The First Year of the New Second Baseman [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It was only two seasons, but it felt a lot longer. Second base was a problem area after Robinson Cano left as a free agent following the 2013 season. He was the best second baseman in baseball at the time, which by definition made him impossible to replace, but the drop-off was enormous. Going from Cano to Brian Roberts and then Stephen Drew was a massive downgrade.

Last offseason the Yankees acquired a potential long-term solution at second base. They swung a two-for-one trade with the Cubs for Starlin Castro at the Winter Meetings, which gave the Yankees a young righty bat to help balance the lineup both short and long-term. Castro has been around a while, he’s played parts of seven MLB seasons already, but he turned only 26 during Spring Training. His first year in pinstripes embodied the Starlin Castro experience.

The Trade

The Yankees have made it pretty clear they do not see Rob Refsnyder as an everyday second baseman in the big leagues. He played everyday late last season only because Drew got hurt. When the club had chances to replace Drew last summer — he did absolutely nothing at the plate for long stretches of time — they opted to stick with him over Refsnyder. That was telling. The Yankees needed a long-term second baseman. It wasn’t Refsnyder.

The Castro trade was the result of a free agent signing. Brian Cashman acknowledged the deal was contingent on the Cubs first signing Ben Zobrist. Had Chicago not landed Zobrist, they would have had to keep Castro. Eventually the Cubbies swooped in, signed Zobrist out from under the Mets — “It’s disappointing, I’ll be honest,” said Mets assistant GM John Ricco after the club lost out on Zobrist — and turned their attention to the Castro trade.

Based on the time stamps at MLB Trade Rumors, the Castro trade was completed 15 minutes after the Zobrist signing. The Yankees and Cubs already had the deal in place. The only question was whether the Cubs would land Zobrist. New York sent Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan to Chicago for Castro in the two-for-one swap. Ryan was thrown in as a salary dump — the Yankees freed up $1M by trading him — but Warren had proven to be a valuable super utility pitcher. Still, the opportunity to get a young up-the-middle player was too good to pass up.

“He really looked like a different player over at second,” said Cashman after the trade. “I like that he’s athletic, I like his age. Between the youth, the flexibility, the right-handed bat, he’s got a history of hitting left-handers. Clearly that’s an area that we needed to better improve our balance in the lineup. It kind of checks off a lot of the boxes here.”

The Aborted Third Base Plan

After the trade, Cashman indicated the Yankees would use Castro all over the infield, including third base. Starlin had spent his entire career at shortstop until he slid over to second in August 2015, in deference to the defensively superior Addison Russell. Castro came to the Yankees with 258 career innings at second, plus another couple dozen in the postseason. His experience there was relatively limited.

The third base experiment never got off the ground. Castro didn’t see a single inning of Grapefruit League action at the hot corner. The Yankees had him take ground balls at third during infield drills and whatnot, then decided to abandon the plan because he needed more work at second than they realized. And that’s understandable. The guy was still new to the position. Sure, it’s still the middle infield, but moving over to the other side of the bag was a big change.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

“It’s a big difference. It’s not the same thing when you’re in the minor leagues. The position, you switch the position, we’ve got plenty of time to practice that position (in the minors),” said Castro in Spring Training about moving to second. “Now they’re saying in the middle of the season, you’ve got to get out there quickly and learn it right away, just (be) ready to play. The first two or three games, I don’t feel really comfortable. I feel the ball was hitting backwards. I just take early work every day and start every day feeling better. I think the most difficult thing is doing the double play. After doing a couple, I feel great.”

Castro played mostly second base during the Grapefruit League season to get more comfortable at the position. He also played a few token games at short just to stay sharp there, but that was it. No third base. Not once. It was a good idea, increasing Starlin’s versatility and making him an option at third, but it never happened. He was still working to make the first position change and the Yankees didn’t want to overwhelm him with another so soon.

The Good Start, A Good Finish

Man, did Castro make a great first impression or what? Starlin came out of the gate and went 7-for-12 (.583) with two doubles, two home runs, and eight runs driven in during the first series of the season. That includes a four-hit, five-runs driven in game in the second game of the season.

The Yankees won the trade! Castro was a star energized by the bright lights of New York! Then he fell into a 9-for-50 (.180) slump and the honeymoon was over. Womp womp. So it goes.

The following graph does a pretty good job showing the path of Castro’s season. He started out insanely hot, cooled off big time during the summer months, then finished strong at the end of the season.

