We have our first roster move of the offseason. This afternoon the Yankees announced outfielder Rico Noel has been outrighted to Triple-A Scranton, so he remains in the organization, but as a non-40-man roster player. I think Noel will be a minor league free agent after the season, however.
Noel, 26, was called up in September to serve as the designated pinch-runner. He pinch-ran 12 times, stole five bases, and scored five runs. Noel also went 1-for-2 at the plate, beating out an infield single for his first and so far only big league hit. The Yankees signed Noel in the middle of the season after he asked the Padres for his release.
I’d like to see the Yankees keep Noel next year so he can pinch-run again in September — gosh, is this kid fast or what? — but if he can become a minor league free agent, then he should go out and look for a better opportunity. The Yankees have a ton of upper level outfield depth in the minors.
There are now 39 players on the 40-man roster, though the Yankees still have six players on the 60-day DL. They’ll have to be activated after the World Series. There’s no DL in the offseason.
Now that the 2015 regular season is over, the order for the 2016 amateur draft it set. The Phillies have the first overall pick for the second time in franchise history — they took Pat Burrell first overall in 1998 — and they’ll be followed by the Reds, Braves, Rockies, and Brewers. Here is the full draft order.
The Yankees had the ninth best record in baseball this season at 87-75, so they hold the 22nd overall pick in next June’s draft. That will be their second highest pick since taking Ian Kennedy with the 21st overall selection in 2006. The Yankees took UCLA RHP James Kaprielian with the 16th overall pick earlier this year.
Obviously the draft order is not final and won’t be for a while. Draft picks can and inevitably will move around as free agent compensation this offseason. I think the only free agent the Yankees would be willing to surrender their first rounder to sign is Jason Heyward, and that’s only because he’s so young. Here’s my qualifying offer primer for CBS.
It’s a bit too early to discuss who the Yankees may target with that 22nd pick. Heck, it’s not even clear who the favorite to go first overall is right now. Kiley McDaniel, who recently joined the Braves front office, put together a 2016 draft board at FanGraphs with notable prospects. He also wrote up some draft notes as well, so check those out.
The Yankees have leaned towards college players in recent years because they simply haven’t had a ton of luck developing high school kids into big league players. Maybe they’ll change course now that Greg Bird and Luis Severino, two teenagers they developed successfully, had MLB success. We’ll see.
I’ll put together our annual Draft Order Tracker page in a few weeks, once we get closer to the offseason and see who receives a qualifying offer.
After nearly two decades of stability in the ninth inning thanks to Mariano Rivera, the Yankees had their fourth different closer in the last four years this past season. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Back in 2012 it was Rafael Soriano, who filled in for the injured Rivera. In 2013 it was Rivera again. Last year it was David Robertson, and this year it was free agent signing Andrew Miller.
All sorts of circumstances — well, injuries and free agency, that’s about it — led to this four closers in four years stretch, but Miller figures to give the Yankees some ninth inning stability going forward. He signed a four-year contract last offseason and still has three more years to go. That’s obviously not a bad thing though. Miller was pretty awesome during his first season in pinstripes.
Last year Robertson replaced Rivera at closer after Mo retired, and for Robertson, the timing couldn’t have worked out any better. He became a free agent last offseason after proving he could not only handle the ninth inning, but handle it in a major market while replacing a legend. Robertson’s free agent stock shot up tremendously last year.
The Yankees had two elite relievers in their bullpen every year from 2011-14, and surely that was something they wanted to recreate again in 2015. Robertson was homegrown and had just done a fine job replacing Rivera, so re-signing him was an easy call, right? Well, no. The Yankees had something else in mind.
On December 5th, the Yankees agreed to a four-year contract worth $36M with Miller, who himself was an elite reliever with the Red Sox and Orioles in 2014. He was a setup man though, not a closer, and closers make more money. For what it’s worth, Evan Drellich reported Miller turned down a larger offer from the Astros (four years, $40M) because he didn’t feel it was a good fit.
Once the Yankees signed Miller, the idea of a super bullpen with Miller, Robertson, and Dellin Betances was running through everyone’s mind. Robertson closing with Miller and Betances setting up? Boy, that would have been something else. That the Yankees continued to show interest in re-signing Robertson only added fuel to the fire. The team never had any intentions of re-signing Robertson, however. At least not after signing Miller.
The plan was to let Robertson walk, replace him with the cheaper Miller, and pick up a draft pick. (The Yankees made Robertson a qualifying offer.) And that’s exactly what happened. Brian Cashman admitted the Yankees only continued to show interest in Robertson as way to help his market and boost his value. It was something of a thank you for the years of service. Miller was their guy now. Robertson later signed a four-year, $46M contract with the White Sox.
