Here is your open thread for tonight. The Browns and Bengals are the Thursday NFL game, plus the Islanders are playing as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.
According to Matt Eddy, the Yankees have re-signed minor league catcher Eddy Rodriguez. This is notable because the Yankees figure to lose Austin Romine this offseason, putting Rodriguez fourth on the catching depth chart behind Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy, and Gary Sanchez.
Rodriguez, 29, signed a minor league contract with the Yankees last offseason and it was the same situation: he was effectively Romine insurance. Romine slipped through waivers at the end of Spring Training and remained in the organization, so he was third on the catching depth chart and Rodriguez was fourth, with Sanchez still up and coming.
This past season Rodriguez started as Romine’s backup at Triple-A Scranton, then, once Sanchez was promoted at midseason, Romine was relegated to backup and Rodriguez was bumped down to Double-A Trenton. He’s not much of a hitter at all — Rodriguez hit .170/.202/.261 (28 wRC+) in 57 games and 188 plate appearances this summer.
As you’d expect, Rodriguez is still kicking around because he’s a strong defensive backstop. The Yankees value catcher defense very highly and that extends down into the minor leagues as well. Rodriguez has a little big league time under his belt, playing two games with the 2012 Padres. He actually went deep in his first at-bat.
Romine is out of minor league options and figures to be a 40-man roster casualty at some point this offseason. He can elect free agency since he has been outrighted once before, back in April. Romine would have been a minor league free agent this offseason had the Yankees not added him to the 40-man roster in September. He came up because Sanchez was nursing a hamstring problem and the team wanted a third catcher after rosters expanded.
This past season was a tale of two seasons for Brett Gardner. He was tremendous in the first half, hitting .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) with ten home runs and 15 stolen bases, which earned him a spot in the All-Star Game. Brett was the only AL player with at least ten homers and 15 steals at the break.
Then, in the second half, Gardner hit a weak .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+) with only six home runs and five steals. That 66 wRC+ ranked 146th out of 156 qualified hitters in the second half. Gardner was one of the best outfielders in baseball before the All-Star break and one of the very worst afterwards. It was a real uneven season.
During a conference call with reporters yesterday, new hitting coach Alan Cockrell said Gardner played through a wrist injury this past season, which may have hurt his performance. Cockrell served as assistant hitting coach last year and was promoted to the main job earlier this week.
“I know that that bothered him off and on the entire year,” said Cockrell. “I know he was getting some cortisone and some things like that to try to help him, and they did in spurts, but you can only get three (cortisone shots) in a year … (Gardner) downplayed it and I probably shouldn’t up-play it when he downplayed it, but facts are facts. If you don’t have your hands, it’s tough to hit.”
Gardner was hit by a pitch six times this season, including twice in the right wrist. They both happened within a few days of each other too: Aaron Loup plunked him on April 8th, then Wei-Yin Chen got him a few days later on April 13th. None of the other four hit-by-pitches involved Gardner’s wrist. (Yes, I went back through MLB.tv and checked.) Here are the two wrist shots:
On April 13th Gardner took the Chen pitch to the wrist in the first inning and stayed in the game, but he squared around to bunt in his next two-bats because he wasn’t comfortable swinging. Stephen Drew pinch-hit for Gardner in the seventh inning and hit that go-ahead grand slam, so that was cool.
Gardner went for x-rays after the game and they showed only a bone bruise, no fracture. An MRI confirmed the bone bruise diagnosis a few days later. Gardner sat out the next few games, returned to the lineup on April 18th, then mashed the rest of the first half before falling apart after the All-Star break.
We don’t know when Gardner received the cortisone shots. It’s possible they were bunched together in the first half, which kept him productive. Then once he exhausted his three shots, his game fell apart. Who knows. A lingering wrist injury would definitely explain the lack of production. You can’t hit if your hands aren’t strong.
Gardner has had some hit-by-pitch related right wrist injuries in the past. Clayton Kershaw hit him with a pitch back in 2010 …
Gardner didn’t say anything about his wrist in the second half or after the season. I totally forgot he got hit in the wrist until a few days ago, when I wrote the biggest hits post and researched Drew’s grand slam. Cockrell brought it up because he was asked about Gardner’s swoon, and hey, a wrist injury is a perfectly valid explanation.
In fact, I hope it was the wrist, because that would be an easy answer. If Gardner performed like that while being perfectly healthy … yeesh. The wrist at least potentially explains things. I have a very hard time believing Gardner went from an All-Star to a true talent sub-replacement level hitter overnight.
