Prospect Profile: Dustin Fowler

(The Times-Tribune)
(The Times-Tribune)

Dustin Fowler | OF

Background

The 22-year-old Fowler was born and raised in Cadwell, Georgia, a town with a population of under 500 during his formative years. He attended West Laurens High School a few miles down the road, where he split his time between baseball, wrestling, and football through his junior season. His high school career took off once he focused on the best sport of the three, and he won the All-Middle Georgia GHSA Baseball Player of the Year Award in his senior season. He batted .598 that year, with 8 home runs and 39 RBI.

Baseball America ranked Fowler as the 22nd best prospect from Georgia heading into the 2013 draft (a class headlined by Clint Frazier), though he did not crack the BA 500. The Yankees took him in the 18th round (554th overall), and gave him a well over-slot $278,000 signing bonus to buy him out of a commitment to Georgia State University.

Pro Career

Fowler kicked-off his professional career in the GCL, where he hit just .241/.274/.384 with zero homers and three steals in 117 PA (89 wRC+). He would then spend the entirety of an injury-abbreviated 2014 at Charleston, where he hit .257/.292/.459 with 9 HR and 3 SB in 272 PA (104 wRC+). The uptick power jumps off the page, as does the modest bump in OBP, thanks to Fowler’s walk rate jumping from 3.4% in 2013 to 4.8% in 2014.

Fowler broke out in 2015, batting .307/.340/.419 (114 wRC+ with 4 HR and 18 SB in 256 PA) in a return engagement with Charleston, and earning a promotion to High-A Tampa on June 22. His power sagged a bit in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, but he still batted .289/.328/.370 with a home run and 12 steals (111 wRC+) in 262 PA. His walk rate ticked up once at High-A, from 4.3% to 5.7%, which helped to mask the slip in power.

He earned a ticket to the Arizona Fall League after the 2015 season, and it was more of the same in the desert, as he slashed .279/.313/.410 with 2 HR and 7 SB in 65 PA. It’s an offense-happy environment, so his 96 wRC+ was actually a bit below-average, but he impressed nevertheless.

The 22-year-old’s ascent up the Yankees prospect list continued in 2016, as he performed admirably in a full season at Double-A. Fowler batted .281/.311/.458 for Trenton, with 12 HR and 25 SB (109 wRC+) in 574 PA, and drew praise for his continued refinement. His walk rate sagged dramatically, dipping to 3.8%, but it was mitigated a bit by his career-best 15.0% strikeout rate and well above-average .177 ISO.

All told, Fowler is a .279/.313/.429 hitter in 1,546 professional plate appearances.

Scouting Report

Most any report that you read on Fowler revolves around two things: his rawness, and his athleticism. The former is largely a product of his amateur career, as he was a three sport athlete for a few years, and played for a small school in a small division. And the latter is simply something that he oozes, with his 6’0″, 185-pound frame (he’s added about 15 pounds of muscle since signing with the Yankees) and well above-average to plus speed.

It isn’t just about athleticism for Fowler, though. He’s a left-handed hitter and thrower, with above-average to plus bat speed and the ability to barrel the ball anywhere in the strike zone. He also has average to above-average raw power, particularly to the pull side (hello, short porch), and he has been able to actualize that power in-game more often than many expected. Fowler’s approach at the plate may be best described as controlled aggression, and his ability to work the count remains his most glaring flaw as a prospect.

Defense is where Fowler truly shines, owing to his aforementioned speed and athleticism. He takes good routes in the outfield, accelerates quickly, and has the arm strength to stay in center long-term.

That speed and acceleration should make him an asset on the basepaths, as well. It has not as of yet, though, as he has been successful on just over 71% of his 95 career attempts, or right around the break-even mark. Fowler’s still just 22 (and a young 22, as his birthday was on December 29), so there is reason to hope that he’ll figure it out.

Baseball America ranked him ninth on the Yankees’ top-ten back in October, which says quite a bit given the team’s extraordinary farm system.

2017 Outlook

Fowler is set to open this coming season at Triple-A, where he’ll bounce between left and center. He’s not on the 40-man roster at this point, but he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft next off-season, so this is an important year in his development. I expect to see him in Spring Training this season, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent a significant amount of time in the Majors this season (perhaps in some sort of carousel with Mason Williams and Jake Cave).

My Take

The walk rates are a red flag, as I worry that Fowler will be too easily exploited by pitchers who are more capable of painting the corners (as well as umpires who call more consistent strike zones). His tools are so obvious, though, and the praise is so universal that I hold out hope that he could be a league-average regular in center. There’s a great deal of work to be done, but he’s already at Triple-A, and it’s clear that the Yankees believe in him.

