Archive for Musings
Exactly one week from today, the Yankees will open the 2014 regular season against the Astros in Houston. Between that series and the second series against the Blue Jays in Toronto, the scheduling gods did the Yankees a favor. They’ll have the opportunity to beat up on the Astros and the back of Toronto’s rotation before coming home for some games against division rivals. A fast start to the season sure would be nice. Here are some thoughts as Spring Training winds down.
1. Jacoby Ellsbury (calf) is scheduled to play in a minor league game today and if that goes well, he could return to regular Grapefruit League action as soon as tomorrow. Hopefully everything goes well, but if he does have to start the season on the DL, what happens to the lineup? Brett Gardner plays center and bats leadoff while Alfonso Soriano moves to left field. That part is obvious. What about DH though? I think the Yankees would just rotate Ichiro Suzuki and Eduardo Nunez into the lineup for the time being, but with Ellsbury out, the best lineup probably has both Brian McCann and Frankie Cervelli in it. They could carry a third catcher like Austin Romine and get Cervelli’s bat in the lineup everyday. I can’t believe I just said that, but hey, he’s tearing the cover off the ball this spring. I doubt this will happen because carrying a third catcher makes the roster even more inflexible, but if Ellsbury is sidelined, the best solution may be getting both McCann and Cervelli into the lineup at the same time.
2. Joe Girardi is expected to announced the fifth starter today and I would be surprised if it isn’t Michael Pineda. Both he and David Phelps have pitched well in camp, but this decision should be about more than that. Even after the shoulder surgery, I think Pineda’s potential to have a real impact has been obvious this spring, especially as his fastball velocity has crept up. His slider is just vicious and he has better control too. I don’t intend for this to come off as a knock, but Phelps has developed a largely undeserved reputation for being a strike-thrower in his short big league career. His walk rate (3.53 BB/9 and 9.2 BB%) these last two years has been worse than the AL average (3.04 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%), so his stellar minor league walk rates have not carried over to MLB just yet. Pineda has better pure stuff and better control at this point, and I also think there’s a sense of “okay, it’s time to get something out of this trade” at play. If the Yankees feel they haven’t seen enough out of Pineda to stick him in the rotation right now, I’m not sure what more they want to see.
3. My current “gut feel” bullpen projection is the same as the last one: David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, Phelps, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, and Matt Daley. I think the only other serious candidates for that last spot right now are Vidal Nuno, Chris Leroux, and Fred Lewis. I think they’d open a 40-man roster spot for Daley — they obviously like him after rehabbing him from a shoulder injury he suffered with another team for nearly two years, re-signing him twice along the way — but not Leroux or Lewis just yet. They probably want to see both carry their spring success over into the regular season first. Nuno seems more likely to open the year as the sixth starter in Triple-A than as the second lefty/third swingman in the bullpen. Daley fits best for the time being. As for you gets the 40-man roster axe … Ramon Flores? I have no idea unless there’s an Ichiro Suzuki trade. No obvious candidate.
4. My current “gut feel” bench projection: Cervelli, Nunez, Ichiro, and Dean Anna. The first three are obvious, but I think Anna gets the nod over Yangervis Solarte simply because he’s already on the 40-man. There’s no sense in cutting a player to carry a utility guy who is going to wind up in the Triple-A when Brendan Ryan returns, which could be within the first week or two of the season. Backs are tricky and Ryan could miss much longer, but right now all signs point to it being a short-term thing. Whoever gets that last bench spot will be a temporary solution, not a long-term fixture on the roster. No need to juggle the 40-man for that. Anna was acquired for this exact role, to be the up-and-down 25th man. Let Solarte show his hot spring is something more than just a hot spring in Triple-A before carrying him on the big league roster.
5. In case you missed it last night, Chad Jennings reported that right-hander and 2012 first rounder Ty Hensley will not start the season on time due to a hernia. VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman said he is expected to resume throwing in 3-4 weeks but, given Newman’s track record with the stuff, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s longer. Between the time off and going through what amounts to Spring Training, there’s a chance Hensley will not get into a regular season minor league game until June. He barely pitched after signing in 2012 (12 innings) and then missed all of 2013 due to hip(s) surgery, so add in this new hernia issue and Hensley is going to end up going close to two full years between regularly pitching in competitive games as part of a rotation. That’s an awful lot of lost development time. Hensley once said he wanted to be in the big leagues by his 21st birthday, but instead he might not even have 100 career innings under his belt when he turns the big 2-1 in late-July. Yuck. At least they aren’t arm injuries, I guess.
