Didi Gregorius and the value of being a bad ball hitter

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

In just a few short weeks, the Yankees will enter year three of the Didi Gregorius era. Time flies, eh? In his two seasons as New York’s starting shortstop, Gregorius has shown a rocket arm and strong overall defensive chops, and blossoming power as well. And enthusiasm for the game, too. The Yankees have been a little too corporate over the years and a player having fun on the field is a welcome change.

Gregorius came to the Yankees with questions about his ability to hit, and while no one is going to confuse him for Derek Jeter at the plate, Didi hasn’t been a total zero with the stick either. He’s authored a .270/.311/.409 (94 wRC+) batting line in nearly 1,200 plate appearances as a Yankee. The league average shortstop hit .262/.319/.407 (92 wRC+) last season, so Gregorius is right there. Add in his defense and you’ve got a nice little player.

One thing we know for sure about Gregorius offensively is that he loves to swing. Loves it. His 55.4% swing rate last season was sixth highest among the 146 hitters to qualify for the batting title. And when he swings, he usually puts the ball in play. Gregorius had the third lowest walk rate (3.2%) and 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) in baseball last season. He’s not someone who swings and misses a lot. When he swings, he tends to put in play.

Gregorius is not shy about swinging at pitches out of the zone — his 38.3% chase rate last year was 14th highest among those 146 batters — and that can get pretty annoying! At the same time, his 71.7% contact rate on pitches out of the zone was quite a bit above the 63.9% league average. This play sticks out to me from last summer. David Price tried to put Gregorius away with a changeup out of the zone, and Didi hooked it into the corner for extra bases:

That’s not a bad pitch! It was down and out of the zone, and with an 0-2 count and two outs, trying to get the hitter to chase something in the dirt is a smart move. The count says you don’t need to go right after the hitter in that situation. Price had some wiggle room thanks to the 0-2 count and the pitch was a ball (via Brooks Baseball) …

david-price-vs-didi-gregorius-050716

… yet Gregorius made him pay. What can you do if you’re the pitcher in that situation? Nothing, you just have to tip your cap, as annoying as that may be. Price made a good pitch and Gregorius drove in three runs anyway. That’s baseball. Sometimes you do everything right and still get beat.

That play speaks to Didi’s skills as a bad ball hitter. Vlad Guerrero was the ultimate bad ball hitter. We’ve all see the highlight of him hitting a single on a pitch that bounced. That guy could swing at any pitch in any location and do damage. Ichiro Suzuki was another great bad ball hitter. Gregorius is not a Vlad or Ichiro caliber bad ball hitter, basically no one is, but he is better than most in MLB today.

Over the last two seasons Gregorius has hit .222 with a .297 BABIP on pitches out of the zone, which sounds terrible, but the league averages were .187 and .281, respectively. The best bad ball hitter over the last two seasons, Denard Span, hit .268 on pitches outside the zone. Only nine others cleared .250. Here are Didi’s BABIPs on pitches in various locations from 2015-16, via Baseball Savant:

didi-gregorius-babips

The brighter the red, the higher above average the BABIP. The brighter the blue, the further below average. Gregorius has excelled at pitches down and in and out of the zone, like the Price changeup in the video above, and has been about average on pitches out of the zone away from him. That’s from the catcher’s perspective, so his weakness is up and in. Otherwise if it’s out of the zone, Gregorius has some level of success when he swings.

Of course, in a perfect world Didi would not swing at pitches out of the strike zone, but that’s just not who he is. Getting a hitter to change his approach is awfully tough, especially when you’re talking about a soon-to-be 27-year-old who has had success in the big leagues swinging at everything. Gregorius at this point probably is what he’s always going to be from an approach standpoint. He’s going to swing and swing often. So it goes.

I definitely think there is value in having a bad ball hitter in the lineup. Diversity is cool. On-base percentage is king and patient hitters who make the pitcher work tend to drive successful offenses. These days though, with velocity and strikeouts at an all-time high, having someone who can not only spoil those put-away pitches out of the zone, but actually get base hits off them is pretty useful. A full lineup of free swingers like Gregorius might not work. One in a lineup of patient hitters though? That’s doable.

