Pros and cons of the Yankees’ prolonged managerial search

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

Three weeks ago today, the Yankees parted ways with longtime manager Joe Girardi, supposedly because there was concern he didn’t “communicate and connect” well with players. That’s kind of a big deal. Managers need to be able to communicate with their players, especially young players who are still learning the ropes in the big leagues. The Yankees have plenty of those.

In the three weeks since Girardi was let go the Yankees have only interviewed two managerial candidates: Rob Thomson and Eric Wedge. Brian Cashman has a third interview with an unknown candidate today — the Yankees will reportedly interview Aaron Boone and Hensley Meulens at some point, so maybe one of them is interviewing today — and I’m sure more interviews are scheduled in the coming days and weeks as well.

The GM Meetings this week put the managerial search on hold for a few days, though even considering that, it sure seems this whole process is moving slowly, doesn’t it? The Yankees named Girardi their manager eleven days after parting ways with Joe Torre back in the day, but, to be fair, it was an open secret Girardi would get the job. This time around the Yankees didn’t go into the managerial search with a favorite, at least not that we know of.

Cashman admitted last week he has a list of 20-25 candidates, which is an awful lot. He’s not going interview 20-25 candidates though. Hal Steinbrenner told Bryan Hoch they will interview “less than ten.” The Yankees started with a list of 20-25 candidates, pared it down, and are interviewing who they consider the best options. Going through 20-25 interviews would be nuts and take a very long time. For reference, here’s how long it took other teams to name new managers this offseason.

  • Mets: 22 days
  • Nationals: 9 days
  • Phillies: 30 days
  • Red Sox: 11 days
  • Tigers: 19 days

The Nationals and Red Sox hammered through their managerial search in under two weeks. The Phillies needed a month. On average, it took those five teams 18.2 days to find a new manager. The Yankees are at 21 days right now, and don’t seem particularly close to a resolution. Could the Yankees have a new manager in place by this time next week? Absolutely. Do I think they’ll have a new manager in play by this time next week? Nah. Thanksgiving is going to throw a wrench into things, if nothing else.

For whatever reason the managerial search is moving slowly, at least relative to the other teams that hired a new manager this winter. And, honestly, I have no idea whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I mean, it seems like a bad thing. It makes the Yankees seem indecisive and unprepared. But who knows? Let’s talk this out a bit.

1. It’s good to be thorough. Managing the Yankees is unlike any other managerial job in baseball. The media demands are different and the expectations are different. Even when the Yankees openly admitted 2017 would be a rebuilding transition year, there was still that expectation to win. The new manager won’t have to deal with the never-ending Alex Rodriguez saga — Girardi doesn’t get enough credit for handling all that as well as he did — but things will pop up. That’s baseball in New York.

The Yankees want to nail this. They don’t want a stopgap manager — remember when Jeff Pentland was the stopgap hitting coach? that was weird — they want someone who will be here for the next decade. The Yankees have had only two managers in the last 22 years, which is insane. They want whoever they hire this offseason to still be the manager when Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino are in their mid-30s.

And, to do that, they need to be thorough. The interview process is grueling — Thomson and Wedge both described it as a 5-6 hour ordeal — and very in depth. Candidates meet the front office, the analytics folks, hold a conference call with reporters, the whole nine. The Yankees are trying to get as much information as possible to make sure they can make the best decision. Rushing to a decision could lead to a very bad result, and the Yankees definitely aren’t doing that.

2. There’s no competition. The Yankees are the only team looking for a manager right now. One of the reasons the Red Sox and Nationals had to wrap up their managerial searches quick is because other teams were looking for a manager at the same time, and they wanted to make sure they got their man. Alex Cora interviewed with several teams, so the Red Sox had to act quickly to get him. Same with the Nationals and Dave Martinez.

The Yankees have no such concerns. They’re not competing with any other teams. They can interview all the available managerial candidates without worrying another club will swoop in with a job offer. Maybe they’ll lose a candidate to a coaching job elsewhere, like Joe Espada. Espada presumably didn’t want to wait around for the Yankees to complete their managerial search and possibly lose out on the Astros’ bench coach job, so he took it. I guess something like that can happen.

