The Primary Back-Ups [2017 Season Review]

Romine. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Romine. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

If you would’ve told me that the Yankees would spend most of April with both Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius on the disabled list, I would have been shocked to learn that they were arguably the best team in baseball in the first month of the season. And, amazingly enough, that was the case. That was largely due to Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, and Matt Holliday tearing the cover off of the ball for those four weeks – but Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes did their part, too.

Austin Romine

Gary Sanchez left the game after straining his right bicep on April 8, and ended up spending twenty-one games on the disabled list. Romine was pressed into full-time duty as a result, and he did just about as well as one could expect. He slashed .281/.314/.406 (88 wRC+) with a couple of home runs while Sanchez was out, and garnered praise for his defense and handling of the pitching staff; whether or not that was earned is another story, of course. But I digress.

Romine was relegated to the bench when Sanchez returned, and his offense slipped dramatically in the more sporadic role. He hit just .194/.256/.248 (34 wRC+) in 182 PA the rest of the way, failing to go deep even once. Romine ended the season with a .218/.272/.293 slash line, and his 49 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR were tied for the worst among the forty-nine catchers that amassed at least 200 PA. That didn’t stop some from calling for him to be the starting catcher, though, given Sanchez’s defensive woes and Romine’s reputation as a stout defender.

Is that reputation fair, though?

Baseball Prospectus breaks down catching into several categories, including framing runs, blocking runs, and throwing runs. Romine’s struggles with the running game are well-known, so it is no surprise to see that he was worth -1.2 throwing runs. However, he was also a negative in terms of blocking the ball in the dirt, as evidenced by his -0.3 blocking runs – and that’s a trend that has followed him from Triple-A to the majors. In reality, framing is Romine’s only real strength; and, as valuable as that is (he picked-up 4.1 runs last year, which is a borderline elite mark when adjusting for playing time), framing alone does not make a great catcher.

The ability to handle a pitching staff is kind of a nebulous quality. Pitch framing is a portion of that, as is calling the game – but the latter is all but impossible to measure. One factor that people tend to bring up in that regard is catcher ERA, flawed as that may be. For what it’s worth, Romine sported a 4.23 CERA last year, as compared to 3.45 for Sanchez.

All that being said – would it be an exaggeration to say that the most memorable aspect of his season was the punches he threw in August’s brawl against the Tigers?

Torreyes, apparently in a John Woo film. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Torreyes, apparently in a John Woo film. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ronald Torreyes

Unlike Romine, Torreyes opened the season knowing that he would be starting for a stretch. Gregorius opened the season on the disabled list following a shoulder injury in the WBC, and Torreyes was in the lineup on Opening Day. He started 18 of the 20 games that Gregorius missed, batting .308/.308/.431 (93 wRC+) with a home run in 65 PA. He didn’t take a walk in that entire stretch, swinging at 61.9% of pitches along the way; for comparison’s sake, the league-average swing rate is 46.5%.

Torreyes moved back to the bench when Gregorius returned, but he ended up starting an additional 67 games the rest of the way, most of which came at second base while Castro was on the mend. And he did his best work at the keystone, slashing .327/.353/.426 (107 wRC+) in 177 PA while starting there. It’s difficult to take much, if anything, away from that – but most players do perform better with more consistent playing time. Torreyes has a limited ceiling on offense, to be sure, but he rose to the occasion with the Yankees needed him to start for an injured teammate.

He ended the season with a .292/.314/.375 (82 wRC+) slash line in 336 PA.

The defensive metrics all paint Torreyes as somewhere around average at second, third, and short, and that’s perfectly acceptable for a utility player. It’s difficult to fully trust the numbers, given the sample sizes, but that matches the eye test, as well. He’s a bit miscast as a full-time shortstop, but he’s far from an embarrassment there.

And who can forget the TOE-Night Show?

2018 Outlook

Austin Romine will be heading through arbitration for the second time, and MLBTR projects a $1.2 MM salary. I suspect that the Yankees will be looking to replace him this off-season in an effort to add a back-up that moves the needle in one way or the other, be it someone with a solid bat that can DH in a pinch (maybe Alex Avila), or one that is a legitimately strong defensive presence. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in the organization on Opening Day, but that almost certainly isn’t the team’s plan.

And Torreyes may well be a lock to stick with the team for the time being. He can hit a little and play decent defense at the non-1B infield positions, and he’s still pre-arbitration. There might be upgrades available, but I don’t think the team will look to add salary for a position (or positions) that could be filled by Gleyber Torres. Torreyes’ time with the Yankees might be limited once the season begins, though.

