Thoughts on the ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees

2017 WAR projections.
2017 WAR projections.

Earlier this week, Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs released ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees. There are a ton of projection systems out there these days, possibly too many at this point, and ZiPS is my personal favorite. It’s been pretty accurate relative to the other systems, historically. ZiPS is my preference. You’re welcome to feel differently.

As a reminder, projections are not predictions. They’re not trying to tell you the future. Projections like ZiPS are an estimate of the player’s current talent level. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .271 in 2008, and .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change? Nah. That’s just baseball being baseball. It would be boring if it were predictable. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the ZiPS projections. They made for good talking points.

1. Sanchez is very unique. Last year Gary Sanchez came up in August and smashed 20 home runs in his final 52 games of the season. No one had ever done that before, especially not as a full-time catcher. Because of that, Sanchez is super unique as a player and projecting him is damn near impossible. That’s why ZiPS spit out Chris Hoiles (Chris Hoiles!) as Sanchez’s top statistical comp at age 24. Hoiles played six games in his age 24 season. He played 23 games in his age 25 season. It wasn’t until his age 26 season that he broke into the show full-time. And yet, ZiPS determined Hoiles was the best statistical comp for Sanchez at this age because Hoiles could really hit. The guy retired as a career .262/.366/.467 (122 wRC+) hitter who averaged 24 homers per 140 games played. Point is, Sanchez’s career path is incredibly unique. Few catchers show this much power this early. ZiPS spit out Hoiles because he had power too even though he didn’t stick for good until age 26.

2. How about that youthful power? The Yankees’ top six projected 2017 home run hitters according to ZiPS are Aaron Judge (30 dingers), Sanchez (27), Clint Frazier (22), Tyler Austin (18), Greg Bird (18), and Starlin Castro (18). Castro is the grizzled veteran of the group and he’s still only 26. Again, ZiPS is not a prediction. The system is estimating the talent level of each player at that homer total. I’ll take the under on Judge and the over on Bird, assuming his shoulder holds up, but the point is the Yankees have multiple young power bats on the roster for the first time in a long time. Last year they had three players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers (Sanchez, Castro, Didi Gregorius). They had three total from 2002-15 (Alfonso Soriano, Cano twice). Prior to last season, the last time the Yankees had multiple players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers was 1991, when Roberto Kelly and Kevin Maas did it. Sanchez, Judge, and Bird are all serious threats to do it in 2017. Maybe Austin too if he gets enough playing time. (Castro turns 27 in Spring Training.) That is pretty awesome and exciting. Hooray for not counting on the veterans to hit the ball out of the park.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3. The Bird projection is a good reality check. I love Greg Bird. I love his plate discipline, I love his calm at the plate, and I love his ability to hit the ball in the air with authority. We also have to remember the kid is coming back from major surgery though, and there are other flaws in his game as well. He’s not a good defender and lefties have given him trouble in the past. The ZiPS projection reflects those realities. It pegs Bird as a true talent .234/.307/.449 (108 OPS+) hitter right now, which is good in a vacuum but not great in the world of first basemen. (First basemen hit .259/.338/.453 in 2016. That’s a 114 OPS+.) Add in the lack of defense — ZiPS has Bird saving zero runs in the field, which might be generous — and you get a +0.8 WAR player. That’s disappointing to see for 2017. But you know what? ZiPS drops Mo Vaughn on Bird as the top statistical comp at age 24, and Vaughn was a monster from ages 25-30. Remember, this coming season will be Bird’s first full season in the show. There will inevitably be bumps along the way, especially following surgery. Hopefully 2017 is a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the future.