I know it’s only Spring Training, but man oh man has Michael Pineda looked good. He looks healthy, his delivery is free and easy, his slider is still vicious, and his fastball gone from topping out at 92 mph in his first outing to topping out at 94 mph in his third. It has only been three games and a total of nine innings, but it’s hard not to be encouraged and excited by what Pineda’s done these last few weeks. He looks as good as we could have possibly hoped.
And yet, despite Pineda’s strong showing, he isn’t the big pitching story of the spring. Masahiro Tanaka has come over from the Rakuten Golden Eagles and after only a few weeks of camp, it feels like he’s been here for years. The transition has appeared to be seamless — I’m sure it’s been difficult for him, how could it not? — and his outings have matched the scouting reports. He throws strikes, has a wipeout splitter, and an underrated slider. When he’s gotten in jams, he’s cranked it up a notch, something we heard he’ll do long before he signed on the dotted line. As with Pineda, Tanaka has looked as good as we could have possibly hoped.
Flying under the radar this spring has been Ivan Nova, at least to some extent. Following yesterday’s outing he now has 21 strikeouts and two walks in 19.2 Grapefruit League innings, and I think the most impressive thing was the way he made adjustments mid-start and rebounded from a terrible first inning against the Astros a week or two ago. It was the kind of bad inning that used to spiral out of control, but instead Nova righted the ship and put together a good start. He’s been healthy and he’s been throwing the ball well. It’s been a strong spring for Ivan.
“I’ve seen a guy that’s come into spring training that, it seems like he realizes how good he can be,” Girardi said. “And I think that’s important. I think for all young players, there’s that doubt always a little bit, can I do this on a consistent basis? Can I do it start after start, or game after game if you’re a position player? Do I need to look over my starter? Is there someone always doubting what I can do? I think he’s realized that, you know what, I can be pretty good.”
Joe Girardi said that to Chad Jennings yesterday and was referring to Nova, but he could have easily been talking about Pineda or Tanaka. All three came to camp with something to prove and they’ve answered every question along the way. Just about everything has gone according to plan with these three and that’s pretty great. Usually when you’re talking about three pitchers — I guess this applies to any type of player, really — one will slip up somewhere along the lines. Two out of three is a pretty good success rate in baseball.
But all three guys have done everything they’ve needed to do in Spring Training and it’s really exciting. It’s really exciting for 2014 and for the Yankees going forward, because all three of these guys are young. Nova is the oldest and he just turned 27 in January. Pineda turned 25 that same month and Tanaka turned 25 back in November. The Yankees have an older roster in general and the other two members of the rotation are up there in age — Hiroki Kuroda just turned 39 and CC Sabathia is about 75 in pitching years given all the mileage on his arm — but these three fellas are all right smack in their prime or about the enter the prime of their careers. I’m going to use the word again: exciting.
This is Spring Training and the time of the year for overwhelming and occasionally irrational optimism. I don’t know how any Yankees fan could look at Pineda, Tanaka, and Nova these last few weeks and not start dreaming about a rotation built around their young power arms for the next few years. We know there are going to be bumps in the road, they’re inevitable, but right now everything is going right and that’s something the club needed in Spring Training. The pieces of the next great Yankees rotation are in place. We’ve know that because seen ‘em with our own eyes these last few weeks.
Starting this afternoon, the Yankees will play seven games in the next four days. They play a set of split squad games this afternoon, then this weekend half the team (including most of the regulars) will travel to Panama for a pair of exhibition games. The other half will remain in Tampa and play regularly scheduled Grapefruit League games. I still have no idea if the Panama games will be on television. They have to be, right? I think so. Here are some scattered thoughts on random Thursday.
1. Derek Jeter continues to run well following all the ankle and leg injuries, which is very encouraging. He seems to be on the Mariano Rivera plan right now, meaning he is only playing at home and not traveling, but that will have to change at some point. I guess it will this weekend in Panama. Jeter has played only one set of back-to-back games so far but I have to think he’ll play three straight or four games in five days before the start of the season. Something like that. The Cap’n hasn’t hit all that much in camp (4-for-20) but I’m not too worried about that. Opening Day is still more than two weeks away. Running and moving well is still the most important thing right now and so far everything is going a-okay.
