When Pedro wanted to be a Yankee

(Photo via @SI_Vault)
(Photo via @SI_Vault)

Yesterday afternoon four players were elected to the Hall of Fame, including ex-Yankee Randy Johnson and longtime Yankees rival Pedro Martinez. Johnson eventually arrived in New York in 2005 after the Yankees — and George Steinbrenner in particular — had wanted him in pinstripes for years, dating back to his time with the Mariners.

Aside from the whole “he’s one of the best pitchers in the game and would be great on our team” thing, I don’t remember the Yankees longing for Pedro the way they did Johnson all those years. As it turns out though, Martinez wanted to be a Yankee, and the club was close to acquiring him a few times over the years. Here’s what Pedro told Christian Red earlier this week:

“I was almost traded to New York more than once. A lot of people don’t know that. I wanted the trade to happen. I wanted out of Montreal. I wanted to go to the best team out there,” Martinez told the Daily News during a December interview in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, when he attended David Ortiz’s charity golf event. “I saw John Wetteland, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker go to different teams. But the one that ended up winning most of the time was the Yankees.”

“I saw Wetteland become a champion right away. I wanted a team like that. I was in trade talks every year. Every year it seemed like the Yankees were in it,” said Martinez. “So I wanted to go to one of those teams that would give me a legit chance to win.”

Back during the mid-to-late-1990s, the Yankees always seemed to be seeking an ace-caliber starter even though the team was very successful and had solid veterans around a young Andy Pettitte. That search led them to Roger Clemens in 1999 — Clemens had just won back-to-back Cy Youngs with the Blue Jays — but they always seemed to be after guys like Johnson and Chuck Finley. Apparently they were after Pedro too.

The Expos traded Martinez during the 1997-98 offseason because he was a year away from free agency and they wouldn’t be able to afford him, so off to Boston he went for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas (who the Yankees traded to the Sox for Mike Stanley). You laugh now, but Baseball America ranked Pavano as the ninth best prospect in baseball before the 1998 season and Armas was a year away from jumping on top 100 prospects lists as well. They were a big deal back then.

Pedro wanted to come to New York and was disappointed to go to the Red Sox, who were swept in three games by the Indians in the 1995 ALDS, their only postseason appearance from 1991-97. Here’s more from Martinez, via Red:

“When I was traded to Boston, I was shocked. Boston had finished in (fourth) place (in ’97), just like (Montreal). I had asked (Expos manager) Felipe (Alou) and Jim Beattie, the (Expos’) GM at that time, to at least give me the honor to trade me to a team where I would have a legit chance to win, to contend,” said Martinez. “It was the total opposite.”

You folks all know what happened after that. Martinez put together one of the most dominant stretches in baseball history, the Red Sox contended and eventually won their first World Series in nearly a century, thanks in large part to Pedro. He was the centerpiece of those late-1990/early-2000 Red Sox teams and always seemed to be in the middle of something whenever he faced the Yankees.

But imagine if Pedro was on the other side and doing all of that in pinstripes. The Yankees didn’t have the prospect power to match the Pavano/Armas package — according to Baseball America, their top prospects heading into 1998 were Rickey Ledee (ranked 46th in baseball), Mike Lowell (71st), and Jackson Melian (91st), and the Expos didn’t need Lowell because they had a young Shane Andrews — especially since Montreal seemed to focus on pitching, so it wasn’t necessarily a case of not wanting to surrender the prospects. They simply didn’t have them.

Had the Yankees been able to land Martinez though, man everything would be different. He was a true difference-maker, the kind of player who shifts the balance of power within a division, but the Yankees were already atop the AL East anyway. Would the 1998 Yankees have actually been better with had Pedro instead of, say, Hideki Irabu, who they picked up that offseason? Or does it mean they still would have acquired Irabu but passed up Orlando Hernandez in Spring Training?

Trading for Pedro almost certainly means no Clemens during the 1998-99 offseason, which opens another can of worms. As Buster Olney wrote at the time, Clemens had a full no-trade clause and was using it to control his market, with the Yankees or one of the two Texas teams his preferred destinations. Martinez in pinstripes could have meant Clemens with the Rangers, and, in case you forgot, the Yankees and Rangers met in the 1999 ALDS.

And, of course, what in the world happens in 2003 and 2004? There’s no Pedro to blow Game Seven for the Red Sox in 2003 and no Pedro to help the Red Sox come back from down three games to none in 2004. Are the Sox even relevant those years without Martinez? He helped turn that whole franchise around. No Pedro could mean no Manny Ramirez in 2001 because Boston would have been a less desirable destination for trade targets, and geez, no Manny in Boston means a lot more wins for the Yankees from 2001-08. He crushed the Yanks.