Do the Yankees have a lineup full of patient hitters at the moment? Not really, though they’re probably in better shape than their 7.8% walk rate a year ago (19th in MLB) would lead you to believe. Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, and Greg Bird all have histories of working the count and drawing walks. Gary Sanchez showed similar patience last year. Aaron Judge has done it in the past too. Gregorius, Starlin Castro, and Jacoby Ellsbury are the team’s only true swing at everything hackers right now. Maybe three is too many.

Over the last two years we’ve seen enough from Gregorius to know he’s probably never going to draw a ton of walks and be a high on-base guy. Would I prefer it if he laid off pitches out of the strike zone? Of course, but that doesn’t seem to be in his DNA. Revamping his approach will take a lot of work. Drawing walks is not natural to him. If nothing else, at least Gregorius has demonstrated the ability to have some success when swinging at pitches out of the zone. If he’s not going to lay off them, then that’s the next best thing.

Prospect Profile: Albert Abreu

(@MLBpipeline)
(@MLBpipeline)

Albert Abreu | RHP

Background
Back in 2013, the Astros signed the now 21-year-old Abreu out of the relatively small town of Guayubin, in the Dominican Republic. He received a $185,000 bonus. Baseball America did not rank Abreu among the top 30 international prospects available during the 2013-14 international signing period.

The Yankees acquired Abreu from Houston in the Brian McCann trade earlier this offseason. Abreu and fellow right-hander Jorge Guzman went to New York in the two-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Because he wasn’t a high-profile signing, the Astros assigned Abreu to one of their rookie Dominican Summer League affiliates for his pro debut in 2014. He had a 2.78 ERA (3.41 FIP) with 19.4% strikeouts and 10.4% walks in 14 starts and 68 innings that year.

The ‘Stros brought Abreu to the U.S. in 2015 and sent him to their rookie Appalachian League affiliate. That summer he made seven starts and six relief appearances, and threw 46.2 innings with a 2.51 ERA (3.56 FIP) with 26.0% strikeouts and 10.7% walks. Baseball America ranked Abreu as the sixth best prospect in the league after the season.

Abreu opened the 2016 season in the Low-A Midwest League. He managed a 3.50 ERA (3.85 FIP) with 27.1% strikeouts and 12.8% walks in 90 innings spread across 14 starts and seven relief appearances at that level. Houston bumped Abreu up to the High-A California League at the end of the season, where he allowed eight runs in 14.1 innings.

All told, Abreu had a 3.71 ERA (4.07 FIP) with 26.3% strikeouts and 12.9% walks in 104.1 innings in 2016. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked him as the 14th best prospect in the league, one spot ahead of Angels catcher Matt Thaiss, the 16th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Abreu was ranked the Astros’ tenth best prospect prior to the trade by Baseball America.

Scouting Report
When the Astros signed Abreu, he was 6-foot-2 and rail thin with an 87-91 mph fastball. He still stands 6-foot-2, but he’s filled out a bit and now checks in at 175 pounds. His fastball has climbed into the 93-96 mph range and will top out at 99 mph. Abreu’s arm is really loose and the ball jumps out of his hand.

Depending on the day, either the slider or the changeup will look like Abreu’s second best pitch. The slider has hard break in the mid-to-upper-80s while the changeup fades down and away to lefties when thrown properly. Abreu also has a big breaking power curveball. He’s still working to gain consistency with all three non-fastballs. Here’s some video:

Abreu is a good athlete with a really quick arm, though his control suffers because he tends to rush through his delivery. He’s still learning to repeat his mechanics, especially from the stretch, and once he does that, it should improve his presently below-average control. Abreu is very much a young pitcher with tantalizing stuff who is still learning how to pitch.

2017 Outlook
Given his success at Low-A last season, the Yankees figure to assign Abreu to High-A Tampa to begin the 2017 season, his first in the organization. I wouldn’t count on a midseason promotion. Abreu just turned 21 in September and he’s not very experienced. A full season at High-A is in the cards, even if he dominates.

My Take
I’m not gonna lie, I’m not much of an Abreu fan. The kid has a great arm, no doubt about that. Four pitches and a good delivery is a nice starting point. I just see too many obstacles to overcome. Abreu needs to refine multiple secondary pitches, hone his mechanics, and learn to throw strikes. His upside is enormous, possibly the highest of any pitcher in the system, but there’s a very long way to go before Abreu approaches that ceiling. And, frankly, the Yankees haven’t much success developing these high-risk/high-reward kids. Abreu is a quality prospect. I’m just not his biggest fan. That’s all.