Point is, the Yankees are the last team standing. Any candidate who wants a managerial job has one place to turn. That affords the Yankees the time to be thorough and go through a prolonged interview process. The Red Sox and Nationals and Mets didn’t really have that luxury. They had to make quick decisions or risk losing their top choice to another team. That isn’t the case with the Yankees.

3. Could it hurt free agent pursuits? It might. It very well might. Tough to make a good pitch to a free agent when you don’t know who the manager will be, right? What if Shohei Otani gets posted sooner than expected and begins the process of interviewing teams and whatnot? Tough to make a good impression if you show up with no manager.

For what it’s worth, CC Sabathia said he wouldn’t have a trouble re-signing with the Yankees before they hire a new manager — “I trust those guys that they’ll hire somebody that we can play for,” he told Dan Martin — but Sabathia is a special case. He’s been a Yankee the last nine years and is comfortable with the organization. This is his home and he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to leave.

Trying to lure free agents away from other teams could be an issue for the Yankees if their managerial search continues for several more weeks. Players want to know who they’re going to play for. That’s human nature. Especially pitchers. Wouldn’t you want to know whether your manager has a history of abusing arms? The Yankees aren’t going to hire someone like that, but who knows what gets said behind the scenes.

Right now, the Yankees can’t tell any free agent targets who will manage the club next season, and that’s a bad thing. Sabathia’s a special case. He’s the exception, not the rule. The hot stove hasn’t yet started to heat up, but it will soon, and until the Yankees have a new manager in place, they’ll be at a disadvantage. I can’t imagine not knowing who your manager (and coaches!) will be would be a fun situation to walk into.

* * *

“We’d love to have a new manager ASAP, but we have a healthy process involved with every decision we make, and the most important aspect is steps we take rather than time frame,” said Cashman last week when asked about a timetable for hiring a new manager. It’s good to be thorough and the Yankees don’t have to worry about losing candidates to other teams, but players want to know who they’ll play for. That includes both players already on the team and free agents who are considering joining the team.

Is the prolonged managerial search a good thing or a bad thing? Right now, I think it’s neither. I think it’s just a thing. Needing three or four weeks to find a new skipper is not terribly unusual. What I do know — and I think we can all agree on this — is the longer the managerial search goes, the worse it looks. It’ll look like the Yankees are having trouble finding a candidate they like. Looking bad and being bad are not the same thing though. For now, things are fine. But the sooner the Yankees can wrap this up, the better.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today Hal Steinbrenner spoke to reporters and confirmed the Yankees still don’t have a new contract in place with Brian Cashman. “Maybe it’s a handshake deal with no terms, but we’re working on it,” said Hal to Mark Feinsand. The fact Cashman is running the managerial search and representing the team at the GM Meetings tells us he’s coming back. They just haven’t worked out the details. Huh.

Anyway, here is an open thread for the night. The Knicks and Rangers are both playing, plus there’s a ton of college hoops on as well. Talk about anything here that isn’t religion or politics.

Luis Severino finishes third in 2017 AL Cy Young voting

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

Luis Severino‘s first full Major League season has resulted in a third place finish in the American League Cy Young voting. How about that? Not too bad for a guy who didn’t have a rotation spot locked down going into Spring Training.

Wednesday night, MLB and the BBWAA announced Indians ace Corey Kluber has won the 2017 AL Cy Young, with Red Sox lefty Chris Sale placing second. It is Kluber’s second career Cy Young. He won back in 2014 as well. The Yankees scored nine run in 6.1 innings against Kluber in his two ALDS starts. Just thought I should mention that.

For most of the season Sale was the overwhelming favorite to win the Cy Young, but he slumped down the stretch — Sale had a 4.30 ERA (4.33 FIP) in his final eight starts and 46 innings of the year — while Kluber surged, so Kluber won the award. He led MLB in wins (18), ERA (2.25), ERA+ (202), WHIP (0.87), K/BB (7.36), and WAR (+8.3). That’ll do it.