Mailbag: Gordon, Ohtani, Andujar, Iglesias, Tillman, Pena

We’ve got eleven questions in this week’s mailbag. The email address to send us any questions or comments is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. We get a lot of submissions each week and I get to as many as I can. Don’t give up if your question didn’t get picked this week.

Dee. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Dee. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Doug asks: The RAB comment section has caught full blown Giancarlo Stanton fever but given the Marlins’ fire sale, his smaller contract, contact rate at the plate, his Gold Gloves and the fact that it would be easier to move the player currently playing his position (the 27 year old Starlin Castro) then the player holding down a corner outfield position (the 34 year old Brett Gardner), what about trading for Dee Gordon? Given the other sources of right handed pop in the Yankee line-up, it seems like Gordon might be a better fit for this roster right now then Castro.

Gordon turns 30 in April. Did you know that? I had no idea. I would’ve guessed he was still 27 or 28. Anyway, Gordon hit .308/.341/.375 (92 wRC+) with two homers and 60 steals in 76 attempts (79%) this season. That’s right in line with his career .293/.329/.367 (92 wRC+) line. Gordon doesn’t walk (3.6%) or strike out (13.4%), and is an elite baserunner. (It’s not just steals, he’s an extra base taking machine.) Also, his defense at second base keeps getting better as he gains more experience.

I do believe Gordon is a better all-around player than Castro. He won’t have as much impact at the plate, but the edges in baserunning and defense are significant. Plus he’s a lefty contact guy who would balance the lineup a bit. I wouldn’t bat Gordon leadoff. I’d bat him ninth and let him raise hell at the bottom of the order. The downside here is the $38M owned to him from 2018-20. As soon as Gordon starts to lose a step, forget it, his value will crater. I think I’d rather stick it out with the younger and cheaper Castro than bet on the age 30-32 seasons of a pure speed guy. (A Dee and Didi double play combination would be pretty cool though. D & DD.)

Tom asks: Say Otani gets the go ahead to come over fairly soon and the Yankees sign him, do you think they pass on signing Sabathia? That’s at least another $10 million under the tax, maybe they can use that to extend Didi.

Nope. The more pitching, the better. There’s a pretty good chance whichever team signs Shohei Ohtani will use a six-man rotation — that’s an idea worth its own post at some point — plus there’s no such thing as too much pitching. If the Yankees sign Ohtani and CC Sabathia, and Jordan Montgomery has to start the season in Triple-A, so be it. He’ll be back in the big leagues soon enough. Keep in mind Ohtani’s career highs are 24 starts and 160.2 innings, and he’s a few months younger than Luis Severino. Gotta keep an eye on his workload, so get the pitching. The Yankees shouldn’t pass on doing anything if they get Ohtani, especially adding pitching.

Erick asks: It seems to me that teams can argue with Otani about him running the bases. His ankle injury occurred running, it might give headway for teams to reduce his potential plate appearances no?

Teams are probably going to say and do whatever it takes to sign Ohtani, and if that means promising him regular at-bats, so be it. The ankle injury was fluky — Ohtani rolled his ankle running through first base — though it was bad enough that it hampered him all season and required surgery last month. Ohtani has already started hitting off a tee as part of his rehab, according to the Kyodo News, so he’s expected to be ready in time for Spring Training.

The ankle surgery could justify limiting Ohtani’s plate appearances, especially early in the season, but ultimately I think this will come down to performance. If he hits, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the lineup. I’m with Grant Brisbee on this. Ohtani will get a chance to hit and pitch right away because that’s probably what it’ll take to sign him. Within two years though, he’ll be hitting or pitching. Not both. This’ll work itself out.

Mathieu asks: I’ve been a longtime believer in Miguel Andujar. I also think it’s clear that Castro, while serviceable, is merely a placeholder until someone better comes along. Am I wrong to think that the best future infield is Andujar at 3B and Torres at 2B? If so, why is there such a push to have Torres play the hot corner?

I like Andujar as well and think he’ll be a starting third baseman within a year or two. The beauty of all this is the Yankees have plenty of options. They could go Andujar at third and Gleyber Torres at second if that’s best. Or Torres at third and Castro at second. Or Andujar at third and Tyler Wade at second. Who knows? These things have a way of sorting themselves out. I really like Andujar and think he’ll be a sneaky good player in time. The Yankees will make room for him when that time comes. Gleyber isn’t being pushed into anything right now. Second and third (and short) are all potential long-term positions for him.