Previewing the Yankees’ potential Spring Training invitees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Four weeks from yesterday, pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa and the Yankees will open Spring Training. It’s the best non-news day of the year. Nothing really happens that day, but hey, it’s the start of Spring Training, and that’s exciting. The offseason is boring. This one especially so.

At some point in these next three weeks and six days the Yankees will announce their Spring Training non-roster invitees. There are usually 20-something of them. The number varies year to year. The 20-something non-roster players plus the 40-man roster means 60-something players in big league camp. This is a World Baseball Classic year though, so the Yankees might bring a few extra bodies to camp to cover for the guys who leave to play for their country.

Non-roster players take on all shapes and sizes. Some are veteran journeymen trying to hang on. Others are top prospects. Heck, some are middling prospects. Very few of them actually have a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Most non-roster players are hoping to open eyes in camp and earn an early-season call-up whenever reinforcements are inevitably needed. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years back. He pitched well in camp and made himself a name to remember.

This spring should be extra exciting because the Yankees have such a robust farm system, and so many of their top prospects are close to the big leagues. Spring Training is a great time of year for prospect watchers. The Yankees will surely bring a bunch of their top youngsters to camp, even if only for a few weeks, just to expose them to big league life. So, with all of that in mind, let’s preview this year’s crop of potential non-roster players. Let’s call this … educated speculation.

Catchers

The Yankees, like every other team, invite a ton of non-roster catchers to Spring Training. Why? Well, who else is supposed to catch all those bullpen sessions? That’s really all it is. Teams need lots of catchers in camp because there are lots of pitchers in camp, and someone has to behind the plate for those guys. Last year the Yankees brought six non-roster catchers to camp. The year before it was five.

New York is pretty devoid of catching prospects at the moment, now that Luis Torrens is (temporarily?) a member of the Padres. Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, and Kyle Higashioka are all on the 40-man roster, so they’ll be in camp. Donny Sands and Miguel Flames, the team’s two best catching prospects, are rookie ball kids still transitioning behind the plate, so they won’t be in big league Spring Training. Too soon. Their time will come. That means an unexciting crop of minor league signees and journeyman roster fillers behind the plate.

Mike’s Prediction: Wilkin Castillo, Kellin Deglan, Francisco Diaz, Jorge Saez, plus one or two others yet to be signed. Diaz was in camp as a non-roster player last year and re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason. Castillo and Deglan signed as minor league free agents over the winter. Saez, 26, was a minor league Rule 5 Draft pick from the Blue Jays. The Yankees brought Santiago Nessy to camp last spring after picking him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. I’m guessing Saez gets the same treatment.

Infielders

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Alright, now we’re talking. Gleyber Torres, the best prospect in the system and one of the best prospects in all of baseball, is a lock to be invited to big league camp, I believe. The Yankees have historically brought their tippy top prospects to camp — Jorge Mateo was there last year, remember — and Gleyber is the best they have to offer. Torres could hang around until mid-to-late March too, depending on how much playing time is available.

Among the other prospects, Tyler Wade is the other non-roster lock in my opinion. He’s not a Torres-caliber prospect, but he’s pretty darn good himself, and he’s slated to open the 2017 season in Triple-A. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League last year, so they’re starting to groom him for a big league utility job. Getting him in camp so he can work with the big league instructors is the next logical step.

The Yankees have a small army of infield prospects in the low minors, guys who are better served going to minor league camp. Wilkerman Garcia, Hoy Jun Park, Kyle Holder, and Thairo Estrada fit into this group. I thought maybe the Yankees would bring Mike Ford to camp as an extra first baseman, but the recent Ji-Man Choi signing takes care of that. Choi will “compete” with Greg Bird and Tyler Austin (and Rob Refsnyder?) for the first base job.

Mike’s Prediction: Choi, Torres, Wade, Cito Culver, Donovan Solano, and Ruben Tejada. Solano and Tejada are big league veterans on minor league deals, so yeah, they’ll be in camp. Culver gets the call because both Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro could end up playing in the WBC, meaning the Yankees will need infielders. Cito re-signed with New York as a minor league free agent a few weeks ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if an invite to Spring Training was part of the deal. Keep in mind Mateo and Miguel Andujar are on the 40-man roster and will be in Spring Training automatically.

