplishments. I’m sure all the young players the team is trying to develop noticed that. The Yankees couldn’t just win and be happy with it.

Then again, I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything different from an organization in which the COO says poor people shouldn’t sit in expensive seats and the owner says we should all just forget about Aroldis Chapman’s history. What a joke.

Tyler Wade, Top 101 Prospect

(Beverly Schaefer | The Trenton Times)
(Beverly Schaefer | The Trenton Times)

On Monday morning, Baseball Prospectus released their annual Top 101 Prospects list. It was a particularly exciting list for Yankees fans, as nine of the team’s prospects made the cut – more than any other team in baseball. That was not necessarily unexpected, given that Keith Law and Baseball America placed six and seven Yankees, respectively, on their top-hundreds, and noted that a few more just missed the cut. What was surprising, however, was the name sitting at number 101 on BP’s list: Tyler Wade.

The last time we saw Wade, he was slashing .241/.391/.278 with 10 steals in 18 games (69 PA) in the Arizona Fall League. He did so while learning a new position – or three, depending upon your point of view – as he played all three outfield positions for the Scottsdale Scorpions. And, by all accounts, he took to the outfield grass quite well, demonstrating range and the ability to track the ball off of the bat.

As a result of this, few doubt Wade’s ability to serve as a true super-utility player at the highest level. While there are undoubtedly some kinks to work out, his transition to the outfield went as well as anyone could have expected, and his ability to play solid defense at second base and shortstop has never been in question (though his arm does limit his ability to make the tougher throws at short). There’s a great deal of value in a player that can provide more than adequate defense in the infield and the outfield, and Wade stands to do so – and up the middle, at that.

Offensively, the best description of Wade’s game that I’ve read comes from Mike’s 2017 Preseason Top 30 Prospects list: “It’s almost like a mini-Brett Gardner offensive skill set, minus the high-end speed — Wade is a good runner but not a truly great one — and before Gardner started socking double-digit dingers a few years back.”

Wade spent the entirety of the 2016 season at Double-A as a 21-year-old, where he hit .259/.352/.349 (101 wRC+) with 5 HR, 27 SB (8 CS), 11.3% walks, and 17.7% strikeouts. That’s essentially his career norm, as he’s a career .267/.350/.344 hitter with 10.4% walks and 18.7% strikeouts in 1907 minor league plate appearances, averaging 3 HR and 32 SB per 650 PA. It’s kind of uncanny, isn’t it?

His lack of power is noteworthy, and it stems from both his build and his approach. The most generous scouting reports will throw a 35 to 40 on his raw power (on the 20-80 scale, with 50 being average), and there’s no real uppercut to his swing. He’s something of a slap-and-dash hitter, as well, and MLBfarm reveals that 50.92% of his batted balls were of the groundball variety. The combination of well below-average power and hitting the ball on the ground puts a very real cap on his actualized power potential.

Despite his modest offensive potential, the BP staff has been a fan of Wade for quite some time. They referred to him as “the perfect utility player” last April, and named his as a candidate for the 2017 Top 101 a couple of months later. In the second piece, Elvis Andrus with less defense was mentioned as a comp, and it was said that “Wade offers high upside combined with a high floor.”

And, lo and behold, Wade made the BP Top 101 just seven months later.

The question here is twofold, though – should we have expected this, and is it deserved?

The answer to the former is somewhat straightforward, as BP all but choreographed it over the last ten months or so. In addition to the aforementioned articles, they slapped Wade with an overall future potential of 55 as a starter at second or in center their Yankees Top 10 Prospects list, which would essentially make him a solid average to slightly above-average regular. They key word there is ‘starter,’ which brings visions of Ben Zobrist, Steve Pearce, and Sean Rodriguez playing everyday at different positions. They note that scouts rave about “his energy, playing style, and instincts,” and the value of a competent offensive contributor with strong defense at two up the middle positions is undoubtedly fairly high.

The second question is far trickier to answer. I am inclined to chalk it up to personal preference, noting that each list is different and every scout has a player that they like or dislike more than others. Additionally, we don’t know how close he was to making the lists of Baseball America or Keith Law. However, we do know that John Sickels did not include Wade in his Top 200 prospects, though ten other Yankees do.

And should we take anything away from the team’s handling of Wade? That is, shifting him between positions and leaving him at Double-A for the entirety of the season? The answer is almost certainly no, given that almost every Yankees shortstop prospect has played elsewhere – and that includes Gleyber Torres, even if it was only for one game. It does seem that the team views him as a utility player, as Brian Cashman routinely praises him for his versatility and athleticism, and notes how well he handled his outfield learning curve. As has been said before, though, that could me a great deal of nothing – after all, Cashman’s not going to call him the second baseman, shortstop, or center-fielder of the future.

Inevitably, this is most noteworthy for the discussion that it brings. Is the ranking justified? If so, what are we missing? If not, what is BP missing (or exaggerating)? Or are we as fans simply putting too much stock in lists of this nature? Regardless, we will probably see Wade in the Majors at some point this season, and he’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster after the season – so we should find out something sooner rather than later.

Three pitchers and a contract year

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

The Yankees’ 2017 rotation is on the precipice of change.

The main reason anyone would state that is due to the rebuild/transition and the newfound reliance on young arms. The Yankees will be handing as many as two spots in the 2017 rotation to younger pitchers like Luis Severino or Chad Green, and there are some strong pitching prospects on the way in 2018 and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest potential change will be with the three veteran starters. In an intriguing twist, all three — Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia — are in contract seasons of one form or another. However, each faces a different kind of contract year as each step into a crucial season which could decide the next stage of their careers.

