Scouting the Trade Market: Nate Jones

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

Given their Winter Meetings activity, the White Sox are clearly a rebuilding team right now. They traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, and reports indicate Jose Quintana is on the block too. The Astros are said to have shown the most interest in him, and, understandably, the ChiSox have asked for basically all their top prospects. I don’t blame them. Quintana’s awesome.

The White Sox do have other veterans to trade as well, including former Yankee David Robertson. My guess is the teams that lose out on Kenley Jansen will turn their attention to Robertson. It’s another ChiSox reliever that interests me though: hard-throwing righty Nate Jones. The Yankees already have a pretty great closer-setup man tandem, but there’s no such thing as too many quality relievers. Let’s give Jones a look.

Recent Performance

Jones, who turns 31 in January, is like so many other relievers these days in that he’s a failed starter. The White Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, and after a few years as a middling minor league starter, they moved him to the bullpen and he dominated almost immediately. Jones has spent parts of five seasons in the show now. His numbers:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2016 70.2 2.29 2.93 29.2% 5.5% 45.9% 0.89 .211 .276
Career 239.1 3.16 3.11 27.0% 8.5% 47.1% 0.79 .286 .278

Jones was excellent this year. He’s been good his entire career, really, but this year he took it to another level. Not coincidentally, he was healthy this season, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Jones has always missed bats and gotten a good number of grounders, and this season he cut his walk rate. (He walked 15 in those 70.2 innings and three of the 15 were in intentional.)

This season Jones did have a pretty significant platoon split, though it’s not like lefties smacked him around the yard. They hit .198/.257/.410 against him. It’s worth noting he faced 109 lefties and gave up five homers this summer. It was two homers against 165 righty batters. Jones has always been more home run prone against lefties (career 1.22 HR/9) than righties (0.50 HR/9), which could be a problem at Yankee Stadium.

Generally speaking though, Jones was very good this past season and he’s been comfortably above-average his entire career. This is not some run of the mill middle reliever. Jones is a bonafide power reliever capable of pitching high-leverage situations.

Present Stuff

Like most relievers, Jones is a two-pitch pitcher. He’s a sinker/slider pitcher who has, at times, thrown a changeup and a curveball. Very rarely though. Jones threw seven changeups and four curveballs this past season. Total. So yeah, two-pitch pitcher. To the numbers (MLB averages in parenthesis):

% Thrown Avg. Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 62.8% 97.4 (91.3) 8.7% (5.4%) 42.5% (49.5%)
Slider 36.0% 88.8 (84.3) 27.0% (15.2%) 56.1% (43.9%)

Those are 2016 numbers, which most closely reflect who Jones is at this point in time. Right away, the velocity jumps out at you. Averaging north of 97 mph with a sinker is no joke. Same with a slider that averaged close to 89 mph. Jones got the sinker as high as 100.2 mph and the slider as high as 93.2 mph in 2016. That is pretty crazy.

Weirdly, that high-octane sinker doesn’t generate many grounders. Jones does get a good amount of swings and misses with the sinker, but not grounders. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s not like Jones pitched poorly this year — just unusual. Maybe it’s more of a true four-seam fastball that had just enough movement to trick PitchFX into thinking it’s a sinker? Video is scarce — unfortunately no one made a highlight video of a relatively unheralded setup reliever — but let’s look at some anyway:

Okay, that’s a sinker, not a four-seamer. You can clearly see the pitch run away from the left-handed batter. I’m not quite sure why Jones didn’t get many grounders with his sinker this season — he had a 28.6% grounder rate with the sinker last year, so it was even worse — but it happened. It’s not a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned because Jones was so good anyway, just a little weirdness. (Here’s video of his slider, if you’re interested.)

Injury History

Like so many other hard-throwing relievers these days, Jones has had some arm problems in his career. Nowadays it seems the guys who haven’t had an arm injury are the outliers. Anyway, here is Jones’ injury history:

  • 2010: Missed about two weeks in May with shoulder tendinitis while in Double-A.
  • 2014: Landed on the disabled list three games into the season with hip problem. He had relatively minor back surgery in early-May to shave down a bone that was causing nerve irritation and the hip issue.
  • 2014: Blew out his elbow in mid-July and needed Tommy John surgery. He was working his way back from the back procedure when the ligament snapped.

The good news: Tommy John surgery is the only serious arm issue. Jones’ shoulder has been fine since that little two-week stint on the minor league disabled list nearly seven years ago. Also, the back surgery wasn’t a structural issue, like a herniated disc. It was an arthroscopic procedure and Jones was throwing less than six weeks later. He wasn’t far away from rejoining the White Sox when the elbow gave out.