Outfielders

Remember last spring, when the Yankees had both Mateo and Aaron Judge in camp as non-roster players? That was so fun. They even hit home runs in the same game (against the Red Sox!). To the very necessary action footage:

Ah yes, that’s the good stuff. Anyway, I bring this up because Torres and Clint Frazier and going to be this year’s Mateo and Judge. The top prospect infielder-outfielder tandem we all tune in to see every Spring Training broadcast. Frazier is one of the Yankees’ best prospects and he’s already played in Triple-A, making a non-roster invitation to Spring Training is a no-brainer.

One top outfield prospect I don’t expect to see in big league camp is Blake Rutherford. The Yankees bought James Kaprielian to camp last year and that was a rarity — Kaprielian was the first first round pick the Yankees brought to Spring Training as a non-roster player one year after the draft in at least a decade. Not even Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain got non-roster invites in 2007. Rutherford is fresh out of high school. Big league camp isn’t the appropriate place for him. Lame, but it is what it is.

Mike’s Prediction: Frazier, Dustin Fowler, Mark Payton, and Jake Cave. I’m going to go against the grain and say Payton over the more heralded Billy McKinney. Payton is not a top prospect by any stretch, but he can do a little of everything and is a performer. He’s going to carve out a career as a fourth outfielder, and I think the Yankees will want to get him in camp at least once before he becomes Rule 5 Draft eligible next winter. Cave is a Triple-A vet, hence the non-roster invite. Fowler is one of the team’s top prospects and he’ll be in Triple-A this year, so I expect to see him too. Mason Williams (and Judge) is already on the 40-man.

Right-handers

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

We’re going to see some nice prospects arms in camp this year, me thinks. Kaprielian, Chance Adams, and Dillon Tate are the three big names. Kaprielian was in Spring Training last season, and since he was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, I don’t think the Yankees will hesitate to bring him to camp this year. Adams broke out last year and is going to start the season in Triple-A. Prime non-roster fodder.

Tate is the interesting one and I don’t think a non-roster invite is a lock, but I do think it’s likely. He regained velocity after the trade last year and threw well in the AzFL. Tate is going back to starting this season and I think the Yankees will look to move him quickly. And you know what? I think the Yankees want to show him off too. Tate was the fourth overall pick in the draft two years ago and one of the big name prospects they acquired at the deadline last summer. They’ll strut him out there and let him air it out for a few Grapefruit League innings because hey, why not?

Other big name prospects, like Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu, seem unlikely to get an invite to big league Spring Training this year. There are only so many innings to go around, and the Yankees will need them to a) decide the fourth and fifth starter race, and b) sort through a bunch of candidates for the remaining bullpen spots. This might be a year ahead of schedule for Acevedo and Abreu. I’m open to being wrong. We’ll see.

Mike’s Prediction: Adams, Kaprielian, Tate, J.P. Feyereisen, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, plus two or three others yet to be signed. At some point soon the Yankees will sign some pitchers to minor league deals for depth and Triple-A roster filler. The Anthony Swarzaks of the world we all love to hate. Feyereisen is a reliever with a chance to pitch in the show next year, hence the invite. Pinder and Rumbelow are still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, so they won’t actually pitch this spring, but they have big league service time and the non-roster invite is basically a courtesy. They’ll get big league meal money and lodging. It’s better than rehabbing in minor league camp.

Left-handers

As with the righties, I think we’ll see some good left-handed pitching prospects in Spring Training, most notably Jordan Montgomery and Justus Sheffield. Montgomery pitched very well at Double-A and Triple-A last summer, and the odds are strongly in favor of him making his MLB debut at some point in 2017. Spring Training is a chance for Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild to get their eyes on him. Giving Montgomery a non-roster invite makes all the sense in the world.

Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)
Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)

As for Sheffield, I do think he’ll get the invite to big league camp even though the odds of him pitching in the show this year are extremely small. Sheffield is a top prospect who reached Double-A last year, and he’s going to spend much of 2017 there as well, which could be enough to make him a non-roster candidate. And like Tate, I think the Yankees are going to want to show him off a bit. Sheffield could be one of those guys who makes one Grapefruit League appearance before being sent to minor league camp.

