Tuesday Notes: Tanaka, WBC, London, Stottlemyre, ESPN

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
Tanaka at the 2013 WBC. (Koji Watanabe/Getty)

We are right smack in the middle of the slowest time of the offseason. The baseball world is essentially on hold during the holidays, before the bargain shopping begins in January. Here are some bits of news to check out in the meantime.

Tanaka not on partial WBC roster

Team Japan has announced the first 19 players of their 28-man roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, reports Jason Coskrey, and Masahiro Tanaka is not among those 19 players. Outfielder Nori Aoki is the only MLB player on the roster. Two-way star Shohei Otani is the headliner, obviously. Final rosters are due sometime in January, which ain’t so far away anymore.

“Regarding MLB players, we are not going to announce where we are (in talks) and it’s all going to be announced when we actually announce (the final roster),” said Japan baseball secretary general Atsushi Ihara to Coskrey. “We don’t really have the timetable, but manager (Hiroki) Kokubo is saying that he wants to set it early.”

Tanaka, who pitched in both the 2009 and 2013 WBCs, has said he wants to pitch in the 2017 edition. The Yankees can’t stop their ace from participating. Brian Cashman confirmed it. Team Japan did not take MLB players in the last WBC, not even Ichiro, but Ihara’s comments and the fact Aoki is the on the roster suggests they’ll look to take a few this time around. We’ll see what happens with Tanaka.

Yankees, Red Sox could be headed to London

According to Michael Silverman, the Yankees and Red Sox could be headed to London to play a series next season. Hal Steinbrenner and Red Sox owner John Henry have been discussing the possibility for several years now. MLB has been looking to grow the game globally and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement includes provisions to play games outside the country.

“The Yankees have been at the forefront of suggesting that we bring the great game of baseball to London,” said Yankees president Randy Levine to Silverman. “There have been some meaningful attempts to do so, and we are hopeful and confident that we can play there soon. Playing the Red Sox in London would be a special and unique event.”

It’s no surprise the Yankees and Red Sox may end up playing overseas. They’re still baseball’s premier rivalry and will generate the most buzz. There are a ton of logistical issues to work out though. There’s the travel, first and foremost, and also the issue of gate receipts. One of the two teams is going to lose a handful of home games and associated revenue. Still, the Yankees playing in London would be pretty damn cool.

Stottlemyre doing better after health scare

Mel Stottlemyre, former Yankees pitcher and pitching coach, is doing better following a health scare last week, his wife Jean told John Harper. Mel’s son Todd wrote on Facebook his father was “in the hospital fighting for his life” last Friday. Stottlemyre has been fighting multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, since 2000.

“He’s doing much better. We saw a big turnaround with Mel over the last 24 hours. He’s not in a life-threatening situation right now,” said Jean Stottlemyre to Harper. “It’s not the cancer. It was that he got sick from the chemo medicine. He was given antibiotics to fight infection and he’s responded well.”

Stottlemyre, who turned 75 last month, spent his entire playing career with the Yankees from 1964-74. Those were the “dark years” of the franchise, so Mel never did win a World Series as a player. He won his first ring as Mets pitching coach in 1986, and he added four titles as Yankees pitching coach from 1996-2005. Last year the Yankees surprised Stottlemyre with a plaque in Monument Park. It was one of the best moments of the season.

It was unclear whether Stottlemyre’s health would even allow him to make the trip from his home in Washington to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day last year. I’m glad to hear he’s doing well after that health scare last week. He’s been fighting cancer for close to two decades now, and he’s kicking its butt even at age 75. Go Mel.