2. Brett Wallace is pretty bad — that’s a prerequisite for being released by the Astros, as Wallace did yesterday — but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Yankees to scoop him on a minor league contract as Mark Teixeira insurance. Russ Canzler is the only other natural first baseman in big league camp right now and he would get the call should Teixeira go down with injury. The 27-year-old Wallace hit .221/.284/.431 (97 wRC+) with 13 homers and an unsightly 104/18 K/BB in 285 plate appearances last season (93 wRC+ in 1,077 career plate appearances), but he’s a left-handed batter with some pop and there’s the short porch in right field, yadda yadda yadda. Canzler is worth keeping around because he can play the outfield as well, though I consider Wallace a better backup plan at first base. If they can grab him until someone better comes along, I think that’s the way to go.
3. Left-hander Fred Lewis has had himself a nice Spring Training so far. The 27-year-old was the team’s 47th round pick in the 2010 draft and he’s allowed two hits and one walk in 4.1 scoreless innings in Grapefruit League action, striking out four. He also chucked eleven scoreless innings in Arizona Fall League last year. Lewis
is something of a soft tosser and he didn’t handle lefties well last year (.308/.375/.415) or over the last three years (.297/.389/.378), so this is likely a small sample mirage more than anything. It’s also worth noting he went unselected in the Rule 5 Draft in December, so other teams don’t think he can help at the MLB level this year. Still, Lewis has handled himself well in front of the decision makers in camp, and all a guy like this is trying to do is put himself on the map. Preston Claiborne had a strong spring last year and it led to him getting called up during the regular season. Lewis is currently pitching his way into a similar situation.
4. This is nothing more than a guess, but if the season started right now, I think Michael Pineda would be the fifth starter with Dellin Betances and Matt Daley joining David Phelps and Adam Warren in the bullpen. Again, that’s just a guess. Betances seems to have a bullpen spot locked up right now, and I’m saying Daley over guys like Claiborne and Cesar Cabral for a few reasons. One, the Yankees obviously like him. They didn’t spend the last two years rehabbing him from a shoulder injury he suffered pitching for another team out of the kindness of their hearts. Two, he’s pitched well in camp (3.2 scoreless inning with six strikeouts) and he went from relatively meaningless eighth and ninth inning appearances to being the first guy out of the bullpen and facing projected big leaguers. Three, I think the Yankees realize there might only be so many bullets in the 31-year-old’s arm after shoulder surgery, and they don’t want to waste them in Triple-A. Daley seems like another Cory Wade in that he’s a soft-tosser who might only have 50 good innings in him before the wheels come off. He was with the team last September and as of right now, I think he’ll be there on Opening Day.
5. As for the final bench spot, I think it would go to Eduardo Nunez if the season started today. This is just another guess. Scott Sizemore was eased into things early in camp following his knee injuries and he hasn’t played much while Nunez has already started multiple games at second, short, and third. Sizemore has started two games total. He can opt-out of his minor league contract on May 1st (and August 1st), and I think the team would send him down to Triple-A for a month to let him get back into the swing of things before re-evaluating him at the first opt-out. Sizemore has missed most of the last two seasons and that’s an awful lot of rust to shake off. Things could change between now and Opening Day and they probably will, but that’s my opinion right now. Nunez seems to keep getting chances and my hunch is he will get one more.
The Grapefruit League season is one week old and we’ve learned … well, pretty much nothing so far. Masahiro Tanaka still has a nasty splitter with the MLB ball. I guess that’s something. Otherwise it’s still too early to draw any meaningful conclusions from the handful of games that have been played. Everyone’s healthy and that’s the most important thing. Here are some scattered thoughts.
1. So far, so good for Derek Jeter. He appears to be moving well both in the field and down the line, looking far more mobile than he did at any point last year. It’s very encouraging. The Cap’n has looked awful at the plate — one strikeout, one walk, eight ground balls (three double plays) in ten plate appearances — though that is to be expected after missing just about all of last season. His timing is not even close to being there yet and he’s got a little under four weeks to find it. As far as his ability to move laterally in the field and run down the line are concerned, everything looks good. That’s most important right now following all the leg injuries.
2. It sure seems like Frankie Cervelli is being groomed as Tanaka’s personal catcher. He’s caught most of his bullpen and live batting practice sessions, plus he was behind the plate when he made his Spring Training debut over the weekend. Brian McCann has to learn an entire new staff this spring, so it makes sense to have Cervelli spend so much time with the new guy since he already knows the rest of the staff. Joe Girardi has proven himself to be a fan of personal catchers — I can’t help but think this stems from who he was as a player — and it looks like Tanaka/Cervelli will be a thing this year. They just have to make sure McCann spends enough time with Tanaka this spring so they aren’t total strangers should Cervelli get hurt or something.