4. ZiPS hasn’t given up on Severino as a starter. More than a few folks would like to see the Yankees keep Luis Severino in the bullpen, where he was so dominant last year, and I get it. I do. Brian Cashman indicated they’re going to stick with him as a starter for now, even if it means sending him to Triple-A in 2017, and that’s the right move in my opinion. Severino is still only 22 and I’d hate to give up on him as a starter at that age, especially with the Yankees in need of long-term rotation help. Development isn’t always linear. There are obstacles to overcome along the way. Anyway, ZiPS is still on the “Severino should start” bandwagon, projected him for a 4.20 ERA (3.94 FIP) in 152 innings this coming season. That’s in 26 starts too. (And yeah, seven relief appearances.) His top statistical comp is Mike Witt, who also hot hammered as a starter and pitched well as a reliever at age 22. Witt went on to have a lot of success as a starter from age 23-28. Severino ain’t alone. He’s not the only guy who’s gone through this.

5. The other young starters don’t look so hot. Along with Severino, the Yankees figure to use some combination of Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell at the back of the rotation in 2017. Chances are we’ll see all three of those guys at some point this summer, plus others. ZiPS likes Green the most among those three guys, and the system only projects him as a +0.8 WAR player in 2017.

IP ERA FIP WAR
Cessa 126.2 5.33 5.08 -0.2
Green 128.2 4.67 4.47 +0.8
Mitchell 80 5.74 5.36 -0.6

Eek. I like Cessa more than most, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were replacement level with a 5.00+ ERA next season. Not if he doesn’t do a better job keeping the ball in the park and/or start missing more bats. Other young arms like Jordan Montgomery (+0.5 WAR) and Chance Adams (-0.2 WAR) don’t project a whole lot better in 2017. These guys might be pretty good down the line! But, for this coming season, they carry an awful lot of risk, and ZiPS reflects that.

6. The Yankees need to figure out the rest of the bullpen. The Yankees are set in the eighth and ninth innings with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom have been excellent in recent years and project to be excellent again next season. The rest of the bullpen is a little dicey. Veteran stalwarts Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren project to be average by reliever standards, which I don’t think is unreasonable at this point of their careers. The best of the young relievers, per ZiPS, are Jonathan Holder and Gio Gallegos, who have basically zero combined time in the big leagues. (Holder threw 8.1 sporadic innings in September.) The minor leagues are littered with relievers who have great strikeout and walk rates, they’re everywhere, and not too many of those relievers are able to carry their success over to the big leagues. ZiPS projects Holder and Gallegos for a combined +0.9 WAR in nearly 140 innings in 2017. Eh. No other young reliever projects to be even replacement level. There’s some figuring out to be done in the bullpen.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jason Hammel

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

According to Brian Cashman, the Yankees went into this offseason looking for “pitching, pitching, pitching,” and so far they’ve (re-)signed Aroldis Chapman. And that’s it. Unless you count claiming Joe Mantiply off waivers and signing Jason Gurka to a minor league deal. The rotation has been untouched and Chapman has been the only bullpen upgrade.

Of course, this free agent class was very thin on pitching, so it’s not like the Yankees have sat idle while a bunch of potential aces came off the board. Rich Hill, who was in independent ball 18 months ago, was the top starter on the market. Ivan Nova was arguably the second best option. Yeah. This was not a good offseason to need pitching, that’s for sure. Free agency is thin and trade prices are sky high.

The best free agent starter still on the board right now is veteran righty Jason Hammel, who spent the last two years with the Cubs and became a free agent when the team declined his $12M option. They had to pay him a $2M buyout, so it was essentially a $10M decision. The Cubs reportedly left it up to Hammel, and decided to test the market. Does he make sense for the Yankees? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

Over the last three seasons the 34-year-old Hammel has been a boringly reliable middle of the rotation pitcher. He’s threw no more than 176.1 innings and no fewer than 166.2 innings in each of those three seasons, and during that time he has a 3.68 ERA (4.02 FIP). Like I said, boringly reliable.

The 2016 season was Hammel’s worst in seven years in terms of strikeout (20.8%), walk (7.7%), and home run (1.35 HR/9) rates. Homers were up around the league and Hammel wasn’t too far off from his career 1.13 HR/9, so maybe we can give him a mulligan there. Here are the last three years:

jason-hammel-rates

Not great, not awful, no alarming spikes. Hammel’s strikeout and walk numbers were indeed his worst in several years last season, but they weren’t that far off from his 2014-15 numbers either. Consistency is boring.

