Mailbag: Other top NPB players who could come to MLB

The mailbag inbox was pretty empty this week thanks to the holidays. That’s okay, because every so often we get a great question that is worth its own post, and that was the case this week. So, rather than the usual multi-question format, we’ve got one question and one big answer this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions.

Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)
Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)

Dan asks: Are there any other players on the Japanese market besides Otani that we can be excited about in the future?

There are definitely a few, but none come close to Shohei Otani in terms of potential big league impact. He is truly in a class all by himself right now. Otani is the best player in Japan and has the tools to be an ace-caliber pitcher in MLB, if not a reliable hitter as well. I’m curious to see if a team will let him hit and pitch when the time comes. That just might be what it takes to sign him.

Anyway, most of the top talent in Japan in terms of big league potential is on the mound right now. These things to tend to be cyclical, and right now there are more high-end arms than high-end bats. Check back in a few years and the opposite will probably be true. So, with that in mind, here are five non-Otani players in Nippon Pro Baseball who could interest MLB teams in the near future. This isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s just a few of the most notable. The players are listed alphabetically.

RHP Kohei Arihara

Arihara, 24, just finished his second season with the Nippon Ham Fighters, during which he had a 2.94 ERA with 103 strikeouts (16.1 K%) and 38 walks (5.9 BB%) in 22 starts and 156 innings. He runs his fastball up to 96 mph and uses a wide array of offspeed pitches, and while nothing he throws is a truly dominant offering, Arihara has good command and really knows how to pitch.

Arihara has gotten plenty of extra scouting exposure recently as Otani’s teammate. Once he gets some more experience under his belt — he missed time in college with elbow injury, which is obviously a red flag — Arihara will be a candidate to come over to MLB. His upside may be limited, but there’s a chance for mid-rotation production here.

RHP Shintaro Fujinami

Back in 2012, Otani and Fujinami were the top two prospects in the NPB draft, and plenty of folks at the time preferred Fujinami because his secondary pitchers were more advanced. Otani went first overall — Fujinami was selected by four teams in the first round, then was awarded to the Hanshin Tigers after a lottery drawing (the NPB draft is weird) — and has since developed into the better NPB player and MLB prospect, but Fujinami is damn good himself.

The 22-year-old Fujinami had a 3.25 ERA in 26 starts and 169 innings in 2016, striking out 176 (24.0 K%) and walking 70 (9.6 BB%). Control has been his biggest issue — he’s walked 9.2% of batters faced in his four NPB seasons — but he misses plenty of bats with a 92-95 mph fastball, a mid-80s splitter, and a low-80s slider. His 221 strikeouts a year ago were by far the most in the Central League, Japan’s non-DH league. Only one other player had more than 175 strikeouts. (Randy Messenger had 194.)

Fujinami is widely considered the second best MLB prospect in Japan, but he’s in the same boat as Otani. He’s only 22, which means he’ll be subject to the international hard cap for the next three years. Also, Fujinami is five years away from qualifying for international free agency, so he’ll have to go through the posting system to come over at any point before the 2021-22 offseason. It’s not only Otani who is getting screwed over by the hard cap.

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

A few years ago Kikuchi, now 25, was considering jumping to MLB straight out of high school, which would have been unprecedented. (Junichi Tazawa was undrafted out of high school, played one year in a Japanese independent league, then chose to forego NPB for MLB.) NPB doesn’t like the idea of the best young Japanese players not playing in Japan, so nowadays anyone who signs with an MLB team out of high school is banned from NPB for at least three years. Not surprisingly, no one has done it.

Anyway, Kikuchi has spent the last six seasons with the Seibu Lions and has career has been up and down, mostly due to shoulder problems. He had a 2.58 ERA with 127 strikeouts (21.3 K%) and 67 walks (11.3 K%) in 22 starts and 143 innings this past season, though the blazing mid-to-upper-90s fastball that made him such a hot commodity as a teenager now resides mostly in the low-90s. Kikuchi relies on his three offspeed pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) to get most of his outs these days.

It’s no secret Kikuchi wants to come over to MLB at some point — he met with several clubs, including the Yankees, back in 2009 when he considered coming over after high school — and since he’s 25, the international hard cap won’t apply to him. It’s up to Seibu to post him because he’s still three years from international free agency. Kikuchi is not the tippy top MLB prospect he was a few years ago, but lefties who can miss bats are always going to get a look.