In the end, this is all a guessing game. A trade to the Yankees would have changed Pedro’s entire career path — he would have worked with different coaches, with different trainers, with different teammates, in a different ballpark and city, it would have changed everything. And, considering what he turned into, it’s likely he would have been a worse pitcher with the Yankees than he was with the Red Sox. Me? I think Pedro would have been a boss in pinstripes and the team would have been even better in the late-90s/early-00s, winning another World Series or two. But that’s just me.

Pedro getting his wish and coming to New York would have changed everything for everyone, and that’s why it’s so fun to think about. Endless hypotheticals.

The upcoming apprenticeship of John Ryan Murphy

Great hair and a name fit for a serial killer. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Great hair and a name fit for a serial killer. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

A catcher had to go this offseason. The Yankees had five catchers for four roster spots between the big league level and Triple-A Scranton, and one of those five catchers (Brian McCann) wasn’t going anywhere. That left four bodies for three spots, so, when the time came to unclog the logjam, the Yankees sent Frankie Cervelli to the Pirates for Justin Wilson. Cervelli’s the oldest of the non-McCann catchers and also the most expensive. It made sense.

The trade leaves John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine for the backup job behind McCann — Gary Sanchez will be the regular catcher for Triple-A Scranton — and while there’s talk of a Spring Training competition, all signs point to Murphy being the guy. The Yankees have held rigged Spring Training competitions before and they’ll do it again, and I don’t really see anything wrong with it. Competition is good, especially among young players fighting for a roster spot.

Romine served as Chris Stewart‘s backup for most of 2013 but seemed to play his way out of the organization’s long-term plans. When Cervelli went down with his hamstring injury last April, the Yankees turned to Murphy as his replacement. When rosters expanded in September, Murphy got the call as the third catcher, not Romine. (Romine was called up in mid-September after Cervelli got hurt again). Murphy is ahead of Romine on the depth chart and that’s not at all surprising considering the way the team talks about him.

“He’s different, he’s special. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever had—and that’s 40 years of some of the greatest catchers who have ever been behind the plate,” said bullpen coach Gary Tuck, an ex-big league catcher and longtime catching instructor, to Dan Barbarisi back in May. “A championship player. And I don’t say that about many people. He’s right there—Joe Girardi, Jason Varitek, John Ryan Murphy. A championship player.”

Teams talk up their young players all the time, but Tuck’s praise goes beyond the usual “we like him, we think he’ll be a good player for a long time” schtick we usually hear. The Yankees think so highly of Murphy that they traded Cervelli, who they entrusted as their regular catcher just last year, to make room for him. Murphy will spend next year backing up McCann and learning from him as well as Tuck, Girardi, bench coach Tony Pena, and others.

“It’s the same situation I was in when I was called up. I was playing once a week, and trying to learn on every other day,” said McCann to Barbarisi. The Yankees broke Jorge Posada in this same way, using him as a backup to Girardi and gradually increasing his playing time until he took over as starter. McCann has four more years on his contract, but he turns 31 next month and has nearly 10,000 big league innings on his legs. The team will have to scale back his workload sooner or later, creating an opportunity for Murphy.

Despite his massive reverse split in 2014, McCann has historically struggled against left-handed pitchers, meaning it’ll be fairly easy to give him regular rest in favor of the right-handed Murphy. This isn’t the crazy David Price/Jon Lester AL East of a few years ago, but there are enough Wei-Yin Chens and Mark Buehrles and Wade Mileys in the division for Murphy to start once or twice a week. Girardi also seems to like the idea of personal catchers, so Murphy could see action that way. For some reason a Murphy/Chris Capuano pairing strikes me as a thing that could happen.

“In my role right now I just have to understand that I have to be ready to play at any time,” said Murphy to Jorge Castillo back in May when asked about being a backup for the first time in his career. “I’m just learning everyday from these guys. It’s hard not to. The years on this team and the amount of experience that they have, it’d be dumb for me not to take advantage of this time I have here and learn from these guys.”

Because Romine is out of minor league options and would have to clear waivers to go to Triple-A, the Yankees could conceivably use him as the backup catcher and send Murphy down, preserving their depth. I don’t think that will happen though. The Cervelli trade and their roster machinations last year all seem to indicate the team realizes Murphy is a big league ballplayer. The backup job is Murphy’s and 2015 will be the start of his apprenticeship as the team grooms him to take over as McCann’s long-term replacement.

