Anyway, here is the open thread. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all playing tonight, plus there’s some college basketball on the schedule as well. Talk about anything that isn’t religion or politics right here.
One of my favorite things about the 2017 Yankees was the return of David Robertson. The Yankees brought him back at midseason and he almost immediately took over as Joe Girardi’s most trusted setup man. Robertson was unreal in the postseason too. He played a big role in getting the Yankees to within one game of the World Series. It was awesome to have him back.
Robertson was not a rental. The upcoming 2018 season is the final year on the four-year, $46M contract he signed with the White Sox three years ago, a contract that comes with an $11.5M luxury tax number and a $13M actual salary for 2018. Robertson with an $11.5M luxury tax hit looks awfully good when guys like Bryan Shaw and Tommy Hunter are getting $9M per year as free agents this offseason.
There is still an entire season to play before this becomes a real issue, but for whatever reason I’ve found myself thinking about Robertson’s future beyond 2018 quite a bit lately. It stands to reason the Yankees will want to bring him back, right? Robertson is very good, he’s made it clear he’s willing to pitch in any capacity, and having a deep bullpen is a necessity these days. Keeping him long-term just makes sense.
Of course, Robertson turns 33 in April, so the wheels could come off this season. That’s baseball. But, if he is willing to stay with the Yankees beyond 2018, could it be done in such a way that helps the Yankees stay under the $197M luxury tax threshold this coming season? In other words, could the two sides work out an extension that lowers his already team friendly $11.5M luxury tax hit? A few things about this.
1. The salary scale for top relievers has changed. A few years ago, when the Yankees signed Andrew Miller, they gave him what was then the largest contract for a non-closing reliever in baseball history. His four-year deal was worth $9M per season. The previous record was Jeremy Affeldt’s three-year deal worth $6M annually with the Giants. The Yankees and Miller blew the old record out of the water.
Now, three years later, Miller is incredibly underpaid. Now guys like Hunter and Shaw are getting $9M per season. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not Miller. It wasn’t that long ago that only top shelf closers inked contracts worth $9M+ a year. We’re basically one offseason away from setup men getting $10M annually. Because of that, signing Robertson to an extension that lowers his luxury tax number figures to be difficult.
Let’s say, for example, the Yankees convince Robertson to sign a three-year extension worth $30M tomorrow. For luxury tax purposes, it would act like a four-year contract worth $43M when you add his 2018 salary, meaning his luxury tax hit would be … $10.75M. The Yankees wouldn’t even save a million bucks against the luxury tax next year with such an extension. Hey, savings is savings, but you can’t do anything meaningful with those savings.
And of course, a three-year extension worth $30M would represent a pay cut for Robertson, who might be able to fetch $12M or even $14M per year on the open market next year, even at his age. Wade Davis is 32, has all sorts of physical and control red flags, and he just signed for $17.3M a year, the largest reliever annual salary ever. Why would Robertson sign anything that represents a pay cut? He’d have to really, really, really love being a Yankee.
2. Luxury tax won’t be a concern in 2019, in theory. I’m not sold on the Yankees going back to spending like crazy once they reset their luxury tax rate next year. The luxury tax penalties are so harsh that they effectively act as a salary cap. Yeah, the Yankees would reset their tax rate from the maximum 50% to the minimum 20%, but there are all sorts of surtaxes as well. It’s not quite as simple as resetting the tax rate and raising payroll.
But, for argument’s sale, let’s say the Yankees are willing to exceed the luxury tax threshold come 2019, especially if it means signing someone like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. In that case, paying whatever it takes to keep Robertson wouldn’t be a big deal, even if it is $14M per season. That would be crazy high for a setup man in his mid-30s, but Robertson is not your normal setup man. He’s excellent and he can pitch whenever. He’s very valuable.
If the Yankees are willing to go over the luxury tax threshold in 2019, even by a little bit, it could be enough to justify waiting out Robertson. Rather than trying to extend him now, they could let next season play out, and see where things stand come October. That would allow them to walk away should Robertson’s performance crater this year. I don’t think it’ll happen, but you never know. It could also mean having to pay more to keep him, but if they’re willing to exceed the luxury tax, who cares about a few extra million?