Thoughts on Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list

Grandmaster Kap. (Presswire)
Grandmaster Kap. (Presswire)

All throughout the week, ESPN has been publishing Keith Law’s annual top 100 prospects list bit by bit. Here are Nos. 1-20, 21-40, 41-60, 61-80, and 81-100. It’s all behind the Insider wall. You should buy it. It’s worth it for Law’s stuff alone. Anyway, Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi sits in the top spot. Braves SS Dansby Swanson and Mets SS Amed Rosario round out the top three. Six Yankees made the top 100:

4. SS Gleyber Torres
22. OF Blake Rutherford
27. OF Clint Frazier
28. RHP James Kaprielian
44. OF Aaron Judge
88. LHP Justus Sheffield

Last week Law ranked New York’s farm system as the second best in baseball, behind only the hard-tanking Braves. SS Jorge Mateo went from No. 55 on Law’s list last year to out of the top 100 this year, which isn’t a total shock following his poor statistical season and suspension. It’s possible Mateo will make an appearance on Law’s list of prospects who just missed the top 100 when it’s released tomorrow. Until then, here are some thoughts on the top 100.

1. Law is a big Rutherford fan. Such a big fan that Rutherford ranks ahead of Phillies OF Mickey Moniak, the first overall pick in last year’s draft. The Yankees got Rutherford with the 18th pick. Only Reds 3B Nick Senzel (second overall pick) and Red Sox LHP Jason Groome (12th overall pick) rank higher among 2016 draftees. This isn’t a complete surprise, of course. Law ranked Rutherford as the sixth best prospect in last year’s draft (subs. req’d), and that was before he went out and wrecked rookie ball competition in his pro debut. Still, going from high schooler to the 22nd best prospect in baseball in the span of eight months is a hell of a thing. Baseball America recently ranked Rutherford third in the system behind Torres and Frazier and I was surprised to see him that high. Now Law has him second behind only Torres? I guess I’m underrating the kid.

2. The Frazier scouting report might not match your preconceived notions. Following the trade last year Frazier struggled with Triple-A Scranton, hitting .228/.278/.396 (90 wRC+) with three home runs and a 27.8% strikeout rate in 25 games. As a result, many folks seem to have assumed Frazier’s a bit of a hacker who is going to hit for middling averages and sock some massive dingers. Law’s scouting report is almost the exact opposite. A snippet:

He has absolutely electric bat speed that produces above-average power, probably never in the 30-homer range but certainly 15-20 on a consistent basis with high batting averages and a lot of doubles … Given how he’s hit to date, with consistently high BABIPs because he makes hard contact, he’s one of the best bets in the minors to hit .300+, and with moderate power and 50-60 walks a year that would make him at least an above-average regular.

Did Frazier struggle at Triple-A? Of course he did. But he’s not the first prospect to do that and he won’t be the last. Frazier will be under the microscope after being the headliner in a major trade, so the scrutiny is inevitable, but objectively speaking, the kid is incredibly talented and he has a chance to be an impact two-way player for the Yankees. Oh, and by the way, Frazier jumped from No. 72 on Law’s list last year to No. 27 this year. That is: cool.

3. Kaprielian climbs big time despite injury. In most cases, when a pitcher misses close to an entire season with an arm injury, he drops in the rankings. Kaprielian instead climbed from No. 87 on Law’s list last year to No. 28 this year. A 59-point jump despite a flexor strain! Incredible. As always, Law’s ranking considers everything, from present stuff to upside to injury risk, and the fact Kaprielian returned from his injury and looked like his normal self in the Arizona Fall League was encouraging. Encouraging and enough for Law to run Kaprielian way up the rankings. “I’ve got him ranked here to reflect the greater risk of a catastrophic injury that I think he has compared to pitchers who have never missed this kind of time,” said the write-up. “But do not mistake the ranking for a lack of faith in Kaprielian the pitcher, who has ace probability commensurate with those near the top of the 100.”

4. Judge slips, but not by much. Even though he remains a no-doubt top 100 caliber prospect, Judge has slipped in the various rankings this winter. That’s not a complete shock given his strikeout heavy big league debut in the second half a year ago. Last year Law ranked Judge as the No. 36 prospect in the game. This year he’s No. 44. Eight spots isn’t much of a drop at all, especially once you get this deep in the rankings. The difference between, say, No. 42 and 44 is nothing. The difference between No. 36 and No. 44 really isn’t all that significant either. “He has real 30-homer power, even at that contact rate, and he has shown enough patience that I think he’ll walk 60-plus times a year. With his athleticism — he’s an average runner — and plus arm, he’d be an asset in right field, all of which adds up to more than just an everyday player,” wrote Law. Judge is a big time post-hype sleeper. Folks are down on him but his talent level is unchanged.