3. One little thing that usually means more than nothing in Spring Training: reliever usage. Over the last few springs, the Yankees have shown that the guys who are being more seriously considered for the roster are scheduled to pitch on specific days and get to start an inning clean, at least early in camp. The guys who are further behind in the bullpen race are usually held back in case someone hits their pitch count in the middle of an inning. Based on how they’ve been used over this last week, that’s good news for Dellin Betances and Preston Claiborne, and bad news for Mark Montgomery, Cesar Cabral, and others. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t definitive proof of anything, but the Yankees may be tipping their hand based on what they’ve done in the past and how they’ve used guys so far.
4. Is it just me, or does a March trade feel inevitable this year? The Yankees have actually made a Spring Training trade that directly impacted their Opening Day roster in each of the last three years (Vernon Wells in 2013, Chris Stewart in 2012, Sergio Mitre for Chris Dickerson in 2011), so a deal in the next few weeks would hardly be unprecedented. The needs on the infield and in the bullpen still exist and both Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy are so obviously being showcased given all their playing time (particularly at DH) so far. Murphy for one of the Diamondbacks’ extra shortstops make so much sense, at least from this end of the deal. Arizona simply might not like New York’s catchers all that much. Either way, I can’t shake this feeling that a trade will go down before Opening Day.
5. You’ve probably seen it by now, but the other day Robinson Cano made some comments to Jon Heyman about the Mariners’ need for another bat and another pitcher. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, everyone knows Seattle needs more help. It sounded very much like a player who is just starting to realize he is no longer on a big payroll team that will go out and spend money to address its needs. I’m not sure how else to take the “if it was up to me, we’d have (Ervin) Santana, (Nelson) Cruz and Ubaldo (Jimenez)” comment. We all know Cano left for the biggest payday, pure and simple, but man this whole thing is so weird. It seems playing for the Not Yankees has been a shock to his system. I really wish he was still wearing pinstripes, but I can’t begrudge the team for refusing to meet those demands.
I swear, coming up with a half-decent title for these “thoughts” posts is tougher than writing up the thoughts themselves most of the time. Anyway, the Yankees open the Grapefruit League portion of their Spring Training schedule later today, so here are some scattered thoughts for the meantime.
1. The Brett Gardner extension is making it much tougher for me to get on board with the Jacoby Ellsbury signing. I wasn’t a fan of the Ellsbury deal the day it was signed and I’ve tried to warm up to in recent weeks, but a similar player getting one-third of the money isn’t helping matters. The Yankees stunk offensively last year because they didn’t have enough power or high on-base guys. Ellsbury doesn’t help correct either problem all that much. Shin-Soo Choo would have in a big way. The Yankees did offer a Choo a huge contract (even after signing Ellsbury) and he turned them down, so at least they tried to sign him, but man an Alfonso Soriano/Carlos Beltran-Gardner-Choo outfield looks so much better than a Gardner-Ellsbury-Soriano/Beltran outfield to me.
2. Know how the Yankees always seem to get burned whenever they play an infield shift? For years they’ve had a knack for shifting infielders to the wrong place at the wrong time. We only had anecdotal evidence and that doesn’t mean all that much, but that is no longer the case. Jeff Zimmerman at the Hardball Times ran some numbers and figured out how successful each team was at shifting last season. When the Yankees had a normal infield alignment, the opposing team’s BABIP was .307. When the Yankees played some kind of shift, the opposing team’s BABIP was .325. So yeah, a batted ball was more likely to go for a hit against New York when they played the shift than when they didn’t. This is only one year of data (326 balls in play), so we can’t read too much into it, but at least now we know the team’s penchant for getting burned while trying to shift was a real thing in 2013. I wonder how much of that is due to a lack of rangy infielders than actual positioning.
3. One player I’m going to be paying extra special attention to these next few weeks is Scott Sizemore. Mostly, I want see how he’s moving around following back-to-back torn left ACLs. I think he has the best of chance of being a league average player — league average players are really valuable! — among the guys competing for the final bench spot (Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, etc.) but he has to make the team first, and that means he has to show the knee is healthy enough to move quickly in the field and on the bases. Sizemore had a real nice half-season with the Athletics two years ago (118 wRC+ and 11 HR) and if he can come remotely close to doing that over a full season, it’ll be a enormous boost. Coming back from two lost seasons will be tough though.
