Archive for Musings

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees were off yesterday for the third time in the last week. It’s not often that happens during the season outside of the All-Star break. For a team with an older roster and intentions of making a run at a postseason spot, a bunch of off-days bunched together in the middle of August might do them some good. Anyway, here are some miscellaneous thoughts.

1. In the last two games against the Rays this weekend, Joe Girardi went to Shawn Kelley in seventh inning fireman situations before giving the ball to Dellin Betances to start the eighth. Earlier in the season, we would have seen Betances come in to pitch out of the jam in the seventh before throwing the eighth as well. Maybe not in back-to-back games, but definitely in one of the two. Girardi has scaled back on Betances’ workload — the attempted three-inning outing against the Orioles last week was a bit of a special case because he had not pitched in five days and the Yankees were off the next day — using him for four or more outs only six times in 14 appearances since the All-Star break (17.2 innings). In his 14 appearances before the All-Star break, Betances was asked to record four or more outs ten times (19.1 innings). The plan might be to limit him to one-inning outings the rest of the season unless there are extenuating circumstances, like an upcoming off-day or a particularly long stretch of inactivity. Betances is up to 73 innings this year, the most of any full-time reliever in baseball — it’s also the most innings thrown by a Yankees reliever during the Girardi era, surpassing the 71.2 innings Joba Chamberlain threw in 2011 — and most of them have been stressful high-leverage innings. They have to be careful not to run Betances into the ground. The Yankees and Girardi are right to lighten up on him these next few weeks, and this past weekend might have been an indication of how the bullpen pieces will fall into place the rest of the way.

2. With that in mind, it was noticeable Adam Warren didn’t even warm up during the Tampa series. Kelley was the first and only guy up in those important seventh inning spots. Warren hasn’t pitched since his meltdown against the Orioles last Monday. He hasn’t been very good these last few weeks — 5.46 ERA and 4.06 FIP in 28 innings since June 1st — and maybe that outing against Baltimore was the final straw. The one that led to Girardi taking him out of important situations. That would be preferable to, say, Warren nursing an injury and not being available in general. If that is the case, that he is out of the Circle of Trust™ for the time being, it could open the door for Esmil Rogers to see some setup work whenever Kelley and/or Betances is unavailable. Rogers has pitched well during his brief stint in pinstripes and he has had success in a short relief role in the past — 3.06 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 44 appearances and 53 innings with the Indians in 2012 — which could be enough to land him some more responsibility. It’s amazing how the bullpen changes throughout the season. Every year, without fail. Kelley was the setup man, Warren the emerging relief ace, and Betances the great unknown in April. Now Betances is the shutdown relief ace, Kelley is the shaky seventh inning guy, and Warren is (temporarily?) untrustworthy. And we’re talking about Esmil Rogers pitching important innings.

3. Derek Jeter served as the DH both Saturday and Sunday and I think we’re going to see a bit more of him at DH in the coming weeks. Carlos Beltran returned to right field and Jeter has simply played a ton in the field this year. He’s started 102 of the team’s 122 games at shortstop and his recent slump — .237/.250/.322 (55 wRC+) with a 74.0% ground ball rate in August compared to .289/.340/.320 (86 wRC+) with a 60.5% ground ball rate in July — could be fatigue related. We are talking about a 40-year-old coming off a major ankle injury, remember. That doesn’t mean Jeter will be the full-time DH, but he might spend two or even three days a week there going forward. Beltran is no great shakes in the outfield, but Jacoby Ellsbury‘s range and the small Yankee Stadium right field make it easier to hide him. Especially since the Yankees (still) have a ground ball heavy pitching staff. Jeter at DH means Stephen Drew at short and Martin Prado at second, which is a tremendous double play combo defensively, as we saw over the weekend. The Yankees are not going to flat out take Jeter off short, not at this point, but giving him some more time at DH definitely improves the team. (It also gives them more time to evaluate Drew at short up close.)

Sanchez. (Star-Ledger)

Sanchez. (Star-Ledger)

4. I can’t imagine the Yankees will go through this coming offseason without trading a catcher. I don’t know who it will be, but they’ve reached the point where someone has to go. Brian McCann is locked in at the big league level and Gary Sanchez is ready to be bumped up to Triple-A Scranton. That leaves two spots (McCann’s backup, Sanchez’s caddy) for Frankie Cervelli, Austin Romine, and John Ryan Murphy. The tricky part is trading the “right” catcher, so to speak. Cervelli gets hurt all the time and Romine seems to have played his way out of the team’s long-term plans, which means they don’t have much trade value. McCann obviously isn’t going anywhere, leaving Sanchez and Murphy. I really like Murphy and think he’s on track to become a rock solid all-around catcher (not a star), so I would be hesitant to give him up, but Sanchez has a chance to become a true impact bat, something the Yankees desperately need. His defense needs work and even if he can’t catch in the long run, first base will open sooner rather than later. The club needs both pitching and offense help this winter, and unless some team is willing to give up more than expected for Cervelli or Romine, it makes the most sense to move Murphy. Teams will move mountains for young catchers who can actually catch, and potential impact bats like Sanchez are super valuable in this offense-challenged era.

5. By all accounts, the Yankees are a “major player” for Cuban free agent Rusney Castillo, who is sorting through offers and is expected to pick his new team relatively soon. They supposedly like him more as a second baseman than as an outfielder, which puts them in the minority. Either way, the Bombers have long-term openings at second and in right, so they could make it work either way. I absolutely do not think they need to go all out to sign him after missing out on other big time Cuban players like Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu — that’s the kind of logic that resulted in Kei Igawa back in the day — but I do think the Yankees should be in the business of aggressively acquiring assets, especially guys in the prime of their careers. Castillo is only 27 and the Bombers have a decided lack of prime-aged regulars. Blocking a prospect like, say, Rob Refsnyder at second or Austin in right is a non-factor in my opinion. The prospects (and Castillo!) have not proven anything, so the more options the Yankees give themselves, the more likely they are to land a bonafide Major League regular. If everyone works out and the club is left with a logjam, great! That’s not a problem. It’s an envious situation. I have no idea how good Castillo really is, but if the Yankees think he’s legit, then they should absolutely flex their financial muscles to bring him in. They went bonkers for international free agent amateurs last month. Now continue it with a more high-profile player to give the big league team more immediate help.

