Hal Steinbrenner: “I’m not comfortable with the payroll being too much higher than it is now”

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Today, at the quarterly owners’ meetings in Coral Gables, Hal Steinbrenner told reporters he doesn’t want payroll to climb much higher than it is right now. “I’m not comfortable with the payroll being too much higher than it is now,” he said to Jon Heyman and Bob Nightengale. “(But) we’ve surprised people in the past.”

This isn’t a surprise, right? Payroll has held relatively steady for a decade now even though the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009 and MLB signed ginormous new national television deals two years ago. To be fair, the Yankees do pay a ton in luxury tax and revenue sharing each year. But still, payrolls around the league are going up while New York’s remain static.

Back of the envelope calculation: the Yankees currently have $223.6M on the books for next season per Cot’s, assuming Aroldis Chapman and Ivan Nova win their arbitration cases. Add in the rest of the 40-man roster and the $12M or so each team has to contribute towards player benefits, and the payroll for luxury tax purposes is around $240M right now.

The Yankees finished last season with a $241.15M payroll for luxury tax purposes and are again right at that number. The salary they took on in the Chapman and Starlin Castro trades replaces what they shed in Chris Capuano, Stephen Drew, Chris Young, and Garrett Jones after the season. Also, the Yankees still haven’t signed an MLB free agent this winter.

You don’t have to look any further than the Yankees roster to understand why spending huge on free agents all the time isn’t a great idea. That said, I think it’s fair to say the team is not leveraging its financial might as well as they should. The rest of the league is catching up financially, so the market advantages of being a New York team are going to waste.

Hal has maintained his plan is to get under the luxury tax threshold in the near future, which would save the team tens of millions of dollars in luxury tax and revenue sharing. The Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December, and I assume the $189M threshold will go up with the next CBA. After getting under in 2017, the team could increase payroll substantially. We’ll see.

Cashman confirms Yankees will use 25th roster spot as a revolving door

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

On the position player side of things, the Yankees have only one open roster spot right now: the final bench spot. They have their eight starting position players, a full-time DH, and three bench players. (The exact identity of the backup catcher is undecided at this time, but we have a good idea who it will be.) That final bench spot is the only wide open position right now.

The Yankees have made it clear they intend to try Starlin Castro at third base, and his ability to handle the hot corner will play a role in that final bench spot. If Castro can back up Chase Headley, the Yankees can go in any direction with that last roster spot. If he can’t, then they’re going to need a backup third baseman. For now, the Yankees are proceeding as if Castro can play third, and they’re planning to use the last bench spot as a revolving door.

“If Castro can (play third), it gives us so much more flexibility with that 25th man on the roster,” said Brian Cashman during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “The 25th man could very well be a 13th pitcher. As we all know, our starting rotation isn’t seven, eight, nine-inning pitchers on a consistent basis, so having maybe the access to that 13th up-and-down guy or maybe an extra position player that you can utilize in a different way.”

Aside from Castro playing third, the Yankees will need optionable pitchers and position players to make this work. They have a ton of pitchers who can be sent up and down, that’s not a problem, but things are a bit more limited on the position player side. Right now, the only position players on the 40-man roster with options are Gary Sanchez, Rob Refsnyder, Greg Bird, Lane Adams, Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ben Gamel. A catcher, two right side infielders, and four outfielders. Not the most diverse group.

The Yankees have signed several infielders to minor league contracts this winter (Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, Jonathan Diaz) and could call those guys up if necessary, though sending them down requires exposing them to waivers. That’s not a huge deal — no one’s going to miss them if they get claimed — but it would remove a body from the infield mix and subtract depth. The Yankees are kinda short on upper level infielders as it is.

Either way, the only way this plan works is if Castro can play third. He has minimal experience there, but he’s young and athletic, and is used to playing the left side of the infield. It could happen. “If (Castro at third) doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work,” added Cashman. “Then we’ll adjust and adjust accordingly and find an alternative who can handle that side of it for us, and then obviously we won’t be playing around as much with that 25th spot.”