Mailbag: Expansion, Hall of Fame, Traded Prospects, Draft

There are 13 questions in this week’s mailbag. For some reason there were a lot of “couldn’t the Yankees trade Starlin Castro for Jose De Leon???” questions in the inbox this week and … no. Just no. Anyway, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions throughout the week.

bobby-abreu-expansion
Traded to the Phillies for Kevin Stocker later that day. (@RaysBaseball on Twitter)

Drew asks: It seems like there is enough ML talent that the league could institute an expansion draft. When do you think MLB could see an expansion draft, and how would the process work?

Commissioner Rob Manfred insists the Rays and Athletics need new parks before MLB expands again, and I get that. You’ve got to take care of the teams already in the league before adding two more. MLB could probably expand right now though. The game is flush with cash, there are plenty of viable cities (San Antonio? Portland? Las Vegas?), and MLBPA will happily take all the extra jobs.

The expansion draft rules have been a little different each time MLB has expanded. Back in 1997, when the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks joined the league, each existing team was allowed to protect 15 players from the expansion draft. That covered both 40-man and non-40-man roster players. Players selected in the two most recent amateur drafts (1995 and 1996) were exempt from the expansion draft, and players set to become free agents after 1997 didn’t have to be protected. There were three rounds to the expansion draft, and each team could only lose one player per round. Also, they could protect three additional players after each round. Got all that? Good.

So, based on those rules, these are the I would protect if I were running the Yankees and MLB held an expansion draft this year:

I feel like I might be missing someone obvious, but that seems to be it. Blake Rutherford, James Kaprielian, and Chance Adams are all exempt because they were acquired in the two most recent amateur drafts. Also, I assume players with no-trade clauses have to be protected. Technically a no-trade clause is a no-assignment clause, and being selected in the expansion draft is an assignment. CC Sabathia has a no-trade clause but will be a free agent after the season, so he doesn’t need to be protected.

Historically, teams have loaded up on pitching during the expansion draft, which is why I’m opting to protect Montgomery over Andujar in the first round. As a near MLB ready southpaw, Montgomery would be a goner in the expansion draft. No doubt about it. There’s at least a chance of keeping Andujar through the first round. My guess is the Yankees would lose Cessa or Green in the first round. I have no idea who I’d leave out of the original 15 to protect them, however. There’s no reason to protect Brett Gardner and Chase Headley. Losing them for nothing would suck, but expansion teams traditionally don’t take veterans on big contracts in the draft.

I think (hope) we’ll see MLB expand and add two teams within the next ten years. It would even out the leagues at 16 teams apiece and eliminate the need for constant interleague play. Also, as someone who writes about baseball, I think covering an expansion draft would be fun as hell.

Michael asks: Last year the Yankees hosted an orientation type meeting for highly regarded prospects. They called it the “Captain’s … something”. Sorry but I do not remember the actual name. It seemed like a good idea last year but I have not seen anything to indicate they are repeating it this year. Have you seen anything yet?

Captain’s Camp, and they’ve done it a few years in a row now. I haven’t seen anything about it this year, though in the past we didn’t hear about the event until it was over, so who knows. Players are starting to head to Tampa — Rutherford, Austin, and Ben Heller are already there, based on their Twitter feeds — so it’s possible Captain’s Camp will begin fairly soon.

I have no reason to think the Yankees have shelved Captain’s Camp. They just had their Winter Warm-Up event last week, which featured many top prospects, plus MLB’s rookie development program was the week before that — Torres was there, not sure who else though — so the kids have been pretty busy. With Spring Training now fewer than three weeks away, I’m guessing Captain’s Camp will start fairly soon. I’m sure we’ll hear about it when the time comes.

Update: Severino, Sheffield, Adams, Dermis Garcia, and Wilkerman Garcia are also among those already in Tampa, reports Erik Boland.

Mark asks: Mailbag question for you – who is your biggest surprise comeback/break out player on the Yanks for 2017?