At the time of the signing, it was not at all clear the Yankees would use Miller as their closer. Joe Girardi spoke about using Miller and Betances as co-closers, matching up in the eighth and ninth rather than giving each pitcher a set inning, but that never really materialized. Betances struggled to throw strikes in Spring Training and that more or less took him out of the running for the closer’s job. Miller had a good spring — he threw only eight innings, typical reliever stuff — and got the ninth inning job almost by default.
Closer, But Not The Closer
Miller had exactly one career save to his credit come Opening Day. He got that last year with the O’s. His first save opportunity with the Yankees came in their second game of the season, and he retired all three Blue Jays he faced on eleven pitches. Miller struck out one. It was a nice and easy debut with his new club.
And yet, Girardi was not ready to officially declare Miller his closer. He was the closer, he only pitched in save situations, but Girardi didn’t want to give him the label for whatever reason. It wasn’t until May 8th, after Miller saved his 13th game, that Girardi jokingly told reporters “he’s been closing games for us. He’s our closer. Is that better?”
The Yankees were quite good early in the season and Miller was slamming the door in the ninth inning time after time. He went a perfect 17-for-17 in save chances to start the year, allowing three runs on eight hits and ten walks in 25 innings. He struck out 40. The walk rate was a little high, but geez, Miller was dominant.
Save No. 17 was a bit of a grind though. Miller threw 35 pitches and recorded five outs to seal a win over the Mariners on June 3rd. He inherited a runner on first with one out, then hit a batter and issued a walk to load the bases with a two-run lead before escaping. Like I said, it was a grind.
A Month on the Shelf
The injury was officially diagnosed as a flexor muscle strain, and tests showed everything in his elbow was structurally sound. It was a muscle issue only, one that would sideline Miller for about a month. He was shut down entirely for two weeks before beginning a throwing program. After one Triple-A rehab appearance, Miller was back with the Yankees in early-July. He missed a month. All things considered, the injury was minor. Any time you hear forearm, you think elbow, but that was not the case.
Miller came back in early-July and he actually struggled initially. He allowed a homer and two runs in his first appearance off the DL — he still got the save though — and allowed another two runs four days later. In his first 14 appearances following the injury, Miller allowed eight runs in 13.2 innings. He wasn’t walking many (three), but his strikeout (16) and hit (13) totals were an indication Miller wasn’t as sharp as he had been before the injury.
On August 11th in Cleveland, Miller blew his first save of the season. He started the year a perfect 24-for-24 in save attempts. Including that game, Miller had allowed ten of 25 batters to reach base in his previous four appearances. That is not good. His post-injury struggles lasted a little more than a full month. It’s actually kinda impressive Miller didn’t blow his first save until the very end of that period.
Return to Form
Miller’s first appearance after his first blown save came in what was probably the best game of the season. The Yankees were in Toronto trying to fight off the surging Blue Jays, and Carlos Beltran gave them the lead with a pinch-hit three-run home run in the eighth inning. You remember that. I know you do.
Girardi went to Miller to protect a 4-3 lead in the ninth, and, of course, he made it interesting. He walked Chris Colabello, gave up a single to Kevin Pillar, then wild pitched the runners over the second and third with one out. The tying run was at third and the go-ahead run was at second. Miller rebounded to strike out the un-strikeout-able Ben Revere — Revere had baseball’s seventh lowest strikeout rate this season at 10.1% — for the second out. That brought Troy Tulowitzki to the plate. A 12-pitch at-bat ensued. To the action footage:
From that point on, Miller was absurdly dominant. He allowed four runs on eleven hits and six walks in his final 20.2 innings of the season while striking out 39. Miller also went two innings on a few occasions when the Yankees were really trying to hang on to a wildcard spot and home field advantage. And, of course, he tossed a scoreless ninth inning in the wildcard game itself.
Miller finished the season with a 2.04 ERA (2.16 FIP) in 61.2 innings, only two-thirds of an inning fewer than he threw in 2014 despite spending a month on the DL. His walk rate (8.1%) was a touch high but not outrageous while his strikeout rate (40.7%) was elite. Only Aroldis Chapman (41.7%) had a higher strikeout rate among the 137 qualified relievers in baseball this season.