Michael Pineda‘s four years with the Yankees have been eventful, to say the least. He missed the 2012-13 seasons following shoulder surgery, then pitched brilliantly in limited action around a lat strain last year. Despite the injury, what Pineda showed last summer was pretty encouraging. His fastball had life, his slider was nasty, and his changeup was promising.
The 2015 season was supposed to be Big Mike‘s coming out party. He was finally healthy, with the shoulder surgery far in the rear view mirror. What we saw last year was very exciting and it was not hard to dream up a scenario where Pineda was the ace of the staff and one of the game’s most dominant arms. We saw flashes of that this year. Mostly though, we saw inconsistency.
Dominance in Spring
Pineda has had some pretty eventful Spring Trainings with the Yankees. He was overweight and ultimately hurt in 2012. The next year he was still coming back from shoulder surgery and didn’t pitch at all. Last year he came to camp healthy and it was something of a feeling out process. No one knew what to expect from Pineda after two lost years.
This year, Pineda showed up to camp with expectations for the first time in three years, and holy moly was he sharp in Spring Training. Pineda started five Grapefruit League games, allowed three runs in 19 innings, striking out 23 and walking just one. It was Spring Training, we all know the stats mean nothing, but damn. Big Mike killed it in March. It was hard to contain the excitement.
No. 2 Starter
The Yankees decided to start Pineda in the second game of the season, between Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. They lost four of their first five games of 2015 and the one win was Pineda’s start, when he held the Blue Jays to two runs in six innings. He struck out six and walk one. Not a great start but serviceable. It was a cold and rainy night in the Bronx, so it was understandable.
Five days later the Orioles roughed up Pineda, scoring five runs on nine hits in 6.1 innings. He did strike out nine. His next start was okay (three runs in 5.2 innings against the Rays), but, after that, Pineda went on a four-start tear in which he looked like the budding ace the Yankees thought they were acquiring back in 2012.
On April 24th, Pineda outdueled Jacob deGrom and held the Mets to one run in 7.1 innings. Five days later he allowed two runs in 5.2 innings against the Rays, and six days after that he threw eight shutout innings against the Blue Jays in Toronto. Then, five days later on Mother’s Day, Pineda struck out 16 Orioles in seven masterful innings.
The 16-strikeout game capped off a dominant four-start stretch in which Pineda allowed four runs on 22 hits and one walk in 28.1 innings. He struck out 34. Big Mike had a 2.72 ERA and a 1.90 FIP in his first seven starts and 46.1 innings of the season. Things were a little rocky early, but Pineda settled in and was starting to #shove on a consistent basis.
Small to Mid-Size Mike
Given how the rest of the season played out, it’s fair to wonder if Pineda exerted himself a little too much in that 16-strikeout game. He surrendered five runs in 5.1 innings next time out and showed nothing more than flashes of dominance the rest of the season. Pineda had some truly great starts down the stretch (like this one) but was generally inconsistent and mediocre, if not downright bad.
Following the 16-strikeout game, Pineda pitched to a 5.04 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 20 starts and 114.1 innings. His walk (3.7%) and strikeout (21.0%) strikes were excellent, and he was starting to get ground balls (46.5%), but Pineda was incredibly hit (.284 AVG and .330 BABIP) and home run (1.42 HR/9 and 17.0 HR/FB%) prone. He closed the season by allowing 35 runs in his final 54.1 innings. That’s not good.
Pineda did miss a little more than a month with a forearm muscle strain, the same injury that sidelined Tanaka and Andrew Miller for a month each earlier in the season. Pineda returned in late-August and finished the season healthy, so that’s good, but he struggled before getting hurt and again after getting hurt. The dominant Big Mike were all hoping to see never really showed up aside from that four-start stretch early in the season, which ended with the 16-strikeout game.
All told, Pineda finished the season with a 4.37 ERA (3.34 FIP) in 27 starts and 160.2 innings. His had great strikeout (23.4%) and walk (3.1%) numbers — Pineda had the third lowest walk rate (behind Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon, the Yankees love their low walk guys) and the second highest K/BB ratio (behind Max Scherzer) among the 89 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in 2015 — and got ground balls (48.2%) for the first time in his life.
The peripherals were magnificent. The actual preventing runs part? Not so much. Pineda was way too hittable this year for a guy with his stuff.