The Opt-out

When the Yankees signed Tanaka in 2014, the opt-out at the end of the 2017 season was a long way away. Now, as has been discussed, it will be a major storyline for this entire season.

How could it not be? Tanaka has been undoubtedly the Yankees’ best starter for the last three seasons and will presumably be that again this year. He has established himself as one of the best starters in the American League and just had his most impressive season in terms of combined performance and health. Sure, he may give up one too many home runs every once in a while, but he is a force on the mound and we now know he can get through 200 innings (or 199 2/3 innings, but who’s counting?). The photo above is of him fielding because he’s a strong fielder, a smaller but important aspect of his game.

Tanaka will be 28 years old for the entire 2017 season and turns 29 on Nov. 1, just in time for free agency. For a pitcher in his prime, that is just about the perfect time to hit the market, particularly one that has so few solid starters making it there. Here’s the issue: His elbow could tear at any moment. He has made it through the last two seasons just fine, but it’s a concern for every Yankees fan that Tanaka’s elbow is too fragile to be worth another long-term commitment.

If Tanaka uses his opt-out, he would have to undergo a physical with any team he signs with and that would include a peek at his ole UCL to see whether it is holding up. Is that worth the risk for him? Probably. Most pitchers have some wear and tear with the ligament and it’s not likely to be that much different. He’ll still get a long-term commitment from someone, quite possibly the Yankees, if he stays healthy in 2017, a big if for a pitcher with a partial UCL tear.

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

One more year?

Believe it or not, Sabathia is about to begin his ninth season with the Yankees and his next win will make it so he has more wins with the Yanks than he did with Indians. We are now five seasons removed from his last All-Star appearance and it’s pretty clear the CC of old is not the CC of now. The 36-year-old lefty with eight 200-inning seasons doesn’t seem all that likely to post another one.

The good news is that he’s coming off his best season since that All-Star season in 2012. Shocking to many, he was actually an above-average pitcher for 180 innings in 2017, taking a page out of the Andy Pettitte book of aging gracefully. Using a cutter like his former teammate, Sabathia has regained the ability to get righties out at a decent enough clip after a few years of the platoon advantage destroying him. He’s actually effective and can get through six innings against the toughest of lineups in the AL East.

Similar to Pettitte, Sabathia is on the downside of his career and could be done at any moment. Guys don’t usually go out on top and some just fall apart without a moment’s notice. He’s going year-to-year and whether there is a spot in the rotation for him depends on his ability to keep up his 2016 numbers and hold off the prospects for another year. If CC can provide another year of 30 starts and an ERA around 4.00, he’d be worth another one-year deal, right? He’d have to settle for well less than his current $25 million salary, but that’s to be expected.

Sabathia was raised on the west coast, so perhaps he’d be inclined to go back to the opposite coast in free agency, but he’s lived in the New York area for nearly a decade now and seems to enjoy to his current digs. Another solid season and it’s not hard to see him in pinstripes for his age-37 season as well.

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

The question mark

OK, so what do we expect out of Pineda in 2017? It’s really tough to pin down exactly what the 6-foot-7 righty can provide in his fourth season with the Yankees. Last year, he was the third best out of these three veterans (is it fair to call Pineda a vet now?) with a 4.82 ERA, but his 3.79 FIP was quite solid. In fact, it was his second straight season lagging well behind his FIP (4.37 ERA, 3.34 FIP in 2015).

Basically, Pineda is a sabermetric nightmare. The guy who strikes out opponents at an extremely high clip (best K per 9 in the American League last year) and doesn’t walk many is exactly what teams desire in their starters and what has led to his low FIP. Yet Pineda can’t seem to turn his sterling peripherals into, you know, actual performance. He’ll have games like this one or this one where he puts everything together and is the ace many thought he could be back in 2012. Or he’ll give up hit after hit with shaky command and be pulled five runs into a loss.

It’s not like he doesn’t have the stuff. His fastball-slider combo can be downright unhittable when he’s going. 16 strikeouts unhittable. And his peripherals will have many believing he can turn around his high BABIP numbers and become elite like he was for eight starts in 2014. That turnaround might have to come in another uniform if he can’t pull it off this season.

If the Yankees sell this season – an unlikely possibility with the Steinbrenners not wanting to do so in back-to-back years – Pineda could be nice chip for the Yankees and fetch a couple prospects, even if they’re at a lower level as with the Ivan Nova trade. The most likely scenario is that Pineda is in the Yankees’ rotation all season, for worse or for better.

So what does his future look like? Like Tanaka, he’ll be 28 for the entire 2017 campaign before turning 29 next offseason. Unlike his righty counterpart, he’s looking for his first long-term contract. He’ll earn $7.4 million and will have made over $15 million in his career through the end of this season. However, he certainly will be searching for a long-term deal. He’ll be one of the better pitchers hitting the market, particularly for a team thinking they can turn his strikeout-walk ratio into gold. If he pitches similarly to his 2015-16, he’ll still likely be in line for at least a 3-year, $30 million deal on his lowest end. The pitching market is a seller’s market.

One way or another, this will likely be the last time we see Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia headline a Yankees rotation. That’s not to say it can’t happen in 2018, but a lot of things would have to break right. Sabathia could be staring down the last season of his career. Tanaka could be heading for greener pastures or for a surgeon’s table. And how do you solve a problem like Pineda?

Last season became the final year of the old guard among the hitters with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann, among others, playing their final games as Yankees. I don’t think there will be an overhaul quite like that in the rotation, but as with the stable of prospects on their way from Scranton, it’ll be fascinating to watch how the veterans perform with all eyes on them.