Anyway, here is an open for the night. The three local hockey teams are playing and that’s it. No local NBA action or college basketball in general. Talk about anything here, as long as it is not religion or politics. Thanks in advance.
This offseason has been borderline insufferable. Outside of Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani moving early, it’s been a slow trickle of small signings and few big moves. Even the rumors have been sparse at best.
But one persistent rumor in recent weeks has been the Yankees’ interest in Yu Darvish. After adding Stanton and re-signing CC Sabathia, the Yankees have around $22 million to work with in order to fill out their roster under the luxury tax. Darvish, as the best pitcher (sorry Jake Arrieta) on the market, should command an average annual salary north of $20 million, seemingly putting him out of their self-imposed price range.
It’s easy to say that the Yankees should ignore the luxury tax and aim for the home run signing or multiple signings in general. The luxury tax shouldn’t act as a salary cap and the team has enough revenue to offset yearly luxury tax bills, even the more punitive ones of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement. Plus, with few teams active on the free agent market, there is an opportunity to swoop in an find real bargains that were unforeseen in November.
But the Yankees are operating with the luxury tax as their cutoff this year, so staying under $197 million is an imperative that would take them out of the Darvish sweepstakes. That is, unless they decide to shed salary. The most commonly thrown-out name that the Bombers would move to get under their cap is David Robertson. Robertson was arguably the Yanks’ best reliever down the stretch last year and will have a suitably big role in their pen this year.
So is it worth dealing a key reliever in order to sign a potential top-of-the-rotation starter? Below is the case for that very move:
1. Yankees have depth in the bullpen: Adding back Robertson was huge for New York last year. He allowed just four runs in 35 regular season innings before the trade and then came through with huge innings in the Wild Card Game and ALDS Game 5. The Yankees likely don’t make the ALCS without him.
But with the depth of the Yankees’ pen, Robertson may just be expendable. Aroldis Chapman-Dellin Betances-Tommy Kahnle-Chad Green-Adam Warren is still one of the best top five relief corps in the league. It’s certainly better than the Chapman-Betances-Warren-Tyler Clippard-Jonathan Holder top five the Yankees had in April last year. It stands to reason that Holder can handle lower leverage innings or one of the other shuttle relievers can emerge as the sixth man in the pen (Ben Heller is my personal fave there).
2. They don’t have the same depth in the rotation: The argument against Darvish, in general, is that the Yankees have five starters, the same five starters that got them within a game of the World Series last year. That’s fair. But those five are all injury risks or question marks for next year. Even Luis Severino, the 2017 ace, faces some hurdles after exceeding his career-high innings total by more than 40 innings last year.
Beyond the top five, what do the Yankees have? Luis Cessa and his perfectly mediocre track record is likely the first up. After him, it’s a combination of prospects and Wade LeBlanc. Nothing inspiring, particularly when Cessa and co. will have to make plenty of starts in the average scenario.
Adding Darvish lessens the pressure on every other starter and allows the team to move slower with a Jordan Montgomery or Severino to keep them fresh late in the year. And adding another top-flight starter would allow the Yankees to shift 1-2 of their starters to the pen in October, mimicking what the Astros did in the 2017 but with a better bullpen to boot.
3. Darvish has a chance to be special in pinstripes: This can’t be understated. Despite two pitch-tipping marred World Series starts, Darvish has a lot of talent and could be a key positive on the biggest stage.
The 31-year-old starter isn’t too far removed from Tommy John surgery, but he’s been successful since coming back. His K-BB rate has remained right around his pre-TJ levels, though he’s given up more hits and home runs. After making adjustments to his pitch mix after his trade to Los Angeles, his strikeout rate spiked and his results improved.
His age is a concern, even though he fits the Yankees’ mold of tall framed pitchers who strike guys out. Signing a starter over age-30 to a long-term deal can end terribly (see: Burnett, A.J.) and we may not see 2013 Darvish again. But even post-surgery Darvish is a valuable piece who can help the team maximize its current window despite a potential tail-off towards the end of any contract.
