The Yankees keep saying CC Sabathia is not a lock for the rotation, but I don’t believe them

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, in his second start of the spring, CC Sabathia was roughed up for three runs (two earned) on five hits, a walk, and a hit batsman in only 1.2 innings of work. His defense didn’t help matters — Sabathia himself made an error on a would-be inning-ending tapper back to the mound, then the inning snowballed — but there was still a lot of loud contact and two-strike foul balls.

It’s only Spring Training, so the actual results don’t hurt the team in any way. It was still discouraging to see Sabathia have the same problems — long at-bats, loud contact, inability to handle righties — that have plagued him the last two or three years. “I’m 35 years old. I’ve thrown a lot. We’re here trying to win, so it is what it is,” he said to Mark Feinsand after the game. “I’m just going out and getting work, getting ready. We’ll see what happens.”

Following the game Joe Girardi was inevitably asked whether Sabathia has a rotation spot locked up, and Girardi gave the same answer he gave all winter: “We’re going to take what we feel is the five best. Bottom line,” he said. If nothing else, that gives off the impression Sabathia is not guaranteed a rotation spot. Spring competition is a good thing, even among veterans. I just don’t buy it at all. Not for a second. For a few reasons.

Sabathia wasn’t one of their five best starters last year

It was pretty clear Sabathia was not one of the Yankees’ five best starters last season, yet when the time came to make room for Ivan Nova, it was Adam Warren who went to the bullpen. Warren is gone, meaning there’s even less competition for the fifth starter’s spot. It’s Sabathia vs. Nova, and Sabathia was better last season. Better ERA (4.73 to 5.07), better FIP (4.68 to 4.87), better strikeout rate (18.9% to 15.3%), better walk rate (6.9% to 8.0%).

There’s always a chance Nova’s performance will improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. That’s the hope, anyway. At the same time, the Yankees and everyone else have expressed confidence in Sabathia’s new knee brace, especially since he pitched so well late last season. Point is, the Yankees showed last season they’re willing to stick with Sabathia. Actions speak louder than words, and when they needed to open a rotation spot last year, they sent a more effective pitcher to the bullpen and kept running Sabathia out there every fifth day.

Sabathia might actually be one of their five best starters this year

Here’s a not so fun twist: Sabathia just might be one of the five best starters in the organization right now. ZiPS prefers Nova to Sabathia (0.9 to 0.2 WAR), but both Steamer (1.6 to 0.8 WAR) and PECOTA (0.9 to 0.5 WARP) prefer Sabathia. And again, Sabathia out-pitched Nova last year, and Warren is no longer around as proven depth. Bryan Mitchell is likely next in line for a rotation spot. You don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which Sabathia out-pitches both Nova and Mitchell in 2016.

$25M

That’s how much the Yankees owe Sabathia this season. That’s not reliever money. It’s ace starter money, and while Sabathia is no longer an ace, not too many owners would be happen marginalizing a player with that kind of salary. I’m sure the money was part of the reason Sabathia remained in the rotation last year. The Yankees want to get their money’s worth.

If nothing else, the money is a tiebreaker. When the final rotation spot comes down to one guy making $25M and another guy making $4.1M (Nova), and you’re not confident in either being even league average, the dude making $25M is going to get the job. Sabathia is a sunk cost. The Yankees owe him that money no matter what, but chances are they’re going to want to try to salvage the investment as much as possible.

The Yankees don’t base major decisions on Spring Training

I can’t remember the last time the Yankees based a major decision on Spring Training. They’ll use it to sort out bench spots or the final few bullpen spots, that sort of thing, but a major decision like a rotation spot? Nope. They tend to go into Spring Training with everything planned out and adjust only if necessary due to injury or a trade, something like that.

That’s smart. Spring Training is a terrible time to make decisions. We see it each and every year. A player comes in, wins a roster spot with a strong showing in March, then reverts back to his previous self in the regular season. The reverse is true as well. A player struggles in camp then rights the ship in the regular season. There are way too many variables in Spring Training — sample size, the caliber of competition, players working on things, etc. — to take performance seriously.