3. Does it make sense for the Yankees to trade Robertson? I brought this up a few weeks ago. The Yankees have a deep bullpen, at least on paper, and in an effort to stay under the luxury tax threshold next year, trading a spare pricey reliever could make some sense. I mentioned Dellin Betances and Adam Warren as possible trade candidates. But what about Robertson? A Robertson trade would lead to some serious savings.
Personally, I think it would be crazy to trade Robertson. He’s so good — I think he is the Yankees’ best reliever, even ahead of Aroldis Chapman — and the Yankees are a legitimate contender. They should be looking to add to Robertson, not subtract him. That all said, what if trading Robertson nets a promising young arm who could step right into the bullpen (plus more!) and frees up enough to cash to, say, sign Yu Darvish? Trading Robertson and improving the 2018 Yankees seems like a bit of a stretch, but it is doable.
The Yankees are typically open to anything. They’ll listen to offers for Robertson because there’s no reason not to listen to offers for anyone. You just listen more closely on some players than others. Maybe some team comes along with a big offer — one of the teams that was trying to get Zach Britton before he blew out his Achilles, for example — and it makes sense to act. Ultimately, I think the Yankees keep Robertson. I also think trading him is not off the table.
* * *
When Robertson returned this year, it almost felt like he never left. It was kinda like when Andy Pettitte returned. Pettitte spent three years in Houston, then came back to the Yankees, and it just felt natural. Pettitte and the Yankees decided they were best for each other and he finished his career in pinstripes. Maybe the same thing will happen with Robertson. That’d be neat.
Signing Robertson to an extension that lowers his 2018 luxury tax hit was an okay if implausible idea before every reliever worth a damn started getting $9M per year. I don’t think an extension that lowers Robertson’s luxury tax hit is at all realistic now. Enjoying that below market $11.5M luxury tax hit in 2018, then trying to find common ground on an extension after the season seems like the most logical outcome here.
Trevor Stephan | RHP
The just turned 22-year-old Stephan grew up in the Houston suburb of Magnolia, where he played first and third bases at West High School. He was not a notable prospect at the time — Baseball America did not rank Stephan among the top 45 prospects in Texas for the 2014 draft — so after going undrafted out of high school, he headed to Hill Junior College outside Dallas.
As a freshman with the Rebels, Stephan transitioned to pitcher, and allowed nine runs in 12.1 innings. He struck out 19 and walked ten. Stephan worked almost exclusively in relief as a sophomore, pitching to a 2.88 ERA with 88 strikeouts and 22 walks in 68.2 innings. Baseball America ranked him as the 66th best prospect in Texas for the 2016 draft, and the Red Sox grabbed him in the 18th round (538th overall).
“I was close to signing with the Red Sox, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t,” said Stephan to Matt Jones after turning down Boston and transferring to Arkansas. “They were trying to come up with (bonus pool) money for me and I didn’t know if that would happen or not, so I was just kind of waiting. The longer I waited, the more I wanted to come to Arkansas.”
Stephan stepped right into the Arkansas rotation last spring and he was dominant, throwing 91 innings with a 2.87 ERA. He struck out 120 and walked only 20. The 120 strikeouts were the most by a Razorbacks pitcher since Drew Smyly fanned 114 back in 2010. Stephan struck out 12 in 7.1 shutout innings against Oral Roberts in his lone postseason start.
Prior to the 2017 draft, Baseball America ranked Stephan as the third best prospect in Arkansas and the 177th best prospect overall. MLB.com ranked him as the 87th best prospect in the draft class. The Yankees selected Stephan with their third round pick (92nd overall) and gave him a $797,500 bonus, above the $588,700 slot value.
Following a quick tuneup in the rookie Gulf Coast League, the Yankees had Stephan begin his pro career in earnest with Short Season Staten Island. He posted a 1.39 ERA (1.70 FIP) with 43 strikeouts and six walks in 32.1 innings for the Baby Bombers. That works out to a 35.0% strikeout rate and a 4.9% walk rate. Three of his ten outings with Staten Island went four innings with zero hits allowed. In his lone postseason appearance, Stephan walked two and struck out two in 3.2 hitless and scoreless inning of relief. He was dominant.
