Mailbag: Johnson, Mateo, AL East Shortstops, Hellickson

I’ve got 13 questions in the mailbag this week. Use the RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com email address to send us anything throughout the week. Also, the shorter the question, the better.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
Johnson. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

Stephen asks: What about a trade for Erik Johnson of the White Sox?

(This is the short version of Stephen’s question.)

I like the idea of Johnson as a trade target. He had some shoulder trouble in 2014 and was dreadful, pitching to a 6.73 ERA (5.19 FIP) in 105.2 Triple-A innings. Johnson was healthy last season though, and he had a 2.37 ERA (2.57 FIP) in 132.2 Triple-A innings. (He spoke to Tom Verducci about his mechanical improvements.)

Johnson just turned 26 and PitchFX clocked him at 91.3 mph during his September call-up, up from 89.6 mph during his limited MLB time in early 2014. He also throws a slider and a changeup, and sometimes a curveball. Here’s some video:

Johnson still has six years of control remaining, which is nice. He is currently penciled in as Chicago’s fifth starter and they have close to zero rotation depth, so they might not be too keen on trading him.

Stephen mentioned Brett Gardner and Ivan Nova for Johnson, which would give the ChiSox a replacement starter and the outfielder they seem to be craving. Two potential problems: 1) Nova kinda sucks, and 2) they seem to want a big outfield bat because Adam Eaton already fills the speedy leadoff role. Johnson’s a nice target. I’m not sure if the Yankees match up well with the White Sox though.

Bob asks: Would it make sense for the Yankees to use Jorge Mateo as their September pinch-runner in 2016? Is there any way the Yankees can use him without giving up team control?

(That’s the short version of Bob’s question.)

Mateo would pick up a month of service time if the Yankees called him up to be their pinch-runner in September. They wouldn’t lose a full year of team control. Mateo will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next offseason, so the Yankees could call him in September and it wouldn’t complicate the 40-man roster situation. If Mateo was not Rule 5 Draft eligible, I don’t think the Yankees would call him up because they wouldn’t want to put him on the 40-man before they have to. One month of service time is generally no big deal. It doesn’t change his arbitration or free agency timetable at all.

Gene asks: Should the Yankees manipulate service time for Sanchez? How many days would he have to stay down to gain an extra year of control?

I think there’s a good argument to be made they should. They could certainly justify sending Gary Sanchez down to Triple-A for a few weeks to work on his defense. Sanchez picked up 23 days of service time last year — he wasn’t called up right away in September because of a minor hamstring injury — so add 12 days to that, and the Yankees would need to keep him down for 35 days to delay free agency. They’d have to send him down for about four months to avoid Super Two.

Sending Sanchez down for five or six weeks might not be a bad idea. He’d get a little more time to work on his defense and the Yankees would pick up an extra year of control. Realistically, how much big league playing time would Sanchez get in those six weeks? Six, seven starts? All the early-season off-days would make it easy to keep Brian McCann in the lineup.

David asks: Can you explain options. With the Yankees considering a revolving 25th roster spot how does options work? Each time you are called up and subsequently sent down is considered an option or each year you are called up is considered an option (thus you can be sent up and down as many times as the team wants that year).

Players use one option per year. They can go up and down as many times as the team wants in each individual season while using the only one minor league option. Each player gets three option years, though some qualify for a fourth under certain circumstances that seem to change all the time. (I still have no idea why Dellin Betances qualified for a fourth option.) Once the player burns his three option years, he has to clear waivers to go to the minors.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Sam asks: What do you think every starting shortstop in the AL East would get in the open market if they were free agents this offseason?

That’s a fun question. Here are my best guesses:

  • Xander Bogaerts, age 23: Ten years, $180M. Had a great year in 2015 and looks like he has room to get even better. He doesn’t have a long track record though, which is why I think he would fall short of $200M.
  • Troy Tulowitzki, age 31: Five years, $100M. There’s five years and $98M left on his current contract and I think he’d get a tiny bit more than that. He’s still very good and plays a premium position, but man, those injuries.
  • Didi Gregorius, age 25: Six years, $72M. That’s $12M per season. Maybe that’s high, but I think Didi’s age and defense will get him paid. Look at what it took to get Andrelton Simmons in a trade.
  • Brad Miller, age 26: Four years, $32M. Roughly the Omar Infante contract. Miller has shown signs of being an above-average hitter, but his defense is really shaky. He might not be a shortstop much longer.
  • J.J. Hardy, age 33: Two years, $20M. Hardy was hurt and awful last season (49 wRC+), and it could be a sign his days as an above-average player are over. He hasn’t topped a 100 wRC+ since 2011.