The Yankees have a history of saying a spot is up for grabs when it really isn’t, and this feels exactly like that. Girardi saying they’re “going to take what we feel is the five best” is as much about motivating Nova as it is letting Sabathia know they need him to pitch better. In the end, everything the Yankees have done the last few years points to Sabathia getting a rotation spot over Nova. The only way I see CC not being in the rotation this summer is injury.

The Latest New Closer [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees made a controversial trade this past offseason. It wasn’t controversial from a talent standpoint. In fact, this might the only trade during the RAB era in which everyone agrees the Yankees made out like bandits in terms of the talent exchanged. That never happens. Usually more than few folks are happy to say New York got fleeced. Not this time.

The trade: prospects Eric Jagielo, Rookie Davis, Caleb Cotham, and Tony Renda to the Reds for closer Aroldis Chapman. It’s a four-for-one swap that is essentially a two-for-one swap because Jagielo and Davis were the only actual prospects involved, though neither appeared on any of the top 100 lists published this spring. Cotham is a 28-year-old rookie and Renda went unpicked in December’s Rule 5 Draft.

The Yankees were able to acquire Chapman on the cheap because of a domestic dispute incident at his Miami home in October. Chapman had been traded to the Dodgers at the Winter Meetings — the two sides agreed to the deal — but Los Angeles walked away once the details of the incident came to light. Chapman allegedly choked and pushed his girlfriend, and he admitted to firing eight shots from a handgun in his garage.

The trade came with instant backlash. Brian Cashman admitted the Yankees made the deal because the Reds lowered their asking price after reports of the incident surfaced, so the team used a domestic violence investigation to benefit on the field, which is gross as hell. I hope they never ever ever do it again. Several women’s rights groups protested the trade and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the team should be boycotted.

People were (and still are, really) mad and it’s not difficult to understand why. Chapman was not arrested, but the allegations were ugly, and the possibility of a suspension loomed. Ultimately, no criminal charges were filed against Chapman and MLB suspended him 30 games under their new domestic violence policy. He agreed not to appeal the ban, likely because MLB threatened a longer suspension, which could have delayed his free agency.

Now that the investigations are complete and the suspension has been levied, Chapman and the Yankees can move forward and focus on baseball. They’ll have to come up with a plan to make sure he’s ready as soon as the suspension ends, though that shouldn’t be a huge deal. Chapman can pitch in Extended Spring Training games in the meantime. It’s not like he’s a hitter who needs to get his rhythm or a starter who has to get stretched out.

The addition of Chapman adds another elite reliever to a bullpen that already had two of them in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. In fact, Betances, Chapman, and Miller rank first, sixth, and ninth in projected 2016 WAR among relievers according to ZiPS, respectively. Three top nine relievers is pretty awesome, especially since it could easily end up being three top five relievers. These guys are that good. Anyway, here’s some more on Chapman.

Chapman Is Insanely Good

There seem to be a lot of people trying to minimize Chapman’s impact for whatever reason. The Yankees went 66-3 when leading after six innings last summer and that’s really good. It’s a .957 winning percentage when the league average was .882. It’s also totally irrelevant. Last year is last year. This is a new year. The odds of the Yankees repeating a .950+ winning percentage when leading after seven this summer are substantially higher with Chapman on board.

Last season Chapman had a 1.63 ERA (1.94 FIP) with a 41.7% strikeout rate in 66.1 innings and it was only his third best season in the last four years. Chapman is replacing Justin Wilson in Joe Girardi‘s end-game trio and Wilson was very good last season. The Yankees don’t get to the postseason without him. Here is Chapman vs. Wilson:

Justin Wilson Aroldis ChapmanChapman was a lot better than Wilson last season and he projects to be a lot better than him this season. You needn’t look at the projection systems to understand Chapman is an upgrade. He’s a significant addition to the bullpen. That isn’t the say Wilson wasn’t good last year or won’t be good this year. It’s just that any objective measure tells you Chapman will be better.

There is a lot more to Chapman than his high-octane fastball. He’s got a good slider and a sneaky good changeup — hitters swung and missed 56.8% (!) of the time against his changeup last year — and his long stride makes his triple digit fastball play up. Chapman is a true freak of nature. Baseball has never seen anything like this guy before. It’s going to be a treat to watch him on the field this summer.