Yankees to play four times on ESPN

A few days ago ESPN released their Sunday Night Baseball schedule for most of the first half, and, not surprisingly, the Yankees are featured more than a few times. They’re still a great draw. Here’s the schedule and here are the Sunday night broadcasts that will feature the Yankees:

  • April 16th: Cardinals at Yankees
  • May 7th: Yankees at Cubs
  • May 14th: Astros at Yankees
  • July 16th: Yankees at Red Sox

That May 14th game is the night the Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s number, though I’m not sure whether ESPN will show the ceremony. Probably not. YES will air the entire thing, I’m sure. As a reminder, the Yankees are going to play the very first game of 2017 on ESPN. They begin the season at 1pm ET on Sunday, April 2nd, on the road against the Rays. The next game that day begins at 4pm ET.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 26th, 2016

2016 Season Record: 84-78 (680 RS, 702 RA, 79-83 pythag. record), 5.0 GB of postseason spot

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Mailbag: Gray, McCann, Bargains, Quintana, Ellsbury

No, it’s not Friday. It’s still only Thursday. Sorry if I got your hopes up. I’m posting the mailbag a day early because it’s a holiday weekend and I won’t be around much starting later this afternoon. So, the mailbag goes up a day early. I have seven questions this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send questions.

Gray. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
Gray. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Chris asks: What would it take to trade for Sonny Gray? Coming off a bad year with injuries maybe his stock is a little low even though with 3 controllable years left.

My guess is the Athletics will want exactly what the White Sox got for Chris Sale. Why not ask for that? Sale is better than Gray, but they’re both excellent when healthy and under control another three years. You’re never going to get Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano if you don’t ask. Start by asking for a Sale package and negotiate down from there. One tippy top prospect and two or three strong secondary pieces feels like the minimum to me. Why trade Gray for something less? Then again, the A’s have made some terrible trades, so who knows.

I’m all in on Gray — he was the centerpiece of my silly offseason plan — and would be pretty thrilled if the Yankees acquired him, assuming he’s healthy. He missed time with trap and forearm problems in 2016. Gray’s not a conventional ace with huge strikeout numbers and a low FIP. He’s Hiroki Kuroda. A dude who knows how to pitch and is fearless on the mound. You could do a heck of a lot worse than handing the ball to Sonny Gray for a big game.

Ryan asks: When the Yankees agreed to eat $16.5 MM of McCann’s contact, could they have offered to pay his salary this year instead of over 5.5 for 2 years, and get any McCann money off the books early? Or would it all count the same for the luxury tax like A-Rod‘s front loaded contract?

When a player is traded and his former team retains salary, that salary is applied to the luxury tax payroll in terms of actual dollars, not average annual value. The Yankees made it easy with McCann. They’re paying him $5.5M next year and another $5.5M the year after. But, if they paid him all $11M in 2017 and $0 in 2018, he’d count $11M against the luxury tax in 2017 and nothing in 2018. At least that’s how the just expired Collective Bargaining Agreement worked. Not sure if the new one just changed things.

Remember though, there are two parties in this transaction. The Astros might not have wanted to be on the hook for McCann’s entire salary in 2018, which is understandable because they’re going to have some big arbitration cases to deal with (George Springer and Dallas Keuchel, most notably). The Yankees might not want to pay the full $11M in 2017 either. Yeah, it’d help them get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018, but it may not have been the best big picture financial move.

Richard asks: Do you feel the Yankees will have a significant improvement in offense this year? I do, with the addition of Sanchez, Holliday, and Bird. And, I have a funny feeling that Hicks will be much better this year.

I do, actually. Mostly because I have a hard time believing Greg Bird (and Tyler Austin?) and Matt Holliday will be as bad as Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were this past season. Is it possible? Of course. But Teixeira and A-Rod gave the team 681 combined plate appearances of .203/.276/.358 (~68 OPS+) in 2016. Yuck. Getting even league average production from Bird and Holliday would be a big step up.

Simply put, the Yankees aren’t banking on older players as much as they were a year ago. Players over 35 have a ton of downside no matter how talented. What Carlos Beltran did this past season was an extreme outlier. It was a top 20 season all-time among 39-year-olds. The Yankees will have much more youth in the lineup next year, and with youth comes upside. Are they guaranteed to reach that upside? Of course not. But when the veterans were mostly bad in 2016, I can’t help but be optimistic about the kids in 2017.