Starlin Castro wRC+To further drive home the point, here is Castro’s wRC+ by month: 123, 56, 81, 78, 137, 90. Huh, so I guess September wasn’t as good as I remember. Anyway, Starlin bottomed out at .255/.292/.389 (80 wRC+) on August 4th. August 4th! That was 429 plate appearances into his season. His lowest OPS of the season came in Game 108. Ouch.

Castro went 2-for-3 with a home run and two walks the next day, and finished the season with a .306/.320/.538 (126 wRC+) batting line and ten home runs in his final 181 plate appearances. He did miss a little more than a week with a hamstring injury at the very end of September, otherwise he was healthy all season. Starlin appeared in 146 of the team’s 148 games before the hamstring injury, and 151 of 162 games overall. The guy has played at least 151 games in five of his six full seasons as a big leaguer. He’s durable. Give him that.

During the summer months, when he was going through his three-month offensive lull, Castro hit two of the biggest home runs of the season for the Yankees. First, on May 29th, he swatted a go-ahead two-run home run against Jake Odorizzi at Tropicana Field.

That was New York’s only hit of the game. Odorizzi walked Brett Gardner with one out in the seventh and Castro made him pay with the dinger. Nathan Eovaldi and the three-headed bullpen monster made those two runs stand up. It was the only the second time in franchise history that the Yankees won a game despite being one-hit. The other came way back in 1914. Yeah.

Castro’s other huge hit came about a month later. It was a walk-off home run against Jason Motte and the Rockies. It also happened to be one of the longest homers hit by a Yankee in 2016. The ball settled into the second deck in left field, 443 feet from home plate. The Yankees were struggling bit time at the time and Castro’s walk-off felt huge.

All told, Castro hit .270/.300/.433 (94 wRC+) with a career high 21 home runs — his previous career high was 14 back in 2014 — in 610 plate appearances this season. His strikeout rate (19.3%) was also a career high, though it was still lower than the league average (21.1%). Castro didn’t walk at all (3.9%), which is the norm. Overall, his season batting line looked an awful lot like his career .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) batting line. Close enough, anyway.

The Subtle Improvements

It’s easy to bash Castro — I know I’m guilty of it — because he is so very undisciplined at the plate and makes himself look like an easy out at times. He guy has nearly 4,400 big league plate appearances under his belt and he still goes long stretches of time looking like an overmatched rookie. And geez, the baserunning. Don’t get me started on the baserunning.

The all-encompassing baserunning metrics at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus measured Castro at 1.6 and 2.1 runs below average on the bases, respectively. It’s not a blip either. FanGraphs has Castro at -16.6 runs on the bases for his career. Baseball Prospectus has him at -4.8. This is who he is.

Anyway, enough with the negatives. Castro showed some legitimate improvement in his game this season, which is good to see because the guy did spent the entire year at age 26. He’s entering what should be the prime of his career. Here are the two ways Starlin improved the most this season.

1. He hit for more power. I already told you about the career high 21 home runs, but it goes a little deeper than that. Castro had 29 doubles this season, right in line with the 31 doubles he averaged from 2011-15, so he added the dingers without sacrificing two-baggers. This wasn’t one of those “the home runs turned into doubles” situations. The homers were added to the doubles. They didn’t replace them.

Of course, power was up around the league this season, so it’s fair to wonder how much of Castro’s power output was a result of the league environment, and how much was natural progression. Also, the ballpark helped too. Wrigley Field is pretty hitter friendly when the wind is blowing out, but not as friendly as Yankee Stadium is pretty much all the time.

I’m going to do what I did with Didi Gregorius and calculate ISO+. Same idea as OPS+ and wRC+. We’ll compare Castro’s isolated power to the league average isolated power with a park factor thrown in. An ISO+ of 100 is average. The higher the number, the better. Got it? Good. Here are the last three years.

2014: 74 ISO+
2015: -21 ISO+ (!)
2016: 81 ISO+

Castro had a really, really bad year in the power department last season. That’s one of the reasons the Cubs decided he was expendable. They — and many other folks, for that matter — thought he was going backward. Or, at the very least, they weren’t seeing any progress from a guy who’d been in the big leagues for parts of six seasons.

