Friday Links: A-Rod, YES, Judge, Frazier, Gagne, Littell

Guest instructor Al from Miami. (Presswire)
Guest instructor Al from Miami. (Newsday)

The Yankees are, at this very moment, playing their first Grapefruit League game of the season. Turn on YES or MLB.tv to watch. Here’s our game thread. Don’t miss it. Here are some bits of news and notes to check out in the meantime.

A-Rod to meet with YES

At some point this spring Alex Rodriguez will meet with executives from the YES Network, report George King and Bryan Hoch. The exact reason for the meeting is unclear. It could be something, it could be nothing. Maybe just a meet-and-great or some promo work. Or maybe the two sides will discuss a broadcasting role. YES has a small army of ex-Yankees on their rotating panel of analysts.

Rodriguez has done analyst work with FOX the last two postseasons and he’s been really good. Critics have praised him and diehard fans seem to like him too. A-Rod certainly knows the game and he seems comfortable talking about it in depth on camera. Again, I have no idea why exactly Alex and YES are meeting. It really could be nothing. I selfishly hope it’s about potential broadcasting work though. That would be awesome.

Judge among Law’s top impact prospects for 2017

Keith Law (subs. req’d) recently ranked his top 19 prospects based on potential 2017 impact. Not surprisingly, Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi and Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson sit in the top two spots. They’re the two best prospects in baseball in my opinion, and both are locked into big league starting jobs this year. Aaron Judge is seventh on Law’s list and Clint Frazier is among the honorable mentions.

I expect (Judge) to take some time to bring (his strikeouts) down this year, but that’s been his history with each promotion in pro ball. Judge is a giant, at 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, so his strike zone is just as big, but he has enormous raw power and is an above-average right fielder. As long as the contact he makes continues to be hard contact, he’ll have value even if he’s among the league leaders in Ks.

I don’t think the Yankees will hesitate to send Judge to Triple-A to start the season if they feel it’s best for him. I also think they understand he’s going to come with growing pains. We saw them late last year and they’re not necessarily over. At some point they’re just going to have to stick it out with Judge and let him work through the problems, and perhaps that means a .205 average with 185 strikeouts in 2017. Perhaps moreso than any other young player in the system, Judge is going to require a lot of patience, both from the Yankees and fans.

Gagne considering comeback attempt

Eric Gagne, who turned 41 last month, is considering a comeback attempt, according to Ken Gurnick. Gagne hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2008 — he was one-and-done on the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot — but he has thrown in various independent leagues the last few years, and he’ll pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Gagne’s agent told Gurnick he sat 93-95 mph in indy ball last year (eh) while Jon Heyman hears he’s throwing 92-93 mph in bullpen sessions right now.

Gagne at his peak was one of the most dominant forces in baseball history. From 2002-04 he had a 1.79 ERA (1.57 FIP) with 38.6% strikeouts and 6.1% walks in 247 innings. During his 2003 Cy Young season he struck out 137 and walked 18 unintentionally in 82.1 innings. Insane. This is the time of year for comeback attempt stories, and hey, if Gagne looks good during the WBC, I’m sure some team will offer him a minor league deal. Maybe even the Yankees.

Littell among top “control” prospects

A few weeks ago Matt Eddy put together a list of the best “control” prospects in the minors. In this case control is not referring to the ability to throw strikes. FIP is based on three things the pitcher controls: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Eddy removed strikeouts and examined the best prospects at limiting walks and homers, and he also threw in the ability to hold runners for good measure. Zack Littell ranked third on his list.

Of the dozen prospects traded by the Mariners this offseason, Littell looks like one of the more promising. The Yankees acquired the 21-year-old North Carolina prep in a straight-up trade for lefty reliever James Pazos. Littell brings a cerebral approach to the mound, which helps his high-spin fastball and above-average breaking ball play up.

I’m still amazed the Yankees were able to get a solid starting pitcher prospect for Pazos, who throws hard and doesn’t do much else. Littell did not make my top 30 prospects list but Baseball America ranked him 24th in the system in their 2017 Prospect Handbook. The Yankees managed to use the industry’s obsession with lefties and velocity to turn Pazos and Justin Wilson into three pretty nice young arms at a time when reliable starters are hard to find and not cheap to acquire. Neat.