4. Robertson can get a strong (but not elite) return: While you may see this as exchanging one strength for another and making the bullpen weaker, Robertson can get the Yankees something in return. With just one year left on his deal, D-Rob won’t elicit an Andrew Miller-esque return. But you’re still talking about one of the better relievers in the game with an end-of-game and postseason pedigree.
Perhaps the Yankees would target an infielder to fill one of their other holes in return. But it’s more likely they would be able to add to their stockpile of prospects while opening some room for a lesser free agent infielder.
The team obviously wants to unload Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract. It just doesn’t seem likely that will happen. Brett Gardner would be another option for a veteran to deal and trading him would open a spot for the Yankees’ glut of outfielders. But after multiple OFs have already moved this offseason and plenty remain on the free agent market, it’s tough to see what Gardner’s market would be.
Shedding salary seems perverse for a team playing in the biggest market with ownership that isn’t crying poor like their crosstown rivals. But that’s where the Yankees are at right now if they want to add Darvish, or Arrieta for that matter. You’d hate to see Robertson leave yet again, but perhaps it may be worth it in this scenario.
Taylor Widener | RHP
The just turned 23-year-old Widener grew up outside Augusta in Aiken, South Carolina, where he won a variety of All-State and All-Regional honors at South Aiken High School. Baseball America ranked him as the seventh best prospect in the state and the 454th best prospect nationwide for the 2013 draft. Despite that, Widener went undrafted out of high school. He instead followed through on his commitment to South Carolina.
Widener was Jordan Montgomery’s teammate during his freshman year with the Gamecocks — Montgomery was a junior in his draft year that season — and he threw 40.1 innings with a 1.79 ERA and a 38/15 K/BB. He also saw some action as a position player, hitting .191/.283/.191 in 54 plate appearances. That was the end of his time as a hitter. Widener was exclusively a pitcher after that.
Back and knee trouble hampered Widener as a sophomore. He threw 32 innings with a 4.78 ERA and a 44/19 K/BB, and also saved nine games. Widener joined the Lexington County Blowfish of the Coastal Plains League after the season to make up for lost innings and was dominant, throwing 32 innings with a 2.53 ERA and a 43/7 K/BB. Baseball America ranked him the No. 2 prospect in the league.
Widener had more injury problems prior to his junior season. He needed ulnar nerve transposition surgery on his elbow in the fall — that’s what Michael Fulmer had this offseason and Jacob deGrom had last offseason — and once he healed up, he threw 55 innings across nine starts and eight relief appearances for South Carolina. Widener finished the spring with a 4.20 ERA and a 68/16 K/BB.
Baseball America ranked Widener as seventh best prospect in South Carolina and the 258th best prospect in the country prior to the 2016 draft. The Yankees selected him with their 12th round pick (368th overall) and signed him quickly for a straight slot $100,000 bonus.
After signing, the Yankees had Widener jump straight to Short Season Staten Island, where he made six appearances before being bumped up to Low-A Charleston. All told Widener threw 38.1 innings with a 0.47 ERA (1.50 FIP) to go along with great strikeout (44.0%) and walk (5.2%) rates in his pro debut. He was outstanding. After that, the Yankees decided to make Widener a full-time starting pitcher.
Last year, in his first full pro season, Widener spent the entire regular season with High-A Tampa, where he made 27 starts and threw 119.1 innings. He had a 3.39 ERA (3.05 FIP) with 26.4% strikeouts and 10.4% walks. Widener seemed to hit a bit of a wall at midseason, but he finished strong, strong enough that the Yankees moved him up to Double-A Trenton for the postseason. And in his first outing with Trenton, Widener struck out seven in five hitless and walkless innings to complete a combined no-hitter with Justus Sheffield.
At 6-foot-0 and 195 lbs., Widener is on the short side for a right-hander, though he has quality stuff. His fastball sat mostly 90-93 mph at South Carolina before ticking up to 93-95 mph with a few 97s last summer — the Yankees have a thing for getting guys to add velocity, it’s been happening for a while now — and Widener locates the pitch well. (He hit a wall last year and lost the plate, leading to that 10.4% walk rate, but he was better after getting a second wind.)
Widener’s go-to secondary pitch is a hard and occasionally devastating mid-80s slider that is a true wipeout pitch on its best days. He’s still working to gain consistency with it, however. Widener didn’t have much of a changeup when he came to pro ball and the Yankees have been working him to develop the pitch. It was their top priority in Instructional League last fall.
