Thoughts five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training

Baseball's comin'. (Presswire)
Baseball’s comin’. (Presswire)

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:

Survey Question

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.

Upton. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Upton. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

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.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Four years ago today, the Yankees traded Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Vicente Campos. Here’s our post on the trade. The comments were lost when we switched to Disqus — we still have the comment database but restoring them would be a bit of a pain — but I assure you the reaction was mostly negative. Montero was going to be the next great Yankees hitter and Pineda was just a fly ball guy who faded in the second half. Neither side has gotten what they wanted out of the trade, but it’s clear now the Yankees got the better end of the deal.

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.

Current bench may make it easier for Yankees to use a six-man rotation in 2016

Ackley. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Ackley. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

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.

Prospect Profile: Jeff Degano

(MCCAthletics.com)
(MCCAthletics.com)

Jeff Degano | LHP

Background
Degano grew up in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb just north of the Canada-U.S. border. He was part of the Canadian team in the 2005 Little League World Series, and wound up taking a loss in pool play. (Canada was eliminated later in the tournament.) Degano attended Fraser Heights High School and was not much of a pro prospect at the time, so he went unselected in the 2010 draft.

Degano headed to Marshalltown Community College in Iowa, pitching to a 3.80 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 71 innings across 16 starts in two seasons. Although he was draft-eligible following both the 2011 and 2012 seasons at Marshalltown, Degano still wasn’t much of a pro prospect, so he went undrafted both times. He instead transferred to Indiana State for his junior year.

In his first season with the Sycamores, Degano made three starts and allowed eleven runs (eight earned) on 15 hits and seven walks in 8.2 innings. He struck out only four. Yeesh. Degano was not healthy though — he blew out his elbow early in the 2013 season and underwent Tommy John surgery. He made just those three starts in 2013 and did not pitch at all in 2014 either.

Degano returned to the mound last spring and was one of the best college starters in the county. He threw 99 innings across 15 starts as a redshirt junior, pitching to a 2.36 ERA with 126 strikeouts (eighth most in Division I) and 28 walks. Degano got better and better as he got further away from elbow surgery and finished the spring very strong.

Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Degano as the third best prospect in Indiana and the 83rd best prospect in the 2015 draft class overall. The Yankees selected Degano in the second round (57th overall) and signed him to a $650,000 bonus fairly quickly. Slot was $1.07M. The draft pool savings were redirected towards later round picks.

Pro Debut
The Yankees eased Degano into pro ball following Tommy John surgery and his big spring workload at Indiana State. He made six tune-up appearances (10.2 innings) with the Rookie Gulf Coast League Yankees before jumping to Short Season Staten Island, where he had a 2.77 ERA (3.13 FIP) in 13 innings. Degano spent most of his time piggybacking with first rounder James Kaprielian — Kaprielian would start, go two or three innings, then Degano would come out of the bullpen and throw two or three innings. After throwing 122.2 total innings in his first year back from elbow reconstruction, the Yankees sent Degano home after the minor league season. He didn’t participate in Instructional League.

Scouting Report
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs., Degano turned 23 in October and is older than your typical college draftee because the Tommy John surgery delayed things by two years. He only made the three starts in 2013 — his junior and would-be draft year — before missing the entire 2014 season as well.

Anyway, Degano works with a low-90s fastball that sat closer to 92-94 mph later in the spring, as he got further away from elbow surgery. He has two versions of a slurvy breaking ball — the pitch sits anywhere in the 77-82 mph range and Degano can give it big break like a curveball or sweepy break like a slider. Here’s some video from last May, a few weeks before the draft.

Degano’s third pitch is a low-80s changeup that needs a lot of work. He didn’t need it to dominate in college and all the time missed to injury meant he couldn’t work on the pitch. The development of that changeup will determine whether Degano can remain in the rotation or have to settle for a bullpen role long-term.