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(Greg Fiume/Getty)

(Greg Fiume/Getty)

The Yankees and Orioles were rained out last night and think everyone needed that. The team hasn’t had a day off in a while and it can be exhausting watching them struggle to score runs night after night. That goes for both the fans watching at home and the players watching in the dugout. Here are some scattered thoughts following the impromptu off-day.

1. I was talking about this with a friend the other day: If another team claimed Brian McCann off trade waivers this month, say the Dodgers, should the Yankees just let him go like they did Matt Thornton? That would enable them to get out from under the 4+ years and $72M or so left on his contract, but they’d also be letting him go for nothing. McCann hasn’t hit a lick this season and he’s been a huge disappointment, and it’s fair to wonder if this is just a one-year blip or a sign of things to come. He is a 30-year-old catcher with approximately 10,000 big league innings on his legs, remember. Those guys can fall off a cliff in a hurry and without warning. If this is who McCann is going forward, the Yankees would be foolish not to jump at the chance to unload his contract. Obviously this is all hypothetical since no one is claiming him. I was all for signing McCann in the offseason, he fit the team’s needs perfectly, but it hasn’t worked out at all. Figuring out why he stopped hitting — teams have been shifting against him for five years, stop blaming that — and getting back to where he needs to be has to be priority number one this offseason.

2. Speaking of Thornton, I wish the Yankees would stop putzing around with Rich Hill — retired three of nine MLB batters faced this year! — and call up either Tyler Webb or Jacob Lindgren. I understand why they let Thornton go and I’m not going to argue against dumping a soon-to-be 39-year-old lefty specialist with another ~$4.5M coming to him, but I feel like they only took a half-measure by calling up Hill instead of one of the kids. They took advantage of the situation and got an aging, relatively expensive player off the roster, paving the way for a youngster, but they called up a retread instead. Bah. I feel like Hill is such a waste of time. Both Webb and Lindgren have pitched very well in the minors this year and the team talked glowingly about them after the Thornton move. So what’s the point in waiting? We’re not talking about an everyday position player or a starting pitcher who has to learn to turn a lineup over multiple times, they’re one-inning (or even less than that) relievers who have to come in an air it out for a few batters. I don’t see the sense in waiting until rosters expand on September 1st to call one of those two guys up.

3. The 2015 third base situation fascinates me. Are the Yankees really going to run Alex Rodriguez out there everyday at age 39 with a bad hip after he played only 44 games from 2012-13? Would they re-sign Chase Headley and make A-Rod the full-time DH or even release him? Is the plan to have Martin Prado split time with Alex at third base? Something else entirely? I would love to see the Yankees bring Headley back on an Adrian Beltre-esque one-yearpillow contract, but I get the feeling he’s going to go for the biggest payday possible. I know I would. If that means he leaves the team, then I guess A-Rod with Prado as a caddy is the most likely scenario. The Yankees are going to need three infielders this offseason, though you could argue the best possible solutions at third base (A-Rod, Headley, Prado) and second base (Prado, Rob Refsnyder) are already on the team. There won’t be much out there in free agency, as usual.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

4. Speaking of free agency, here is the 2014-15 crop of free agents. It’s a thin class and I wonder if the Yankees would have interest in bringing Melky Cabrera back to play right field. Other than him, the only other free agents who even closely resemble impact hitters are Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Hanley is hurt all the time and will probably require a nine-figure deal. Sandoval could end up with Beltre money (five years, $80M) and I worry he might eat himself out of baseball once he gets a huge contract. His conditioning issues are long-running and well-documented. Melky might come with the fewest questions among the big free agents, which is really saying something given his performance-enhancing drug suspension a few years ago. Cabrera just turned 30 on Monday, he’s hit very well this season (135 wRC+ heading into last night’s game), and he’s a switch-hitter with some power and a ton of contact ability. His defense kinda stinks but he does have a strong arm, which makes him a good candidate for right field in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees know Melky and he knows them, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easier to work out a deal. It could mean in the opposite, in fact. With the caveat that I am terrible at estimating free agent contracts, my guess is he gets something like four years and $56M to $60M, or Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson money.

5. Looking over that list of free agents makes me think the Yankees really need to re-sign Brandon McCarthy. Not at any cost, obviously. He is coming off a two-year deal worth $18M, though he is both two years older and not as good as he was when he signed that contract. His price should come a bit, in theory. Given the dearth of quality pitching and general market inflation, I’m guessing that won’t be the case though. Maybe two years and $20M gets it done this time. McCarthy does have a very scary history of shoulder injuries — he hit the DL at least once with a shoulder issue (including multiple stress fractures) every year from 2007-13 — so there would be a lot of risk involved. He’s pitched very well in pinstripes though, showing he can deal with pitching in the tougher league and in a small ballpark in his limited time. The Yankees will need rotation help next year and if they can get McCarthy to come back at a reasonable price, they should be all over it. Lock him up during the exclusive negotiating period, before he even gets to free agency.

Categories : Musings
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(Norm Hall/Getty)

(Norm Hall/Getty)

I know Friday morning is usually the mailbag slot, but c’mon, yesterday was the trade deadline. It wasn’t just any ol’ trade deadline either, it was the most active and unpredictable trade deadline in a long time. Lots of big names were moved, and, somewhat surprisingly, there were a lot of big leaguer-for-big leaguer trades. Only a handful of prospects changed hands. Seems like teams are finally starting to come around on the idea of prospects being overrated. MLB players are where it’s at. Here’s a recap of all the deadline moves and here are some scattered thoughts.

