Thursday Night Open Thread

I neglected to mention this yesterday: Starlin Castro will wear No. 14 with the Yankees based on his Instagram feed. He looks good in pinstripes. Incredibly young, but good. Castro wore No. 13 with the Cubs but that number belongs to future first ballot Hall of Famer and all-time Yankees great Alex Rodriguez. Curtis Granderson and Enrique Wilson are the only two players to wear No. 14 for at least two full seasons with the Yankees this century. Castro figures to make it three.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Buccaneers and Rams are the Thursday NFL Game. All three local hockey teams are in action and there are two college basketball games on the schedule as well. Discuss those games, Castro’s new number, or anything else in this here open thread.

Offseason Updates: CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira

CC Sabathia
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Both CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira are preparing for their eighth and possibly final season with the Yankees. I still remember when they signed those guys. Feels like yesterday. That was a pretty fun time in RABland. Anyway, here are some offseason updates on Sabathia and Teixeira.

Sabathia is “light years” ahead in workouts

Coming off his stint in an alcohol rehab center, Sabathia told Bryan Hoch and Chad Jennings he is “light years” ahead of the last few years with his offseason workouts. His offseason workouts have been limited by injuries in recent years. He had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow following 2012, had to rehab a Grade II hamstring strain following 2013, and then had to rehab from his knee surgery following 2014.

“I’m probably light years ahead, being able to fully work out and do the things I want to do totally healthy. The workouts are a lot tougher, but it’s kind of what I need at this point in my career,” he said. “I’m one of those guys that never stops throwing, so I found a couple of guys in rehab to throw the football with. Then when I came out, I picked up the baseball and have been throwing.”

Sabathia is planning to continue wearing the clunky new knee brace he wore at the end of this past season, when he reeled off his best five-start stretch in about three years. As long as he’s healthy, the Yankees aren’t going to take Sabathia out of the rotation next season. They’ve made that pretty clear. Hopefully the new knee brace does the trick.

Teixeira’s rehab continues to go well

It has now been three months and one week since Teixeira was shut down with a fracture in his right shin, an injury that came with a three-month rehab timetable. He won’t start running until next month but so far everything is going well. “I saw him the other day. He’s doing much better. I’m excited to get him back,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand.

Girardi also said Teixeira will be ready for the start of Spring Training. That’s good since not being ready would mean he suffered a significant setback. The Yankees do have a Grade-A backup plan in Greg Bird, but Teixeira’s the better player at this point, and you know he wants to have a strong contract year. With any luck, Teixeira will play his way into a qualifying offer next season. He was pretty awesome before getting hurt in 2015, remember.

Yanks facing the challenge of monitoring Luis Severino’s workload in 2016

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

During his annual end-of-season press conference, Joe Girardi said one of the ways the Yankees expect to improve next season is by having a full year of Luis Severino. Severino came up in early-August this past season and gave the team 62.1 innings of 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) ball. He was no worse than the Yankees’ second best starter down the stretch. It was pretty cool.

The Yankees will indeed have a full season of Severino in 2016, at least in the sense that he will be with the big league team from Day One. The team will have to monitor his workload to some extent, and unlike last season, the Yankees won’t be able to take advantage of his minor league time. Last summer they limited Severino to short starts in Double-A and Triple-A to make sure enough innings were left for the MLB team.

“I don’t know if there’s a limit, if there is, it’s very short. I don’t know how many innings he ended up with this year, I think 140-ish,” said Girardi at the Winter Meetings last week when asked about Severino’s workload. “We’ll have to watch him, because the rigors of a big league season is different than a minor league season because it’s longer, but I don’t expect a huge limit on him.”

Severino threw 161.2 total innings in 2015, an increase of 48.2 innings from 2014. The Verducci Effect, which says no pitcher should increase their workload by more than 30 innings from one year to the next, is a bit outdated, though obviously there is a point where a big workload increase is dangerous. Every pitcher is different though. The Yankees were comfortable letting Severino increase his workload by 50-ish innings in 2015.

