Aaron Hicks: Fourth outfielder to starting in center [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Going into 2017, you would have been forgiven if you chalked up the John Ryan MurphyAaron Hicks deal to a lose-lose with both players going bust in their new environments. Hicks hit .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in his first season with the Yankees while fulfilling mostly a part-time, fourth outfielder role.

Despite his clear tools, his breakout in 2017 was nonetheless surprising.

Forging an opportunity

Just like in 2017, Hicks was the fourth outfielder to start the year. He nearly outhit Aaron Judge in spring training while trying to win the right fielder job, putting up a .268/.379/.518 line.

When the regular season started, Hicks was better from the jump. In his first start (Apr. 8), He went 1 for 2 with a double and a walk. After Brett Gardner was banged up on a play at first, he got a chance to start full-time for a week and he took off. He homered twice to lead the Yankees to a win over the Rays. He walked six times while knocking in eight runs in a four-game span.

Impressively, he had four two-walk games in April despite starting just nine times. Since he was in the minors, Hicks was always renowned for his eye, but it hadn’t quite translated to the majors. He added a pair of three walks games on May 3 and May 11 while notching seven hits in two games in-between against the Cubs. After the May 11 game, he was hitting .333/.474/.627. That’s unreal, even in the small sample size.

Of course, while this was happening, Aaron Judge was taking the entire league by storm while Brett Gardner was beginning to show off some power. Even Jacoby Ellsbury was hitting some, so it would have been simple for Hicks to lose playing time as soon as he had a brief cold streak…

Breaking out

But then came Ellsbury’s concussion on May 24. From there on out, centerfield was Hicks’ job for the taking.

And take it he did. He put together a 21-game on-base streak from mid-May to mid-June. This included a four-hit game with three doubles and six RBI against Toronto. Just killing the ball.

He was walking consistently and wasn’t striking out nearly as much. Meanwhile, Hicks continued to hit for power, posting 10 homers and 15 doubles along with 37 walks to just 42 strikeouts through June 25.

Injuries rear their ugly head

But on Old Timer’s Day on the 25th, Hicks injured his oblique. He’d missed a few games with Achilles soreness just a few days earlier. Hicks had dealt with injuries in 2016, but none that kept him out quite as long as the oblique injury did. It robbed the Yankees of their best option in the No. 2 spot of their lineup, where Hicks had been batting for nearly three weeks.

While he was replaced by Ellsbury on the roster, it was still a blow to the team as they lost Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday around the same time. The team was left shorthanded and their lineup took a hit.

Hicks would return more than a month later on Aug. 10 and he wasn’t quite the same despite a clutch homer and outfield assist in his second game back.

He went from hitting .290/.398/.515 before the oblique injury to hitting .265/.367/.463 when he left with another oblique injury. At the time, it was thought that it may end his season. He had put up six hits on Aug. 30-31 over nine plate appearances, but it was still a disappointing finish.

However, he’d make it back for six more games (five starts) to close out the year. He robbed his second grand slam of the season in his first inning back on Sept. 26 and walked three times in the game. He’d hit homers each of the next two days and close out the year hitting .266/.372/.475 (127 wRC+), a career-best line.

You're probably wonder how I ended up here... (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
You’re probably wonder how I ended up here… (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Highlights in the field

Here are the two grand slams he robbed. One was in Anaheim in mid-June (the road trip from hell) and the other in Tampa.

Hicks had yet another strong year in the field. Despite Ellsbury’s hot streak to end the year, he earned the starting centerfield job back in part due to his far superior arm in center. It definitely discourages teams from taking an extra base on him like Eduardo Nunez tried to in August.

As for his overall fielding, he occasionally misreads a ball yet he tends to make up for it with his speed. His first oblique injury came making a play near the wall, so he made need to be more careful there moving forward.

Still, Hicks had a career-best 15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a UZR/150 of 13.5. While he had a strong year at the plate, he didn’t let himself take off plays in the field. A testament to him and his all-around game. True five-tool player.

Back in the nick of time

Returning just in time for the postseason, Hicks was right back in center field. It gave the Yankees their best defensive arrangement and a batter with a strong eye near the bottom of the lineup. Getting back into center so quickly showed that he’s well above Ellsbury in the Yankees’ plans.