RHP Takahiro Norimoto

Three years ago the 26-year-old Norimoto took over as staff ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles after Masahiro Tanaka left via the posting system. His last two seasons have been eerily similar:

IP ERA Strikeouts Walks Homers
2015 194.2 2.91 215 (26.9%) 48 (6.0%) 14 (0.65 HR/9)
2016 195 2.91 216 (26.3%) 50 (6.1%) 12 (0.55 HR/9)

Freaky. Norimoto has big stuff but not big size. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 178 lbs., and fair or not, teams are always wary of undersized righties. Durability is a concern, and so is fastball plane. Teams worry short pitchers will be fly ball and home run prone because they can’t pitch downhill. Still, Norimoto has a mid-90s fastball and can miss bats with both his splitter and slider. That’ll play.

Norimoto signed a three-year extension worth $1.72M per season last month, so he’s not coming over to MLB anytime soon. That’s a shame. He wouldn’t have been subject to any international spending restrictions because of his age. Not the bonus pools this signing period or the hard cap that takes effect next signing period. Womp womp. Norimoto will be 29 before he’s eligible to come over to MLB.

IF Tetsuto Yamada

Over the last three years, and especially the last two, Yamada has established himself as one of the most dominant hitters in Japan. Last season he hit .329/.416/.610 with 38 home runs and 34 stolen bases en route to being named Central League MVP. He was the first player in NPB history to win both the home run and stolen base titles. Yamada also had a Reggie Jackson moment in the postseason, swatting three home runs in three consecutive plate appearances in Game Three of the Japan Series.

This past season the 24-year-old Yamada managed a .304/.425/.607 batting line with 38 homers and 30 stolen bases for the Yakult Swallows. He’s a right-handed hitter with tremendous bat speed and quick twitch athleticism, plus he knows how to control the strike zone (17.2 K% and 14.4 BB% from 2015-16). While going 30-30 in the big leagues might not happen, Yamada has 20-20 potential, which would be pretty damn valuable from a good defensive middle infielder. (Reports indicate he fits best at second.)

Yamada has supposedly expressed interest in coming over to MLB, and since he’ll turn 25 in July, he won’t be subject to the international hard cap next offseason. The Swallows can post him and Yamada can sign a contract of any size. Unless the posting agreement gets changed again, that is. MLB seems to like making it difficult for top overseas players to play in their league for whatever reason.

It’s worth noting most of the biggest busts among Japanese players in MLB have been infielders (Kaz Matsui, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, etc.), and I’ve seen speculation that the game is so much faster here that infielders have a tough time adjusting, and their defensive issues carry over at the plate. Who knows whether that’s true. There’s risk with every signing, and it is fair to wonder whether Yamada’s big leg kick will play over here. My guess is some team will bet millions on his power-speed combination.

* * *

The Yankees have shown they will get involved in the Japanese market if there’s a player they really like, though they’re going to do their homework first. They won’t rush into anything like they did with Kei Igawa again. Otani is clearly the best Japan has to offer for a few years. Others like Fujinami and Norimoto are intriguing, though they face obstacles coming over (hard cap for Fujinami, contract extension for Norimoto).

Yamada could end up being a very big deal next offseason, assuming the Swallows agree to post him for MLB teams, which is far from a given. Middle infielders in their mid-20s with power and speed are always in demand. Even with Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro up the middle, plus a ton of shortstop prospects in the system, the Yankees may get involved should Yamada be posted. Third base is a question long-term and Yamada could help solve that (Yamada at second, Castro to third?).

Cashman indicates Luis Severino will go to Triple-A if he doesn’t win a rotation spot

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Andrew Marchand, Brian Cashman recently indicated the Yankees will continue to develop Luis Severino as a starting pitcher next year, even if it has to happen in the minors. “He still possesses all that upside and ceiling, but obviously he will have to re-prove that in 2017 to earn a spot in the rotation at the Major League level. If not, the expectation is that he would go to Triple-A,” said the GM.

Severino, 22, was terrible as a starter and great as a reliever in 2016. He pitched to an 8.50 ERA (5.56 FIP) in 47.2 innings as a starter and a 0.39 ERA (2.29 FIP) in 23.1 innings as a reliever. Goodness. He was two totally different pitchers. Between big league stints, Severino had a 3.49 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 77.1 innings with Triple-A Scranton. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this and Severino’s future in general.