The month on the DL proved to be a bump in the road, but overall Miller was everything the Yankees were hoping he’d be when they gave him that four-year contract. He didn’t just pick up saves, he dominated both lefties (.270 wOBA) and righties (.206 wOBA) and didn’t even allow the ball to be put in play much of the time. Aside from that little hiccup after coming off the DL, Miller was outstanding.
Arm injuries always make me nervous, but Miller’s was relatively minor, and from the looks of things he stuff was fine after coming off the DL. His swing-and-miss rate never really suffered, though you can kinda see Miller’s velocity took a step back around his DL stint (via Brooks Baseball):
“That at-bat to Tulo, that’s all I got. That was everything I got that inning,” said Miller after the game with that classic Tulowitzki at-bat. You can see his velocity dipped a bit in his next few appearances, possibly because he was so spent.
Miller’s velocity dipped right before he landed on the DL and stayed down a bit after he returned before climbing higher at the end of the season. I’m not sure what caused that. It could have been the injury itself, or perhaps he didn’t built up enough arm strength while on his throwing program, or maybe he was holding back slightly before he was tentative after coming off the DL. Either way, the results were fine and Miller’s velocity was back to normal down the stretch. His stuff was nasty. No doubt about it.
Looking Ahead to 2016
There’s no mystery here. Miller will be back next season and I’m sure he’ll close too, especially after Betances again struggled to throw strikes at the end of the season. Miller is a crucial part of the bullpen and a core player for the Yankees.
Given how the season ended, it’s easy to forget the Yankees finished 2015 with 764 runs scored, the second most in baseball. They actually averaged more runs per game in the second half (4.80) than the first half (4.65), which feels impossible, but it’s true. That doesn’t mean the offense didn’t sputter down the stretch though. The Yankees scored only 36 runs in their last dozen games.
By the end of the season it looked like half the lineup had run into a wall. More than half, really. Carlos Beltran and whoever was playing second base on any given day were the Yankees’ only consistently productive hitters late in the season. Joe Girardi discussed this at his end-of-season press conference, saying finding a way to keep his hitters productive all summer is “something I’ll think long and hard about this winter.”
The Yankees don’t have a lot of roster flexibility this offseason, with second base the only position they aren’t really locked into a player. Brett Gardner is pretty much their only tradeable position player — obviously Didi Gregorius has more trade value, but he’s not going anywhere — but I would be surprised if he’s moved. The Yankees love him and besides, he might be their best all-around player.
Yesterday I wrote about impending free agent Jason Heyward, who I think the Yankees should pursue aggressively this winter even though there’s no clear spot for him on the roster. He’s too young (26) and way too talented to pass up when the cost is only money and a draft pick. Heyward would fit in well given the team’s relative youth movement. I don’t expect the Yankees to sign Heyward, but I’d like it to happen. Players like him don’t hit the market too often.
If the Yankees do not sign Heyward, I think the next best free agent fit for New York is Ben Zobrist, who is not young and wouldn’t fit the youth movement. He would, however, fit well with the inevitable plan to rest more players next season thanks to his versatility. Zobrist has shown he can thrive despite playing different positions. Many players struggle at the plate or defensively when they move around. Zobrist is one of the few who doesn’t.
Just this season Zobrist played second base, third base, and both corner outfield spots. Last year he played 31 games at short as well. He even has experience at first base. The Yankees would be able to use Zobrist as something of a supersub, which is one of those ideas that works so much better in theory than in practice. Zobrist is one of the few who can pull it off. We’ve seen him do it already. It’s a valuable skill.
Next season the Yankees are going to have to come up with a way to rest their regular outfielders more often, as well as Chase Headley at third. Replacing the outfielders is easy enough, though the drop-off in production is usually pretty severe. It wouldn’t be with Zobrist. Headley played the second most defensive innings on the team this year (nine fewer than Gregorius) because the Yankees didn’t have a true backup third baseman much of the season.
One way or another, the Yankees are going to have to try to create some more roster flexibility next season. That was part of the reason they acquired Dustin Ackley. He offered more versatility than Garrett Jones. The Yankees are even talking about playing John Ryan Murphy on the infield to give themselves more options. Zobrist is a switch-hitter who can actually hit (123 wRC+ this year) and play almost anywhere.
The problem is a) you have to sell Zobrist on the idea of being a supersub for the Yankees rather than an everyday player at a set position elsewhere, and b) you’ve got to pay him. Even at age 34, my guess is Zobrist ends up with three years at $15M or so. Maybe even four years from a desperate team. He’s not eligible for a qualifying offer since he was traded at midseason, so there’s no draft pick involved. It’s just money.