Relative to a league average right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, Castro’s power was below average this year. But it represented progress for him. It was a massive improvement from last season and also an improvement from 2014, a career best season in which he hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+). There’s some legitimate progress here. Also, check out his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Starlin Castro

Starlin can hit the ball to all fields, and he does so with enough authority to pop a few opposite field home runs. He hit five home runs to the right side of center field in 2016. Do you know how many he hit with the Cubs? Four. Total. In five and a half seasons. Yes, Yankee Stadium’s short porch helps explain that — four of his five opposite field homers came in the Bronx — but that’s sort of the point. Starlin took advantage of the short porch. That’s what the Yankees hoped he would do.

2. He had more success when ahead in the count. The term “plate discipline” has become synonymous with “draws walks,” but that’s overly simplistic. Yes, walks are good, but ultimately the point of working the count is getting a good pitch to hit. Castro is never going to be Joey Votto when it comes to plate discipline, but this year, for the first time in his career, he did some real damage when ahead in the count. Here are his numbers with the count in his favor:

2013: .295/.396/.446 (80 OPS+)
2014: .318/.446/.473 (96 OPS+)
2015: .291/.377/.424 (67 OPS+)
2016: .351/.438/.649 (116 OPS+)

Important context: the MLB average was a .302/.473/.525 batting line when the hitter was ahead in the count this year. Last year it was .296/.461/.498. That’s why Starlin’s .291/.377/.424 batting line when ahead in the count last season was only a 67 OPS+.

Prior to this season, Castro didn’t a do very good job when the pitcher fell behind in the count. He didn’t make them pay as much as a league average hitter would. This year, he had much more success when the count fell in his favor. He was better than league average when ahead in the count. By quite a bit too.

Starlin is not very disciplined, but throwing strikes is hard, so he’s going to see his fair share of favorable counts throughout the season. This year, he finally started to capitalize. That’s a positive development. Now we just have to see if he can built on this next year, or if it was a one-year fluke.

Defense at Second

Castro moved to second base late last year, so he was still relatively new to the position this year. His inexperience showed at times — I thought he was noticeably slow turning the double play, which cost the Yankees several bang-bang plays — but I feel that was to be expected. The guy had been a shortstop his entire life, and now he shifted to the other side of the base. Starlin did make some spectacular players this year …

… and he also made most of the routine plays too. When a guy is new to the position, I feel that’s a reasonable goal for the first year. Make the routine plays. We’ll figure out the more difficult stuff later.

The various defensive stats were kind of all over the place for Castro at second base: -8 DRS, -6.6 UZR, +6 Total Zone, +0.9 FRAA. Such is life when dealing with one-year samples of defensive stats. The eye test told me Castro was adequate at second. Not spectacular, not a total liability. My hope is he’ll pick up the pace turning double plays with experience. Otherwise he did what he was supposed to do in the field. Caught what he was supposed too, and made enough great plays to negate the misplays.

Outlook for 2017

Had he not signed a long-term extension with the Cubs a few years ago, Castro would have qualified for free agency this offseason. Instead, the Yankees owe him $30M from 2017-19 and have a $16M club option ($1M buyout) for 2020. Given the year he just had, would Castro get more than three years and $31M guaranteed as a 26-year-old free agent this winter? Yes. Yes he would. Pretty easily too, I think. He’d probably get double that money, if not more.

Castro is certainly not without his flaws. He’s so very undisciplined at the plate that I don’t think he’ll ever reach his full offensive potential, which I think is pretty big. Castro has power and he drives the ball to all field. That’s exciting. But we see way too much of this …

Starlin Castro slider

… for me to think Starlin will ever tap into his full offensive ability. He sabotages himself at the plate by being such a hacker. Guys like Castro and Alfonso Soriano, another guy with a big appetite for sliders off the plate, show us just how often Major League pitchers make mistakes. If everyone could execute a down-and-away slider every time, these types of players would never get a hit. But mistakes are made, and they capitalize.

Given his age, there is still room for Castro to grow as a player and I think that’s exciting. At the same time, I feel like Castro is what he is. He’s been in the show for six and a half years now and will still chase pitches way off the plate — his 37.5% swing rate on pitches out of the zone was 17th highest among the 146 players to qualifying for the batting title — which can get pretty frustrating. You want to see the adjustment be made, but it hasn’t yet, and it’s starting to look like it never will.

The Yankees have some impressive young bats either in the big leagues right now (Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge) or on the way next year (Greg Bird and Clint Frazier), and my hope is they will push Castro into more of a complementary role. Starlin as an offensive center piece, which is what he was this year, isn’t so good. I’d rather see him hitting 6-7-8 rather than 2-3-4, you know?

