Richard Bleier may be the unspoken rotation candidate

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

One thing has become pretty clear this offseason: the Yankees like left-hander Richard Bleier a heck of a lot more than I realized. They’ve kept the 29-year-old journeyman on the 40-man roster all winter, opting to instead cut ties with potentially useful young players like Jacob Lindgren and Nick Goody when space was needed. Nick Rumbelow and Branden Pinder too, though they’re rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Bleier, who the Yankees signed as a minor league free agent last offseason, made his MLB debut last summer and did solid work for New York. He threw 23 relief innings with a 1.96 ERA (2.67 FIP). Bleier spent much of the season as a low-leverage option before seeing increased responsibility in September, when the Yankees were essentially holding open auditions for the bullpen. Things were wide open there for a while.

Although he worked out of the bullpen last year, Bleier has been a starter pretty much throughout his entire career, including early last season with Triple-A Scranton. As recently as 2015 he managed a 2.57 ERA (3.32 FIP) in 26 starts and 171.2 innings with the Nationals between Double-A and Triple-A. Bleier is a starter who just so happened to pitch in relief last year. Tons of guys break into the show that way. Especially older journeymen.

The Yankees have some openings at the back of the rotation and everyone involved has said the kids will compete for those spots in Spring Training. Luis Cessa, Luis Severino, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell are the leading candidates, and Adam Warren is coming to camp as a starter too. The Yankees have a history of doing that. Anyone who has been a starter in the past comes to Spring Training prepared to start, because hey, why not?

Bleier has not been mentioned as a rotation candidate — Brian Cashman listed Cessa, Severino, Mitchell, Warren, and Green by name when asked about rotation candidates last week  — but again, the Yankees tend to bring anyone who could conceivably start to camp as a starter. That includes journeyman types like Sergio Mitre and Esmil Rogers. Of course, Mitre and Rogers were former top prospects. Bleier is … not one of those. Big difference there.

Also, the Yankees seem to have a type, and Bleier is decidedly not that type. They love hard-throwers who miss bats. Who doesn’t? Bleier is a finesse southpaw who lives and dies by the ground ball. In his 23 big league innings last year, he struck out 13. He struck out 25 in his 58 Triple-A innings. That 171.2 inning season he had with the Nationals in 2015? Only 65 strikeouts. That’s a 9.5% strikeout rate. Lordy.

Bleier’s thing is ground balls, and he is quite good at getting them. He had a 54.1% ground ball rate with the Yankees last year. It was 61.9% in Triple-A and 65.0% two seasons ago with the Nationals. Combine the ground balls with few walks (4.4% in MLB in 2016, 4.6% in Triple-A in 2016, 2.3% in 2015) and you can survive with few strikeouts. Your margin of error is smaller — tough to strand a runner on third with less than two outs when you can’t miss a bat — but it can work.

Since batted ball data started to being recorded in 2002, the lowest strikeout rate by a qualified starter with a better than average ERA belongs to an ex-Yankee: Chien-Ming Wang. Wanger had a 3.63 ERA (125 ERA+) in 2006 despite an 8.4% strikeout rate because he got grounders (62.8%) and didn’t walk anyone (5.8%). Then again, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-Mariano Rivera pitcher generate as much weak contact as Wang. His sinker was something else.

Other pitchers have gotten by without low strikeout rates, however. Aaron Cook had several better than average seasons (in Coors Field, no less) despite a sub-12.0% ground ball rate because he got so many ground balls. Carlos Silva did it a few times too. Mark Buehrle is the gold standard of “effective despite few strikeout” pitchers, though compared to Buehrle, Bleier looks like Randy Johnson in terms of fastball velocity.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating giving Bleier a chance to start. I just wonder if it’s something the Yankees will try. They clearly like him, as evidenced by the fact he’s, you know, still around. Guys like him tend to be among the first to lose their 40-man roster spots in the offseason. Bleier has three pitches (sinker, slider, changeup), he excels at something (getting grounders), and he has a history as a starter. When you get down to it, there’s really no reason not to try him in the rotation in camp.

The complicated arbitration case of Dellin Betances

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

Last Friday, the Yankees signed all their arbitration-eligible players prior to the salary filing deadline except one: Dellin Betances. Betances, who is up for arbitration for the first time, filed a $5M salary with the panel. The Yankees countered with $3M. The $2M gap is enormous. In fact, it’s the second biggest gap in filing figures this offseason. (Drew Pomeranz and the Red Sox are $2.1M apart.)