Would the Yankees let Severino increase his workload by another 50 innings next year? That seems unlikely. I can’t imagine they’ll let this kid throw ~210 innings in his age 22 season. Only ten guys have done that in the last quarter century. In fact, if the Yankees let Severino throw even 170 innings next year, he’ll join a pretty exclusive club. Only 25 pitchers have thrown 170 MLB innings in their age 22 season since 2000.

Based on everything I’ve seen the last few years, I’m not sure there’s a good way to limit a pitcher’s workload at the big league level. Well, other than being out of contention and shutting him down in September. That works fine. Skipping starts, short starts … every method comes with its own headaches. Figuring out how to do it with Severino will be a challenge. The Yankees will need him to contend but can’t run him into the ground either.

The Yankees used a spot sixth starter whenever possible this past season and I have no reason to think they won’t do it again next year. That’s one way to control Severino’s workload. I also think the All-Star break is a pretty good opportunity to give a young guy an extended break. It would be possible to give Severino a breather from July 6th until July 19th thanks to the break. It could be July 5th until the 20th with a sixth starter.

Either way, this is something the Yankees will have to address this summer. They did a good job controlling Severino’s workload this season because he started the year in the minors. That won’t be the case next season. The Yankees will have to balance his long-term health with contention, because Severino will be a very important part of the team in both 2016 and beyond.

Yankees should target multi-inning relievers to protect against fragile rotation

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Can Nova be a two or three-inning reliever? (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Do you know who led the Yankees in innings this past season? CC Sabathia. He threw 167.1 of them. That’s the fewest innings thrown by the team leader in a non-strike season in franchise history. Masahiro Tanaka led the Yankees by averaging 6.42 innings per start with Michael Pineda a distant second at 5.95. No other Yankee was over the 5.85 AL average.

Length from the rotation was a big problem last season. We saw it daily and talked about it nearly as often. The bullpen was being asked to get 10-12 outs a night, it seemed. Even if the Yankees do manage to add another starter this offseason, they’ll head into next season with largely the same starting staff, only a year older and with somehow with more health concerns thanks to Nathan Eovaldi‘s season-ending elbow issue.

Getting more innings and length from the rotation is necessary but probably unrealistic. Even when healthy, Eovaldi struggled to complete six innings. Joe Girardi was quick to pull Sabathia after two times through the lineup, and you can be sure Luis Severino will be handled with kid gloves. A few weeks ago Brian Cashman said Ivan Nova was the starter most likely to give the team 200 innings in 2016, which made me laugh until I realized it was true.

The Yankees were able to alleviate the heavy bullpen workload last season with the Scranton shuttle. They always had a fresh reliever or two available because they were swapping out arms almost daily. The Yankees could use the same plan of attack next season — in fact, I’m pretty sure they will — but that only helps so much. Those guys only fill the last bullpen spot or two. They aren’t the core relievers.

Going forward, the best approach may be to load up on potential multi-inning relievers, guys who can go three innings or 50 pitches every three days or so. A long man, but someone good enough to pitch with a small lead (or deficit). The Yankees had the perfect guy for this job in Adam Warren, but he’s gone now. In fact, his new team, the Cubs, now have Warren, Trevor Cahill, and Travis Wood in the bullpen. All three can go multiple innings.

Either the Cubs are ahead of the curve — starters in general are throwing fewer innings each year, so a bullpen of one-inning relievers won’t cut it much longer — or it’s just a coincidence. (It’s the former. Theo Epstein & Co. are pretty smart.) Finding relievers who can throw multiple innings and are good enough to see high-leverage work is really hard. Warren was crazy valuable. Find two or three guys like him will be damn near impossible.

Among players currently in the organization, Nova and Bryan Mitchell stand out as the best candidates for a multi-inning relief role in 2016. Nova has good stuff and rather than stick him in a one-inning role, why not let him face 9-12 batters each time out? That may be the best way to maximize his production. Plus it would keep him stretched out a bit in case he’s needed in the rotation. Same applies to Mitchell.