As for next season, I get the feeling the Yankees will again see if Castro can hack it over at third base. He doesn’t have to play there every single day, but at least maybe be an option. It doesn’t hurt to try it in Spring Training. The Yankees have a lot of young shortstops on the way, most defensively superior to Castro, so the Yankees will want to keep those guys on the middle infield. Overall, Castro was good enough this year, and I think he’ll continue to be good enough going forward.

Thoughts on the Yankees and their search for “pitching, pitching, pitching”

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

As of 12:01am ET this morning, free agents are able to negotiate and sign with any team. That’s fun! Too bad this free agent class stinks, especially if you need rotation help. I ranked the top 20 free agent starters for CBS yesterday and my list included Clayton Richard. Literally Clayton Richard. The free agent pitching class is that bad. Unfortunately, the Yankees are among the teams in need of arms.

“We’re going to go through everything. We’ve had our scouting meetings. The areas that we would like to focus on — the bullpen and starting pitching. I think the biggest focus will be pitching, pitching, pitching,” said Brian Cashman to Christian Red at a charity event last week. “All clubs know that we are a very open-minded, aggressive organization, open to any idea that serves us.”

Beyond free agency, there’s also the trade market, and I get the feeling we’re going to see a ton of trades this offseason. Not necessarily involving the Yankees, just in general. That’ll be fun. Trades are a blast. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the Yankees and their pursuit of “pitching, pitching, pitching” at the outset of free agency.

1. The difference between the team’s short-term and long-term needs is pretty fascinating. The Yankees were one of the worst offensive teams in baseball this past season. They averaged 4.20 runs per game, which ranked 22nd among the 30 teams. And that’s with Gary Sanchez being out of his mind for two months. Offense is a clear short-term need. At the same time, the Yankees are also light on impact pitching long-term. Masahiro Tanaka can opt into free agency next offseason, and top prospects Justus Sheffield and James Kaprielian are at least a year away, maybe more. The Yankees have young bats coming. Sanchez and Aaron Judge are in the big leagues, Greg Bird will be back next year, and Clint Frazier figures to arrive soon. They can solve their offense problem internally, at least in theory. The pitching is another matter. Assuming the emphasis on “pitching, pitching, pitching” is genuine, the Yankees are taking more of a long-term approach this offseason.

2. I’ve talked myself into signing Rich Hill. Both MLBTR and Keith Law (subs. req’d) project a three-year deal worth $50M or so, and that sounds about right to me. It’s an awful lot of money for a guy who a) turns 37 in March, b) has an extremely limited track record of excellence, and c) hasn’t thrown more than 120 innings since 2007. But in this market, getting a pitcher who has shown the ability to pitch like an ace for less than $20M a year is pretty damn good. The money isn’t really the problem though. The Yankees have a ton of it. It’s the years. The team that offers the third guarantee year is the team that will likely get Hill. Heck, at this point I wonder if a fourth year is what does the trick. This free agent class is so incredibly bad. If the Yankees are going to dip into free agency and spend real money, do it on the best available pitcher, and that’s Hill.

3. I am comfortable with the Yankees’ rotation depth. Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda are the clear top three starters at this point in whatever order. After that the Yankees have Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell, plus Chance Adams and Jordan Montgomery slated to start in Triple-A next season. There’s quite a bit of upside in that group, and also a lot of downside, of course. Severino was very kind to remind us this year that even the most talented pitching prospects can fall flat on their face. I feel pretty good that the Yankees have six of those guys though, all of whom are big league ready or close to it. Surely at least one of them will be able to establish himself as a full-time big league starter in 2017, right? Right??? I hope so.

No. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
No. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

4. If the Yankees aren’t going to extend themselves to sign Hill, the next best approach may be going after two or three risky starters. Reclamation project types. Brett Anderson, Derek Holland, C.J. Wilson … those guys all figure to come on one-year contracts and at least have a chance to pitch at an above-average level. A small chance, but a chance nonetheless. Those guys offer a smidge of upside, and if they do get hurt again, the Yankees can turn things over to that young rotation depth they have. I don’t like the idea of betting multiple years that Jeremy Hellickson or Ivan Nova has suddenly turned the corner. Aside from Hill, who himself is a pretty substantial risk, I think the best approach with this free agent class is going short-term with two or three veterans. The hard part is convincing them to take a one-year contract to rebuild value in Yankee Stadium and the AL East.