Matt asks (short version): There are some really good values still on the free agent market, do you think the Yankees still might make a few moves to bolster the roster? Brett Anderson, Doug Fister, Jason Hammel, and CJ Wilson come to mind as buy-low candidates for the rotation. Greg Holland, Sergio Romo, Joe Smith, and Boone Logan could really deepen the bullpen as well.

The Yankees say they need to move money before making any more moves, though I have a hard time thinking Hal Steinbrenner would squash a low cost one-year deal if something worthwhile came along. I do like the idea of Anderson on an incentive-laden one-year contract, though aside from him, I’m not all that excited by any free agent starters. Fister and Hammel are okay and will probably end up getting more than I’d feel comfortable paying.

I can’t imagine Holland will come to the Yankees at this point. He’s going to go to a team where he’ll have a chance to close and soon. At best, he’d be the No. 3 closer option in New York. Other free agents who stand out as potential low cost, late offseason pickups include Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Niese, Joe Blanton, and Yusmeiro Petit. Blanton was really good with the Dodgers this past season and he might end up with a nice contract. The Yankees have been connected to De La Rosa for years, and I feel like they’ll swoop in to sign him super cheap in February.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Ryan asks (short version): How about a three-team trade that sends Masahiro Tanaka to Team X, prospects from Team X to the White Sox, and Jose Quintana to the Yankees?

Interesting! Team X would have to be a contending team, so maybe the Astros or Nationals? Also, I don’t think the trade would be that neat. The Yankees would have to send a prospect(s) to the White Sox as well to even things out because Quintana has more trade value than Tanaka. The differences in their contracts and injury history are too great to ignore. My trade proposal sucks, but:

  • To Yankees: Jose Quintana
  • To Astros: Masahiro Tanaka
  • To White Sox: Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker, Jorge Mateo

Obvious question: why wouldn’t the Astros just kick in another prospect to get Quintana instead of Tanaka? That’s the big obstacle here. A potential three-team trade might not get off the ground because the third team may decide to keep Quintana for themselves.

As far as the Yankees go, trading Tanaka would really suck, but if the team is convinced he’s going to opt-out next winter and they’re not planning to re-sign him, they have to trade him. Letting him go for a dinky draft pick would be a mistake. Quintana is every bit as good as Tanaka if not better, and he’s signed long-term. Ideally the Yankees would have Tanaka and Quintana, but, if it has to be one or the other, I’d prefer Quintana.

Matthew asks: So the Orioles are going to sign Colby Rasmus for 1 year and he’s going to lead the league in HRs, right?? Any interest from the Yankees perspective? I’ve long been enamored with his swing in Yankee Stadium.

Rasmus to the Orioles makes a lot of sense, actually. They need corner outfield help and he’d fit well in that ballpark. The Yankees don’t have much use for him though. They have a lot of young outfielders and signing Rasmus creates even more of a logjam. The Yankees are trying to trade Brett Gardner to clear space for the kids. Imagine signing Rasmus to block them further? I can’t see it.

Also, holy crap, I didn’t realize Rasmus was so bad in 2016. He hit .206/.286/.355 (75 wRC+) with 15 homers in 407 plate appearances. Eek.

Albert asks: Say the Yankees ate 32 Million dollars from Ellsbury’s contract, 8 million a year for 4 years. Wouldn’t they be able to get a solid prospect? And even if they didn’t get much of a return, wouldn’t paying the 8 million a year for the next 4 years help get them under the Luxury Tax threshold since they will be saving about 14 Million a year? Love the site, keep up the good work!

Including the $5M buyout of his $21M club option for 2021, there are four years and $89.5M left on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s contract. Eating $32M turns it into a four-year deal worth $57.5M. Would Ellsbury get that as a free agent this offseason? I don’t think so, but I suppose it’s possible in a world where Ian Desmond got five years and $70M. I feel like the Yankees would have to turn Ellsbury into a $13M a year player to drum up trade interest, which means eating nearly $10M a year.