As for Severino, he broke out in a big way this season, throwing 193.1 innings with a 2.98 ERA (3.07 FIP) and excellent strikeout (29.4%), walk (6.5)%, and ground ball (50.6%) rates. Pretty awesome. Severino was the only pitcher in baseball to finish in the top ten in both strikeout and grounder rate this year, and his 230 strikeouts are tied for third most in franchise history.

  1. 1978 Rob Guidry: 248
  2. 1904 Jack Chesbro: 239 (in 454.2 innings!)
  3. 2017 Luis Severino & 2011 CC Sabathia: 230

Furthermore, Severino is the first Yankees starter to post a sub-3.00 ERA since Andy Pettitte and David Cone both did it back in 1997. This is the highest a Yankee has finished in the AL Cy Young voting since Sabathia placed third behind Felix Hernandez and David Price in 2010.

The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site. No other Yankees received votes. Congrats, Luis. There’s no shame in finished third behind Kluber and Sale. Go win it next year.

Manager/Coaching Staff Search Updates: Woodward, Beltran, Rothschild, Ausmus, Flaherty, Ibanez

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
Woodward. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

It has been two weeks and six days since the Yankees parted ways with Joe Girardi, and so far they have interviewed two managerial candidates (Rob Thomson, Eric Wedge) and have two more interviews scheduled (Aaron Boone, Hensley Meulens). Hal Steinbrenner told Bryan Hoch today that once the list of candidates is cut down, they’ll be brought to Tampa to meet the Steinbrenners for a second round of interviews. Here’s the latest on the manager and coaching staff searches.

Woodward a managerial candidate

Dodgers third base coach and former big league utility man Chris Woodward is a candidate for the manager’s job, report Mark Feinsand and Joel Sherman. An interview is not scheduled yet but is likely to happen. Sherman says the Yankees intend to cap their interviews at five or six candidates. Thomson, Wedge, Boone, and Muelens are four. Woodward would make it five.

Woodward, 41, was in camp with the Yankees as a non-roster player in 2008. He jumped right into coaching after his playing career ended in 2012. Woodward went from Mariners minor league infield coordinator in 2013 to Mariners infield coach in 2014 to Mariners infield and first base coach in 2015 to Dodgers third base coach from 2016-17. He’s said to be highly regarded within baseball and has been considered a future manager for a few years now. John Lott wrote a feature on Woodward last year.

Beltran wants to manage one day

Soon after announcing his retirement earlier this week, Carlos Beltran told Feinsand he would love to manage one day. “With the experience that I have in the game of baseball … I would love that opportunity, for sure,” he said. Feinsand asked Beltran specifically about managing the Yankees. His response:

“I would not discount anything; you’re talking about the New York Yankees. You’re not just talking about any team in baseball. Not taking anything away from any other organization, but the Yankees are a team that anyone would love to put on that uniform and manage that ballclub.”

Sherman says Beltran reached out to Brian Cashman to let him know he wants to manage — Cashman danced around the question when asked about Beltran as a managerial candidate the other day, telling Andrew Marchand, “I am aware of his interest in managing in the future. I’ll leave it at that for right now” — though it doesn’t sound like he’ll get an interview. I think Beltran would benefit from spending a few years as a coach just to see how the other half lives before diving into managing. He’ll manage one day though. For sure.

Rothschild will return in 2018

According to multiple reports, pitching coach Larry Rothschild will return next season no matter who the Yankees hire to be the next manager. A few weeks ago we heard the new manager will have a say in the coaching staff, but apparently that doesn’t apply to the pitching coach. This isn’t that unusual. Both Joe Torre (Willie Randolph, Tony Cloninger) and Girardi (Kevin Long, Tony Pena) inherited coaches when they joined the Yankees. Pitching coaches Don Cooper and Rick Honeycutt have been through multiple managers with the White Sox and Dodgers, respectively.

Rothschild, 63, has been New York’s pitching coach since 2011, and during that time Yankees pitchers rank third in ERA- (94), third in FIP- (93), and second in fWAR (+139.6). Sherman says the Yankees like Rothschild’s “ability to blend analytics with hands-on work with the staff,” plus he is widely respected around the game, so that’s why they’re keeping him. I’ve said this before and I’ll said it again: I think the impact of coaches is overstated. They’re important! But they’re not miracle workers. Rothschild has a great reputation within baseball and that’s enough for me.