Is that worth it for the Yankees? To bring in Zobrist to get 500+ plate appearances while playing all different positions in an effort to keep the other players rested and hopefully productive throughout the season? I think it is. The Yankees would be able to rest their players, still be able to play Rob Refsnyder regularly, and not take such a big hit in the lineup when someone sits. Pretty much the only way they can pull that off is with Zobrist.
I don’t think the Yankees are going to spend a substantial amount of money this offseason, but if they do, Heyward should be the number one target. If he’s not, Zobrist is the next best fit. He’s a fit for every team really, given his versatility and offensive production. The Yankees need to create a little more roster flexibility and don’t have a ton of open roster spots to work with. Zobrist potentially addresses many needs.
Okay, now here is today’s postseason schedule:
- Rangers at Blue Jays (Hamels vs. Stroman): 4pm ET on FOX Sports 1 (series tied 2-2)
- Astros at Royals (McHugh vs. Cueto): 8pm ET on FOX Sports 1 (series tied 2-2)
So yes, two Game 5s. The winners will meet in the ALCS and the losers go home. You can talk about those games, Noel’s article, or anything else right here. Just don’t be a jerk.
Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to branch out beyond RAB and get an opportunity to write about all of baseball. That’s exposed me to all 30 fanbases through comment sections and Twitter and whatnot. Based on that exposure, I’ve come to three conclusions that apply to all fanbases:
- They all think their offense sucks at hitting with runners in scoring position.
- They all think their ace isn’t really an ace whenever he loses a random game.
- They all think their manager is a dolt based on his bullpen usage.
We’ve all seen remarks like that before, especially if you lurk in the RAB comments. Like every other manager, Joe Girardi has made baffling bullpen moves over the years — remember Andrew Bailey facing the middle of the Blue Jays order last month in what was essentially the Yankees’ last chance to stay in the AL East race? — but he’s generally been very good at running at bullpen.
Quantifying that is tough. Brian Cashman & Co. have given Girardi some pretty good relievers over the years — they’ve had at least two elite relievers every year since 2011 thanks to Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller — which makes it easier to be successful, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. After all, even with two elite relievers, there are still five other relievers ready to be brought in at inopportune times.
In a piece at Grantland yesterday, Ben Lindbergh reintroduced an older stat called BMAR (Bullpen Management Above Random), which essentially tells you how well a manager used his bullpen based on leverage data. I recommend reading the piece for the gory details, but, in a nutshell, Lindbergh explains BMAR helps answer this question: “In light of the bullpen he had, how much better (in wOBA points allowed) were the relievers he did choose than the relievers he could’ve chosen at random?”
BMAR shows Girardi had the second best bullpen usage in baseball this season, behind only ex-Padres manager Bud Black, who was fired at midseason. Removing Black because of his small sample, Girardi was the best in the game at leveraging his relievers. His optimal usage was 37.2% compared to the league average of 18.2%. (So yes, based on BMAR, managers used the “correct” reliever less than 20% of the time on average, though BMAR assumes every reliever is available every game, which we know isn’t true.)
Lindbergh explains BMAR isn’t all that predictive year-to-year. It tends to fluctuate. However, Girardi is one of a handful of managers who have consistently ranked near the top of the BMAR leaderboard in recent seasons, along with Angels manager Mike Scioscia and Giants manager Bruce Bochy. Here is the top of the BMAR leaderboard from 2012-15:
Girardi was the very best in baseball at leveraging his relievers both in terms of wOBA advantage gained — that is, on average, how much better the reliever used is than everyone else in the bullpen — and percent of optimal usage. I know 28.8% optimal usage doesn’t sound like much, but no other manager who managed two full seasons from 2012-15 was above 25.7%. The league average from 2012-15 was 18.9%.
By no means is BMAR perfect. Like I said, it doesn’t adjust for who is and who isn’t available on a given day, and I’m not even sure if it’s possible to do that anyway. Relievers are unavailable all the time for reasons that are never made public. BMAR is a good overview stat that helps us quantify bullpen usage. The data matches up with what I’ve felt watching games over the years — Girardi and Bochy are very good, Terry Collins and Mike Matheny are very bad, etc. — so I feel it is at least on the right track.
The Yankees used their bullpen a ton this season and it was by design. Girardi tried to avoid letting his starters go through a lineup three times, and the Triple-A shuttle always gave him a fresh arm. I don’t think they can lean on their bullpen quite as much next year — asking the ‘pen to get 10-12 outs a night all summer doesn’t strike me as a sustainable strategy — but if they do, BMAR shows Girardi is as good as any manager in the game at using the right reliever in the right situation.