Angels land Josh Hamilton

According to multiple reports, the Angels have agreed to sign Josh Hamilton to a five-year contract worth $125M. The Yankees were never really in the hunt for the slugger outside of a report that they were looking into his background, but it’s a major move that changes the AL landscape nonetheless. Gotta figure the Rangers, who are quietly having a nightmare offseason after a disastrous end to the season, will look into Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to replace some of the lost production.

Possible Trade Partner: Los Angeles Dodgers

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

With the Yankees scaling back their spending, the Dodgers have emerged as baseball’s new financial superpower in recent months. The team’s new ownership has absorbed roughly $600M in salary obligation since July, and this year they’re likely to set a new MLB payroll record. All of that money has brought stars to Los Angeles, including big name guys like Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Zack Greinke. It’s been fun to watch from afar.

All of the spending has left the team with some surplus though, including on the infield as Ken Rosenthal notes. The Dodgers have seven (!) backup infielders after acquiring Skip Schumaker this week, though we should really say it’s just six backup infielders because Juan Uribe is completely useless and likely to be released before Opening Day. Seriously, he’s posted a 55 wRC+ in the two years since signing a three-year, $21M contract. Yikes. The Yankees need infield help among several other things, other things the Dodgers can offer as well.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Jerry Hairston Jr. & Nick Punto
Two veteran utility men that offer different skill sets. We all remember the elder Hairston brother from his time with the 2009 Yankees, when he most notably scored the game-winning run in ALCS Game Two on Maicer Izturis’ walk-off error. He’s a contact-oriented (11.3 K% and 87.4% contact rate since 2010) right-handed batter who has little power (.111 ISO) but will take a walk (7.8 BB%). Hairston can adequately play almost any position, though he only played 13 innings at short over the last two years. Hairston had hip surgery in September (labrum tear and bone impingement) and is a question mark for Opening Day. He’s 36 years old and is owed $3.75M in 2013.

Punto, 35, is a contact-oriented switch hitter who saw his strikeout (22.0%) and contact (84.1%) rates decline noticeably in 2012. It could be a small sample size thing (191 plate appearances) or it could be a sign that the end is near. Punto had a big platoon split this year (62 wRC vs. RHP and 107 vs. LHP) but hadn’t in the past. He’s an infielder who grades out as about average at second, third, and short these days. Neither he nor Hairston offer much speed, but Punto is a slightly better bet to steal a base. He’s owed $1.5M next season.

Rosenthal says the Dodgers are most likely to move Punto (and Uribe, but yuck), which isn’t much of a surprise. Hairston is the more desirable player despite his hip surgery, and they’re going to keep him in an effort to win this year. Punto is never going to hit like he did in 2011 again (125 wRC+) and history suggests he’s a true talent 70-75 wRC+ guy, which stinks. Is he better than Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix? Not offensively, but he surely is with the glove. He’s someone the Yankees could look into just for depth if the Dodgers are willing to give him away.

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

Scott Van Slyke
Van Slyke, 26, was designated for assignment yesterday to clear room on the 40-man roster for Schumaker. He is Andy’s son and a right-handed hitting corner outfielder/first baseman. Van Slyke didn’t hit a lick in his big league debut this season (38 wRC+ in just 57 plate appearances), but his Triple-A performance was huge (152 wRC+). The problem is that it didn’t just come in the Pacific Coast League, he also played his home games at altitude in Albuquerque. It’s hard to find a more hitter friendly environment, so take the hitting stats with a big grain of salt.

Baseball America ranked Van Slyke as the team’s #21 prospect prior to this season, saying he “has a nice swing with good wrist action (and) started showing solid power to all fields.” They also note that he’s adequate defensively in left and at first base. He tagged lefties for a .329/.398/.593 batting line with 10.9 BB% and 15.8 K% in the minors over the last two years (again, grain of salt), and profiles as a platoon corner bat.

What makes Van Slyke especially appealing is that he has two minor league options remaining, so he can be shuttled back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues in 2013 and 2014 without having to be put on waivers. The Yankees need a right-handed platoon bat given their all-left-handed outfield, but I assume they would prefer someone more established. Van Slyke could be just a depth piece stashed in the minors though, which has value. I don’t think he’ll clear waivers, so the Yankees would have to swing a trade to acquire him.

* * *

The Dodgers don’t have many roster holes to fill, but they do need a left-handed bat off the bench and a reserve outfielder capable of playing center field. Chris Dickerson, who obviously will never going to get an opportunity with the Yankees, fits both of those needs and could be dangled. He’s not much, but then again neither are Punto and Van Slyke. They also need an extra catcher, but the Yankees aren’t in a position to give away catching help at the moment.

There is absolutely nothing exciting about the prospect of acquiring players like Punto and Van Slyke, but they would potentially fill some needs for New York. The cost shouldn’t be anything prohibitive and if either guys bombs, it would be easy to cast them aside and eat the money since it wouldn’t have any impact on the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. The Yankees need infield help and a right-handed bat, and Punto and Van Slyke could serve as depth pieces in those roles.