One aspect of Hammel’s performance that can not be ignored is his tendency to fade in the second half. It’s happened three years in a row now. Last season Hammel failed to complete four innings in three of his final seven starts, and he allowed 35 runs in his final 32.1 innings of the season. Egads. Look at this:

jason-hammel-era

Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend. Hammel is not a 200-inning workhorse. He’s essentially a 170-inning pitcher who is most effective during the first 140 innings. Things get dicey after that. As long as his next employer is aware of that and acts accordingly — use off-days to skip a start now and then, things like that — it’s not a huge problem.

Current Stuff

Hammel has gone through several transformations since his time with the Devils Rays way back when. He’s gone from four-seamer/curveball pitcher to sinker/slider pitcher to four-seamer/sinker/slider pitcher. Hammel still throws the curveball now and then, and every once in a while he’ll toss a changeup, but for the most part he’s a three-pitch pitcher these days. The 2016 numbers:

  • Four-seamer: 9.1% whiffs and 29.2% grounders (MLB averages: 6.9% and 37.9%)
  • Sinker: 2.8% whiffs and 58.8% grounders (MLB averages: 5.4% and 49.5%)
  • Slider: 17.5% whiffs and 42.2% grounders (MLB averages: 15.2% and 43.9%)

Hammel does not have a dominant pitch. He was able to get a good amount of ground balls with his sinker a year ago, and the slider was probably his best pitch overall considering it was basically average at getting both swings and misses and grounders. Because his changeup is close to a non-factor, lefties (.344 wOBA) had more success against Hammel than righties (.292 wOBA) last year. Here’s some video:

Like I said earlier, boringly reliable. Hammel won’t be appointment television. He’s not very exciting, but he is generally effective.

Injury History

The Cubs did not carry Hammel on their postseason roster — I’m not sure he would have been on the playoff roster anyway given Chicago’s other options — because elbow tightness ended his season in late-September. He also missed most of August with forearm tendinitis. That’s not good. Forearm trouble is a common precursor to elbow trouble. By all accounts though, Hammel’s elbow is structurally sound and he’ll be ready in time for Spring Training.

The recent forearm and elbow woes are the first time Hammel has had arm trouble in his big league career. He missed a month with a groin strain back in 2010 (who cares) and about two months total following right knee surgery in 2012. Hammel had surgery to repair cartilage damage, returned in six weeks, then felt renewed soreness and missed another two weeks. The knee has been problem free ever since.

Injuries have not been a problem throughout Hammel’s career. And it means basically nothing. Hammel finished the season hurt, with an arm problem no less, and it can be considered a recurring injury. He had forearm trouble in August and then elbow trouble in September. That’s scary and certainly a reason he remains unsigned in January. Forget that he’s been healthy most of his career. He finished the year hurt and that’s the most recent information.

Contract Estimates

(Jon Durr/Getty)
(Jon Durr/Getty)

Once Jeremy Hellickson accepted the qualifying offer, Hammel was no worse than the third best starter on the free agent market. He seemed poised to cash in big as a free agent, and he still might, but so far things have been quiet. Here are some contract estimates:

It sure seems like Hammel won’t be getting a three-year contract this offseason. I’m guessing he’d jump all over a three-year offer at this point. Recent reports indicate Hammel has received nothing more than one-years contract offers this winter, which is telling. Teams must be afraid of that elbow.

Hammel lost $10M when the Cubs declined his option. He and his agent — Hammel changed representatives earlier this winter because his market was not developing — are probably looking to at least recoup that $10M, so does that mean the floor is a one-year deal worth $10M? Possibly. I’m taking a shot in the dark here.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

Yes because he’s a veteran starting pitcher who has been pretty good in recent years and won’t cost an arm and a leg. There is no such thing as too much pitching depth. The Yankees will appreciate having an extra veteran starter around whenever the kids inevitably hit a bump in the road all at once. You know it’s coming.