Between the college reliever-to-pro starter thing and being a 6-foot-0 right-hander, Widener draws inevitable comparisons to Chance Adams, though they’re unfair because Adams is more consistent with his slider and has a much better third pitch (curveball). Chance Adams is Chance Adams and Taylor Widener is Taylor Widener. They’re their own people.
Widener is ticketed for Double-A this coming season. He had a good season at High-A last year and he pitched well overall during the Double-A postseason, so yeah, Trenton it is this year. The Yankees had Widener focus on his changeup in Instructional League, which suggests they plan to keep him in the rotation for the time being. A smart move, that is. Widener held his stuff as a starter and there’s no reason to move him back to the bullpen yet. Let him keep working at it.
I like Widener probably more than I should. As long as he stays healthy, I think he has a high likelihood of long-term success as a reliever with a chance to start. Keep in mind the guys the Yankees help add velocity tend to keep adding velocity. The increase usually takes place across two or three years before the pitcher reaches his max. Widener was 93-95 mph last year and could be closer to 95-97 mph this year. That’d be something. Like I said though, I think he has a good chance to carve out a career as a reliever if the whole rotation thing doesn’t work out.
For almost five years now we’ve heard about the luxury tax plan. The Yankees were planning to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold back in 2014, but when they missed the postseason in 2013, that went by the wayside. Nowadays we’re talking about the Yankees getting under the $197M luxury tax plan in 2018, and they’re in position to do it. The roster looks formidable and there is still $22M in payroll space available.
By this point of the 2013-14 offseason, the Yankees had already decided to scrap the luxury tax plan and spend big. The signed Brian McCann in November, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran in December, and were working to sign Masahiro Tanaka in January. The decision to spend was made early, and the Yankees acted decisively. Everything is moving slower this offseason. So many top free agents have yet to sign. The next few weeks might feel like December in a “normal” offseason.
The longer the top free agents remain unsigned, the greater the chance the Yankees jump in and make a surprise move. Would I call it likely? Goodness no. I think they’re dead set on getting under the luxury tax threshold. But the longer those free agents are out there, the more temptation there will be. Players could get desperate and the deals could be too good to pass up. Is there a point where the Yankees would blow up the luxury tax plan? Let’s talk it out.
Let’s Do Some Math
The luxury tax threshold for this coming season is $197M. It jumps to $206M in 2019, $209M in 2020, and $210M in 2021. First-time offenders are taxed 20% for every dollar over the threshold. Second-time offenders are taxed 30%. Third-time and beyond offenders are taxed 50%. That’s where the Yankees are at right now. They’re taxed at 50%.
Furthermore, the newest Collective Bargaining Agreement introduced surtax tiers, so the more you exceed the luxury tax threshold, the higher your tax rate. Here are the new surtaxes, straight from the CBA itself:
Every dollar over the $197M threshold would be taxed at 95% — 95%! — if the Yankees ran a payroll north of $237M this season. Heck, a $218M payroll would result in a 62% tax rate. See why the luxury tax now effectively acts as a salary cap? No owner is paying those tax rates.
Anyway, let’s do some quick math. This is what the luxury tax situation looks like if the Yankees get under the threshold this season, reset their tax rate, then exceed the threshold in the future by no more than $20M. I’m considering that first surtax a hard cap.
|Payroll (first surtax threshold from 2019-21)
In this scenario (reset the tax rate in 2018, spend up to the first surtax threshold in future years), the Yankees would pay $20M total in luxury tax from 2018-21. They’re paying $15.7M in luxury tax for 2017 alone. Heck, they paid $27.4M in luxury tax for 2016.
Now let’s look at another scenario. In this scenario the Yankees change their mind and exceed the luxury tax threshold this year. We’re going to consider that first surtax threshold a hard cap again.
|Payroll (first surtax threshold from 2018-21)
Nice and easy. The Yankees are at the maximum 50% tax rate and they wouldn’t exceed the threshold by more than $20M in any year. That’s $10M in luxury tax per season and $40M total from 2018-21. So, in our two hypotheticals, the difference between resetting the tax rate this season and not resetting the tax rate this season is $20M in luxury tax from 2018-21, or $5M per season. Roughly the cost of a middle reliever.