And Hicks produced some big playoff moments, including a bases-loaded walk in the Wild Card Game to extend the lead and a monster home run to KO Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 2. He nearly opened the ALCS with a homer off Dallas Keuchel in Game 1, but he hit to the wrong part of Minute Maid Park. While he hit well in the ALDS (.316/.350/.526), he was mostly silent at the plate in the ALCS, finishing the postseason with a .196/.260/.304 line.

2018 Outlook

Hicks likely goes into 2018 as the Yankees starting centerfielder. He’s opened the door for the Yankees to salary dump Ellsbury while still having a more than adequate replacement.

If healthy, he has the approach at the plate that can produce something close to his 2017 production over a full year, even if maybe not quite as productive. He hit just .218/.319/.396 in the second half, still showing off his ability to draw walks but striking out a fair amount more while working around injuries.

Still, there’s less pressure on him to be a top-of-the-order hitter with Judge, Sanchez, Bird and others ahead of him. He works anywhere in the lineup with a limited left-right split (surprisingly close splits, even for a switch-hitter) and his approach at the plate.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tyler Chatwood

(Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
(Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

The Yankees starting rotation is far more settled heading into 2018 than it was this past season, and it’s a pretty good feeling. Luis Severino earned a top-three finish in the Cy Young voting, Masahiro Tanaka rebounded brilliantly from a poor first half, Sonny Gray was mostly as good as advertised, and Jordan Montgomery was the best rookie starting pitcher in baseball, and all four will be in the rotation this coming season.

That leaves one spot open for a potential reunion with CC Sabathia, an internal candidate like Chance Adams, international free agent-to-be Shohei Otani (perhaps their primary target), or “other.” There’s a great deal of off-season to go, but it is clear that, as of this writing, the Yankees need a fifth starter. And my favorite free agent for that role is Tyler Chatwood.

Recent Performance

Let’s take a look at Chatwood’s numbers over the past two seasons:

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Two things jump out immediately – he didn’t throw a full workload in either season, and he regressed fairly heavily from 2016 to 2017. Well, those things, as well as the fact that Coors Field is still a veritable death trap for pitchers, given that his 4.69 ERA was actually 7% better than league-average (relative to the conditions in which he played) … but I digress.

Chatwood was quite good across the board in 2016, and something closer to mediocre in 2017, and there’s obviously value in both. The middling strikeout and walk rates leave something to be desired, but his groundball rates are elite, he limits hard contact (league-average was 31.8% in 2017), and his home run rate was actually a tick above-average. There are reasons to believe that he is closer to the pitcher that we saw in 2016 than last year’s version as a result.

And, as you might suspect, he has been significantly better on the road the last two years:

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The sample sizes are relatively small, and Chatwood pitched in a division with three pitcher’s parks on the docket, but the underlying numbers nevertheless paint him as a different pitcher on the road. His walk rate is still discouraging, but he picks up more whiffs and garners less hard contact on the road, which may be indicative of him changing his plan of attack to suit his environment. He is not as good as the 2.57 road ERA indicates, but he has been a far better pitcher than his overall numbers suggest.

The Stuff

Chatwood throws five different pitches, each of which has a fair bit of moment. It may be a bit disingenuous to call him a true five-pitch guy, though, as his change-up is more of a show-me pitch than anything else, and he doesn’t use it all that often. Take a look:

brooksbaseball-chart

His fastball and sinker velocity ticked up this past season, jumping from the low-90s to sitting comfortably in the mid-90s, which fits the league-wide trend in velocity. And all of those pitches have a great deal of movement, which allows him to induce grounders with all five.

Chatwood boasted healthy whiff rates on his change-up (20.16%), slider (16.9%), and curve (12.9%) last year, which has led some to speculate as to why he doesn’t use his off-speed stuff more often. That curveball is also a groundball generating machine, with 70.4% of those put into play were worm burners. And, while we still have a great deal to learn about the usefulness of spin rate, it’s worth noting that Chatwood’s curveball (4th among starting pitchers) and four-seamer (7th) have elite spin rates, as per Statcast.