Do those seem even remotely correct? Guesstimating contracts for players as young as Bogaerts and Gregorius is really tough. Guys never hit free agency at that age so it’s hard to get a feel for how teams value them. Perhaps Bogaerts could get $200M+ despite the lack of track record. Maybe $72M is way too much for Didi.

Ruby asks: If Gary Sanchez proves himself to be an MLB ready catcher this year, do you see the Yanks trying to shop McCann next offseason (possibly in a package for a controllable pitcher), in order to try and get under the luxury tax a year earlier while also accelerating their on the fly rebuild?

They could try, but I don’t think there will be a huge market for soon-to-be 33-year-old catcher making $17M a year. Plus he has a full no-trade clause. I think McCann is worth keeping around though. He’d allow them to gradually ease Sanchez into the starting role, and besides, McCann is still one of the most productive catchers in the game despite no longer being he hitter he once was. Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran will be gone next winter and Alex Rodriguez the winter after that. There will be more DH at-bats available to McCann down the road. I think keeping a quality catcher around is a good idea.

Pounder asks: Would the Yanks consider trading for the recently signed Hellickson (by the Phillies)? A package of Nova, Refsnyder and some decent minor leaguers seems like a fair deal.

I don’t think so. The Phillies acquired Jeremy Hellickson for close to nothing in what amounted to a salary dump trade earlier this offseason because they needed someone to eat innings. Hellickson will be a free agent next offseason and he’s still relatively young (28), so there’s a chance he rebounds. It’s been three years since he had an ERA under 4.50 though. The guy had a 4.86 ERA (4.29 FIP) in 383.2 innings from 2013-15 and has dealt with elbow problems. Nova had a 4.25 ERA (4.27 FIP) in 254 innings from 2013-15. I think I’d rather stick with Nova, and I definitely wouldn’t give up Rob Refsnyder for one year of Hellickson, nevermind kick in other pieces. The Hellickson of 2011-12 is long gone.

Bill asks: Slade Heathcott has persevered as a player and person. I think he has all the tools, if he could stay healthy. What would you think about trading Gardner for a pitcher, and giving Slade a chance to play everyday?

I love Slade, he’s awesome and he’s dealt with a ton of adversity, but I don’t think playing him everyday would work out well for the Yankees. There’s no reason to think he can stay healthy for an extended period of time. And besides, even when he was healthy last year, he hit .267/.315/.343 (90 wRC+) in 271 Triple-A plate appearances. The Yankees have plenty of upper level outfielders and can afford to trade Gardner, though I’d rather see Aaron Hicks play everyday before Slade. Maybe even Mason Williams and Ben Gamel too.

Minor. (David Banks/Getty)
Minor. (David Banks/Getty)

P.J. asks: Of either Cliff Lee or Mike Minor as possible options from the rehabbing bin who would be a better option for the Yankees? Lee who has a better performance history and is a lefty OR Minor who is considerably younger and also a lefty. Of course I’m assuming Lee would cost more. Or neither.

Whichever one is healthier would be the better option. Lee hasn’t pitched since July 2014 due to a flexor issue in his elbow that is apparently fully healed. Minor hasn’t pitched since September 2014 due to shoulder surgery, and I haven’t seen any updates on his progress at all. For whatever reason young Braves pitchers all seem to break down after two or three seasons (Minor, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, even Alex Wood is showing signs of decline). Minor’s younger than Lee and would remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2017, but what good is that if his shoulder is mush? Look over the medicals, sign whoever looks healthiest and most ready to help.

Forrest asks: Hi all, my question is, why don’t more teams structure long term deals front loaded? That way when the inevitable decline phase happens the players salary will be more palatable and will also give the team more flexibility to trade the player in the future.

There are a few reasons. For starters, a dollar now is worth more than a dollar later. Blame inflation. Teams want to push the money off as long as possible. There’s also the flexibility aspect. Back-loading the contract leaves more dollars to improve the roster today. I am certain some GMs have signed players to long-term deals under the assumption they won’t be around when the deal turns ugly. Heck, that might true of some owners. Not to be morbid, but do you think 90-year-old Ted Lerner cares Max Scherzer will be paid $15M a year from 2022-28? Probably not. Also, I think players would like to earn a little more money each passing year. That’s human nature, wanting a raise and knowing you’re going to make more in five years than you do right now. There have been some front-loaded contracts — A-Rod‘s current deal was front-loaded, for example — but most are still back-loaded for these reasons.

