Thoughts following the 2016 Winter Meetings

The new closer, same as the old closer. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
The new closer, same as the old closer. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

The 2016 Winter Meetings came and went last week with a fair amount of action around the league. It wasn’t a crazy week like we often see, mostly because the current free agent class stinks. The Yankees handled maybe their biggest piece of offseason business by signing Aroldis Chapman to resume closing duties, and that’s about it. I have some thoughts on the Winter Meetings and other stuff as well.

1. I remain unconvinced the Yankees would have shifted gears and focused on Kenley Jansen had they missed out on Chapman. I really think they want to keep their first round pick. Sure, there’s always a point where Jansen’s asking price drops low enough that giving up the pick is worthwhile, but it was never going to get to that point. The five-year, $80M deal he took from the Dodgers yesterday proves it. I think Plan A was Chapman, and Plan B was someone like Brad Ziegler or Greg Holland, not Jansen. At the moment, the Yankees hold the 17th overall pick in the 2017 draft, and it’ll drop to 16th once Ian Desmond’s deal with the Rockies is official. The 16th pick is not a premium pick at the top of the draft, but it’s juuust high enough to get someone like Blake Rutherford, a talented top ten guy who slips for whatever reason. (Rutherford was the 18th overall pick.) With the youth movement in full swing, I think the Yankees want to keep that pick. It was Chapman or bust in the ninth inning.

2. A theory: It costs more to acquire a reliever at the trade deadline than it does in the offseason. I say that because it absolutely blows my mind the Royals got Jorge Soler and nothing else for one full season of Wade Davis while the Yankees got four players, including a tippy top prospect in Gleyber Torres, for a half-season of Chapman. The same team (Cubs) made both trades too. Did Davis’ forearm injury drag his stock down that much? It’s not like he finished the year hurt. He was healthy (and dominant) in September. Maybe the Royals are just really high on Soler. That has to be it. Anyway, the offseason is the time for optimism and patience. There is less urgency to get the piece that can put you over the top. At least it seems that way to me. But, at the trade deadline, when you’re staring your roster in the face and that urgency exists, clubs appear to be more willing to pay big for that final piece. That could very well be what happened with Chapman. By any objective measure, a full season of Davis should cost more than a half-season of Chapman. Trades are not objective though. They’re completely subjective based on the state of the team and the rest of the league.

3. In the realm of non-roster invitees, Ruben Tejada is a really nice pickup. The Yankees got him on a minor league deal yesterday. He had a .340 OBP in over 800 plate appearances with the Mets from 2014-15, plus he’s a good defensive player, so Tejada’s someone who can do a little of something on both sides of the ball. His 2016 season was littered with injuries — he also had his leg broken by Chase Utley’s take-out slide in the 2015 NLDS, remember– and now that he’ll have a healthy and normal offseason, he should be good to go come Spring Training. At a minimum, Tejada figures to compete with Ronald Torreyes for the backup infielder’s job. Should the Yankees find a taker for Chase Headley in the coming weeks, Tejada could end up coming to camp with a chance to play third base everyday. I don’t love that idea, but it is a possibility. Tejada is only 27 and he has some on-base/defense skills. Not a bad little minor league contract pickup.

Otani. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
Otani. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

4. I’m really curious to see how Shohei Otani affects the 2017-18 international signing period. MLB insists they won’t create an exemption for him, probably because they don’t want to set any kind of precedent, which means he will count against the international hard cap and have his earning potential severely limited. Teams have been scouting Latin America and lining up deals for years now. That’s not an exaggeration. Do those deals suddenly get put on hold because Otani may be posted? Or do teams follow through and forget about Otani? Teams are allowed to trade for an additional 75% of cap space, which means the maximum pool for the Yankees is $8.3125M. The problem? You can only trade cap space after the signing period opens July 2nd. It’s not something the Yankees could do right now to get their ducks in a row. It’s risky, man. Do you sign those Latin American kids in July and punt on Otani, or wait and hope to get Otani, knowing full well there’s a chance you won’t get him or any Latin American players? All the top kids will still sign in July. They’re not going to wait to get paid. Intrigue!