Injury History

The reason why Chatwood threw so few innings in 2016 is because he underwent Tommy John surgery in the Summer of 2014, and was on an innings limit as a result. He made just four starts in 2014 and missed all of 2015 as he rehabbed from the procedure. That was the second such surgery of his career – the first came way back in 2005, when he was a 15-year-old pitching for Redlands East Valley High School.

Having two Tommy John surgeries is never a good thing, so caution may be a key word thrown around by any team interested in his services – but he has otherwise been mostly healthy as a professional. He spent time on the disabled list in 2017 with a calf strain, and that’s about it.

Contract Estimate

MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 3-year, $20 MM deal for Chatwood, ranking him as the sixth best starting pitcher on the market (not including Shohei Otani). That feels a bit light for a 28-year-old with a recent history of success, but his ugly overall numbers and twice-repaired elbow may well give some teams pause. The market was light last year, as well, with Rich Hill being the only free agent starter to get a multi-year deal worth $10 MM or more per year.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would go with something closer to 3-years, $30 MM.

Does He Fit the Yankees?

Chatwood is young, he throws hard, his pitches have great movement, and he keeps the ball on the ground – that sounds like the sort of package that the Yankees would salivate over. And, should Otani not come to the Yankees (be it by staying in Japan, or signing elsewhere), I could see him being at or near the top of the team’s list.

That being said, the Yankees are trying to limit payroll, and I don’t know that they’d view Chatwood as the player to invest precious dollars in, given the team’s internal options and potentially cheaper options on the market. The fit in a vacuum is obvious, but it becomes less so when viewed under the totality of it all.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

The baseball world is in mourning today. Former Blue Jays and Phillies ace Roy Halladay was killed earlier today when a plane he was piloting crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. He was only 40. Halladay was a brilliant player. Basically the perfect pitcher. The best of his generation and the closest thing we’ve seen to peak Greg Maddux since peak Greg Maddux. A Hall of Famer through and through in my book. I am happy I got to watch his career and I am heartbroken for his family. Rest in peace, Doc.

* * *

Here is the open thread for the night. Every local hockey and basketball team in action except the Rangers. Talk anything here as long as it’s not religion or politics.

The Yankees’ Five Longest Home Runs of 2017

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

If you’re a fan of home runs, boy was this the season for you. MLB teams combined to hit 6,105 home runs in 2017, by far the most in history. The previous record was 5,693 homers set back in 2000. The record was broken by 412 homers (!) and with 12 days to go in the regular season. That is insanity. MLB insists the ball is not juiced. I have a very hard time believing that.

Anyway, the Yankees contributed greatly to that record home run total this season. They smashed 241 home runs in 2017, the most in baseball. One-hundred-and-sixty-one, or almost exactly two-thirds of those 241 homers, were hit by players age 27 or younger. The Yankees play in a home run ballpark and in a division with other home run ballparks, plus they’re getting younger and more powerful. Fun!

As a big fan of dingers, I’ve been putting together these “five longest homers of the season” posts since way back in 2010. Those posts covered 35 different home runs from 2010-16. Exactly one (1) of those 35 would have appeared in this year’s top five longest homers list. The Yankees didn’t just hit a lot of home runs this season. They hit a lot of long home runs this season. Let’s break down the top five.

5. Judge vs. Marco Estrada

Get ready for an awful lot of Aaron Judge, folks. He is featured in this post prominently. New York’s fifth longest home run of the season was No. 46 of his record-breaking rookie season. It came in the first inning too. Judge hit Estrada’s fifth pitch of the game, an 89.1 mph fastball up in the zone, into the Rogers Centre second deck for a missile solo homer on September 22nd.

The ball very nearly hit the scoreboard ribbon above the second deck. It got out in a hurry too. That’s usually what happens when a baseball leaves your bat at 113.6 mph. This home run was the third in a stretch of seven homers in seven days for Judge. Distance: 469 feet.

4. Judge vs. Addison Reed

I remember this home run as the end of Judge’s ugly second half slump. He hit .176/.337/.340 (82 wRC+) in 199 plate appearances from the start of the second half through the start of this game, September 3rd against the Red Sox. And in his first three at-bats of this game, Judge went strikeout, strikeout, ground out. Yuck.