The Remaining Roster Holes

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The Yankees addressed their third base and right field vacancies earlier this week, agreeing to sign both Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki to short-term contracts. A few weeks back they shored up the rotation with new one-year contracts for Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera returned on a one-year pact of his own to reclaim the ninth inning. That’s five pretty substantial additions addressing five major roster holes, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

Starting Catcher
With each passing day, I am less and less confident the Yankees will add a legitimate starting catcher this offseason. The options are limited enough already, but the club’s continued insistence that the internal solutions (Chris Stewart, Austin Romine, and Frankie Cervelli) will get an opportunity is difficult to avoid. Yeah, this could be another “Bubba Crosby will be our center fielder” moment, but you’d think there would be a little more urgency given the importance of the position. The Yankees need a starting-caliber catcher and this will remain priority number one until they get one, whether it be this offseason or at the trade deadline or next winter.

Right-Handed Hitting Outfielder
With Ichiro on his way back to join Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson, the Bombers are going to have three left-handed hitting outfielders. Ichiro is most in need of a platoon partner, though the case can be made that Gardner and (to a lesser extent) Granderson should be platooned as well. There are far too many good lefties in the AL East (and AL in general) for any team to not carry a big right-handed bat, and I’m sorry, Youkilis and Derek Jeter alone are not going to cut it when the season opens. Scott Hairston is the popular free agent name but he’s hardly perfect given his lack of plate discipline (.308 OBP vs. LHP since 2010) and affinity for the DL. The recently designated Scott Van Slyke could be a cheap option as well. A right-handed outfield bat is an absolute necessity given the team’s current roster construction.

Starting DH
Even if his rehab from the fracture ankle goes perfectly, I suspect we’ll see Jeter get plenty of starts at DH early next year. Ichiro and Youkilis figure to get regular turns at DH as well given their age and brittleness, respectively, so the Yankees are unlikely to target a true full-time DH. As I wrote earlier this week, someone who can actually play a position and rotation in and out of the DH spot fits the roster best. It could be Raul Ibanez again, though I’d prefer someone who can provide more offensively given the expected production hit at right field and behind the plate.

Utility Infielder
With Jeter (and eventually A-Rod) coming off injuries and Youkilis a perpetual threat to land on the DL, having a competent backup infielder will be important for the Yankees next season. The team vows that Eduardo Nunez will be limited to shortstop duties going forward, so they’d have to change plans to use him at different positions. Given his defensive issues, he’s not an ideal candidate anyway. Jayson Nix is an okay reserve player and he remained with the organization after being removed from the 40-man roster, but he’s not someone the team should feel comfortable playing at short for a week should the Cap’n get banged up. The Yankees have some decent internal options and the free agent market is barren, but upgrading the utility infielder position should be on the agenda.

Spence. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

Depth, Depth, Depth
The Yankees have been aggressive with the scrap heap pick-ups this offseason, claiming four relievers (lefty Josh Spence and righties Jim Miller, Mickey Storey, David Herndon) off waivers. Storey has since been lost on waivers, but Spence and Miller remain with the team while Herndon was released and re-signed to a minor league contract. He’s rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and will be ready at midseason.

Ivan Nova and David Phelps will serve as the fifth and sixth starter in whatever order, then Adam Warren is the obvious candidate for the seventh starter’s spot. Chase Whitley and maybe Dellin Betances will open the year in the Triple-A bullpen while Mark Montgomery will be one notch down in Double-A. Nix and David Adams provide infield depth while I guess Melky Mesa is first in line for outfield reinforcements.

Baseball these days isn’t just about the 25 guys on the active roster, teams need viable depth players stashed in Triple-A to make it through the season. These players are especially important for the Yankees, who sport a ton of older players and have a number of players who will be coming off offseason surgery when Spring Training opens. Waiver claims, minor league signings, all of those moves are important no matter how inconsequential they may seem.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Here is your open thread for the night. The Nets are playing and that’s pretty much it, unfortunately. Still no hockey. Talk about whatever you like though, have at it.

Yankees release 2013 Spring Training schedule

It seemed to take longer than usual this year, but the Yankees have finally announced their 2013 Spring Training schedule. Pitchers and catchers will report two months from today, on February 12th, with position players to follow five days later. The first full squad workout is scheduled for February 18th. Camps open a little earlier this season due to the World Baseball Classic.

The full slate of Grapefruit League games can be found on the official site (tickets are already on sale). The Yankees will play their first exhibition game on February 23rd, a road game in Lake Buena Vista against the Braves. They play the Blue Jays the next day in the George M. Steinbrenner Field opener. The team’s most notable exhibition game will be played on March 9th against the Dominican Republic WBC squad, a tune-up for the actual tournament. Robinson Cano will play against the Yankees in that game, which will be fun. Unlike last year, the Yankees and Mets will not meet in Spring Training.

Kevin Youkilis and Yankee Stadium

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The contract is still pending a physical (hardly a slam dunk given his recent back problems), but the Yankees agreed to sign Kevin Youkilis to a one-year contract worth $12M yesterday. The deal shores up the third base position in the wake of Alex Rodriguez‘s new hip injury, and it also gives the team some lineup balance after losing the right-handed hitting Russell Martin and switch-hitting Nick Swisher. Youkilis has been trending in the wrong direction the last few years, but he is just one year removed from a 126 wRC+ season.

