Scouting the Free Agent Market: Rickie Weeks and Gordon Beckham

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two weeks ago the Yankees robbed Peter to pay Paul by trading their starting second baseman for rotation help. Martin Prado was swapped for Nathan Eovaldi, leaving the team with a bunch of low cost options at second base. As of right now, Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder are expected to compete with non-roster invitees like Nick Noonan, Cole Figueroa, and Jonathan Galvez for the second base job in Spring Training.

Of course, these are the Yankees, and they could always go into free agency and bring in a more veteran second baseman. I don’t think it will happen — the team definitely seems to be making a concerted effort to get younger this winter — but I wouldn’t rule it out completely either. Among the two most notable free agent second basemen still available are Rickie Weeks and Gordon Beckham, a pair of former elite prospects who didn’t quite live up to the hype. Is either a fit for the Yankees? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

He wasn’t Robinson Cano or anything, but from 2010-11, Weeks was a damn fine player, hitting .269/.360/.466 (126 wRC+) with 58 doubles, 49 homers, and 20 stolen bases in 278 total games. The last three seasons haven’t been nearly as productive, however.

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ BABIP K% BB% GB% wRC+ vs. RHP wRC+ vs. LHP
2012 677 .230/.328/.400 97 .285 25.0% 10.9% 45.1% 94 108
2013 399 .209/.306/.357 85 .268 26.3% 10.0% 49.4% 79 97
2014 286 .274/.357/.452 127 .355 25.5% 8.7% 56.7% 109 142

Weeks kinda stunk in 2012, got hurt in 2013, then was used mostly as a platoon player in 2014, with 47% of his plate appearances coming against southpaws. It’s also worth noting his walk rate has declined because he’s swinging at more and more pitches out of the zone — he swung at 18.6% of pitches out of the zone in 2012, and that shot up to 20.7% in 2013 and 25.2% in 2014. And when Weeks swings out of the zone, it can be ugly. Hilarious, but ugly:

(GIF via Getting Blanked)

As for Beckham, he had a very promising MLB debut in 2009, hitting .270/.346/.460 (109 wRC+) with 14 homers in 430 plate appearances just a year after being the eighth overall pick in the 2008 draft. Since then though, Beckham has hit an awful .241/.300/.361 (79 wRC+) in just over 2,500 plate appearances, including a career-worst 70 wRC+ in 2014. His strikeout (17.0%) and walk (6.4%) rates from 2010-14 were fine, nothing extreme, but he just didn’t hit at all. He doesn’t have a platoon split either: career 82 wRC+ against righties and 85 against lefties.

This isn’t a small sample either. We have nearly 3,000 plate appearances telling us Beckham flat out can not hit MLB caliber pitching. That 2009 debut was nice, but it happened so long ago that it’s not even relevant anymore. At this point, the only reasons Beckham remains interesting are his age (just turned 28) and his status as a former elite prospect. And, just for the record, Baseball America ranked Beckham has the 20th best prospect in baseball before the 2009 season, a few spots behind Lars Anderson and a few spots ahead of Matt LaPorta. Yeah, it’s been a while since he was a prospect.

Defense & Versatility

One thing Beckham has on Weeks is his versatility. He’s spent the vast majority of his career at second base, but he’s also played some third base and shortstop, including after being traded to the Angels this past August. Weeks, on the other hand, has never played a position other than second base in his career. In fact, the Brewers asked him to try left field this past season and Weeks said no. That’s … not good.

The various defense stats say Beckham has been about average at second base throughout his career, and the samples aren’t nearly big enough for the numbers to mean anything about his abilities at short and third. The fact that he’s actually willing to play elsewhere is a plus though, at least compared to Weeks. The defense stats crush Weeks at second, by the way. Far below average. Defense and versatility are easily advantage Beckham.

Injury Histories

Weeks missed the final two months of the 2013 season after tearing his left hamstring running out a ground ball, an injury that was severe enough to require surgery. He also has a history of wrist problems: tendon surgery (right wrist) in 2006, inflammation (right wrist) in 2007, and tendon sheath surgery (left wrist) in 2009. Weeks also visited the DL for a knee sprain in 2008 and an ankle sprain in 2011. During his time as an everyday player from 2006-13, Weeks played in only 918 of 1,296 possible games, or 71%. At age 32, he probably isn’t getting any healthier.

Beckham, on the other hand, missed a month with an oblique strain this past season and two months with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist early last season. (The hamate required surgery.) Otherwise Beckham has been healthy throughout his career. Some minor day-to-day stuff, but that’s it. Oblique and hamstring injuries happen, the wrist injuries are much more worrisome, and Weeks has a longer history of ‘em.

