Scouting the Free Agent Market: Brett Anderson

(Jamie Sabau/Getty)
(Jamie Sabau/Getty)

The offseason is not so young at this point — pitches and catchers report in fewer than five weeks! — and so far the Yankees haven’t done anything to improve their starting rotation. We haven’t even seen the token “innings guy on a minor league contract for Triple-A” signing yet. If the Yankees do make any changes to their rotation before Spring Training, chances are it’ll be a small signing, not a huge trade. That’s my feeling, anyway.

Among the remaining unsigned starters, and there are still quite a few of them, by far the most interesting to me is left-hander Brett Anderson, formerly of the Athletics, Rockies, and Dodgers. Injuries have been a problem over the years, there’s no doubt about that, but at the moment, every free agent is significantly flawed. Teams are sorting through those free agents and deciding which flaws they can live with. Does Anderson make sense for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

Injury History

Might as well start here since injuries define Anderson’s career. Last year he threw only 11.1 innings across three starts and one relief appearances mostly due to back trouble. Anderson hurt his back in Spring Training and needed surgery to repair a bulging disc. It wasn’t until mid-August that he was activated, and barely a week later he landed back on the disabled list with a blister. The blister kept him out until late-September.

Last year was the fourth time in the last five years Anderson was limited to fewer than 50 innings. It was the fifth time in the last six years he was unable to throw more than 85 innings. His list of injuries is quite long and quite significant:

  • 2009 (175.1 IP): Missed a little time with finger and biceps issues, but avoided the disabled list.
  • 2010 (112.1 IP): Separate instances of elbow inflammation and a forearm strain sidelined Anderson for three months total.
  • 2011 (83.1 IP): Elbow soreness ended his season in June. He had Tommy John surgery in July.
  • 2012 (35 IP): Returned from Tommy John surgery in August. An oblique strain ended his season in September.
  • 2013 (44.2 IP): Sidelined four months with an ankle sprain and a stress fracture in his foot.
  • 2014 (43.1 IP): A broken finger and a lower back strain cost him close to five months total.
  • 2015 (180.1 IP): Healthy! Except for calf cramping that caused him to miss a start in September.
  • 2016 (11.1 IP): Back surgery and a blister kept Anderson out the entire season, basically.

Yeesh. Little of everything there. Muscle pulls and ligament tears, broken bones and bulging discs, upper body and lower body. Based on that, Anderson has to be considered a complete lottery ticket. If he stays healthy in 2017, great! If not, well, that’s kinda what you expected going in. You hope to get lucky like the Dodgers did in 2015. Maybe half as lucky.

Recent Performance

Anderson threw only 11.1 innings last year and they were 11.1 terrible innings. Terrible as in 15 runs on 25 hits and four walks. Only five strikeouts too. On the bright side, a 50.0% ground ball rate! That’s pretty good. The rest? Awful.

Now, that said, I can’t put any stock in 11.1 innings, especially when the pitcher was coming off back surgery and missed a month with a blister right in the middle of those 11.1 innings. Anderson’s only meaningful sample of innings over the last five years is that 2015 season in Los Angeles. That’s it. Here’s what he did:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2015 180.1 3.69 3.94 15.5% 6.1% 66.3% 0.90 .320 .308
Career 685.2 3.86 3.70 17.5% 6.3% 58.2% 0.83 .329 .308

So after you smush all those little 40-something-inning seasons together to get Anderson’s career rates, it looks an awful lot like his 2015 performance. He’s not a big strikeout guy, never has been, yet he succeeds by limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground. In fact, his 66.3% ground ball rate in 2015 was the third highest by a qualified starter since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002. (Derek Lowe had a 67.0% grounder rate in both 2002 and 2006).

Point is, when Anderson has been healthy, he’s been pretty effective, last year notwithstanding. Back during his prospect days, Anderson always stood out for his pitching acumen and ability to locate, not his sheer stuff. Presumably his pitchability hasn’t vanished with the injuries. It’s not like Anderson is a guy who needs to throw the ball by hitters to be successful.

Current Stuff

Because he missed so much time last year — Anderson threw 118 total pitches last year (118!) — and was either coming off injury (back surgery) or injured at the time (blister) when he was on the mound, I’m not sure 2016 PitchFX data tells us anything useful about Anderson’s current stuff. He was physically compromised.