Mike’s Prediction: Montgomery, Sheffield, Jason Gurka, Joe Mantiply, plus one yet to be signed. Gurka signed a minor league deal a few weeks ago and has big league time with the Rockies, so he’ll get the non-roster invite. Mantiply is in a similar situation. Other southpaw prospects like Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, Stephen Tarpley, and Josh Rogers will have to settle for minor league camp and a possible one-day call-up for a split squad game or something.

* * *

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the chances of me being wrong (very wrong) here are quite high. This is all nothing more than guesswork based on the farm system and New York’s recent non-roster tendencies. Okay, so after all of that, I came up with 30 possible non-roster invitees:

  • Catchers (6): Castillo, Deglan, Diaz, Saez, plus up to two others yet to be signed.
  • Infielders (6): Choi, Culver, Solano, Tejada, Torres, and Wade.
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and Payton.
  • Pitchers (14): Adams, Feyereisen, Gurka, Kaprielian, Mantiply, Montgomery, Pinder, Rumbelow, Sheffield, Tate, plus as many as four yet to be signed.

Last year the Yankees brought 25 non-roster players to camp. The year before it was 26 and the year before that it was also 26, so my total of 30 is in ballpark when you consider each team will probably bring a few more players to camp to help cover for the WBC. If anything, 30 might be a little light since Pinder and Rumbelow won’t actually pitch. (The Yankees brought 44 players to camp in 2013, the last WBC year, which was insane.)

The Yankees announced their non-roster invitees on February 5th each of the last two years. Three years ago it was January 29th. They tend to do it very late in the offseason, so we still have a few weeks to go before things are made official. Either way, this promises to be a very prospect filled Spring Training. Guys like Torres, Frazier, Kaprielian, Montgomery, Fowler, and Wade will all be in camp, plus all the 40-man guys like Mateo, Andujar, Judge, and Bird. Should be fun.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Head’s up: Brian Cashman and several of the Yankees top prospects are currently holding a town hall with fans and season ticket holders. The video is embedded above — here’s the link if the embed doesn’t work — and it’s live right now. Not sure how long it will go on. Check it out though. Cashman has been discussing the farm system and trade market, things like that.

This is tonight’s open thread. The (hockey) Rangers, Devils, and Nets are all playing, and there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about those games, A-Rod‘s new show, or anything else right here.

Update: 2017 Salary Arbitration Filing Day Signings

Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Original Post (Friday, 12pm ET): Today is a significant day on the offseason calendar. The deadline for teams and their arbitration-eligible players to file salary figures for the 2017 season is 1pm ET. The team submits the salary they believe the player deserves while the player submits the salary he feels he deserves. Simple, right?

The Yankees have seven arbitration-eligible players on the roster right now. They started the offseason with nine, but Nathan Eovaldi and Dustin Ackley were released when 40-man roster space was needed back in November. Here are the seven arbitration-eligible players and their projected 2017 salaries, per MLB Trade Rumors:

Most arbitration-eligible players around the league will sign a new contract prior to the filing deadline. Last year the Yankees signed Pineda and Ackley before the deadline, but ended up filing figures with Gregorius, Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, and Aroldis Chapman. It was the first time they failed to sign an eligible player before the filing deadline in several years.

It’s important to note exchanging figures today doesn’t mean the two sides have to go to an arbitration hearing. They can still hammer out a contract of any size at any point. In fact, the Yankees were able to sign Gregorius, Eovaldi, Nova, and Chapman not too long after the filing deadline last year. New York hasn’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang during the 2007-08 offseason.

We’re going to keep track of today’s Yankee-related arbitration news right here, assuming nothing crazy like a long-term extension happens. I’m not counting on it. Make sure you check back for updates often. The deadline is 1pm ET, but the news tends to trickle in all throughout the afternoon.

Update (Friday, 11:39am ET): The Yankees and Gregorius have agreed to a one-year contract worth $5.1M, reports Jon Heyman. Exactly as MLBTR projected. Gregorius made $2.425M last season, which was his first of four years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two. A long-term extension was always a long shot. Didi can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season.