5. How much will the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement impact free agency? Part of me thinks teams are going to steer clear of free agents until the new deal is in place so this way they know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Last time the CBA was up, the Phillies rushed out and signed Jonathan Papelbon. Then under the terms of the new CBA, teams did not have to give up their first round pick to sign relievers the remainder of the offseason. Philadelphia gave up their first rounder for nothing. Everyone got a good laugh at their expense, but everyone learned their lesson too. I don’t think teams want to jump the gun. Free agency may be slow until the new CBA is in place. Trades could be all the rage early in the offseason, and I fully expect the Yankees to be in on the action.

Gary Sanchez among AL Rookie of the Year finalists

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Earlier tonight MLB and the BBWAA announced the three finalists for each of this year’s major awards. As expected, Gary Sanchez is among the AL Rookie of the Year finalists. He’s up against Michael Fulmer of the Tigers and Tyler Naquin of the Indians. No surprises there at all. Here are all the awards finalists.

Sanchez was not called up for good until early-August, but he’s in the Rookie of the Year race because he had a historically great two-month stretch. He hit .299/.376/.657 (171 wRC+) with 20 homer runs in 53 games, plus he showed off an insane arm behind the plate.

Your browser does not support iframes.In terms of games played, no player in history reached 11, 18, 19, and 20 career home runs faster than Sanchez. He led all AL rookies in fWAR (+3.2) and was second to Fulmer in bWAR (+3.0). Because he didn’t play a full season like Fulmer and Naquin, Sanchez’s Rookie of the Year case is built on his historically great two-month stretch.

I actually think Sanchez is going to win Rookie of the Year. I think voters will skew towards the historically great catcher over the starter who had a great full season, but didn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. Same with Naquin. Great season! But someone will do pretty much the same thing next year. We’ll see.

The Yankees did not have any finalists for the other awards, which isn’t a surprise. Masahiro Tanaka will surely get some Cy Young votes, though he’s not a finalist. Corey Kluber, Rick Porcello, and Justin Verlander are up for the AL Cy Young Award. Sounds right to me. You could argue Zach Britton and Chris Sale should be finalists.

Awards week is next week. The Rookies of the Year will be announced next Monday, November 14th. Cy Youngs will be announced Wednesday, November 16th. Joe Girardi will inevitably get some Manager of the Year votes, and there are always some weird down ballot MVP votes. We’ll see a few Yankees pop-up in the MVP voting.

Monday Night Open Thread

The first day of the GM Meetings came and went today with little action, though that’s not entirely unexpected. The GM Meetings are intended to cover various off-the-field matters around the league, and while there are some deals struck each year, it’s mostly about laying groundwork for transactions that happen later in the offseason. The offseason is young. Teams are still gauging the market.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Bills and Seahawks are the Monday Night Football game, and the Islanders are playing as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here. I know the election is tomorrow, but please, no politics. Thanks in advance.

King: Yankees planning to watch Greg Holland’s workout, because of course they should

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

According to George King, the Yankees will be among the teams on hand to watch former Royals closer Greg Holland throw for scouts in Scottsdale today. Holland, a free agent, is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. “He is back at it full steam,” said agent Scott Boras to Joel Sherman. “With the value of relief pitching being shown [in the postseason], he should be interesting.”

Holland, who turns 31 later this month, blew out his elbow late last season, one year before free agency, so the Royals non-tendered him. That’s basically what Nathan Eovaldi is going through right now. Holland had a 1.86 ERA (1.92 FIP) with a 35.2% strikeout rate in 256.1 innings from 2011-14 before slipping to a 3.83 ERA (3.27 FIP) with 25.4% strikeout rate in 44.2 innings in 2015, likely because his elbow was barking. I have some thoughts on this.

1. Of course Holland is worth a look. There’s no reason for the Yankees — or any other team, for that matter — to not go see what Holland looks like at his workout. Every club has scouts in Arizona. It’s not out of the way. Pop on by the workout and see what he looks like 13 months out from surgery. Even if you don’t sign him, it’s something for the ol’ information bank you can refer back to later.

(Coincidentally enough, the GM Meetings are in Scottsdale this week, so every team’s head honcho and his top lieutenants will be in the area. I’m guessing more than a few big wigs will stop by Holland’s workout if their schedules allow.)