Quick Notes

Got a couple quick notes on managerial and coaching candidates. Here’s a roundup:

  • The Yankees reached out to Brad Ausmus. Like every other team that reached out this offseason, they were told Ausmus is going to take a year off to spend time with his family. [Jon Heyman]
  • John Flaherty, who threw his hat into the managerial ring last week, has not heard back from the Yankees yet. Not even a callback? Ouch. [Anthony Rieber]
  • The Yankees did reach out to Raul Ibanez about managing, but he’s not ready for that big of a commitment and will remain with the Dodgers as a special advisor. [Ken Davidoff]
  • Jim Leyritz reached out to the Yankees about a coaching position. Cashman told him he didn’t have enough experience. [Rieber]
  • The Yankees have not reached out to Omar Vizquel. He was the Tigers’ first base coach under Ausmus the last few years. [Brendan Kuty]

Can’t say I blame Leyritz for trying, but yeah, that was never going to happen.

Prospect Profile: Clarke Schmidt

(AP)
(AP)

Clarke Schmidt | LHP

Background
Schmidt, 21, grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth, and he was one of the top pitchers in the state during his time at Allatoona High School. He struck out 100 batters and posted a 0.72 ERA in 55 innings as a senior, which earned him regional Pitcher of the Year honors. Schmidt’s older brother Clate played four years at Clemson and is currently a Tigers farmhand.

Despite his success at Allatoona, Baseball America did not rank Schmidt as one of the top 500 prospects for the 2014 draft, or as one of the top 43 draft prospects in Georgia. He went undrafted out of high school and followed through on his commitment to South Carolina, where he was teammates with current Yankees prospects Taylor Widener and Dom Thompson-Williams. Schmidt missed being Jordan Montgomery‘s teammate by one year.

As a freshman Schmidt threw 58 innings with a 4.81 ERA and a 55/20 K/BB across ten starts and eight relief appearances. Life in the SEC can be rough for a freshman hurler. After the season Schmidt played summer ball in the Coastal Plains League, where he made three starts and allowed 13 runs (eight earned) in 8.2 innings for the Florence RedWolves. Ouch.

The 2015 season was Schmidt’s breakout year. He threw 111.1 innings with a 3.40 ERA and a 129/27 K/BB as a sophomore and emerged as South Carolina’s ace. His first postseason start did not go well (4 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 8 K vs. Rhode Island) but the second was better (6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 6 K vs. Oklahoma State). The Gamecocks lost both starts. The second ended their season.

Schmidt’s junior year was outstanding. He threw 60.1 innings with a 1.34 ERA and a 70/18 K/BB while pitching through a minor oblique issue, and was as good as any college pitcher in his country. Schmidt was so good he was named to the Golden Spikes Award Midseason Watch List, which is essentially a candidates list for the Golden Spikes Award, the baseball equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

Unfortunately for Schmidt, he left his April 20th outing against Florida with forearm tightness after throwing 84 pitches in 5.1 innings. Tests revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament. He had Tommy John surgery a week later — Mets team doctor Dr. David Altcheck performed the procedure — ending his college career. Schmidt went 15-9 with a 3.21 ERA and 254/65 K/BB in 229.2 innings at South Carolina.

Considered a likely first round pick before blowing out his elbow, Schmidt was ranked as the 32nd best prospect in the 2017 draft by Baseball America, and the 49th best prospect by MLB.com. The Yankees selected Schmidt with their first round pick, the 16th overall selection. He signed a few weeks later for an $2,184,300 bonus, well below the $3,458,600 slot value.

Pro Debut
Schmidt has not yet made his pro debut because of the whole Tommy John surgery thing. The last rehab update came in mid-September, when Schmidt told Brendan Kuty everything is going well. “Everything’s been great so far. I’m just excited to take the next step and to keep working,” he said. Schmidt told Kuty he started throwing three weeks prior to their conversation, so his rehab is right on schedule. (There haven’t been any updates on his rehab since, though that’s not unusual at all.)