When he’s been on the mound over the years, Anderson has consistently thrown five pitches regularly. He uses both a four-seam fastball and a sinker, plus both a curveball and a slider in addition to his changeup. Anderson’s velocity has dipped since his debut in 2009, but that’s to be expected. It would happen to anyone, not just someone who’s dealt with a ton of injuries. From Brooks Baseball:

brett-anderson-velocity

It would be a major red flag if Anderson’s velocity was down considerably last year, into the mid-80s or something. Instead, the four-seamer and sinker averaged 91.9 mph and 92.3 mph, respectively, in those 11.1 innings in 2016. They topped out at 95.6 mph and 95.2 mph as well, so the vee-low is there. That indicates the injuries haven’t damaged his arm beyond the point of no return, you know?

Because Anderson is a ground ball pitcher and not a strikeout pitcher — he’s made 115 career starts and only 12 times did he strike out more than seven batters (never more than ten) — let’s examine the ground ball rate of his individual pitches over the last two years. This tells us what healthy Anderson is capable of doing, and what he did in his most recent season, albeit in a miniscule sample size.

Four-Seam Sinker Curveball Slider Changeup
2015 54.5% 76.4% 58.8% 68.2% 59.7%
2016 50.0% 55.6% 37.5% 57.1% 40.0%
MLB AVG 37.9% 49.5% 48.7% 43.9% 47.8%

Two years ago, during his healthy season, Anderson got an above-average number of ground balls with all five pitches. That’s how you post the third highest ground ball rate by any starter in the 15 years batted ball data has been recorded. Last year, even with a bad back and a blister, Anderson got an above-average number of grounders with three of his five pitches. Yay?

The 2016 data doesn’t help us much because again, we’re talking about 118 total pitches, and I can’t imagine scouting reports would be all that helpful either. How much can information can you take from 118 pitches spread across four appearances? There’s very little video of Anderson in action in 2016 — MLB.com has three videos of Anderson from last year, and two are of him getting hurt — so here’s a clip of good, healthy Anderson from 2015:

That version of Anderson looks pretty good! Will that guy still exist in 2017, two years and one back surgery later? Damned if I know. That’s the hope though.

Contract Estimates

Things have been extremely quiet for Anderson this winter. So quiet there’s basically nothing in his MLB Trade Rumors archive. He was listed as a possible bounceback candidate in a December post, and the post before that is an injury update from September. No hard rumors at all. Anderson hasn’t been connected to any team so far this offseason.

Even though he was pretty good in 2015 and this free agent class is thin, Anderson was not included in either MLBTR’s or FanGraphs’ top 50 free agents. The only contract estimate we have comes from Jim Bowden (subs. req’d), who pegs Anderson for a one-year deal worth $5M. I had one year and $4M in my silly offseason plan, for what’s it worth.

One year and $5M or so seems to be the going rate for reclamation project starting pitchers. Derek Holland signed for $6M earlier this winter. Last offseason Matt Latos ($3M), Doug Fister ($7M), Kyle Kendrick ($5.5M), and Aaron Harang ($5M) all signed for similar amounts. Two years ago the Dodgers spent big to sign Anderson (one year and $10M) and it worked out well. Then he accepted the $15.8M qualifying offer and it was a waste of money.

Given the decided lack of interest and his ugly medical history, it’s difficult to see Anderson getting anything more than one year and $5M or so. Maybe a desperate team stretches their budget and gives him $7M, but I don’t see it. A low base salary short-term deal with incentives based on innings and/or starts seems most likely, does it not?

Does He Fit The Yankees?

My vote is yes, and for a few reasons. One, Anderson won’t cost much money. He shouldn’t, anyway. If he holds out for big bucks, then walk away and wish him luck. Two, Anderson is still only 28 (29 in February). This isn’t some 36-year-old trying to hang on. Anderson’s still on the right side of 30 and theoretically offers more upside than the typical reclamation types you find in free agency. Three, Anderson fits Yankee Stadium well as a southpaw who get ground balls.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)

And four, and perhaps most importantly, the Yankees have the pitching depth to absorb an injury should Anderson get hurt again. They have a lot of young pitchers currently slated to compete for the fourth and fifth rotation spots, including Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams will be in Triple-A as well, ditto Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera. The arms are there to cover for an injury.

Anderson is very unique as a reclamation project given his age and the way he ostensibly fits Yankee Stadium. You needn’t look back too far to see the last time he was successful too. It was 2015, one season ago. He’d be a very nice (and affordable) upside play for the 2017 Yankees, a team banking on the upside of their young kids to have any shot at contention (and not looking to spend big to make additions).