Before we go any further, I should make it clear the Yankees and Betances are not automatically going to an arbitration hearing now that they’ve filed salary figures. They can still negotiate a contract of any size. Last offseason the Yankees and Aroldis Chapman were a whopping $4.1M apart with their filing figures ($13.1M vs. $9M), yet they hammered out an $11.32M deal before a hearing. The Yankees and Betances could do the same.

Now, that said, the Yankees and Betances have had difficult contract negotiations in the past. Last offseason the team offered a $540,000 salary, which was only slightly above the $507,500 league minimum. Betances rejected the modest raise because he believed he deserved more, so the Yankees renewed him at the minimum. Dellin took a stand, which was his right, and the Yankees renewed his contract at a salary of their choosing, which was their right.

Things are different this offseason because of arbitration, so if Betances is not happy with what the Yankees are offering, he can take them to a hearing and state his case. If it does get to a hearing — the Yankees haven’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang in 2008 — the two sides will make their arguments, and the three-personal panel will chose either the $5M or $3M for 2017, nothing in-between.

The big gap in filing figures tells us a few things. First and foremost, it tells us Betances and his representatives believe he deserves to be paid not just like a closer, but like a great closer. Consider that just last offseason, established closers like Jeurys Familia ($4.05M), Cody Allen ($4.15M), and Hector Rondon ($4.2M) all signed for less than Dellin’s filing figure in their first trip through arbitration. He’s looking for an unprecedented payday for a non-closer reliever.

Secondly, the filing figures tell us the Yankees are willing to pay Betances a top salary for a non-closer. That $3M is pretty damn high. Top setup relievers like David Robertson ($1.6M), Kelvin Herrera ($1.6M), and Tony Watson ($1.75M) all signed for way less than $3M in their first trip through arbitration. The Yankees are willing to pay Betances handsomely relative to other non-closers. He wants to be paid like a closer though. A great closer.

It’s important to note the arbitration process is very archaic. Things like WAR and FIP are pointless. Saves matter more than anything for relievers. Strikeouts are good, but not as good as saves. All-Star appearances matter too. Betances is going into arbitration with three All-Star Game selections, a handful of saves (22 to be exact), and a boatload of strikeouts. (Dellin led all relievers with 392 strikeouts from 2014-16. Andrew Miller is second with 326.) His case is strong, but it would be stronger with more saves.

How exactly did Betances and his representatives come up with that $5M salary? It’s not like they pulled a number out of thin air. Arbitration is based on the salaries of other players at the same service time level, and Dellin’s camp had to come up with a number they can defend in a hearing. Go too high, and the arbitration panel will side with the Yankees. This is where I’m guessing that $5M comes from:

SV IP ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 bWAR fWAR ASG
Dellin at Arb1 22 254.2 2.16 1.00 2.06 39.8 9.9 48.3 0.57 8.3 8.5 3
Aroldis at Arb1 77 198.2 2.40 1.02 2.27 40.9 12.4 42.7 0.59 6.4 6.2 2

Aside from saves, Betances compares favorably to Chapman when he went through arbitration the first time. And what did Chapman make in his first year as an arbitration-eligible player? Yep, $5M. On the nose. Dellin’s camp will have to hope three years worth of inflation — Aroldis went through arbitration for the first time during the 2013-14 offseason — can make up for the lack of saves.

There is a big problem with the Betances-Chapman comp, however. Even beyond saves, I mean. Chapman was not a normal pre-arbitration player like Betances. He signed a six-year contract worth $30.25M with the Reds and pulled in $2M in base salary in both 2012 and 2013. Chapman actually opted into arbitration. His contract included a $3M salary for 2014, so he used the opt-out to go through arbitration, where he made $5M instead.

Chapman started with a much higher base salary, and that matters. Going from $2M in 2013 to $5M in 2014 is a $3M raise. Betances wants to go from $507,500 in 2016 to $5M in 2017. That’s a $4.4925M raise. Pretty big difference there, eh? Dellin’s camp can say he deserves $5M because his numbers match up with Chapman’s. The Yankees can counter by saying Chapman only received a $3M raise, so their $3M filing figure is more appropriate, especially when factoring in saves.

How did the Yankees come up with their $3M filing figure? I have no idea. As far as I can tell, no non-closer reliever received that much in their first year of arbitration. They’re offering him an unprecedented salary for a first year eligible setup man. Kenley Jansen, like Chapman, had numbers comparable to Betances in his first year of arbitration-eligibility and he received $4.3M. That was a $3.788M raise from the previous year. Dellin is asking for quite a bit more than that.

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

It’s easy to say the cheap ass Yankees are being cheap asses, and they should just pay one of their best and most popular (and homegrown!) players what he wants to maintain a good relationship, especially after renewing him at the minimum last year. After all, what’s another $2M when you’re running a payroll near $220M? They’re going to pay Brian McCann $5.5M to play for the Astros in 2017. Why nickle and dime Betances?