Spring Training Game Thread: Baseball Returns!

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time since October 2nd of last year, the Yankees will play a baseball game today. Not a meaningful one, of course, but a game nonetheless. The Yankees open the 2017 Grapefruit League schedule with a home game against the Phillies at renovated George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa this afternoon. Welcome back, baseball. I’ve missed you.

A few things to watch today: Greg Bird! We haven’t seen him since the 2015 Wild Card Game. He is in today’s lineup. So is Aaron Judge, who is competing for the right field job. I’m curious to see what his mechanics look like these days. There’s been some confusion of late (which is my fault). And, of course, the fourth and fifth starter competition is beginning. Here is the cast of characters the Phillies sent across the causeway, and here’s the lineup Joe Girardi is sending out there in the exhibition opener:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. SS Didi Gregorius
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 1B Greg Bird
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. LF Aaron Hicks
  9. RF Aaron Judge
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

Available Pitchers: RHP Tyler Clippard, LHP Tommy Layne, RHP Luis Cessa, LHP Jordan Montgomery, and RHP Gio Gallegos are all expected to pitch today, assuming I’m reading the lineup card correctly. LHP Daniel Camarena, LHP Dietrich Enns, RHP Ben Heller, RHP Jonathan Holder, and LHP Joe Mantiply are also listed as available.

Available Position Players: C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Ji-Man Choi, 2B Ruben Tejada, SS Gleyber Torres, 3B Miguel Andujar, LF Clint Frazier, CF Dustin Fowler, RF Rob Refsnyder, and DH Wilkin Castillo will be the second string off the bench. That’ll be fun. C Kellin Deglan, C Francisco Diaz, C Jorge Saez, SS Jorge Mateo, OF Billy McKinney, and UTIL Tyler Wade are also available today.

The internet tells me the weather in Tampa is pretty much perfect for baseball. Sunny and warm but not oppressively hot and humid. I want to go to there. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and both MLB Network and MLB.tv nationally. There’s also the FOX Sports Go app. Over the last few years MLB.tv blackout rules have not applied during Spring Training, and hopefully that is still the case. Enjoy the game, folks.

Mailbag: Tanaka, Kaprielian, Sterling, Gardner, Pujols, Ellsbury

There are 13 questions in this week’s Grapefruit League opening mailbag. Hooray for real live baseball. As always, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com are where you can send us questions.

Tanaka. (Presswire)
Tanaka. (Presswire)

Ryan asks: So Tanaka has come over and done VERY well in the majors. In comparison, Daisuke Matsuzaka was heralded as highly and did not have a great career. Also, Yu Darvish has been good as well. Compared to other Japanese pitchers, where does Tanaka rank as far as success in the MLB?

I’d say Dice-K came over with far more hype than Tanaka or Darvish. The hype for that guy was out of control. Off the top of my head, I’d say Tanaka has been the fourth most successful Japanese-born pitcher in MLB behind Darvish, Hideo Nomo, and Hiroki Kuroda. Thankfully WAR exists, and it’s perfect for a question like this one. Here are the top ten Japanese-born players in MLB history by WAR:

  1. Ichiro Suzuki (+59.9 WAR)
  2. Hideo Nomo (+21.8 WAR)
  3. Hiroki Kuroda (+21.7 WAR)
  4. Hideki Matsui (+21.3 WAR)
  5. Hisashi Iwakuma (+16.5 WAR)
  6. Yu Darvish (+15.8 WAR)
  7. Koji Uehara (+13.6 WAR)
  8. Tomo Ohka (+11.9 WAR)
  9. Masahiro Tanaka (+11.7 WAR)
  10. Shigetoshi Hasegawa (+11.6 WAR)

I completely forgot about Iwakuma, so my bad on that. Tanaka has thrown more MLB innings than Uehara (490 to 437.2), though we’re comparing a reliever to a starter. Ohka has a +0.2 WAR edge on Tanaka in 580 more innings. At this point I’d say Tanaka is no worse than the sixth best Japanese-born pitcher in MLB history behind Nomo, Kuroda, Iwakuma, Darvish, and Uehara. There’s a pretty good chance Tanaka will pass Uehara on the WAR leaderboard this year too.