Looking at free agent possibilities … yeesh. First of all, you have to find guys who probably aren’t good enough to start — if they are good enough to start, they’ll get jobs as starters — but are good enough to throw two or three innings at a time in relief. Tim Lincecum stands out as a candidate for that role, though he’s coming off hip surgery and may not be ready for Spring Training. Joe Blanton? Don’t laugh, he had a 2.04 ERA (2.56 FIP) in 57.1 innings across 32 relief appearances in 2015. Justin Masterson? Carlos Villanueva?

In a perfect world, the bullpen would be something like Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, three guys who can give you two or three innings at a clip and 100-110 innings over the full season, a shuttle reliever, and a mop-up guy for games that get out of hand. That’s not going to happen though. It doesn’t change the fact the Yankees probably won’t get many innings from the rotation next season.

The one-inning middle reliever model is slowly dying. Relievers who can throw multiple innings are no longer luxuries. They’re becoming necessities.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Scott Kazmir

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

The top three free agent pitchers have now signed with new teams, and several second tier options have come off the board as well, most notably Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, Hisashi Iwakuma, and John Lackey. This is a very good free agent class though, so there are plenty of solid pitchers still on the board, waiting to be signed.

One of them is left-hander Scott Kazmir, whose comeback story is truly remarkable. He was out of baseball almost completely four years ago due to ongoing injury problems, but he got healthy, reinvented himself on the mound, and has put together three very good big league seasons since. Is the current version of Kazmir a fit for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

The Performance

The Indians brought Kazmir back from baseball purgatory three years ago with a low cost one-year contract. He took advantage and turned it into a two-year contract with the Athletics. Oakland traded him to the Astros at the deadline this past season. Here are Kazmir’s last three seasons.

2013 158.0 4.04 3.51 24.1% 7.0% 40.9% .348 .253
2014 190.1 3.55 3.35 21.1% 6.4% 43.8% .285 .304
2015 183.0 3.10 3.98 20.3% 7.7% 42.9% .285 .337
Total 531.1 3.54 3.61 21.8% 7.1% 42.6% .304 .299

Kazmir is a true fly ball pitcher. He’s not one of those guys with a low ground ball rate who makes up for it by getting a lot of infield pop-ups or something like that. (The pre-2015 version of Michael Pineda, basically.) His pop-up rate the last three years is 7.6%, below the league average, which hovers around 9.0% each year. Kazmir allows a lot of fly balls to the outfield and spacious Coliseum definitely helped his ERA from 2014-15.

That said, Kazmir’s peripherals are pretty good too. His strikeout and walk rates are above-average for a starting pitcher, and his homer rate (0.93 HR/9 and 9.7 HR/FB%) is basically league average. I would expect the homer numbers to climb a bit with a move into Yankee Stadium because of the short porch and stuff. Kazmir hasn’t had a significant platoon split over the last three seasons but he has gotten progressively worse against lefties, which is weird.

So the overall numbers are good, but dig a tiny bit deeper and you’ll see Kazmir is basically a first half hitter. We hear about position players being first or second half hitters all the time, but we rarely hear about first or second half pitchers. Here are Kazmir’s first and second half splits over the last three seasons:

First Half 304.2 3.04 3.61 22.9% 7.3% .92 .225/.287/.363
Second Half 226.2 4.21 3.86 20.3% 6.6% .96 .270/.324/.406

Kazmir’s performance has suffered in the second half since he resurfaced, especially the last two years. He had a 2.38 ERA (3.19 FIP) in the first half last year, then a 5.42 ERA (3.61 FIP) in the second half. This past season it was a 2.49 ERA (3.23 FIP) in the first half and a 3.86 ERA (4.90 FIP) in the second half. Given all the injuries he had earlier in this career, it’s entirely possible Kazmir can no longer hold his stuff over a full season, so his performance suffers.

Either way, Kazmir’s overall performance has been very good these last three seasons. So it’s skewed towards the first half. Big deal. The first half counts too. Kazmir can still miss bats and he doesn’t have a platoon split, plus I think the successful comeback — he was limited to 17.1 innings in 2011 by injuries, then pitched in an independent league and winter ball in 2012 in an effort to get noticed — is an indication he’s a pretty tough guy. He’s been through the grinder to get to where he is.