Now, that said, Jones is a guy with a herky jerky delivery who needed elbow reconstruction not too long ago. That’s a red flag, no doubt. Every single reliever is a risk these days. They all seem to get hurt. Jones appears to be in the clear at this point — his stuff and performance have bounced back well following Tommy John surgery — but he is slightly more risky than most relievers because his elbow was rebuilt less than three calendar years ago.

Contract Status

Interestingly enough, the White Sox signed Jones to a long-term extension while he was rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery. You don’t see that often. A team signing a player long-term as he’s rehabbing from major surgery. The ChiSox figured it was worth the risk, and I’m sure Jones appreciated the long-term security. Here’s the remainder of the contract:

  • 2017: $1.9M
  • 2018: $3.95M
  • 2019: Club option at league minimum ($555,000 per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement)
  • 2020: $3.75M club option
  • 2021: $4.25M club option

The contract also includes all sorts of escalators and bonuses. If Jones doesn’t need another elbow surgery by the end of the 2018 season, the contract options jump to $4.65M in 2019 and $5.15M in 2020, and the 2021 club option becomes a $6M mutual option. The ChiSox built in some protection in case the ligament gives out again. Jones can earn another $5.25M through bonuses based on games finished totals that, realistically, no pitcher could reach as a setup man. We’re talking 30+ games finished a year. He’d have to become a closer to trigger those.

So, all told, Jones can max the contract out at $26.9M over the five years if he stays healthy, becomes a closer, and neither side declines the mutual option. If the Yankees were to acquire Jones and use him as a setup man exclusively, and his elbow stays healthy, they’d owe him $15.65M from 2017-20 with the $6M mutual option for 2021. (Every option in the contract includes a $1.25M buyout.) Got all that? Point is, Jones is a contractual bargain relative to other top relievers.

What Would It Take?

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Gosh, it’s going to be really tough to pin down a trade benchmark for Jones given his recent Tommy John surgery and unique contract. Here are some relievers who were recently traded with at least four years of team control remaining:

  • Ken Giles: Traded with a top 20 org prospect (Jonathan Arauz) for a young big league starter (Vince Velasquez), a big league swingman (Brett Oberholtzer), a top ten org prospect (Mark Appel), a top 20 org prospect (Thomas Eshelman), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Harold Arauz).
  • Trevor Gott: Traded with a non-top 30 org prospect (Michael Brady) for Yunel Escobar in a salary dump.
  • Craig Kimbrel: Traded with Melvin Upton for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, a top 50 global prospect (Matt Wisler), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Jordan Paroubeck).

Yeah, this doesn’t help us much. Kimbrel was firmly established as one of the best relievers in baseball when he traded from the Braves to the Padres, if not the best. Gott had one year in the show as a middle reliever and was traded in a salary dump. Giles had five years of control remaining, not four, and that package is all over the place. That’s the deal that raised the price for late-inning bullpen help.

The Red Sox just gave up a young-ish player off their MLB roster (Travis Shaw), a top ten org prospect (Mauricio Dubon), a non-top 30 org prospect (Josh Pennington), and a player to be named later for three years of Tyler Thornburg, who like Jones is a good reliever with an injury history. That feels like the starting point for Jones. The Thornburg package. He won’t come cheap. I know that much. No good reliever does these days. The Yankees won’t be able to swing a deal by cobbling together a package of three or four guys from the bottom of their 40-man roster.

So What About The Yankees?

Even after agreeing to a deal with Aroldis Chapman last week, the Yankees are reportedly in the hunt for even more bullpen help. Nothing significant, they’re not going to sign Kenley Jansen or anything like that, but they want to beef up the middle relief. Ideally, they want a left-hander to pair with (or maybe replace?) Tommy Layne. Jones is not a southpaw, but he’s really good, so good that handedness doesn’t matter.

The Yankees already have a strong relief crew with Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard behind Chapman. Adam Warren is a fine fourth bullpen option, has been his entire career, though the Yankees may need him in the rotation. Adding Jones to Betances and Clippard would give the Yankees three really good setup relievers — Joe Girardi can have a sixth inning guy! — next year, and two really good setup relievers in the following years. (Clippard will be a free agent next winter. Betances and Jones would still be around.)

The real question is whether it’s worth giving up the prospects to acquire Jones given his contract and injury history, and really, we can’t know the answer to that until we get some idea of what the White Sox want. The Yankees don’t need Jones. He’d be a luxury. They’re in position to hang back and see how his market develops before deciding whether to get involved. New York doesn’t have to rush into any sort of decision. That’s good.