(With all due respect to Nomo, who was truly a pioneer for Japanese baseball players, Kuroda has an essentially identical WAR in 657.1 fewer innings. Also, Shigetoshi Hasegawa was an all-time great Bob Sheppard voice name.)

Mike asks: Can you put in perspective where 2012 (#1 Ranked) Mason Williams would fall in the 2017 top 30?

It was 2013, not 2012 when Williams was at the peak of his prospect-dom. Baseball America ranked him as the Yankees’ best prospect and the 32nd best prospect in baseball that year. Meanwhile, both RAB and MLB.com ranked Williams as the team’s No. 2 prospect behind Gary Sanchez. Either way, Williams or Sanchez, the Yankees had a very good top prospect back in 2013 and both would have rated highly in this year’s top 30. I would have ranked them like so:

  1. Gleyber Torres
  2. Clint Frazier
  3. 2013 Gary Sanchez
  4. Aaron Judge
  5. 2013 Mason Williams
  6. Blake Rutherford
  7. James Kaprielian
  8. Justus Sheffield
  9. Jorge Mateo
  10. Miguel Andujar

Sanchez finished the 2012 season at High-A Tampa and both his power and rocket arm were already on full display. Williams had the better statistical season in 2012, hitting .298/.346/.474 (125 wRC+) between Low-A and High-A, though the power hitting catcher won out for me. Given how things have played out since then, I feel validated.

Chris asks: My question is, what’s the soonest you could possibly see Kaprielian going to double-A? Assuming his first starts are limited to five innings. Is 15 lights outs inning over three starts enough? 25 over 5? It took Sev 8 GS over 32 IP in 2015 at Trenton before they moved him to Scranton.

Pretty soon, I think. Mid-May or so. The main reason for sending Kaprielian to High-A to start the season rather than Double-A is the weather. It’s a heck of a lot warmer in Tampa in April than it is in Trenton, and you don’t want the kid from Southern California pitching in cold weather for the first time immediately after a pretty serious elbow injury. Unless he gets rocked in April, which is unlikely to happen given his stuff and pedigree, I think Kaprielian will be at Double-A before the end of May, for sure. Six or seven starts in Tampa, thereabouts.

John asks: Which Yankee ZiPS projections would you “take” right now for 2017? Judge (30 homers) seems the most obvious, who else?

Yeah, Judge is the big one. ZiPS projects him as a .229/.301/.479 (112 OPS+) hitter with 30 homers and +2.2 WAR right now. First full season in the big leagues? I’d sign up for that right now. Most promising ZiPS projections are on the pitching side for me. Getting 156.2 innings of 3.96 ERA (3.38 FIP) ball from Michael Pineda would be pretty rad after the last two seasons. Same thing with Luis Severino and his 4.20 ERA (3.94 FIP) in 152 innings projection. Jonathan Holder throwing 67 innings with a 3.63 ERA (3.42 FIP) and great strikeout (27.1%) and walk (5.4%) rates would be a hell of a thing. The bullpen could really use someone like that for the middle innings.

Dellin and Larry Rothschild. (Presswire)
Dellin and Larry Rothschild. (Presswire)

Michael asks: If the Yankees’ relationship with Dellin Betances has been greatly damaged by Randy Levine’s (stupid) comments, wouldn’t a trade sooner rather than later make the most sense?

Nope. The Yankees are not going to make roster decisions, especially one involving a great player, based on someone’s hurt feelings. Dellin is a pro and he’s gone about his business since the arbitration ruling. The Yankees will trade Betances only if it makes sense for the organization, not because the two sides aren’t BFFs anymore. And when Betances becomes a free agent in three years, he’s going to make the best decision for him and his family. That was always the case. The Betances-Levine stuff was unfortunate, but a war of words won’t lead to a knee-jerk trade, at least not as long as Brian Cashman calls the shots. If Levine and ownership get involved like they have in the past though, all bets are off.

Paul asks: Looking back, do you think it was better with A-Rod at 3B and Jeter at SS or would it have been better the other way around?