Update (Friday, 12:27pm ET): Romine and the Yankees have an $805,000 agreement in place, says Heyman. Quite a bit below MLBTR’s projection, relatively speaking. Romine made made $556,000 last season. This was his first trip through arbitration.

Update (Friday, 4:52pm ET): Pineda and the Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract worth $7.4M, per Heyman. That’s up from his $4.3M salary in 2016. It pays to be a (middling) starting pitcher. Pineda came in just under his MLBTR projected salary.

Update (Friday, 4:55pm ET): The Yankees have a $2.29M agreement with Warren, according to Josh Norris. Almost exactly what MLBTR projected. He made $1.7M a year ago. Warren will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018 as well.

Update (Friday, 5:30pm ET): The Yankees announced they have agreements in place with both Hicks and Layne. They’re one-year contracts. No word on the money yet though. That leaves Betances as the only unsigned arbitration-eligible player. I’m not surprised. Contract talks weren’t smooth last year.

Update (Friday, 7:13pm ET): Betances filed for $5M and the Yankees countered with $3M, according to Heyman. That’s a pretty significant gap. They might end up going to a hearing. Then again, I said the same thing about Chapman last year, and they hammered out a deal. Get that paper, Dellin.

Update (Friday, 7:56pm ET): Layne received $1.075M, so says Bryan Hoch. He was arbitration-eligible for the first of four times as a Super Two this offseason, so he’s under team control through 2020. Then again, Layne is already 32 and he’s been in four organizations the last five years, so yeah.

Update (Tuesday, 6:00pm ET): The Yankees and Hicks agreed to a $1.35M salary for 2017, reports Ronald Blum. Just a touch below MLBTR’s projection. Hicks made $574,000 last season. He will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2019.

CC Sabathia hopes to continue pitching beyond 2017

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

Hands down, one of my favorite things about last season was CC Sabathia‘s resurgence. It was tough watching him struggle the last few years, but last season Sabathia developed a cutter and made the transition to finesse pitcher. Hopefully he gives the Yankees more of the same this coming season. They’ll need it to contend.

Not surprisingly, Sabathia recently told Pete Caldera that as long as he’s healthy and feeling good, he plans to continue playing. This is the time of year when we begin to hear stories like this. CC was also surprisingly non-committal about remaining with the Yankees long-term even though his family lives in New Jersey full-time.

“If anything, it made me want to play as long as I can. As long as I’m healthy and feeling good, I want to play,” said Sabathia when asked about Mark Teixeira‘s and Alex Rodriguez‘s farewells. “I don’t think there would be anything sentimental (about 2017 possibly being my final season as Yankee). If it’s my last year (here), I’m sure I’ll pitch here again, whether it’s in a different uniform or whatever.”

Usually we hear players say they want to wear pinstripes the rest of their careers. I know Teixeira said that last year, when he was still in “I want to play until I’m 40” mode. It’s kinda refreshing to hear Sabathia be so candid. He knows this is a business, he’s been through free agency and all that before, and he understands the business could lead to him pitching elsewhere after 2017.

The Yankees are in need of pitching beyond 2017 since both Sabathia and Michael Pineda will be free agents after the season, plus Masahiro Tanaka can opt-out. Hopefully a few of the kids emerge as reliable rotation options this year. That would be cool. And even if it happens, there’s always room for a veteran innings guy on the staff. I can’t imagine the Yankees ever going with five kids in the rotation.

Sabathia’s new cutter and knee brace, not to mention his sobriety, give us some tangible reasons to believe his success last year was sustainable. He’ll never be an ace again, but if he can be a league average starter for 170+ innings, that’s a nice little rotation piece. If he has another solid season, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Yankees try to bring Sabathia back in 2018, presumably on a one-year deal. Hard to think of a better one-year veteran.

With the right field job up for grabs, Judge is still making adjustments this offseason

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

Know what’s a fun game? Trying to figure out which young Yankees player you’re most looking forward to seeing this coming season. The easy answer is Gary Sanchez and understandably so. He was incredible last year. But there’s also Greg Bird, who we haven’t seen in over a year. And Tyler Austin‘s opposite field power. We can’t forget Aaron Judge either. He hit some jaw-dropping home runs in his brief 2016 cameo.