That yes comes with several caveats though. For starters, there’s the whole elbow thing. That’s kind of a big deal. Secondly, home runs have always been an issue for Hammel and Yankee Stadium will only exacerbate that. And third, Hammel won’t be playing in front of the Cubs’ historically great defense anymore. The Yankees have a solid team defense, much better than in previous years, but it’s not on par with Chicago’s.

Last year Hammel had a 3.83 ERA (4.48 FIP) with the Cubs. Again: boringly reliable. Move him to Yankee Stadium (and the other hitter friendly AL East parks) in the DH league and it might be a 4.50 ERA (5.00 FIP) in 2017. That kinda stinks, doesn’t it? I’m just spitballing though. Who knows what’ll happen next year. Point is, there are several reasons to believe Hammel’s performance is about to take a turn for the worst.

Still, it’s not like Hammel would be blocking a young pitcher. This isn’t like signing Mike Napoli and sending Greg Bird to Triple-A. Signing Hammel to the cheap one-year contract he appears destined to sign would be a worthwhile move for the pitching needy Yankees, even with the elbow red flags. (It ain’t my money!) It’s just a question of whether Hammel is willing to pitch in such a hitter friendly park. Yankee Stadium isn’t a good place to rebuild value.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, Nathaniel Grow at FanGraphs wrote about a little known California labor law that could, in theory, allow Mike Trout to become a free agent right now. Section 2855 of the state labor code limits all employment contracts to seven years, and since Trout has been an Angels employee since 2009, he could technically terminate his current contract and seek employment elsewhere. This applies to other longtime California players like Clayton Kershaw and Buster Posey as well. It won’t happen because the inevitable legal battle would be long and costly, but still, it’s kinda fun to think about.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the evening. The Knicks and Rangers are both playing, and there’s some college hoops on the docket as well. You folks know how these things work by now, so have at it.

The 2017 season is a make or break year for Aaron Hicks

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Baseball people and writers tend to overuse certain key phrases. I know I’m guilty of it. “Ace” and “top of the rotation starter” are thrown around quite a bit, especially after a guy has a good month or two. “Five-tool player” is another big one. He’s got three better than average tools? Eh, close enough. He’s a five-tool player. Happens all the time.

Another popular one, and I suppose this isn’t limited to baseball, is “make or break year.” Two years ago folks were saying Gary Sanchez was facing a make or break year, which was preposterous. He was a 21-year-old catcher coming off a .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) line at a full season in Double-A. C’mon now. A few weeks ago I saw someone say Yoan Moncada was facing a make or break year. Seriously?

One Yankees who is truly facing a make or break year, meaning what very well might be his last chance to establish himself as an everyday player, is outfielder Aaron Hicks. Hicks turned 27 in October, so he’s not old by any means, but he’s also reached the point where he should have seized a full-time job by now. He’s four seasons and nearly 1,300 plate appearances into his career already. This isn’t a rookie we’re talking about here.

Overall, Hicks was undeniably disappointing in 2016, hitting .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) with eight home runs in 361 plate appearances. He did perform better after Carlos Beltran was traded away and his playing time increased — Hicks hit .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five homers in 129 plate appearances around a hamstring injury after the trade deadline — which was nice to see, but ultimately it doesn’t mean a whole lot.

It’s easy to see why Hicks was a first round pick and why he continues to get chances. The athleticism is obvious, his arm is a rocket, his plate discipline is better than he gets credit for (18.8 K% and 8.3 BB% in 2016), and he’s a switch-hitter who can hit the ball a mile when he connects.

The bad news for Hicks is the Yankees don’t have an opening for him right now. Sure, they could play him everyday in right field next season, but I’m certain the team would rather see Aaron Judge grab that spot and run with it. Judge figures to get playing time priority over Hicks. Jacoby Ellsbury is locked into center field, meaning a Brett Gardner trade may be Hicks’ only path to regular playing time. A trade seems unlikely at the moment.

