Only one week left in the offseason. Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa one week from today, then the position players will follow four days later. The first Grapefruit League game is only 17 days away. Feels good. Anyway, I have some random thoughts on random stuff.
1. Barring an extremely surprising development, the Yankees are done with their major moves this offseason. They might ink someone to a non-roster deal or something like that, but we’re not going to see anything that will shake up the projected Opening Day roster. I’m most surprised the Yankees didn’t add a starting pitcher this winter. Not necessarily a cheap innings guy either. I’m talking about a quality young starter with several years of control. I really thought they were going to dip into their prospect base to improve the rotation via trade. A few promising young starters were traded this winter (Jose De Leon, Lucas Giolito, Taijuan Walker) but there wasn’t as much activity as I expected. I thought we’d see a ton of pitcher trades given the thin free agent class. The Yankees did add pitching in the Brian McCann (Albert Abreu, Jorge Guzman) and James Pazos (Zack Littell) trades, though the guys they got back are Single-A prospects, not big league ready. I’m not saying it’s bad (or good) the Yankees didn’t acquire a young arm. I’m just saying I expected it to happen, and it didn’t.
2. Another thing I expected to happen that didn’t this offseason: a Brett Gardner trade. The combination of upper level outfield prospects and desire to get under the luxury tax threshold had me thinking Gardner was a goner. The Yankees would shop him around a bit, then eventually take the best offer, even if it meant eating some money a la the McCann trade. Didn’t happen. There weren’t many clubs in need of an outfielder this winter, and two of the neediest teams were AL East rivals (Blue Jays, Orioles). Intra-division deals are always unlikely. That trimmed the list of potential suitors even further. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just thought Gardner would be moved so the Yankees could give his at-bats to younger players. Instead, Brian Cashman set his asking price and stuck to it, so Gardner remains. I imagine that asking price will be adjusted at midseason, especially if Clint Frazier really forces the issue in Triple-A.
3. One of the most surefire ways to build a competitive team is by being strong up the middle. The late-1990s Yankees became a dynasty because they were getting top of the line production from catcher (Jorge Posada), shortstop (Derek Jeter), and center field (Bernie Williams), positions that are typically hard to fill. (Chuck Knoblauch was excellent at second base in 1998 and 1999 too.) You know what? Here’s a big ol’ table with the best up-the-middle teams in baseball in 2016, per fWAR:
|5. Red Sox||2.2||4.8||4.4||4.8||16.2|
|17. White Sox||0.8||1.8||3.6||4.2||10.4|
|24. Blue Jays||1.2||3.0||1.8||3.0||9.0|
Six of the top seven and seven of the top nine teams in up-the-middle WAR went to the postseason. Only one team in the bottom half of the league went to the postseason, and that was the Blue Jays, who had a great pitching staff (AL low 4.11 runs allowed per game) and received monster production from first and third bases. Anyway, the Yankees were essentially middle of the pack last year, and you don’t have to look real hard to see how that may improve going forward. Gary Sanchez is now entrenched behind the plate. Gleyber Torres is coming soon, and while he may not unseat the defensive superior Didi Gregorius at shortstop, he could force the Yankees to move Starlin Castro. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen in center field long-term — Jacoby Ellsbury is going to have to move to left field at some point reasonable soon, you don’t see many 34 or 35 years old roaming center nowadays — but the Yankees have options. Dustin Fowler, Blake Rutherford, maybe Jorge Mateo. This is a tried and true formula. Be strong up the middle. The Yankees aren’t right now, though they could be very soon.
4. The Royals signed Jason Hammel over the weekend and a slew of relievers came off the board in recent days. An already thin free agent class has been picked clean. So, looking over the list of those still unsigned, the only players who remotely interest me at this point are Joe Blanton and Jon Niese, and that’s only if Niese is healthy. Blanton had a fine season with the Dodgers last year, throwing 80 innings with a 2.48 ERA (3.33 FIP) and a 25.4% strikeout rate. He just turned 36, and at this point of his career, he’s in “ride him into the ground” territory. It sounds harsh, but Blanton was out of baseball two years ago before resurfacing, and he can’t seem to find a job this winter. He’s a guy you sign, keep running out there until he loses effectiveness, then cast aside. The Yankees currently have two open bullpen spots and more pitchers than they can fit in Triple-A, so signing Blanton would only compound that problem. Then again, there’s no such thing as too much pitching depth. I don’t expect the Yankees to sign Blanton or anyone else at this point. I’m just saying that, out of all the still available players, he and healthy Niese are the only ones who catch my eye. Blargh.
5. Looking ahead to next year’s free agent class — way too early, I should add — I’ve already professed my love for Carlos Santana. Two mid-range starters who could interest the Yankees are Alex Cobb and Francisco Liriano. Cobb was excellent with the Rays from 2013-14 before blowing out his elbow and needing Tommy John surgery, and this coming season he’ll have a chance to show he’s back to form following elbow reconstruction. Cobb will only be 30 when hits free agency and he’s an AL East tested guy who gets a lot of grounders and posts high K/BB ratios. That fits what the Yankees look for in their pitchers. As for Liriano, the Yankees have had on-and-off interest in him in the past, dating back to his days with the Twins, and lefties who can get ground balls and miss bats are always welcome in Yankee Stadium. He’s enigmatic, no doubt, but the Yankees very clearly aren’t afraid of those types of pitchers (A.J. Burnett, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, etc.). Also, Liriano will be 34 by time he hits free agency, which means he shouldn’t require a hefty contract. A lot can and will change over the next few months, so who knows whether Cobb and/or Liriano will even be desirable next winter. If the Yankees don’t intend to swim in the deep end of the free agent pool for guys like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish (or Masahiro Tanaka!), second tier arms like Cobb and Liriano could catch their attention.