1. I feel too many people view the trade deadline as binary these days, that teams should either buy or sell with nothing in between. That’s not reality though. There is always a middle ground and that’s the way the Yankees went. They made small upgrades and hugged their prospects at the same time. They acquired four no-doubt upgrades in Brandon McCarthy, Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado, and they did so at amazingly minimal cost (and got cash back!). All they gave up were two fringe big leaguers in Vidal Nuno and Yangervis Solarte, two mid-range prospects in Peter O’Brien and Rafael DePaula, and the replaceable Kelly Johnson. I mean, how do you not love that? I don’t know if those moves will be enough to put them over the hump and into the postseason, in fact I’ll so as far as saying it is unlikely they will be, but those are clear upgrades that do not damage the short or long-term health of the franchise. Those are four quality players acquired for nothing the Yankees will miss. Amazing.

2. Now, that said, it’s pretty obvious they still need some pitching. At the very least an innings eater just to, well, eat innings. Someone who can spare the bullpen that extra inning or two every fifth day. The Yankees in position to take on salary in an August waiver trade and I think they will at some point. Cliff Lee re-injured his elbow last night and that makes him a non-option — not just for the remainder of this year either, if he doesn’t pitch at all the rest of this season I don’t see how they could go after him in the winter with all that money left on his contract — but other August trade candidates are John Danks, Scott Feldman, Kevin Correia, Bartolo Colon, Chris Young, Colby Lewis, A.J. Burnett, and James Shields. (How fantastic would a Shields rental be?) I’m not saying the Yankees should go after those guys specifically, just that there should be some pitching options this month, especially as more and more clubs fall out of the race. Win or lose, postseason or no postseason, they need some arms to avoid running their valuable pitchers into the ground.

3. Here’s the upcoming free agent class. There are very few position players listed there I prefer over Prado at his fair value contract and that’s not something to be overlooked. The Yankees got out ahead of the market by extending Brett Gardner before he hit free agency — how amazing does that deal look right now? — and trading for Prado saves them from bending over to sign some meh free agent to plug a hole over the winter, whether it be an outfielder or an infielder or whatever. Free agency is not what it once was, the solution to every problem is not out there in the form of an above-average player every offseason because teams are signing all of their best players to multi-year extension. Trading for those guys is now the way to acquire talent. Prado isn’t a sexy name and frankly I don’t think he’s anything more than a league average player, but league average is valuable and it’s one less thing to worry about this winter.

4. Drew is obviously auditioning to replace Derek Jeter next season. You realize that, right? I know he’ll be playing second base these next two months, but the Yankees and everyone else knows he can play shortstop without a problem. They get to see how he handles New York, how he fits in the clubhouse, how well he can take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, stuff like that. That’s not nothing. Sometimes a player just isn’t a good fit (see: Carl Crawford and the Red Sox) and usually you don’t find that out until after he’s signed. The same applies to Headley, really. The Yankees will get to know him these next few weeks and see firsthand how well he fits the team. If they like what they see, they could look to sign him during the exclusive negotiating period and avoid a bidding war on the open market.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

5. When Spring Training opened, the candidates for the non-shortstop and non-first base infield positions were Johnson, Solarte, Brian Roberts, Eduardo Nunez, Scott Sizemore, and Dean Anna. Every single one of them is gone. Johnson (trade), Sizemore (release), and Roberts (designated for assignment) were all jettisoned yesterday, Solarte (trade) was moved a few weeks ago, Nunez (trade) was moved back in April, and Anna (waived) was dropped from the roster last month. Pretty amazing that none of them survived the season and Solarte managed to be the best of that bunch. If nothing else, Headley and Drew will be big upgrades defensively — I’m pretty confident Drew will out-defend Roberts on pure athleticism even though he’s never played second as a pro — over that Island of Misfit Infielders. Headley’s already helped with the bat and Drew might. With Roberts gone and Ichiro Suzuki glued to the bench, the Yankees have a bonafide starting caliber Major League player at every position for the first time since 2012. It really is the little things in life that make you happiest.

6. This is a minor point but one worth mentioning: the DePaula and O’Brien trades did help clear up some organizational logjams. I’m pretty sure DePaula will be Rule 5 Draft eligible this winter, so that saves the Yankees a 40-man roster spot. He would have been a borderline protect/expose candidate like Jose Campos this winter, and, as they’ve shown the last few years, the Yankees almost always protect those borderline guys and it limits roster flexibility. Trading DePaula helps that situation. Moving O’Brien also ends the daily lineup/position juggling at Double-A Trenton. Gary Sanchez can catch everyday, Tyler Austin can play first base everyday, and the trio of Mason Williams, Jake Cave, and Ben Gamel can play the outfield everyday. Plus the DH spot stays open. Thunder manager Tony Franklin had to wedge O’Brien into the lineup somewhere these last few weeks, but that’s not an issue anymore.

7. I think you can make a very strong argument the three best (healthy) starting pitchers in the AL East were traded yesterday as Jon Lester (Athletics), David Price (Tigers), and John Lackey (Cardinals) were shipped to other divisions. That’s pretty remarkable. Four of New York’s five Opening Day rotation starters are on the disabled list while the Red Sox traded four-fifths of their Opening Day rotation (Lester, Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront) in the last week or so. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, I just thought it was interesting. Two years ago this division housed top notch pitchers in Lester, Price, Shields, CC Sabathia, and Hiroki Kuroda. Now the best healthy pitcher in the division is … Alex Cobb? Chris Archer? Mark Buehrle? Marcus Stroman? Yeesh.

8. I really like Drew Smyly — I even wrote a post about the Yankees potentially trading for him back in the day — but man, that is an underwhelming return for Price. Friend of RAB and Rays fans Tommy Rancel is one of the smartest baseball dudes I know and even he agrees the return was light. Smyly’s good and Franklin should have some sort of MLB career, but that’s it. That Willy Adames kid is an 18-year-old project in Single-A. Where’s the young stud big leaguer or elite prospect? That trade was made to fill needs and not acquire the most talent possible, and acquiring the most talent is what I think you have to do when trading someone of Price’s caliber.