The raw ability is there and you hate to give up on it. And yet, you can’t wait forever either. There comes a point where a player is what he is, and Hicks is close to reaching that point, if he hasn’t gotten there already. He’s yet to play a full season as an everyday player, and part of that is the way his teams have used him, but he shares the blame too. Had Hicks performed better, the Twins and Yankees would have made more time for him.

Switch-hitters with this kind of pedigree and athleticism will continue to get chances, so it’s not like Hicks will be run out of the league if he doesn’t have a successful 2017. This might be his last chance to stake a claim to an everyday job though, his last chance to show he’s more than a spare part player. The Yankees have several young outfielders ready to break into the show soon, and the Hicks won’t be an obstacle unless things finally click.

“Giving up on a prospect is one of the hardest things to do,” said an executive to Chris Crawford (subs. req’d) recently. “We spend so much time with these players, sometimes we refuse to move these players in trades, and we want these kids to succeed. Sooner or later, however, we have to see them make the necessary adjustments, and if they can’t, we have to move on. It’s a lot easier said than done, but it has to happen.”

Prospect Profile: Gleyber Torres

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Gleyber Torres | SS

Background
Torres, who turned 20 last month, grew up in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. Baseball America ranked him as the second best prospect in the 2013-14 international class, and the Cubs landed him with a $1.7M signing bonus. Chicago exceeded their bonus pool to sign Torres and outfielder Eloy Jimenez, Baseball America’s best available prospect that signing period.

The Yankees acquired Torres from the Cubs as the headliner in the Aroldis Chapman trade at the 2016 trade deadline. Torres, outfielders Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford, and righty Adam Warren went to New York for Chapman, an impending free agent. It was a four-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Torres signed at age 16 and the Cubs moved him up the ladder pretty aggressively. He split the 2014 season, his pro debut, between the rookie level Arizona League and short season Northwest League, where he hit .291/.381/.429 (132 wRC+) with two homers, ten steals, 18.4% strikeouts, and 13.5% walks in 52 games and 223 total plate appearances. Torres was nearly three years younger than the competition overall.

In 2015, the Cubs sent Torres to their Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League, where he was the youngest player in the league on Opening Day by five months. Gleyber was excellent, hitting .293/.353/.386 (116 wRC+) with three homers, 22 steals, 21.0% strikeouts, and 8.4% walks in 119 games and 514 plate appearances. The Cubs had him finish the season with seven-game cameo at Low-A. After the season, Torres was ranked the team’s top prospect and the 41st best prospect in baseball by Baseball America.

Chicago moved Torres up to their High-A affiliate in the Carolina League to start last season, where he was the circuit’s second youngest player on Opening Day. Gleyber hit .275/.359/.433 (121 wRC+) with nine homers, 19 steals, 21.3% strikeouts, and 10.3% walks in 94 games and 409 plate appearances before the trade, prompting Baseball America to rank him the 27th best prospect in the game at midseason. MLB.com ranked him 17th.

After the trade, Torres hit .254/.341/.385 (115 wRC+) with two homers, two steals, 16.7% strikeouts, and 11.6% walks in 31 games and 138 plate appearances with High-A Tampa. He played the entire season at age 19 and was nearly four years younger than the competition. The Yankees sent Torres to the Arizona Fall League after the season, where he hit .403/.513/.645 (218 wRC+) with three homers and four steals in 18 games. He became the youngest MVP and batting champion in league history.

“I heard everything he did, and we’ve been very excited about this young kid ever since we’ve had him,” said Joe Girardi to Mike Mazzeo last month. “He went out and played at a very, very high level, with kids that are older than him, with kids that played at a higher level than him. He was one of the kids that really shined. I think that really bodes well for us, and I look forward to seeing him (in the spring).”