Paul asks: In the past few years we’ve seen statistics both for hitters and pitchers around hard/soft (and medium) contact. Is that subjective (some guy @ each game stuck labeling each struck ball) or objective (perhaps using hitfx with some MPH groupings)? Also, what are the league averages on these numbers? Thanks.

The soft and hard contact rates at FanGraphs come from Baseball Info Solutions, and it is subjective data. There’s a human stringer watching the game and classifying each batted ball as soft, medium, or hard. So yes, there’s some scorer bias involved. The league averages in 2015 are right here. Batted ball velocity is now available through Statcast but even raw mph doesn’t tell us everything — hit a ball 100 mph at a certain angle and it’s a pop-up to short. I prefer the general soft/medium/hard BIS data to exit velocity at the moment. We still have some work to do before we fully understand exit velocity.

UPDATE: I’m wrong. BIS batted ball data is now automated. Here’s the info. Long story short, the hang time, landing spot, and batted ball type are recorded, and an algorithm determines whether determines soft, medium, or hard contact.

Michael asks: What would it take to reacquire Solarte for the last spot on the bench? Would it be worth the cost?

Yeah he’d make sense. He’s a switch-hitter who can backup third base and also fill-in at first and second, like he did last year with the Padres. Yangervis Solarte’s unique because he wasn’t a top prospect and he’s not super young (turns 29 in July), but he has four years of control and has been rather useful the last two seasons. The Padres will surely market him as a starting player — he’s now their starting third baseman — though he would only be a bench guy for the Yankees. Refsnyder and a lower level arm, say Domingo German, for Solarte? That’s about as high as I’d go.

Chris asks: Kyle Parker was just DFA’d by the Rockies. Any chance the recently acquired Jason Lane is designated for assignment for a claim?

Lane Adams! Not Jason Lane. Jason Lane is a pitcher now. Parker has name value as a former first round pick and high-profile college football player, but he hit .280/.326/.431 (100 wRC+) with a 26.3% strikeout rate in Triple-A last season, and he seems to have hit the wall a lot of two-sport guys hit in Triple-A. Parker has an option left, so if they swap out Adams for Parker, fine. I don’t think either player has much to offer as the MLB level.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Ready for some snow? We’re only supposed to get something like 3-6 inches here in NYC this weekend. I know it’ll be much more outside the city and a little further down the coast, so I hope everyone drives safe and stays warm and all that.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils are the only local sports team in action, but there is some college hoops on as well. Have at it.

Yankees spoke to former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos about front office position

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Before he joined the Dodgers last week, the Yankees spoke to former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos about a front office position, Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty. The two sides actually met at some point, so this wasn’t just a cursory phone call or something like that. There was legitimate interest.

Anthopoulos, 38, served as Blue Jays GM from October 2009 though October 2015. He rejected a five-year contract extension after the team named Mark Shapiro their new team president, reportedly because he felt his authority within the organization had been diminished. Anthopoulos had been with Toronto since 2003.

The Yankees lost assistant GM Billy Eppler earlier this offseason, when he was named Angels GM. Eppler had been Brian Cashman’s right hand man. Pro scout Tim Naehring was promoted to replace Eppler. Right now Cashman has two assistants (Jean Afterman, Michael Fishman) and a small army of advisors, including Naehring, Gene Michael, and Jim Hendry.

It’s not surprising the Yankees reached out to Anthopoulos. They did the same when Ben Cherington stepped down as Red Sox GM last year, and they’re always looking to add smart people to the front office. He would have helped fill the void following Eppler’s departure. No doubt. Anthopoulos instead took a long-term deal with the Dodgers and is now their vice president of baseball operations.

Aroldis Chapman will not face charges stemming from October incident

(Joe Robbins/Getty)
(Joe Robbins/Getty)

3:43pm ET: MLB will now begin its investigation into the incident in earnest, reports Ken Davidoff. The league had been holding off while the criminal investigation was underway. “When you have a new policy, the first ones take on a special significance in terms of tone and precedent and all those things. I’m going to make sure that I know everything I could possibly know about each of these cases before I make any decisions,” said commissioner Rob Manfred at the owners’ meetings in Florida.

2:42pm ET: Aroldis Chapman will not face criminal charges stemming from the domestic dispute incident at his Miami area home back in October, the Broward State Attorney’s Office announced. Rafael Olmeda of the Sun Sentinel passed along the news.

“We are all pleased that the Davie Police Department and the Office of the State Attorney took the time to fully investigate the matter and have concluded that charges were not warranted,” said Paul Molle, Chapman’s attorney, to Olmeda.