Oops. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)
Oops. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)

Chris asks: Would you make a deal for Raisel Iglesias for Dellin Betances & Tyler Wade? Raisel is a few years younger than Dellin, the Reds need a SS and a closer if they trade Iglesias and Dellin needs a change of scenery. And the Reds and Yankees seem to have a trade pipeline set up.

Chris, I’m going to hit you with a your trade proposal sucks here. The rebuilding Reds aren’t trading their borderline elite (and affordable!) closer for a broken setup man making similar money and a good but not great prospect. They could get lots more for Iglesias. Lots more.

As for pursuing Iglesias himself, sure, go for it. He’s really good. He’s only 27 and he had a 2.49 ERA (2.70 FIP) with 30.1% strikeouts and 8.8% walks in 76 innings this year, and he’s owed only $14.5M from 2018-20. Also, Iglesias has proven the last two years that he can go multiple innings, which is always nice. I don’t think the Yankees will trade prospects for relievers this offseason because the bullpen isn’t much of a priority. Iglesias is good though, and hey, if the Reds want Betances and Wade for him, do it.

Mary asks: What about Chris Tillman on a one-year rebound contract? Worth it for the Yankees? Would he be willing to sit in AAA until needed (maybe with a June 1 opt-out)?

Gosh, the Yankees have been pounding on Tillman for almost a decade now. He made his big league debut in 2009. Has it really been nine seasons already? Tillman has a career 5.54 ERA with a .307/.372/.494 opponent’s batting line in 112 career innings against the Yankees. Seems like they hammer him every single time.

In all seriousness, the 29-year-old Tillman has not been the same guy since he hurt his shoulder last year. There has been no life on his pitches at all since then. Tillman threw 93 innings with a 7.84 ERA (6.93 FIP) this season, though I suppose he could be better next year, as he gets further away from the injury. That’s what you’d be banking on. Given how bad he looked this year, I wouldn’t give Tillman a guaranteed deal. A minor league deal? Sure. Why not. No harm in those. One-year prove yourself contracts usually don’t happen in Yankee Stadium. Not for pitchers. Tillman will try to rebuild his value in a more pitcher friendly park.

Michael asks: Are there any rules prohibiting active players from full or partial ownership of an MLB team? If not, do you foresee a situation in MLB where a player contract includes partial ownership of the team?

Yes, there is a rule against that. It would be a massive conflict of interest if the player ever gets traded or changes teams. The rule was put in place because Rogers Hornsby had an ownership stake in the Cardinals when he played, then they traded him to the Giants. MLB forced him to sell his stake and St. Louis lowballed the hell out of him because he had no leverage. They knew he had to sell. Giving players an ownership stake is never ever ever going to happen again, and it shouldn’t. I’m surprised MLB is okay with Billy Beane having an ownership stake in the Athletics.

Thomas asks: Do you think the Yankees history policy of not renegotiating deals hurts them at all in the Ohtani sweepstakes? Either because Ohtani wouldn’t like to sign with a team that has a policy like that or because MLB will look at any extension deal they (potentially) do extra carefully?

Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. The Yankees supposedly did away with the no extensions policy a few years ago, when they signed Gardner long-term, though it wasn’t until recently that they had more 20-somethings worth extending. The Yankees have extended players before. Gardner and Robinson Cano are the notable examples. They signed Derek Jeter to a massive extension back in the day. The no extensions thing could be a red flag for Ohtani, but ultimately, the Yankees have a history of paying their players top dollar, and I think that’ll make up for it.

No one ever takes pictures of the first base coach. (Elsa/Getty)
No one ever takes photos of the first base coach. (Elsa/Getty)

Todd asks: With the Yankees saying they will cap it at 5-6 interviews for manager, what do you see in Tony Pena’s future?

Pena interviewed for the managerial opening last time around, though that was just for show. The Yankees wanted Joe Girardi, but MLB’s rules say each team must interview a minority candidate, so Pena was that candidate. This time around Hensley Meulens is that candidate. (I don’t mean Muelens is the token minority candidate. He’s a legitimate managerial candidate.) As far as we know, Pena won’t interview for the job. Rob Thomson said he wants to come back even if he doesn’t get the manager’s job, but we have no idea how Pena feels about things. He might not want to come back with Girardi gone. Or it could be up to the new manager. If the new manager wants Pena, they could offer him a position. If the new manager wants to bring in his own guys, Pena might be a goner. I’m not really sure what’s next for him. I like Tony. Hopefully he gets to stick around.