I like the idea of a rotating 25th roster spot. The Yankees had a bullpen shuttle last season and it worked in the sense that the team always had a fresh reliever or two, though none of those guys had much of an opportunity to show what they can do. They seem to want to take it to another level this year with a rotating bench spot. Flexibility is good! But I think I’d prefer it if someone stood out from the pack and grabbed that bench spot full-time.

McCann wants to improve his batting average, but it may not be possible at this point

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Like many of his teammates, Brian McCann had a tremendous first half last season before fading down the stretch. He hit .259/.331/.471 (117 wRC+) in the first half, but only .200/.306/.395 (91 wRC+) in the second half. The end result was a still solid .232/.320/.437 (105 wRC+) batting line.

McCann has been a Yankee for two full seasons now, and during that time he’s hit .232/.303/.421 (99 wRC+) in 1,073 plate appearances. That’s not great overall, but that 99 wRC+ ranks 11th among the 31 catchers with at least 600 plate appearances over the last two years, and his 49 homers are eight more anyone else. (Buster Posey is second with 41.)

The 2014 season seemed to be something of an adjustment period for McCann, who joined a new team in a new city and a new league, and had to learn a new pitching staff. It was a lot to take in. He appeared more comfortable last season, and his offensive production ticked up. Now McCann wants to take it up another notch. Here’s something he told Steven Marcus over the weekend:

But McCann wasn’t satisfied with his .232 batting average. “I don’t like looking up there and seeing I’m hitting around .230,’’ he said Friday from Orlando, Florida, where he was participating in a charity golf tournament. “I’ve got to get better. I’d like to hit .300 with 30 [homers]. I’m searching. That’s my mindset.’’

It’s great McCann isn’t satisfied and wants to perform better next season. That’s the mindset every player should have. McCann’s been a Yankee for two seasons, and during those two seasons he’s been a great hitter for about four months total. The rest were just okay or flat out bad.

Improving the batting average might not be possible at this point of McCann’s career, however. For starters, the vast majority of players see their batting average decline as they get older. That’s natural. Reversing the aging process ain’t easy, especially for a catcher. Secondly, McCann is an extreme fly ball and pull hitter. He has been for a few years now.

AVG BABIP FB% Pull% Hard% Soft%
2012 .230 .234 41.2% 47.5% 32.5% 16.9%
2013 .256 .261 42.3% 48.6% 35.3% 12.7%
2014 .232 .231 45.1% 44.1% 31.0% 15.2%
2015 .232 .235 47.2% 50.1% 31.5% 15.2%
2012-15 .236 .239 44.1% 47.4% 32.4% 15.1%
MLB AVG
.254 .299 45.3% 39.1% 28.6% 18.6%

McCann is a .236 hitter with a .239 BABIP over his last 1,962 plate appearances. His fly ball rate has increased in each of the last three seasons and it’s now higher than the league average. His pull rate has been way higher than the league average for years now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — McCann still hits the ball very hard, and when you pull the ball hard in the air, extra-base hits tend to happen. McCann’s .187 ISO from 2012-15 is way higher than the .150 league average.

At the same time, hitting the ball in the air so often can be a BABIP killer. Most fly balls are easy outs. Don’t believe me? The league average BABIP on fly balls was .073 in 2015. .073! Pulling the ball as a left-handed hitter means lots of shifts, and we’ve seen plenty of those when McCann is at the plate in recent years. It’s wrong to attribute his batting average decline solely to the shift, but it is absolutely a big factor. So are the fly balls.

Outside of some good ol’ ball in play luck, McCann would have to overhaul his swing and approach to improve his batting average. He’d have to cut down on all the fly balls and start using the left side of the field a little more. That’s not Brian McCann. That’s asking him to be something he is not. We’re talking about a guy on the wrong side of 30 who is already dealing with some age-related decline. Not to mention all the wear-and-tear of catching.

I’m glad McCann is not satisfied hitting in .230s. I also hope he doesn’t try to change his swing and approach. That can lead to even more problems. McCann is what he is at this point of his career, and that’s the best power hitting catcher in baseball. It’s not impossible for him to improve his batting average going forward, just really unlikely, and the Yankees can’t afford to have McCann tinker and be something less than his absolute best.

