Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers, Islanders, and Knicks are all playing, and I’m sure there’s some college basketball on somewhere. Talk about those games, Robertson’s unwillingness to diss his new team, or anything else right here.
Pitchers and catchers are three weeks and one day away from reporting to Spring Training (!), which means the Masahiro Tanaka Elbow Watch will soon be in full swing. The Yankees lost their ace for three months last season due to a small tear in his UCL, though doctors recommended rest and rehab rather than Tommy John surgery.
Given the history of the rehab approach, it feels like it’s only a matter of time until Tanaka’s elbow gives out completely. It could be in Spring Training, in June, or in 2020. It has not happened this offseason, however. Tanaka has been working out as usual all winter and he told Kyodo everything is going well. “So far so good — including that (the elbow),” he said.
Tanaka is back home in Japan and he’s been working out with former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates at the club’s training facility. Kyodo says Tanaka has been doing the usual — running sprints, fielding drills, etc. — in addition to his offseason throwing program, which includes breaking balls. This isn’t high intensity, game action type of throwing, that stuff usually doesn’t happen until Spring Training, but he is throwing nonetheless.
Tanaka’s health is the biggest x-factor or the 2015 Yankees. He’s a difference-maker when healthy — easily the best pitcher in the AL East and one of the top four or five in the entire AL — and staying on the mound would improve the team’s outlook greatly. We’re all going to be holding our breath every start (hell, every pitch) though. That’s just the reality of the situation.
Free agent Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada has not yet been cleared to sign by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, but there is growing hope he will be allowed to sign within two weeks, reports Jeff Passan. Moncada has already established residency in Guatemala and has been declared a free agent by MLB. Once he gets OFAC clearance, he can officially sign a contract.
However, as Ben Badler and Jesse Sanchez report, MLB currently requires Cuban players to receive a “specific license” before signing, not a “general license.” The league has accepted general licenses in the past — Yasiel Puig signed using a general license — but they changed their policy within the last few years. According to Badler and Sanchez, Moncada already meets the requirements for a general license. If he has to wait for a specific license, forget about the two weeks thing.
Earlier this week, MLB sent each team a memo stating their policies remain the same. They still require players to receive a specific license, though they are working to OFAC to clarify whether a general license is sufficient. Here’s the memo, courtesy of Sanchez:
“MLB is aware that the Cuban Assets Control Regulations published by the U.S. Treasury on January 16, 2015, may affect the unblocking process for Cuban Players,” Major League Baseball said in a statement earlier in the day. “MLB has important questions regarding how the new regulations apply to the unique circumstances of Cuban Players based on our significant experience in this area, and our discussions with OFAC in prior years. MLB is committed to following the laws of the United States, and will not change its policy requiring that Cuban Players receive a specific OFAC unblocking license until it confirms with all relevant branches of our government, including OFAC, that any new approach is consistent with the law. We hope to receive clarity on this issue as quickly as possible.”
So anyway, this is a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. MLB decided they wanted players to have the specific license a few years ago even though the OFAC’s policies say it isn’t necessary. Moncada doesn’t have the general license just yet but he does meet the requirements, so he could receive it at any moment. Hence the two weeks thing. But, since MLB wants the specific license, he may have to wait longer.
As far as the Yankees are concerned, the deadline for Moncada to be unblocked by the OFAC — in a way that satisfies MLB — is June 15th. (It really is sometime before that because the two sides need time to negotiate.) Because the Yankees exceeded their spending pool for the 2014-15 international signing period, they can’t sign a player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. If Moncada signs before June 15th, he’ll count towards the 2014-15 signing period and they can sign him for whatever they want. If not, he’ll count towards 2015-16 and $300,000 ain’t getting it done.
The expectation is that Moncada will receive a $30M to $40M bonus, which would smash the record for a player bound by the new international spending rules (Yoan Lopez, $8.25M). His bonus will be taxed at 100% no matter which team signs him because they will exceed their pool, so he’s a $60M to $80M investment. Moncada will be like any other young international amateur signing — he gets his bonus up front, then goes into the farm system as a non-40-man roster player. Once he reaches MLB, he’ll go through three pre-arbitration years and three arbitration years like everyone else.
By all accounts, the 19-year-old Moncada is a budding star, a switch-hitter with power and speed and high-end athleticism. The Yankees had him in for a private workout at some point recently, as did the Red Sox, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Rangers and Brewers, according to Sanchez. The Rays, Cubs, Phillies, and Cardinals also have interest in Moncada, though it’s worth noting the Cubs exceeded their spending pool last year and would need Moncada to wait until after July 2nd — the start of the 2015-16 signing period — to sign him.