What’s The Rationale For Going Over?
To get better, obviously. Exceed the threshold to add whatever — a pitcher, an infielder, whatever — and the Yankees would have a stronger roster and a better chance to win in 2018. And that’s important. The more you win the more money the team makes. Vince Gennaro wrote about this back in the day in his book Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball. Here’s a graph from Gennaro’s book:
The more you win the more you make. Winning boosts attendance and merchandise sales, it brings those lucrative as hell home postseason games, it brings more sponsors. You have to spend money to make money. Whatever the Yankees pay in luxury tax could be recouped (and then some) in other ways. (In his book, Gennaro also explains that because the Yankees brand is built on winning, the value of a win and a postseason appearance is much greater to them than other teams. Also, there’s a long-term effect. Consecutive winning seasons means exponentially more revenue in the future.)
The Yankees, as things stand, sure look like a 2018 postseason team. They’re not guaranteed to play in October — pitchers could get hurt, hitters can underperform, all sorts of stuff — but right now, they have as good a chance as anyone to get to the postseason. That said, consider the projected AL standings, via FanGraphs:
- Astros: 98-64 (+170 run differential)
- Indians: 93-69 (+121 run differential)
- Red Sox: 91-71 (+103 run differential)
- Yankees: 91-71 (+102 run differential)
- Angels: 88-74 (+67 run differential)
No other AL team is projected to win more than 83 games, so that’s your super early projected AL postseason field. The Astros are the class of the AL West and the Indians are the favorite in the AL Central. Not unexpected. The AL East? This completely objective computer system sees the Yankees and Red Sox as neck-and-neck right now. And that right there is potential motivation for exceeding the luxury tax threshold.
Given where they sit on the win curve, each win the Yankees (or Red Sox) add right now is enormous. Going from, say, 81 to 82 wins is nothing. That doesn’t help you much. But going from 91 to 92 wins? That could be the difference between a division title and a wild card spot. The Red Sox seem likely to add a bat some point, and if the projections are accurate (yeah, yeah, I know), that could be the difference in the division.
So, long story short, the rationale for going over the luxury tax threshold this year would be improving the roster, improving the team’s chances of winning the AL East, and improving their chances of making more money as a result of winning. Imagine not going over the threshold and losing out on a division title by a game or two? Oy vey.
Okay, So Who Do They Go Over The Threshold For?
Let’s say Hal Steinbrenner looks at the projections and decides to scrap the luxury tax plan in an effort to win the division and the World Series. I don’t expect it to happen, but humor me for a second. Who would the Yankees add in that case? Yu Darvish is the obvious answer. The Yankees want a high-end starter and they’ve been connected to Darvish for weeks, and he’s just sitting out there in free agency waiting for an acceptable contract offer.
Given the current free agent climate, would Darvish take a four-year deal worth $100M, with an opt-out after the second year? That guarantees him a healthy payday and gives him a chance to try again in a few years if the market shifts and teams start spending again. That $25M average annual value would put the Yankees roughly $3M over the luxury tax threshold and bring a $1.5M luxury tax bill, though that doesn’t include the inevitable midseason additions. The actual tax bill be larger.
At this point though, if the Yankees are going to go over the threshold to sign Darvish, why not get an infielder too? Not necessarily an expensive one. Trade a prospect for Josh Harrison and his $6.5M luxury tax number. Or keep the prospect and throw $10M at Todd Frazier. Something like that. Let’s say the Yankees trade for Harrison. Here are the numbers:
- Current luxury tax payroll: $178M
- Luxury tax payroll with Darvish at 4/100: $203M
- Luxury tax payroll with Darvish and Harrison: $209.5M
- Luxury tax bill with Darvish and Harrison: $6.25M
Add in the midseason call-ups and whatnot and the final luxury tax bill would be … $10M? Maybe? I’m not sure. That would put the Yankees right at the $217M payroll threshold for the first surtax, so that sounds good to me. I don’t see the Yankees (or any other team) going higher than that.