9. The Red Sox did fine in their trades assuming Allen Craig hasn’t permanently forgotten how to hit. I’m interested to see what happens with Yoenis Cespedes next year. They don’t get the standard six years of team control over him — his contract stipulates that he has to be non-tendered after his fourth year, and because he has to be non-tendered, they can’t make him a qualifying offer and recoup a draft pick. Will they really let him walk after next season for nothing? Or will they re-sign him into his 30s, something they’ve been hesitant to do with other players and refused to do with their homegrown ace? If not, will they be looking to trade him at the deadline next summer? That’ll be fascinating.

Categories : Musings, Trade Deadline
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(Jim Rogash/Getty)

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

I usually do these thoughts posts first thing in the morning and following an off-day, but I figure with the trade deadline looming tomorrow, I might as well run it now. Tomorrow figures to be pretty busy even if the Yankees do not make a move. There will still be lots of rumors. Here are some scattered thoughts heading into the series finale with the Rangers as well as the trade deadline.

1. I fully expect the Yankees to make a move before the deadline tomorrow and I think they’re going to end up making multiple moves, actually. One for a pitcher, one for a bat, maybe another really minor deal for additional pitching depth. As for who they’re going to wind up with … I have no idea whatsoever. John Danks and Josh Willingham are as good a guess as anyone, but the Yankees tend to keep things very close to the vest and most of their moves come out of nowhere. It would really surprise me if a) they did nothing between now and the deadline, and b) if they traded away any top prospects. The last time they traded away top prospects was when, the Curtis Granderson deal? Brian Cashman & Co. are all about buying low, expecting players to rebound, and giving up mid-range prospects. The only way a top prospect goes is if a stud like David Price comes to New York. I don’t see that happening within the next day and a half.

2. It blows my mind the Red Sox are (probably) going to trade Jon Lester rather than extend him. They made all those moves these last few years to emphasize financial and roster flexibility, and for what? Isn’t Lester exactly the kind of guy you keep forever and ever? This is different than the Yankees and Robinson Cano because the Red Sox don’t already have like four crippling long-term contracts on the books. You sign Lester long-term knowing you’re probably going to end up with the 2013 version from 2015-18 or so, not the 2014 version, but that’s fine. What’s the point if that flexibility if you’re not going to use it to keep a homegrown ace who helped you to two World Series titles and is still in his prime? The Red Sox are going to try to win next year, right? It’s much easier to win with Lester than without him. Yeah, sure, they could re-sign him after the season, but they’ve yet to make anything close to a market value-ish offer and if they haven’t done it yet, I’m not sure why you’d expect them to make one in free agency. Plus as soon as he gets traded away, the chances of re-signing him go down some amount.

3. If the Red Sox do trade Lester — it really does seem inevitable at this point, though I expected them to scratch him from today’s start anyway, he could always wind up starting Friday against the Yankees if no deal gets done — it would help the Yankees a lot. For starters, they wouldn’t have to face him anymore this season. The teams most rumored to be on him right now are NL clubs (Dodgers, Pirates, Brewers, Cardinals) and the Athletics, who the Yankees do not face again in the regular season. Of course, New York’s main competitors like the Orioles and Blue Jays won’t have to face him anymore either. Also, once Lester is traded, his new team won’t be able to make him a qualifying offer after the season, meaning the Yankees won’t have to surrender a first round pick when they inevitably sign him over the winter. Well, maybe it’s not inevitable they sign him, but it is inevitable they will be connected to him. AL East and postseason proven lefty ace? C’mon, that dude has pinstripes written all over him. Plus the Yankees seem to love their former Red Sox players. The fit is too perfect.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

4. The bullpen really seems to be getting worn out, especially Dellin Betances and Adam Warren. They’re currently on pace for 97 and 80 innings, respectively, and their effectiveness has waned in recent weeks. They haven’t been bad (last night notwithstanding), just not as good as they were earlier in the season. I know they were both starters in the past and the bulk innings total shouldn’t be a problem, but airing it out for one or two innings at a time in high-leverage situations is not at all the same as starting on a set five-day schedule with a comfortable routine. Shawn Kelley has been much better of late and he will lighten their workload just a little bit, plus I think Chase Whitley could become a factor as a one or two-inning bullpener, but the Yankees play nothing but close games these days. It’s tough to see how Betances and Warren will get some more rest in the coming weeks. Trading for relievers is always sketchy, but getting another end-game capable arm to help spread the workload around would both help this year and in the future by allowing Joe Girardi to take it easy on the young guys with an actual future with the team.

5. So I had to look it up after last night’s game: J.P. Arencibia is hitting .269/.269/.808 against the Yankees this year and .154/.209/.269 against everyone else. Seven of his 19 hits and half of his 42 total bases have come against New York. This is Delmon Young in the postseason kind of stuff. Arencibia has always hit the Yankees hard — 126 OPS+ vs. NYY compared to a career 77 OPS+, plus 12 of his 70 homers (17%) have come against the Yankees in 11.6% of his career plate appearances — and man it sucks because he’s such a bad hitter overall. The guy went from a 36 OPS+ to a 69 OPS+ just last night. Some guys just have it in for a certain team or a certain pitcher for whatever reason. It’s like Brett Gardner owning Yu Darvish. It just happens. Baseball is weird like that.

Categories : Musings
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Jun
26

Thoughts on Thursday’s off-day

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(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

The Yankees won the series finale against the Blue Jays last night and now sit only 2.5 games back of first place in the AL East. They were 4.5 games back at the start of that hugely important nine-game stretch against the Jays and Orioles, so they did make up some ground in the standings. Apparently the Yankees did not get home until early this morning because their flight out of Toronto was delayed due to bad weather, so good thing they have the day off. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts.

1. It’s pretty obvious the Yankees need help to seriously contend for a playoff spot, right? I think we can all acknowledge that. They are still right in the mix of the playoff hunt, but they need help and they need help soon. They can’t wait around for CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda to get healthy. Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have had almost half the season to get going at the plate and it’s just not happening. At some point the Yankees need to act and that time is rapidly approaching. Making a move now to boost the offense and rotation probably means having to overpay, but that’s life. The Yankees dug this hole for themselves and aren’t in a position to show patience to get the best possible value, not unless they want to hurt their chances to contend. They acted quickly to sign Jacoby Ellsbury after determining Robinson Cano wasn’t coming back and they had no problem tacking that third year onto Beltran’s contract. Trading for a pitcher now rather than at the deadline means four or five fewer starts of Vidal Nuno. Getting an infielder now means about 120 fewer plate appearances from the three-headed Brian Roberts/Yangervis Solarte/Kelly Johnson monster. Something has to happen and soon.

