Thursday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, the Royals signed former Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract, according to Jeff Passan. He gets a $1M base salary in the big leagues plus a bunch of incentives. Wang, now 35, has not pitched in MLB since 2013 — he’s spent the last two years in Triple-A with the Reds, White Sox, Braves, and Mariners — and he owns a 6.60 ERA (5.17 FIP) in 163.2 big league innings since hurting his foot running the bases in Houston in 2008. Sucks. Little did we know that was final day as an effective pitcher. Hope CMW gets back to the show in 2016.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Islanders are the only local team in action, though there’s some college hoops on as well. You folks know how these open threads work by now, so have at it.

(The video is every pitch from Wang’s big league debut in 2005. How cool is that? Here’s the box score.)

Report: Yankees sign infielder Donovan Solano to minor league contract

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

The Yankees have signed infielder Donovan Solano to a minor league contract, according to a report from El Heraldo in Colombia (translated article). A hat tip goes out to longtime reader Ramon De Valencia for passing this along. Solano received an invitation to big league Spring Training.

Solano, 28, originally signed with the Cardinals as an amateur free agent out of Colombia back in 2005. He hooked on with the Marlins during the 2011-12 offseason and has been with Miami since. The Yankees have never had a Colombian born player in their history. Solano would be the first.

In 361 big league games, all with the Marlins, Solano is a career .257/.307/.328 (75 wRC+) hitter with eight home runs, eleven steals, a 16.9% strikeout rate, and a 5.6% walk rate in 1,145 plate appearances. He’s a right-handed hitter with a career .236/.274/.302 (57 wRC+) line against left-handers.

Solano came up as a middle infielder and has played the three non-first base infield positions extensively. He’s also spent time in left field. Solano could be in the mix for the last bench spot, though I think he’s likely destined for Triple-A Scranton, where they really need infielders after Tony Renda, Eric Jagielo, and Jose Pirela were traded away.

Hicks, Ackley, and Sanchez poised to give the Yankees a strong bench in 2016

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Over the last few seasons benches have become a critical piece of a baseball team. Platoons are widespread, and with amphetamines (“greenies”) now on the banned substances list, players need a little more rest throughout the season. The bench used to be full of guys who only played when the starters got hurt. Now they’re full of players with strategic roles.

Quality benches can be hard to build, especially for a big market team like the Yankees, who have a roster loaded with big name (and big contract) players. No free agent bench player wants to sign with New York because they’re worried they won’t get much playing time. I don’t blame them. Look at Garrett Jones last season. He never played because Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were healthy and productive.

The Yankees have had to grow their own reserve players or acquire them in trades over the last two decades or so. Either that or pick up reclamation project veterans and hope for the best. Think Darryl Strawberry and Eric Chavez. Same idea, just 16 years apart. Bench players are like relievers though. They do their work in inherently small samples, and their performance is very volatile from one year to the next.

Next season, the Yankees figure to carry three players capable of providing some thump off the bench in Gary Sanchez, Dustin Ackley, and Aaron Hicks. Sanchez is homegrown and the other two guys came over in the trades. The Yankees still have an open bench spot too, and depending how they feel about Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third, they could go in one of several different directions with that spot.

All three players will serve specific roles next season. Sanchez, who I must point out is not a lock for the backup catcher’s job, will likely give Brian McCann a rest against tough lefties thanks to his right-handed power. John Ryan Murphy was really awesome last season, but he doesn’t have Sanchez’s power. Sanchez is a threat to hit the ball out of the park every time he steps to the plate against a southpaw.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Ackley showed the kind of left-handed pull power that plays well in Yankee Stadium following the trade last year — he pulled six of his ten homers last summer, including all four with the Yankees (three at Yankee Stadium) — and his versatility means he’s an option in the outfield as well as at first and second bases. As we saw with Jones though, Ackley could wind up getting less playing time than expected if the veteran starters produce.

Hicks is the new addition to the bench after coming over from the Twins in the Murphy trade. He’s a switch-hitter and a high-end athlete with excellent defensive chops. Chris Young was an awesome fourth outfielder last season, though I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect him to repeat that performance. Hicks is a better defender and he hit southpaws hard himself last year (139 wRC+), and there are signs he may be on the verge of a breakout.

“I think Hicks has a chance to help (the veterans) in spelling them and keeping them healthy and strong,” said Joe Girardi in the Winter Meetings last month. Girardi and Brian Cashman have both indicated they see Hicks as an everyday type player who will play a lot going forward. (Young batted 356 times last year, remember. The fourth outfielder gets a lot of work.) He’s going to start against lefties and play defense in the late innings at a minimum.

Last year the Yankees appeared to have a very strong and powerful bench thanks to Young and Jones, two veterans with pop. Young worked out, Jones didn’t. So it goes. Hicks and Ackley add much more athleticism to the roster and more versatility as well, without sacrificing much offensive production, if any. I think there’s a chance going from Murphy to Sanchez will be a step down next year, but Sanchez at least offers big upside. Growing pains are part of development.