At the time of the trade Alex Rodriguez was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball while Derek Jeter was one of the worst, so yeah, the Yankees would have been better off with A-Rod at short and Jeter at third. I’m not sure how that would have worked long-term. By 2010 or 2011, Rodriguez’s mobility was pretty far gone due to his hip problems. Would A-Rod with bad hips have been a better defensive shortstop than Jeter? Probably not. In the short-term they would have been better off with Rodriguez at short. No doubt about it. I’m not quite sure what it would have meant long-term. Maybe the Yankees would have never re-signing an aging shortstop to a ten-year deal after 2007. And, in that case, maybe they don’t win the 2009 World Series. Hmmm.

Michael asks: Last week there was a question on whether Brian Cashman deserves a plaque in Monument Park. Is there a possibility John Sterling and/or Michael Kay get one after all their years of doing Yankee broadcasting? Certainly they are no Mel Allen, but then again, Paul O’Neill and others were no Babe Ruth.

Oh man, Sterling is definitely getting a plaque in Monument Park, isn’t he? He’s been calling Yankees games for almost 30 years now, and he hasn’t missed one since 1989. Based on this Jim Baumbach article, Sterling’s streak is currently at 4,493 consecutive games called, and he’s given no indication retirement is in his near future. He’s the MC for the team’s on-field ceremonies and he hosts Yankeeography and all that on YES as well. Sterling is the voice of the Yankees at this point.

Kay still has a ways to go, I think. He was splitting time between the Yankees and Knicks as recently as 1999, so he hasn’t been full-time with the Yankees that long. Not long enough to get a plaque in Monument Park, anyway. Kay has been the team’s primary television play-by-play man since YES launched in 2002 and there’s no reason to think that will change anytime soon. He’ll have to keep at it a while longer to get Monument Park consideration, I think. Sterling might be there already.

Dan asks: Does Brett Gardner have 10 and 5 rights after this season? Does this affect the Yankees desire to move him?

Let’s start with a real quick primer on 10-and-5 rights for anyone not familiar with baseball’s quirky rules. From MLB.com:

Players who have accrued 10 years of Major League service time and spent the past five consecutive years with the same team are awarded 10-and-5 rights. Under these circumstances, a player can veto any trade scenario that is proposed. In essence, 10-and-5 rights function as a full no-trade clause.

As for Gardner, he will start the 2017 season with eight years and 72 days of service time. In the world of baseball 172 days equals a year, so Gardner needs another year and 100 days to get his 10-and-5 rights. That will put him on target to get them sometime in July 2018. The Yankees have been shopping Gardner since last offseason and while I’m sure they’re aware of his 10-and-5 situation, it’s not a pressing matter. They still have time before those become a concern.

(Gardner doesn’t have a no-trade clause in his contract. Not even a limited one. He will receive a $1M bonus each time he’s traded, however.)

RJ asks: Mike, how does the union generate revenue? Do players contribute a percentage of their salaries or maybe get a percentage from MLB endorsements/ TV contracts? Can they choose whether they want to be in or out of the union?

Yep, the players pay union dues. I have no idea what they are, but I assume they’re pretty substantial given their salaries. Also, the union negotiates licensing deals for baseball cards and video games and all that. They get a piece of that pie as well. Same goes for the national television contracts. A chunk of that goes to the players. And yes, players can opt out of the union, or just parts of it. Barry Bonds opted out of the licensing agreement, which is why he was never in any video games. He was Reggie Stocker in The Show and Jon Dowd in MVP Baseball. Good times, good times.

From left to right: Jorge Mateo, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar. (Presswire)
From left to right: Mateo, Torres, Andujar. (Presswire)

P.J. asks: Back on January 9th you published a piece about the Yankees Rule 5 eligible players for next winter. Of that list of about 23 players including the potential Minor League FA’s how many and which ones do you think the Yankees absolutely need to protect?

Here is the list of players from that post. This isn’t comprehensive, just the most notable names:

Catchers: None
Infielders: Abi Avelino, Thairo Estrada, Gleyber Torres, Tyler Wade
Outfielders: Jake Cave, Rashad Crawford, Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Billy McKinney, Leonardo Molina, Tito Polo
Pitchers: Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Daniel Camarena, Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, J.P. Feyereisen, Zack Littell, Jordan Montgomery, Nick Rumbelow, Eric Swanson, Stephen Tarpley

I count seven absolute must-protect players: Abreu, Acevedo, Fowler, Frazier, Montgomery, Torres, and Wade. McKinney, Camarena, Clarkin, and Littell could also receive serious consideration based on their 2017 seasons. There’s a pretty good chance Frazier and Montgomery (and Feyereisen) will make their MLB debuts this summer, so they figure to already be on the 40-man roster by time Rule 5 Draft decision time comes.