2. Like last season, the Yankees have remained in the postseason race improbably. They own a 40-37 record despite a -34 run differential, a run differential that suggests they should really have a 35-42 record. Last season the team managed an 85-77 record despite a -21 run differential (79-83 pythag. record). So, since the start of the 2013 season, the Yankees have won eleven more games than expected based on how many runs they’ve scored and allowed. That’s a pretty significant difference, no? Where is it coming from? Chalking it all up to good luck is lazy at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. There’s always going to be some element of luck involved in baseball, that’s just the nature of a game built around a round ball and a round bat and a big swath of grass, but there is more going on than that. Is it the strong late-inning bullpen? The veteran know-how? Joe Girardi‘s managerial skills? The magic of the pinstripes? It’s probably all of that and more, right? I don’t know the answer but there’s some reason the Yankees have a knack for winning more than they should. “They’re amazing,” said one rival exec to Jayson Stark when asked about the Yankees and their run differential recently. “It’s like they’re incapable of finishing under .500.”

3. As Joel Sherman pointed out the other day, Masahiro Tanaka is lined up to start on Sunday, July 13th, the final game before the All-Star break. Obviously a rainout(s) could throw a wrench into that. This is significant only because if Tanaka does start that game, he will not be eligible to pitch in the All-Star Game. The Collective Bargaining Agreement says anyone who starts that Sunday can’t pitch in the game. They can be named to the roster (and are then obligated to attend and be introduced on the baselines and all that), but they would be inactive and replaced by another pitcher. This happened with Sabathia a few years ago.Tanaka will surely make the All-Star roster and I am totally cool with him not pitching. I mean, it would be neat to see him out there in the game, but the big picture wins out here. I want Tanaka to get the extra rest — his velocity did drop a bit in his last start, by the way — and not waste bullets in an exhibition game. Same with Dellin Betances. I hope he gets selected for the roster but would be totally fine if he doesn’t pitch. The Yankees are going to need those two in the second half if they plan to make a run at a postseason spot.

Heathcott. (Presswire)

Heathcott. (Presswire)

4. The other day we learned outfield prospect Slade Heathcott will miss the rest of the season following yet another knee surgery. It’s his second knee surgery in the last year and third since high school. He’s also had two shoulder surgeries. Overall, Heathcott will have played in only 230 of 576 possible regular season games from 2011-14 once the season ends. It’s impossible to develop when you’re missing that much time in your early-20s. The Yankees drafted Slade in the first round of the 2009 draft, when he was a raw but very athletic and toolsy high schooler. He was going to need time and work to turn those tools into baseball skills, but he has not been able to do that because of the injuries. I mean, he has 1,349 career plate appearances. That’s a little short of three seasons worth for a guy who was drafted five years ago. Heathcott is on the 40-man roster — the Yankees protected him from the Rule 5 Draft this past winter — and I assume he’ll stay there for the time being, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled the release and re-sign trick with him (similar to David Adams and Nik Turley) if they need a 40-man spot later this summer. Heathcott will turn 24 in September and at some point it’s time to simply move on and focus on the development of  healthy players.

5. I really dig the new Homerun Derby format. Here is is, if you haven’t seen it. Long story short, there are now five players per league in the Derby, and the three who hit the most dingers in each league advance to the second round. The player with the most gets a bye to the third round while the other two go head-to-head. The winners of the third round in each league meet in the finals. There are only seven outs per player now, not ten. It should spice up the competition a bit since there is an incentive (extra rest) to hitting the most homers in the first round. Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista are the captains this year. Mark Teixeira is the only Yankee who even remotely belongs near the Homerun Derby and I don’t see Bautista picking him. Jose Abreu has disappointingly said he’s not interested, but Giancarlo Stanton said he wants in, and that’s really the only guy I’m dying to see in the event. And Adam Dunn too. How has that guy never been in a Homerun Derby? For the first time in a long time, I’m actually kinda excited to watch. Kudos to MLB for the format change.

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(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

The Yankees are back home in the Bronx following their five-win, nine-game trip west of the Mississippi. It felt a lot longer than that for whatever reason. Here are some scattered thoughts before tonight’s series opener against the Blue Jays.

1. I know it’s only June, but the Yankees are entering a crucial stretch of the schedule right now. After putzing around with the other AL divisions and interleague play for the last few weeks, they’ll play their next nine games against the Blue Jays (six games) and Orioles (three games), who have become their primary competition in the AL East. The Rays are completely out of it already and the Red Sox have quite a bit of ground to make up before being a real concern. The Yankees come into this nine-game stretch 4.5 games back of Toronto and a half-game up on Baltimore. It’s very simple: if they play well during these nine games, it’ll leave them right near the top of the division. If they don’t, they end up buried in the standings. These next three series will go a long way towards determining whether the Yankees can actually win the AL East. These head-to-head matchups are of paramount importance and even though there are still 90-something games left in the season, these games need to be treated with a sense of urgency. Kinda like playoff games.

2. Frankie Cervelli is expected to be activated off the disabled list tonight, meaning John Ryan Murphy will go back to Triple-A Scranton and play everyday. Whatever. I’d rather see Murphy stick around as Brian McCann‘s backup but it doesn’t really make much of a difference. I guess there’s a chance Murphy has already played his final game for the Yankees since the trade deadline is coming up in a few weeks, which would suck. I really like him and think he’s someone the team should keep going forward. McCann won’t be able to catch forever, Cervelli can’t stay healthy, Austin Romine is an afterthought, Gary Sanchez is being benched for disciplinary reasons in Double-A, and Peter O’Brien flat out can’t catch. Murphy is the only non-McCann guy at the upper levels the Yankees could legitimately run out there as an everyday catcher if need be. He is their top trade chip though, and the team has so many needs (infield, right field, rotation) that it’s tough to think Murphy will remain in the organization much longer. I am usually all in favor of trading prospects for MLB help, especially non-elite prospects, but he’s the one guy I think the Yankees would be wise to keep. Quality catching is too hard to find.