5. You know that monster 2018-19 free agent class everyone is looking forward too? The Bryce Harper/Manny Machado class? The talent pool is already starting to thin out. Andrew McCutchen might not be an elite player anymore. Matt Harvey had surgery to treat Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which is potentially very serious. Dallas Keuchel’s performance slipped big time this summer. Heck, so did Harper’s. And, as uncomfortable as this is to talk about from a baseball perspective, Jose Fernandez died tragically in September. Last offseason, when everyone started to put the pieces together and saw just how talent-laden that 2018-19 free agent class could be, we all know the talent pool would thin out. Guys would sign extensions, others would get hurt, others would see their performance slip. And it’s happening already. I seriously doubt the Yankees or any other team is planning to pursue one specific free agent two years in advance, but I do think the Yankees are hoping to reset their luxury tax rate and have more payroll flexibility for that 2018-19 offseason in case they decide to spend big.

6. My first thought when the Yankees non-tendered and lost Jacob Lindgren was Al Aceves 2.0, but nah. Different situations. Aceves broke his clavicle in a bicycle incident during the 2010-11 offseason, and hey, accidents happen, but Aceves wasn’t supposed to be on his bike in the first place because he was rehabbing the back injury that sidelined him almost all season. Also, Aceves was kinda crazy, so the Yankees dumped him. With Lindgren, the Yankees wanted to get him off the 40-man roster and re-sign him to a minor league deal, which they’ve done a few times before. Slade Heathcott, Domingo German, and Vicente Campos all went through the non-tender/re-sign move. The Braves jumped in and gave Lindgren in a sweetheart deal though — they gave him a $425,000 bonus upfront and will pay him a $600,000 salary while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in 2017, so yeah — and there’s no way he could have turned that down. Sucks. I still thinking Lindgren can be really good when healthy, like a bonafide high-leverage reliever who faces lefties and righties, but he’s not healthy right now, and the Yankees don’t have any spare 40-man space. My guess is he (and Luis Torrens?) will not be the first good prospect the Yankees lose for nothing over the next few months. The farm system is robust and there are only so many roster spots to go around.

Yankees sign Ruben Tejada to minor league contract

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

8:57pm: Jon Heyman says Tejada will make $1.35M at the big league level.

5:00pm: The first non-roster invitee has arrived. The Yankees have signing infielder Ruben Tejada to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training, his agent told Jerry Crasnick. They’ve had interest in him in the past and were connected to him at the Winter Meetings last week.

Tejada, who is still only 27, spent the 2016 season with the Cardinals and Giants, hitting .167/.247/.242 (34 wRC+) in a mere 78 plate appearances across 36 big league games. He also put up a .301/.338/.413 (99 wRC+) batting line in 40 games with San Francisco’s Triple-A affiliate. Quad problems hampered him early in the season.

As recently as one year ago, Tejada was a regular with the Mets and hit .261/.338/.350 (94 wRC+) with three homers in 407 plate appearances. He has experience at the three non-first base infield positions and is a good defender, which makes him a good utility infielder candidate. Tejada will catch the ball and he’s not a total zero with the bat.

The Yankees have a pretty nifty utility infielder in Ronald Torreyes, though I imagine Tejada will get every opportunity to win a bench job in camp, especially since Torreyes has options remaining. Also, the Yankees are short on Triple-A infielders right now, so Tejada helps fill that organizational need.

Monday Night Open Thread

Based on the roster at the official site, Matt Holliday will wear No. 17 with the Yankees. That was Ronald Torreyes‘ number this past season — Torreyes has no number listed at the moment — so hopefully he gets a nice watch out of it or something. Holliday wore No. 5 with the Rockies and Athletics, and both No. 15 and No. 7 with the Cardinals. All those numbers are retired by the Yankees though, so he had to pick something else. I guess 17 it is.