At 6-foot-4 and 210 lbs., Stephan has pretty much the ideal pitcher’s frame. His fastball sits 91-95 mph and has touched 98 mph, and it is more of a running two-seamer than a straight four-seamer. That pitch is his bread-and-butter. Stephan locates his heater well and he uses it aggressively.
After toying with a curveball throughout junior college, Stephan settled on a low-80s slider as his go-to secondary pitch last spring with Arkansas. It’s a short-breaking slider that almost looks like a cutter. Stephan’s changeup is a work in progress, which is not unexpected for someone with relatively little pitching experience. He does throw the pitch often, against both righties and lefties, so he’s working at it.
The less-than-stellar arm action and lack of a changeup have led to the inevitable speculation that Stephan might be a reliever long-term, but the Yankees are going to keep him in the rotation for the time being. If he does move to the bullpen, his bulldog mentality will serve him well. It’s not uncommon for late converts to pitching to have arm problems, but Stephan has been completely healthy since making the switch.
A dominant SEC starter who received an above-slot bonus as a third round pick? You can bet on Stephan starting next season with High-A Tampa. The Yankees have so many lower level pitching prospects that maybe the numbers crunch will push him to Low-A Charleston to start the season, but I think he’ll start in Tampa. The changeup will be a point of emphasis this year. The fastball/slider combination is close to ready.
I think Stephan is destined for the bullpen — what other starter has a delivery that wonky? — and I think he’ll be an excellent reliever. If the Yankees put him in the bullpen now, he could be a big league option by the second half this coming season. (Not that they’d add him to the 40-man roster so soon, I’m just saying.) Love the fastball, like the slider, love the competitiveness. There’s not much artistry here. Stephan is a no nonsense power arm who goes right after hitters. My kinda guy.
As things stand, the Yankees have unsettled second and third base positions. They could go with Ronald Torreyes and a prospect like Gleyber Torres or Miguel Andujar, or they could go outside the organization for a free agent or trade target. There is an argument to be made for either approach.
In recent weeks the Yankees have been connected, albeit loosely, to Pirates infielder Josh Harrison. He has mostly been mentioned as a secondary piece in a potential Gerrit Cole trade. Both Jon Heyman and Rob Biertempfel have loosely connected Harrison to New York recently, which is about as far as these rumors go. Does the 30-year-old make sense for the infield needy Yankees? Let’s take a look.
The 2017 season was Harrison’s fourth full season as a big leaguer, and his performance has been up and down over the years. More like up, then down, then up again. Here are the core numbers:
|AVG/OBP/SLG||wRC+||HR||SB||K%||BB%||wRC+ vs. RHP||wRC+ vs. LHP|
Not much power, not a ton of stolen bases, very few walks. Harrison’s 16 homers last season were a career high, though the ball is juiced, so who knows whether that power production is here to stay. What happens if the ball gets un-juiced next year?
Harrison’s offensive game is built around being aggressive, putting the ball in play, and hoping for the best. His stolen base total isn’t great — he’s 59-for-82 (72%) in steal attempts the last four years, so he’s not super efficient either — but Harrison has consistently ranked as an above-average baserunner thanks to his aggressiveness, and his ability to do things like go first-to-third on a single and advance on a wild pitch.
Also, it should be noted Harrison’s baserunning skill set includes a fun and freakishly consistent ability to avoid tags and escape rundowns with creative slides. Check it out:
Harrison’s offensive output from 2015-16 was below average overall, and he rebounded at the plate this past season for two reasons. One, the home run spike around baseball. I joke about the juiced ball, but in all seriousness, balls flew out of the park for whatever reason last year, and Harrison benefited like so many others. His ground ball rate and pull rate were in line with his career norms, yet his homers per fly ball rate did this:
And two, Harrison was hit by 23 pitches — 23 hit-by-pitches! — in 2017. Twenty-three hit-by-pitches in 542 plate appearances in 2017 after being hit by 26 pitches in 2,096 plate appearances from 2011-16. Hmmm. Stephen Nesbitt spoke to Harrison about the extreme uptick in hit-by-pitches back in June:
“I’m not so much shaking my head. I’m over it,” Harrison said. “I know it’s part of the game; they’ve got to come inside. But, hey, don’t come inside to miss and make that miss a hit.”