Another New Closer

Girardi announced Chapman will indeed close this season — Miller will close during the suspension, because duh — which isn’t surprising. Chapman has done nothing but close the last four years while Betances has proven invaluable as a fireman and Miller continues to express a willingness to pitch in any role. There’s no wrong answer here. Any of the three could close and would be awesome at it.

So, with Chapman set to close this year, the Yankees are about to have their fifth different closer in the last five years. Hard to believe after nearly two decades of Mariano Rivera, ain’t it? Check out the list:

2012: Rafael Soriano (while Mo was hurt)
2013: Rivera
2014: David Robertson
2015: Miller
2016: Chapman

That’s not just five different closers in five years, it’s five awesome closers in five years. Robertson probably had the worst season of a Yankees closer from 2012-15 and he had a 3.08 ERA (2.68 FIP). Most teams would kill to have a closer that good. That was New York’s worst closer in a very, very long time.

The crazy thing is this is almost all by design. Rivera’s injury was a dumb fluke, but otherwise going from Mo to Robertson to Miller to Chapman was all planned. It’s not like the Yankees had someone stink as closer and lose his job to someone else, which happens all around the league each year. Chapman will be the team’s fifth closer in five years and in no way is that a bad thing.

One & Done

All indications are Chapman will be a Yankee for one year and one year only. He will qualify for free agency after the season and the team doesn’t spend money these days, at least not on long-term deals. Chapman will have a chance to break Jonathan Papelbon’s record contract for a reliever (four years, $50M) next winter. I can’t imagine the Yankees will go there, especially not with one big money reliever already on the books.

The Yankees will be able to make Chapman the qualifying offer after the season and I think the only way they don’t tender the qualifying offer is catastrophic injury. A blown elbow or shoulder, something that will sideline him the entire 2017 season. That sort of thing. Even with a down year, I think the Yankees would be willing to roll the dice with a qualifying offer. Worst case scenario is they get Chapman back on a one-year contract in 2017. The big salary doesn’t scare them, it’s the multiple years.

So, barring injury, this trade will likely net the Yankees one year of Chapman (well, 132 games of Chapman) plus a supplemental first round draft pick after the season. That’s a pretty great return considering they gave up two good but not great prospects and no one off their big league roster. The Yankees took a massive PR hit with this trade. Hopefully Chapman’s on-field performance makes it all worth it.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 14th, 2016

Spring Record: 3-8-2 (45 RS, 62 RA)
Spring Opponents This Week: Mon. OFF, @ Red Sox (Tues. on TV), vs. Blue Jays (Weds. on TV), @ Pirates (Thurs. on TV), vs. Orioles (Fri. on TV), vs. Braves (Sat.), @ Twins (Sun. on TV)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Open Thread: March 13th Camp Notes

The Yankees lost 3-0 to the Phillies this afternoon. CC Sabathia allowed three runs (two earned) on five hits and one walk in 1.2 innings. One scout told Erik Boland Sabathia was 86-89 mph and his “breaking ball (was) not playing at all against right-handed hitters”. That’s nothing new. Michael Pineda allowed one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings. He struck out four. Dellin Betances struck out the only man he faced and Aroldis Chapman struck out three in his scoreless inning.