Here is the open thread for the evening. The Ravens and Patriots are the Monday Night Football game, plus the Nets are playing and there’s one college hoops game on as well. That’s all. Talk about anything and everything here, except politics and religion. Thanks in advance.

Thoughts on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects

The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)
The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)

I totally missed this two weeks ago, but the crew at Baseball Prospectus posted their annual look at the top ten prospects in the Yankees’ farm system. The list is available for everyone. The rest of the piece is behind the paywall, unfortunately. Here’s the top ten with some thoughts:

  1. SS Gleyber Torres
  2. OF Clint Frazier
  3. SS Jorge Mateo
  4. OF Blake Rutherford
  5. LHP Justus Sheffield
  6. RHP James Kaprielian
  7. OF Aaron Judge
  8. RHP Albert Abreu
  9. SS Tyler Wade
  10. RHP Chance Adams

1. Still high on Mateo. It’s very easy to be down on Mateo these days. He didn’t have a great regular season, he was suspended two weeks for an undisclosed violation of team policy, and he hasn’t done much in winter ball either. There’s no other way to slice it, 2016 has been really disappointing for Mateo. At the same time, he just turned 21 in June and is immensely talented. He has the most exciting tools in the farm system, I think, even moreso than Gleyber. Development isn’t always linear. There are often bumps in the road and hopefully that’s all Mateo experienced this year, a bump(s) in the road. Something he can learn from and use as a development tool going forward. Baseball Prospectus still has Mateo very high on their top ten list and it’s not in any way unreasonable given his tools.

2. Down on Judge. On the other hand, the Baseball Prospectus crew is down on Judge, who they ranked as the 18th best prospect in baseball prior to 2016. Based on their preseason rankings, both Mateo (No. 65) and Kaprielian (not ranked) managed to jump Judge despite a disappointing season and an injury-marred season, respectively. I get why folks are down on Judge. He struggled in his brief big league cameo and there have long been concerns about whether big league pitchers would exploit his massive strike zone. We saw a 95 plate appearance manifestation of those concerns. Unless Judge shrinks about five inches, there’s not much he can do about the strike zone. That’s life. But he has a history of starting slow at each new level before making the necessary adjustments, and until he shows otherwise, I feel like we have to assume the same is happening at the MLB level. The biggest difference between Judge and other prospects on this list, like Mateo and Kaprielian and Gleyber, is that he’s had a chance to fail at the big league level. Everyone else is getting the benefit of the doubt because they haven’t had that same opportunity.

3. Wade gets some love. I’m a pretty big Tyler Wade fan and it seems I’m not alone. Ranking him ninth in this system is pretty lofty. “Wade is a favorite of many scouts and evaluators because of his energy, playing style, and instincts. He’ll grow on you the more you see him,” said the write-up. Wade is not a future star or anything, and that’s kind of a problem in a system with this many shortstops. Torres and Mateo, two guys with star-caliber tools, are right behind him climbing the minor league ladder. Others like Hoy Jun Park and Wilkerman Garcia have higher ceilings too. Unseating Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro at the MLB level won’t be easy either. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League to prepare him for a utility role, which is by far his best path to MLB playing time with New York. If I were another team with a long-term need a shortstop (coughPadrescough), I’d be all over the Yankees trying to get Wade in a deal. He hits for no power and won’t wow you with big OPS or wRC+ numbers, but a lefty hitter who can hit for average, draw walks and get on base, steal bases, and play good defense at shortstop is a nifty little player.

Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)
Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)

4. Others of note. Each year the Baseball Prospectus farm system write-ups include information on players beyond the top ten. Among the other Yankees singled out: 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jordan Montgomery, OF Dustin Fowler, OF Billy McKinney, RHP Dillon Tate, and RHP Erik Swanson. Swanson’s an interesting guy who is easy to overlook in this system. He came over in the Carlos Beltran trade. “Swanson touched as high as 98 in a June viewing, regularly sitting 91-96. He also flashed a hard slider and a more usable change than one often sees from a power profile at the Low-A level,” said the write-up. Swanson turned 23 in September and he missed most of 2015 with a forearm issue, but he’s healthy now and has enough stuff to possibly start long-term. If not, don’t be shocked if he moves very quickly as a fastball/slider reliever.