Harrison’s stride carries him toward the plate, he admits. Always has. But he doesn’t stand on top of the plate the way the Chicago Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo does. Best Harrison can tell, he struggled to hit the low-and-inside pitch last season because of an injured thumb. Once he started getting around on that particular pitch, pitchers adjusted by going even further inside.
Harrison doesn’t walk much. That has been made clear throughout his career. Banking on a player continuing to get hit by pitches at an extraordinary rate when he has no history of doing it — there is some skill to getting hit by a pitch as guys like Rizzo, Chase Utley, and Don Baylor have shown — to post a good but not great .339 OBP is quite risky.
With Harrison, I think you have to go into next season expecting his OBP to come down because last season’s hit-by-pitch issue was completely out of character. His power numbers did tick up, otherwise everything else stayed to same. So, long story short, Harrison is basically an average-ish hitter who could be above average if the ball stays juiced and he keeps getting plunked, but could quickly become below average if those skills go away.
Over the last two seasons the Pirates have used Harrison primarily at second base, but he’s also spent extended time at third and some time in the outfield. Here are his defensive assignments the last four years:
- Second base: 2,062.2 innings (+18 DRS)
- Third base: 1,386 innings (+11 DRS)
- Shortstop: 41 innings (+0 DRS)
- Left field: 297.1 innings (+0 DRS)
- Right field: 265.2 innings (+3 DRS)
The versatility is nice, though I see Harrison as a second or third baseman going forward only. The outfield is an emergency only thing. I wouldn’t try to get cute and move Harrison to a different position every game, like one of those mythical supersub players everyone talks about but doesn’t really exist.
Harrison is an asset defensively at second and third, which is perfect for the Yankees, who have openings at both positions. If Andujar is ready, Harrison can play second. If Torres is ready, Harrison can play third. Perfect.
Harrison has suffered a notable injury in the second half in each of the last three years. In 2015, he tore ligaments in his thumb on an awkward slide, and missed a month and a half. In 2016, his season ended in mid-September due to a groin strain. In 2017, his season ended in early-September with a broken bone in his hand. That was he result of his 23rd and final hit-by-pitch of the season.
The groin strain is whatever. Those happen. The torn thumb ligaments and broken hand are kinda fluky. Harrison hit the base wrong on a slide and ripped up his thumb. He got hit by a pitch and it broke his hand. Those aren’t really chronic issues, but, at the same time, when you run the bases aggressively, you run the risk of an getting hurt on an awkward slide, and when you get plunked as often as Harrison last year, you run the risk of one of those hit-by-pitches doing real damage. Those are the risks in his game.
After that big 2014 season, the Pirates rewarded Harrison with a four-year contract extension worth $27.5M guaranteed. The deal includes two club options. For luxury tax purposes, Harrison counts as $6.875M in 2018, which is a good number for the Yankees under the $197M threshold. Here are his actual salaries:
- 2018: $10M
- 2019: $10.5M club option ($1M buyout)
- 2020: $11.5M club option ($500,000 buyout)
The Yankees are more concerned with Harrison’s luxury tax number than his actual salary. He’s a bargain in the world of dollars-per-WAR — FanGraphs valued Harrison’s production at $20.7M in 2017 — though I’m not entirely convinced he would get $10M per season on the open market right now. Doesn’t matter though. That $6.875M luxury tax number is the key here.
What Would It Take?
The best trade benchmark I can find is Jed Lowrie, who was traded from the Astros to the Athletics two years ago, when he had three years of control remaining. That was two guaranteed years and one option year. Harrison has one guaranteed year and two option years, so if things go south quick in 2018, whichever team trades for him could walk away.