1. Of course the Yankees shouldn’t give up on him as a starter. Context: Luis Severino is ten days older than James Kaprielian. The Yankees would be foolish to give up on a guy this young and this talented as a starting pitcher based on 47.2 terrible starter innings (and 23.1 great relief innings) so early in his big league career. They’re in transition mode and their No. 1 goal should be maximizing their young assets, and in Severino’s case, that means continuing to let him develop as a starter.

Furthermore, the Yankees have basically no established starters under control beyond next season. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will be free agents next winter, and if Masahiro Tanaka doesn’t opt-out, that means something went wrong in 2017, most likely an injury. The Yankees have a nice collection of young starters and Severino is among them, along with guys like Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Jordan Montgomery, and Chance Adams. I don’t think many will argue with me saying Severino has the most upside of that group.

2. Severino needs to make up for lost development time. The Yankees probably wouldn’t have made the postseason without Severino in 2015 — they finished only two games ahead of the Angels, the first non-wildcard team — and at the end of the day, getting into the playoffs is the name of the game. Get in and you have a chance to win the World Series. Severino helped them accomplish that goal in 2015.

At the same time, I don’t think the Yankees did Severino any favors long-term by rushing him up through the minors. Look at his innings by level:

  • Rookie ball: 26.1 innings
  • Low-A: 85.1 innings
  • High-A: 23.1 innings (three during an injury rehab stint in 2016)
  • Double-A: 63 innings
  • Triple-A: 138.2 innings (77.1 innings after getting bombed in MLB early in 2016)

Severino was not some polished college arm fresh out of the draft. He was a teenager in full season ball and in Double-A by age 20. The statistical performance was excellent, no doubt about it, but there’s more to life than minor league strikeout and walk rates. Severino’s command has been pretty terrible in the big leagues, especially with his secondary pitches, and the Yankees didn’t give him a whole lot of time to work on it in the minors. It’s not a shock the kid has looked less than refined in the big leagues.

I get the temptation to stick Severino in the bullpen next year and help the Yankees win. They are still trying to do that, you know. The team didn’t spend $13M on a DH and $86M on a closer to not win in 2017. Putting Severino in the bullpen almost certainly makes the 2017 Yankees a better team. The best long-term move is letting him start though, even if he’s in Triple-A, because there are still plenty of things he can work on in games that don’t count.

3. At worst, he can be a shutdown reliever. It’s entirely possible Severino’s long-term future lies in the bullpen. He might never locate his slider and/or changeup consistently enough to start, and, frankly, I don’t have much faith in the Yankees turning him into a viable starting pitcher. It’s not just the scars of the Joba Rules either. Their development track record is pretty bad.

But, if nothing else, I do feel pretty confident Severino can at least be a really good relief pitcher if the starting thing doesn’t work out. He can dominate for an inning at a time by airing it out, even with less than stellar command. Many relievers do that, including a few in New York’s bullpen. The bullpen should be the fallback plan though. Keep trying Severino as a starter, and if it’s still not working in a few years, a relief role is a viable alternative.

4. What about a long relief role? If Severino doesn’t make the rotation to start the season, a potential alternative to Triple-A is a long relief role. I don’t mean a traditional mop-up guy who throws two or three innings in a blowout every two weeks. I mean a reliever who throws three or four innings every few days by design. Remember, the Yankees may have a bunch of kids at the back of the rotation, which means there figures to be plenty of short starts throughout the summer.

The upside of a long relief role is that Severino would still be helping the MLB team win, and he’d be giving the rest of the bullpen a regular day off. The downside is he might not get a chance to turn a lineup over multiple times. He might face 10-12 batters in a three-inning outing, so a few batters would see him twice, but that only helps him so much. Ideally, Severino would get a chance to go through the lineup three times as a starter in the minors. That won’t happen in a long relief role, not unless we’re talking extra innings or something. I don’t love the long relief idea from a development standpoint, but it’s an option.

Reports: Yankees may or may not be expanding Quintana trade talks to include David Robertson

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Bob Nightengale, the Yankees have expanded their Jose Quintana trade talks with the White Sox to include David Robertson. They want Chicago to eat some of the $25M left on Robertson’s contract, however. Joel Sherman, meanwhile, says the Yanks aren’t working on a Quintana/Robertson trade. /shrugs

I’ve said pretty much all I have to say about Quintana at this point. He’s very good and signed cheap for another four years, so he fits right in with the rebuild transition. There aren’t many players I want the Yankees to trade top prospects to acquire. Quintana is one of them. The Robertson angle, assuming there is some truth to Nightengale’s report (a dubious assumption), adds a fun little wrinkle. Let’s dive in.