Eating all that money would stink, but you know what? It’s probably worth it. Ellsbury’s contract is a sunk cost. The Yankees have to pay it anyway. Eating $10M a year still sheds $13M a season, which is roughly what the Yankees would save by trading away Gardner. Let’s do the math quick. Here’s the trade Gardner/keep Ellsbury scenario:

2017 2018 2019 2020
Gardner $0 $0 $0 $0
Ellsbury $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M
Total $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M

Trading Gardner and eating zero money is a dubious assumption, but I suppose it is possible. Let’s stick with that to make the math easy. Trading Gardner would clear an outfield spot for a young player and remove his $11.72M luxury tax hit. Now here’s the keep Gardner/eat $10M a year to trade Ellsbury scenario:

2017 2018 2019 2020
Gardner $11.72M $11.72M $0 $0
Ellsbury $10M $10M $10M $10M
Total $22.72M $22.72M $10M $10M

That’s better! The Yankees save more money long-term for a slight luxury tax payroll bump up front, and they’d also get to keep the homegrown Yankee. Now, the hard part: finding a team willing to take on Ellsbury at $13M a year for the next four years. I had a hard time coming up with potential landing spots for Gardner, who has two fewer years on his contract and has been the better player the last two or three years. What’s the market for Ellsbury going to look like? Nonexistent, basically.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Votes for the 2017 Hall of Fame class are due in ten days, and according to Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker, Jorge Posada has received five votes among the 74 public ballots as of this writing. (There will be over 400 ballots cast when it’s all said and done.) Posada needs 17 more votes to reach 5% and remain on the ballot another year, and chances are he’ll get those 17. But it’s clear at this point Posada won’t get into the Hall of Fame this year, not that I expected it to happen anyway. If he does get in, it’ll take a few years. This is step one.

Here is tonight’s open thread. None of the local hockey or basketball teams are in action, but there’s a ton of college hoops on the schedule. You’re on your own for entertainment otherwise. Good night to catch up on Netflix. I’m close to finishing Mr. Robot myself. I highly recommend it. Anyway, go nuts.

Yankees rolling the dice on upside with Billy McKinney

(Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)
(Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)

When the Yankees took the plunge and sold at the trade deadline, they wound up acquiring a dozen prospects (and one Adam Warren) in their four seller trades. Gleyber Torres, Justus Sheffield, and Clint Frazier were the headliners and the prospects everyone is talking about, understandably so. They’re all legitimate top 100 prospects and among the best young players in the organization.

The trades were not only geared towards impact players, however. The Yankees also added a ton of depth — again, they acquired 12 prospects — and the secondary pieces shouldn’t be overlooked. Ben Heller has already pitched in the big leagues. Erik Swanson and J.P. Feyereisen have sneaky good arms. Tito Polo is a pretty good bet to carve out a Major League career as an extra outfielder. Those guys have value too.

The most high-profile secondary piece the Yankees added at the deadline is outfielder Billy McKinney, who came over from the Cubs with Torres and Warren in the Aroldis Chapman trade. McKinney was the 24th overall pick in the 2013 draft — he had been connected to the Yankees often enough at the time that I wrote a draft profile — and was later traded from the A’s to the Cubs in the Addison Russell/Jeff Samardzija trade.

The Yankees picked up McKinney while his stock was down. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked the 22-year-old as the 69th best prospect in baseball coming into the season — not last year or the year before, this year, 2016 — but, at the time of the trade, he was hitting .252/.355/.322 (102 wRC+) with one home run in 349 Double-A plate appearances while repeating the level. Last year he hit .285/.346/.420 (116 wRC+) at Double-A.

McKinney performed quite a bit better after the trade, putting up a .265/.337/.444 (117 wRC+) batting line with four homers in 169 plate appearances with Double-A Trenton, including the postseason. That looks good on the surface, but for close to a bat-only dude repeating the level, it’s not nearly enough to maintain top 100 prospect status. McKinney is, to paraphrase Brian Cashman, an asset in distress. They bought low and hope to build him back up.