Starlin Castro had two of the team’s five hits. Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, and Carlos Corporan had the other three. The Yankees made five errors as a team (Sabathia, Castro, Chapman, Aaron Hicks, Dustin Fowler) and all but Fowler’s were pretty hilarious. Joe Girardi let everyone sleep in today because of daylight savings time says Jared Diamond, and geez, it was obvious on the field. Lots of sloppy defense and lackadaisical play in general. Everyone was looking forward to tomorrow’s off-day, I guess. Here’s the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • The Yankees announced their first round of roster cuts after the game: LHP Jacob Lindgren was optioned to Triple-A Scranton and RHP Domingo German, RHP Chad Green, RHP Kyle Haynes, RHP James Kaprielian, RHP Brady Lail, C Santiago Nessy, LHP Tyler Webb, C Francisco Diaz, C Kyle Higashioka, C Sebastian Valle, IF Jorge Mateo, IF Deibinson Romero, IF Tyler Wade, OF Lane Adams, OF Aaron Judge, and OF Dustin Fowler were all reassigned to minor league camp. Lindgren is the only real surprise. There are still 53 players in big league camp.
  • Brian McCann was removed from this afternoon’s game for precautionary reasons after taking a foul pitch just above the knee cap. It stiffened up a bit afterwards. McCann said he would have remained in the game if it were the regular season during an in-game interview. [Jack Curry]
  • Brett Gardner (wrist) took nine at-bats in a simulated game and everything went well. The Yankees are going to see how he feels tomorrow before finalizing any plans, but right now Gardner is tentative scheduled to play in his first spring game Wednesday. [Bryan Hoch, Curry]
  • Tomorrow is the first off-day of the Grapefruit League season and it’s a full off-day. No workouts or anything scheduled. The Yankees play their first night game of the spring Tuesday. Ivan Nova gets the start and the game will be televised.

This is tonight’s open thread. This afternoon’s game will be replayed on YES after tonight’s Nets game, so figure it should start around 11pm ET or so. MLB Network is showing the Rangers and Angels live right now, then there will be games on tape delay the rest of the night. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing later tonight and there’s some college hoops on the schedule too. Talk about anything other than religion or politics here. Thanks in advance.

Spring Training Game Thread: CC & Big Mike

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees continue their Grapefruit League season this afternoon at home against the Phillies, and it’s a pretty exciting pitching day. Both CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda are scheduled to pitch, as are the big three relievers. That should be fun. We’re at the point of Spring Training where the big leaguers are throwing more and more innings, so expect to see a lot more of these guys in the coming weeks.

Philadelphia made the short trip over from Clearwater and did bring most of their regulars. Then again, they’re in the middle of a big time rebuild, so it’s not tough to confuse their lineup for a Triple-A lineup. I’m not saying that to be a jerk. It’s just the truth. Anyway, here is the Phillies’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. DH Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. RF Chris Denorfia
    LHP CC Sabathia

Available Pitchers: RHP Michael Pineda, LHP Aroldis Chapman, LHP Andrew Miller, and RHP Dellin Betances are all scheduled to pitch this afternoon, according to Jack Curry.

Available Position Players: I have no idea who is coming off the bench today. None of the reporters in Tampa tweeted out a photo of the lineup card this morning. Womp womp.

Not the best baseball weather in Tampa today — it’s cloudy and windy with temperatures in the mid-70s — but there’s no rain in the forecast and that’s all that matters. This afternoon’s game will begin a bit after 1pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and MLB.tv everywhere. There is no MLB Network broadcast. Not even on tape delay. Enjoy the game, nerds.

Tinkering for Tanaka?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

While it hasn’t been hard in the last few years to claim the title of ‘best Yankee starting pitcher,’ it’s one that undoubtedly goes to right hander Masahiro Tanaka. At times, there have been pitchers who’ve performed better than he has, but on balance, it’s difficult to compete with him. Whenever he’s on the mound, there’s a feeling that something special can and will happen; I think it’s safe to say that all of us want him to pitch as much as possible. Unfortunately for Tanaka, the Yankees,  and us the fans, he’s been unable to make at least 25 starts in both of his seasons in the US and has never reached even 160 innings pitched. To boot, he’s coming off surgery this offseason, so his health is a question going into the 2016 regular season (just like everyone else not named “Luis Severino,” who comes with his own concerns).

As of now, Tanaka is lined up to start Opening Day vs. the Astros, which is unsurprising. The honor is mostly ceremonial, but throwing your best pitcher on Opening Day is also a nice way to get off on your best foot early on in the season. That goes doubly when the team you’re playing first–the Astros–is a fellow potential Wild Card contender for later on in the season. The frequent breaks in the April schedule also offer an interesting temptation to the Yankees as it regards to Tanaka. With regular rest for each start, the Yankees can swing a way to have him make six starts in April, all against possible playoff teams.