The Yankees currently have five impending free agents on the 40-man roster: Chris Carter, Tyler Clippard, Matt Holliday, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia. Tanaka can opt-out as well. They’ll need to clear two spots at a minimum, but keep in mind there will inevitably be players on the 60-day disabled list who have to be activated the end of the season. The Yankees had to clear five 40-man spots to make room for Rule 5 Draft eligible players this offseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if they need to do the same after this season.

Erick asks: Mike, non-Yankee related, Albert Pujols and 700 homeruns. He has 591 career homers, five more years in his contract, hit 31 last year, can he average 22 for the remaining part of his contract?

Geez, still five years left on his deal? That’s a humdinger of a contract. I don’t think he’s going to get to 700. Pujols’ feet are a wreck at this point. He’s had foot surgery each of the last two offseasons as well as back in 2012. Hitting starts from the ground up, and if you don’t have a good base underneath you, it’ll compromise your power. Also, this will be his age 37 season. Pujols needs 109 homers to get to 700, and only eleven players have hit that many after their age 36 season. As we saw with A-Rod and Mark Teixeira last year, and Alfonso Soriano in 2014, when it goes, it can go quick. Asking a player, even one as great as Pujols, to average 22 homers a season from 37-41 is an awful lot. I think he’ll fall short of 700 and have to “settle” for being fifth or sixth on the all-time home run list.

Brent asks: I know it’s easy for couch GM’s to second guess things but the Jacoby Ellsbury signing seemed bad from the jump. At least from the informed baseball fan group. I believe Cashman’s a smart guy and the signing was more of a Hal thing. Was this a miserable attempt at re-igniting the rivalry between Boston and trying to make a run with one of their better players?

I don’t remember where I read this — I think it was a Joel Sherman article shortly after the signing — but I remember reading a report that said everyone was on board with the Ellsbury signing. Cashman, Steinbrenner, the rest of the front office and ownership, everyone. I think the deal was the result of the Yankees overestimating …

  1. Ellsbury’s ability to do something close to his 2011 season again.
  2. Ellsbury’s durability on the basis that several of his previous injuries were flukes.
  3. The value of thriving in a similar high-pressure market like Boston.
  4. The impact of taking Ellsbury away from the Red Sox and adding him to their roster.

That last one never made sense to me, yet it was a common argument in favor of the signing. It only works if the Red Sox were trying to bring Ellsbury back, which they very clearly weren’t. They were going to lose him anyway. Adding him to your roster doesn’t make it hurt twice as much.

I don’t think the signing had anything to do with re-igniting the rivalry. I think the Yankees overvalued Ellsbury because he had success with the Red Sox, the team that plays in the closest environment to the New York market. It was a terrible contract the day it was signed — how much did they overpay if Scott Boras was willing to let his top client sign before the Winter Meetings? — and the Yankees deserve what they’ve gotten.

Dan asks: I know that we can know only as much as the media tells us, but after reporting yesterday that Derek Jeter took some of the Yankees top prospects to dinner it got me thinking. How much do you really think the Captains Camp helps the prospects? Also, obviously there not many other teams that have the same history as the Yankees, but do you think other teams take as much time as the Yankees do for their young kids?

I don’t see how it could hurt, do you? I know other clubs have some sort of mini-camp or rookie development program, but I don’t know if anyone does anything as extensive as Captain’s Camp, which is a six-week program. From what I understand, Captain’s Camp is more about developing their off-the-field skills than anything. They teach the kids to be accountable, how to handle the media, all that. Basically how to represent the Yankees in a positive way. The players get to bond and develop relationships, and I see that as nothing but a positive.

Open Thread: February 23rd Camp Notes

Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees return to action with their first Grapefruit League game of the spring. Hooray for that. I’ve missed baseball an awful lot. Tomorrow’s game against the Phillies will begin at 1pm ET, and it will air on YES and MLB.tv. Here’s the latest from Spring Training:

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks, Rangers, and Islanders are all playing tonight, and there are some college basketball games on as well. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not politics or religion. Thanks.