3. The Yankees are basically out of rotation depth at this point. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda are still weeks away and I’m not even sure who would be next in line if another starter gets hurt. I guess David Huff? Either him or Alfredo Aceves again. Neither Shane Greene nor Bruce Billings has pitched all that well in Triple-A, and Manny Banuelos isn’t stretched out enough to be an MLB option. Maybe the Yankees have reached the point where pulling Adam Warren out of the bullpen and stretching him out is their best rotation option. Shawn Kelley just returned from his back injury, so the bullpen would more easily be able to absorb the loss. The problem with converting Warren back into a starter is a) it’ll take several weeks to stretch him back out at this point, and b) how much of an upgrade would he really be over Vidal Nuno? Warren’s excelled in short relief because he can air it out and not have to worry about facing a lineup multiple times. We saw last year that being asked the turn a lineup over wasn’t necessarily the easiest thing for him. I would prefer to leave Warren in his current role and not mess around, but if push comes to shove and more rotation help is needed, isn’t he the best option right now?

(Steve Mitchell/Getty)

(Steve Mitchell/Getty)

4. Since we’re already talking about pitching depth, I want to mention the Marlins designated the slightly interesting Kevin Slowey for assignment yesterday, clearing a roster spot for top prospect Andrew Heaney. (They also designated Randy Wolf for assignment, but there’s nothing to see there.) Slowey, 30, missed a month with shoulder inflammation in 2011 and a bunch more time from 2011-12 with non-arm injuries (abdominal strain, broken rib), and over the last two years he’s pitched to a 4.45 ERA (3.79 FIP) in 129.1 innings as a swingman for Miami. You might remember him from his time with the Twins, and he’s a classic low strikeout (17.7 K%), low walk (4.8%) Twins pitcher. There’s nothing sexy about Slowey at all, but he might be better than Vidal Nuno (5.24 ERA and 4.88 FIP since moving into the rotation). If nothing else, he’s better than Huff. The Yankees could pluck him off waivers, stick him in the bullpen in a long relief role for a few weeks, and see what happens. Even if they have to send Jose Ramirez down for a few weeks to make it happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I like Ramirez as much as anyone, but his big league opportunity can wait a few more weeks if it means potentially upgrading the rotation.

5. Following the news of Tony Gwynn’s death yesterday, there were all sorts of fun information and hard-to-believe stats floating around the internet. My favorite (by far) comes from Chris Jaffe, who pointed out Gwynn has the highest batting average in two-strike counts in baseball history by 40 (!) points. Here’s the full list. Gwynn hit an absurd .302 in two-strike counts in his career. Fellow Hall of Famer and totally awesome hitter Wade Boggs is second with a .262 lifetime average in two-strike counts. Former Yankee Luis Polonia is third at .261. (Luis Polonia, huh? Alrighty.) Derek Jeter is tied for 67th all-time with a .228 average with two strikes. During Gwynn’s career, from 1988-2001, all of baseball hit a combined .187 in two-strike counts. He was 115 points better than everyone else. We’re talking thousands of plate appearances too, so this isn’t some small sample noise. Hitting .300+ in general is hard. Doing it in two-strike counts over a 20-year career blows my freaking mind.

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While the Yankees were busy shutting out the Athletics for their fourth straight win last night, another New York sports team was a couple hundred miles south in Los Angeles, playing the franchise’s most important game in two decades. The (hockey) Rangers were trying to climb out of a three games-to-none deficit in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals, winning Game Four on Wednesday to force a Game Five against the Kings on Friday.

The Rangers lost the game and thus the series last night. It all happened in the blink of an eye in double overtime too, as gut-wrenching a loss as you’ll ever see. Here’s how the season ended:

Brutal. It was over before you knew what the hell happened. Just like that, it was done.

If you’ve been reading RAB long enough you know that I’m a Rangers fan — not nearly as much as I am a Yankees fan, hockey is a distant second sport to baseball for me — so naturally I was pretty bummed out about the loss. But not nearly as much as I have been for recent Yankees postseason exits. The feelings were way different.

To make a long story short, the Rangers were clear underdogs not just in the series against the Kings, but throughout almost the entire postseason. They rallied back from a three games-to-one deficit in the second round and were not the best team in the conference. Not by a long shot, yet they rode an all-world goaltender and overcame some serious adversity to reach the Finals. It was the epitome of the “just get into the postseason and anything can happen” mentality.

So, when the Rangers lost last night, I was disappointed but not devastated. The regular season and especially the postseason run were thrilling and exciting, every step of the way. Following the Rangers as they exceeded expectations and got to within three wins of a championship as a legitimate underdog was not something I was used to seeing as a sports fan. The Yankees are never the underdog. The notion of them even being considered an underdog is silly. That’s just not who they are.

When the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, I felt like there was a sense of relief to go along with the excitement. They were supposed to win. They’re the Yankees. When they lost the ALCS in 2010 and 2012, there were no thoughts of how exciting it was to watch the team get there. All the focus was on their inability to advance further. That whole “win the World Series or the season is a failure” mantra has consumed the franchise and it’s sucked some of the joy out of winning. Not all of it, but some of it. At least that’s how I feel. You’re welcome to feel differently.

Sports are supposed to be fun, right? I watch (entirely too much) baseball because I love it and it’s fun and it’s a great escape from everyday life. There will be some devastating losses along the way, that comes with the territory, but as a Yankees fan the good has outweighed the bad over the years. The opposite is true of being a Rangers fan. There has been more bad than good over the last 15-20 years. So, even though the Rangers lost last night and it completely sucked, it didn’t diminish the ride. All the exciting moments and huge wins over the last few weeks were some of the best times in my life as a sports fan and that’s never going away.