Severino is an easy call for comeback player, isn’t he? Maybe not in the entire league, but for the Yankees. He was terrible as a starter last season, truly awful, so performing like a league average starter in 2017 would qualify as a huge improvement and a comeback in my eyes. As for the breakout player, I’ll pass on taking the easy way out with Judge and instead say Cessa. I’m a fan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. He throws four pitches and he throws strikes, and I’ll take my chances with that. With fewer meatballs over the plate to curb the home run problem going forward, the Yankees could really have something there.

(Stephen Brashear/Getty)
(Stephen Brashear/Getty)

Marc asks: All the HOF talk has me thinking, does Robinson Cano make it into the HOF and if he does, does he go in as a Yankee?

Yes and yes. Cano just turned 34 in October and he’s well on his way to 3,000 hits (2,210 at the moment), 600 doubles (479), 400 homers (278), a lifetime .300 average (.307), and +75 WAR (+62.4). Seven All-Star Games and five top six finishes in the MVP voting helps too. I think Robbie is about 95% of the way to the Hall of Fame. He’s already built an excellent foundation and now just needs to hang around and compile a little more, and since there are still seven years left on his contract, he’ll get plenty of opportunity to do so.

There’s a chance Cano will retire having played more games as a Mariner than as a Yankee — he needs to average 129 games per season over the final seven years of his contract for that to happen — though he had his best years in pinstripes and emerged as a true star as a Yankee. He also won his World Series ring in New York. Barring something crazy, like two MVPs and a few World Series titles these next seven years, Cano should go into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.

(For what it’s worth, Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system says Cano is just short of the established Hall of Fame standards for second basemen. With another good year or two, he’ll get over the threshold.)

Dan asks (short version): I was thinking about the 2017 trade deadline. If the team is not doing good by July, what Yankees players could you see on the move for the July trade deadline and for what kind of packages?. Personally, I can see Betances, Holliday, Clippard, and probably Tanaka as well.

Brian Cashman was asked about the possibility of selling again this summer at the team’s town hall last week. It was a typically long and wordy Cashman answer, so I’m not going to transcribe it, but you can see his answer at the 27:30 mark of this video. The short version of his answer is: “It was really hard for Hal Steinbrenner to sell at the trade deadline and he might not be willing to do it again. I’ll recommend selling if I feel it’s necessary though.”

If they are out of the race and decide to sell, Matt Holliday and Tyler Clippard are the two obvious trade candidates as veterans approaching free agency. I don’t think Clippard will fetch much (remember what the Yankees gave up for him?), though maybe Holliday rakes and gets them a Carlos Beltran caliber return. Sabathia could be another candidate as an impending free agent. Maybe he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause to join a contender, assuming he repeats his 2016 success in 2017.

Remember, the Yankees tried to sign Chapman to an extension last season, and Hal only agreed to trade him after he declined an extension and said he wanted to become a free agent. Selling at the deadline was not necessarily Plan A. I’m not convinced the Yankees will do it again if they’re out of the race. If they do, Tanaka and Betances are obviously the top trade chips. I think it’s more likely guys like Holliday and Clippard would go.

Jackson asks: Comparing the trades the Yanks made at the deadline with the ones made recently this off season (e.g., Forsythe for Deleon), is there any doubt now that the best returns, if you’re a seller, are gotten during a pennant race? That being the case, don’t expect trades of any consequence by Cash, for e.g., BG, Headley, Dellin or Tank until the end of July, right?

That seems to be the case, though I can’t help but wonder whether this past trade deadline was just an anomaly. The Yankees got far more for a half-season of Chapman than the Royals got for a full season of Wade Davis or the Rays got for two seasons of Logan Forsythe. The Yankees were dealing with a desperate Cubs team, a team clearly built to win right now with a 108-year-old monkey on its back. Same with the Indians and Andrew Miller. They haven’t won a title since 1948. The pressure was on.

Things really fell into place for the Yankees last July. They had two extremely valuable assets in Chapman and Miller, and two very motivated buyers in the Cubs and Indians. Yes, I definitely think teams have more urgency to improve midseason than they do in the offseason — clubs seem much more willing to be patient in December and January, when everyone is 0-0, but things change when the standings are staring you in the face — but I don’t think we can expect Chapman/Miller caliber trades every year. Those seem to be special cases.

Bruce asks: When a player is added to the 40 man roster does the 6 year period of control before free agency start at that point, or when added to 25 man roster…or when? If 40 man roster, a player in low minors like Mateo might spend 3 more years in minors, meaning only 3 years of team control at Major league level.