All told, we’re talking about the Yankees going from $197M in payouts (luxury tax plan) to $227M in payouts ($217M payroll plus $10M tax bill). It’s a difference of $30M in year one, which is significant. Then again, adding Darvish and Harrison could put the Yankees over the top and make them the AL East favorites, and more winning equals more money. Also, each team is getting a $50M payment for the sale of a majority stake in BAMTech to Disney.
According to multiple sources all 30 MLB teams are expected to receive a payment of approximately $50 million dollars in the first quarter of 2018 for the previous sale of BAM. #MLB
— Jim Bowden?? (@JimBowdenGM) December 15, 2017
That’s on top of the $30M payment each team received last year for the sale of a minority stake. We’re talking about potentially spending an additional $30M total to add Darvish and Harrison at a time when the Yankees will soon be handed a $50M check. Plus they made a deep postseason run last year. Six home postseason games last year! That no doubt led to an uptick in revenue. Besides, the Yankees aren’t hurting for money anyway.
Here’s Why This Won’t Happen
I don’t need to try hard to convince fans that exceeding the luxury tax threshold would be a smart move because it’ll improve the Yankees’ chances of winning, and that would result in more revenue. There is an inflection point somewhere. There is a point where exceeding the threshold by some amount equals so much revenue in the future that the luxury tax pays for itself, if that makes sense.
Convincing fans is the easy part. Convincing Hal Steinbrenner is the hard part. If Brian Cashman went to Hal and said he feels the Yankees should exceed the threshold, he’d have two questions to answer.
- Aren’t we good enough to win the AL East and the World Series without exceeding the threshold?
- What about the larger luxury tax bills we’d face in the future as a result of not resetting the tax rate this year?
The answer is question one is probably. The Yankees are probably good enough to win the World Series this year, assuming they use their final $22M in payroll space wisely. The answer to the second question is, uh, win this year and we’ll make so much money in the future those larger luxury tax bills from 2019-21 will be a relative drop in the bucket? Not the most convincing answer.
I have zero expectation of the Steinbrenners changing their mind and okaying a payroll increase in 2018. Hal has made it clear he wants to get under the threshold to save money — how many times have we heard him say, “I don’t think you need a $200M payroll to win?” — and this coming season is by far their best chance to actually do it. Whether they’ll be willing to go over the threshold in future years is another topic for another time. Right now, the focus is on getting under the $197M luxury tax threshold in 2018.
More than anything, this post is intended to be a thought exercise given the luxury tax plan and the payroll situation. The Yankees figure to be good — very good in fact — though a case can be made they are not the AL East favorites. That inflection point exists somewhere. There is a dollar amount over the threshold where the potential reward exceeds the luxury tax outlay. I have no idea where that point is. The Yankees probably don’t either. There are so many variables. I don’t expect it to happen, but as long as that inflection point exists, the Yankees could change course and put an end to the luxury tax plan.
This is the nightly open thread. The Knicks and Nets are playing, and that’s about it for local sports. Talk about those games, Passan’s article, or anything that isn’t religion or politics right here. Thanks.
There are fewer than four weeks to go before the start of Spring Training, and so far the Yankees have done a pretty good job accomplishing their goals. They re-signed CC Sabathia to a reasonable contract, salary dumped Chase Headley, and are in position to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold. And they managed to pick up Giancarlo Stanton along the way. Not a bad winter’s work.
The Yankees still have some work to do before camp begins, however. At least it feels that way. Second and third bases are open, and the team has been trying to add another high-end starter for so long that it almost feels like they consider it a necessity. All things considered though, the Yankees are in good shape. The rotation is set, the lineup is formidable, and the bullpen is widely considered the best and deepest in baseball. Could be worse.
Generally speaking, these last few weeks before Spring Training are the time for small moves and tweaks, not huge pickups. There are always exceptions (see: Rodriguez, Alex), but in recent years the Yankees have made smaller, low-key moves in the weeks leading up to camp. Let’s look back at the team’s moves in the month (give or take a few days) leading up to reporting day, and see whether they tell us anything useful. Come with me, won’t you?