Once he shook off the rust following surgery, Degano threw more strikes and was better able to pound the zone. He has good control right now but must work on his command, namely painting the corners and keeping his fastball at the knees. Degano is a left-hander with the stuff to miss bats and a big workhorse frame, so it’s no surprise he was drafted as high as he was despite his age and injury history.

2016 Outlook
The Yankees are going to keep Degano in the rotation and hope he improves his changeup so he can remain a starter long-term. I’m not sure whether he’ll open the season with Low-A Charleston or High-A Tampa though. The Yankees might be tempted to start Degano at the higher level given his age, but after losing 2013-14 to injury, the lower level might be more appropriate at this point of his development. We’ll see. Either way, Degano will pitch in full season ball this coming season.

My Take
The injury history sucks, but Degano is a southpaw with good stuff and a big frame, so I’m a fan. His age doesn’t bother me much, to be honest. Yeah, it would be better if he was 20 or 21, but they don’t check IDs on the mound. If you can get outs, you can get outs. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Even if Degano doesn’t improve his changeup, I think he has the tools to be a very successful lefty reliever, and I don’t mean a lefty specialist either. The Yankees took Degano in part to save draft pool space — he had limited leverage after the injury, hence the well-below-slot bonus — but he’s a legitimate prospect with impact potential.

Chapman, five other Yankees file for salary arbitration

(Andy Lyons/Getty)
(Andy Lyons/Getty)

Prior to yesterday’s deadline, the six eligible Yankees filed for salary arbitration. The six: Dustin Ackley, Aroldis Chapman, Nathan Eovaldi, Didi Gregorius, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda. A total of 156 players around the league filed for arbitration. Here’s the full list.

Filing for arbitration is nothing more than a formality, and I’m not even sure why the league requires players to do it anymore. Players no longer have to file for free agency. They just became free agents. At some point, maybe in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, players will just go to arbitration and not have to file. Whatevs.

The deadline for teams and eligible players to file salary arbitration figures is this Friday. I’m not sure what time exactly, but it’s usually in the late afternoon, at the end of the business day. The two sides can still negotiate a contract of any size after filing salary figures. Here are the 2016 salary projections from MLBTR:

Ackley: $3.1M (second time through arbitration)
Chapman: $12.9M (third)
Eovaldi: $5.7M (second)
Gregorius: $2.1M (first)
Nova: $4.4M (third)
Pineda: $4.6M (second)

The Yankees haven’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang back in 2008. Since then they’ve managed to sign all of their arbitration-eligible players prior to the filing deadline. There’s no reason to think that’ll change this year. Chances are those six will have new contracts by Friday.

Eovaldi and Pineda stand out as extension candidates given the team’s lack of controllable pitching beyond 2017, but there are reasons to pass too, namely the arm injuries they suffered in the second half last year. Gregorius is also an extension candidate, though he’s under team control through 2019 anyway, so no rush.

According to Cot’s, the Yankees currently have $190.6M in guaranteed contracts on the books for 2016. That covers only eleven players. The six arbitration-eligible players will bump that up to $223.4M for 17 players. Then the Yankees have to pay all the pre-arbitration guys (Dellin Betances, Luis Severino, etc.) plus the rest of the 40-man roster.

Add on the $12M or so each team has to pay towards player benefits and the Yankees are looking at an Opening Day payroll in the $240M range for luxury tax purposes. The team closed out last season with a $241.15M payroll.

Greg Bird and the temptation to manipulate service time

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

As it stands right now, Greg Bird will likely open the 2016 season with Triple-A Scranton. Brian Cashman said that’s “the optimal” outcome, mostly because it means everyone got through Spring Training healthy. An injury to Mark Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez would land Bird on the Opening Day roster. Otherwise he doesn’t make much sense for that final bench spot because he lacks versatility.

Bird turned 23 earlier this offseason and he is so very clearly the Yankees’ first baseman of the future. He mashed during his brief MLB cameo last year (137 wRC+) and Teixeira’s contract is up after the season. It’s not hard to see where this is going. The Yankees are trying to get younger and create more financial flexibility, so replacing the aging and expensive Teixeira with the younger and cheaper Bird makes total sense. It’s a no-brainer.