Anyway, the Lowrie trade was a straight salary dump. He had $15M left on his contract and the Astros traded him for minor league righty Brendan McCurry, who was not among the A’s top 30 prospects at the time of the trade and does not rank among the ‘Stros top 30 prospects now. The Lowrie salary dump doesn’t really help us establish an asking price for Harrison.
Two years ago the Yankees traded Adam Warren for four years and $38M worth of Starlin Castro, but again, that was more of a dump for the Cubs than a baseball trade. They’d just signed Ben Zobrist and Castro was coming off a disappointing season. I doubt the Pirates are looking to salary dump Harrison, but perhaps the Lowrie and Starlin trades indicate the trade value of an okay-ish middle infielder owed a decent chunk of change isn’t all that high?
Does He Make Sense For the Yankees?
Oh sure. Definitely. Harrison’s luxury tax number fits, he can play second and third base, he’s good defensively, he plays with a ton of energy, and he’d add a contact element to a lineup that might be a little too strikeout heavy. I’m not sold on Harrison being anything more than a league average hitter, but he still does enough on the bases and in the field to be worth a lineup spot.
Harrison hit first or second for the Pirates most of last season, but the Yankees won’t need him to do that. They can bat him in the lower third of the lineup somewhere and treat him like the complementary player he is, not ask him to do more than he’s capable of doing. I have no idea what the Pirates want in trade, but if the Lowrie and Castro trades are any indication, it won’t hurt to bring Harrison aboard as a second or third base option. I suspect the Lowrie and Castro trades do not apply here though, and Pittsburgh’s asking price will be much higher.
Here is the nightly open thread. The Knicks, Islanders, and Devils are all playing, and that’s about it. Talk about anything here that is religion or politics.
Late Friday evening the Yankees announced their 2018 Spring Training schedule. Pitchers and catchers are due to report Tuesday, February 13th, and the first Grapefruit League game will be played Friday, February 23rd. Here are the key dates:
- Pitchers and catchers report: Tuesday, February 13th
- First workout: Wednesday, February 14th
- Position players report: Sunday, February 18th
- First full squad workout: Monday, February 19th
- First Grapefruit League game: Friday, February 23rd (home vs. Tigers)
The full schedule is as follows:
The Yankees will make two trips to the other side of Florida next spring, including once to play the Mets in St. Lucie on Wednesday, March 7th. The Mets will visit Tampa three days later. That last game on the spring schedule against the Braves is at SunTrust Park. Then it’s up to the cold north to start the season.
All told, the Yankees will play 33 exhibition games, including 16 home games at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. The various networks will release their spring broadcast schedules in a few weeks. All networks have been scaling back their spring coverage in recent years — those midweek afternoon games don’t get good ratings, apparently — but a good 20-25 of those 33 games should be televised.
Spring Training season tickets are on sale right now. You can buy them here. Individual spring game tickets will go on sale sometime in January. The Yankees open the 2018 regular season on Thursday, March 29th in Toronto. The season begins midweek now to accommodate extra off-days during the season.
With six weeks to go before Spring Training, the Yankees have openings at second and third bases, and no shortage of ways to fill them. They could stay in house with guys like Ronald Torreyes, Gleyber Torres, and Miguel Andujar, or they could dive into the free agent or trade markets for help. There’s an argument to made for both approaches.
One of the best available free agent infielders is Todd Frazier, who was briefly a Yankee last season and has made it no secret he wants to stay in New York. Frazier seemed to genuinely love being a Yankee. According to Brendan Kuty, the two sides remain in contact, but Frazier wants a multi-year contract and the Yankees want to stay under the $197M luxury tax threshold, so the financials could be an issue.
Frazier, 32 next month, hit .213/.344/.428 (108 wRC+) with 27 home runs overall in 2017, including .222/.365/.423 (114 wRC+) with eleven homers in 66 games with the Yankees. He’s a flawed hitter, no doubt, but he is productive, he can play a fine third base, and he’s an asset in the clubhouse. Are those enough reasons to bring him back? Let’s talk this out.