Aroldis Chapman is much more than a big fastball

(Getty)
(Getty)

Whenever you think about Aroldis Chapman, your mind immediately jumps to his fastball. And for good reason. He’s the hardest thrower in baseball history and there’s just something super exciting about seeing that 100 on the scoreboard. It’s still special, even with velocity at an all-time high around the league.

There’s much more to Chapman than velocity readings though. He’s got an interesting backstory — he was the first of the recent wave of huge money Cuban players — and he does in fact have other pitches besides the fastball. It’s easy to understand why everyone talks about the velocity, but there is more to Chapman than that. Much more.

The Stride

Last season Chapman’s fastball averaged 100.4 mph. Averaged. He topped out at 104.5 mph according to PitchFX. And, believe it or not, his fastball actually plays faster because of his long stride. Chapman is listed at 6-foot-4, and his stride is among the longest in the game, so he releases the ball closer to the plate than most pitchers. Check out this video from 2012:

That’s crazy. It’s not enough that the guy is throwing 100 mph on the regular. He’s also got that long stride and is right on top of the hitter when he releases the ball. That can’t be a comfortable at-bat at all. How are you supposed to catch up to the heat? Well, I guess you aren’t. There’s a reason opponents have hit .167 against his fastball over the last five seasons.

Also, Chapman is gaining velocity. Most guys who throw 100 mph do it very early in their careers, and it’s gone by time they reach 24 or 25 years old. Even relievers. A triple-digit fastball doesn’t last long-term, historically. That is not the case with Chapman. He’s throwing harder now than he did two, three, four years ago. I mean, look:

Aroldis Chapman fastball velocityI laughed. I saw that graph and I literally laughed out loud. The term freak of nature is so overused these days, so when you come across an actual freak of nature like Chapman, it doesn’t have the same meaning. That sucks. This guy does things no other human has ever done. It’s not normal. And he’s going to do it in pinstripes next year.

The Slider

Believe it or not, Chapman does indeed have pitches other than his fastball. He also throws a slider with pedestrian velocity relatively to his fastball — the slider averaged 87.6 mph last summer. That’s a pretty significant velocity separation, which leads to swings like this:

Aroldis Chapman slider slowmo

The hitter gets geared up for that triple-digit fastball — which plays up because of his stride! — and then the pitch makes a right turn when it gets halfway to the plate. When hitters swung at Chapman’s slider last season, they missed 51.2% of the time. Hitters were more likely to come up empty than make contact against the slidepiece. Insanity.

The Changeup

A fastball and a slider is plenty for most relievers, especially if they throw as hard as Chapman. That didn’t stop him from adding a changeup, however. Chapman relied on his fastball/slider combo up until the 2014 season, when he gradually began to mix in some changeups. He’s gotten more and more comfortable with the pitch and now throws it about 8% of the time. Not much, but enough that hitters have to respect it.

As you’d expect, Chapman uses the changeup primarily against righties. He goes after lefties with the fastball/slider and righties with the fastball/changeup. This is the movement Chapman is able to get on his changeup, which averages 88.7 mph:

Aroldis Chapman changeup slowmo

The hitter gears up for the fastball because they have no choice but to gear up for the fastball, but then the changeup drops off the table. Hitters missed with 56.8% of their swings against the changeup last season. As far as third pitches go, that’s as good as it gets.

The Pitch Mix

When you throw 100 mph all the time, I have to imagine the temptation is rather high to throw nothing but fastballs. And you know what? Chapman did throw almost nothing but fastballs earlier in his career. He threw the heater 87.7% of the time back in 2012. Over the last few seasons Chapman has begun to rely a little more on his slider and changeup:

Aroldis Chapman pitch selection

Chapman is still throwing his fastball three out of every four pitches, so it’s not like he’s abandoning the pitch, but he is breaking out the slider and changeup a little more often. The result is a bit more efficiency and substantially more weak contact. Chapman set a career-low in pitches per plate appearance last season (4.21), and his soft contact rate was by far his best in years:

Aroldis Chapman contact rates

Striking everyone out is super cool, and Chapman still racks up an incredible amount of strike ’em outs, but now he’s getting some more weak contact and more quick outs with the slider and change. That’s a good thing for him personally. Think of it as self-preservation. The fewer high-stress pitches, the better. The Yankees only figure to have Chapman for one year, so they aren’t too concerned about his career long-term, as callous as that sounds.