There is still a season to be played between now and then though, and in 2016 it seems like Bird is destined to wait things out in Triple-A with the RailRiders. He’ll come up when there’s an injury and he’ll surely be up when rosters expand in September, but otherwise there’s no obvious role for him next year. A pure backup first baseman/DH is not something you find on the bench these days. Dustin Ackley will back up Teixeira for the time being.

“The thing you always have to measure is is it more important for him to play everyday, or play a couple days a week,” said Joe Girardi during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “And I think you also have to let Spring Training play out to see how things work out for us before you make a decision. There’s been talk he might go back to Triple-A. Let’s let us get through Spring Training because things a lot of time have a way of ironing out.”

Getting stuck in Triple-A is unfortunate for Bird — for what it’s worth, he’s said all the right things about his situation (check out this video interview) — but it could benefit the Yankees long-term. For starters, it’ll give Bird a chance to play every single day and work on some things, particularly his defense and ability to handle lefties. Southpaws chewed him up down the stretch in 2015.

There’s also the service time aspect, which is complicated and yet oh so simple at the same time. With enough time in Triple-A next year Bird’s free agency will be delayed from the 2021-22 offseason to the 2022-23 offseason. Doing that is a no-brainer, right? The system is broken and teams are rewarded with an extra year of control by leaving their top young players in the minors juuust long enough.

At the same time, I would hope the Yankees would put Bird’s service time situation on the back burner next year. If Teixeira or A-Rod gets hurt and Bird is the best option to replace them, then he should be called up to help the team win. Right? Right. Bird accrued 53 days of service time last year, meaning he’ll have to spent about 65 days in the minors in 2016 to delay free agency. Two months. That’s it.

The Kris Bryant situation really brought to light the silliness of the service time rules. It couldn’t have been more obvious he was big league ready in Spring Training, and yet the Cubs sent him to Triple-A for two weeks to start the season, delaying his free agency. They made up some dumb excuse about working on defense. Bryant clearly was ready to help Chicago, yet, at the same time, the Cubbies would have been stupid not to send him down for those two weeks to gain the extra year of control.

The Yankees are in a slightly different situation with Bird. Bryant had to go down for two weeks. Bird has to go down for two months. Good health and good production from Teixeira and A-Rod would make that possible, and really, it would be best for the Yankees for that to happen. They want Teixeira and A-Rod healthy and productive and they want the extra year of Bird. It would be the best of both worlds.

What happens if Teixeira or A-Rod gets hurt? That’s where it gets tricky, and I guess it depends on the timing. If they get hurt early in the season, calling up Bird is the obvious move. But, if it happens later in the summer, say when Bird is a week or two shy of having his free agency delayed, then what? The temptation to keep him down just a bit longer would be mighty strong. And again, who could blame the Yankees?

Either way, Bird is in position to become a core player for the Yankees long-term. The team has only had four primary first basemen over the last 32 years — Don Mattingly (1983-95), Tino Martinez (1996-2001), Jason Giambi (2002-08), Teixeira (2009-present) — and Bird looks like he could take over the position for the next decade. That’s pretty exciting.

The Yankees have plenty of money, so Bird’s service time situation is not critical. This isn’t a small market team that needs to do whatever they can to keep their best young players. Bird’s service time is worth keeping an eye on though. As much as it would suck for Bird, keeping him in Triple-A those 65 or so days in 2016 would be very beneficial to the Yankees.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Earlier this week FanGraphs published their live 2016 projected standings. They’re an amalgamation of several projection systems and their internal playing time depth charts. The Yankees are projected at 87-75 next year, which works out to the fifth best record in baseball and second best in the AL. Projections aren’t predictions, they’re just an attempt to measure current talent level. So what do you think, do the Yankees have the fifth best roster in MLB?

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks, Islanders, and Devils are all playing, plus there’s a whole bunch of college basketball on as well. Talk about those games, the Joe Girardi video above, the FanGraphs projected standings, or anything else right here.