The case for re-signing Frazier
Like I said, Frazier is a flawed hitter but he is productive. He hits for power and he draws walks, and his strikeout rate is basically league average. There’s also reason to believe Frazier will be more comfortable in his second season with the Yankees. More comfortable with the ballpark, the division, his teammates, the city, the works. A midseason trade can be overwhelming. It’s a lot of change in a short period of time.
The Yankees don’t need Frazier to hit in the middle of the order. They can stash him in the bottom third of the lineup and let him pop 20-something homers, maybe more given his extreme fly ball tendencies and all the hitter friendly ballparks in the AL East.
A right-handed hitter who pulls the ball that much won’t take advantage of the short porch, but that’s okay. Frazier is not lacking power. He’ll hit the ball over the fence to left field just fine. I’m surprised the Red Sox aren’t showing more interest in Frazier given how many fly balls he pulls to left field. Seems like a good fit for Fenway Park.
Bringing Frazier back would accomplish two things, in theory. It would give the Yankees a solid complementary player, and also allow youngsters like Torres and Andujar develop at their own pace. I love prospects as much of the next guy, but even the most talented prospects can falter. What if Gleyber pulls a 2017 Dansby Swanson in 2018? Frazier would give the Yankees protection, and he won’t break the bank.
The case against re-signing Frazier
I suppose the case against Frazier starts with his flaws as a hitter. He is an extreme fly ball hitter, which is good for power numbers, but it can also hurt your batting average. As we saw this year, Frazier is prone to weak fly balls and pop-ups. They’re average killers. Frazier has hit .220 in his last 1,242 plate appearances because of those weak fly balls and pop-ups.
The Yankees ran into some problems last season where they struck out in bunches — their team 21.8% strikeout rate was only 13th in MLB and basically league average (21.6%), believe it or not — and adding the totally awesome Giancarlo Stanton won’t solve that problem. Frazier doesn’t strike out a ton (21.7% in 2017), but a pop-up and a strikeout are damn near the same thing. His low average could compound the team’s offensive weakness.
Secondly, Frazier will turn 32 next month, so he’s getting to the point where you have to start worrying about age-related decline. And what is Frazier’s decline going to look like? His average is already low and if he starts to lose some power, he could morph into a below average hitter quickly. And if his defense slips too, well, it won’t take long for the natives to get restless.
A short-term contract would mitigate the risk. The Yankees wouldn’t be locked into Frazier long-term, so if he does begin to decline, they can move on quickly. That said, thanks to the luxury tax plan, every dollar the Yankees spend on Frazier is a dollar they can not spend elsewhere. A low-average hitter at increasing risk of age-related decline might not be the best use of finite payroll space.
* * *
Ultimately, the decision to re-sign or not re-sign Frazier is going to come down to price. If he sticks with his multi-year contract demand and wants, say, $10M to $12M per season, it’s difficult to think Frazier will wind up back with the Yankees. But, if his market fails to materialize and he’s still looking for a job in February, perhaps he would be open to a one-year deal at, say, $8M or so. You never know. He’d get to stay close to home and have a chance to win, and that could appeal to him.
Part of me worries Frazier is getting overrated because he’s a high-energy guy who is easy to root for, plus he had some big hits in the postseason. Don’t get me wrong, being a great clubhouse guy has define value and should not be overlooked. At the same time, there were a lot of complaints about Frazier’s pop-ups and cold stretches following the trade. He can be a frustrating hitter, for sure.
As the seventh or eighth place hitter, the Yankees could probably live with Frazier’s low batting average and weak pop-ups as long as he socks the occasional dinger and plays a solid third base. And if someone like Andujar forces the issue, Frazier is versatile enough to play first base or maybe even left field in addition to DH, so he wouldn’t be blocking anyone.
I think Frazier’s market is worth monitoring. If he’s still looking for a job later in the offseason, then it would be time to pounce. Right now, I don’t think it makes sense for the Yankees to come in with a market rate offer. There’s no reason to do that given how slow the free agent market is moving in general.