I don’t know, I think this post is coming off as pretty dumb and I’m not sure I’m making my point. I guess I’m trying to say that watching the Rangers the last few weeks was a breath of fresh air in my life as a sports fan. It reminded me that sometimes you’re going to lose and it isn’t a complete and total failure. The memories are still there. I love the Yankees and I choose to be a fan and I fully accept the whole “win or it’s a failure” life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But seeing how the other half lives was eye-opening. If you’re not going to sit back and enjoy the ride regardless of the outcome, then what’s the point?

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

I wasn’t planning to put together a thoughts post today, but my brain wasn’t working particularly well this morning and I was having a tough time coming up with a decent topic for a post. So, instead, here are a few short nuggets that have been on my mind.

1. I was somewhat surprised the Yankees opted to send Matt Daley rather than Jose Ramirez down to Triple-A Scranton yesterday, when Shawn Kelley came off the disabled list. Ramirez has only thrown 14 total innings this season after opening the year on the shelf with an oblique injury, so I figured they would send him down to continue shaking off the rust. I like that they kept him though. Kelley, Dellin Betances, and Adam Warren will continue to handle setup duty, as they should, but the middle innings will all go to Ramirez. Kinda like how Joe Girardi used Betances early in the season, say, down two or three runs in the sixth and seventh innings. (I would say up four or five runs, but, well, you know about the offense.) That’s how Girardi has used his young relievers over the years. Cut your teeth in middle relief, and when the time is right, you’ll get high-leverage innings. Ramirez has a huge arm and he has the potential to be a real weapon in short relief. The Yankees have apparently decided now is the time to get his feet wet, with all those other quality arms in the bullpen around him.

2. You know what was great about Masahiro Tanaka‘s outing last night? He got pissed off after allowing the homer in the ninth inning. You could see it in his face and in his body language. There was definitely some anger behind his pitches to the final two batters. Just look at his velocity spike at the end of the game (via Brooks Baseball):

Tanaka Velocity 061114

Tanaka threw 110 pitches overall and he was throwing his hardest at the end of the game. He was pretty clearly pissed about losing the shutout and he wanted to end the game with authority. As awesome as he’s been on the mound getting  all those silly-looking swings and misses, the thing I love about Tanaka the most is his poise and competitiveness. We hear about players with good makeup all the time, but man, Tanaka is on another level. The guy is a stone-faced killer on the mound.

3. The Yankees clearly used last week’s draft to balance out the upcoming international free agent signings. The international class is going to add a ton of risky, high-upside prospects to the system once the signing period opens next month, though the draft class was relatively light on upside and geared more towards probability. There is no such thing as a “safe” prospect, but guys like LHP Jacob Lindgren (second round) and LHP Jordan Montgomery (fourth) are high probability guys who are good bets to reach their ceilings, barring injury. The talent comes off the board very linearly in the draft these days, the best prospects go first and everyone falls in place behind them, so there weren’t many high-upside guys left available when New York’s top pick (55th overall) came around. Grabbing a quick to MLB guy like Lindgren makes a lot of sense considering the upcoming international signings. Adding a potential impact reliever (who happens to throw left-handed) to the organization at that spot is a great way to maximize the return on that draft slot. I mean, we’re talking about the 55th overall pick. Not the 15th or even the 30th.

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(Ed Zurga/Getty)

(Ed Zurga/Getty)

The Yankees were able to get to Seattle a few hours early last night thanks to the rainout in Kansas City. I’m not gonna lie, getting a night away from the struggling offense was pretty nice. It can get mighty frustrating when you have to watch it game after game. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts a few hours before the series opener against the Mariners.

1. The Diamondbacks surprisingly designated Trevor Cahill for assignment yesterday, and I say surprisingly because there is still roughly $18M (!) left on his contract through next year. Teams are usually reluctant to eat that kind of money, but bravo to Arizona for recognizing a sunk cost and being willing to improve their team. Cahill is only 26 and he was good as recently as last year (3.99 ERA and 4.26 FIP in 146.2 innings), so someone will surely give him a job once he clears waivers and becomes available for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum. The Yankees should be looking to replace Vidal Nuno, though it’s worth noting Cahill lives and dies by the ground ball. (He had a 17.1% strikeout rate and a 57.8% ground ball rate from 2011-13.) As you’ve surely noticed, ground balls and the Yankees’ infield do not mix well. That said, he’s almost certainly better than Wade LeBlanc — Cahill had a 3.04 ERA (2.87 FIP) with 26.5% strikeout rate and a 47.5% ground ball rate in 23.2 relief innings for the D-Backs after being demoted to the bullpen a few weeks ago — and if the Bombers can convince him to come to New York, they should do it. Pitchers usually don’t come to the AL East and Yankee Stadium to rebuild value unless it’s a last resort though. (For what it’s worth, Nick Piecoro says GM Kevin Towers made it sound like Cahill agreed to go to the minors when he clears waivers.)

2. Shawn Kelley‘s second rehab game went fine last night by all accounts, so he is expected to be activated off the 15-day DL in time for tomorrow’s game. I assume either Matt Daley or Jose Ramirez will be sent to Triple-A Scranton to clear a roster spot. Doesn’t really matter either way. The important thing is that the back-end of the bullpen is getting some much needed help, so Joe Girardi will be able to take it a bit easier on Dellin Betances and Adam Warren in front of David Robertson. We’re in mid-June now and Betances and Warren are still on pace for 94 and 89 innings this season, respectively, and it seems like all that work has started to catch up to them of late. Girardi has already indicated he won’t necessarily stick Kelley in the eighth inning right away — did you realize he’s been out for a month already? time flies — which makes sense. I love Betances in his current fireman role and both Kelley and Warren seem to be at their best when they start an inning clean and only throw exactly one inning. The bullpen’s about to get a pretty big boost and it is definitely needed right now.