Scouting Report
After sitting in the mid-to-upper-80s in high school, Schmidt gradually added velocity in college as he matured physically, and was comfortably sitting 91-93 mph and touching 96 mph before blowing out his elbow this year. His fastball is more of a running two-seamer than a four-seamer.

A hard mid-80s slider is Schmidt’s bread and butter and the reason he was drafted so high despite Tommy John surgery. He can vary the break on the slider — he can sweep it side-to-side or have it drop down out of the zone — so much so that it’ll sometimes look like a curveball. The slider was considered a big league out pitch before the elbow injury. Schmidt also throws a promising mid-80s changeup that was above-average on its best days.

There were two concerns about Schmidt heading into the 2017 draft. One, his delivery can be a little stiff and that will cause his command to waver at times. And two, he’s not the biggest guy at 6-foot-1 and 200 lbs., so there were questions about his durability. The Tommy John surgery means those questions will persist going forward.

Teams aren’t scared away by Tommy John surgery these days and one of the reasons the Yankees felt comfortable taking Schmidt is his makeup. He’s an absolute bulldog on the mound, and he’s drawn rave reviews for his work ethic and makeup for years. (He skipped summer ball in 2015 to be with his family after his brother was diagnosed with cancer.) The Yankees always target great makeup guys and Schmidt is no different. They were confident he’d work hard during his rehab.

2018 Outlook
These days teams give pitchers — especially young pitchers and prospects — closer to 14-16 months to rehab following Tommy John surgery. The days of a 12-month rehab are long gone. Given the timing of Schmidt’s surgery, it’s unlikely he’ll take the mound in an official minor league game until the various short season leagues begin in late-June. The Yankees will bring him along slowly in Extended Spring Training until then. The 2018 season will effectively be a rehab year for Schmidt. Get healthy, shake off the rust, and prepare to turn it loose in 2019.

My Take
I have trouble separating my opinion of Schmidt as a prospect with my opinion of the decision to use the 16th overall selection on an injured pitcher. Schmidt is a quality prospect, at least when healthy. I always worry about short-ish pitchers being home run prone, but otherwise he has a good fastball and a great slider, and the makings of a very good changeup. Add in his makeup and competitiveness and you’ve got a quality pitching prospect. No doubt.

I just didn’t love the decision to select an injured pitcher that high in the draft though, not with other perfectly healthy and equally talented college starters still on the board. (Florida righty Alex Faedo and Oregon lefty David Peterson were selected not long after Schmidt.) Based on various post-draft interviews with scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, it seems Schmidt was Plan B. The Yankees were originally targeting players who came off the board before their pick, and when they weren’t available, they went with Schmidt because they knew they could sign him below slot and spread the savings around.

I know Tommy John surgery has a very high success rate, and I know Schmidt’s rehab is going well so far, but elbow reconstruction is a significant risk. There can be complications or setbacks, his pre-surgery stuff might not fully return, all sorts of stuff can happen. The pre-surgery version of Schmidt was a very good prospect. Will he be the same guy after he completes his rehab? The Yankees believe so. I think it was too big of a risk at that point in the draft. It’s not like Schmidt was a consensus top five draft prospect they were able to steal. They took him about where he was expected to go when he was healthy, except he wasn’t healthy.

The Stopgap Third Baseman [2017 Season Review]

(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Yankees acquisition of Todd Frazier served as a reminder of just how quickly Brian Cashman works. Jon Heyman reported that the team was interested in Frazier (and David Robertson) on July 16, and Frazier (and Robertson and Tommy Kahnle) were acquired less than forty-eight hours later. In the grand scheme of things, it was the move that signaled that the Yankees would be buyers this year, filling the gaping void at first base and doubling-down on a dominant bullpen – and it worked out quite well.

Who Said Anything About First Base?