That’s not how it works though. Arbitration salaries are based on the player’s salary in the previous year, so it carries over. It’s not just $2M this year. It’s $2M this year plus whatever raises on top of that Betances will receive in the next two offseasons Let’s assume Betances will get $3M raises each year going forward. I’m just pulling that number out of thin air for argument’s sake. A $3M base salary means his three arbitration years go $3M-$6M-$9M for $18M total. Start at $5M instead, and it’s $5M-$8M-$11M. That’s $24M total. And that’s the super simple version. A larger base salary means larger raises. That extra $2M in 2017 can turn into an extra $7M or $8M (or more) from 2017-19 quick.

This is why the Yankees went to hearing with Wang over a mere $600,000 in 2008. It adds up in future years. Do you know the last time the Yankees went to an arbitration hearing before Wang? It was with Mariano Rivera in 2000. He wanted $9.25M and the team countered with $7.25M. They went to a hearing, the Yankees won, and they saved a boatload of cash. And then they and Mo lived happily ever after. Arbitration hearings can be ugly — the team basically details the player’s shortcomings — but they don’t have to be the beginning of the end of the relationship either.

Also, I have to point out it’s not only the Yankees and Betances who have something on the line here. This deal could change the reliever pay scale dramatically going forward. We’re already seeing some free agent setup men get closer money (Miller, Darren O’Day, etc.). Betances could extend that salary growth to arbitration-eligible players now. We’ve seen teams use their top relievers as setup men to intentionally avoid saves and keep arbitration salaries down. Dellin can break the salary mold.

Arbitration hearings take place in mid-February, so the Yankees and Betances have several weeks to come to an agreement. I have no idea whether they’ll actually get a deal done. Dellin’s camp may think their case is airtight and they can get that $5M after being renewed at the minimum last year. I thought the Yankees would end up going to a hearing with Chapman last year given the $4.1M gap in their filing figures and that didn’t happen, so who knows?

Either way, Betances is going to end up with what sure appears to be a record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible non-closing reliever. His floor right now is $3M. That’s the worst he can do in 2017, and that’s more than any other setup man I can find at the same point of their careers. Dellin and his agent are thinking bigger though. They want closer money. And if they succeed, it will change the reliever pay scale. The MLBPA is rooting hard for Betances right now. There’s a lot of the line.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 16th, 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

One week closer to Spring Training. That’s what I keep telling myself. One week closer to Spring Training. This offseason has been a major drag. There’s just nothing going on. Not with the Yankees and not with any other teams either. I knew things would be slow because of the thin free agent class, but man, I didn’t think it would be this slow. Hurry up, pitchers and catchers.

Friday: Here is your open thread for the night. The Rangers, Islanders, Devils, and Nets are all in action this evening. And that’s about it. Nothing else going on. Talk about anything but politics or religion.

Saturday: This is the open thread again. The NFL playoffs continue today with Seahawks-Falcons (4:30pm ET on FOX) and Patriots-Texans (8pm ET on CBS). The Rangers and Islanders are playing too, and there’s more college basketball than anyone could humanly watch on the schedule too. Enjoy.

Sunday: For the last time, this is the open thread. Today’s NFL playoff games are Packers-Cowboys (4:30pm ET on FOX) and Steelers-Chiefs (8pm ET on NBC). Hopefully one of them is actually compelling. The Knicks are playing right now and both the Devils and Nets are playing later tonight. There are two college hoops games too. Have at it.

The Importance of Being Headley

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

Across the annals of the internet, I have a long history of championing Yankee causes that many would consider lost and a half. Going back about ten years or more, there is definitely evidence somewhere out there of me claiming Chris Britton was getting the shaft and deserved more of a look in pinstripes.  In 2014 and 2015, I was trying to convince–in my mind it was more reminding–everyone that Stephen Drew really wasn’t that bad. Last year, I beat the drum for Chase Headley despite his woeful start to the season. Even with a bounceback that ended up with him posting a (relatively, for where he started) respectable 92 wRC+, I’m sure I’ll have to beat that same drum this year, as Headley likely doesn’t have a lot of support from the fans right now. Despite that, Headley is an important piece for the 2017 Yankees.