Police were sent to Chapman’s home after his girlfriend called 911 claiming he choked and pushed her during a party. No arrests were made at the time due to inconsistencies in her story, however Chapman did admit to police he fired eight shots from a handgun in his garage. Here’s the police report.

Chapman remains under investigation by MLB under their new domestic violence policy. Suspensions under the policy are not dependent on arrests or criminal charges. MLB  can and probably will suspend him anyway. That police were called to Chapman’s home and he admitted firing a gun seems like grounds for a suspension, right?

A few weeks ago we heard Chapman is not expected to receive a lengthy suspension, whatever that means. Ten games? Two weeks? A month? Who knows. There are no minimum or maximum suspensions, and no one has ever been suspended under the domestic violence policy, so no precedent has been sent.

Chapman is one of three players under investigation at the moment — Jose Reyes (for this) and Yasiel Puig (for this) are also being investigated — but his case is the only one that involves a gun. Even with no arrests or charges, I feel like MLB would want to come down hard on anything incident involving shots being fired. We’ll find out soon enough.

Yankees planning to honor David Ortiz during his final season

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

Earlier this offseason David Ortiz announced he will retire following the 2016 season, which was music to the ears of Yankees fans everyone. Ortiz has crushed the Yankees over the years — he’s a career .306/.395/.565 hitter against New York — and no one on this side of the rivalry will miss him. He was a worthy foe, and I’m glad he’s retiring.

While speaking to reporters at the owners’ meetings yesterday, Hal Steinbrenner confirmed the Yankees will indeed honor Ortiz in some way this coming season. From Ken Davidoff:

“I am sure we’re going to do something,” Steinbrenner said. “We have not formally, minute by minute, figured out exactly what we’re going to do yet. He’s a great player, great part of that franchise. Everything you like to see in a player.”

The Red Sox will be in the Bronx for the second-to-last series of the season, a three-game set from September 27-29. That’s a Tuesday through Thursday. I assume that’s when the ceremony will take place.

Ortiz has said he doesn’t want any kind of farewell tour, but it’s not really up to him. Teams, including the Yankees, are going to honor him whether his wants it or not. The Red Sox honored both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera when they retired a few years back, so I guess it’s only fair the Yankees honor Ortiz.

As the story goes, George Steinbrenner wanted to sign Ortiz after the Twins non-tendered him back in 2002, but Brian Cashman talked him out of it. The Yankees had the newly signed Jason Giambi at first base, plus a top first base prospect in Nick Johnson, who was an elite first base prospect at the time. Signing Ortiz meant burying or trading Johnson, which eventually happened anyway. So it goes.

Anyway, I don’t really have a problem with the Yankees honoring Ortiz. They honored Chipper Jones and Paul Konerko when they were retiring a few years back. Have a quick little pre-game ceremony and then keep him in the park during the games. No fireworks, if you know what I mean.

Thoughts four weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In just four weeks, Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in Tampa. We’re finally starting to see the light at the end of the offseason tunnel. Here are some random thoughts on a random Thursday.

1. So would you rather have Justin Upton for six years and $132.75M, or Jacoby Ellsbury for seven years and $153M? Yeah, me too. Ellsbury is two years into his contract and he’s hit .265/.324/.387 (97 wRC+) in a little over 1,100 plate appearances with the Yankees. The rationale behind these long-term deals is taking the high-end years up front and living with the ugly back-end, but the Yankees haven’t gotten the high-end years from Ellsbury. They’ve gotten one solid year and one bad year. So two of those all-important front years of the contract are gone. The Yankees aren’t getting them back. I’m not much of an Ellsbury fan, but I also don’t think that was the real him last season. He’s better than that. Either way, the team needs him to rebound and be a difference-maker going forward.

2. I mentioned this soon after the Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman: the Yankees are about to have their fifth different primary closer in five seasons. What didn’t dawn on me at the time is not only are the Yankees going to have their fifth closer in five years, they’re going to have to their fifth awesome closer in five years. Look at this:

2012: Rafael Soriano
2013: Mariano Rivera
2014: David Robertson
2015: Andrew Miller
2016: Chapman

I can’t imagine another team has had that much year-to-year turnover of elite players at one position. Yeah, relievers are kinda in their own little world, but when teams find a dominant closer, they tend to stick with him as long as possible. The Yankees have intentionally changed closers the last two years. They had an awesome closer, then managed to find someone better. Then they did it again. Crazy.