The 2002 Yankees: A forgotten 103-win season

(Getty)
(Getty)

It’s been 15 years since the 2002 Yankees fell short of a fifth straight American League title and fourth World Series win in five years. Because that was a time of World Series or bust fervor, it’s easy to forget that the ’02 squad won 103 games and arguably had the Yankees’ best rotation of the decade. So let’s take a look back at that team as well as what could have been.

New Faces

Right now, Yankee fans are forced to adjust to a series of bright-eyed young kids coming up to the majors and a few solid veterans. The 2002 Yankees didn’t have a transition anything like the current squad, but they did see a few shifts after the 2001 World Series. They had holes in all four corners as Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius retired while Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch became free agents.

The Yankees being the Yankees, they filled all four holes within eight days. The first move was to trade David Justice to the Mets, one of the rare times the crosstown rivals would hook up for a trade, for Robin Ventura. Four days later, they’d deal reliever Jay Witasick to the Giants for John Vander Wal, who’d man right field.

That move would get overshadowed because it was on the same day they announced the signing of the reigning American League MVP Jason Giambi as their new first baseman. Rondell White would sign for an ill-fated stint in left field four days after that.

The front office appeared done with all five main starters from ’01 returning and Steve Karsay signed to be the new set-up man. However, this was George Steinbrenner‘s team, so anything can happen. By anything, I mean that a 38-year-old David Wells called up Steinbrenner and unilaterally talked him into a two-year deal … even though he had a verbal agreement to sign with the Diamondbacks already. Seriously. 

A dominant regular season

2002 was the first year of the YES Network and those tuning into YES in the inaugural season saw a juggernaut of a team. They lost their first game before reeling off seven straight wins. They won 13 of 14 in mid-May, a stretch that included two three-game sweeps of a perennial Yankees punching bag, the Minnesota Twins.

The offense is what carried the team. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, all those guys were their normal selves for the most part. However, Giambi and a 26-year-old Alfonso Soriano combined for 80 home runs (41 and 39, respectively) and were a force near the top of the lineup. Soriano led the AL with 41 stolen bases and 209 hits., had more home runs than walks (23) and set Yankees records for at-bats (696) and strikeouts (157) in a season. He also had 51 doubles. Ventura was a surprise All-Star with 19 home runs at the All-Star break, so the Yankees literally had an All-Star at every infield position.

The Yankees were certainly based around hitting (they led baseball in runs scored, OBP and SLG and were second in home runs, third in hits), but their pitching staff wasn’t half bad. They had seven pitchers make at least eight starts and all had an above-average ERA+. Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte each had strong years while David Wells rebounded from a bad ’02 to justify his contract.

The bullpen had four key pitchers: Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton, Karsay and, of course, Mariano Rivera. Rivera went on the DL twice in ’02 (was still dominant when he was healthy), leading in part to Stanton and Karsay each pitching at least 78 games. All four relievers had ERAs below 3.44.

2002 was also the first year the Yankees faced the NL West in interleague play, which led to two memorable moments. One was Barry Bonds hitting an absolute bomb to the back of the upper deck at old Yankee Stadium that Giants PBP man Jon Miller would say was “heading for New Jersey”.  The other was Marcus Thames’ MLB debut. He had to face the best pitcher going in Randy Johnson yet found a way to come through with a homer on the first pitch he saw.

Trade Deadline

The Yankees made two big trades in early July. The first was trading non-prospect Scott Wiggins to the Blue Jays to acquire slugger Raul Mondesi to man right field with Vander Wal, Shane Spencer and others not quite cutting it. Mondesi was a Steinbrenner move through and through as George wanted the past-his-prime outfielder and paid most of his remaining money.

(Mike’s Note: George traded for Mondesi after Tim McCarver said the Yankees needed a right fielder like Raul Mondesi during a nationally broadcast game against the Mets. Enrique Wilson started in right field on June 29th, made a few misplays in the loss, McCarver said they should trade for Mondesi, and a day later the trade was made. Yup.)

They also traded Ted Lilly, who was set to start the following Sunday, and two prospects in a three-team deal with the Athletics and Tigers to acquire 25-year-old righty Jeff Weaver, who they saw as injecting youth into a very old rotation. Weaver would pitch dreadfully in 2003 but was fine as a swingman in ’02 before two bad postseason appearances.