If (when) he starts on Opening Day, he would be lined up to pitch again on Sunday the 10th against the Tigers if the Yankees opted to cycle through their rotation fully before returning to Tanaka. Continuing on that schedule would give him five starts in the month: 4/4; 4/10; 4/15 (Mariners); 4/21 (A’s); 4/26 (Rangers). There’s also a way the Yankees could get him six starts in the month by taking advantage of the off days and not using their back-end starters. Pitching Tanaka with exactly four days of rest, regardless of the rotation, would allow him to start on 4/4 (Astros); 4/9 (Tigers); 4/14 (Blue Jays); 4/19 (A’s); 4/24 (Rays); and 4/29 (Red Sox).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The effect here is two-fold: it gives Tanaka–the best pitcher–the most possible starts and it allows the Yankees to skip players they might want to skip, whether it’s CC Sabathia for purposes of easing him back into the rotation and keeping his knee healthy, or wanting to tinker with Luis Severino’s innings, as not to wear him out early in the year. The Yankees may say Severino has no restrictions, but as Mike noted in his season preview for Severino, there’s no reason to believe them.

Coincidentally, there’s also a performance trend regarding Tanaka and regular rest. The sample size is relatively small–87.1 innings–but Tanaka has his best split ERA–2.89–when pitching on just four days’ rest. He does his absolute best work on six+ days of rest, but that’s not feasible given the relative weakness of the Yankee rotation, even if they add a sixth starter.

(Tom Pennington/Getty)
(Tom Pennington/Getty)

This plan isn’t without its obstacles. Tanaka’s coming off of surgery and though everything seems to be going alright on that front, it may not be wise to push him right out of the gate. There are also concerns as they relate to the bullpen. Skipping starters in favor of Tanaka could put some extra strain on the bullpen, the middle of which is yet to be sorted out. This would be less of a concern were Aroldis Chapman around, but his more-than-well-deserved suspension pushes Dellin Betances back an inning and thins out the pre-eighth inning options for Joe Girardi. Employing the Scranton Shuttle could help alleviate the fatigue issue, but it doesn’t necessarily sort out the quality issue.

I’m conflicted on the alternate plans I presented earlier, but my senses want me to want the Yankees to give in to temptation and forgo others in favor of Tanaka getting the most starts. The Yankees faded in the back half of last year and given the age of their roster, it’s not hard to see that happening again. Getting off to the strongest start possible is of the utmost importance and pitching Tanaka six times–with three against division opponents–in April rather than five–with none against division opponents–helps accomplish that.

Open Thread: March 12th Camp Notes

The Yankees lost 2-1 to the division rival Rays earlier this afternoon. Luis Severino struck out four in 3.2 scoreless innings, allowing four hits and no walks. James Pazos allowed both runners he inherited from Johnny Barbato to score. Nick Goody struck out the side in a perfect inning, and Branden Pinder retired all three men the faced in a nice and tidy three-pitch inning.

At the plate, the Yankees only had four hits on the day: a double by Chris Parmelee and singles by Aaron Hicks, Carlos Beltran, and Austin Romine. Jonathan Diaz drew the game’s only walk. Ronald Torreyes drove in the team’s only a run with a ground out to shortstop. Exciting stuff. Here’s the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • I’m not sure where or how this rumor started, but Severino is not hurt. There was chatter he left today’s game with the trainer and stuff like that. He’s fine though. No problems whatsoever. Step away from the ledge.
  • Dustin Ackley, however, is hurt. He was scratched from today’s road trip with a tight quad. Hopefully it’s nothing serious and he returns in a few days. Ackley is the backup first and second baseman, so if he’s not ready for the start of the season, the Yankees would have to figure some things out. [Bryan Hoch]
  • Both CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will pitch in tomorrow afternoon’s game against the Phillies. That one will air on YES.

This is today’s open thread. This afternoon’s game will be replayed on MLB Network at 8pm ET, if you’re interested. There’s going to be several live Cactus League games on MLB.tv later tonight as well. The (hockey) Rangers are playing right now, the Devils play later tonight, and there’s a whole lotta college hoops on the schedule too. Have at it.