This is the nightly open thread. All three local hockey teams are in action — the Rangers and Islanders are playing each other in a rather big game (by mid-January standards) — plus there’s some college hoops on as well. Talk about whatever here.
It appears the Yankees have their Triple-A innings guy. The team has signed right-hander Anthony Swarzak to a minor league contract, reports Jon Heyman. The deal will pay him $750,000 at the big league level. Safe to assume Swarzak received an invitation to big league Spring Training.
Swarzak, 30, made the Indians’ Opening Day roster last year, but was sent to Triple-A after allowing nine runs (five earned) in 13.1 innings. He made six relief appearances in the minors before latching on with the Doosan Bears in Korea. Swarzak had a 5.56 ERA in 92.1 innings for Doosan last summer. He worked mostly as a starter.
In 453 career innings spread across 32 starts and 159 relief appearances, Swarzak has a 4.45 ERA (4.18 FIP) at the MLB level, mostly with the Twins. That’s broken down into a 5.87 ERA (4.81 FIP) as a starter and a 3.64 ERA (3.81 FIP) as a reliever. Swarzak a low-to-mid-90s fastball/slider guy at this point. He doesn’t throw his curveball or changeup much out of the bullpen.
There are three open bullpen spots at the moment, so I wouldn’t rule Swarzak out as a candidate for the big league roster. I think it’s more likely he’ll be the designated Triple-A innings guy though. Last year it was Kyle Davies, the year before it was Bruce Billings, and the year before that it was Chris Bootcheck. Teams always need a veteran guy to soak up some innings in Triple-A.
In each of the last two offseasons, the Yankees traded away a relatively young and cheap pitcher who could have been considered rotation depth. Last year it was David Phelps, who went to the Marlins in the Nathan Eovaldi trade, and this offseason it was Adam Warren. Warren will now ply his trade with the Cubs on Chicago’s north side after being swapped for Starlin Castro.
Replacing Warren won’t be easy. He gave the Yankees a 3.23 ERA (3.59 FIP) in 287 innings from 2013-15 and pitched in a variety of roles. Long man, middle reliever, setup man, spot starter, you name it. The guy was really valuable, though, as the trade indicates, the Yankees believe it’ll be easier to find another Warren than it will be to find another Castro.
Among those who will get a chance to fill Warren’s role is fellow righty Bryan Mitchell, who has been up and down a bunch of times the last two years but has not yet had the opportunity to settle into a defined role at the big league level. Mitchell struggled down the stretch big time last season, though that was after he took a line drive to the face, so I’m inclined to cut him some slack.
Mitchell, now 24, showed what we all knew last season: he has really good stuff. PitchFX clocked his average fastball at 96.7 mph — he topped out at 99.3 mph in relief — and when hitters swung at this trademark curveball, they missed 24.0% of the time and put it on the ground 62.9% of the time. The raw tools are there, no doubt about it. Mitchell lacks command and consistency, which were Warren’s strengths.
Right now, Mitchell is seventh on the rotation depth chart, though he’ll also have a chance to win a bullpen job in Spring Training. Remember 2013? The Yankees had Warren, Phelps, and Vidal Nuno in camp as depth starters, and instead of sending one or two to Triple-A to stay stretched out, all three made the Opening Day roster because the Yankees felt they were the best men for the job.
Mitchell is in a similar situation right now as Phelps, Warren, and Nuno were back in 2013. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if he made the bullpen out of Spring Training or was sent to Triple-A. The Yankees have a lot of candidates for the three open bullpen spots, more than I care to count, and I don’t necessarily think Mitchell has a leg up on any of them simply because he’s been in the organization longer.
Mitchell and the rest of the bullpen candidates will get a chance to strut their stuff in Spring Training and I think the competition is a good thing. It’s healthy. Everyone will try their best to win a job knowing that even if they don’t make the Opening Day roster, there’s a good chance they’ll be called up at some point. At the very least, those guys will want to put themselves in position to be the first guy called up.