4. Joe Girardi confirmed the other day that both David Phelps and Adam Warren will make the team in some capacity, which isn’t all that surprising. It does confirm there are three open bullpen spots at the most though, and that assumes Michael Pineda and Vidal Nuno will start the year with Triple-A Scranton rather than in the bullpen. If I had to put money on it today, I would bet on Preston Claiborne, Dellin Betances, and Cesar Cabral getting those last three spots. But still, there are five weeks worth of exhibition games left and lots can change. Part of me is very interested to see what Jose Ramirez and Manny Banuelos can do in short relief stints and I’m sure we’ll see those two (and others) at some point this summer. History says the bullpen on Opening Day and the bullpen in September will look very different.
5. Who is your pick for the annual “random player has a huge Spring Training and people will say he should make the team” storyline? Previous storyliners include Jon Weber (1.032 OPS in 2010) and Jorge Vazquez (1.209 OPS in 2011). Looking at the list of non-roster invitees, I’ll go with Antoan Richardson, the speedy switch-hitting outfielder. He’ll hit like .450 in camp, give or take. So consider this your annual reminder that Spring Training stats mean almost nothing for many reasons. One, the sample size is inherently small. Two, the level of competition varies wildly from day-to-day and even inning-to-inning. Three, players tend to work on stuff in Spring Training, not get results. You’ll see a pitcher throw something like 25 changeups in a two-inning outing just because he’s trying to get a feel for that pitch before the season. It will be tough to ignore stats this spring because of the various competitions (fifth starter, bench, bullpen), but trust me, you don’t get too caught up in the numbers these next few weeks.
I honestly did not expect it to happen, but over the weekend the Yankees agreed to a long-term contract extension with outfielder Brett Gardner. The four-year deal kicks in next season and can keep him in pinstripes through potentially 2019. The Yankees paid market rate but they kept their homegrown player and avoided a potential free agent bidding war after the season.
After news of the deal leaked, Brian Cashman confirmed to reporters that the team’s no extensions policy was dead. It had been dead for a while, but it wasn’t until now that the club actually managed to sign a player long-term. They tried to ink Russell Martin, Hiroki Kuroda, and Robinson Cano to extensions before they hit the open market within the last two years, but were unsuccessful each time. Only Kuroda re-signed with the team as a free agent.
Hammering out the extension with Gardner was another sign the Yankees have started to change the way they operate these last few months. The extension policy was trashed, changes were made to the player development system, and the international market was embraced. Yes, the team will pass on Aledmys Diaz, but they showed more interest in him than they ever did Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. They also went hard after Masahiro Tanaka and are planning a massive international spending spree this summer.
Those are all signs of progress and it’s just the stuff we know about too. Who knows what else is going on behind the scenes. I think the Yankees have been slow to adapt in recent years and not just with this stuff either — they’ve yet to embrace dynamic ticket pricing and fan caravan events for example, stuff the rest of the league has been doing for years. The front office and ownership have changed their team building philosphies though, and not a moment too soon either. Gardner’s deal is the latest and greatest example.
The Yankees will introduce Masahiro Tanaka at a press conference this afternoon and then pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training on Friday, so the offseason is dangerously close to an end. Here are some thoughts as we wait for the 2014 season to get going.
1. At first, I thought it was pretty weird Alex Rodriguez dropped his various lawsuits and accepted his suspension over the weekend, but it makes more sense now that I think about it. First and foremost, A-Rod wanted to avoid having to testify under oath, which he already did once by storming out of his arbitration hearing. I know he denied everything on Mike Francesa’s show a few weeks ago, but doing it under oath is a different matter entirely. I’m sure Alex hopes to get back into baseball one day — I don’t know how realistic that is at this point, either as player or coach or broadcaster or whatever — and the whole scorched Earth approach isn’t conducive to returning to the game. The move caught me by surprise and it seems like Rodriguez simply came to his senses a few weeks too late.
2. Know how there are usually a ton of off-days in April? That isn’t the case this year. The Yankees play 13 straight games and 19 games in 20 days to start this season — ten of their first 19 games will either be indoors or in a park with a retractable roof (Houston, Toronto, Tampa) — so they’re going to need their fifth starter right out of the chute. The schedule doesn’t allow them to hide whoever wins the job until the end of the month or anything like that. I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing, necessarily, because all those off-days they should get in April will be spread out during the other months. It just means that whoever wins the fifth starter’s job has to be ready to go as soon as the regular season begins. There’s no grace period at the end of Spring Training.