Nope, it’s six years of service time, and players only accrue service time while on the MLB active roster or MLB disabled list. Mateo was added to the 40-man this offseason, so his time in the minors in 2017 won’t count as service time. It’s six full years in the big leagues before free agency. Betances was added to the 40-man roster in November 2010, spent the next three years in the minors before finally sticking in the show for good in 2014, and now he’s halfway through his six years of MLB control.

A.J. asks: If social media was around in the ’90s when the Yankees traded a ton of high-ranking prospects, which player traded would have caused the most outrage from fans? I’m thinking Eric Milton, Russ Davis, or Ed Yarnall. Thoughts?

The first name that jumped to mind is Ruben Rivera. The Yankees traded him to the Padres for Hideki Irabu in April 1997 — San Diego won Irabu’s rights through the posting system, but he refused to pitch for them — and from 1995-97, Baseball America ranked Rivera no worse than the ninth best prospect in baseball. And, in 1996, he hit .284/.381/.443 (107 OPS+) in 46 games, his first extended taste of the show. The Yankees had a revolving door in left field and a budding megastar, then they traded him. The internet would have broken.

Milton and Davis are two other really good candidates. Milton was New York’s first round pick in 1996 (20th overall). He pitched very well in the minors in 1997 and was ranked the 25th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America following the season. Then the Yankees traded him for Chuck Knoblauch, who went from a 143 OPS+ in 1996 to a 110 OPS+ in 1997 with the Twins. I don’t think that would have gone over well at the time.

Davis went to the Mariners in the Tino Martinez trade. The Yankees traded Davis, a three-time top 100 prospect per Baseball America, and Sterling Hitchcock, a two-time top 100 prospect, for Martinez, who was a year away from free agency. The team had late career Wade Boggs at the hot corner and they had just traded Davis, their long awaited third basemen of the future, for Tino. Imagine how the internet would have reacted to that nowadays. Teams definitely value prospects much more highly than they did in the 1990s. That’s for sure.

Anonymous asks: How about Jake Peavy as a low risk signing?

Not a bad idea, though the Padres are reportedly trying to bring Peavy back, and I think he’d return to San Diego before subjecting himself to Yankee Stadium and the AL East. Peavy is nearing the end of the line. He’ll turn 36 in May and last summer his fastball averaged 88.9 mph, and he had a 5.54 ERA (4.36 FIP) in 118.2 innings. He’s never been much of a ground ball guy, and when you combine a lack of grounders (36.4% in 2016) with an upper-80s fastball, you get a lot of homers (1.37 HR/9 in 2016) even in an extreme non-homer stadium like AT&T Park. Now that Brett Anderson is with the Cubs, I really don’t like any of the available free agent starters. Jon Niese seems most appealing.

(Keith Allison on Flickr via Creative Commons license)
(Keith Allison on Flickr via Creative Commons license)

Michael asks: Talk is always about the Yanks signing Harper or Machado in 2019, but is there any chance (assuming they get under the luxury tax in 2018) that they could sign both?

Is there a chance? Sure. I’d never rule it out. That said, if Bryce Harper and Manny Machado stay on their current trajectories, they’re probably going to be $400M players in two offseasons, and I’d bet against any team handing out two $400M contracts in one offseason. Then again, I never expected the Yankees to sign Sabathia and Mark Teixeira back in the day, when $150M contracts were still rare. If the kids like Sanchez and Torres and Judge develop into the players we hope, giving the Yankees a strong young (and cheap) core, I could see them splurging for both Harper and Machado, especially since they’ll both be in their mid-20s. That would be fun, huh?

Lou asks: With HOF voters limited to 10 votes, has voting option of “reserve for future consideration” been considered? So guys like Posada don’t get squeezed by the 10 vote limit? It would seem to me to smooth the voting out, and allow writers some time to contemplate a candidate.

Nothing like that has been considered as far as I know. The BBWAA tried to get the ballot expanded to a maximum of 12 votes a year or two ago, but the Hall of Fame said no, so the rule of ten remains. John Harper recently suggested a three-year minimum stay on the ballot and I like that idea. That would have given Jorge Posada a chance to stick around a little longer and possibly build momentum. (Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton, and Kevin Brown were all undeserving one-and-dones in recent years too.) It’s going to be a few years until the ballot starts to unclog, so this will remain an issue a little while longer. Voters will essentially have to choose their ten “most deserving” players until then, which is absurd.

Rubaiyat asks: Is there a chance for Jorge to still make the HOF? I know he’s dropped off the ballot, but could one of the new subcommittees elect him in?