RJ asks: Mike, what do you think about the Twins voiding the 3 million dollar contract with Jelfry Marte over a vision problem? Coincidentally there’s a superstar from Japan that just so happens to being posted this offseason. Now 3 teams can offer 3+ million.

Eh, it’s just a coincidence. A few international (and draft) signings get voided each year due to physical issues. The Twins knew Ohtani was likely to be posted back when they signed Marte, and now there’s a really good chance the Twins don’t get either guy, Ohtani or Marte. And if the Twins were trying to weasel out of the Marte deal to free up money for Ohtani, Marte’s people would make a big stink and file a grievance with MLB. Backing out of a $3M contract is not something that gets taken lightly.

Dan asks: The Chad Green situation got me thinking. C.J. Wilson was exclusively a reliever for 4 straight years, never going over 73 IP. They made the switch, and he averaged 204 IP and 34 starts for the next 5 years. Was he a 1 in a million anomaly, or is this something that teams are missing out on?

Wilson is a big time outlier. He had a ton of arm injuries earlier in his career too, when he was a reliever, yet he stayed completely healthy for a few years as a starter. It was pretty incredible. A lot of guys have done the reliever-to-starter thing early in their careers (Chris Sale, Zack Greinke, etc.), but that late in their careers? No. Wilson did it at age 29. Guys like Danny Graves and Braden Looper tried it late and got knocked around as starters.

Are there some relievers out there who could be successful starters? Yeah, probably. I think Adam Warren could be a league average starter if given the chance. Or at least could’ve been earlier in his career. Most guys are in the bullpen for a reason though. They don’t have a third pitch, or they have crummy command, or they can’t stay healthy, something like that. Wilson is definitely an outlier. Going from career reliever to five straight seasons of 31+ starts and 170+ innings in your early-30s just doesn’t happen.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Breaking Shohei Otani news: it’s Ohtani, not Otani. You’ll see it spelled both ways around the internet, but Shohei’s representatives at CAA Sports confirmed it is indeed Ohtani. Technically, both Ohtani and Otani are correct. There is no literal Japanese characters to English letters translation. The translation is based on the pronunciation. Well, whatever. Ohtani it is.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Titans and Steelers are the Thursday night NFL game, the Devils and Islanders are playing, and there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about whatever here, just not religion or politics. Get that outta here.

Aaron Judge finishes second in 2017 AL MVP voting

(Elsa/Getty)
Greatness has arrived. (Elsa/Getty)

Alas, Aaron Judge did not become only the third player in history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Astros second baseman Jose Altuve was predictably named the 2017 AL Most Valuable Player by MLB and the BBWAA on Thursday night. Congrats to him. Judge finished second in the voting and Indians infielder Jose Ramirez finished third.

Earlier this week Judge was named the AL Rookie of the Year unanimously, which is the kinda thing that happens when you hit .284/.422/.627 (173 wRC+) with 52 homers. Judge is the second rookie ever to finish runner-up in the MVP voting, joining Mike Trout in 2012. Fred Lynn (1975) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001) are still the only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.

Altuve of course had a fantastic season, hitting .346/.410/.547 (160 wRC+) with 24 home runs and 32 stolen bases. The Baseball Reference version of WAR says he was the best player in baseball this season, AL or NL. The FanGraphs version of WAR says Judge was the best player in baseball. Hmmm. Ultimately, Altuve won because Judge went through that six-week slump after the All-Star break. That’s the difference right there.

At the same time, you could easily argue the Yankees would not have made the postseason without Judge. Would the Astros have made the postseason without Altuve? Yeah, probably. They won the AL West by 21 games. Same deal with Ramirez. The Indians won the AL Central by 17 games. So many MVP voters still consider the postseason situation when filling out their ballots, though not enough to give Judge the award this year.

Judge’s second place finish is the highest a Yankee has finished in the MVP voting since Mark Teixeira was the runner-up to Joe Mauer in 2009. Derek Jeter was third in the voting that year, and Robinson Cano finished third in the voting in 2011. The last Yankee to win the AL MVP award is Alex Rodriguez back in 2007.

The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site. Altuve received 27 of the 30 first place votes while Judge received two. Judge also received 27 second place votes and one third place vote. He was on all 30 ballots. In other MVP voting news, Didi Gregorius received one eighth and one tenth place vote, and Gary Sanchez received one tenth place vote. Pretty awesome. Congrats guys. What a fun season this was.