Going from Saltalamacchia to McCann will be a big plus for Nathan Eovaldi

(Marc Serota/Getty)
(Marc Serota/Getty)

For the second time in four offseasons, the Yankees traded a player who was expected to be a prominent part of their lineup for a young starting pitcher yet to reach his 25th birthday. Three years ago it Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. This offseason it was Martin Prado for Nathan Eovaldi. There were other players involved, but those were the principals.

Unlike Pineda, Eovaldi was coming off a disappointing season at the time of the trade, a season in which he led the NL with 223 hits allowed and posted an 87 ERA+ in 199.2 innings. There’s obviously more to the puzzle than that — Eovaldi did have a shiny 3.37 FIP, 27th best out of MLB’s 88 qualified starters — but in its most basic form, pitching is about limiting hits and runs. Eovaldi indisputably stunk at both last year.

The good news is that in the other 260.1 innings of his career, Eovaldi has allowed as many hits as innings pitched — as opposed to many more hits than innings pitched — with a 101 ERA+. He’s shown he can be effective at preventing hits and keeping runs off the board at a very young age, which bodes well for future. If Eovaldi had pitched like that in 2014, it would have taken much more to get him than Prado. The Yankees got him at a discount thanks to his poor year.

Clearly though, the Yankees are banking on Eovaldi improving going forward. They don’t want the 2014 version of him — though given the state of the rotation, I’m sure they want those 199.2 innings — and they don’t want the 2011-13 version either. They want someone better. And stuff like this …

Source: FanGraphsNathan Eovaldi

… suggests a better pitcher is on the way. It’s not a guarantee, but improving your FIP every year of your career is promising.

Since Eovaldi’s strikeout and home run rates have held fairly steady throughout his career, the FIP improvement comes in his walk rate, which has gradually dropped from 13.7% in 2011 to 5.0% in 2014. Young pitchers walk people. That’s what they do. They walk people and they get hurt. As they gain experience, they tend to walk less people (but still get hurt!) and that’s what’s happened with Eovaldi.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild, pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, and whoever else will be charged with boosting Eovaldi’s strikeout rate, which sat at 16.6% last year and is 16.2% for his career. That’s comfortably below the league average, which topped 20% for the first time in 2014. Eovaldi has the stuff to get strikeouts, including a big fastball and a nice slider and an improving changeup, but so far the whiffs aren’t there. They have to be unlocked somehow.

One way the Yankees hope to unlock those strikeouts is Brian McCann. The Yankees were way ahead of the pitch-framing curve — they traded for framing god Jose Molina in 2007 and since then the only below-average framer they’ve had is Jorge Posada — and they clearly value the skill, so much so that they deluded themselves into thinking Chris Stewart could play regularly. McCann happens to be an excellent pitch-framer. Eovaldi’s old catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Not so much.

Here is the pitch-framing leaderboard for the 2014 season according to StatCorner:

1. Miguel Montero
2. Mike Zunino
3. Jonathan Lucroy

11. Brian McCann

105. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (out of 105!)

For a second opinion, here are the pitch-framing leaders according to Baseball Prospectus (again out of 105):

1. McCann!
2. Lucroy
3. Montero (Miguel, not Jesus)

92. Saltalamacchia

I intentionally omitted the runs saved values because I don’t trust them. Not enough to say this player is precisely X.X runs better than that guy anyway. I use framing metrics like I use all defensive stats: directionally. They tell me who’s good at it and who isn’t. Otherwise there’s no need to act as if a certain level of accuracy exists when it just isn’t there.

Anyway, McCann once again rated as one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball last summer. And after watching him all year, I totally buy it. Saltalamacchia, on the other hand, was very bad at framing borderline pitches. I didn’t watch him nearly as much as McCann a year ago, so I have to trust the StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rankings when they say he’s a bad framer of pitchers.

Eovaldi faced 854 batters last season and Saltalamacchia was behind the plate for 536 of them, or 63%. He had a 16.2% strikeout rate and a 5.4% walk rate with Salty. With backup catcher Jeff Mathis, who the numbers say is an average to slightly above-average pitch-framer, it was a 17.3% strikeout rate and a 4.4% walk rate. (If we remove intentional walks, the walk rates are 3.5% to 5.1% in favor of Mathis.)

Every pitcher in the world would benefit from having a good pitch-framer behind the plate, though Eovaldi might stand to benefit more than most because he lives on the outside corner to righties/inside corner to lefties. Here is the strike zone breakdown of his pitch locations and called strike rates last year. The views are from the catcher’s perspective.