A revolving door at first and a seemingly endless stream of rumors demonstrated just how unsettled the Yankees infield was well into July, and Frazier’s name had popped-up in that respect more than a few times. Most every outlet viewed his acquisition as a move made to stabilize first base, but it only did so in a roundabout way, as Frazier did not play a single inning there for the Yankees. Instead, he took over as the starting third baseman, with Chase Headley and his questionable-at-best defense moving across the diamond.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock that Frazier manned third base, though. Headley had been a poor defender at the position more often than not as a Yankee, and this organization has prided itself on strong glovework in recent years. Frazier, on the other hand, has been a strong (albeit occasionally error-prone) third baseman for the better part of his career; to wit, he has a 6.0 UZR/150 and 6.5 DRS/150 in 6900 innings at the position. And he played the part following the trade, saving 6 runs in 539.2 innings by DRS’ reckoning.

He Was Who We Thought He’d Be At The Plate

Frazier was batting .207/.328/.432 (104 wRC+) with 16 HR in 335 PA prior to the trade. That’s not too far off of his 2016 season, wherein he hit .225/.302/.464 (104 wRC+) with 40 HR in 666 PA. He was a useful thumper, to be sure, but not the middle of the order threat that all of those home runs would suggest. It was worth noting, though, that his walk rate had jumped rather dramatically, from 9.6% in 2016 to 14.3% with the White Sox this year, which helped make up for his dip in batting average. Luckily for the Yankees, they didn’t need him to be a big-time run producer – they just needed stability. And he gave them a bit more.

He started out slow following the trade, slashing a powerless .216/.356/.297 (87 wRC+) to close out July. Frazier had just one extra base hit in his first two weeks with the team, and it almost felt like more of the same. His bat was better in August, but still a bit disappointing – he hit .221/.352/.395 (104 wRC+) with 4 HR. The power was coming back, but it was still a tick under what we expected.

And then the calendar flipped to September, and Frazier’s bat came alive. He slashed .225/.385/.521 (139 wRC+) with 6 HR and nearly as many walks (15) as strikeouts (17) in the season’s last month, as he helped the Yankees wrap-up home field advantage in the Wild Card game. He was also the standard-bearer for the team’s love of the thumb’s down celebration, and the de facto cheerleader from the bench down the stretch and throughout the playoffs.

All told, Frazier hit .222/.365/.423 (114 wRC+) with 11 HR in 241 PA in pinstripes.

2018 Outlook

Todd Frazier is a free agent as of this writing, but he has made his interest in returning to the Yankees fairly clear; whether or not the Yankees have room on the roster (and/or payroll) to retain his services is another issue entirely. I would be surprised if Frazier ended up back in pinstripes next year, as the team preps its full-court press for Shohei Otani, and likely hopes to have room on the roster for Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar if and when they are ready for a shot. Stranger things have happened, but I just don’t think Cashman and Co. see it as a fit.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Alex Avila

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Weirdly enough, the Yankees could be in the market for a catcher this offseason. Gary Sanchez is one of the best catchers in baseball and the Yankees aren’t about to move him out from behind the plate — “Hell no,” said Brian Cashman to Jon Morosi when asked about moving Sanchez to DH earlier this week — so there is no need for a starting catcher. The Yankees could use a new backup though.

Austin Romine, the backup catcher the last two seasons, hit .218/.272/.293 (49 wRC+) this year and .228/.271/.330 (57 wRC+) the last two years. Forty-four catchers batted at least 400 times from 2016-17. Romine ranks 43rd in wRC+, ahead of only Caleb Joseph. He’s a bad hitter even by backup catcher standards. Also, Romine threw out only 10% of basestealers this year, and his overall defensive numbers are just okay.

Point is, Romine doesn’t really do anything well, at least not according to numbers we have. Being just an okay defender is not enough when you don’t provide any offense. MLBTR projects a $1.2M salary for Romine next year, and while that’s not much in the grand scheme of things, it could push the Yankees to look at other backup catcher options. They might be able to find a more impactful backup catcher, even though most backup catchers provide no impact.