MLBPA sets Monday deadline to settle Ohtani posting dispute

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

According to Jon Heyman, the MLBPA has set a Monday deadline to settle the ongoing dispute regarding Shohei Ohtani and the posting system. If MLB, NPB, and MLBPA can not come to an agreement in four days, Ohtani will not come over this winter, and will instead return to the Nippon Ham Fighters next season.

The posting agreement expired a few weeks ago, and MLB and NPB agreed to grandfather Ohtani in under the old agreement, meaning the (Ham) Fighters will set a $20M release feel. The MLBPA doesn’t like that though. They don’t want so much money going to the (Ham) Fighters and so little money going to Ohtani, hence the dispute. MLBPA’s approval is needed to finalize the posting system.

Because he is only 23, Ohtani is subject to the international hard cap, which will severely limit his earning potential. The Rangers and Yankees are said to have the most hard cap space available at $3.5M or so each. Furthermore, Ohtani can only sign a minor league contract, and will earn the league minimum next year. Ouch.

Of course, the MLBPA agreed to the international hard cap last year as part of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. The union has been selling out its future members for years by agreeing to draft and international spending limits, and now there’s a star player who could’ve changed baseball’s salary scale and helped all MLBPA members, but can’t.

The MLBPA had their seat at the table. They could’ve rejected an international hard cap. We all knew about Ohtani last year. He was not a secret. MLB and the MLBPA knew he would come over at some point, yet the union agreed to the hard cap anyway. And if all the parties involved fail to come to an agreement by Monday and Ohtani has to stay in Japan next year, it will be the MLBPA’s fault.

Chad Green will come to Spring Training as a starting pitcher, and there’s no reason not to try it

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

For the umpteenth straight season, the Yankees will have a relief pitcher report to Spring Training as a starting pitcher. Adam Warren has been that guy the last few years, and before him it was David Phelps. Next year it’ll be Chad Green (and Warren?). Brian Cashman confirmed earlier this week Green will indeed get a look as a rotation option in camp next year.

“The reliever situation (will be a) fallback, but nothing certain yet,” said Cashman to Erik Boland. “You can’t disregard how exceptional he was in the role he had, but at the same time, he didn’t find himself in that role because he was a failed starter.”

Green, 26, was outstanding for the Yankees this season, throwing 69 innings with a 1.83 ERA (1.75 FIP) and a 40.7% strikeout rate. Almost all of that came in relief. Green made one spot start in June and allowed two runs in two innings while on a limited pitch count. In the postseason he allowed five runs (four earned) in 8.2 innings.

I’ve said this a few times in recent weeks and I guess I have to say it again: I do not like the idea of Green as a starting pitcher. I don’t think he has the tools to be successful in that role long-term. There are two reasons:

  1. He doesn’t have a changeup. Green has a great fastball, but he lacks a third pitch — heck, even his second pitch (slider) isn’t all that great — and trying to go through a lineup multiple times by throwing fastballs by everyone doesn’t seem like it’ll work. I feel like someone would’ve done it already if it were a viable approach.
  2. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher. A total of 355 pitchers threw at least 50 innings in 2017. Green ranked 353rd with a 26.4% ground ball rate. Yikes! He allowed 12 homers in 36.1 innings as a starter in 2016, remember. Asking him to go through a lineup multiple times in Yankee Stadium might get ugly.

Keep in mind Green finished the 2016 season on the disabled list after working as a starter pretty much all year. His season ended September 2nd because of a sprained ligament and a strained tendon in his elbow. That’s a scary combination of words. It worries me a bit. Can Green hold up physically under a starter’s workload? Is it worth the risk to find out?

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Green as a starter. Now, that said, the Yankees should absolutely try it in Spring Training. Why not? That’s exactly when you should tinker with things. Let Green get stretched out to four of five innings during Grapefruit League play, see how he looks, then make a decision about his role. It’s much easier to go from starter to reliever than reliever to starter. So let him start in camp, then adjust.

For years we heard an average starting pitcher is worth more than an elite reliever, but given the way pitching staffs are run these days, I think the pendulum has swung in the other direction. An elite reliever is very valuable, and Green was definitely elite in 2017. I think it would be much easier for the Yankees to find another fourth or fifth starter than another dominant multi-inning setup man. That should factor into the decision about Green’s role, right?

Like I said, I don’t like the idea of Green as a starter but I am totally cool with letting him try it in Spring Training. Maybe he develops a changeup or finds a ground ball pitch. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. One way or another, Green will again be an important part of the pitching staff next season. If he’s not starting, he’s going to be soaking up a lot of high-leverage innings out of the bullpen.