Pitch locations on the left, called strike locations on the right. (click to embiggen)
Overall pitch locations on the left, called strike rates on the right. (click to embiggen)

Eovaldi got only an average number of called strikes just inside the corner on the left-handed batter’s side of the plate — it was basically a 50/50 chance — and a below-average number of called strikes (hence the blue squares) just off the plate on that side. That’s a problem for him because look at his pitch locations, his comfort zone is away from righties and inside to lefties. (That is skewed somewhat because he’s a slider pitcher and sliders break towards that side of the plate.)

Based on the pitch-framing data, McCann will help Eovaldi get many more called strikes in general, and especially on that corner of the plate because that’s where Eovaldi throws the majority of his pitches. It should be a significant number of extra strikes considering Saltalamacchia is one of the game’s worst pitch-framers and McCann is one of the best. This means not only more called strike threes, but more 1-1 counts turned into 0-2 counts, more 2-1 counts turned into 1-2 counts, more first pitch strikes, more stuff that makes hitters defensive.

I have zero doubt the framing upgrade from Saltalamacchia to McCann is a major reason why the Yankees believe they can unlock Eovaldi’s potential. McCann’s pitch-framing alone — projected backup catcher John Ryan Murphy has rated well as a pitch-framer during his brief MLB time, for what’s it worth — won’t get Eovaldi’s strikeout rate to match his stuff, but it will definitely help. As long as he keeps living on that left corner of the plate, the Yankees’ catching tandem will help Eovaldi much more than Miami’s.

Yankees sign Stephen Drew

(Alex Goodlett/Getty)
(Alex Goodlett/Getty)

Wednesday, 10:28am ET by Mike: Drew will receive $500,000 for his 450th, 500th, and 550th plate appearances, according to Buster Olney. So the only way Drew will come close to reaching the $1.5M in incentives is if he actually plays well enough to stay in the lineup regularly.

Tuesday, 9:41pm ET by Joe: The Yankees have signed Stephen Drew to a one-year, $5 million deal, reports Jon Heyman of CBS News. Incentives could increase the deal to $6 or $7 million.

It was but a few hours ago that Drew’s name last appeared on this site, citing a Heyman report that the Yankees were “peeking” at Drew as an option for second base. It now appears he’ll start there, barring a horrible Spring Training or injury.

It might appear signing Drew blocks Rob Refsnyder, but that’s simply not the case. If Refsnyder forces the issue, it will be hard for the Yankees to hold him back for the sake of Drew. The $5 million Drew earns accounts for about 2 percent of the payroll. He’s not a make-or-break player. He’s a guy who has performed well in the past — a 95 career OPS+ and 111 in 2013, both of which are pretty nice for a middle infielder this day in age — who gives the Yankees some depth.

If Refsnyder wows everyone in Spring Training, they’ll find a spot for him. It might not be on the Opening Day roster, but if he’s hitting (and improves his defense at 2B) they’re not just going to let him toil all season in AAA if he can outperform Drew or even Didi Gregorius.

Which brings up another point: Drew also provides some shortstop depth. If Gregorius flops, Drew can slide in. That opens a spot for Refsnyder. He could also cover Gregorius against left-handed pitching — he has a .668 career OPS against lefties, which is nothing great but at the same time much better than Gregorius.

Most importantly, if Drew is bad the Yankees will replace him. It might take a while, given how long it took them to cut ties with Alfonso Soriano and Brian Roberts last season. Hopefully they’ve learned from that and will take a more Randy Winn-like approach if Drew’s performance resembles that of Winn in 2010. The deal is for just one year, so it’s not as though he’s blocking Refsnyder for three or four seasons.

The 40-man roster is currently full, so the Yankees will have to make a move before making the Drew signing official. My bet is that they DFA Brendan Ryan and go with Jose Pirela as the utility guy.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, four new players were elected to the Hall of Fame, including longtime Yankees nemesis Pedro Martinez. Pedro was otherworldly at his peak, especially the 1999-2000 seasons, but this is a Yankees blog, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the final game of Martinez’s career was played at Yankee Stadium. Game Six of the 2009 World Series, to be specific. You all remember that one. I know you do. So long, Pedro. It was fun to watch you pitch and more fun to watch the Yankees beat you.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils and Islanders are both playing, plus there’s college basketball on as well. Talk about those games, the Hall of Fame announcement, or anything else right here.

Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz all elected to Hall of Fame

A Hall of Famer, but not because of his time in pinstripes. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
A Hall of Famer, but not because of his time in pinstripes. (AP)

The Hall of Fame has four new members. On Tuesday, the BBWAA announced Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz have all been inducted into Cooperstown. This is the first time four players have been inducted in one year since 1955 (Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance) and the first time three pitchers were inducted in one year in history.

Biggio fell two votes short of induction last year, and historically when a player misses by that narrow a margin, he gets in comfortably the next year. That’s what happened here — Biggio appeared on 82.7% of the ballots this year, well more than the 75% necessary for induction. The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site.

Johnson is an inner-circle Hall of Famer and appeared on 97.3% of the ballots, the eighth highest voting total of all-time. He spent two seasons with the Yankees and is presumably going into the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback. Arizona signed him to a four-year contract in 1999 and he won four straight Cy Youngs from 1999-2002, so yeah. Pedro and Smoltz appeared on 91.1% and 82.9% of the ballots, respectively.

The Yankees had some pretty great battles against those three over the years, including beating Smoltz’s Braves in the 1996 and 1999 World Series. Johnson bested the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS and 2001 World Series and is simply one of the best pitchers ever, arguably the best lefty ever. Pedro … man did he and the Yankees share some memorable moments. His 17-strikeout one-hitter at Yankee Stadium on September 10th, 1999 is one of the most dominant pitching performances I’ve ever seen:

Former Yankees Tim Raines (55.0%), Roger Clemens (37.5%), Mike Mussina (24.6%), Gary Sheffield (11.7%), Aaron Boone (0.4%), Tom Gordon (0.4%), and Tony Clark (0%) all fell well short of induction. Boone, Gordon, and Clark drop off the ballot because they received fewer than 5% of the vote.

In his final year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Don Mattingly received only 9.1% of the vote, so he exhausted his 15 years on the ballot and was not inducted to Cooperstown. He topped out at 28.2% of the vote during his first year of eligibility back in 2001 and has sat closer to 13% over the last decade or so, including only 8.2% last year.

Down the line, Mattingly could be eligible for induction via the Expansion Era Committee, which meets every three years to identify and vote on Hall of Fame candidates who started their careers after 1972. The Expansion Era Committee did not elect anyone this winter and will meet again in 2017. I love Donnie Baseball as much as anyone, but I don’t think he’s a Hall of Famer and I don’t think he’ll get in via the Expansion Era Committee either.

Among the first-time-eligible players set to jump on the ballot next year are Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Edmonds, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner. No notable ex-Yankees though. Jorge Posada is set to appear on the ballot for the first time the year after that, giving me two years to prepare to the mother of all Hall of Fame campaigns.

Heyman: Yankees still monitoring second base options, including Stephen Drew

(Darren McCollester/Getty)
(Darren McCollester/Getty)

No surprise here: Jon Heyman reports the Yankees are still keeping an eye on the second base trade and free agent markets, including Stephen Drew. The club has indicated they will let Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela (and others) compete for the second base job in Spring Training, but Brian Cashman & Co. wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t look at other available options.

The free agent middle infield market is pretty thin now that Asdrubal Cabrera has signed with the Rays. There’s Drew, Kelly Johnson, Nick Punto, Rickie Weeks, Gordon Beckham, Everth Cabrera, and … that’s pretty much it. We saw Drew and Johnson in pinstripes last year and we’ve looked at Beckham, Weeks, and Cabrera as free agent options this winter. Punto … meh.

The trade market is more exciting. With Asdrubal signed, the Rays are widely expected to trade Ben Zobrist, who would be a great fit for the Yankees just like he would be a great fit for literally every other team in baseball. He’ll cost quite a bit though, plus he’s only a one-year rental, and I’m not sure Cashman will trade a bunch of prospects for a year of Zobrist after emphasizing youth. Then there’s the whole “trade with a division rival” thing.

Other second base trade options could include Chase Utley, Aaron Hill, and maybe Daniel Murphy. I thought there’d be more. Utley has given no indication he will waive his no-trade clause despite the Phillies’ rebuild and Hill was very bad (78 wRC+) last year. Plus he’s owed $24M over the next two years. The Mets have a ready-made second baseman in Dilson Herrera but insist they will keep Murphy, which could be posturing. He’s another one-year rental.

There really aren’t many good (nevermind great) second base targets out there, either in free agency or in trades, especially since Zobrist and Utley seem unattainable for different reasons. The idea of a very young and inexperienced double play combination makes me nervous, but at this point of the offseason I don’t see a realistically acquirable second baseman I’d prefer over Refsnyder or Pirela. Time to ride or die with the kids.