5. The top ten 25-and-under talents. My favorite part of Baseball Prospectus’ annual system write-ups is their list of the top ten talents age 25 and under in the organization. For the Yankees, the 25-and-under list is essentially the same as top ten above, except with C Gary Sanchez at the top, 1B Greg Bird sixth (between Rutherford and Sheffield), and RHP Luis Severino tenth (behind Judge). A year ago Judge and Severino were first and second. Now they’re ninth and tenth. Part of that is Judge’s strikeouts and Severino’s inability to pitch well as a starter, but it also speaks to how the Yankees’ long-term outlook has improved over the last 12 months. Sanchez emerged as a force and so many young players — five of the team’s top eight prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus — have been added to the system within the last six months or so. It’s really hard to read these prospect lists and not get very, very excited about where the Yankees are heading.

Scouting the Trade Market: Nate Jones

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

Given their Winter Meetings activity, the White Sox are clearly a rebuilding team right now. They traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, and reports indicate Jose Quintana is on the block too. The Astros are said to have shown the most interest in him, and, understandably, the ChiSox have asked for basically all their top prospects. I don’t blame them. Quintana’s awesome.

The White Sox do have other veterans to trade as well, including former Yankee David Robertson. My guess is the teams that lose out on Kenley Jansen will turn their attention to Robertson. It’s another ChiSox reliever that interests me though: hard-throwing righty Nate Jones. The Yankees already have a pretty great closer-setup man tandem, but there’s no such thing as too many quality relievers. Let’s give Jones a look.

Recent Performance

Jones, who turns 31 in January, is like so many other relievers these days in that he’s a failed starter. The White Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, and after a few years as a middling minor league starter, they moved him to the bullpen and he dominated almost immediately. Jones has spent parts of five seasons in the show now. His numbers:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2016 70.2 2.29 2.93 29.2% 5.5% 45.9% 0.89 .211 .276
Career 239.1 3.16 3.11 27.0% 8.5% 47.1% 0.79 .286 .278

Jones was excellent this year. He’s been good his entire career, really, but this year he took it to another level. Not coincidentally, he was healthy this season, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Jones has always missed bats and gotten a good number of grounders, and this season he cut his walk rate. (He walked 15 in those 70.2 innings and three of the 15 were in intentional.)

This season Jones did have a pretty significant platoon split, though it’s not like lefties smacked him around the yard. They hit .198/.257/.410 against him. It’s worth noting he faced 109 lefties and gave up five homers this summer. It was two homers against 165 righty batters. Jones has always been more home run prone against lefties (career 1.22 HR/9) than righties (0.50 HR/9), which could be a problem at Yankee Stadium.

Generally speaking though, Jones was very good this past season and he’s been comfortably above-average his entire career. This is not some run of the mill middle reliever. Jones is a bonafide power reliever capable of pitching high-leverage situations.

Present Stuff

Like most relievers, Jones is a two-pitch pitcher. He’s a sinker/slider pitcher who has, at times, thrown a changeup and a curveball. Very rarely though. Jones threw seven changeups and four curveballs this past season. Total. So yeah, two-pitch pitcher. To the numbers (MLB averages in parenthesis):

% Thrown Avg. Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 62.8% 97.4 (91.3) 8.7% (5.4%) 42.5% (49.5%)
Slider 36.0% 88.8 (84.3) 27.0% (15.2%) 56.1% (43.9%)

Those are 2016 numbers, which most closely reflect who Jones is at this point in time. Right away, the velocity jumps out at you. Averaging north of 97 mph with a sinker is no joke. Same with a slider that averaged close to 89 mph. Jones got the sinker as high as 100.2 mph and the slider as high as 93.2 mph in 2016. That is pretty crazy.