The Yankees are considered the “heavy favorites” to sign Moncada even though they haven’t signed a big name Cuban player since Jose Contreras. Moncada’s talent is obvious — assuming the scouting reports are accurate, of course — and since he’s still only 19, he’s a potential franchise cornerstone type of player. And there’s also plenty of time for his development to veer off course as well. That’s the reality of the situation. At this point, I’m just ready for this whole thing to be over. I have Moncada (and Cuban player in general) fatigue.
Over at ESPN, Keith Law released his list of the top 100 prospects in baseball today (subs. req’d). Cubs 3B Kris Bryant claimed the top spot, with Twins OF Byron Buxton and Astros SS Carlos Correa rounding out the top three. The Yankees had two players in the top 100: OF Aaron Judge (No. 23) and 1B Greg Bird (No. 80). Law’s list might be the only top 100 that includes Bird this spring.
“Judge has a short swing, surprisingly so given the length of his arms, and very strong command of the strike zone … he should be able to hit 30 without needing to get bigger or stronger,” wrote Law while more or less saying Judge’s biggest flaw is that he hasn’t yet learned when to really cut it loose and tap into his huge raw power. “He’s an above-average defender in right, faster than you’d expect, with the arm to profile there and the potential to post strong triple-slash numbers if he can make that one big adjustment.”
As for Bird, Law says he is a “high-IQ hitter with outstanding plate discipline and understanding of how to work a pitcher, giving reason to think he’ll continue to post high OBPs even though he’ll probably hit only .250-260 with a lot of strikeouts.” He also notes Bird makes “hard contact to all fields, rarely putting the ball on the ground because he squares it up so frequently.” As always, the concern with Bird is his defense at first and his lingering back issues, which forced him out from behind the plate a few years ago. Some of his defensive trouble is due to a lack of experience, some is due to a lack of athleticism.
Judge ranks third among all outfielders (behind Buxton and Cubs OF Jorge Soler) and Bird ranks third among all first baseman (behind Mariners 1B D.J. Peterson and Mets 1B Dominic Smith). The most notable omission from Law’s list is RHP Luis Severino, who will undoubtedly show up on (all) other top 100 lists this spring. Law has said repeatedly that he loves Severino’s arm but believes he is destined for the bullpen long-term because of his delivery and the fact that he doesn’t use his lower half all that much. Law seems to be the low man on Severino and the high man on both Judge and Bird.
In addition to the top 100, Law also posted his annual farm system rankings earlier this week (subs. req’d). The Cubs claimed the top spot and the Tigers the No. 30 spot. The Yankees ranked 20th, exactly the same as last year. “The Yankees’ system still has more talent than production, as several key prospects continued to have trouble staying on the field, but a very strong 2013 draft class and a blowout year on the international front have the system trending up again,” said the write-up. With two first round picks this June and that massive international haul set to debut this summer, it’s all but guaranteed the Yankees will climb the system rankings this year.
Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’ll inevitably disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 3-5, 6-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.
We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re down to the final two players in our 40-man roster rankings. The actual process of ranking the players was pretty difficult — tougher than I thought it would be when I came up with the idea for the series — though I felt the top two spots were pretty easy. When you have two guys only one year into massive nine-figure contracts, of course they’re the most important players on the roster.
No. 2 in our rankings is the Yankees’ de facto star position player. The Derek Jeter era is now over and the Robinson Cano era ended last year, so the team has neither an iconic ex-star nor a bonafide present day star. Someone has to take over as the face of the franchise though, and our next player seems most likely to do that, at least on the position player side. On to the next player in our rankings.
No. 2: Jacoby Ellsbury
2015 Role: Everyday center fielder and upper-third of the order hitter. Ellsbury is a leadoff hitter by trade and I expect him to start this coming season atop the lineup, but, as we saw last year, Joe Girardi is open to using him as his number three hitter if no better options exist. Ellsbury is greatly miscast as a number three hitter but that’s the way it goes.
Either way, Ellsbury is going to hit in the top three spots of the lineup. He is arguably the best hitter on the team, at least in the sense that he’s an above-average hitter and his performance is fairly predictable. This isn’t Brian McCann trying to come back from a down year or Carlos Beltran coming back from a bone spur in his elbow. Ellsbury has no such questions. Last year was a typical Ellsbury year (107 wRC+ in 2014 and 109 wRC+ career) and it’s easy to forecast the same thing for 2015.