It’s important to note the Yankees have tried to acquire Anderson several times in the past, so they seem to like him. They were reportedly one of the runners-up two offseason ago, when he first signed with the Dodgers. The Yankees also tried to trade for Anderson during the 2013 Winter Meetings and at the 2014 trade deadline. Perhaps their feelings have changed over the years, but once upon a time, there was legitimate and persistent interest.

The real question is, as always, whether Anderson wants to join the Yankees. What is his goal this season? To stay healthy and show he can be effective. At this point he can’t do much more than cross his fingers and hope he stays healthy. Pitch effectively though? Performance is something that can be affected by outside factors, such as a hitter friendly ballpark in a division with three other hitter friendly ballparks in the DH league, like Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees could always use another arm just to help lighten the load a bit on the kids. Anderson offers a smidgen of upside, unlike, say, Doug Fister or Jorge De La Rosa, and even if he gets hurt again, the Yankees would be right back where they started minus a relatively small amount of cash. The potential reward is not sky high, I don’t think Anderson is an ace when healthy or anything like that, but there’s a chance for him to be league average or slightly above. If he’s open to pitching in New York, the Yankees would be wise to scoop him up.

Monday Night Open Thread

So it seems former Yankees nemesis Manny Ramirez is following the Julio Franco career path. Ramirez, now 44, has signed with the Kochi Fighting Dogs (unfortunate team name is unfortunate) of the Shikoku Island League in Japan. They’re an independent team. The Long Island Ducks of Japan, basically. Manny hasn’t played in MLB since 2011 or at all since 2014. He’s actually on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. As much as I hated him crushing the Yankees, goodness could Ramirez hit. One of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time.

Anyway, this is the open thread for the evening. Clemson and Alabama are playing the college football National Championship Game tonight (8pm ET on ESPN), which is a pretty big deal. The Knicks and Devils are also playing, and you’ve got plenty of college hoops on the schedule too. Discuss those games, Manny’s comeback, or anything else right here.

Heyman: Yankees sign Wilkin Castillo to minor league deal

The various phases of Wilkin. (Getty)
The various states of Wilkin. (Getty)

According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees have signed utility man Wilkin Castillo to a minor league contract. I assume he received an invitation to Spring Training as well. Castillo has some big league time with the 2008-09 Reds, and he’s spent the last few years bouncing around the minors and the Mexican League.

Castillo, 32, hit .229/.271/.312 (61 wRC+) with eleven doubles and one homer in 51 games and 185 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A for the Blue Jays last season. He’s a contact machine, striking out in only 9.5% of his plate appearances over the last two years. Pretty much the standard minor league journeyman stat package.

Last season Castillo played catcher exclusively in Toronto’s farm system. He’s played all over the field during his career though. Literally every position on the diamond other than center field and pitcher. Teams always need utility players in the minors and Castillo will fill that role for the Yankees this coming season, likely at Triple-A but possibly Double-A. Depends how the rosters shake out.

The Yankees are slowly but surely building their list of non-roster invitees this winter. Along with Castillo, they’ve also signed Donovan Solano, Jason Gurka, Kellin Deglan, and Ruben Tejada to minor league deals. Nick Rumbelow and Cito Culver too. Remember, every time the Yankees sign someone to a minor league deal, they miss out on an impact big league free agent. Stupid Yankees!

Young pitching depth could allow Yankees to use tandem fifth starters in 2017

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Five weeks from tomorrow, the Yankees will officially open Spring Training as pitchers and catchers report to Tampa. It’s the biggest non-news day of the year. Nothing really happens that day, but still, it’s the start of the new season. Baseball will be back and that’s exciting. It can’t come soon enough.

The Yankees still have five weeks of offseason remaining to tweak their roster. At this point I would be surprised if they traded away Brett Gardner or Chase Headley, or traded prospects for a young pitcher with several years of control. They might still swing a cheap free agent signing, say a one-year deal for a veteran innings guy, and that’s maybe it. We’ll see.

As it stands, the Yankees can fill out the back of their rotation with their collection of young starters. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda are the top three starters. These are the guys up for the final two spots, kinda sorta in order of their chances to win a rotation spot in Spring Training:

  1. Luis Severino
  2. Luis Cessa
  3. Chad Green
  4. Bryan Mitchell
  5. Jordan Montgomery
  6. Chance Adams

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d say they want Severino to grab a rotation spot and run with it in camp. That’s what I want to happen, anyway. He has the most upside of those six starters. I’m not sure anyone would disagree with me there. Severino winning a spot and keeping it all season would be the best thing for the Yankees, both short and long-term.