Scouting Report
Torres, who’s grown three inches since signing and now stands 6-foot-1 and 175 lbs., stands out most for his ultra-advanced offensive approach. He knows the strike zone, recognizes spin, and has a plan at the plate. His right-handed swing is controlled but aggressive; Gleyber doesn’t get cheated when he swings, though he’s not a wild hacker either. Torres has good bat-to-ball skills and uses the entire field, though most of his over-the-fence power is to the pull side at the moment.

In the field, Torres combines great instincts with good defensive tools. He has soft hands, good range, and a strong arm. There’s very little doubt he can remain at shortstop long-term, though the Yankees are loaded at the position, so they’ve had Gleyber work out at second base. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees some time at third base going forward as well. Torres is a good runner who can steal bags and push the envelope on the bases.

The total package points to a future star. Torres projects to be a complete hitter who hits for average and power, and draws enough walks to post high on-base percentages as well. He’ll also swipe some bags and save runs in the field, regardless of whether he remains at short or slides over to second or third. Torres is a very hard worker — he spent a lot of time with Chicago’s infield instructors and erased doubts about his ability to remain at short early in his career — and a mature player. There’s very little not to like.

2017 Outlook
Brian Cashman has already said Torres will begin the 2017 season with Double-A Trenton, and hinted at the possibility of a midseason promotion to Triple-A Scranton. Remember, Torres just turned 20 last month. He’ll be one of the youngest players in the Eastern League on Opening Day, if not the youngest, so it’s entirely possible he’ll make his MLB debut before his 22nd birthday. I don’t think he’ll reach the show this coming season, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out either. He could tear up Double-A, earn a quick bump to Triple-A, and force the issue.

My Take
When the Yankees were gauging the market for Chapman, I was hoping they’d get a Torres-caliber prospect in a one-for-one swap, and they managed to get Torres and three other players. Amazing. The trade far exceeded my expectations.

As far Torres himself, how can you not love the kid? The tools are as good as it gets, he’s a mature player who carries himself like someone who’s been in the league ten years, and he projects to have two-way impact. Torres is New York’s top prospect and one of the best 10-15 prospects in all of baseball. He and Gary Sanchez figure to be the faces of the franchise going forward, as the Yankees work to build their next championship team.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luis Valbuena

Bat flips are a plus. (Al Bello/Getty)
The bat flips are a plus. (Al Bello/Getty)

Now that we’re in January, the bargain-hunting period of the offseason has begun. Teams use these last few weeks before Spring Training to round out their rosters, and lots of free agents, especially the second and third tier guys, start to get antsy the longer they remain unemployed. That can lead to some nice value signings, the kind of signings that can be the difference in a division or wildcard race.

The Yankees are fairly well set on the position player side at the moment. A Brett Gardner trade or especially a Chase Headley trade would throw a wrench into things, but since those two are still Yankees, it’s not a problem at the moment. The only realistic spot to look for an upgrade is the bench, and even then New York has several young players who could fill out the roster, such as Rob Refsnyder.

If the Yankees are willing to go out into free agency to add another bench or platoon player, a possible target is former Astros third baseman Luis Valbuena, who remains unsigned even though the free agent infield market was so weak this winter. Justin Turner and Neil Walker were fair and away the best available non-first base infielders and both returned to their former teams. Valbuena is still out there. Does he make sense for the Yankees? Let’s break it down.

Offensive Performance

Valbuena, who turned 31 in November, finally settled in as a starting player the last three years after bouncing around earlier in his career. From 2014-16, his three seasons as a starter, he’s hit .243/.334/.442 (115 wRC+) with a 21.7% strikeout rate and an 11.5% walk rate. He’s averaged 27 doubles and 22 homers per 150 games during those three seasons.

Before a hamstring injury ended his season in July, Valbuena managed a .260/.357/.459 (123 wRC+) batting line with 13 homers in 90 games. His strikeout (23.7%) and walk (12.9%) rates were right where they normally sit. Most importantly, Valbuena’s quality of contact has remained steady. No spike in ground balls or increase in soft contact. Nothing like that. Via FanGraphs:

luis-valbuena-contact

Valbuena is, quite simply, a left-handed pull hitter who hits the ball in the air quite often. His 46.7% pull rate is 23rd highest among the 235 players to bat at least 1,000 times over the last three seasons, on par with guys like Brandon Moss (47.0%) and David Ortiz (46.2%). Also, his 33.6% ground ball rate is eighth lowest among those 235 batters. Dude hits lots of fly balls to right field.