As the team’s third baseman, he’s really on an island. At every other position, the Yankees have some form of a legitimate replacement. Should Didi Gregorius go down at short, Starlin Castro can slide over. Should Castro get hurt, there’s Rob Refsnyder. Greg Bird can be replaced by Tyler Austin or even Matt Holliday in a pinch. Gary Sanchez has Austin Romine to back him up. Aaron Hicks and the glut of minor league outfielders stand in reserve should someone out there get hurt as well. Headley, and maybe Holliday, is the only position player the Yankees don’t have a credible back up for at this point. This is all leaving aside the fact that Headley helps Didi make up a strong defensive left side of the infield, adding value with his glove that’s hard to replace at the hot corner.

At the plate, Headley brings patience, something the Yankees have lacked of late, putting up above average walk rates in each of his years with the Yankees. There’s also Headley’s place in the lineup. No matter where he hits, he’ll be of some importance. If he hits second, as Mike suggested earlier, well, that speaks for itself. Even if he hits ninth in that set up, he plays an important role in turning the lineup over and setting the table for the top of the order. It’s not likely, though, that he’ll bat second or ninth, though, since I–like Mike–doubt the Yankees will actually split Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup. The way I see it, the lineup will likely shake out like this:

  1. Gardner
  2. Ellsbury
  3. Sanchez
  4. Holliday
  5. Bird
  6. Didi
  7. Castro
  8. Headley
  9. Judge

I’d rather see Judge bat behind Headley because Headley can give him some sort of ‘reverse protection,’ if you will. By using his ability to draw walks to get on base ahead of Judge, Headley can insure that Judge may see some better pitches and help artificially bring down the big guy’s strikeout numbers and make best use of his power numbers.

Chase Headley, clutch Yankee. (Photo credit: Richard Perry/The New York Times
(Richard Perry/The New York Times

To say a team’s starting third baseman is important is to state the obvious. However, even on a team without a ton (any?) star power, it’d be possible for Chase Headley to fly under the radar in 2017. A lot of focus will be on the young bats and the bullpen trio, but make no mistake that his role on this team is important. He’s a top quality defender with a patient eye at the plate, which can (and hopefully will) ease things for those around him in the lineup.

Saturday Links: Severino, Breslow, Gardner, Headley

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Five weeks from today, Yankees position players are due to report to Tampa for Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers have to report four days prior to that. Spring Training is slowly approaching. Emphasis on slowly. Anyway, here are some nuggets to check out.

Yankees believe Severino is too bulky

Earlier this week, Brian Cashman the Bryan Hoch the Yankees believe Luis Severino may have added too much muscle last winter, so they suggested he work on his flexibility this offseason. I remember seeing videos of Severino last offseason (this one, specifically) and thinking he was noticeably bigger. There is such a thing as too big though. Too much muscle can limit flexibility and affect mechanics.

Now, that said, I don’t think Severino’s issues last season were solely a product of him adding too much muscle. Concerns about his overall command have lingered since his prospect days. He also lost feel for his changeup, and that can happen to anyone, not just a kid who may have bulked up too much. Hopefully Severino trims down a bit and is better able to streamline his delivery going forward. That should help his command.

Yankees will be among teams to scout Breslow

According to Peter Gammons, the Yankees will be among the teams on hand for veteran reliever Craig Breslow’s workout on January 23rd. New York is said to be looking for a lefty reliever, so Breslow fits. The veteran southpaw had a 4.50 ERA (3.93 FIP) in 14 innings with the Marlins last year before being released at midseason. He hooked on with the Rangers and spent a few weeks with their Triple-A affiliate after that.

Interestingly enough, Gammons says Breslow is working out with Rich Hill this offseason, and like Hill, he’s dropped his arm slot and is working to increase the spin rate of his breaking ball. That’s basically how Hill went from independent league player to ace-caliber starter two years ago. He dropped his arm slot, and, more importantly, he starting spinning the hell out of his breaking ball. Hill is essentially a curveball pitcher with a show-me fastball now. That isn’t to say Breslow will have as much success as Hill, but when you’re nearing the end of your career and want to hang around, it’s worth trying.

Cashman doesn’t expect Gardner or Headley trade

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Not surprisingly, Cashman told Hoch and Brendan Kuty he does not expect to trade Brett Gardner or Chase Headley before Opening Day. The Yankees have rejected all the offers they’ve received so far, I’m guessing because they were of the “eat a bunch a money and take this fringe prospect” variety. “I think the teams that had interested took their best shot,” said the GM.

The Yankees can and probably will continue to gauge the market for Gardner and Headley in Spring Training. Another team could lose an outfielder and/or their third baseman to injury, creating a need. Then again, how often does that actually happen? We talk about that possibility every year and yet it rarely happens. Even when teams do suffer those major injuries, then tend to stay in-house rather than make a desperation trade. Eh, we’ll see. The Gardner situation is far more pressing than the Headley situation given the Yankees’ young outfield depth.