The Yankees took an early lead against Chris Sale in this game, and worked him hard too. He threw 109 pitches in only 4.1 innings. Yikes. The Yankees were in the process of breaking the game open in the sixth inning, and had already stretched their lead to 7-1 when Judge came to the plate against Addison Reed with a man on base. This home run came on another high fastball, though Reed (93.7 mph) throws quite a bit harder than Estrada.

This was around the time teams started pitching to Judge because he’d been struggling for so long. They didn’t give him much to hit in the first half. Then, as the strikeouts mounted in the second half, they began to feel more confident attacking Judge. There were two outs and a base open when he hit this homer off Reed. That situation would’ve equaled an automatic intentional walk in the first half. Instead, the Red Sox had Reed pitch to Judge, and he missed with a 1-1 fastball. Distance: 469 feet.

3. Judge vs. Marcus Stroman

I told you Judge would be featured prominently in this post. This is another September homer too. In fact, this was his 52nd and final regular season home run. It came on September 30th. Judge really locked it in during the season’s final month, following his slump.

As with the Stroman and Reed homers, this was another fastball up in the strike zone. The game was scoreless in the fourth inning when Marcus Stroman’s little 2-0 count 93.1 mph two-seamer ran right into Judge’s bat path. You almost can’t see the ball leaving his bat it got out so quick.

The exit velocity on that dinger: 118.3 mph. Good gravy. It was the eighth hardest hit ball and fourth longest home run in all of baseball this season. Judge hit the ball so hard Stroman couldn’t help but praise him after the game.

Judge is crushing dingers so far opposing pitchers have to praise him after the game. What a season. Distance: 484 feet.

By the way, remember when I said just one home run from 2010-16 would’ve made this list? It would’ve slotted in fourth behind this Judge blast. Alex Rodriguez swatted a 477 foot homer back in 2015. No other Yankees homer from 2010-16 topped even 460 feet. Pretty crazy.

2. Sanchez vs. Matt Boyd

Hey, it’s not Aaron Judge. It’s the Yankees other young slugger. Most teams hope to have one guy like this to build an offense around. The Yankees have two powerful 20-somethings with one full season under their belt.

Gary Sanchez went on a ridiculous home run tear in mid-August, hitting ten homers in the span of 15 days. The seventh of those ten homers came in Detroit on August 22nd, two days before the brawl game. Lefty Matt Boyd left an 80.4 mph cement mixer changeup up in the zone in the first inning, and Sanchez hit it to the concession stands beyond the left field bleachers. Look at this thing:

You know what’s crazy? Sanchez almost looked a little bit off balance when he hit that ball. Like he was out in front of the changeup a little bit. Somehow he still managed to hit the ball that far. The homer broke Statcast. We never did an exit velocity reading on that one. It was, however, the second longest home run of the season. In all of baseball, I mean. Not just for the Yankees. Distance: 493 feet.

1. Judge vs. Logan Verrett

Ho hum, another Judge homer. He hit baseball’s longest home run this season, two of baseball’s four longest homers this season, and five of the Yankees’ six longest homers this season.

The year’s longest home run came on June 11th, during the blowout series against the Orioles, in which the Yankees won all three games by the combined score of 38-8. It was the final game of the series, and the Yankees were up 7-3 in the sixth, so Baltimore’s spirit was already broken. Up-and-down arm Logan Verrett was soaking up innings in the eventual blowout, and he threw Judge the hangiest of hanging sliders. It was 84.7 mph and it just spun into nothing.

Judge hit the ball to the very last row of the left field bleachers, near the retired numbers. This one broke Statcast too. We don’t have an exit velocity measurement, which is disappointing. The nonstop flood of exit velocity updates on Twitter is pretty annoying, but for monster homers like this one, yeah I’d like to see it. What an absurd home run. It was the longest non-Coors Field homer in baseball since Kris Bryant hit one 495 feet back in September 2015. Distance: 495 feet.