Weirdly, that high-octane sinker doesn’t generate many grounders. Jones does get a good amount of swings and misses with the sinker, but not grounders. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s not like Jones pitched poorly this year — just unusual. Maybe it’s more of a true four-seam fastball that had just enough movement to trick PitchFX into thinking it’s a sinker? Video is scarce — unfortunately no one made a highlight video of a relatively unheralded setup reliever — but let’s look at some anyway:

Okay, that’s a sinker, not a four-seamer. You can clearly see the pitch run away from the left-handed batter. I’m not quite sure why Jones didn’t get many grounders with his sinker this season — he had a 28.6% grounder rate with the sinker last year, so it was even worse — but it happened. It’s not a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned because Jones was so good anyway, just a little weirdness. (Here’s video of his slider, if you’re interested.)

Injury History

Like so many other hard-throwing relievers these days, Jones has had some arm problems in his career. Nowadays it seems the guys who haven’t had an arm injury are the outliers. Anyway, here is Jones’ injury history:

  • 2010: Missed about two weeks in May with shoulder tendinitis while in Double-A.
  • 2014: Landed on the disabled list three games into the season with hip problem. He had relatively minor back surgery in early-May to shave down a bone that was causing nerve irritation and the hip issue.
  • 2014: Blew out his elbow in mid-July and needed Tommy John surgery. He was working his way back from the back procedure when the ligament snapped.

The good news: Tommy John surgery is the only serious arm issue. Jones’ shoulder has been fine since that little two-week stint on the minor league disabled list nearly seven years ago. Also, the back surgery wasn’t a structural issue, like a herniated disc. It was an arthroscopic procedure and Jones was throwing less than six weeks later. He wasn’t far away from rejoining the White Sox when the elbow gave out.

Now, that said, Jones is a guy with a herky jerky delivery who needed elbow reconstruction not too long ago. That’s a red flag, no doubt. Every single reliever is a risk these days. They all seem to get hurt. Jones appears to be in the clear at this point — his stuff and performance have bounced back well following Tommy John surgery — but he is slightly more risky than most relievers because his elbow was rebuilt less than three calendar years ago.

Contract Status

Interestingly enough, the White Sox signed Jones to a long-term extension while he was rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery. You don’t see that often. A team signing a player long-term as he’s rehabbing from major surgery. The ChiSox figured it was worth the risk, and I’m sure Jones appreciated the long-term security. Here’s the remainder of the contract:

  • 2017: $1.9M
  • 2018: $3.95M
  • 2019: Club option at league minimum ($555,000 per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement)
  • 2020: $3.75M club option
  • 2021: $4.25M club option

The contract also includes all sorts of escalators and bonuses. If Jones doesn’t need another elbow surgery by the end of the 2018 season, the contract options jump to $4.65M in 2019 and $5.15M in 2020, and the 2021 club option becomes a $6M mutual option. The ChiSox built in some protection in case the ligament gives out again. Jones can earn another $5.25M through bonuses based on games finished totals that, realistically, no pitcher could reach as a setup man. We’re talking 30+ games finished a year. He’d have to become a closer to trigger those.

So, all told, Jones can max the contract out at $26.9M over the five years if he stays healthy, becomes a closer, and neither side declines the mutual option. If the Yankees were to acquire Jones and use him as a setup man exclusively, and his elbow stays healthy, they’d owe him $15.65M from 2017-20 with the $6M mutual option for 2021. (Every option in the contract includes a $1.25M buyout.) Got all that? Point is, Jones is a contractual bargain relative to other top relievers.

What Would It Take?