Before & After
Like I said earlier, it’s fair to wonder if Pineda put a little too much into the 16-strikeout game, leading to his poor performance afterwards. Maybe he threw off his mechanics, maybe he was hiding an injury, or maybe it was something else all together.
Let’s look at some PitchFX graphs to see if we notice any sort of difference before and after that Mother’s Day gem, starting with good ol’ velocity. I’ve boxed out Pineda’s starts after the 16-strikeout game.
Looks fine to me. Pineda added velocity as the season progressed, which is totally normal, then it tailed off a bit at the end of the season, around the forearm injury. This looks fine. Pineda was relatively consistent with his velocity before and after the 16-strikeout game before getting hurt.
Now let’s look at the horizontal movement of Pineda’s pitches since he’s a fastball/slider/changeup guy. The changeup goes left-to-right and everything else he throws seems to go right-to-left. Even his fastball is more of a cutter.
Okay, now maybe we’re on to something. Pineda’s slider lost horizontal movement as the season progressed. Going month-by-month, the pitched averaged 4.54 inches of break in April, then 4.00 in May, then 2.47 in June, then 1.31 in July, then -0.45 in August — that basically means he was throwing sloppy backup sliders more often than not — before rebounding to 1.32 in September.
The swing-and-miss rate on Pineda’s slider actually went up as the season progressed — it had a 17.5% whiff rate in April and peaked at 26.1% in August before the forearm injury — but the whiff rate on his fastball dropped. It went 7.8% in April to literally 0.0% in August. No swings and misses on the pitch that month.
A pitcher’s arsenal is not just a collection of individual pitches. They all play off each other. The fastball sets up the slider and vice versa. That’s what makes it so tough. The hitter reads fastball out of the hand, starts his swing, then the thing slides out of the way. Pineda’s slider was less slider-y as the season progressed, and it hurt his fastball more than anything.
The slider wasn’t sliding less just because. There’s a reason behind the change, and, looking at the PitchFX data, it appears Pineda’s arm slot changed after the 16-strikeout game. Check it out:
Oh boy. That first data point after the 16-strikeout game is pretty scary. Pineda’s vertical release point dropped significantly — four and a half inches according to PitchFX, to be exact — immediately after the 16-strikeout game. It bounced back for a few starts after that, then began to trend downward and zig zag all over the place around the forearm injury.
We don’t know if Pineda exerted himself a little too much on Mother’s Day. The PitchFX data shows his slider didn’t slide as much and his vertical release point dropped, but correlation does not equal causation. It could be a coincidence. Remember, we already talking about a pitcher who has had major shoulder surgery. His arm may never work the same across a full season.
Whatever it was, Pineda did not meet expectations this season. He wasn’t terrible, the overall numbers are okay, but the Yankees were expecting high-end performance from Pineda. He was being counted on to be one of the leaders of the staff. We saw flashes of that and nothing more.
Looking Ahead to 2016
Pineda is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player for another two years and there’s always a chance the Yankees could use him in a trade this offseason. For now, he’s penciled as one of the five starters next season, except now expectations may be tempered a bit.
Earlier today MLB announced Prince Fielder, not Alex Rodriguez, has been named the 2015 AL Comeback Player of the Year. Matt Harvey was named NL Comeback Player of the Year. Pretty easy call there.
Fielder hit .305/.378/.463 (124 wRC+) with 23 home runs this season after missing most of last year following neck surgery. A-Rod hit .250/.356/.486 (129 wRC+) with 33 homers. They’re both full-time DHs too — Fielder played only 18 games at first base in 2015.
There is precedent for a player with performance-enhancing drug ties winning the Comeback Player of the Year. Jason Giambi won it in 2005 after being caught up in the BALCO scandal. He was not suspended like A-Rod, however.
Kendrys Morales and Ryan Madson were the other notable Comeback Player of the Year candidates. Rodriguez was the Yankees’ best chance at a major award winner. The other four major awards will be announced in two weeks.
Over the last 12 months the Yankees have changed the way they do business. We’re used to seeing them throw money at their problems. They’ve been doing that for decades. Trades were the focus last offseason though, and whenever a need arose during the season, the Yankees called someone up from the minors. It was … different.
The Yankees have limited flexibility this winter. The roster is pretty full thanks to guaranteed contracts and whatnot, and with so little money coming off the books, there’s probably not much payroll space to work with either. Not unless Hal Steinbrenner approves a payroll increase, which he’s been hesitant to do over the years.