The Change In Stuff

Once upon a time, Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts as a 23-year-old because he had mid-90s gas and one of the best sliders you’ll ever see. That guy is long gone. Kazmir has morphed from a four-seamer/slider pitcher into a four-seamer/sinker/changeup pitcher. He’s also added a little cutter. Kazmir still throws some sliders, but the changeup is his go-to secondary pitch now.

Given his injury history and the way pitchers age in general, I’m not sure looking at Kazmir’s stuff from even three years ago tells us much about him going forward. He turns 32 in January, an age where even healthy pitchers start to slip, so I’m going to focus on his 2015 stuff. Here’s a quick breakdown (MLB averages for starters in parentheses.)

% Thrown Velo. Whiff% GB%
Four-Seamer 31.0% 93.1 (91.9) 10.6% (6.9%) 28.7% (37.9%)
Sinker 26.8% 91.8 (90.8) 6.5% (5.4%) 45.4% (49.5%)
Slider 7.7% 81.7 (84.5) 13.3% (15.2%) 41.9% (43.9%)
Changeup 18.1% 77.0 (83.3) 18.4%  (14.9%) 45.2% (47.8%)
Cutter 12.6% 87.8 (87.2) 11.0% (9.7%) 57.8% (43.0%)

Kazmir generated an above-average number of swings and misses with every pitch but the slider, which is funny because the slider was the pitch he rode to the AL strikeout crown in 2007. The cutter was his only reliable ground ball pitch this past season and it was only his fourth pitch based on usage. That changeup Kazmir now relies on gets an above-average number of whiffs and a league-average-ish number of grounders.

Interestingly, Kazmir is still able to generate above-average fastball velocity despite all those injuries. He has lost some oomph from his halcyon days with the (Devil) Rays, but overall the velocity is still above average. Of course, Kazmir has lost velocity as the season has progressed the last few years, leading to those second half slumps (via Brooks Baseball).

Scott Kazmir velocity

Kazmir’s fastball velocity actually improved as the 2013 season progressed, but the last two years the four-seamer and sinker have faded in the second half. The changeup velocity has faded too, allowing him to maintain that incredible separation with his fastball — the gap between his sinker and change was 14.8 mph in 2015, which is insane — but losing velocity is when bad things happens. Here’s some video of good Kazmir.

The current version of Kazmir is a five-pitch guy with two fastballs, a quality changeup, plus usable fourth (cutter) and fifth (slider) pitches. As cliche as it is, he’s become a pitcher now, getting outs by locating and keeping hitters off balance. Back in the day he used to be able to overpower hitters with his fastball and slider. His stuff was so good. He’s had to adjust due to the injuries and, as the results show these last three seasons, Kazmir’s made that adjustment.

Injury History

The arm injuries first started to set in back in 2006 and they continued through 2010. Kazmir’s back then gave him problems in 2011. Here’s a quick run down of his major injury issues.

2006: Shoulder fatigue and inflammation (52 days missed)
2008: Elbow strain (43 days missed)
2009: Quad strain (37 days missed)
2010: Shoulder soreness (48 days missed) and hamstring strain (24 days missed)
2011: Lower back strain (72 days missed)

Some of the injuries also lingered into the offseason. Kazmir has avoided major injuries the last few years but he has missed a few starts with nagging day-to-day stuff. Some general arm soreness hampered him early last year, and this past season he missed time with a triceps problem. You may remember Kazmir leaving a start against the Yankees after only three innings back in July. That’s when the triceps acted up.

The good news: Kazmir has never had any kind of surgery. He’s just had a lot of strains and fatigue and soreness and stuff like that. This isn’t a guy who had to go under the knife because of major structural damage. Still, Kazmir’s velocity is not what it once was and he’s had to revamp his pitching style to remain effective because the injuries robbed him of stuff. Give him credit for doing it. It doesn’t make his injury history any prettier though.

Contract Estimates

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a pretty big disconnect between how we perceive the market and the actual market. We’re a year or two behind, it seems. Contracts aren’t crazy, we’re just behind. Teams obviously have lots of money to spend and a willingness to spend it. Here are some estimates for Kazmir:

The dollars make perfect sense to me. I think Bowden’s $16.5M average annual value projection is closest to what Kazmir will actually get. (Remember, Samardzija got $18M per year.) The years are where it gets interesting. You want to keep it to three years because Kazmir’s had so many injury problems and he’s faded in the second half the last two years, but in this market he has every reason to ask for four years.