There are reasons to believe McKinney can be built back up. For starters, his age. He turned 22 in August. Had he gone to college, McKinney would have been a draft-eligible junior this year. Secondly, his raw talent. He wasn’t a first rounder by accident. McKinney has impressive hitting tools, which were on display just last season. And third, his health. His 2015 season ended in mid-August after he fouled a pitch into his knee and suffered a hairline fracture, Mark Teixeira style.

Everything in baseball starts from the ground up, including hitting. It’s tough to hit when you don’t have a solid base underneath you, and thanks to the knee injury, McKinney’s lower half was compromised this year. How much? We don’t know exactly. Player development chief Gary Denbo thinks the injury was at least somewhat a factor in McKinney’s disappointing season. From Jim Callis:

“He had issues with his knee and didn’t have all his balance and stability in his lower half, which makes it difficult to be a consistent hitter,” Denbo said. “He’s just now getting healthy. He’s working very hard to improve his timing and lower-half stability, and also to let his raw power play in games. He started to do that late in the season and he has been one of our best performers down here.”

It’s not crazy to think a healthy McKinney could bounce back next season. Not considering his age and talent. That’s what the Yankees are hoping, anyway. They got him almost as a throw in, after all. McKinney is not the centerpiece of the farm system or anything like that. He’s a reclamation project.

Now, what happens if McKinney does rebound next season? First, celebrate! That’d be cool. Secondly, the logjam of upper level outfielders could become even logjam-ier. Right now, the Triple-A Scranton outfield figures to feature some combination of Frazier, Mason Williams, Jake Cave, and Dustin Fowler. Maybe Aaron Judge too. That leaves McKinney back in Double-A for a third straight season. Not ideal, but what can the Yankees do?

Given the state of the organization right now, it appears the best thing for both McKinney and the Yankees is that he plays well enough to re-establish some trade value. Instead of being the No. 3 piece like he was in the Chapman deal, he could maybe be the No. 2 piece in a deal at some point in future. Or maybe even the headliner in a smaller trade that brings immediate MLB help. That seems to be the best case scenario. McKinney rebuilds value and the Yankees flip him elsewhere, where he’ll have a better opportunity for MLB playing time.

As far as the Yankees are concerned, anything they get from McKinney is gravy. He’s not one of their top prospects and they’re not relying on him to fill a roster spot long-term. They rolled the dice on his talent as the third piece in the Chapman trade, and if he rebounds, great! If not, well, that’s baseball. When a guy like McKinney is one of your second tier prospects and almost an afterthought in your system, things are looking up.

Prospect Profile: Blake Rutherford

(@MiLB)
(@MiLB)

Blake Rutherford | OF

Background
Rutherford, 19, was born in Morristown, New Jersey, and he lived there until age two, when his family moved to Southern California. He played both baseball and football at Chaminade College Preparatory School in Simi Valley, and as a senior last spring, Rutherford hit .577 with 13 doubles and nine home runs in 27 games. He was invited to play in the Under Armour All-America Game in 2015 and spent two summers with Team USA’s 18-and-under team, helping them win gold in Japan last year.

Rutherford has been on the radar as a prospect a very long time, so much so that he committed to UCLA following his freshman year of high school. Prior to the 2016 amateur draft, Rutherford was ranked as a top ten prospect in the draft class by Keith Law (6th), MLB.com (8th), and Baseball America (9th). The Yankees selected him with their first round pick, No. 18 overall, and maxed out their bonus pool to sign him to a well-above-slot $3,282,000 bonus.

“Blake’s a guy that we’ve scouted for a long time, and we couldn’t be happier with him falling to us,” said scouting director Damon Oppenheimer after the draft. “He’s hit at a high level, he can run, he’s a really good defender in center field, and he’s got power. He’s got a chance to have all the tools to profile. The fact that he’s performed on a big stage with Team USA, where he’s been a quality performer, makes it really exciting for us.”