In the field, Ellsbury is an impact player thanks to his good reads and incredible range. He’s a game-changer in center even though the defensive stats weren’t a fan of his work in 2014. (That seems to happen with all Yankees’ center fielders whenever Brett Gardner is in left.) Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak but he makes up for it with superior ball-hawking skills. He’s a key component in the team’s renewed emphasis on defense.
Simply put, the Yankees will count on Ellsbury to be a two-way impact player. Someone who drives the offense and leads the up the middle defense. The Yankees lack a true star-caliber performer and Ellsbury is the closest thing they have to one.
Long-Term Role: Considering the Yankees signed Ellsbury to a seven-year contract worth $153M just last offseason, it better be “two-way impact player” for the next several years. I thought the contract was way out line with his value as a player at the time of the signing — Gardner is the same damn player and look at his deal — and nothing I saw in year one has changed my opinion. But what’s done is done.
There are six years left on Ellsbury’s contract and that guarantees he will remain a focal point in the offense going forward. Just look at Mark Teixeira. His offense has been steadily declining for years yet he remains in the middle of the order because that’s what he was signed to do. Ellsbury will inevitably wind up hitting in the top third of the batting order longer than he deserves. He’s signed through age 36. At some point the skills will start to erode.
I think the best case scenario for the rest of Ellsbury’s contract is Johnny Damon. They’re similar players but not exactly the same — Ellsbury steals more bases and is better in the field, Damon had more pop and pure on-base ability, plus he was much more durable — but they had similar roles. They were the top of the order table-setters and center fielders. Damon was an above-average hitter from age 31-36 (114 wRC+) and it wasn’t until his age 33 season that he had to start the transition over into left field.
Hopefully Ellsbury follows the same career path as Damon and remains a solid, above-average contributor for the bulk of his contract. That would make it all worth it for the Yankees. His long-term importance to the team is created by that contract — Ellsbury is under contract longer than any other position player on the roster (by two years!) and at premium dollars. When you make that sort of commitment to a player, you need him to be a difference-maker.
Coming Friday: No. 1. You know who it is. You’ve known since the start.
Got some miscellaneous free agent notes to pass along. One involves a former Yankees player who has signed elsewhere and two involve players who have yet to sign.
Johan Santana dealing with shoulder discomfort
Two weeks ago we learned two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana was on the comeback trail after missing all of 2013 and 2014 with shoulder and Achilles injuries, and that the Yankees were going to “keep an eye on him” during his stint in winter ball. Santana retired all six men he faced in his first outing and reportedly hit 90 on the radar gun.
Last week, however, Santana missed his scheduled start due to discomfort in his twice surgically repaired shoulder. Jon Heyman says no structural damage was found in Johan’s shoulder, and, although he threw a bullpen session last Friday, he will not make another start according to Jon Morosi. “He will be ready for Spring Training,” said his agent. There’s nothing to lose by giving Santana a minor league contract and seeing what happens in Spring Training, but this is a harsh little reminder that he’s far from a guarantee to contribute in any way going forward.
White Sox did not place high bid for Robertson
Earlier this offseason the Yankees lost closer David Robertson — well, they didn’t lose him, really, they let him go after signing Andrew Miller — to the White Sox, who gave him a four-year contract worth $46M. Last week though, ChiSox GM Rick Hahn confirmed to Dan Hayes they did not make Robertson the highest offer and he turned down more money elsewhere to go to Chicago’s south side.
There’s no word on who did place the high bid, but my guess is either the Astros or Blue Jays, most likely the former. More than a few players have turned down Houston this offseason and taken less money elsewhere, including Miller, Ryan Vogelsong, and possibly Chase Headley. The Blue Jays reportedly wanted Robertson as well, though it’s unclear if they ever seriously pursued him. Has to be the Astros, right? Turns out that treating players like numbers and not people hurts your image and doesn’t make you a desirable destination for free agents. Who’d a thunk it?
Yankees continue to show strong interest in Hector Olivera
In the Dominican Republic last week, free agent Cuban third baseman Hector Olivera held an open showcase event and more than 200 scouts were in attendance, according to Jesse Sanchez. The Yankees, along with the Giants, Padres, Rangers, and Braves, are among the teams showing “strong interest” in Olivera at this point. He is still waiting to be declared a free agent by MLB and unblocked by the Office of Foreign Assets Control so he can sign.
Olivera is not some kind of up-and-coming prospect — he turns 30 in April and is MLB ready. The Yankees don’t really have a spot for another third baseman on the roster, not unless they release A-Rod anyway, and I doubt Olivera is looking to sign with a team to be a bench player. A few weeks ago Ben Badler called Olivera a better player than outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who signed a six-year, $68.5M deal with the Diamondbacks this winter. New York’s interest seems to be due diligence more than anything.