Along with those jaw-dropping homers came a whole bunch of strikeouts. Lots and lots of strikeouts. Forty-two in 95 plate appearances, to be exact. A total of 7,718 players have batted at least 90 times in a season this century, and Judge’s 44.2% strikeout rate was third highest behind 2015 Joey Gallo (46.3%) and 2016 Madison Bumgarner (44.3%), so yeah. We knew the strikeouts were coming. We just hoped they wouldn’t be that bad.

Of course, we’re talking about 95 plate appearances here, and that’s nothing. Jose Bautista struck out 40 times in 96 plate appearances (41.7%) in his MLB debut in 2004, and by 2006, his first full big league season, it was down to 23.5%. Javier Baez went from 41.5% strikeouts in 2014 to 24.0% strikeouts in 2016. Neither of those guys was 6-foot-7, but with a little hard work and patience, it is possible to cut the strikeouts down to a more manageable rate.

Last offseason Judge spent a bunch of time with the organization’s hitting gurus working on various adjustments, and when he showed up to Spring Training, he had a brand new leg kick. I’ve used this GIF a bunch of times before and I might as well do it again. Spring Training 2015 is on the left and Spring Training 2016 is on the right:

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016

Judge had a much more pronounced leg kick last spring, and he also moved his hands down ever so slightly. The adjustments didn’t stop there either. When Judge was called up in August, his hands were even lower, and the leg kick wasn’t quite as big as it was in Spring Training. Check it out:

aaron-judge-adjustments

That ball cleared the visitor’s bullpen and landed about five rows deep in the left field bleachers. I just thought I’d mention that. Here’s the video if you’re desperate for a baseball highlight.

Anyway, that’s three versions of Judge in the span of 18 months. He added a leg kick, lowered his hands, reduced the leg kick, and lowered his hands some more. The adjustments are ongoing. Very rarely is there a magic fix. Do this one thing and everything will work out fine. It would be nice if that’s how it worked, but nah.

Judge is again hard at work this offseason, making adjustments in an effort to cut down on his strikeouts and become a productive big leaguer. And again, the lower half is the primary focus. Brian Cashman said Judge has been working to remain “calm” and “balanced” with his legs this offseason.

“Aaron was just at Yankee Stadium about a week to ten days ago,” said Cashman during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “(Hitting coach) Alan Cockrell was working with him on his lower half, and continuing the efforts and adjustments they started last year … The lower half is the final adjustment that they’re working through — his front side and staying clam and trying to stay balanced — and so I think that’ll help.”

It sounds like — and I could be completely wrong here — the Yankees and Judge are still trying to find a leg kick that works. They tried the big one in Spring Training and obviously that didn’t stick, because it was much shorter when he arrived in the big leagues. A leg kick is a timing mechanism, and if Judge improves his timing, it should help him cut down on the empty swings.

“He’s a big kid. Strikeouts are going to be part of his game,” added Cashman. “It’s just limiting them. He can’t have success and maintain a career at the big league level with that level of strikeouts. If we shave that off, we’ll take the power trade-off he’ll provide.”

The question is not the adjustments themselves or Judge’s effort level. He continues to put in the work and he’s shown the aptitude to make adjustments in the past. The question is where should he make these adjustments? Do the Yankees live with the growing pains at the MLB level, or send Judge down to Triple-A, where development is the goal and winning is secondary?

I guess we can’t answer that right now. The Yankees have more information than us, they know what’s going on behind the scenes, so this isn’t simply a case of watching some Spring Training at-bats and making a decision. Judge could rake in camp, but if the team doesn’t think he’s where he needs to be, they could send him down for a few weeks. It’s not like they’re short on outfielders. They can plug someone else in right field for the time being.

“His history in the last two years of promotion — at the Triple-A level and last year with us — was failure, adjustments, success,” said Cashman. “He experienced some failure at the Major League level. That whole experience in the short sample will serve him well as he approaches 2017 … He’s got options, so if he’s not quite ready, he gets to go down there and finish himself off, and wait until he’s ready.”

I mentioned this in last week’s mailbag, but Judge will be an interesting test case for the rebuild. How patient will fans be with him? And, more importantly, how patient will the Yankees be with him? We caught a glimpse of the potential reward last year. The balls hit off the top of the restaurant and over the bullpens. Judge is working to get to that level consistently, and the Yankees should remain patient and give him as much time as necessary, even if it means another stint in Triple-A.