1. This passes the sniff test. The first question with any trade rumor: does it make sense? There are so many reports these days that it’s difficult to tell what’s legitimate and what’s nonsense planted by a team for leverage purposes. It gets overwhelming at times. Reporters write it all up because it’s their job and it makes for great #content, and fans eat it up. I get it.

Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and think about whether a rumor actually makes sense. Does adding Robertson to a potential Quintana trade pass the sniff test? Yes, I think it does. First and foremost, we know the Yankees love the idea of a super-bullpen. Also, they know Robertson from his time in New York and did claim him on trade waivers two years ago, so they’re willing to bring him back. (You don’t claim a high-priced player on trade waivers unless you’re willing to take on the money.)

That’s enough for me to believe there’s some legitimacy to this rumor. Does that mean the Yankees desperately want Robertson and are willing to pay big to get him back? Of course not. It just means they’re open to the idea. He fits their roster — as a good reliever, Robertson fits any roster — and their current team-building strategy, which is essentially “have the best bullpen possible to protect whatever leads the rest of the team manages to create.”

2. This past season was Robertson’s worst since 2010. The 2016 season was Robertson’s worst since before his breakout 2011 campaign in pinstripes. He had a 3.47 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 62.1 innings in 2016, and beyond that his strikeout rate (28.1%) was his lowest since 2010 and his walk rate (12.0%) was his highest since 2011. Robertson walked a lot of batters early in his career (12.2% from 2008-11) before cutting his walk rate to 7.2% from 2012-15. Was 2016 a one-year blip, or the return of the old Robertson?

PitchFX indicates Robertson’s raw stuff is relatively unchanged. His cutter has sat in the 92.3 mph to 92.8 mph average velocity range every year since 2012, and he’s getting more swings and misses with his curveball than ever before. From Brooks Baseball:

david-robertson-whiffs

The good news is the cutter/curveball combination Robertson worked with his past season was basically the same as three years ago. It would be a red flag had he lost velocity or hitters stopped swinging and missing at the curve. His issues in 2016, namely the decline in strikeouts and increase in walks, could be related to a mechanical issue. Or maybe crappy pitch-framing.

Either way, this year was Robertson’s worst season in quite some time and we can’t ignore that. He’ll turn 32 shortly after Opening Day, and while he’s never had any serious injury problems — Robertson has made at least 60 appearances and thrown at least 60 innings in each of the last seven seasons — he’s about to enter what are typically a player’s decline years. There’s risk here.

3. Robertson won’t lower the asking price for Quintana. Robertson is not a negative asset. The White Sox could trade him for actual prospects right now. They might not be top prospects like Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier, and Chicago might have to eat a couple bucks to facilitate a trade, but Robertson has value. Plenty of contending teams need bullpen help, and heck, with relievers now getting $16M+ a year, Robertson’s contract isn’t awful.

I know the first inclination is to think taking on Robertson would lower the cost for Quintana, but I can’t imagine that would actually be the case, especially if the Yankees insist the White Sox eat some money. (Presumably to lessen the 2018 luxury tax hit.) Chicago could trade Quintana and Robertson separately and land a bunch of prospects. Packaging them together shouldn’t equal fewer prospects. The Yankees might not be willing to trade, say, Torres and Frazier for Quintana alone. But if the deal is expanded to include Robertson, it could be easier to swallow.

(I’m not advocating trading Torres and Frazier for Quintana. I’m just throwing it out there for discussion purposes. Don’t bite my head off.)

4. Could adding Robertson lead to another reliever trade? We know the Yankees love the idea of a super-bullpen with multiple closer-caliber relievers. Robertson is not Andrew Miller, but he is better than most, and he’d slot into the eighth inning nicely between Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances to create that powerhouse seventh-eighth-ninth inning trio. (Robertson’s been a closer, which is why he gets the eighth over Betances. This is Joe Girardi we’re talking about here.)

That said, I can’t help but wonder if acquiring Robertson could lead to another reliever being dealt for prospects, like Betances or Tyler Clippard. There are a ton of contending teams in need of bullpen help. Off the top of my head, the Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Cardinals, Giants, and Mariners could all use another setup reliever. Perhaps the Yankees would take a wait and see approach. Go into the season with the bullpen intact, see where they are come July, and if they’re out of the race, look to cash these guys in as trade chips like they did this year. They don’t have to rush into a trade.