I needn’t tell you what happens when a left-handed hitter pulls the ball in the air at Yankee Stadium. We’ve seen some players change their approach in an effort to take advantage of the short porch over the years, most notably Mark Teixeira, but Valbuena doesn’t have to change anything. His natural swing produces fly balls to right field. Here are his last two seasons with the Astros, via Baseball Savant:

luis-valbuena-spray-chart

There are some opposite field dingers in there and that’s cool, but yeah, it seems Valbuena and the short porch would get along well. He’s basically unplayable against southpaws — Valbuena has hit .253/.344/.473 (126 wRC+) against righties and .206/.299/.335 (79 wRC+) against lefties the last three years — but a left-handed platoon player with pull power and lots of walks is a nice little role player.

Baserunning is part of offense too, and it’s important to note Valbuena is a net negative on the basepaths. He doesn’t steal bases (4-for-11 in attempts since 2013) and over the last three years, he’s taken the extra base just 30.5% of the time. That’s going first-to-third on a single, things like that. The league average is right around 40%. So, when it comes to creating runs, Valbuena does it by drawing walks and pulling the ball in the air against righties. That’s it.

Defensive Performance

Back in the day, Valbuena broke into the big leagues as a shortstop with the Mariners. He then moved to second base and later third base, where he’s played almost exclusively since 2012. Valbuena hasn’t played short since 2011 and he’s played only 210 innings at second since 2012. The Astros had him dabble at first base these last two seasons, but not much (277 innings).

The various defensive stats agree Valbuena is not a good defensive third baseman. Some say he’s close to average, others say he’s far below that. Here are his last three defensive seasons at the hot corner:

Innings UZR DRS FRAA Total Zone
2014 971 -4.9 -10 -12.3 -3
2015 835 -9.3 -1 -4.4 1
2016 683 -0.8 -1 +6.2 -5
Total 2,489 -15.0 -12 -10.5 -7

Yeah, not great. Valbuena can stand over at third base and fake it at first, maybe even second in an emergency, and that’s about it. He’ll cost his team runs in the field. So, if he stops hitting homers and drawing walks, there’s nothing to salvage Valbuena as a player. He can’t contribute in any other way.

Injury History

As I mentioned earlier, a hamstring injury ended Valbuena’s season in July last year. He suffered the injury running out a ground ball against the Yankees:

The injury was originally diagnosed as a strain, and during his rehab a few weeks later, Valbuena suffered a setback that required season-ending surgery to repair his hamstring tendon. I can’t find any recent updates, but reports at the time of the surgery indicate he’s expected to be 100% healthy well before Spring Training.

Aside from the hamstring, Valbuena has had no serious injuries in his career. He missed a month with a right oblique strain in 2013 and that’s it. The oblique and hamstring are his only two disabled list stints. The fact Valbuena is coming off surgery right now is a concern, it has to be, but injuries haven’t been a chronic problem. The guy pulled him hamstring, pushed his rehab too hard, and suffered a setback. C’est la vie.

Contract Estimates

The Astros did not tender Valbuena the qualifying offer — the hamstring injury put an end to that, I think maybe they would have given him the qualify offer had he stayed healthy — so he’s not tied to draft pick compensation. He’s a true free agent with no strings attached. Anyway, here are some contract estimates:

Less than I expected! Even with the injury, I feel like plenty of teams could use Valbuena at $7M a year for two years. Of course, third base is loaded around the league at the moment, so the demand might not be there. Based on my quick glance, the Braves and Padres are the only teams that could offer Valbuena their full-time third base gig at the moment. Maybe the Twins too if they commit to moving Miguel Sano to DH.