Contract Estimates

Both Weeks and Beckham were cut loose by their former teams earlier this offseason — the Brewers declined their $11.5M club option for Weeks while the Angels opted to non-tender Beckham rather than pay him a projected $5M salary in 2015. Both moves were expected and understandable. Because Beckham did not become a free agent until late-November, there are no contract estimates for him anywhere. Here’s what we have for Weeks:

Weeks definitely seems like a one-year contract candidate, but, then again, we live in a world where Omar Infante got four years and Brendan Ryan got two years (and a player option!). I wouldn’t be surprised if Weeks ends up with two guaranteed years. Also, it’s probably worth noting Weeks is very close friends with CC Sabathia dating back to Sabathia’s short stint with the Brewers — the photo of super skinny CC that went around last offseason was taken at Weeks’ wedding — so, if nothing else, Sabathia could probably serve as a recruiter if the Yankees have interest.

I have to think Beckham is a one-year deal guy — 2015 would have been his final year of arbitration-eligibility, so he won’t remain under control in 2016 or anything like that — because he simply hasn’t hit for five years now. At least Weeks was pretty good in a limited role this past season. The going rate for free agent utility infielders seems to be $2M or so annually, which makes sense for Beckham. Maybe he gets a little more because he’s still young and teams like to spend money. Two years though? For a no hit, average defender? Eh. Hard to see that.

Both Weeks and Beckham will presumably look to join a team that will let them play everyday — the Cardinals reportedly had interest in Weeks as a utility guy but that went nowhere — and the Yankees could give them that opportunity if they really wanted. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of handing non-elite prospects like Pirela and Refsnyder a job out of Spring Training. A veteran to add depth and a safety net ain’t a bad idea in my opinion.

Personally, I prefer Beckham over Weeks because he’s better able to slide into a traditional utility role and can at least catch the ball. Weeks is terrible in the field and, given the last few years, it’s not safe to assume he will hit when playing everyday either. That Beckham is several years younger and figures to cost less are secondary concerns. Based on what they are at this point in time, Beckham seems to be a better fit for the roster. The Yankees haven’t shown interest in either as far as we know, but they are among the available options.

Monday Night Open Thread

Over the weekend we learned Hiroki Kuroda is returning to the Hiroshima Toyo Carp for the 2015 season, and, according to Dylan Hernandez, Kuroda took a big pay cut to make it happen. He will earn only $3.3M next season, down from $15M-ish he made these last three years in New York. Also, Patrick Newman says Kuroda told reporters that returning to the Carp was the “last decision of my baseball life.” Sure sounds like Hiroki made this decision with his heart and 2015 will be his last year as a player. Helluva career for that guy. I’m gonna miss him.

Here is your open thread for the night. There’s no Monday Night Football because the season’s over, but the Nets and all three local hockey teams are in action. There’s also some college football and basketball on as well. Talk about those games, Kuroda’s return to Japan, or anything else right here. Have at it.

(The video is Kuroda’s best start for the Yankees — and third best during his MLB career overall — by Game Score. Here’s the list.)

Yankees trade Shawn Kelley to the Padres for minor league reliever Johnny Barbato

Barbato. (Screen grab via MLBpipeline.com)
Barbato. (Screen grab via MLBpipeline.com)

3:01pm: Done deal, the Yankees have announced the trade. It’s Kelley for Barbato, straight up. So long, Shawn. I’ll remember you for the horse head.

1:56pm: The quasi-youth movement continues. The Yankees have traded Shawn Kelley to the Padres for minor league reliever Johnny Barbato, according to Jack Curry. It appears the deal is straight up, one-for-one. Neither team has announced the trade just yet. The Yankees clear a 40-man roster spot with the move.

Kelley, who is set to become a free agent next offseason, was projected to earn $2.5M through arbitration in 2015, so the Yankees are shedding a little bit of money. With Andrew Miller replacing David Robertson in the bullpen, Kelley figured to again be in the seventh inning mix next year. That job belongs to Adam Warren now.