Tuesday Notes: Tanaka, WBC, London, Stottlemyre, ESPN

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
Tanaka at the 2013 WBC. (Koji Watanabe/Getty)

We are right smack in the middle of the slowest time of the offseason. The baseball world is essentially on hold during the holidays, before the bargain shopping begins in January. Here are some bits of news to check out in the meantime.

Tanaka not on partial WBC roster

Team Japan has announced the first 19 players of their 28-man roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, reports Jason Coskrey, and Masahiro Tanaka is not among those 19 players. Outfielder Nori Aoki is the only MLB player on the roster. Two-way star Shohei Otani is the headliner, obviously. Final rosters are due sometime in January, which ain’t so far away anymore.

“Regarding MLB players, we are not going to announce where we are (in talks) and it’s all going to be announced when we actually announce (the final roster),” said Japan baseball secretary general Atsushi Ihara to Coskrey. “We don’t really have the timetable, but manager (Hiroki) Kokubo is saying that he wants to set it early.”

Tanaka, who pitched in both the 2009 and 2013 WBCs, has said he wants to pitch in the 2017 edition. The Yankees can’t stop their ace from participating. Brian Cashman confirmed it. Team Japan did not take MLB players in the last WBC, not even Ichiro, but Ihara’s comments and the fact Aoki is the on the roster suggests they’ll look to take a few this time around. We’ll see what happens with Tanaka.

Yankees, Red Sox could be headed to London

According to Michael Silverman, the Yankees and Red Sox could be headed to London to play a series next season. Hal Steinbrenner and Red Sox owner John Henry have been discussing the possibility for several years now. MLB has been looking to grow the game globally and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement includes provisions to play games outside the country.

“The Yankees have been at the forefront of suggesting that we bring the great game of baseball to London,” said Yankees president Randy Levine to Silverman. “There have been some meaningful attempts to do so, and we are hopeful and confident that we can play there soon. Playing the Red Sox in London would be a special and unique event.”

It’s no surprise the Yankees and Red Sox may end up playing overseas. They’re still baseball’s premier rivalry and will generate the most buzz. There are a ton of logistical issues to work out though. There’s the travel, first and foremost, and also the issue of gate receipts. One of the two teams is going to lose a handful of home games and associated revenue. Still, the Yankees playing in London would be pretty damn cool.

Stottlemyre doing better after health scare

Mel Stottlemyre, former Yankees pitcher and pitching coach, is doing better following a health scare last week, his wife Jean told John Harper. Mel’s son Todd wrote on Facebook his father was “in the hospital fighting for his life” last Friday. Stottlemyre has been fighting multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, since 2000.

“He’s doing much better. We saw a big turnaround with Mel over the last 24 hours. He’s not in a life-threatening situation right now,” said Jean Stottlemyre to Harper. “It’s not the cancer. It was that he got sick from the chemo medicine. He was given antibiotics to fight infection and he’s responded well.”

Stottlemyre, who turned 75 last month, spent his entire playing career with the Yankees from 1964-74. Those were the “dark years” of the franchise, so Mel never did win a World Series as a player. He won his first ring as Mets pitching coach in 1986, and he added four titles as Yankees pitching coach from 1996-2005. Last year the Yankees surprised Stottlemyre with a plaque in Monument Park. It was one of the best moments of the season.

It was unclear whether Stottlemyre’s health would even allow him to make the trip from his home in Washington to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day last year. I’m glad to hear he’s doing well after that health scare last week. He’s been fighting cancer for close to two decades now, and he’s kicking its butt even at age 75. Go Mel.

Yankees to play four times on ESPN

A few days ago ESPN released their Sunday Night Baseball schedule for most of the first half, and, not surprisingly, the Yankees are featured more than a few times. They’re still a great draw. Here’s the schedule and here are the Sunday night broadcasts that will feature the Yankees:

  • April 16th: Cardinals at Yankees
  • May 7th: Yankees at Cubs
  • May 14th: Astros at Yankees
  • July 16th: Yankees at Red Sox

That May 14th game is the night the Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s number, though I’m not sure whether ESPN will show the ceremony. Probably not. YES will air the entire thing, I’m sure. As a reminder, the Yankees are going to play the very first game of 2017 on ESPN. They begin the season at 1pm ET on Sunday, April 2nd, on the road against the Rays. The next game that day begins at 4pm ET.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 26th, 2016

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

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Mailbag: Gray, McCann, Bargains, Quintana, Ellsbury

No, it’s not Friday. It’s still only Thursday. Sorry if I got your hopes up. I’m posting the mailbag a day early because it’s a holiday weekend and I won’t be around much starting later this afternoon. So, the mailbag goes up a day early. I have seven questions this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send questions.