Once upon a time Holland was a really great reliever, and there’s a chance he will still be a really great reliever after Tommy John surgery. Tommy John surgery is pretty risky — the procedure itself may be routine, but the rehab sure isn’t — and it’s possible Holland’s days as effective big leaguer are over. It’s worth finding out though. Get eyes on him at the workout, and if he looks good, try to sign him.

Update: Eric Longenhagen says Holland was 88-91 mph during today’s workout. That’s down from his peak, though it’s not terribly surprising for a guy still building arm strength after major surgery. Sherman says the Yankees had scout Dan Giese and pro scouting director Kevin Reese on hand. (Yes, that Dan Giese and Kevin Reese.)

2. The Yankees could, in theory, offer him the closer’s spot. Holland is a former All-Star closer, and I have to think he’s looking to return to the ninth inning as soon as possible. That’s where the glory is, and, most importantly, that’s where the money is. Two relievers could have the exact same season, but the guy who does it as a closer will get more attention that the guy who does it as a setup man, guaranteed.

The Yankees are actually in position to offer Holland their closer’s job. I absolutely believe Dellin Betances could close. Zero doubt about it. I also believe Betances is most valuable in a setup role, where Joe Girardi is more willing to extend him a bit and use him in the game’s most important situation regardless of inning. Holland could close while Betances returns to the fireman role he’s filled so well the last few years.

Now, does it make sense to trust a dude coming off Tommy John surgery in the ninth inning? That’s debatable. I guess it depends how Holland’s stuff rebounds following elbow reconstruction and how he looks in Spring Training. I honestly don’t think any team will guarantee Holland their closer’s job. Not so soon after elbow surgery. Obviously some teams are better positioned to quickly move him into the ninth inning though.

The other problem is the Yankees will reportedly go after one of the top available relievers, presumably Aroldis Chapman. Holland will figure out for himself which team offers the greatest opportunity to return to closing. Getting stuck behind Betances and possibly Chapman (or Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon) on the closer depth chart might not be so appealing.

3. Signing Holland shouldn’t deter the Yankees from sign another top reliever. Holland should be looked at as a lottery ticket. He’s not someone you can count on to be a key part of your bullpen so soon after surgery. I don’t doubt his stuff or anything. The guy has nasty, nasty stuff.

We just don’t know how Holland is going to rebound from Tommy John surgery, especially short-term. That applies to every pitcher ever. Because of that, I think you have to view him as a lottery ticket. An extra piece of depth. And if Holland can help out at some point in a high-leverage role, great. That makes the bullpen even more dangerous.

The Yankees are reportedly going to be in the market for a top reliever and that shouldn’t include Holland. He’s essentially a reclamation project. The master plan should be Chapman or Jansen and Holland, not Chapman/Jansen or Holland. Go add that big lockdown bullpen arm, then add Holland on top of that. That’s the best way to go about this. Don’t count on him for anything. It should all be gravy.

The Time the Yankees Traded the Best Relief Pitcher in Baseball [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I can’t think of another player who became as beloved as a Yankee as Andrew Miller despite spending so little time with the Yankees. He didn’t even win a championship in New York or anything. Miller wore pinstripes for only a season and a half, yet he was a fan favorite, a clubhouse favorite, and one of the team’s best and most reliable players. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call him one of the greatest free agent signings in Yankees history.

Miller’s departure from the Yankees really had nothing to do with Miller himself. He went above and beyond the call of duty in New York, but the rest of the team was not ready to contend, so much so that they needed an infusion of young talent. The dominant and affordable Miller was one of the club’s most valuable trade chips, so when the trade deadline rolled around, the Yankees entertained offers. Eventually someone met their demands.

The Spring Injury

The trade deadline was not the first time the Yankees dangled Miller on the trade market. They listened to offers over the winter and reportedly discussed sending him to the Astros for a package similar to what Houston sent to the Phillies for Ken Giles, but things never came together. Miller remained with the Yankees and reported to Spring Training not really knowing what his role would be.

“Certainly, they felt like more firepower can help us reach the goals. And if that’s what it takes to get there, then I’m all for it,” said Miller after Joe Girardi declared the newly acquired Aroldis Chapman the team’s closer. “I came here to play for the Yankees. I had a choice to go there. My goal is to win … I’m not worried about some sort of milestone or Hall of Fame case or anything like that. I’m just trying to go out there and win.”