Yes, there’s still a chance, but it’s a slim one. Last year the Hall of Fame revamped the Veterans Committee into four subcommittees. Posada falls under the Today’s Game Era Committee, which covers players from 1988 to the present. The committee met last month and doesn’t meet again until December 2018. It’s a 16-person committee and 12 votes are needed for induction. There’s no guarantee Posada will even be on the next Today’s Game ballot — he has to pass through a screening committee first, which will determine whether he’s even worthy of further Hall of Fame consideration — but it’s his only shot at induction at this point. (Aside from getting in as a manager.) I don’t expect Posada to get in either way. An appearance on the Today’s Game ballot would be cool though.

Adam asks: Fully understanding that it’s way too early to start thinking about the 2017 draft, as a fun exercise do you have any early predictions of who we might hear about the Yanks being connected to at No. 16.

Bet on Southern California kids. I’m not joking. Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer is a SoCal guy and he goes back to that well often. Four of New York’s last six first round picks have been SoCal kids (Rutherford, Kaprielian, Kyle Holder, Ian Clarkin) and one of the other two was from Central California (Judge), which should count as half-credit or something. This goes back to the days of Ian Kennedy and Gerrit Cole too. When in doubt, bet on the prospect from Southern California.

MLB.com released their top 50 prospects for the 2017 draft a few weeks ago, and among the 50 are 12 kids from Southern California: HS RHP/SS Hunter Greene (No. 1 on MLB.com’s list), HS SS/OF Royce Lewis (No. 3), HS RHP Hans Crouse (No. 20), HS OF Calvin Mitchell (No. 21), HS SS Francis Parker (No. 26), HS RHP/C Hagen Danner (No. 27), HS OF Garrett Mitchell (No. 31), UC Irvine 2B/OF Keston Hiura (No. 37), UCLA RHP Griffin Canning (No. 39), HS LHP/1B Nick Pratto (No. 42), HS RHP Jeremiah Estrada (No. 43), and HS RHP Kyle Hurt (No. 48). Wondering who the Yankees will draft with the 16th overall pick this summer? Those 12 names are as good a place to start as any.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Looking for something to read? Check out this conversation between Shawn Brody and Brendan McGuigan, two college pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery. McGuigan shared what it was like when his elbow ligament gave out — “(It) felt like a knife went through my elbow,” he said — and discussed the rehab process and all that. Pretty enlightening stuff. Check it out.

Here is this evening’s open thread. Both the Devils and Islanders are in action, and there are a handful of college basketball games going on as well. Talk about that stuff, the Brody-McGuigan piece, or anything else here. Just not politics or religion. Get that outta here.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Ryan Howard

(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Hi everyone. Just to introduce myself, I’m a 23-year-old Penn grad from New Jersey. As Mike mentioned on Wednesday, I interned at The Players’ Tribune a couple summers ago. I’ve been following RiverAveBlues since 2008 and have been a Yankees fan for much longer. I also write at CSN Philly, so fittingly my first post here is about a former Phillie.

In under three weeks, the Yankees will be reporting to Spring Training. Based on comments from Brian Cashman and the general Yankees vibe of the last couple years, it’s unlikely they’ll make another major addition prior to camp, particularly with the team’s mandate to get under the luxury tax line in the next couple seasons.

However, there’s always room for guys who would come in on minor league deals with camp invites. One of the biggest names who is likely amenable to this arrangement is former NL MVP Ryan Howard. The 37-year-old first baseman is a far cry from that MVP season and he received a farewell from the Phillies at the end of last season, but he is not retired. Ken Rosenthal profiled him as he’s working to prove himself and stay in the game, hoping to find a part-time 1B/DH job in the American League. Could the Yankees use him? Time to examine that question further.

Offensive Performance

You’re not getting 2006-2011 Ryan Howard. For that six-year stretch, he averaged 33 home runs and 133 RBI with a 139 OPS+. During that stretch, Howard was a cornerstone for the Phillies’ playoff runs and 2008 World Series title. He was the NLCS MVP in 2009, although it’s hard to forget Damaso Marte’s dominance of him in the 2009 World Series.

So what is Howard now? He is no longer a full-time player, in large part because he can no longer hit left-handed pitching. He always had a platoon split, but it has become more dramatic as he’s aged. In 2016, he had -4 OPS+ against lefties in just 35 plate appearances, hitting an unseemly .121/.143/.212 (-14 wRC+). Simply put, if Howard is playing for the 2017 Yankees and getting significant playing time against lefties, something has likely gone seriously wrong.