The Loss to the Angels

The Yankees led baseball with 103 wins. They didn’t get possession of first place for good until late June, but eventually won the division by 10.5 games. Ideally, that’d mean they’d face the AL’s worst playoff team (the 94-win Twins) in the ALDS, but instead they got the wild card winners, the 99-win Anaheim Angels. In their four-game set with the Angels, the Yankees led in the 5th inning or later of every single game. Yup. The pitching staff melted down in every game.

Game 1 would be a Yankees classic if it wasn’t for the rest of the series. Roger Clemens, arguably the team’s worst full-time starter, got the ball in Game 1 and was meh. He gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings and left with the game tied. Ramiro Mendoza gave up a go-ahead home run to Troy Glaus to begin the 8th, but the Yankees rallied. With two outs in the 8th, Soriano and Jeter walked before Giambi tied the game with a single. That set the stage for Williams, who blasted the winning three-run homer.

Pettitte was pulled early in Game 2 and the Yankees came back again, this time with Soriano hitting a two-run homer in the 6th (off rookie Francisco Rodriguez) and the Yanks led, 5-4, until the 8th. Then, El Duque gave up back-to-back homers before Karsay and Weaver gave up two more runs in the 8th and 9th. A late Yankees rally fell short, 8-6, with a Mondesi pop out as the winning run.

The Yankees led 6-1 top 2nd of Game 3, but Mike Mussina was pulled after four innings after giving up four runs. Weaver, Stanton and Karsay combined to give up five runs over the next four innings as the Yankees lost, 9-6. David Wells and Ramiro Mendoza combined to give up eight runs in the 5th inning of Game 4 and the season was over like that.

What may have been the best pitching staff of the decade gave up 31 runs in four games and Mo only pitched one scoreless inning. You can chalk that up to bullpen mismanagement, but Rivera’s injuries that season may have been a reason not to go to him earlier (particularly in Game 2). However, Torre’s regular season bullpen load for Karsay and Stanton may have led to their hiccups in the postseason.

Legacy

There is an alternate universe where the Yankees held off the hot-hitting Angels, beat up on the Twins in the next round like they seemed to do every postseason and then met the Giants in Fall Classic for the first time since a great 1962 series.

The season marked the end of a 31-year-old Giambi’s peak as ’02 was his best year in pinstripes. Williams, then 33, also declined significantly after that year. Mussina and Clemens would rebound in ’03 and Rivera would too with a 1.66 ERA.

Spencer, Stanton and Mendoza moved on from the Yankees (besides one more stint for Mendoza two years later). The Yankees would splurge for Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras the next offseason and win another 101 games. With the postseason success a year later, it just leaves you wondering what might have been in 2002.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Joe Blanton

(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Spring Training is underway, and the Yankees have what feels like several dozen pitchers jockeying for position on the Opening Day roster. That may not be terribly far off the mark, to be fair, considering that the team has thirty-plus pitchers in camp (thirty-three between the 40-man roster, non-roster invitees, and the recently signed Jon Niese) – but there is a very real sense that the back of the rotation and two middle relief roles are up for grabs.

The smart money is on one of the losers of the rotation battle to be shuffled into a relief role, alongside someone that stands out in the pre-season as a whole. And, ultimately, that second role won’t be set in stone, as that pitcher will probably ride the shuttle between the Bronx and Scranton for the better part of 2017. The Yankees tend to round out their bullpens with scraps, after all.

At this point in the off-season, however, there is a shockingly good reliever that is somehow still available for straight cash in Joe Blanton. It’s not terribly often that one can end one of the 25 best relievers in baseball via free agency in late February, but here we are. The only real question is … why?

Injury History

Blanton has been a portrait of good health over the last five years (with one obvious caveat that I’ll get to in the next section). He last spent time on the disabled list in 2011, when he was dealing with a right elbow impingement that kept him off the field from late April through the first week of September. Since that season, Blanton has spent exactly zero days on the disabled list.

Recent Performance

The Angels released Blanton at the end of Spring Training in 2014, when he posted a 7.08 ERA in 20.1 IP. This came on the heels of his atrocious 2013 season (132.2 IP, 6.04 ERA, 5.12 FIP, -2.0 bWAR, -0.5 fWAR), so it isn’t terribly surprising that they elected to eat the last year and $8.5 MM of his contract. The A’s signed him to a minor-league deal a week later, and he made two starts at Triple-A before retiring.