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Gosh, it’s going to be really tough to pin down a trade benchmark for Jones given his recent Tommy John surgery and unique contract. Here are some relievers who were recently traded with at least four years of team control remaining:

  • Ken Giles: Traded with a top 20 org prospect (Jonathan Arauz) for a young big league starter (Vince Velasquez), a big league swingman (Brett Oberholtzer), a top ten org prospect (Mark Appel), a top 20 org prospect (Thomas Eshelman), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Harold Arauz).
  • Trevor Gott: Traded with a non-top 30 org prospect (Michael Brady) for Yunel Escobar in a salary dump.
  • Craig Kimbrel: Traded with Melvin Upton for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, a top 50 global prospect (Matt Wisler), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Jordan Paroubeck).

Yeah, this doesn’t help us much. Kimbrel was firmly established as one of the best relievers in baseball when he traded from the Braves to the Padres, if not the best. Gott had one year in the show as a middle reliever and was traded in a salary dump. Giles had five years of control remaining, not four, and that package is all over the place. That’s the deal that raised the price for late-inning bullpen help.

The Red Sox just gave up a young-ish player off their MLB roster (Travis Shaw), a top ten org prospect (Mauricio Dubon), a non-top 30 org prospect (Josh Pennington), and a player to be named later for three years of Tyler Thornburg, who like Jones is a good reliever with an injury history. That feels like the starting point for Jones. The Thornburg package. He won’t come cheap. I know that much. No good reliever does these days. The Yankees won’t be able to swing a deal by cobbling together a package of three or four guys from the bottom of their 40-man roster.

So What About The Yankees?

Even after agreeing to a deal with Aroldis Chapman last week, the Yankees are reportedly in the hunt for even more bullpen help. Nothing significant, they’re not going to sign Kenley Jansen or anything like that, but they want to beef up the middle relief. Ideally, they want a left-hander to pair with (or maybe replace?) Tommy Layne. Jones is not a southpaw, but he’s really good, so good that handedness doesn’t matter.

The Yankees already have a strong relief crew with Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard behind Chapman. Adam Warren is a fine fourth bullpen option, has been his entire career, though the Yankees may need him in the rotation. Adding Jones to Betances and Clippard would give the Yankees three really good setup relievers — Joe Girardi can have a sixth inning guy! — next year, and two really good setup relievers in the following years. (Clippard will be a free agent next winter. Betances and Jones would still be around.)

The real question is whether it’s worth giving up the prospects to acquire Jones given his contract and injury history, and really, we can’t know the answer to that until we get some idea of what the White Sox want. The Yankees don’t need Jones. He’d be a luxury. They’re in position to hang back and see how his market develops before deciding whether to get involved. New York doesn’t have to rush into any sort of decision. That’s good.

Problem is, Jones will probably be long gone before the prospect price drops low enough for the Yankees to get involved. I don’t think they want to give up any prospects for a reliever, especially not after signing Chapman. Maybe if they’d whiffed on Chapman and passed on Jansen because of the draft pick, Jones would make more sense. He’d be a really great addition to the bullpen. No doubt. My guess is the Yankees will find the cost prohibitive.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 12th, 2016

2016 Season Record: 84-78 (680 RS, 702 RA, 79-83 pythag. record), 5.0 GB of postseason spot

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Weekend Open Thread

The Winter Meetings are over, but I haven’t had much time to catch up on my reading, so I don’t have any links to pass along this week. I instead offer you MLBTR’s list of potential 2018-19 free agents. That’s the monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado class. It goes beyond them too. Second tier free agents like A.J. Pollock and D.J. LeMahieu would be the cream of the crop this year. Check it out and start drooling.

Friday: Here is your open thread for this chilly evening in New York. The Rangers, Devils, and Knicks are all playing, and there’s one college basketball game on as well. Talk about that stuff or anything else here.

Saturday: This is the open thread once again. The Islanders and Nets are playing, and there’s a bunch of college hoops going as well. Also, the Army-Navy game is on too, and that’s always cool. Have at it.

Sunday: For one last time, this is the open thread. The Rangers and Devils are playing (each other), the Knicks are out on the West Coast, plus there’s all the day’s NFL action too. And college basketball as well. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.