3. As of right now, there are three bullpen spots up for grabs in camp, assuming either David Phelps or Adam Warren steps in as the long man. I’m interested to see if the Yankees use one of those spots on a second left-hander (Cesar Cabral?) because while carrying one would be rather useful with guys like David Ortiz and Chris Davis in the division, I think there’s a need to take the best relievers regardless of handedness. If the bullpen was a little stronger — let’s face it, Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton are solid but not exactly shutdown relievers — it would be easier to squeeze that second southpaw in there. The Yankees don’t really have enough quality depth right now to get super specialized with bullpen roles.
4. My annual Preseason Top 30 Prospects List comes out on Thursday and the thing that stood out to me the most while writing it was all the turnover. Sixteen (!) players from last year’s list did not make this year’s list due to a variety of a reasons. Graduated to MLB, traded, released, poor performance, injury, whatever. More than half the players are new to the list and that’s pretty mind-blowing. They Yankees had three first round picks in last summer’s draft and a bunch of young international guys had strong stateside debuts last year, so that helped fill in the gaps, but it’s still crazy to see that much turnover in one year. It’s not a bad thing either, the team needed some change down on the farm.
5. Speaking of the Top 30, one prospect I am really looking forward to following this summer is third baseman Miguel Andujar. I just didn’t realize how good he actually is. The kid mashed in the Rookie Gulf Coast League last summer (.323/.368/.496 while repeating the level) and he has just about every tool other speed, plus he doesn’t turn 19 until next month. The Yankees will probably hold him back in Extended Spring Training before assigning him to Short Season Staten Island when the season starts in June, but there’s some serious breakout potential there. Andujar, who signed for $775k a few years ago, can do almost everything on the field and it might not be long before he follows Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez as an internationally signed position player who becomes the team’s top prospect.
The Yankees have a policy of not negotiating a new contract until the old one expires, except when they don’t. We first heard about this “policy” in the spring of 2007, when Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada entered the final years of their contracts. Not wanting to sign two older players while they each still had a year left on their current deals, Brian Cashman spoke of this policy.
It was probably a line that he regrets.
Cashman had to tap dance around the line that following winter, when he signed Robinson Cano to an extension. True, Cano’s contract was technically up, since he was still in his pre-free-agency years. But it was still an extension before it became necessary.
It was also one of the smartest moves Cashman has made. With the two team options the Yankees moved Cano’s free agency date from 2012 to 2014. They also paid him a reasonable $15 million per year. So why don’t the Yankees do this with other players?
(You can think about this another way: if Cano had become a free agent after 2011, he might not have gotten a 10-year deal at $24 million per year. Perhaps the Yankees could have signed him, as a 29-year-old, to a Teixeira-like eight years and $180 million.)
One answer to that question: the Yankees haven’t really had any players worth signing to an extension since Cano. David Robertson and Brett Gardner are the only ones who come to mind, but they’ve done fine with those two going year-to-year. Really, no superstars have come up through the Yankees system in quite some time.
This week at ESPN NY, Wallace Matthews and Andrew Marchand have covered the Yankees’ thin system. What they cover is mostly the first whammy: the lack of cost-controlled talent. Developing even three starters during a five-year period can greatly reduce a team’s needs in free agency. The Yankees failures in development have cost them dearly, almost a half billion this winter alone.
There is another aspect, less considered, that hurts the Yankees in the long-term. This week the Braves signed Freddie Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million contract. A $16.875 million AAV might seem lean for a superstar, and it’s true that Freeman hasn’t totally proven himself one. But the Braves like enough of what they’ve seen to lock him down long term.
Freeman doesn’t turn 25 until September.
Because they’ve drafted and developed well, the Braves opened themselves to this opportunity. They can sign a 24-year-old to an eight-year deal at a $17 million AAV, while other teams scramble to sign free agents for prices much higher than that. We can look right to the Yankees and Mark Teixeira as a counter example.
In 2008 the Yankees signed Teixeira, entering his age-29 season, to an eight-year, $180 million contract. The Yankees faced competition when bidding on Teixeira, notably from the Angels and the Red Sox. The winning prize was paying a guy $180 million for his age-29 through age-36 seasons.