At the moment, the bullpen includes Miller, Warren, Dellin Betances, Justin Wilson, and Esmil Rogers, leaving two open spots, one of which figures to go to a long man. The Yankee have no shortage of in-house candidates for those last two spots, with Jacob Lindgren, Branden Pinder, Danny Burawa, Chase Whitley, Gonzalez Germen, Jose Ramirez, Bryan Mitchell, Jose DePaula, and possibly even Manny Banuelos among the notables. Obviously a trade or free agent signing is always possible.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Kelley, 30, originally came over from the Mariners in exchange for Abe Almonte just before the start of Spring Training 2013. He spent two seasons in New York and had a 4.46 ERA (3.33 FIP) with 138 strikeouts in 105 innings. At his best, Kelley was a shutdown late-inning reliever. At his worst, he was very homer prone and unreliable. I guess that makes him like every other middle reliever in baseball.

The Padres drafted Barbato out of a Miami high school in the sixth round of the 2010 draft and paid him a well above slot $1.4M bonus, easily the largest bonus they gave out that year. He’s spent the majority of his pro career in the bullpen because of a herky jerky delivery and the lack of a reliable third pitch. Baseball America ranked Barbato as the 30th best prospect in a stacked San Diego system prior to 2014 in their Prospect Handbook. Here’s a scouting report from their trade analysis (no subs. req’d):

He pitches with mid-90s velocity and verve, attacking hitters with a live fastball that sinks and runs as it nears the plate. He throws a true curveball in the high 70s that features extreme break through the zone, and he locates and mixes his two pitches well enough to boast a career strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine innings … Barbato has the raw stuff to zoom to [New York] in 2015 and gradually work his way up to a setup role.

Barbato, 22, had a 2.87 ERA (3.31 FIP) with good strikeout (9.48 K/9 and 25.6 K%) and walk (2.87 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) rates in 31.1 Double-A innings this season. His season ended in mid-June because of elbow soreness, and, as Curry notes, there is some concern Barbato may need Tommy John surgery. If healthy, he figures to start the year with Triple-A Scranton and be a call-up candidate at some point next summer.

So far this offseason the Yankees have replaced Kelley with Barbato, Martin Prado with Jose Pirela/Rob Refsnyder, Shane Greene with Nathan Eovaldi, Francisco Cervelli with John Ryan Murphy, and Derek Jeter with Didi Gregorius, getting younger each time. Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and Hal Steinbrenner all said after the season the team will be younger next year, and that is definitely the case.

Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees — going from Almonte to two years of Kelley to Barbato is a fun transaction tree — but he’s not exactly impossible to replace. Dealing middle relievers one year away from free agency for a Triple-A ready prospect is a move the Yankees should always look to make. New York saves some money, gets younger, and clears a 40-man roster spot. It’s not a move that will make or break the 2015 season but does give the team some more flexibility.

Looking at the new left side of the infield using Inside Edge data

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With Derek Jeter retired and Alex Rodriguez basically a non-factor, the Yankees had to rebuild the left side of their infield this offseason, and they did that by trading for shortstop Didi Gregorius and re-signing third baseman Chase Headley. The Yankees are hoping those two will hold things down on the more glamorous side of second base for at least the next four years, the term of Headley’s deal. (Gregorius has five years of team control remaining.)

Headley performed very well during his limited time in pinstripes this past season while Gregorius has a little more than a full year of MLB time under his belt, so he’s more of an unknown. Both guys have similar profiles though — they’re defense-first players who do their best work catching baseballs, not hitting them. Headley’s been an average or better hitter basically his entire career, though his glove is his calling card. Gregorius definitely fits the all-glove, no-bat profile.

At the very least, the Yankees will have a much better infield defense next season, especially on the left side. How much better defensively? Substantially, really. On the order of two or three wins, I think. Maybe more. To get a better idea of just how improved the defense at short and third will be next season, let’s look at some Inside Edge data and compare the 2014 Yankees to the incoming Gregorius and returning Headley.

Shortstop

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Jeter was a disaster in the field this past season. I mean, he’s been below-average in the field pretty much his entire career, but the 2014 season was his worst defensively. The combination of age and his broken ankle late in 2012 sapped whatever mobility he had left, and his arm left something to be desired as well. The Cap’n put Mark Teixeira‘s scoop tool to work at first base this summer.

The Inside Edge data shows just how terrible New York’s defense at shortstop was during the 2014 season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 11.1% 35.3% 64.3% 95.3%
2014 MLB AVG 3.7% 24.1% 49.2% 74.1% 97.2%
2012-14 Gregorius 14.3% 25.0% 52.6% 69.2% 98.2%

Inside Edge is fairly straight forward. Batted balls are recorded by human stringers (so there is some scorer bias) and are split into six groups — the five in the table above plus “impossible,” which register at 0% league-wide — depending how difficult the play will be for the defender. For example, batted balls considered “likely” to be turned into an out are plays that are made 60-90% of the time, with the league average at 74.1%. Got it? Sure you do.