Montgomery and Adams almost certainly need more Triple-A time — Adams has yet to pitch at that level and Montgomery has thrown only 49.2 innings there, including postseason — so the chances of them winning a big league rotation job in camp are small. It’s not impossible, just really unlikely. And after Severino, the next three names can really be put in pretty much any order.

In all likelihood we’ll see all six of those guys in the Bronx at some point this coming season. That’s usually how it goes. Getting through a season using only seven starters feels like a miracle these days. The Yankees do have a nice amount of young pitching depth — Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera are both on the 40-man roster and I haven’t even mentioned them yet — which could allow the team to be a little creative and use tandem fifth starters.

The tandem starters idea is pretty simple. One guy starts, throws four or five innings, then the next guy comes in and pitches the rest of the game. Perhaps it’s better to set it at times through the lineup rather than innings. The starter goes through the lineup twice, then the tandem starter comes in and goes through the lineup twice as well. Something like this, basically:

Day One: Tanaka
Day Two: Sabathia
Day Three: Pineda
Day Four: Severino
Day Five: Cessa and Mitchell

The names are interchangeable. Cessa could be the fourth starter with Severino and Mitchell the tandem fifth starters. Or Mitchell the fourth starter with Severino and Green the tandem fifth starters. Whatever the order, that’s the idea. Two young pitchers work in tandem in the fifth starter’s spot, essentially splitting the nine-inning game.

The tandem starters idea seems neat, but what exactly is the point? How does this help the Yankees? I see three benefits:

  1. More young pitchers see MLB time. It’s possible those young starters have all reached the point where they need to face big league competition to continue their development. Rather than use two in the rotation and send two to Triple-A, three would be in MLB, turning a lineup over multiple times.
  2. The bullpen gets a day off every five days. If the tandem starters are handling the fifth starter’s spot, then the bullpen won’t have to work so hard that day. It’s a chance to give the rest of the staff regular rest once each time through the rotation. It’s almost like a guaranteed complete game every fifth day.
  3. Workloads can more easily be controlled. These are young pitchers, remember. Cessa led the four youngsters with 147.2 innings in 2016. They’re not ready to be 200+ inning workhorses and will need their innings limited in 2017. The tandem starters plan makes that a bit easier.

At the same time, there is some downside here. How are the kids supposed to learn how to pitch deep into games if you keep yanking them after the second time through the lineup? This is a recipe for building a bunch of five-and-fly starters. And two, what happens in close games? You know everyone, from Joe Girardi to the fans, will want Aroldis Chapman on the mound in the ninth inning of a one-run game. That complicates things.

Ultimately, I feel like the tandem starter idea works better in the minors than it does in the majors. Winning is not the priority in the minors. Development is. You can use the tandem starter system in Triple-A, and hey, if you lose a game because the “second” starter blows a one-run lead in the ninth during his fourth inning of work, so be it. That doesn’t fly in the show, especially not when the Yankees insist they’re still trying to contend.

The tandem starter plan is a nice idea in theory that probably won’t fly in reality. Chances are the Yankees will have plenty of opportunities to use all their young starters this season anyway — they’ve had at least seven starters make 5+ starts in 14 of the last 17 seasons — so finding playing time probably won’t be an issue. Maybe come September, when rosters are expanded and the pitchers approach their innings limit, and the team’s place in the standings is more clear, tandem starters is a more viable idea. For now, it doesn’t seem doable, but not because the Yankees lack the personnel.

2017 Rule 5 Draft status suggests the Yankees will have to trade some prospects this year

Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)
Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)

The busiest day for the Yankees this offseason — and most teams, for that matter — was November 18th, the day clubs had to finalize their 40-man roster for the Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees made 12 transactions involving 13 players that day. The team’s deep farm system meant six players were added to the 40-man roster. Even then, the Yankees still lost four players in the MLB phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

The Rule 5 Draft and 40-man roster crunch was pretty significant this offseason. The Yankees lost several potentially useful players, most notably Jacob Lindgren and Nick Goody, simply because there was no room for them. Having a great farm system comes with a cost. The Rule 5 Draft crunch is poised to be even more severe next offseason too. Check out the (partial) list of prospects who will have to be added to the 40-man after the 2017 season:

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

That list doesn’t include outfielder Jake Cave, righty Nick Rumbelow, and lefties Daniel Camarena and Chaz Hebert, all of whom will become minor league free agents after the 2017 season. I know those guys are easy to overlook, but who knows what’ll happen this summer. Who would have guessed Kyle Higashioka would play his way on to the 40-man last year?