The Braves, on the other hand, competed with no one and will pay $135 million for Freeman’s age-24 through age-31 seasons. Yes, they’re paying a $17 million AAV for a guy who would probably make $5.75 million in 2014. But they bet on Freeman, buying out not only his three arbitration, but five of his free-agent years.
Because the Yankees haven’t developed any of their own talent, they have no opportunities for deals of this ilk. Yes, those deals might cost a team more in the short term. But long term who is better off: the Braves, who will pay Freeman during his prime years, or the Yankees, who will pay Brian McCann for his declining years?
With so much money circulating around the game, deals like Freeman’s could become much more common. If you’re the Angels, wouldn’t you offer Mike Trout 10/300 once he becomes arbitration eligible? Yes, it will cost you in the short-term, but you’d get him for his age-23 through age-32 seasons, rather than waiting for him to hit free agency at age 26 and bidding against other teams.
Yes, the farm system can help by producing quality players who will cost little for up to six years. But if it can produce superstars, it can provide long-term savings. That’s what the Yankees are missing now, and this winter we’ve seen the consequences.
In the span of about four hours yesterday, we went from wondering where Masahiro Tanaka will sign to the Yankees announcing his new seven-year contract. It was a fun morning, no doubt about it. The contract is worth $155M and includes an opt-out after the fourth year. Add the $20M release fee on top of that for a total commitment of $175M. Here are some thoughts following the deal.
1. Might as well just start with this to get it out of the way: I think the contract is more than reasonable and probably a bargain when you consider what other high-end 25-year-olds would get on the open market. No, he’s never pitched in MLB, but it’s not like they plucked him out of a beer league. The contract is expensive, don’t get me wrong, but as Hal Steinbrenner said yesterday, “market value is what one or more teams are willing to pay today.” Several other clubs were reportedly willing to pay Tanaka upwards of $20M+ annually, so the Yankees weren’t out in their own little world with this offer. It’s comforting knowing other teams believed in his talent enough to offer similar dollars. I’d feel differently if Tanaka was a few years older but the team is (theoretically) buying almost all of his peak years since he just turned 25 in November. If he pitches like prime Dan Haren (the most common comp) from ages 25-28 and then opts out, it will have been a brilliant signing. It’s the next contract, the one that comes after the opt-out and involves buying a whole bunch of decline years, that will be the really scary one.
2. Was it not amazing how the whole process was kept quiet? We didn’t hear a peep about negotiations between the Yankees and Tanaka and certainly nothing about an offer or details of their face-to-face meeting. Nothing at all. It was like that for most teams too, with the Cubs being the notable exception. Theo Epstein’s regime always seems to leak everything to media. It happened with the Red Sox and it’s happening again in Chicago. Agent Casey Close wanted things kept quiet and managed to pull it off even though he was dealing with some of the game’s largest markets and reporters in two countries. Scott Boras is still the king of all agents, but Close has really shined these last 14 months with the Tanaka, Clayton Kershaw, and Zack Greinke deals.
3. I did this exercise a few weeks ago and it’s probably worth revisiting: how many games would the Yankees win in 2014 as presently constructed? That means Tanaka in the rotation but question marks in the bullpen and on the infield. We can agree they’re in the 85-89 win range right now, right? Maybe it’s more like 82-86 or 87-91, but the point is they are right on the postseason bubble. Each added win is so incredibly important to the Yankees right now — both financially and in terms of their #brand — because the value of jumping from a bubble team to a legit contender is so very high, the highest point on the so-called win curve. Going from 80 wins to 82 wins or 98 wins to 100 wins means little in the grand scheme of things, but going from 86 to 88 or 89 to 91 is huge. We can’t lump the Yankees under the general contract analysis/dollars-per-WAR umbrella for a number of reasons, one being their payroll. One win (or one WAR) isn’t worth $5M or $7M or whatever it is these days to the Yankees. It’s worth much more because of how much they depend on being competitive and where they presently sit on that win curve. If the Yankees are a true talent 88-win team right now (reasonable estimate, no?), adding players to get that 89th and 90th and 91st win will be the most crucial additions of the winter.