I get the feeling this is going to be one of those “the team that offers the fourth year is the team that gets him” situations. Kazmir is arguably the top pitcher left on the free agent market — it’s either Kazmir, Mike Leake, or Wei-Yin Chen at this point — and that gives him some leverage. The Dodgers and Cardinals figure to be in the mix, among others.

Wrapping Up

Kazmir’s reinvention really fascinates me. The guy has carved out a successful MLB career with two totally different pitching styles before his 32nd birthday. He still has velocity but has gotten away from relying on overpowering hitters, so in theory he should age better, assuming he stays healthy. At the same time, his arm feels like a ticking time bomb.

The Yankees have not been connected to Kazmir or really any free agent so far this offseason. They do need rotation help and Kazmir won’t require a substantial commitment, but he’s not going to be cheap either. The Yankees would have to change their “we’re not spending” approach to get him. Odds of that happening? Pretty small, I’d say.

Kazmir fits the Yankees because he’s quite good, first and foremost, plus he’s also a Yankee Stadium friendly left-hander who is familiar with the AL East to some extent. (It’s been a while since he was with Tampa though.) That said, I’m not sure another pitcher with health concerns who isn’t a lock for a lot of innings moves the needle much. The Yankees need reliability.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

After two months and 43 posts — assuming I tagged everything properly along the way — our 2015 Season Review series finally came to an end today. Here’s the archive in case you missed anything. And with that, my attention officially turns to the rest of the offseason and the 2016 season. The Yankees still have work to do this winter, particularly on the pitching side. Two months and two days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, as the countdown in the sidebar says.

Here is the nightly open thread. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, plus there’s some college hoops on the schedule as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Jason Heyward’s comments suggest Yankees never really had a chance to sign him

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, the Cubs officially introduced outfielder Jason Heyward with a press conference at Wrigley Field. His eight-year, $184M contract is now official. The brain trust gave Heyward a jersey, both sides said they’re excited … you know the press conference drill. There were many smiles. A good time was had by all.

At one point during the press conference Heyward was inevitably asked about the Cardinals, his former team, who tried desperately to re-sign him. Here’s what Heyward had to say about St. Louis, according to Jesse Rogers:

“Being 26 years old and knowing that my contract would put me in any clubhouse for longer than most people there, you have to look at age, how fast the team is changing and how soon those changes will come about.”

“The St. Louis Cardinals are always going to be a great organization, and I don’t think anyone would ever be surprised if they win a World Series any year,” Heyward said. “[But] if I were to look up in three years and saw a completely different team, that would be kind of different for me.”

Rogers says Heyward then rattled off a list of Cardinals veterans who either won’t be around in a few years, or will no longer be significant contributors. Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina … guys like that. Players who have formed the core of the Cardinals teams that have gone to the playoffs six times in the last seven years, winning one World Series (2011) and going to another (2013).

In a nutshell, Heyward said he didn’t want to go somewhere where a bunch of roster turnover would soon take place. “I don’t want to take the highest dollar amount when my gut is telling me to go somewhere else,” he added. The Cubs will pay Heyward handsomely, and yet Jeff Passan reports he turned down three larger offers to go to Chicago, including two $200M+ offers. Other teams can not offer the kind of young core the Cubbies boast, however.

The Yankees are in a similar situation as the Cardinals. (Yes, the Cardinals have had more recent success, yadda yadda yadda.) They’re going to lose a lot of key veterans in the coming years, starting with Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran next year. Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia (and maybe Masahiro Tanaka) will be gone the next offseason. Eventually Brian McCann‘s workload as the starting catcher will be scaled back too.

The Yankees are currently making an effort to get younger, and perhaps in two or three years they’ve have the kind of young core Heyward was looking for this offseason. They don’t have it right now though. Heyward’s a very good player who would have been a huge addition to the Yankees. The Yankees were not a good fit for Heyward though, not if his comments about looking for a team with a stable young core were sincere.