Problem is, Jones will probably be long gone before the prospect price drops low enough for the Yankees to get involved. I don’t think they want to give up any prospects for a reliever, especially not after signing Chapman. Maybe if they’d whiffed on Chapman and passed on Jansen because of the draft pick, Jones would make more sense. He’d be a really great addition to the bullpen. No doubt. My guess is the Yankees will find the cost prohibitive.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 12th, 2016

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

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Weekend Open Thread

The Winter Meetings are over, but I haven’t had much time to catch up on my reading, so I don’t have any links to pass along this week. I instead offer you MLBTR’s list of potential 2018-19 free agents. That’s the monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado class. It goes beyond them too. Second tier free agents like A.J. Pollock and D.J. LeMahieu would be the cream of the crop this year. Check it out and start drooling.

Friday: Here is your open thread for this chilly evening in New York. The Rangers, Devils, and Knicks are all playing, and there’s one college basketball game on as well. Talk about that stuff or anything else here.

Saturday: This is the open thread once again. The Islanders and Nets are playing, and there’s a bunch of college hoops going as well. Also, the Army-Navy game is on too, and that’s always cool. Have at it.

Sunday: For one last time, this is the open thread. The Rangers and Devils are playing (each other), the Knicks are out on the West Coast, plus there’s all the day’s NFL action too. And college basketball as well. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Piecing Pitching Together

Comeback Player of the Year? (Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

When the Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman earlier in the week, it more or less solidified their bullpen. Set up now with Chapman closing and Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard behind him, the team has its coveted trio of relievers. And while I’m not a big fan of the Chapman signing — my thoughts are very similar to the ones Mike laid out in the aftermath — it does give the Yankees a more than formidable end of game crutch on which to lean. That crutch will come in handy considering the relatively weak state the rotation will likely be in.

With the obvious caveat that it’s still early, the Yankee rotation is, once again, heading into the new season with a ton of uncertainty. The only starter who can be reliably counted upon is Masahiro Tanaka. Beyond that, there are question marks. Was CC Sabathia‘s bounceback for real? Is Michael Pineda ever going to turn that corner? Will Luis Severino fall flat on his face again? Who the hell’s going to be the fifth starter? There are plenty of options for that spot, whether internal or external, but unless the Yankees swing a trade for an impact pitcher, it’s unlikely that this rotation is strong enough in general. That’s where Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell come into account.

Adam loves it. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Warren will spend the winter preparing as a starter, but if history repeats itself, he’ll likely end up ticketed for the bullpen, where he’s shown he can flourish as a reliever. Mitchell was slated for a big role with the Yankees in 2016, but a toe injury in Spring Training derailed that; perhaps he can get back on track by joining Warren as tandem swingmen in 2017.

Aside from Tanaka and sometimes Sabathia, the Yankee rotation doesn’t have pitchers that are likely to go deep into games. That limits the effectiveness that the trio of Clippard, Betances, and Chapman can have. To alleviate this problem, it might be wise for the Yankees to use Warren and Mitchell as more flexible relievers, ready to go multiple innings to bridge between the starter and the closing trio or to spell one of those pitchers when he needs a day off.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Both pitchers are borderline starters and exposing them to one turn through the batting order — at most — might help their effectiveness, as might the artificial boost in stuff the bullpen gives. Given the Yankees’ shaky rotation outlook and lack of experience beyond their three big relievers, getting creative with the pitching staff may be the team’s best bet for pitching success in 2017.

DotF: Torres, Andujar named to AzFL All-Prospect Team

The Arizona Fall League season ended a little less than a month ago, but other winter leagues are still going on around the world. Here are the final AzFL stats and here are the week’s news and notes:

  • Both SS Gleyber Torres and 3B Miguel Andujar were named to the Arizona Fall League All-Prospects Team, the league announced. The team is selected by AzFL managers and coaches. Torres became the youngest batting champ and MVP in AzFL history this year.
  • The Yankees have re-signed LHP Joe Mantiply to a minor league contract, reports Matt Eddy. Mantiply was claimed off waivers from the Tigers earlier this offseason before being dropped from the 40-man roster. The 25-year-old reliever had a 2.73 ERA (2.15 FIP) between Double-A and Triple-A before getting a cup of coffee in September this summer.
  • A.J. Cassavell wrote about C Luis Torrens from the Padres’ perspective. The Reds picked Torres in the Rule 5 draft, then traded him to San Diego in what I assume was a prearranged deal. The Padres traded a decent prospect to the Reds to get Torrens. San Diego seems pretty serious about trying to keep him.
  • Rookie Pulaski won the Short Season league Bob Freitas Award for “outstanding minor league operations.” Josh Norris has the story. The Pulaski franchise was a mess three years ago, but things have improved a ton under the new owners. Josh Leventhal wrote about it last year.
  • John Sickels at Minor League Ball posted his top 20 Yankees prospects list last week. Spoiler: Torres is in the top spot. “This is obviously a very deep system thanks to good drafting and recent trades,” said the write-up. Well, duh.
  • And finally, Christian Red has a puff piece on OF Clint Frazier, so make sure you check that out.