The 2014 Yankees, who had Jeter at short for 78.3% of their defensive innings, made no very difficult plays (“remote”) at shortstop and were comfortably below the league average when it came to making “unlikely,” “about even,” and “likely” plays. Long story short, anything not hit right to the shortstop was converted into an out at a considerably below-average rate. Jeter was that bad in the field. Everything was an adventure.

Gregorius, on the other hand, has been above-average at making every type of play since breaking into the league with the exception of “likely” plays, where he’s been a tick below-average but not Jeterian. Other young middle infielders like Adeiny Hechavarria and Dee Gordon have a similar Inside Edge profile and the thought is they have occasional lapses in concentration and botch the routine play. Tougher plays like “remote” and “unlikely” are all instinct. There’s no thinking.

In theory, those lapses in concentration can be fixed. Then again, they might not even be the problem. It’s just a theory. Baseball America has consistently ranked Gregorius among his organization’s top prospects throughout his minor league career, and over the years their defensive scouting reports have said “his hands are still somewhat erratic” (2010), “his hands are his biggest drawback defensively” (2011), and “he showed improved consistency (with his hands)” (2012). Hands that are “somewhat erratic” but showed “improved consistency” seem like the kind of thing that could contribute to his below-average rate of making “likely” plays.

Either way, the Yankees are getting a substantial defensive upgrade at short by replacing Jeter with Gregorius. Even with those bad hands or lapses in concentration or whatever, Gregorius has made plays at a much higher rate than Jeter these last few years, and it’s expected he will continue to do that going forward. His youth and athleticism mean Didi is more likely to improve going forward than crater and became a below-average gloveman. It’s been a very long time since the Yankees had an everyday shortstop as good as Gregorius defensively.

Third Base

Between the hobbled A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis and the defensively blah Jayson Nix, Yangervis Solarte, and Kelly Johnson, the Yankees have dealt with some really shaky hot corner play the last few years. Headley was a breath of fresh air after coming over at the trade deadline. He made every play he was supposed to make — that was an accomplishment for the 2014 Yankees — plus more than few highlight reel plays.

The Inside Edge data for the team’s third basemen this past season is pretty interesting:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 41.2% 76.9% 77.5% 95.8%
2014 MLB AVG 2.7% 25.9% 57.9% 76.5% 95.9%
2012-14 Headley 2.4% 22.0% 72.9% 85.6% 97.4%

According to Inside Edge, the Yankees were well-above-average at making “unlikely” and “about even” plays at third base in 2014 and basically average at “likely” and “almost certain” plays. When it came to making something more than the routine play, the 2014 Yankees were collectively better than the 2012-14 version of Headley.

Of course, the 2014 Yankees and 2012-14 Headley are not mutually exclusive since he did play a few hundred innings at third for New York this summer. Let’s compare Headley’s defense to the team’s other third baseman this past season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Non-Headley NYY 3B 0.0% 30.0% 75.0% 77.4% 94.2%
2014 Headley with NYY 0.0% 57.1% 80.0% 77.8% 99.1%

The team’s non-Headley third baseman were actually above-average at making non-routine plays and about average making “likely” and “almost certain” plays, so the hot corner defense wasn’t a total disaster. Headley, however, managed to improve on all of that across the board. So yeah, the Yankees were getting pretty good glovework at third, but Headley took it to another level.

Now, defense is like anything else in baseball, players can have good defensive years and bad defensive years. It’s like batting average. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .270 in 2008, then .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change those three years? No, that’s just baseball. The same applies to defense. The various defensive stats (not just Inside Edge) say 2014 was either the best or second best (behind 2010) defensive season of Headley career. He was still above-average from 2011-13, but not as good as 2014.

Given his track record, there’s a chance Headley’s defense going forward won’t be as good as it was this past season, and again, that isn’t to say it will be bad. To go back to Cano for an example, he hit .342 in 2006 and then .308 from 2007-14. He was awesome in 2006 and slightly less awesome from 2007-14. Headley’s defense was outstanding in 2014. It’ll probably be slightly less outstanding going forward, and that’s okay. As long as he continues to be above-average, he’ll be an upgrade on what the team was running out there the last two years.