As a right-handed batter, there’s no doubt Youkilis benefited from playing in Fenway Park all those years. In fact, during his peak years from 2008-2010 (.308/.404/.560, 150 wRC+), no hitter was more productive when it came to pulling the ball. Youkilis hit .478/.476/.959 (280 wRC+) (!!!) when he pulled the ball during that three-year stretch, thanks in very large part to the Green Monster. As a right-handed batter, all he had to do was take aim for that sucker and watch routine fly balls go for doubles.

Youkilis won’t have that luxury in Yankee Stadium. It’s a good park for left-handed hitters thanks to the short right field porch, but left field and left-center field in particular are a different story. The park is almost exact league average when it comes to surrendering doubles and homers to right-handers according to the park factors at StatCorner, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means righties don’t get the same ballpark boost as lefties. Youkilis remains a pull hitter, with 47% of his balls in play going to left field this season and only 22% going the other way to right. Here’s his spray chart for the season (courtesy of Texas Leaguers)…

Most of his hits came to the pull side, but Youkilis did hit for some power to right field (.239 ISO) and that’s what you’re looking for in Yankee Stadium. His natural stroke isn’t to the opposite field like say, Martin’s and Derek Jeter‘s, but there’s enough opposite field ability to allow Youkilis to take advantage of the short porch on occasion. He’s a pull hitter, but not an Andruw Jones-esque dead pull hitter who couldn’t go the other way if his life depended on it.

As friend of RAB Patrick Sullivan pointed out yesterday, Youkilis hit just .158/.248/.237 (!) in his 242 plate appearances outside of hitter-friendly Fenway Park and U.S. Cellular Field last season. It’s not a huge sample but it is definitely a little worrisome to see a road performance that poor, especially when a guy is outside of two parks tailor-made for his swing and approach. There’s some evidence that Youkilis can take advantage of the short right field porch, but for the most part Yankee Stadium will not help his offense much this season. It’s not an ideal fit, but the options were limited.

Thoughts following the Kevin Youkilis deal

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The Yankees plugged their third base hole last night, agreeing to sign Kevin Youkilis to a one-year contract worth $12M. As I wrote yesterday, every win added to the team’s ledger this offseason will have a big impact on their division title chances next season given how tightly packed the AL East is at the moment. As soon as Alex Rodriguez‘s new hip injury was announced, a deal with the former Red Sox infielder seemed inevitable.

1. I can’t say I’m all that enthusiastic about the signing. I would have preferred Mark Reynolds, but the Yankees are apparently allergic to players who have yet to experience their 30th birthday. Reynolds is an awful defensive player but he’s a better hitter than Youkilis, especially in terms of hitting right-handers, drawing walks, and hitting for power. He’s also a much better bet to actually stay on the field. My master third base plan was a defensive platoon with Reynolds (fly ball pitchers) and Eric Chavez (ground ball guys), but that was never going to happen. Anyway, the Yankees do deserve the benefit of the doubt here given their recent track record with veterans on one-year contracts. Watch Youkilis go .280/.400/.475 next season.

2. One thing about the Youkilis signing I do like is his ability to work the count and really grind out an at-bat. That’s been a Yankees trademark for the last two decades or so, but I thought the team got away from that a bit last season. A big part of that was the long-term injury to Brett Gardner and medium-term injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, but the Yankees are also losing noted count-workers Russell Martin and Nick Swisher this offseason. Youkilis will replace some (but not all) of those tough at-bats and they are the key to the kingdom. There is no argument to be made (traditional or sabermetric) against working the count and forcing the pitcher to throw more pitches than he wants to.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

3. This has no direct tie-in to the Yankees, but man, what a deal for the Indians last night. They turned one year of Shin-Soo Choo, an up-and-down utility infielder (Jason Donald), a LOOGY (Tony Sipp), and a non-prospect (Lars Anderson) into a Trevor Bauer, a top ten overall prospect coming into the season. They also received lefty-mashing outfielder and personal fave Drew Stubbs as well as two relievers (Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw) on top of that. The Diamondbacks had clearly soured on Bauer for whatever reason, but he definitely has ace potential and the Indians deserve credit for capitalizing. They haven’t made many good moves lately, but they deserve major props for this one. I wonder if they’d be willing to flip Stubbs to the Yankees? He’s hit lefties better than Scott Hairston the last few years and contributes substantially more on the bases and in the field.

4. By signing all these one-year contracts, the Yankees are putting all their eggs in next winter’s free agent basket. They’re going to need three starting pitchers, two outfielders, a catcher, maybe a third baseman, maybe a shortstop, maybe a second baseman, maybe a DH, and various relievers and bench players next offseason. Here is next year’s free agent list, which will inevitably dwindle as players sign extensions during the next ten months. Free agency is by far the most inefficient and cost ineffective way to build a team, yet the Yankees are going to have to rely on that list of players in 2014 barring any farm system surprises next summer. I wouldn’t count on any and yet I fear the Yankees are.