MLB announced Chapman’s suspension in early-March, which meant, once again, Miller would be the team’s closer. At least temporarily. He went about his business in Spring Training, got his work in, and prepared for the season as usual. Preparing to be a closer is no different than preparing to be a setup man. Then, on March 30th, right at the end of camp, Miller took a line drive to his right wrist.

That looked bad. It looked bad and it was bad, really. Tests showed Miller suffered a chip fracture in his right wrist, and after seeing a specialist, he was cleared to play through the injury. MLB rules would not allow him to wear a brace, even on his glove hand. He would have to gut it out for several weeks.

Thirty Games as Closer

If the wrist injury had a lingering effect on Miller’s performance, it didn’t show during the regular season. He went 6-for-6 in save chances during the first 30 games of the season — the Yankees didn’t give him many leads to protect, unfortunately — and during that time he allowed seven hits and one walk with 20 strikeouts in 11.2 innings. At one point Miller retired 22 straight batters with 14 strikeouts. Yeah.

Miller’s most memorable moment as the closer this year was his final save chance before Chapman’s suspension ended. The Red Sox were in town and the Yankees were nursing a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning. Girardi went to Miller for the four-out save, and after getting the final out of the eighth, he loaded the bases with one out on three singles (Josh Rutledge, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts) in the ninth. It was butt-clenching time. Then Miller did what Miller does (with some help from home plate umpire Ron Kulpa).

Three days later, Chapman returned from his suspension and took over as the closer. Miller did nothing to lose the job, but Chapman has been one of the best closers in baseball over the last few years, so the Yankees gave him the job. Miller could have made a big stink about it — more than a few players would have, I’m sure — but he didn’t. He slid back into the eighth inning and Dellin Betances took over the seventh.

“What do you want me to do? You want me to throw a fit?” said Miller the day Chapman returned. “The goal here is to win. I think if you go around and ask, there’s 25 lockers in here, and I think everyone is going to say that. We haven’t gotten off to the start that we want to. I think we’ve played well in the last couple of days, and the goal is to keep that going. Wins are what’s fun at the end of the day.”

Back to the Eighth

Weirdly enough, Chapman allowed a run before Miller this season. Chapman gave up a run in his first game back from the suspension. Miller didn’t allow his first run until the next day. He entered the eighth inning with a one-run lead against the Royals, then allowed a leadoff home run to Lorenzo Cain. (It was Cain’s third homer of the night.) The Yankees rallied to win that game, but still, Miller finally allowed a run, and some tried to make it a thing that he was unhappy about losing his closer’s job.

“There shouldn’t be (an adjustment). It should be the same,” said Miller after that game. “I’m out there trying to get outs, and unfortunately, I made a bad pitch and had to pay for it. Honestly, I’m just focused on the hitters. I’m trying as much (as I can) to concentrate on that.”

To the surprise of no one, Miller went right back to dominating as the setup man, and along with Chapman and Betances, he help form one of the most devastating bullpen trios in baseball history. In 30 games and 31.2 innings as the eighth inning guy, Miller pitched to a 1.99 ERA (2.55 FIP) with 54 strikeouts and six walks. That’s a 44.3% strikeout rate and a 4.9% walk rate, so yeah. He also had a 54.2% ground ball rate too.

Miller allowed eight runs (seven earned) in those 31.2 innings and five came on home runs. All solo shots. One was even a walk-off. I totally forgot about this:

That was basically the only way to score against Miller for those three months (or ever). You had to hope he made a mistake you could hit out of the park. Putting together a rally against him — stringing together singles and walks, that sort of thing — is basically impossible. He misses too many bats and he doesn’t beats himself with walks, which is sort of crazy because earlier in his career, Miller had a lot of problems throwing strikes.

For the first time in his career, Miller was an All-Star this season, and he actually had a tough outing in the All-Star Game itself. He entered the eighth inning with a two-run lead and it went fly out (Brandon Belt), single (Jonathan Lucroy), strikeout (Jay Bruce), single (Starling Marte), walk (Adam Duvall). Miller loaded the bases and threw 28 pitches in two-thirds of an inning. Will Harris had to come in to bail him out. (Harris struck out Aledmys Diaz to strand the bases loaded.)