3. Speaking of bullpens, just about every reliever I wanted the Yankees to sign this past offseason has flopped, namely Jose Veras, Grant Balfour, and Brian Wilson. Others like Eric O’Flaherty, Joel Hanrahan, and Jesse Crain have yet to pitch this year. Boone Logan has been on the disabled list twice and Joe Nathan has completely melted down for the Tigers. Like, spectacularly. The only two free agent relievers who signed biggish contracts and have been good so far this season are Joaquin Benoit and Joe Smith. I thought the Yankees needed to sign a pretty good reliever this winter after losing Mariano Rivera to retirement, but instead Betances has stepped up to fill the void. The Yankees replaced an elite reliever with another elite reliever from within. Obviously Betances is not Mo, he’s got a long way to go before being mentioned in the same breath as Rivera, but the relief crew hasn’t missed a beat this year. It’s been pretty impressive to watch. Every year Girardi & Co. seem to unearth a new weapon.

4. You’ve probably seen it by now, but if not, Manny Machado had a little meltdown against the Athletics this weekend. Two meltdowns, really. First he got in Josh Donaldson’s face because he felt he was tagged too hard (really?), then he threw his bat at … someone on the other team. It looked like he tried to throw it at the pitcher but it wound up going towards the third baseman, who was not Donaldson at the time. Here’s the video of the tag play and here’s the video of the bat throwing. The Orioles threw up and in at Donaldson twice in the series, and the Athletics threw inside at Machado right before he threw the bat. I’m guessing Machado and Fernando Abad (who threw at Machado) will both be suspended some length of time this week. Anyway, this an unnecessarily long way of pointing out Machado is hitting .254/.288/.381 (81 wRC+) over the last calendar year. The fans at Camden Yards booed him following each one of his at-bats during last night’s 0-for-4. Boy that honeymoon sure is over, huh? Machado got lumped in with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper as part of the next wave of superstars, but he was always a notch below those two because of his general lack of plate discipline. Now the kid is throwing fits because he didn’t like the way he was tagged. Maybe it’s time for a little wake up call stint in the minors? Don’t get me wrong, I’d take Machado on the Yankees in a heartbeat, but he’s part of the problem right now for Baltimore, not part of the solution.

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(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

The Yankees are off today following their nine-game road trip, and starting tomorrow they play 17 games in 17 days in three different time zones. On the bright side, they don’t have to travel back to the West Coast after that, and only two more times this season do they even have to go to the Central Time Zone. The team’s travel after this upcoming stretch as is easy as it gets. Here are some random thoughts on the off-day.

1. This weekend’s series against the Twins marks the end of what is probably the softest stretch of schedule for the 2014 Yankees in terms of the quality of their opponents: 19 straight games against the Mets, Pirates, Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals, and Twins. Only the Cardinals aren’t awful. The Yankees have won nine of the first 16 games during that stretch, with the last three against Minnesota still pending. That’s pretty damn good, but I can’t help but feel greedy and wish they could have stolen one or two more. That Adam Dunn walk-off homer game really stings. With the Rays and Red Sox falling behind the rest of the AL East a bit — Tampa is literally one game better than the Astros right now — the division race has opened up a little bit. The Yankees play the Blue Jays and Orioles a combined nine times next month and those games are the most important ones right now. Games against Boston and Tampa aren’t as crucial as they have been the last few years. (They’re obviously still important. You know what I mean.) This isn’t the AL East race we’re used to seeing.

2. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this at some point before, I but I can’t remember the last time the Yankees had a reliever like Dellin Betances. That overwhelmingly dominant flamethrower. Joba Chamberlain was excellent following his call-up in 2007, but even he did not have the kind of strikeout stuff as Betances — Joba had a 37.4 K% in 24 innings in 2007 while Betances is at 44.7 K% in 30.2 innings in this year. (Bet you didn’t realize David Robertson has a 41.5 K% strikeout rate this year, did you?) Mariano Rivera was outstanding in 1996 as John Wetteland’s setup man, but Mo’s dominance was always more surgical than overpowering. You know what I mean, right? Betances just comes out of the bullpen pumping 97+ with a knee-buckling breaking ball that hitters don’t even bother to swing at. They just bail on the pitch and it goes for a called strike. It’s amazing and so much fun to watch. Betances spent a very long time in the minors fighting control problems and battling injuries, and the decision to move him into the bullpen last year was basically a last resort. A desperate attempt by the team to get something out of him. The move into a relief role has worked out to the best case scenario and it saved his career.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

3. Obviously the late-1990s Yankees were excellent for many reasons, one of them being their strength up the middle. Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams were among the best players at their positions, Jorge Posada was just starting to get the majority of the playing time behind the plate, and Chuck Knoblauch was very good until things started to fall apart in 2001. They were getting top notch production from the four most important non-pitcher positions on the field. That is not the case this year though. The Yankees have gotten a combined .266/.331/.379 batting line from their catchers, second basemen, shortstops, and center fielders this year, which is right in line with the .254/.323/.397 league average. Average isn’t bad! It is less than you would like to see though. The Yankees should be getting more production from those positions — neither Jacoby Ellsbury nor Brian McCann were hitting much prior to their big games last night (McCann was playing first, remember) — but it has not been there just about a third of the way through the season. Ellsbury and McCann are not going anywhere, but as the Yankees usher out of the Jeter era this winter, improving both middle infield spots should be a top priority. Along with having good pitching (duh), getting big production from those up the middle spots is one of the most surefire ways to contend. Just look at the World Series teams of the last, I don’t know, 25 years or so. All strong up the middle.

4. So, with that in mind, man how perfect would Chase Utley look in pinstripes? Someone asked about him in a mailbag a few weeks ago and I haven’t been able to shake the thought of trading for him since. It’s not going to happen for several reasons — his ten-and-five no-trade protection first of all, plus the Phillies would have to be willing to sell and trade their best and most popular player — but the fit is too perfect. Left-handed power and patience, no real platoon concerns, good defense at second base, big market and postseason experience, short-term contract … he’s perfect. The only negative is Utley’s injury history, particularly his knee problems, but 100 games of him and 62 games of a replacement level player is still one of the best second baseman in baseball. The Phillies are pretty bad and they’re only sinking further in the standings, especially with Cliff Lee hurt. Maybe that will push ownership to demand a rebuild. In the unlikely event it happens, the Yankees should be on the phone about Utley immediately. He’s exactly what they need on both sides of the ball.

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