The Warren trade doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees have faith in Mitchell replacing him. I just think it means they have faith in their ability to cobble together a reliable middle relief crew out of their internal options, which includes Mitchell. Mitchell just so happens to be a starter by trade, like Warren. Most of the bullpen candidates are relievers. Like, actual relievers. Guys who came up in the minors working out of the bullpen.
Mitchell’s 2016 season is more important to him personally than it is the Yankees. He’s not expected to be a core player going forward. He’s a depth player. Mitchell wants to establish himself as a potential core piece and the best way to do that is by replacing Warren, by taking advantage of what looks like a great opportunity and turning his potential into production.
The very first move the Yankees made last offseason was re-signing Chris Young to be their fourth outfielder. They did that days after the end of the World Series. This offseason their first move was acquiring Aaron Hicks to replace Young. Probably a coincidence, or maybe the Yankees just really value quality fourth outfielders.
Brett Gardner trade rumors were flying at the time of the Hicks trade, so for a while it seemed he could end up in a starting role. Gardner is still with the Yankees, so Hicks remains the fourth outfielder for now, though it’s starting to become clear the team intends to play him a fair amount. After all, Young appeared in 140 games and batted 356 times last season.
“I think (Hicks is) going to play a lot,” said Joe Girardi during a recent YES Network interview (video links). “Being a switch-hitter, you don’t worry about (matchups) as much. If they bring in a lefty, okay. If they bring in a righty, we don’t care. And I think he’s going to get a lot of playing time because of that.”
Brian Cashman called Hicks an everyday player soon after the trade — he also called John Ryan Murphy an everyday player — which sounded like one of those things every GM says after a trade. He was pumping up his new acquisition. It seems there’s some teeth to the idea though. The plan apparently calls for Hicks to play an awful lot going forward.
“For (Hicks) to have a strong year is extremely important,” added Girardi. “Cause if you can start playing Aaron Hicks four or five times a week, and give these guys a day off a week — or maybe even two days if they need a couple days — it would really help them down the stretch.”
Both Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury faded big time in the second half last season, and the Yankees have indicated resting the two and keeping them healthy is a priority next season. Add in soon-to-be 39-year-old Carlos Beltran in right field and the Yankees have three outfield starters who maybe aren’t 150+ games a year players anymore.
The math is pretty simple. To get Hicks those four or five games a week, the Yankees could rest Gardner once, Ellsbury once, and Beltran twice — one day on the bench and one day as the DH. (That would also give Alex Rodriguez some more rest.) I’m sure Hicks will come off the bench as a defensive replacement a bunch of times too. Hot and cold streaks and injuries will inevitably complicate things, but that seems like a viable plan.
“You don’t necessarily need to move Gardner to center if you’re giving Jacoby a day off. You can leave people just where they are,” said Girardi of Hicks’ versatility. “And this guy’s very athletic. He’s a very good right-handed hitter and I saw improvements in his left-handed swing and I watched him and watched his approach at the plate. That really excites me because I think this kid can be a complete player.”
Hicks turned 26 in October and there is some evidence he is on the verge of breaking out, mostly in his more aggressive approach and new leg kick. Surely that’s part of the reason the Yankees acquired him. The raw ability is obvious and they see the signs of improvement, and hope he develops into a true everyday player down the road. They’re going to try to get him as much playing as possible next year to make it happen.
The Yankees are in the middle of this on-the-fly rebuild and have been buying low on young players since last winter. In some cases, plugging them into the lineup was rather easy, like it was with Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. In other cases, like Hicks and Dustin Ackley, the Yankees will have to get a little creative. Acquiring the talent is the easy part. Getting players like Hicks to reach their potential is where it really gets challenging.
Five weeks from today, Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in Tampa. Not much happens that day, but it does mark the start of the new season, and that’s pretty cool. I’m ready for the offseason to be over. Anyway, I have assorted thoughts to share.
1. The last free agent the Yankees signed to a big league contract? Stephen Drew, last January. (I’m not counting re-signing Garrett Jones and Chris Capuano after they were released in August.) The Yankees have not signed a single Major League free agent this offseason and it’s looking more and more likely they will go the entire winter without one. Free agency turned 40 years old this offseason and, as best I can tell, the Yankees have never gone an offseason without signing a free agent to a big league deal. (Correct me if I’m wrong, someone.) The closest they’ve come is going an offseason with only re-signing their own free agents. Kinda crazy, no? This was the best free agent class in years — and it looks like it’ll be the best for several years into the future as well — and the Yankees are on the verge of sitting it out completely. I’m not sure what to make of that.