The Yankees traded Chapman to the Cubs on July 25th, so for his final week in pinstripes, Miller returned to the ninth inning and served as the closer. He converted both save chances and struck out three in two scoreless innings that week. All told, Miller had a 1.39 ERA (1.78 FIP) in 45.1 innings with the Yankees in 2016. He struck out 77 (44.8%), walked seven (4.1%), and got a ton of grounders (52.9%). Miller also saved eight games in eight tries in his two short stints as closer. Total domination.

The Trade Deadline

On the morning of July 31st, the Yankees were 52-51 and 4.5 games back of the second wildcard spot with four teams ahead of them. They’d lost their last three games as well. The Yankees had been spinning their wheels all season. Each hot streak was met with an equally long cold streak. It had been a struggle all season just to get over .500. Remember that? They didn’t do it for good until August 10th.

There was no real indication the Yankees were going to make any sort of run in the second half. Chapman had already been traded, so the team was ready to sell, though Miller was different. Chapman was going to be a free agent after the season. Miller is signed through 2018 at an affordable rate. The Yankees didn’t have to trade Miller the way they had to trade Chapman (and Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova). There was no reason not to listen to offers though.

Just about every contender in baseball had interest in Miller. The Indians, Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, Rangers, Astros, Nationals, Red Sox, Cardinals … you name the team and they wanted him, understandably. The Yankees set the price high and let teams come to them. It was a bidding war, and when it was all said and done, the Indians stepped up and gave the Yankees what they wanted.

On July 31st, the day before the trade deadline, the Yankees shipped Miller to Cleveland for a package of four prospects: outfielder Clint Frazier, left-hander Justus Sheffield, and right-handers Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. Baseball America ranked Frazier and Sheffield as the 21st and 69th best prospects in baseball, respectively, in their midseason top 100 list earlier in July. They were the headliners.

“One of those two wouldn’t have been enough. We had to have them both,” said Cashman after the trade. “(There) was a pit in my stomach that I have the most difficult job of all in calling Andrew Miller. Andrew, he didn’t want to go anywhere. He loved playing here. Andrew was everything you want. Unfortunately, we had a lot of areas that need to be addressed, so unfortunately he was part of that type of solution.”

After the Trade

The Indians didn’t acquire Miller to get to the postseason. They had a 4.5 game lead in the AL Central on the day of the trade and FanGraphs put their postseason odds at 95.0%. Cleveland made the trade because they wanted to win the World Series, and they very nearly did that thanks in large part to Miller. The Indians pushed the best team in baseball to extra innings in Game Seven of the World Series, and they did it without Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco. They came so close!

Miller was Miller after the trade. He had a 1.55 ERA (1.53 FIP) with a ton of strikeouts (44.7%) and grounders (56.4%), and few walks (1.9%) in 29 regular season innings with the Indians. Coincidentally enough, Miller earned his first of three regular season saves with Cleveland against the Yankees.

Miller took it to another level in the postseason, allowing three runs in 19.2 innings with 30 strikeouts and five walks. He set new MLB records for strikeouts and innings by a reliever in a single postseason. Miller recorded at least four outs in all ten postseason outings and was named ALCS MVP in Cleveland’s five-game series win over the Blue Jays. The guy was marvelous. Miller gave the Indians everything they needed and then some.

Outlook for 2017

The Indians are a small payroll team and they did ride Miller hard in the postseason, so I suppose there’s a chance they will entertain trading him this offseason to replenish the farm system. That’s nothing more than my speculation though. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to listen. Teams may still be willing to pay through the nose for bullpen help like they did at the trade deadline.

As for the Yankees, the focus is on the four prospects they received in the Miller trade. Heller made his MLB debut after the deal and figures to be a bullpen factor next season. Frazier is slated to begin the season in Triple-A and could reach the show at some point during the summer. Sheffield will start next year in Double-A and Feyereisen will be in Triple-A. They’re all pretty close to the big leagues, so we’ll see what happens. Nothing we can do other than wait.

In his year and a half as a Yankee, Miller was essentially the perfect player. He was ultra-productive, he was willing to pitch in any role, and he was on a bargain contract. You wish you could have 25 guys like this on your roster. Miller was not the problem in any way. The rest of the team was the problem. I don’t think anyone didn’t love Andrew Miller. He’s awesome. It’s a shame he had to go, but it was the right move. Given their current state, the Yankees need the young talent more than they need a dominant reliever.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 7th, 2016

2016 Season Record: 84-78 (680 RS, 702 RA, 79-83 pythag. record), 5.0 GB of postseason spot

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