The hamstring injury and the lack of available third base jobs are the reasons Valbuena remains unsigned, and they could cause him to settle for a smaller than expected contract. I wonder if Valbuena will end up taking a one-year deal worth $6M or $7M, something in that neighborhood. That’s Mitch Moreland (one-year, $5.5M), Welington Castillo (one-year, $6M), and Jon Jay (one-year, $8M) territory. Remember, David Freese is a solid third baseman himself, and it wasn’t until mid-March that he signed a one-year deal worth $3M last offseason.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

The Yankees were said to be in “ongoing” talks with Valbuena during the Winter Meetings last month, and, at the time, it seemed like they were talking to him as a backup plan in case a Headley trade went down that week. His market has been very quiet since then. The last hard Valbuena rumor at MLBTR involved some interest from the Rays on December 17th. Prior to that it was the Yankees at the Winter Meetings. Yeah.

Okay, so anyway, as it stands, the position player portion of New York’s projected 2017 roster looks something like this:

Catcher: Gary Sanchez
First Base: Greg Bird or Tyler Austin
Second Base: Starlin Castro
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Headley
Outfield: Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Judge
Designated Hitter: Matt Holliday
Bench: Austin Romine, Ronald Torreyes, Aaron Hicks, Austin or Refsnyder

There’s some wiggle room there — Judge could strike out his way to Triple-A during Grapefruit League play, for example — but that seems to be it. Barring a Headley trade, which seems unlikely, Valbuena would fill that “Austin or Refsnyder” spot on the bench. I suppose he could replace Torreyes, which would mean Castro serves as the backup shortstop, but the Yankees didn’t like that idea last year.

Is Valbuena a better player than Austin or Refsnyder right now? Almost certainly. In a vacuum, signing him to fill that roster spot makes the Yankees a better team. This isn’t a vacuum though. Filling the Austin/Refsnyder spot with Valbuena comes with some consequences, namely:

  1. No fifth outfielder. Austin and Refsnyder have outfield experience, mostly right field but also left, so they’re options out there. Valbuena is not. Hicks would be the lone reserve outfielder.
  2. No platoon bat for Bird. Austin or Refsnyder, whoever gets that bench spot, will presumably platoon with Bird at first base, at least against really tough lefties. The Chris Sales and David Prices of the world. Valbuena can’t do that as a lefty with platoon issues.

Maybe these are minor considerations. Torreyes has played a tiny little bit of outfield in his career and the Yankees might feel comfortable relying on him as the fifth outfielder since that guy usually only plays the outfield in emergencies anyway. And Bird might not need a platoon partner. The Yankees could force feed him at-bats against southpaws to help him develop.

The Yankees supposedly need to shed salary before making any more additions, so this might all be moot. I like the idea of adding Valbuena on a cheap one-year contract to bolster the bench — he could see time at both corner infield spots as well as DH — but who knows if he’ll actually have to settle for a cheap one-year contract. And if he does, would he be willing to be a bench player with the Yankees? The short porch is nice, but other clubs could offer more playing time.

There are some drawbacks to signing Valbuena as well, namely the imperfect roster construction. The Yankees are probably eager to see what Austin can do with more playing time, for example, and Valbuena would cut into that. It’s hard not to get excited about Austin’s opposite field power at Yankee Stadium. At this stage of the rebuild transition, seeing what a young player can do should take priority over adding a win or maybe two to the bench with someone like Valbuena, shouldn’t it?

Tuesday Night Open Thread

In case you missed it earlier today, ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees were released at FanGraphs. I’m going to write up a separate post with some thoughts once I get a chance to really dig through them, but there’s the link. The team’s top three projected home run hitters next season: Aaron Judge (30), Gary Sanchez (27), and Clint Frazier (22). Hell yeah.

This is tonight’s open thread. The (hockey) Rangers and Devils are both playing, and there’s some college hoops on the schedule as well. Talk about those games, the ZiPS projections, or anything else right here. Go nuts.