* * *

Sanchez and Judge have a monopoly on the longest Yankees homers this season and I get the feeling it’s going to stay that way for a few years. Those two plus Greg Bird figure to hit plenty of long dingers in the coming years. So, for the sake of variety, here are the Yankees’ five longest homers hit by players other than Judge and Sanchez this season.

  1. April 17th: Matt Holliday vs. Derek Holland (459 feet) (video)
  2. July 5th: Ji-Man Choi vs. Marco Estrada (457 feet) (video)
  3. July 28th: Clint Frazier vs. Austin Pruitt (455 feet) (video)
  4. June 10th: Starlin Castro vs. Chris Tillman (452 feet) (video)
  5. May 3rd: Matt Holliday vs. Marcus Stroman (446 feet) (video)

Shout out to Estrada and Stroman for appearing in this post twice. I remember being surprised Holliday still had that kind of power when he hit that home run against Holland. Who knew he could still hit a ball 460-ish feet at age 37? Also, that May 3rd homer was No. 300 for Holliday in his career.

And how about Choi? He wasn’t with the Yankees long, but he did manage to hit a very long dinger while in pinstripes. Frazier’s legendary bat speed was on full display with that July 28th homer. I’m looking forward to a full season of the Clint experience in 2018.

Year Four of the Jacoby Ellsbury Era [2017 Season Review]

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

At this point, the best thing the Yankees can say about the Jacoby Ellsbury contract is that they’re finally closer to the end than the beginning. Year 4 of the Ellsbury era played out very much like Years 1-3. There were months of poor production, an injury, and a hot streak that had everyone wondering whether Ellsbury would finally provide some bang for the buck.

In the end, Ellsbury hit .264/.348/.402 (101 wRC+) with seven home runs and 22 steals in 25 attempts in 112 games in 2017, which isn’t bad by any means. It is a bit deceiving though, because Ellsbury bunched all the good into a four-week hot streak from August 26th through September 20th, in which he hit .397/.494/.616 (194 wRC+) in 89 plate appearances. In his other 320 plate appearances, he hit .230/.303/.346 (~77 wRC+).

Now, don’t get me wrong, those 89 great plate appearances from August 26th to September 20th count. Ellsbury was phenomenal those weeks! He helped the Yankees win a lot of games. The season is not four weeks long, however. There was a lot of bad sandwiched around those four weeks, bad enough that Ellsbury was relegated to fourth outfielder duty for long stretches of time, including in the postseason.

A Lineup Demotion, In Theory

Following the end of the 2016 season, both Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman hinted at a lineup change for the 2017 season. The Brett Gardner/Ellsbury tandem would be broken up atop the lineup. The Yankees signed Ellsbury hoping he and Gardner would form a dynamic one-two lineup punch with speed and sneaky power. It never really materialized.

The question was who would be demoted, the more productive Gardner or the more highly compensated Ellsbury? Money talks. In a perfect world teams wouldn’t consider salary in making roster decisions, but they do. They all do. The Yankees are no different. In this case, Ellsbury salary didn’t matter. Girardi dropped him from second in the lineup all the way down to … fifth. He even batted fourth for a few games.

On one hand, dropping Ellsbury from the second spot in the lineup was the right move. On another hand, dropping him to fourth and fifth meant he was still hitting in the premium lineup spot, and would still be a significant part of the offense. And for the first few weeks of the season, it was fine. Not great, not terrible. Fine. Ellsbury hit .277/.333/.410 (99 wRC+) in April and even swatted his first career grand slam.

Ellsbury played well enough in April — and the season was still young enough, of course — that he stayed in the lineup even with Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks hitting the snot out of the ball and forcing their way into the lineup. Judge played every single game because he had to. Hicks, Ellsbury, and Gardner spent most of the month rotating in and out of the lineup, with Hicks getting the least playing time.

The Concussion

On May 24th, with his batting line sitting at .281/.349/.422 (108 wRC+) through 153 plate appearances, Ellsbury crashed shoulder-first into the center field wall making a catch against the Royals. He initially stayed in the game, but was removed one inning later with a concussion.