2. On a related note, the Yankees sent season ticket holders a survey a few weeks ago that included a bunch of the usual market research type questions. There was also this question, via @StadiumInsider:
So I guess both is not an option? Because that’s what the Yankees should be doing. That’s what led to the late-1990s dynasty. The Yankees are in the process of building a young core through the farm system and buy low trades, and it stands to reason they will spend on free agents down the road, but making this an either/or question is weird. Ratings and attendance are down and it seems like the team is searching for fan approval for their current course of action. Of course people are going to pick the draft and farm system. It’s been drilled into their heads that that’s the “right” way to build a team. But the correct answer is both. The Yankees should do both.
3. I am irrationally intrigued by the Ronald Torreyes pickup. No, he didn’t hit much at all last season (82 wRC+ in Triple-A), but he changed organizations three times and I can’t imagine that made life easy. The guy never had a chance to get settled in one place. Torreyes is one season removed from hitting .298/.345/.376 (90 wRC+) with a 5.0% strikeout rate (!) in 519 Triple-A plate appearances as a 21-year-old. He did that while being almost six years younger than the average Pacific Coast League player in 2014. Torreyes turned 23 in September and the book on him is that he’s a high energy player with elite contact skills and some versatility (he’s played second, short, third, and left). He doesn’t have any power — Torreyes has 22 homers in nearly 2,600 minor league plate appearances, and he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 150 lbs. on the official site, so he’s a tiny little guy — but the contact skills and versatility point to a future as a utility guy. Maybe Torreyes can be the player the Yankees were hoping Eduardo Nunez would become. Probably not, but it was worth Rob Segedin to find out.
4. The more I think about it, the more I believe the Yankees will end up using that fourth bench spot as a revolving door. Assuming Starlin Castro shows he can handle third base on occasion, of course. As far as I can tell none of the minor league contract guys (Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, Jonathan Diaz) have options remaining, but Torreyes, Greg Bird, Rob Refsnyder, Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ben Gamel all do. Mark Teixeira‘s a little banged up? Let’s call up Bird for a few days. Four of the next five opposing starters are lefties? Let’s call up Refsnyder this week. That sort of thing. That’s a complicated plan but it is doable. And as we saw with the bullpen shuttle last year, a plan like this means none of those guys will get an extended opportunity to prove themselves at the MLB level, so at the end of the season the Yankees still won’t know what they have. Hopefully that doesn’t happen. Hopefully one of these guys steps up and seizes a bench spot.
5. Predictions for some unsigned free agents: Justin Upton goes to the White Sox, Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers, Dexter Fowler to the Angels, Chris Davis to the Orioles, Yovani Gallardo to the Orioles, Ian Kennedy to the Royals, Ian Desmond to the Padres, and Howie Kendrick to the Diamondbacks. The only one I am even 25% confident in is Davis returning to the O’s. It’s very rare for this many top free agents to still be on the board in mid-January. Usually there’s one big name Scott Boras client left unsigned this time of year, everyone says Boras sucks and overplayed his hand, then the player gets a massive contract because Boras is the best in the business. Eventually those players will sign lucrative contracts … right? These next few weeks are going to be pretty interesting. There are an awful lot of impact players left on the market.
6. Based on the FanGraphs projections, the six worst teams in baseball are in the NL. This is not just some wild computer nerd observation either. Baseball’s four massively rebuilding teams are in the NL (Braves, Phillies, Reds, Brewers) and both the Padres and Rockies are in something of a perpetual rebuild. You don’t need the projections to tell you those six clubs will be very bad in 2016. The only AL team that looks like a total non-contender right now is the Athletics. Every other team at least appears to have a chance, right? In the NL, six of the 15 teams will be more or less out of it on Opening Day. Yeah, weird stuff happens all the time and one or two of those six clubs might be a surprise contender, but it seems so very unlikely. The path to the postseason looks to be much more difficult in the AL just because so many more teams figure to be in the race. Not great for the Yankees, but I guess it’ll make the summer more interesting.