Rutherford slipped out of the top ten for two reasons. One, his age. He turned 19 in May, which makes him older than most high school draftees. And two, he had big bonus demands, which isn’t surprising because he was a projected top ten pick. There are rumors Rutherford had a pre-draft deal in place with the Mets, who held the 19th pick, but the Yankees grabbed him one pick earlier and met his asking price.

“Oh man, I don’t think it’s hit me yet. It will hit me soon,” said Rutherford to Tony Ciniglio after the draft. “I grew up a Yankees fan. I loved the Yankees and the organization, I loved the people. It’s an amazing legacy, and it’s a pretty incredible situation.”

Pro Debut
Following a quick tune-up stint in the rookie Gulf Coast League, the Yankees bumped Rutherford up to the rookie Pulaski Yankees so he could face a higher caliber of competition. Rutherford was the best player on the field pretty much every game, hitting .382/.440/.618 (186 wRC+) with seven doubles, four triples, and two homers in 25 games and 100 plate appearances with Pulaski. Add in the GCL stint and he hit .351/.415/.570 (171 wRC+) with three homers in 130 plate appearances in his pro debut earlier this year.

Rutherford’s season ended prematurely due to a pair of minor injuries. He tweaked his knee running through first base on August 8th and missed Pulaski’s next eleven games. Then, on August 24th, Rutherford hurt his hamstring running out a ground ball. Pulaski had already been eliminated from postseason contention and the regular season was ending in a week, so the Yankees played it safe and shut their first round pick down. Rutherford’s knee and hamstring were healthy enough for him to participate in Instructional League in September.

Scouting Report
At 6-foot-3 and 195 lbs., Rutherford is well built with all sorts of physical projection. He’s a left-handed hitter with good bat speed and a level swing that allows him to cover the entire plate. Rutherford’s hit tool is highly regarded and he has a plan at the plate, plus he’s already shown power in games. He projects as a classic No. 3 hitter. A guy who can hit for both average and power down the road. Here’s some video:

There are two knocks on Rutherford’s offensive game. One, he can sometimes get into a little mechanical funk at the plate and start stepping in the bucket. And two, his swing right now produces line drives more than anything, and there’s some thought he won’t reach his full power potential unless he learns how to get the ball in the air more often. It could be worse.

The offensive potential is what got Rutherford drafted in the first round, but he’s not a bat-only prospect. He runs well and has good outfield instincts, which allow him to play center field. There are mixed reports on his arm; some say it’s strong while others indicated it’s below-average. They all agree it’s not a top tier arm, so should Rutherford move out of center at some point, left field is the more likely destination than right.

Beyond the athletic ability, Rutherford draws rave reviews for his makeup — he helped out at a baseball league for kids with disabilities throughout high school, as Mike Persinger writes — and work ethic. A player who projects to hit for average and power, provide value on the bases and in the field, play with energy, and be a genuinely good dude off the field is a potential franchise cornerstone.

2017 Outlook
The Yankees have not been shy about sending prep draftees to full season ball the year after the draft and Rutherford figures to follow that path. Unlike, say, Gosuke Katoh and Dante Bichette Jr., Rutherford is more than ready for the assignment because he’s a polished hitter, not just a guy with big rookie ball stats. He turns 20 in March and will be one of the youngest players in the Low-A South Atlantic League to open the 2017 season, assuming that’s where the Yankees send him.

My Take
How could you not love Rutherford? There’s very little not to like about him. He’s a true four-tool player — his arm is the only thing that’s lacking — and a good athlete with baseball smarts. His upside is significant and he could be a rare quick moving high school bat. Splitting next season between Low-A and High-A wouldn’t completely shock me. Rutherford has that kind of ability.

The Yankees have a loaded farm system right now. They have several high-end prospects and a ton of depth, and Rutherford has as much long-term ceiling as anyone in the system. There’s a good chance, maybe even a great chance, that at this time next year Rutherford will be the top prospect in the organization, even ahead of the totally awesome Gleyber Torres. It’s been a long time since the Yankees landed a talent like Rutherford in the draft.