- 2013: Abe Almonte for Shawn Kelley
- 2014: None
- 2015: None
- 2016: Rob Segedin for Ronald Torreyes and Tyler Olson
- 2017: None
What does this tell us? The player(s) acquired in that seemingly minor trade could have more impact than you think. Kelley was a bullpen mainstay for two years with the Yankees after coming over from the Mariners, and while Olson was one (appearance) and done with the Yankees, Torreyes has become entrenched as the utility infielder. He might be starting at second or third come Opening Day! Who saw that coming?
The Yankees haven’t swung a significant trade this late in the offseason in a very long time. The last was probably the A.J. Burnett salary dump in 2012, and you have to go all the way back to the Randy Johnson trade in 2005 for the last time the Yankees added a notable player this late in the offseason. Recent history suggests the Yankees won’t make a significant trade before camp, but like I said, they are still looking for a high-end starter, so who knows.
Now, if the Yankees make a small trade between now and the start of camp, chances are they like the player(s) they add more than we realize. The new addition could hang around for a while. These late offseason trade pickups have a way of sticking around.
Free Agent Signings
- 2013: Travis Hafner (one year, $2M)
- 2014: Brian Roberts (one year, $2M), Masahiro Tanaka (seven years, $155M)
- 2015: Stephen Drew (one year, $5M)
- 2016: None
- 2017: Chris Carter (one year, $3M)
What does this tell us? First of all, the Tanaka contract is clearly a special case. The Yankees signed him in mid-January not because that’s when they decided to get involved and make a big offer. That’s when his 30-day negotiating window ended. The timing of the Tanaka signing was driven by his posting. The Yankees were always expected to make a big push to sign him. Everyone just had to wait a little longer than expected for him to be posted.
As for the other signings, the Yankees used the last few weeks of the offseason to patch those final few roster holes with low-cost veterans. Hafner, Roberts, and Drew were all signed on the cheap to be a short-term stopgap. In Carter’s case, the reigning NL home run king was sitting out there unsigned, so the Yankees decided to bet $3M on him being a useful bench bat/platoon first baseman. It didn’t work it. Such is life.
The Yankees currently have two great big openings at second and third base, though unlike previous years, they have exciting young players ready to step into the lineup. They signed Roberts in 2014 because they didn’t have a second base prospect on the cusp of the big leagues. The Yankees don’t have to sign anyone for second or third. It’s just a question of how comfortable they are with Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar (or Tyler Wade).
Minor League Contracts
- 2013: Thomas Neal, Dan Johnson, Juan Rivera
- 2014: Yangervis Solarte, Chris Leroux
- 2015: Eddy Rodriguez, Scott Baker, Kyle Davies
- 2016: Anthony Swarzak, Tyler Cloyd, Carlos Corporan
- 2017: Ji-Man Choi, Jon Niese
What does this tell us? Don’t laugh off these late offseason minor league contracts. Six of those 13 players spent time in the Bronx (Neal, Solarte, Leroux, Davies, Swarzak, Choi) and another (Rodriguez) became a three-year Triple-A mainstay. We complain when these players sign (“championship!”) and complain when they get called up, but they’re a necessary evil during a 162-game season.
Within the last week or so the Yankees have signed Jace Peterson and Wade LeBlanc to minor league deals and chances are more minor league signings are on the way. You just know one of those guys is going to end up spending, like, two months on the big league roster. Isn’t that usually how this goes? Once in a while you strike gold with a Solarte. More often you get a Swarzak, who annoyingly sticks around.
* * *
This offseason is unlike any other in recent memory. Most top free agents remain unsigned and there are few (if any) indications the market will heat up before Spring Training. There’s talk about collusion and a potential work stoppage down the line to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. Whatever the cause — causes, really, since it’s never just one thing — this is a unique offseason.
And because of that, I’m not sure how instructive the Yankees’ recent late offseason activity really is. Yeah, they could swing a small trade and make a cheap free agent signing, which would be the norm. But would it really shock anyone if they made a blockbuster trade for a young starter? What if they signed Yu Darvish and moved David Robertson to make it work under the luxury tax threshold? For the most part, the late offseason has been a time for small tweaks for the Yankees. This year though, there’s the potential for something much greater.