Arguably the best catcher on the free agent market this year is longtime Tigers (and short time White Sox and Cubs) backstop Alex Avila. It’s either Avila or Jonathan Lucroy. Avila has settled in as a backup the last few years and, as a left-handed hitter, he could mesh well with Yankee Stadium. Would it make sense for the Yankees to pursue him? Well, yes, of course. But how aggressive should they be? Let’s see whether Avila fits with the Yankees need.

Offensive Performance

Way back in 2011, during his age 24 season, Avila hit .295/.389/.506 (140 wRC+) with 19 home runs and was an All-Star. True story. He followed it up by hitting .243/.352/.384 (104 wRC+) in 2012 and .224/.334/.360 (96 wRC+) from 2012-15, which isn’t truly awful for a catcher, but it isn’t great. Avila’s playing time was reduced and he became a backup the last two years.

With the White Sox last season Avila put up a .213/.359/.373 (106 wRC+) line with seven homers in 209 plate appearances. Pretty good! The Tigers brought him back this year, and he hit .274/.394/.475 (133 wRC+) in 264 plate appearances with them before being traded to the Cubs, with whom he hit .239/.369/.380 (103 wRC+) in 112 plate appearances. The end result: .264/.387/.447 (124 wRC+) with 14 homers in 376 trips to the plate.

Early this season Avila looked like one of those “fly ball revolution” guys, the guys who apparently just now realized hitting the ball in the air and out of the ballpark is a good thing. Avila had a 52.2% ground ball rate last year. It was 30.5% in April, May, and June of this season. It didn’t last though. Avila’s ground ball rate climbed as the season progressed and his production dipped.

alex-avila-grounders

So who is the real Avila? The league average-ish hitter with a 44.8% ground ball rate from 2012-16, or the well-above-average hitter with a 38.5% ground ball rate in 2017? The smart money is on the league average-ish guy, and hey, league average is a-okay with me. We’re talking about a backup catcher here.

For what it’s worth, here’s what Avila told Chris McCosky back in June when asked about the fly balls and potential swing changes:

“I haven’t changed anything with my swing,” he said. “It’s the same, it really is. I haven’t tried to make any adjustments with it.”

“Toward the end of last year and going into this year, I was like, ‘I really don’t care (about the shift). I am just going to hit it hard,’” he said. “I’ve got balls through the shift and I’ve hit balls the other way. My focus now is just hitting the ball hard and let whatever happens happen.”

Avila is, for the most part, a dead pull left-handed hitter, so he does get shifted. A lot. The shift has been on for 81% of Avila’s balls in play the last three years, which is Brian McCann/David Ortiz/Chris Davis territory. Being a dead pull hitter is not necessarily a bad thing. It does limit Avila’s ability to hit for average, however.

Fly balls or no fly balls, shift or no shift, Avila’s offensive game breaks down into three things. One, he draws a ton of walks. His career walk rate is 14.0% and over the last three years it’s 17.4%. Two, he strikes out a lot. His career strikeout rate is 28.1%, and over the last three years it’s 32.9%. And three, when Avila hits the ball in the air, he hits it hard. His average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives the last three years is 95.9 mph. The league average is 92.1 mph.

With Avila, you’re getting a hitter who hits for a low average because he strikes out and pulls the ball into the shift, but also will draw a ton of walks and hit for power when he gets the ball in the air. Whoever signs him will hope he gets the ball airborne as often in 2018 as he did in 2017. And if not, he can still be a useful hitter based on 2016. Lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, some power depending on his ground ball rate. And zero baserunning value. Avila is every bit as slow as you’d expect a soon-to-be 31-year-old catcher with over 6,000 career innings on his legs.

Defensive Performance

Catcher defense is difficult to evaluate, and for what it’s worth, the various defensive stats all say Avila is below average overall behind the plate. He is basically an average thrower. We know that much. He threw out 31% of basestealers this year and 29.4% the last three years. That is a hair above-average. The pitch-framing numbers are not good:

Pitch-framing is a weird thing. It obviously exists and is a valuable skill, but are the stats we have precise enough to measure it within a tenth of a run? Of course not. The stats we have are good directionally. When we have two sites and three years worth of data telling us Avila is a bad framer, I’m inclined to believe he’s a bad framer. How bad, exactly? That’s debatable. But bad.