And there’s a lot from his 2016 season to dislike. Specifically, the first two months. They were dreadful. Howard looked like a beaten down version of himself and it seemed like last season was the end of the road. In April and May, he struck out in over a third of his 158 plate appearances. May 2016 was probably the worst month of his career, sporting a .421 OPS and a 6 wRC+.

After the Phillies called up their first baseman of the future, Tommy Joseph, Howard was demoted into a part-time role and began to thrive when the calendar flipped to June and July. He still struck out a fair amount in the second half (30.3 K%) but his .262/.324/.608 (142 wRC+) performance in that time was a throwback to the Howard of old. During that period, his hard contact and line drive percentages perked up. He finished the season with 25 home runs, his third straight season with at least 23.

Statcast gives more reason to believe that Howard’s second half is real. On 207 batted-ball events, Howard had 33 barrels, or highly well-struck balls essentially, good for 9.1 percent of his plate appearances. That is 10th in all of baseball last year, one spot behind Giancarlo Stanton (Gary Sanchez is third). His exit velocity was 92.5 mph, tied for 3rd in the majors. Power is Howard’s calling card and even with his struggles, that’s one thing he is sure to provide.

Here’s his spray chart heat map from last season via Baseball Savant. He pulls the ball on the ground a lot and a little less in the air, but he’d still benefit from the short porch. As with many lefty power hitters, he deals with the shift a fair amount.

ryan-howard-spray-chart

As you may have guessed, his base running is well below average, even for a first baseman. His age doesn’t help, nor does the Achilles’ injury he suffered in 2011 (more on that below). He hasn’t stolen a base since 2011. Even before his injury, he was consistently a net negative on the base paths and that would certainly continue in 2017.

Defensive Performance

Just like on the bases, Howard’s speed, or lack thereof, hurts him in the field as well. Looking at FanGraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding for the last four seasons, Howard makes almost none of the plays rated unlikely to impossible and gets just 42.3 percent of the plays rated about even. Bird had similar numbers in his 2015 stint, but in a 10th of the sample size.

For first basemen with at least 1000 innings over the last four seasons, Howard is 39th out of 43 players in UZR/150 innings. Howard’s arm is rated poorly and he had a below average season in 2016 at coming up with scoops. He’s certainly no Mark Teixeira. Ultimately, playing him in the field is not a desired outcome. He’d ideally be a DH for any team, but his bat could make up for his first base deficiencies.

Injury History

Howard has spent parts of four seasons – 2007, ’10, ’12 and ’13 – on the disabled list. The most famous and significant injury was his Achilles tear in the final at-bat of the Phillies 2011 NLDS Game 5 loss to the Cardinals. He didn’t return until July the next season.

After the Achilles injury, he clearly lost a step, evidenced by his lack of stolen bases, not that he was fleet of foot to begin with. He’s actually been pretty healthy in recent seasons, partly thanks to a reduced role. If he is in a platoon role at first base and DH, his health shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

Miscellaneous


I feel I’d be holding out on you if I didn’t show you Howard’s workout video from this offseason. His personal trainer begins it by saying his goal was “not to create a better baseball player, but to create a superhuman who also happens to play baseball” with an amused Howard looking on. Despite the hilarious quote, the video is actually a good peek into Howard’s workout routine and his viewpoint on his ‘breakup’ with the Phillies. Take a look.

Contract Estimates

The Phillies declined their $23 million team option for 2017, buying Howard out for $10 million. Overall, Howard received $135 million over the last five seasons. Not bad.

As mentioned at the outset, Howard’s likely looking for a MiLB deal with a camp invite. Likely one including an opt-out date towards the end of the spring.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

At first glance, the answer is no. If Greg Bird is hitting in spring training and looks like he did prior to his shoulder surgery, the answer is almost definitely no. But if Bird isn’t quite himself or the team determines he needs more time in AAA, well, then it gets a bit tricky. Tyler Austin could certainly take the first base job, but the Yankees very well may decide in that scenario to platoon him with … you guessed it, a veteran like Howard.

A DH platoon with Matt Holliday doesn’t make sense in terms of roster flexibility. Two players that can essentially only DH and pinch hit? Not optimal. Then there’s the fact that Holliday has almost no noticeable split and, in fact, has had years with reverse splits.

Howard, in theory, could accept AAA assignment and get brought in if the Yankees dealt with injuries at first, but it’s doubtful “The Big Piece” would take that demotion, even if it means returning to where he career took off (Scranton was the Phillies’ AAA affiliate when Howard rose through their system). The Yankees also signed 1B Ji-Man Choi to an MiLB deal that’ll likely mean Choi will be Scranton’s first baseman.