4. Now, that said, the Yankees snuffed out any lingering chance of staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold with the Tanaka signing yesterday, so they should go all out and continue adding payroll. I have their payroll at roughly $204M right now (last update), which is about $10M less than their average Opening Day payroll over the last three years. If they’re willing to go up that high again (nevermind meeting last year’s $228.1M payroll), there’s still enough room to add two pretty good pieces to the team. It’s probably not enough for Stephen Drew but that $10M might buy them Luis Ayala and a discounted Grant Balfour, for example. Or maybe Fernando Rodney (ewww) and Jeff Baker. Brian Cashman said the team is done with their “heavy lifting” yesterday, but spending that last $10M to fill out the margins of the roster really isn’t “heavy lifting,” is it? The bullpen is the easiest place upgrade right now and that last $10M could give the team those extra two or three wins to put them over the top.
5. This is probably just a coincidence, but the total outlay for Tanaka was identical to the team’s final offer to Robinson Cano. Perhaps they had budgeted 7/175 for Cano and then another ~7/150 for Tanaka coming into the offseason, but when Robbie made it clear he was going to the Mariners, they switched gears and gave the ~7/150 to Jacoby Ellsbury and spent the 7/175 to Tanaka. If that’s the case and they had re-signed Cano, would they have a) missed out on Tanaka because their contract offer would have been capped at $130M (plus the $20M release fee on top of that), or b) bid something like $75M under the old posting system and offered him a $75M contract (the Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzka commitments were split almost right down the middle, half posting fee and half contract)? This offseason has been so fascinating because it has played out so unexpectedly. If you had told me in like, September that the Yankees would lose Cano to the Mariners and commit $175M to Tanaka, I would have thought you were completely crazy.
6. There’s a very real chance Tanaka will be the youngest player on the team’s Opening Day roster, perhaps by as much as eight or nine months. There are only 14 players younger than him on the 40-man roster right now, and I think the only ones with a realistic chance to make the team out of camp are Cesar Cabral, Michael Pineda, Jose Ramirez, and I guess Zoilo Almonte if Ichiro Suzuki is traded. Austin Romine or J.R. Murphy could make the team if Frankie Cervelli gets hurt, but that’s all. (Tanaka’s younger than Dellin Betances … by seven months!) I don’t really know why I brought this up. I just thought it was interesting. The Yankees haven’t had much luck with young players in recent years but I didn’t think a 25-year-old free agent would wind up becoming their youngest player. Goes to show how important Tanaka is to the future of the franchise. He’s a crucial piece as they finish transitioning out of the Derek Jeter/late-90s dynasty era.
7. This isn’t all that important but I am curious to see what number Tanaka wears. He wore 18 with the Rakuten Golden Eagles and that, along with 11, are considered the traditional “ace numbers” in Japan. Those numbers are already taken though (Brett Gardner and Hiroki Kuroda). Tanaka did wear 15 and 17 in the last two World Baseball Classics but he’s definitely not getting the former — it’s retired for Thurman Munson. Seventeen is open though. Know what number would be cool for Tanaka? 21. It’ll never happen though.
Just nine days remain in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. Chances are we’ll know the winner even before that, since nine days is the deadline by which he must sign on the dotted line. He could come to an agreement within a week.
Speculation has run rampant, but we’ve had little in the way of actual reports about Tanaka. It seems as though his agent, Casey Close, has done a good job of preventing leaks from MLB teams. A few “reports out of Japan” have circulated, but since the original “reports out of Japan” indicated Tanaka wouldn’t be posted at all, it’s easy enough to dismiss those.
It does seem as though most media outlets agree that the Yankees and the Dodgers hold the best shots of signing Tanaka. Early in the process the Mariners looked like a good bet, and the Diamondbacks continue to linger. But right now, it would be a surprise to see him sign anywhere in between the two coasts.
At this moment the Yankees could be in an advantageous position. Ken Rosenthal reported this morning that the Dodgers attention is now on their own ace, Clayton Kershaw. With arbitration figures due on Friday, the Dodgers are eager to lock up Kershaw, likely to a record deal.
This situation could present the Yankees with an opportunity: make Tanaka an offer in mold of the one they made CC Sabathia in 2008. No, it shouldn’t be six years and $140 million, but it should certainly be a bold and aggressive offer, one Tanaka would have trouble rejecting. It shouldn’t be their best offer, either; as we saw with Sabahtia, there has to be at least a little upward flexibility.
Given that Tanaka has nine days to sign, regardless of an offer, he could simply defer a decision until after the Kershaw situation becomes clearer. But that shouldn’t stop the Yankees from stepping in and making an aggressive move while the opposition focuses elsewhere. Strike now.