The stats at Baseball Prospectus grade Avila as an average blocker — they have him at -0.8 runs blocking in over 1,400 innings the last three years — so put it all together and you get a below-average gloveman. Average throwing, average blocking, bad framing. Most backup catchers are good defenders, or at least talked up as good defenders, and bad hitters. Avila’s kinda the opposite. An average or better hitter and below average defender. You hope the bat makes up for the poor framing. Everything else kinda evens out.

Injury History

Like a lot of catchers his age, Avila has visited the disabled list a few times over the years. Hamstring trouble sidelined him twice last season, and he’s also missed time with knee soreness, a bruised forearm, and banged up fingers over the years. Typical catcher stuff.

The biggest injury concern with Avila is his concussion history. Remember a few years ago when he took a foul tip to the face mask so hard that the damn thing sparked?

Cool visual! But also probably incredibly bad for Avila’s brain. He missed time with concussions every year from 2012-14, and while he did not have a documented concussion from 2015-17, there’s a pretty good chance Avila got rattled behind the plate a few times. It’s scary stuff. Mike Matheny had to retire early due to concussions. Joe Mauer had to move to first base due to concussions.

The hamstring injury last season was just one of those baseball injuries. They happen. Avila doesn’t have a history of chronic hamstring problems. And a catcher missing time because he takes a foul tip to the forearm or fingers, or has sore knees, is not exactly unheard of. Those injuries come with the position. The concussions are another matter. They’re scary and, unfortunately, part of the job.

Contract Estimates

Catchers are always in demand and Avila will have no trouble finding work this winter, pitch-framing problems and concussion history and all. Here are some contract estimates:

Well how about that? Two projections that agree exactly. Avila signed one-year contracts worth $2.5M and $2M the last two offseasons, though neither time was he coming off a 124 wRC+ season with 14 homers. Also, the current free agent catching market stinks. Avila and Lucroy are the best available catchers, and Lucroy was terrible this season.

That two-year, $16M projection is based on Jason Castro getting three years and $24M last year, and injured Wilson Ramos getting two years and $12.5M. That $8M annually seems to be the going rate for a catcher who is kinda sorta good but flawed. Castro hadn’t hit in years. Ramos was coming back from a torn ACL. Avila isn’t a good framer and it’s been a very long time since he hit like he did in 2017. It’s not unreasonable to be skeptical of his ability to maintain that pace.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

In a vacuum, yes. Even the bad hitting version of Avila is an upgrade over 2016-17 Romine, and the offensive/throwing upgrades are likely more than enough to make up for the pitch-framing downgrade. Also, Avila can still fill in at first base like Romine — he’s started 24 games at first base over the years, and has made 43 career appearances at the position — plus he’s a left-handed hitter, which is nice for matchup purposes.

I see two problems with signing Avila to be the backup catcher. One, there’s not a chance in hell the Yankees will spend $8M annually (or thereabouts) on a backup catcher. Not with the plan to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold next season firmly in place. And two, why would Avila sign with the Yankees to back up Sanchez, one of the best catchers in baseball? Who wants that job? The Yankees will be faced with that problem every year going forward.

The Yankees could sign Avila with the idea of giving him, say, 60 starts behind the plate and another 40 or so at DH. There is something to be said for giving Sanchez only 100 starts behind the plate rather than 120-130 as a way to keep him healthy, and potentially reduce wear and tear so he stays productive later in the season. Is that really something Avila would be interested in though? I have to think he’s looking for a starting job, or at least something close to a starting job, after the season he just had.

Avila does fit what the Yankees need on the field, in my opinion. His expected salary doesn’t fit the luxury tax plan though, and I don’t think Avila wants to be stuck behind Sanchez. This is one of those “he’s a fit for the Yankees but the Yankees are not a fit for him” situations. Maybe Avila’s market will collapse this winter and the Yankees can scoop him up on a one-year, $2M-ish contract like the deals he’s signed the last two offseasons. I have a hard timing thinking that’ll happen though. Catching is always in demand and other teams can offer Avila a greater opportunity.