Ouch. Concussions are no joke. They’re a brain injury and if they’re not treated properly and quickly, they can lead to very bad things down the road. The concussion sidelined Ellsbury for almost exactly one month — he returned on June 26th. Ellsbury’s injury gave Hicks a chance to play everyday, and it was a Hicks injury that brought Ellsbury back from the disabled list a little sooner than expected. Hicks hurt his oblique on June 25th and the Yankees brought Ellsbury back from his rehab assignment a few days early to fill the roster spot.

The first few weeks back from the concussion did not go well, and while that is understandable — again, concussions are a serious matter — it also fit a career-long pattern for Ellsbury. He has a history of getting hurt and not hitting once he returns. We’ve seen it in pinstripes a few times, most notably after he tweaked his knee in 2015. In his first 41 games back from the concussion, Ellsbury hit .186/.289/.297 (60 wRC+) in 136 plate appearances. Yeesh. At one point he went 3-for-29 (.103) during a 13-game span. That dragged his season batting line down to .237/.320/.364 (85 wRC+).

Ellsbury’s Best Four Weeks As A Yankee

That ugly 41-game slide ended August 25th, a cherry-picked date. The very next day, Ellsbury started his monster four-week hot streak, a 38-game stretch in which he was not only New York’s most dangerous hitter, but also one of the best hitters in the game not named Giancarlo Stanton. Those four weeks were incredible.

Those four weeks were so great they represent Ellsbury’s best four-week stretch as a Yankee, bar none. He hit .397/.494/.616 (194 wRC+) those four weeks. His next best four-week stretch in pinstripes is a .324/.366/.539 (150 wRC+) batting line back in August 2014. Here is Ellsbury’s tenure with the Yankees:

jacoby-ellsbury-2014-17-wrc

More valleys than peaks, though some of the peaks are quite high. None are as high as his second half this season. Ellsbury was the Yankees’ best player during those four weeks late this season and the Yankees needed him to step up, because Hicks was hurt again and Judge was still working his way out of his second half slump. The Yankees were noticeably short a bat down the stretch. Ellsbury helped pick up the slack.

The hot streak was the very best of Ellsbury. He was a contact machine — he drew 13 walks and struck out only nine times in those 38 games — who sprayed the ball all around and used his speed. There is always going to be some element of luck involved when a player hits .397 across 38 games — Ellsbury did have a .444 BABIP during the hot streak — but Ellsbury created his own luck by putting the ball in play so often. He saw 375 pitches during the hot streak. He swung and missed only 28 times.

The biggest moment of Ellsbury’s torrid hot streak came during Players Weekend, when he swatted a go-ahead three-run home run against the Mariners. The Yankees suffered a tough extra-innings loss the night before and basically half the AL was trying to catch them in the wildcard race. Ellsbury’s homer contributed to an important win.

By the end of the hot streak Ellsbury had raised his season batting line to .273/.361/.420 (110 wRC+). It was an uneven distribution — he started well enough, stunk in the middle, then got crazy hot — but it was the first time since his first season with the Yankees that Ellsbury was an above-average hitter that late into the season.

The Beginning Of The End

The hot streak didn’t last, of course. They never do. Ellsbury went 5-for-30 (.167) in his final eight games of the regular season, and with Hicks back from his second oblique injury, Ellsbury again found himself on the bench. It was Hicks, not Ellsbury, who played center field in the postseason. The Yankees played 13 postseason games this year and Ellsbury appeared in six of them. He started four, all at DH. In those six games he went 0-for-9.

There were stretches throughout the season in which Ellsbury was dropped down into fourth outfielder duty, though the Hicks injury and the general day in, day out nature of the regular season meant he still played a few times a week. In the postseason though, with every game meaning so much, Girardi and the Yankees determined Ellsbury did not give the Yankees the best chance to win. Not at the plate and not in the field. He was a pinch-runner, basically.

As things stand, the Yankees are deep in outfielders going into the 2017-18 offseason. Ellsbury, Gardner, Hicks, and Judge are all under control for at least two more years, and Clint Frazier is very close to ready for full-time MLB action, if he isn’t already. Ellsbury is the one outfielder who clearly deserves less playing time going forward, not more. That the Yankees already scaled back on his playing time this summer leads me to believe Ellsbury’s days as a starter are close to over, at least when he’s not in the middle of a hot streak.