Anyway, here is your open thread for the night. The Knicks and Nets are playing each other, plus there’s a bunch of college basketball on the schedule too. Discuss those games, the Montero-Pineda trade, and anything else right here.
Last year the Yankees made it no secret they wanted to give their starters extra rest whenever possible. That meant not using off-days to skip the fifth starter and inserting a spot sixth starter whenever possible. Almost all of their projected starters had some kind of health concern, none bigger than Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow, and the Yankees were trying to prevent further injury.
It’s difficult to say whether the plan worked. The foursome of Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi combined to make 107 starts, including 63 on extra rest (59%). All four got hurt at some point — Tanaka and Pineda had forearm problems, Sabathia’s knee acted up, and Eovaldi’s elbow barked in September — and only Tanaka was comfortably above-average.
Overall, the Yankees rotation had a 4.25 ERA (4.04 FIP) last season and maybe things would have been worse had they not given their four main starters extra rest. The Yankees had good intentions. Whether they got the desired results is another matter. Either way, it seems likely the team will again try to give their starters extra rest in 2016. New health concerns exist, plus Luis Severino will presumably have some sort of innings limit.
“I think there’s depth there but there’s questions about health … I think our guys are capable of getting it done,” said Joe Girardi when asked about his rotation at the Winter Meetings last month. “But the thing is, you have to keep them out there for 30 to 32 starts. I think our rotation has a chance to be good, but we’ve got to keep them out there.”
Teams are using pitchers less and less these days, and it feels like only a matter of time until the six-man rotation is widespread. Several teams, including the Dodgers and Phillies, used a six-man rotation for part of September last season, when it was easier to pull off thanks to expanded rosters. That’s the tricky part of a six-man rotation: you either need a short bullpen or a short bench to make it work.
The Yankees right now have the kind of bench that can make a six-man rotation work. They’ll have a backup catcher, presumably Gary Sanchez but possibly Austin Romine, plus Aaron Hicks as the backup outfielder and Dustin Ackley as the utility guy. Starlin Castro is currently slated to back up Didi Gregorius at second and Chase Headley at third, with Ackley filling in at first and second. They have every position covered, at least in theory.
Castro’s ability to play third is the X factor. If he can play the position on occasion, a three-man bench and six-man rotation could actually work. If Castro can’t play third though, the Yankees will need to carry a fourth bench player to back up the hot corner, blowing this whole plan up. It’ll be interesting to see how the Yankees use Castro in Spring Training. That’s the time and place to give him reps at third base if they’re serious about using him there.
It’s also possible the six-man rotation would lead to a revolving bullpen or bench spot. The Yankees can carry six relievers or three bench players depending on their needs at the time. Bullpen’s taxed? Call up an extra reliever and send down a bench guy. Position player banged up? Carry the fourth bench player and only three relievers. That plan involves having optionable relievers and bench guys. We know the Yankees have the former. The latter? Yeah, but not as much.
“We could have an open bench spot. Maybe we use that with a revolving door with position players and/or pitching, depending on what our needs are,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings earlier this week. Sounds like we might see a bench player shuttle in addition to a bullpen shuttle next season. That would make it a bit easier for the Yankees to employ a six-man rotation, though it would still create a roster headache. That’s unavoidable.
I don’t think the Yankees will use a true six-man rotation next season. I think we’re still a few years off from that, thankfully. I do think the team will try to get their starters extra rest whenever possible though, again by using a spot starter on occasion. Ivan Nova could be that guy if he stays stretched out as the long man, or the job could belong to Bryan Mitchell or Luis Cessa. Plans like this have a way of being thrown out of whack though.
If the Yankees do decide to use a six-man rotation at some point in 2016, even temporarily during a long stretch of games with no off-day, the current bench could allow them to do so with relative ease. It all depends on Castro’s ability to play third base. His ability to do so would give the Yankees a ton of flexibility and roster possibilities.