Also, that “none” under catchers may only be temporary. If Luis Torrens doesn’t stick with the Padres as a Rule 5 Draft pick, he’ll come back to the Yankees and have to be added to the 40-man roster after the season. That’s a must. If Torrens is picked in the Rule 5 Draft again in December, he’ll be able to elect free agency rather than come back to New York. Can’t let that happen. If Torrens does come back, he’ll land on the 40-man in November.

Okay, so anyway, that’s an awful lot of quality prospects, huh? Torres and Frazier are in a league of their own as top 100 prospects, but many of the other guys figure to be worth protecting too. Wade and Fowler are slated to spend 2017 with Triple-A Scranton. A successful season there means they’re a lock to be picked in the Rule 5 Draft. Others like Abreu and Acevedo have considerable upside, and those guys are always worth protecting.

The Yankees had to make compromises in November because 40-man roster spots are a finite resource. Would they have liked to protect, say, Torrens and Tyler Webb, and keep Lindgren? Yeah, probably, but there’s only so much space to go around. The Yankees will run into a similar problem next offseason, only to a much greater degree. They not only have more prospects eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, they have more high-end prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The solution is simple though, isn’t it? Just trade some of them. It’s basically impossible to protect them all, so rather than lose them for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft, just trade them. Package three or four together for one player, preferably a young starting pitcher with several years of control. Boom, problem solved. Two problems solved, really. The Yankees clear up the Rule 5 Draft logjam and add the young pitcher they’ve seemingly been craving for months. It’s perfect!

Except it’s not that easy. It never is. For starters, you have to find another team with the available 40-man roster space to make such a trade. No team is going to trade for these prospects only to expose them to the Rule 5 Draft. The other team’s 40-man situation is an obstacle. Prospects are like kids, teams always love their own more than they love everyone else’s. Not many clubs may be willing to cut one or two of their own players to make room for your players in a hypothetical four-for-one trade. There’s a reason trades like this are rare.

More realistically, we may see the Yankees make a series of smaller moves. One-for-one, two-for-one trades. Trades that swap a Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect for a non-Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect. That’s similar to the James Pazos-for-Zack Littell trade. The Yankees needed the 40-man space, so they sent Pazos to the Mariners for Littell, who is a year away from Rule 5 Draft eligibility. It bought them some time, basically. Not the sexiest move, but necessary.

There’s eleven months between now and the deadline to set the 40-man roster for the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, so this is hardly a pressing issue. It is something the Yankees have to plan for, obviously, and you can be sure it’ll affect their decision-making over the summer. In fact, Brian Cashman even admitted Rule 5 Draft status was a consideration when making trades last summer. How could it not be?

The Yankees did some great work rebuilding their farm system over the last few months and it’s set them up for sustainable success in the near future. Baseball doesn’t allow teams to keep prospects forever though, and rightfully so. There comes a time when you have to ether commit to the player (add him to the 40-man) or give him a chance to reach MLB with another organization (Rule 5 Draft). The Yankees will reach that point with several of their best prospects next winter, and since they can’t protect everyone, they figure to move a few in trades to clear the logjam.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 9th, 2017

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

An update on the comment moderator and possible new writer(s) search: I’ve made it through about 95% of the submissions and have sketched out a list of candidates to run by everyone else here. I can’t give you a firm announcement date or anything like that, but we’re close to wrapping this up. Thanks for your patience.

In the meantime, here are a bunch of links to check out this weekend. Some of them are a few weeks old. Sorry.

Friday: This is the open thread for the evening. The Knicks, Nets, Devils, and Islanders are all playing tonight, plus there’s college basketball on as well. Have at it.

Saturday: This is the open thread again. The NFL playoffs start today, so that’s fun. You’ve got Raiders-Texans (4:30pm ET on ESPN) and Lions-Seahawks (8pm ET on NBC). The Knicks, Rangers, Devils, and Islanders are all playing as well, and there’s a whole bunch of college hoops as well. Pretty nice little Saturday.

Sunday: For the last time, this is the day’s open thread. The NFL playoffs continue with Dolphins-Steelers (1pm ET on CBS) and Giants-Packers (4:30pm ET on FOX). The Nets are also playing right now, and there’s college basketball on throughout the day. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.