Going from Jeter to Gregorius will be a substantial improvement for the 2015 Yankees. In fact, it might be the single biggest defensive upgrade at any position in baseball. Maybe second biggest behind the Allen Craig to Jason Heyward move the Cardinals made, but, either way, New York will be considerably better at short next year. They’ll be better at third base as well, just less so. With a ground ball-centric pitching staff, the improved defense on the left side of the infield figures to be very noticeable. It was an upgrade that had to be made.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 29th, 2014

2014 Record: 84-78 (633 RS, 664 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), did not qualify for postseason

Top stories from last week:

  • Hiroki Kuroda will return to the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan for the 2015 season. He spent the last several weeks — and the last several offseasons, really — deciding his future.
  • The Yankees lost Preston Claiborne off waivers to the Marlins. The team touched base with the Rockies about Troy Tulowitzki two weeks ago and they are not on Cole Hamels’ no-trade list.
  • Brian Cashman confirmed the club’s search for a new hitting coach and first base coach is on hold until after the holidays. Jeff Pentland is under consideration for the hitting coach job.
  • The Yankees were hit with an $18.3M luxury tax bill for the 2014 season.

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Hiroki Kuroda returning to Japan in 2015

(Sturgeon General)
(Sturgeon General)

According to reports from various media outlets in both Japan and the United States, Hiroki Kuroda will return to his old team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp for the 2015 season. Hiroshima has since announced the news. There are no other details at the moment.

Kuroda, who turns 40 in February, contemplated retirement the last few offseasons, though returning to the Carp for one final season was always said to be an option as well. Kuroda pitched for the Carp from 1997-2007 before coming to MLB. He went 103-89 with a 3.69 ERA during his eleven seasons with Hiroshima.

After a four-year stint with the Dodgers, Kuroda joined the Yankees for the 2012 season and spent the last three seasons in New York. His 38-33 record doesn’t do his time in pinstripes justice (because the Yankees never seemed to give him any damn run support) — Kuroda had a 3.44 ERA (3.68 FIP) in 620 innings for the Yankees and has been their best and most reliable starting pitcher since joining the team.

The Yankees seemed to move forward with their offseason under the assumption Kuroda would not return. They re-signed Chris Capuano and traded for Nathan Eovaldi, and there’s still eight weeks before Spring Training begins, so they could always add more pitching. I think they would have re-signed Kuroda to another one-year contract in a heartbeat had he decided to remain in MLB for another year.

I’m really going to miss Kuroda. I was a fan (this is Axisa, by the way) dating back to his time with the Dodgers and he exceeded even my expectations these last three seasons. He joined the Yankees and fit in wonderfully. Like he’d been here for years. So long, #Hirok. It was a great honor.

Holiday Open Thread

Barring any breaking news — the Yankees will hire a hitting coach one of these days, I’m sure of it — I don’t plan on posting anything the next few days. I’ve got Christmas stuff with the family and all that. Baseball news will slow to a crawl anyway. It always does.

If you get desperate for some baseball these next few days, you needn’t worry. A true American hero put the entire MSG-produced 1996 Yankees championship video on YouTube (h/t @a_salta1). It’s embedded above, but, just in case it doesn’t work, here’s the link. I’m riding out to Long Island with my brother tomorrow and I’m planning to watch that sucker on my phone on the way out. Can’t wait.

Secondly, I have a few links to pass along. I’ve been slackin’ and haven’t had much time to read the last few weeks, though I did carve out some time earlier today. Here are the links:

  • Got a sad story to pass along. Josh Peters wrote about the late Brad Halsey, who passed away in October. Halsey battled drug and alcohol addiction for years, and while it was initially reported that he died in a climbing accident, Peters says it may have been suicide. Awful.
  • On a much happier note, agent Joshua Kusnick wrote a piece at Baseball Prospectus (no subs. req’d) about the job-seeker he helped at the Winter Meetings two weeks ago. There are hundreds of job-seekers at the Winter Meetings each year, all trying to get their foot in the door. Kusnick helped this kid do just that. Pretty neat.
  • Shi Davidi has a really great day-by-day look at how the Josh Donaldson trade went down. The Athletics didn’t want to move their star third baseman and it wasn’t until Toronto put Brett Lawrie on the table and things got moving. It took about a week for a trade to come together after that.
  • Couple of cool analytical pieces: Tony Blengino on finding the “real” Chase Headley, Randy Holt on pitching framing, Nikhil Chaturvedi on Mark Teixeira‘s decline, and Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli on the value of prospects.
  • And finally, up at Derek Jeter‘s site, Doc Gooden wrote a letter to his younger self.

So this is the open thread for the next few days. Use it to talk about anything other than politics and religion. This isn’t the place for that. Happy Holidays, everyone.