Blanton got the itch to play again during the 2014-15 off-season, and the Royals obliged, signing him to a minor-league deal. He found his way onto the roster in May, and spent the rest of the season in the Majors, making 36 appearances (four starts) split between Kansas City and Pittsburgh. All told, he pitched to the following line: 76 IP, 2.84 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 25.6 K%, 5.2 BB%.

It was more of the same in 2016, which Blanton spent with the Dodgers after signing a one-year, $4 MM deal. He ranked 6th in the Majors with 80 IP out of the bullpen, with a 2.48 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 25.4% strikeouts, and 8.3% walks. The greatest difference came in his groundball rate, which plummeted from 48.6% in 2015 to 32.5% last season.

His overall line the last two seasons is impressive, to be sure, but it becomes somewhat staggering if you remove his four starts with the Royals, and focus exclusively on his time in the bullpen. To wit: 137.1 IP, 2.29 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 3.7 K/BB, 26.1 K%, 7.0 BB%, 0.7 HR/9. Those numbers were not too heavily slanted by playing half of his games in pitcher-friendly parks these last two years, either, as he posted a 2.40 ERA, 3.0 K/BB, 24.0 K%, and 8.1 BB% away from his home ballparks.

Present Stuff

Blanton’s stuff has remained fairly steady as a full-time reliever. Take a look at his month-by-month velocity over the last two seasons (and keep in mind that his four starts were in late June and early July of 2015):

brooksbaseball-chart

And on a more granular level, his stuff actually ticked-up from 2015 to 2016, perhaps as he grew more acclimated to a regular role as a one-inning reliever:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

The biggest difference between 2015 and 2016 was pitch selection, as, by Brook Baseball’s reckoning, Blanton scrapped his sinker almost entirely in favor of more curves and sliders:

brooksbaseball-chart-2

This usage rate jibes with his batted ball profile, given the aforementioned drop-off in groundballs. It did not have any other noteworthy impact on his production, however, as he was borderline dominant in each of the last two seasons.

Contract Estimate

Way back in November, both FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors pegged Blanton’s deal to be at 2-years, $14 MM. That feels unlikely now, given that we’re more than a week into Spring Training and he remains unsigned.

There is the possibility that Blanton values himself highly, given his performance, and is playing the waiting game. After all, pitchers get hurt all the time, and there are still teams looking for a closer (the Nationals are still in talks with the White Sox for David Robertson, for example). It’s pure conjecture, of course, but Blanton has walked away before and, at 36-years-old, it’s entirely possible that he is only willing to pitch on his terms.

Or, alternatively, that he’ll sign yet another minor-league deal by the time you’re reading this.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

The short answer is yes. Blanton has been, by most any measure, one of the twenty-five best relievers in baseball over the last two years. The Yankees have at least two openings in their bullpen, and adding a reliever of his quality would undoubtedly improve its depth and performance considerably. There’s also the added wrinkle that a successful Blanton could be dealt at the trade deadline if and when the Yankees become sellers, and more contenders are hit with the natural attrition that strikes most bullpens. And, depending on Scranton’s roster composition, his presence would allow Luis Severino or Bryan Mitchell (or whoever else isn’t in the rotation) to stay stretched out as a starter in Triple-A.

A longer answer may be no, however. The Yankees have a great deal of pitching depth in the upper minors, and it would likely behoove them to figure out what sort of quality that quantity represents. They currently have Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Mitchell as the leading candidates for two rotation spots. Two of those four will likely be considered for the bullpen, along with J.P. Feyereisen, Giovanny Gallegos, Ben Heller, and Jonathan Holder. And this ignores Jordan Montgomery (who will almost certainly pitch in the Majors this year), Jon Niese, and a few other pitchers that are an injury or poor performance away from consideration.

Does the upgrade that Blanton offers this year – performance and potential trade value included – negate the potential value of the Yankees sorting through the stockpile of arms currently in Spring Training? I’m not sure. And would the Yankees even be interested? It doesn’t seem likely. But it’s an intriguing consideration nonetheless.