Trades again figure to be the focus this offseason. That allows the Yankees to both navigate their roster and payroll limitations while attempting to improve the team at the same time. They don’t all have to be blockbuster trades, of course. Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius was a low-key move that paid big dividends for the Yankees in 2015.
So, with trades again likely to dominate the winter months, let’s sort through the team’s trade chips and figure out who may be on a move.
The (Almost) Untouchables
As far as I’m concerned, the Yankees do not have any untouchable players. They have some players I wouldn’t trade unless the return is significant, but that doesn’t make them truly untouchable. Wouldn’t you trade, say, Luis Severino for Jose Fernandez? I know I would. The group of almost untouchables includes Severino, Gregorius, Dellin Betances, Aaron Judge, and Andrew Miller. That’s all of ’em in my book.
The Yankees have several players who they couldn’t trade even if they wanted to due to performance or contract or something else, or in some cases all of the above. Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia headline this group. None of them are worth the money they’re owed and they all have full no-trade protection as well, so the Yankees would have to get their permission to move them.
There’s a second tier of big contract players who are not necessarily untradeable, but who would be difficult to move for various reasons. Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Chase Headley, and Masahiro Tanaka fit here. Teixeira and Beltran are entering the final year of their contracts, so they’d be short-term pickups, but they both have no-trade protection and have indicated a desire to stay in New York.
McCann, even while in decline, is still one of the better catchers in baseball. Maybe not top five anymore, but certainly top seven or eight. He’s got another three years and $51M left on his contract, and paying a catcher $17M per season is not something most teams can afford. Headley’s contract isn’t bad — three years and $39M is nothing — but he was below-average on both sides of the ball this season.
Tanaka is an interesting case. It seems like he’s neither as good nor as bad as many people think. Is he an ace? On his best days, yeah. But a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in 154 innings this year suggests he is more above-average than elite. Tanaka is also owed $22M in both 2016 and 2017 before his opt-out comes into play. He just had elbow surgery and teams are well aware his UCL is a grenade with the pin pulled. How in the world do you value him?
The Yankees could try to move any and all of these players. It’ll be tough though, either because their performance is down, their contracts are exorbitant, or they have no-trade protection. They’re untouchable, but in a different and bad way.
The Top Chip
Among the established players on the roster, Brett Gardner has by far the most trade value. It also helps that he doesn’t have a no-trade clause. (Gardner gets a $1M bonus if traded.) Gardner is owed only $39.5M over the next three years and he remains above-average on both sides of the ball. Even with his second half slump, he still put up a .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) batting line with 16 homers and 20 steals in 2015.
The Yankees can market Gardner as a two-way leadoff hitting center fielder to teams looking for outfield help but unable to afford top free agents like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes. He’s affordable, he’s productive, and he’s a high-character guy who’s shown he can play and win in New York. Teams absolutely value that stuff. Getting a player of Gardner’s caliber on a three-year contract would be a major coup.
The real question is why would the Yankees trade Gardner? He’s arguably their best all-around player. They could move him to free up an outfield spot for, say, Heyward, but I think that’s unlikely. I also don’t think anyone in the minors is ready to step in and play left field regularly. Gardner is the only veteran on the team with actual trade value though. That’s why we’ll hear his name a lot this offseason.
The Top-ish Prospects
Beyond Judge, the Yankees have a few other high-end prospects they could trade for big league help, most notably Gary Sanchez, Jorge Mateo, and Rob Refsnyder. Greg Bird is technically no longer a prospect — he lost his rookie eligibility late in the season — but we can lump him in here too because he’s not exactly an established big leaguer yet. The elimination of the Pete Incaviglia Rule means the Yankees could trade James Kaprielian and any other 2015 draftees this winter, if they choose.
Sanchez and Mateo are the team’s best young trade chips among players who could actually be made available. (I don’t think the Yankees would trade Bird but I would in the right deal.) Sanchez is stuck behind McCann and John Ryan Murphy, and his defense probably isn’t up to the team’s standards. Mateo is an excellent prospect, but Gregorius is entrenched at the MLB level, and the Yankees are loaded with lower level shortstop prospects. They already offered Mateo in a trade once, remember. (For Craig Kimbrel at the deadline.)
The Yankees refused the trade Refsnyder this summer — the Athletics wanted him for Ben Zobrist — but they also refused to call him up for much of the year. It wasn’t until very late in the season that he got an opportunity. Refsnyder’s defense is improving but it is still an issue, and the truth is it may never be good enough for the Yankees. That doesn’t mean they’ll give him away though.