3. Yesterday Hal Steinbrenner reiterated he doesn’t want to raise payroll any higher than it’s current level, which is par for the course these days. We’ve been hearing that for years. Part of that is self-serving — the fact Hal keeps saying that and hasn’t signing any big league free agents this offseason shows agents and opposing teams he means business, creating some negotiating leverage — and I get that, but man, no one wants to hear the owner bitch about payroll when the team has played one postseason game in three years. The Yankees aren’t going to raise payroll significantly and they’re almost certainly going to get under the luxury tax in the near future. Fine. Whatever. But maybe don’t remind fans about it all the time? That’s no way to reverse the decline in attendance and ratings.

4. Speaking of Hal, his “innocent until proven guilty” line when asked about Chapman yesterday is such a lame cop out. Here’s the full quote in case you haven’t seen it, via Ken Davidoff:

“I guess what I would say is, in this country, when allegations are brought against a person, that person is completely innocent until proven otherwise. Not the other way around,” Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ managing general partner, said at the Major League Baseball quarterly owners’ meetings. “I think we should keep that in mind right now. A lot of thought was put into it, but the benefits for the organization as a player, if you just look at the baseball side of it, [there’s] tremendous upside, needless to say.”

“Look, it’s a touchy subject,” Steinbrenner said. “But again, I would say: The man is innocent until proven otherwise. And I understand it’s a very sensitive subject, as rightfully so it should be. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

That doesn’t get said about a generic middle reliever. Heck, the generic middle reliever doesn’t even get acquired if he was involved in a situation like Chapman’s. Brian Cashman admitted the Yankees pounced on Chapman because the asking price dropped following the domestic violence incident and that’s gross as hell. The “innocent until proven guilty” line almost makes this seem like some kind of insignificant issue unworthy of a thoughtful response. Yuck. Make sure you check out Craig Calcaterra’s take on all this.

(Joe Robbins/Getty)
(Joe Robbins/Getty)

5. We’ve reached the point of the offseason when teams start looking for cheap free agent bargains. In recent years the Yankees have signed guys like Brian Roberts, Travis Hafner, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez in late-January/early-February. History suggests the club will take a chance on a veteran player looking to hang around at some point soon. Looking over the list of free agents, the one player who stands out as a candidate for such a move is Jimmy Rollins. The Yankees tend to target former stars for these deals, guys who were true impact players back in the day, and Rollins is the only available free agent who really fits the ball. He hasn’t played a position other than shortstop since 2002 but is said to be open to a utility role if he can’t find a starting job somewhere. I dunno, this seems to pass the sniff test. Former star, switch-hitter, willingness to accept a reduced role … that’s the kind of player the Yankees tend to target on these bargain deals. Rollins would slide right into that final bench spot and be a true backup infielder.

6. The Tigers designated infielder Jefry Marte for assignment yesterday to clear a 40-man spot for Upton. The former Mets farmhand hit .275/.341/.487 (139 wRC+) with 15 homers in 95 Triple-A games last season, then went deep four times in 90 plate appearances with Detroit in his MLB debut. Marte, 24, is a first and third baseman, though he’s generally considered a below-average gloveman. But still, he’s young, he has power from the right side, and plays the corner infield. He seems like a worthwhile pickup for the Yankees. Even if he doesn’t land on the roster in that final bench spot, Marte has options and he’s someone worth stashing in Triple-A. He certainly seems like better use of a 40-man roster spot than generic lefty Tyler Olson given the organization depth chart.

7. On paper, I think this is the best Yankees roster since 2012. It’s the most exciting roster in terms of “hey look at all the young guys” since … I guess 2008? When Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were in the rotation and Joba Chamberlain was in the bullpen? That didn’t work out so well, but that’s the risk with young guys. At some point you have to let them sink or swim. The Yankees did that with Didi Gregorius last year and were rewarded. Next year they’ll have a full season of Luis Severino and presumably Gary Sanchez. There’s upside in the rotation, the bullpen is absurd, and even bench guys like Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks are more exciting than typical bench fodder. I don’t know if the starters will stay healthy or if the veteran guys will hit or if the young players will be as good as expected. I do know I’m looking forward to watching this team more than I have at any point in the last three seasons.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

I enjoyed this post by Torii Hunter at the Players’ Tribune. He wrote about his journey to the big leagues — he and a teammate slept in a rental car for a week in Double-A while waiting to get paid — and what it was like when he finally got there. Minor league conditions have improved but they still generally suck. That first taste of the show makes players never want to go back.

Here is the nightly open thread. The Knicks and Nets are both playing, plus there’s a whole bunch of college hoops on as well. You folks know how these threads work by now, so have at it.