The trio of Sanchez, Ackley, and Hicks are poised the give the Yankees a very strong bench with power, speed, athleticism, and defense. (For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects them for 4.4 WAR combined.) There’s some real upside with this group, which is usually not the case with bench guys. That doesn’t mean they’ll all work out, benches are weird like that, but the Yankees are in the middle of this quasi-rebuild, and part of it is upgrading the reserves. It’s not often the Bombers have carried bench players with this sort of potential.

Yankees need Michael Pineda and his improved changeup to emerge as rotation anchor in 2016

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

When the Yankees acquired Michael Pineda from the Mariners four years ago, he was a 22-year-old kid coming off a very good rookie season who also had room for improvement. Pineda possessed a rare combination of power and precision. He had mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider, both of which he commanded very well. The command is what separated him from other young hurlers.

Shoulder surgery put Pineda’s career and development on hold. He didn’t pitch at all in 2012 and barely pitched in 2013. It wasn’t until 2014 that Big Mike actually appeared in a game for the Yankees. (He pitched in the minors in 2013.) Everything the Yankees wanted to work on with Pineda was put on the back burner, specifically his changeup. He wasn’t healthy and he didn’t pitch for almost two years. How could he work on developing a pitch?

Pineda, who will turn 27 in less than two weeks, was able to stay reasonably healthy this past season, throwing 160.2 innings in 27 starts. The results were disappointing (4.37 ERA and 90 ERA+) but Pineda did show flashes of brilliance, such as the 16-strikeout game and his 3.34 FIP. His strikeout (23.4%) and walk (3.1%) rates were excellent, and, for the first time in his career, his ground ball rate (48.2%) was above-average.

Back in 2011 Pineda generated a ground ball on only 36.3% of balls in play, which is very low. It was 39.1% during his brief big league stint in 2014. Pineda’s improved changeup appears to be the key to all those ground balls in 2015 — he threw the pitch only 6.2% of the time in 2011. Last year it was 11.4%. This is the changeup Pineda takes to the mound with him these days:

Michael Pineda changeup

That one randomly selected changeup was elevated a bit, but the hitter was way out in front, and that’s kinda the point of a changeup. Pineda has definitely gained consistency with the pitch and it appears he has more confidence in it as well. That confidence part is really important. Remember how Nathan Eovaldi took off once he began to feel comfortable with his splitter and use it regularly? It makes a big difference.

Last season the ball ended up on the ground 60.7% of the time when batters put Pineda’s changeup in play. Back in 2011 that number was only 42.9%. The league average for changeups has hovered around 47% the last few years. Pineda rarely threw his changeup four years ago, and when he did throw it, he didn’t get ground balls. Now he throws the pitch fairly regularly and it gets grounders. It’s no wonder why his overall ground ball rate spiked.

Pineda credits Felix Hernandez for helping improve his changeup — “I have learned a lot from (Felix). He has treated me very well, which I appreciate a lot,” he said to Geoff Baker back in 2011 — but it was the Yankees who got him to refine the pitch and have more confidence in it. After all, Pineda and Felix haven’t been teammates for five years now. Hernandez helped him early in the process. The Yankees did the rest of the work.

Adding ground balls to Pineda’s strikeout and walk rates is really exciting, though, as we saw last year, it doesn’t always lead to the best results. Big Mike was pretty hittable and I think at least part of that is due to him being around the plate so much. Pineda might be one of those guys who throws too many strikes. He could benefit from throwing some more two-strike waste pitches. Not everything needs to be over the plate, you know?

Anyway, even with all those hits allowed last season (176 hits in 160.2 innings), I’ll take my chances with Pineda if he continues to limit walks while racking up strikeouts and ground balls like he did last summer. The changeup helps him keep the ball on the ground, which is huge in Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general. And now that he’s developed that third pitch, the Yankees really need Pineda to emerge as a rotation anchor.

It’s no secret the Yankees have a bunch of health risks in their rotation — Pineda’s one of them! — and they don’t have much quality depth either, not with Adam Warren now on Chicago’s north side. Pineda is the only guy in the rotation who really stands out as having the potential to be much better in 2016 than he was in 2015. He’s creeping up on free agency too, remember. Big Mike has a chance to make himself some big bucks the next two years.

The Yankees acquired Pineda hoped he’d be at the front of their rotation by now. The shoulder injury threw a big wrench into everything, but right now he’s as healthy as he’s going to get, and he’s developed that changeup into a legitimate third pitch. The Yankees need Pineda to use that changeup to step up and become a rotation leader next season. It’s time.

Gordon’s deal a reminder the Yankees have Gardner on very favorable terms

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Yesterday morning, the first of the still unsigned big name free agent outfielders came off the board. The Royals re-signed Alex Gordon, their longest tenured player, to a four-year contract worth $72M. The deal includes a mutual option for a fifth year and deferrals to help the team add some more pieces this offseason.

I thought Gordon had a chance to get $100M this offseason, though his age (32 in February) and the fact he’s not a big time power producer hurt his case for nine figures. Gordon’s simply a very good all-around player who does a little of everything. He’s something of an icon in Kansas City and going back to the Royals made sense for both sides.