Second tier prospects like Eric Jagielo, Tyler Wade, Rookie Davis, and Jordan Montgomery could all be trade bait, though that’s true every offseason. The second tier prospects usually don’t bring back a whole lot unless there’s a salary dump involved. Either way, we can’t rule them out as trade chips.
The Outfielders & Relievers
The Yankees are very deep in Triple-A left-handed hitting outfielders and relievers. Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel, and Jake Cave make up the crop of lefty hitting outfielders. Relievers? Gosh. There’s Chasen Shreve, Branden Pinder, Caleb Cotham, Nick Rumbelow, Nick Goody, James Pazos, healthy Jacob Lindgren, and I guess even Bryan Mitchell. He’s part of this group too, although he can start.
These are obvious positions of depth and the Yankees can and should use them in trades this offseason, if possible. The problem is they don’t have a ton of trade value. The Yankees already traded a lefty hitting outfielder (Ramon Flores) and a Triple-A reliever (Jose Ramirez) this year. The return was busted Dustin Ackley. So yeah. Heathcott and Williams have been both hurt and ineffective in recent years while Gamel lacks a track record of top end production. They have trade value, no doubt, but don’t expect them to headline any blockbusters.
The Spare Arms
The Yankees have a lot of pitchers but not a whole lot of pitching, if you catch my drift. The rotation ranked 19th with a 4.25 ERA and 15th with a 4.04 FIP this past season. Right smack in the middle of the pack. The Yankees have seven potential starters in place next year: Sabathia, Tanaka, Severino, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, and Adam Warren. That group is a mixed bad of upside and mediocrity, I’d say.
Of the final four pitchers on that list, I’d say Nova has the least trade value because he was both hurt and terrible last year. Also, next season is his final year of team control before free agency. Eovaldi and Pineda are the embodiment of that “upside and mediocrity” group. They’re so obviously talented. But the results? Eh. Not great this year. Both are under team control for another two seasons, which is a plus.
Warren has proven himself as a very valuable member of the pitching staff. He’s basically a high-end version of Ramiro Mendoza. He can start or relieve and is very good in both roles, and he’s durable with a resilient arm. No injury problems at all since being drafted. Warren is under control another three years and the Yankees rejected the trade that would have sent him to the A’s with Refsnyder for Zobrist.
Personally, I don’t think the Yankees are in position to deal away pitching depth given some of the injury concerns in the rotation, but I thought that last year and they traded Greene anyway. As it turned out, they were planning to trade for another pitcher (Eovaldi) and bring in a low cost veteran for depth (Chris Capuano). They also had Warren waiting. The same could happen this year.
The Best of the Rest
There’s three players on the roster we haven’t covered. The best of the bunch is Murphy, a young and cheap catcher with defensive chops, a promising bat, and five years of team control remaining. I can’t imagine how many calls Brian Cashman has fielded about Murphy over the last 18 months or so. He’s really valuable and not just in a trade. To the Yankees too.
Justin Wilson is what every team looks for in a reliever: he throws hard and he misses bats. Being left-handed is a bonus. He struggles with control sometimes, and that’s why he’s only a reliever and not a starter or something more. Wilson has three years of control remaining, so his trade value is less than last offseason, when all it took to get him was an injury plagued backup catcher two years away from free agency. (What Francisco Cervelli did after the trade doesn’t change anything.)
Ackley is the third player and he doesn’t have much value. Flores and Ramirez. There’s his trade value, even after a strong finish to the season. Those 57 plate appearances with the Yankees didn’t erase his 2,200 plate appearances of awful with the Mariners. Given his versatility, Ackley is more valuable to the Yankees as a player than as a trade chip. I think the same is true of Wilson as well.
* * *
Last offseason taught me that pretty much no one is safe from trades other than the guys with no-trade clauses. I did not at all expect the Yankees to trade Greene or Martin Prado or even Manny Banuelos. Those were surprises. I would be surprised if the Yankees traded guys like Severino and Gregorius and Gardner this winter, but hey, anything can happen. Surprises are fun. The Yankees are well-armed with trade chips this winter. All shapes and sizes.
Anyway, here is your open thread for the evening. Not a whole lot going on in the sports world tonight. The Knicks and Nets are playing, and that’s pretty much it. Talk about either of those games or reminisce about the 2009 Yankees here. Go nuts.