Australian Baseball League

  • RHP Brandon Stenhouse: 3 G, 2.2 IP, 5 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 WP (16.88 ERA and 2.63 WHIP)

Dominican Winter League

  • IF Abi Avelino: 18 G, 10-29, 4 R, 1 2B, 4 RBI, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 CS (.345/.387/.379)
  • SS Jorge Mateo: 20 G, 7-42, 8 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 2 RBI, 3 BB, 10 K, 5 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.167/.239/.238) — he hasn’t played in more than a week now … I suppose it could be an injury, but chances are the team is just going with a more productive shortstop
  • RHP Anyelo Gomez: 3 G, 2.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K (6.75 ERA and 1.50 WHIP)
  • RHP Adonis Rosa: 7 G, 14.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 6 BB, 6 K, 1 WP (0.00 ERA and 0.61 WHIP) — pretty great winter ball season

Mexican Pacific League

  • OF Tito Polo: 18 G, 15-66, 13 R, 4 2B, 1 RBI, 5 BB, 19 K, 8 SB, 1 CS, 4 HBP (.227/.320/.288) — hasn’t played in a few weeks now

Venezuelan Winter League

  • OF Angel Aguilar: 16 G, 4-23, 6 R, 10 K, 1 SB (.174/.174/.174) — I do enjoy that he’s managed to maintain an equal slash line through 16 games
  • C Francisco Diaz: 33 G, 21-94, 9 R, 4 2B, 2 3B, 3 RBI 9 BB, 17 K, 1 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.223/.298/.309)
  • RHP Luis Cedeno: 4 G, 2 GS, 11.1 IP, 13 H, 9 R, 7 ER, 6 BB, 7 K, 2 HR, 2 HB, 2 WP (5.56 ERA and 1.68 WHIP)
  • RHP David Kubiak: 9 G, 3 GS, 22 IP, 21 H, 15 R, 13 ER, 10 BB, 16 K, 1 HR, 3 HB, 3 WP (5.32 ERA and 1.91 WHIP)
  • RHP Mark Montgomery: 5 G, 3.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 K (7.36 ERA and 1.91 WHIP)

Getting under the luxury tax threshold in 2017 is possible, but very unlikely for the Yankees

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

At some point soon very soon the Yankees will get under the luxury tax threshold. That’s the plan. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement raised the threshold a bit, which gives the team more breathing room. Getting under the threshold resets New York’s tax rate, and depending on the terms of the new CBA, it could entitle them to some revenue sharing rebates too. Those were included in the last CBA.

The Yankees shed some notable contracts following 2016, most notably Mark Teixeira‘s. Carlos Beltran‘s contract disappeared at the trade deadline, as did Andrew Miller‘s. Miller is signed for another two years. Beltran was an impending free agent who would have come off the books anyway. The recent Brian McCann trade freed up some cash too, and next year CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez will be gone as well.

Because the luxury tax threshold is such an important number now, let’s look over the Yankees’ current payroll situation to see exactly how far away they are from the $195M threshold in 2017. Is there a chance they could get under as soon as next season? Sure, it’s possible, I guess. The numbers suggest it’s very unlikely, however. Let’s break it all down.

Guaranteed Contracts

Keep in mind the luxury tax payroll and actual payroll are different things. The actual payroll is what the Yankees truly owes these guys. The luxury tax payroll is based on the average annual value of contracts, which can be different than the player’s actual salary in any given year. Teams can’t manipulate the luxury tax payroll by front or back-loading contracts. Here are the luxury tax “hits” the Yankees have the books at the moment.

That all works out to $139.57M against the luxury tax payroll for only nine players. Gardner and Headley have been mentioned in trade rumors this winter — interest in the two is said to be “relatively mild at the moment,” though something could always come together quick — and trading either guy would clear up some cash, even if the Yankees eat money to facilitate a trade, as they did with McCann and Beltran.

So anyway, since Gardner and Headley are still on the roster, we have to count them against next year’s projected payroll. We’re at $139.57M for nine players. There is still more than 75% of the 40-man roster left to be filled, and the Yankees are already less than $56M away from the $195M luxury tax threshold for 2017.