The Yankees have their own version of Gordon in Brett Gardner, at least in terms of on-field ability. Gardner does not have the same kind of marquee value as Gordon, who is more or less the face of the Royals’ recent revival. The two are similar on-field players though. They both do a little of everything and have their greatest impact defensively.

Here’s a real quick side-by-side comparison of Gardner and Gordon from 2013-15. They’re both 32-ish — Gardner turned 32 in August and is six months older than Gordon — and they’re both left fielders, so this is a nice apples to apples comparison.

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR-SB BB% K% BsR fWAR bWAR
Gardner 1,901 .262/.338/.412 109 41-65 9.3% 20.8% 14.9 9.4 11.6
Gordon 1,765 .267/.348/.428 115 52-25 9.4% 20.3% 12.2 13.1 13.6

Gordon’s the better player and I’m not sure anyone would argue otherwise. They are pretty darn similar though, right? Gordon has been the slightly better hitter and Gardner the slightly better base-runner. If you’re still hung up on Gardner’s second half, well, Gordon had an 89 wRC+ in the second half last year and missed time with a groin injury. Heck, Gordon’s injury opened the door for Gardner to make the All-Star Team.

If you’re focusing on the WAR totals, the difference between Gordon and Gardner the last three years basically amounts to whatever the defensive stats are spitting out, and we know how sketchy those can be. Gordon is undeniably great in the field. Gardner’s pretty awesome too though. For whatever reason UZR has been hating on Yankees outfielders since the new Yankee Stadium opened. It is what it is.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Anyway, yes, Gordon is the better player but Gardner is pretty good too, and Gordon’s new contract helps give us an idea of what Gardner is worth these days. He has three years and $37.5M left on his contract. It’s four years and $50M if his option is exercised. Gordon just received $72M over four years, so the total guaranteed money left on his contract is nearly double what’s left on Gardner’s deal.

Is Gordon twice as good as Gardner? No, of course not. That’s what happens when one player signs his contract as a free agent and the other signs his contract as an extension a year before he hits the open market. Lots of teams out there need outfield help — the Tigers, Giants, Orioles, and Nationals jump to mind — and if they want a player comparable to Gardner, they’ll have to commit almost twice as much money as the Yankees owe the actual Brett Gardner.

The Yankees have been listening to offers for Gardner all offseason because in this market he is, absolutely, a bargain. He’s budget friendly relatively to what it would cost to get similar production on the open market. The Yankees have a lot of outfield depth and it makes sense to see what Gardner can fetch in a trade. So far they haven’t received any offers to their liking, so Brett remains with the team. That’s fine with me.

It’s become clear the market — what teams are willing (and able) to pay for talent — is ahead of where most of us think it is as fans. Players like Gordon and Gardner, the solid above-average guys who aren’t true stars, are getting close to $17M or $18M a year in free agency. The Yankees have Gardner on really favorable terms, and I see that as reason to both keep him and explore the trade market.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, new Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro posted a little something on The Players’ Tribune. It’s mostly a goodbye and a thank you to the Cubs, but its also a bit of an introduction for Yankees fans. Make sure you check it out. Really cool stuff.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are all playing, plus there’s some college hoops on the scheduled too. Talk about those games, Castro’s post, or anything else here.

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza elected to Hall of Fame

(Getty)
(Getty)

The 2016 Hall of Fame ballot was announced Wednesday night, and two new players are heading to Cooperstown: Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza. Jeff Bagwell fell a handful of votes short of induction. Griffey was on the ballot for the first time, Piazza the fourth time. Both are super duper deserving of Cooperstown. The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s website.

Griffey appeared on 99.3% of the ballots, a new record. Tom Seaver held the previous record at 98.8%. Piazza received 83.0% of the vote. Players need 75% for induction. Interestingly, Piazza received 19 fewer votes than last year, but his voting percentage increased because the BBWAA eliminated 109 legacy voters. Those are voters who have not actively covered baseball for ten years.

Believe it or not, Griffey is the first No. 1 overall pick to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He was the top pick in 1987. Reggie Jackson had been the highest drafted Hall of Famer (No. 2 in 1966). Piazza, on the other hand, is now the lowest drafted Hall of Famer ever. He was a 62nd round pick in 1988. John Smoltz had previously been the lowest drafted Hall of Famer (22nd round in 1985).

As for the former Yankees, Tim Raines received the highest voting percentage at 69.8%. Next year is his final year on the ballot and I think he’ll get in. Mike Mussina received a nice bump from 24.6% to 43.0%. Lee Smith (34.1%), Gary Sheffield (11.6%), Mike Lowell (0.0%), and Randy Winn (0.0%) all fell well short of induction. So did Barry Bonds (44.3%) and Rogers Clemens (45.2%). Blah.

Among the notable players joining the Hall of Fame ballot next year are Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Vlad Guerrero, and Jorge Posada. Posada is the first member of the Core Four to hit the Hall of Fame ballot and that’s pretty cool. Hip hip!