2018 Outlook

For the first time since Ellsbury joined the Yankees, I feel like the team will make a very serious effort to unload him this offseason, to clear room for Hicks and Frazier and the other outfielders. It’s going to hurt to trade Ellsbury, and it should hurt. The signing seemed completely crazy at the time, and when you make a decision that bad, you deserve to deal with the consequences. The Yankees will have to eat a lot of money to move Ellsbury. There are four questions now:

  1. Will Ellsbury waive his no-trade clause?
  2. Does any other team even want Ellsbury?
  3. How much money will the Yankees have to eat to facilitate a trade?
  4. How badly do the Yankees want to open the roster spot?

That’s what this is about, right? Opening a roster spot for a younger player (Frazier) and saving as much money as possible. The contract is a sunk cost. Right now the Yankees have to pay all of it no matter what. Saving some of it, even a few million a year, to open the roster spot and create a more flexible roster makes sense given where the Yankees are. It’s hard to see Ellsbury as a meaningful piece of the next great Yankees team.

Trading Ellsbury won’t be easy nor will it yield any sort of meaningful return. It’ll be a reverse Vernon Wells trade, basically. The Yankees get non-prospects in return for saving some cash. Ellsbury is better than Wells, sure, but his contract is more onerous. If the Yankees can unload Ellsbury, I think they’d jump at the chance this winter. And if not, they’ll have no choice but to go into next season with him penciled into a bench spot.

Shohei Otani is both the No. 1 target and a back-burner issue for the Yankees this offseason

Dingers. (Getty)
Dingers. (Getty)

Free agency is now underway. The five-day exclusive negotiating period is over and, as of 12:01am ET this morning, free agents are free to negotiate and sign with any team. MLB isn’t the NFL, NBA, or NHL though. There aren’t a flurry of Day One signings because there’s no salary cap. MLB free agency, like the regular season, is a marathon rather than a sprint.

Although the free agent signing period has opened, the No. 1 offseason target on every team’s list is still not available. Nippon Ham Fighters righty/slugger Shohei Otani has not yet been posted for MLB teams, and depending who you ask, he might not be posted at all this winter. MLB, MLBPA, and NPB are haggling over the posting system. It’s clear Otani wants to come over this winter. Now he just needs all parties involved to let him.

The 23-year-old Otani is basically the coolest baseball player on Earth. He’s a 100 mph throwing starter with wicked breaking stuff who also socks dingers on the days between starts. Otani hit .332/.403/.540 in 231 plate appearances with a 3.20 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 25.1 innings around ankle and quad injuries in 2017. Last year, when fully healthy, he hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers and had a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings.

Otani’s appeal is obvious. He’s young and he has a chance to not only contribute on both sides of the ball, but be an impact player both on the mound and at the plate. The consensus is Otani has more potential as a pitcher, but at this point, it makes sense to see whether he can hit and pitch. There is so much value to be gained. And if you have to pull the plug as a hitter or pitcher at some point, so be it.

The Yankees scouted Otani during the season (duh) and they’re expected to pursue him aggressively this offseason — Joel Sherman recently reported “they plan to push as hard as possible” to land Otani — which makes perfect sense. They have a fun up-and-coming team and Otani would fit right in with the exciting young core. He’s five months younger than Luis Severino! Of course this guy should be their No. 1 offseason target.

At the same time, the Yankees can’t — and shouldn’t — focus on Otani this winter. They need to proceed with their offseason as if they won’t sign Otani. That means filling out the rotation and coming up with a solution for the designated hitter spot (one set player? revolving door?), among other things. There are two reasons for this.

1. Otani might not come over. Back when Masahiro Tanaka was coming over, there were weeks and weeks of “he’s coming over/he’s not coming over/posting system negotiations could hold it up” talk. The same thing is happening here. I expect everyone to come to their senses and to get it worked out in time. But, until it happens, there’s always a chance Otani won’t be posted this winter. You can plan your offseason around a No. 1 target who might not actually be available. The Yankees don’t want to miss out on other players because they’re waiting for Otani.