Arbitration Projections

Right now, the only salary figures we have for arbitration-eligible players are projections. Those guys usually don’t starting signing contracts until after the holidays. Matt Swartz at MLBTR has a really great projection model, but it’s not 100% accurate, so there is some wiggle room here. Here’s what Swartz’s model spit out for the seven arbitration-eligible Yankees.

I really do think Swartz’s model is selling Betances short. Saves pay through arbitration and he doesn’t have many of them, but he’s been so insanely good at everything else these last three years that I think he’ll get paid like a closer in arbitration. Perhaps something closer to $4M, which is what guys like Cody Allen and Jeurys Familia and Hector Rondon received in their first trip through arbitration last year, could be in the cards.

Let’s stick with Swartz’s projection for Betances though. The seven arbitration-eligible players come in at $22.1M, and since these are all one-year contracts, we don’t have to worry about any fancy average annual value math. Between guaranteed contracts and arbitration-eligible players, we’re at $161.67M for 16 roster spots. Roughly $33M away from the threshold with 24 40-man roster spots to go.

Miscellany

The guaranteed contracts and arbitration-eligible players are easy. Now we’re getting into all the other smaller expenses that count against the luxury tax payroll, which always seem to cost more than people may realize. Here are the team’s miscellaneous expenditures for next season:

  • Dead Money ($33M): Alex Rodriguez ($27.5M) and Brian McCann ($5.5M)
  • Remaining 25-Man Roster Spots ($4.815M): Nine at $535,000 league minimum.
  • Remaining 40-Man Roster Spots: Estimated at $2M total.
  • Benefits: Estimated at $12M.

A-Rod and McCann are gone but their impact on the luxury tax payroll is not. Rodriguez was released, and for payroll purposes, it’s like he’s still on the roster. The Yankees are still responsible for his $21M actual salary and $27.5M luxury tax hit in 2017. The team is also paying $5.5M of McCann’s $17M salary the next two years.

The guaranteed contracts and arbitration-eligible players account for 16 of the 25 active roster spots. Assuming the Yankees fill the other nine with kids making the league minimum, it works out to another $4.815M. Here’s the thing though: all those kids won’t make the league minimum. The guys who picked up service time this past season, like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge and Luis Severino, will make a little more. Most teams, including the Yankees, have a sliding pay scale based on service time.

(Betances actually refused to sign his 2016 contract because he felt he deserved more than the team’s sliding service time scale, so the Yankees renewed him at the league minimum. That rarely happens though, and if the Yankees renew all their players at the minimum to create more payroll flexibility, it would also create a lot of bad blood. The easiest way to turn players against you is by screwing with their salary.)

Anyway, we’re going to stick with that $4.815M figure for the other nine roster spots for the time being. The other 15 40-man roster spots, the guys who are in the minors, also count against the payroll. They all have split contracts though — one salary in the big leagues, another in the minors. I’ve seen those other 15 spots estimated at anywhere from $2M to $5M over the years. I’ll go with $2M for the time.

Okay, so after all of that, our hypothetical 40-man roster is full and accounted for. Add it all together and the Yankees are at $202.2M. Argh! Over the threshold! But wait! It gets worse. Each team’s contribution to player benefits counts against the luxury payroll. Womp womp. That figure was $12M two years ago. I have no idea what it is now, but chances are it’s gone up at least somewhat.

Even if the benefits package is still valued at $12M, the Yankees are over the luxury tax threshold at $214.2M. And that’s assuming a) nine dudes on the 25-man roster are making exactly the league minimum, b) the other 15 guys on the 40-man are making only $2M total, and c) the Yankees make no in-season moves. Every call-up from Triple-A adds to the luxury tax payroll. In reality, the team’s payroll for luxury tax purposes is higher than that $214.2M number.

* * *

Based on everything that’s been reported this offseason, the Yankees are trying to unload Gardner and Headley in trades, which would free up cash. Dumping both would clear $24.72M in luxury tax hits, which gets them under the threshold with very little breathing room. Not enough to account for the fact players will be called up during the season and most of those nine league minimum guys will actually make something slightly more than the league minimum.

The chances of the Yankees getting under the luxury tax threshold next season were very small as it was. The Chapman deal effective ends any chance of it happening. Barring a Gardner trade, the Yankees are likely to open the 2017 season with a payroll in the $220M range, which is right where they’ve been the last two years. Next season, when Sabathia and A-Rod and Holliday and Clippard are gone, the Yankees should finally be able to get under the threshold, reset their tax rate, and create the payroll flexibility ownership so clearly desires.