So Howard would have to earn his spot in the spring and Bird would likely have to lose it. With Howard, you want to catch lightning in a bottle, hoping that he can be like another Phillie position player turned Yankees DH. Howard’s 2016 second half may have just been a mirage, but a camp invite is probably worth the chance to determine whether that’s true.

Thursday Notes: Mendoza, Montgomery, Prospect Lists

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The seemingly never-ending offseason continues. I guess the good news is the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game is four weeks from tomorrow, and yes, that game will be broadcast on the YES Network. Four weeks and one day until actual baseball is on your television. It’ll be glorious. I’ll post the full Spring Training broadcast schedule once all the networks announce their plans. Until then, here are some newsy nuggets to check out.

Hector Mendoza declared a free agent

Cuban right-hander Hector Mendoza has been declared a free agent by MLB, reports Jesse Sanchez. Sanchez says Mendoza is expected to wait until his 23rd birthday on March 5th to sign, at which point he would be a true free agent unaffected by the international spending restrictions. Every team, including the Yankees and other clubs currently limited by international bonus penalties, would be able to sign him to a contract of any size at that point.

Back in April 2015, Ben Badler (subs. req’d) ranked Mendoza as the 12th best prospect in Cuba, one spot ahead of current Dodgers farmhand Yasiel Sierra. “At his best, he throws 90-94 mph with downhill plane, with solid strike-throwing ability and fastball command for his age … His 76-80 mph curveball is a solid-average pitch,” says the two-year-old scouting report. It also mentions Mendoza features a changeup and figures to start long-term.

Sierra signed a six-year deal worth $30M last February — he then pitched to 5.89 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 88.2 innings split between High-A and Double-A last year, and reportedly didn’t impress scouts either — so I guess that’s the benchmark for Mendoza. The Yankees have steered clear of the big money Cuban player market the last few seasons, so I’m not expecting them to get involved. And, frankly, I didn’t even know the guy existed until a few days ago.

Teams asking for Montgomery in trades

According to George King (subs. req’d), Brian Cashman confirmed teams have asked for left-hander Jordan Montgomery in trade talks this offseason. “He is a starter and left-handed. His name comes up,” said the GM. Not only that, but Montgomery has already has success at Triple-A (albeit in 37 innings) and is close to MLB ready, making him even more desirable. Here’s my prospect profile.

It can be really easy to overlook a guy like Montgomery given the strength and depth of the Yankees’ farm system, but he’s come a long way as a prospect the last few seasons. He’s added a cutter and also gained quite a bit of velocity, going from 88-91 mph in college to 93-95 mph in 2016. The Yankees seem to have a knack for getting guys to add velocity. Their throwing program must be good. We’ll see Montgomery in the Bronx in 2017. I’m sure of it.

MLB.com’s top prospects by position

Over the last few days MLB.com has been releasing their annual positional prospect lists. That is, the ten best prospects at each position. Several Yankees farmhands make appearances on the various lists. Here’s a quick recap:

I’m a bit surprised the Yankees only had one player on the outfield list, but eh, whatever. The shortstop list is stacked as always. Torres is one spot ahead of Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. Mateo is one spot ahead of Twins shortstop Nick Gordon, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft.

James Kaprielian failing to crack the top ten righties shouldn’t be a surprise. He did miss just about the entire 2016 season, after all. Also, I’d be more bummed about not having a top catcher prospect if, you know, Gary Sanchez didn’t exit. But he does and that’s cool. Same thing with first base and Greg Bird. Landing five prospects in the various top ten lists is pretty cool.

Update: On Twitter, Jim Callis says Blake Rutherford ranks 14th among outfielders in MLB.com’s upcoming top 100 prospects list.

Spring Training is getting shorter

Starting in 2018, Spring Training will be a whole two days shorter, reports Ronald Blum. Huge news, eh? As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the regular season will increase from 183 days to 187 days starting in 2018, and the shorter Spring Training will help make that happen. The goal was to add more off-days “in a way that doesn’t just chew up offseason days,” said MLBPA general counsel Matt Nussbaum.

The players have been pushing for more in-season off-days for a while now, and at one point they proposed shortening the season to 154 games. I’m not surprised that didn’t happen. The owners would be giving up four home games each, plus television contracts would have to be revised because they include a minimum number of broadcasts and things like that. Lots of logistical issues to work through. So anyway, two fewer days of Spring Training in two years. Yippee.