Glenn Otto | RHP
The 22-year-old Otto grew up in the Houston suburbs and attended Concordia Lutheran High School in Spring, Texas, where he had a decorated baseball career. Despite that, Otto was not a highly regarded prospect out of high school — Baseball America did not rank him among their top 500 prospects for the 2014 draft — and he went undrafted. He followed through on his commitment to Rice.
Otto quickly took over as a trusted setup man during his freshman season with the Owls, throwing 41 innings with a 1.54 ERA and a 65/28 K/BB. He spent the summer with the Santa Barbara Foresters of the California Collegiate League, where he finished with a 3.80 ERA and a 58/16 K/BB in 42.2 innings, all as a starting pitcher. Baseball America ranked Otto as the sixth best prospect in the circuit.
As a sophomore at Rice, Otto worked 71.2 innings, all in relief, and posted a 2.26 ERA with a 76/30 K/BB. He saved eight games and was named to the All-Conference USA and All-Regional Teams. He traveled to Cuba with the U.S. Collegiate National Team during the summer, and was part of a Team USA roster that included future first rounders Keston Hiura, Alex Faudo, and Brendan McKay.
Otto was named to the Golden Spikes Award Watch List prior to his junior season — that’s basically a watch list for baseball’s Heisman Trophy — but he battled a sore shoulder during fall ball and had a down year, throwing 59.2 innings with a 3.77 ERA and an 81/29 in his final season at Rice. He made two spot starts, but otherwise worked primarily in relief. Otto finished his career with the Owls with 2.62 ERA and 222 strikeouts in 172 innings.
Last spring MLB.com ranked Otto as the 96th best prospect in the 2017 draft class while Baseball America ranked him 170th. The Yankees selected Otto with their fifth round pick, the 152nd overall selection, and signed him quickly to a straight slot $320,900 bonus.
The Yankees had Otto begin his pro career with a pair of rookie ball tune-up appearances before assigning him to Short Season Staten Island. With the Baby Bombers he threw 17 relief innings with a 1.59 ERA (1.37 FIP) and a 25/5 K/BB. That works out to a 37.3% strikeout rate and a 7.5% walk rate. Otto threw 2.2 scoreless innings in his lone postseason appearance with Staten Island, then headed to Instructional League after the season.
Built solidly at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs., Otto is a pure power pitcher with a mid-90s fastball he can run up to 98 mph, though when he initially came back from his shoulder issue last year, it was more 91-93 mph. His velocity was all the way back by time he reported to Staten Island.
Otto’s go-to secondary pitch is a hard low-80s knucklecurve — you can see the grip in the photo at the top of the post — that drops off the table and allows him to miss a ton of bats. When he’s right, Otto goes out to the mound with two swing-and-miss pitches with his fastball and curve. His changeup is a distant third pitch and he basically never uses it, so Otto is a two-pitch guy.
It is notable Otto had a shoulder issue early last year — he didn’t have surgery, so that’s good, and as far as I can tell it has only been described as soreness — because Rice pitchers have a long history of breaking down in pro ball. The sore shoulder could be nothing, or it could be an indication of bad things to come. The Yankees were willing to bet a fifth round pick and $320,900 on it being nothing.
A few years ago the Yankees adopted a “let’s take all our best arms and make them starters” approach in the minors, and I assume that will apply to Otto next season. Give him a year in the rotation and see what happens. Maybe he’ll be the next Chance Adams! Or maybe it’ll be like Jonathan Holder’s year in the rotation, which was good statistically, but his stuff backed up so much as a starter that the Yankees decided it wasn’t worth pursuing. If the Yankees do decide to let Otto start, I imagine he’ll begin the season with Low-A Charleston. If they keep him in the bullpen, High-A Tampa is more likely.
I see Otto as a fairly generic relief prospect, which doesn’t mean I don’t like him. It just means I don’t see much to separate him from the Holders of the world. Otto has the velocity, has the quality breaking ball, and has the arm injury that took a bite out of his stock. That’s usually what these guys look like, right? Getting a big league reliever with a fifth round pick would be a big win for the Yankees. Otto could develop in a legitimate late-inning guy with good health, but for now, I see him as more of an interesting key-an-eye-on guy than a bonafide top relief prospect.