2. It’s a minimal financial investment. This is the big one to me. Unless MLB, MLBPA, and NPB completely rewrite the international hard cap rules, which is possible but extremely unlikely, signing Otani will involved three financial commitments:

  1. The release fee paid to the (Ham) Fighters.
  2. His signing bonus.
  3. His 2018 salary.

MLB and the NPB already agreed Otani would be grandfathered in under the old posting agreement, meaning the (Ham) Fighters will set the maximum $20M release fee. Whichever team signs him, pays it. Every single MLB team can cut a $20M release fee check for Otani right now. Don’t let the owners trick you into thinking otherwise.

The signing bonus is a relatively small investment. Otani is subject to the international hard cap and teams only have so much international bonus money left to spend. Mark Feinsand says the Yankees have as much available international money as any team.

Eight teams have the ability to pay Ohtani a signing bonus of more than $1 million: the Rangers ($3.535M), Yankees ($3.5M), Pirates ($2.27M), Twins ($1.895M), D-Backs ($1.87M), Marlins ($1.74M), Tigers ($1.072M) and Mariners ($1.056M).

Conversely, 12 teams are prohibited from giving a signing bonus of more than $300,000 as a penalty for exceeding their bonus pools under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement: the A’s, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Reds, Royals and White Sox.

Otani’s salary next season is an important consideration for the Yankees given their luxury tax plan. Because of the international hard cap rules, Otani can only sign a minor league deal, and he has to be treated like any other rookie. That means three pre-arbitration seasons and three arbitration seasons before qualifying for free agency. Otani will earn the $545,000 minimum salary in 2018. That’s nothing. It won’t complicate the luxury tax plan at all.

So the financial investment boils down to the league minimum salary that is a drop in the bucket for every club, international bonus money every team is planning to spend one way or another, and the $20M release fee every team can afford. The financial playing field is level. That means the Yankees won’t be able to blow everyone away with a big offer like they did for Tanaka. That lowers their odds of signing him some degree.

The more important factor here is Otani’s league minimum salary in 2018. That won’t have much impact on the Yankees’ plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. They can go about their offseason, get the pieces they need, and if they land Otani at some point along the way, great! His salary won’t blow up the luxury tax plan. Treat him almost like a luxury item. Build your team as if you won’t get him, and if you do, it’s the icing on the cake.

Yankees add Jake Cave and Nick Rumbelow to 40-man roster

Rumblin' Rumbelow. (Rob Foldy/Getty)
Rumblin’ Rumbelow. (Rob Foldy/Getty)

The Yankees have added outfielder Jake Cave and right-hander Nick Rumbelow to the 40-man roster, the team announced earlier today. Both players were due to become minor league free agents this offseason. The Yankees now have two open spots on the 40-man roster.

Cave, 25 next month, broke out this season, hitting .305/.351/.542 (145 wRC+) with a career high 20 homers — his previous career high was eight homers set last season — in 103 games split between Double-A and Triple-A. Cave attributed his breakout to some mechanical changes designed to get the ball airborne more often, and, well:

  • 2015: 55.3% grounders
  • 2016: 44.0% grounders
  • 2017: 42.0% grounders

This is the second time Cave has been on a 40-man roster. The Reds grabbed him in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft, gave him a look in Spring Training 2016, then returned him to the Yankees. He replaces Mason Williams as the up-and-down spare center fielder next season. This also gives the Yankees a chance to see whether Cave’s breakout this year is for real.

The 26-year-old Rumbelow has some big league time under his belt, allowing eight runs (seven earned) in 15.2 innings with the Yankees in 2015. He blew out his elbow in his very first appearance of the 2016 season and needed Tommy John surgery. Rumbelow returned with his new elbow ligament this summer and posted a stellar 1.12 ERA (1.89 FIP) with 29.4% strikeouts and 7.2% walks in 40.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

It was reported a few weeks ago Cave would be added to the 40-man roster, though the Rumbelow decision is a bit of a surprise, at least to me. The Yankees must’ve really liked what they saw in his 40.1 innings back from Tommy John surgery this year. The deadline to add players to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft is coming up. The Yankees have a large class of eligibles and will have to open some spots between now and then.