Chapman is not a one-trick pony. He’s always going to be known as the guy with the best fastball in history, but there’s more to him than that. Chapman’s fastball plays faster because of the stride, he also has a slider, and in recent years he added a changeup as well. He’s not as much of a thrower as people seem to think. Chapman’s become a much more well-rounded pitcher the last few years.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Sad news to pass along from the world of baseball writing: Juan C. Rodriguez, a Marlins beat writer for the Miami Sun Sentinel, passed away earlier this week following a battle with brain cancer. He was only 42. I met Juan at the Winter Meetings a few years ago and he went out of his way to help a lowly blogger like me even though he had no reason to do so. He was a super nice guy and a total pro. Here’s the crowdfunding page to help his family pay the medical bills.

This is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers and Devils are both playing, plus there’s a bunch of college basketball as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

(Side note: Luis Severino really bulked up based on that video, huh?)

Yanks, Eovaldi agree to one-year deal to avoid arbitration

(Getty)
(Getty)

5:15pm: Jon Heyman says the contract is worth $5.6M, so they settled at the midpoint of the two filing numbers.

5:14pm: The Yankees have agreed to a non-guaranteed one-year contract with Nathan Eovaldi, avoiding arbitration, the team announced. Financial terms of the deal are unknown. I’m sure they’ll be reported soon enough. Eovaldi is under team control through 2017.

Prior to last Friday’s deadline, Eovaldi filed for a $6.3M salary while the Yankees countered with $4.9M. The midpoint is $5.6M, which is slightly under MLBTR’s $5.7M projection. I thought there was a chance the Yankees would look to sign Eovaldi long-term given the cost of pitching, but it didn’t happen.

Eovaldi, 25, had a 4.20 ERA (3.42 FIP) in 154.1 innings last season before suffering an elbow injury in mid-September. He was excellent for a few weeks in the middle of the summer, when he seemed to finally get comfortable with his new splitter. The elbow injury put a real damper on things.

The Yankees still have two arbitration-eligible players left unsigned: Aroldis Chapman ($13.1M vs. $9M) and Ivan Nova ($4.6M vs. $3.8M). Arbitration hearings will take place throughout February, though the two sides can still discuss a contract of any size before then.

Cashman doesn’t anticipate any significant moves before Spring Training

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Yankees have completed six trades this winter, including acquiring two former All-Stars, yet it still feels like this has been a slow offseason. The team has yet to sign a big league free agent — they’ve never gone a full offseason without signing a free agent to a Major League contract — and it doesn’t sound like one is on the way either.

“I don’t (expect any more significant moves this offseason),” said Brian Cashman during a YES Network interview (video link). “I’m open to anything, but I don’t anticipate anything developing between now and pitchers and catchers showing up in Spring Training. Keep your fingers crossed. If there’s a good opportunity we’ll jump on it, but I think we’ve exhausted all opportunities so far.”

Cashman said the Yankees did “float a lot of weather balloons” this offseason, meaning trade proposals, including deals involving Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller. “Nothing took place because nothing presented themselves as an opportunity to pull down. So, we move forward,” added the GM.

Obviously Cashman wouldn’t come out and say a big move is on the way, that doesn’t benefit the team at all, but it does truly seem like the Yankees might be done for the offseason. (Aside from small moves like waiver claims and whatnot.) Then again, the Yankees are very good at keeping things close to the vest, so who really knows?

At the moment the Yankees have no glaring needs on the MLB roster. They have an open bench spot and several open bullpen spots, but have plenty of internal candidates for both. Yes, they could stand to upgrade some positions. That’s true of every team. Right now though, the roster seems kinda set.