Gray. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
Gray. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Chris asks: What would it take to trade for Sonny Gray? Coming off a bad year with injuries maybe his stock is a little low even though with 3 controllable years left.

My guess is the Athletics will want exactly what the White Sox got for Chris Sale. Why not ask for that? Sale is better than Gray, but they’re both excellent when healthy and under control another three years. You’re never going to get Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano if you don’t ask. Start by asking for a Sale package and negotiate down from there. One tippy top prospect and two or three strong secondary pieces feels like the minimum to me. Why trade Gray for something less? Then again, the A’s have made some terrible trades, so who knows.

I’m all in on Gray — he was the centerpiece of my silly offseason plan — and would be pretty thrilled if the Yankees acquired him, assuming he’s healthy. He missed time with trap and forearm problems in 2016. Gray’s not a conventional ace with huge strikeout numbers and a low FIP. He’s Hiroki Kuroda. A dude who knows how to pitch and is fearless on the mound. You could do a heck of a lot worse than handing the ball to Sonny Gray for a big game.

Ryan asks: When the Yankees agreed to eat $16.5 MM of McCann’s contact, could they have offered to pay his salary this year instead of over 5.5 for 2 years, and get any McCann money off the books early? Or would it all count the same for the luxury tax like A-Rod‘s front loaded contract?

When a player is traded and his former team retains salary, that salary is applied to the luxury tax payroll in terms of actual dollars, not average annual value. The Yankees made it easy with McCann. They’re paying him $5.5M next year and another $5.5M the year after. But, if they paid him all $11M in 2017 and $0 in 2018, he’d count $11M against the luxury tax in 2017 and nothing in 2018. At least that’s how the just expired Collective Bargaining Agreement worked. Not sure if the new one just changed things.

Remember though, there are two parties in this transaction. The Astros might not have wanted to be on the hook for McCann’s entire salary in 2018, which is understandable because they’re going to have some big arbitration cases to deal with (George Springer and Dallas Keuchel, most notably). The Yankees might not want to pay the full $11M in 2017 either. Yeah, it’d help them get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018, but it may not have been the best big picture financial move.

Richard asks: Do you feel the Yankees will have a significant improvement in offense this year? I do, with the addition of Sanchez, Holliday, and Bird. And, I have a funny feeling that Hicks will be much better this year.

I do, actually. Mostly because I have a hard time believing Greg Bird (and Tyler Austin?) and Matt Holliday will be as bad as Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were this past season. Is it possible? Of course. But Teixeira and A-Rod gave the team 681 combined plate appearances of .203/.276/.358 (~68 OPS+) in 2016. Yuck. Getting even league average production from Bird and Holliday would be a big step up.

Simply put, the Yankees aren’t banking on older players as much as they were a year ago. Players over 35 have a ton of downside no matter how talented. What Carlos Beltran did this past season was an extreme outlier. It was a top 20 season all-time among 39-year-olds. The Yankees will have much more youth in the lineup next year, and with youth comes upside. Are they guaranteed to reach that upside? Of course not. But when the veterans were mostly bad in 2016, I can’t help but be optimistic about the kids in 2017.

Matt asks (short version): There are some really good values still on the free agent market, do you think the Yankees still might make a few moves to bolster the roster? Brett Anderson, Doug Fister, Jason Hammel, and CJ Wilson come to mind as buy-low candidates for the rotation. Greg Holland, Sergio Romo, Joe Smith, and Boone Logan could really deepen the bullpen as well.

The Yankees say they need to move money before making any more moves, though I have a hard time thinking Hal Steinbrenner would squash a low cost one-year deal if something worthwhile came along. I do like the idea of Anderson on an incentive-laden one-year contract, though aside from him, I’m not all that excited by any free agent starters. Fister and Hammel are okay and will probably end up getting more than I’d feel comfortable paying.

I can’t imagine Holland will come to the Yankees at this point. He’s going to go to a team where he’ll have a chance to close and soon. At best, he’d be the No. 3 closer option in New York. Other free agents who stand out as potential low cost, late offseason pickups include Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Niese, Joe Blanton, and Yusmeiro Petit. Blanton was really good with the Dodgers this past season and he might end up with a nice contract. The Yankees have been connected to De La Rosa for years, and I feel like they’ll swoop in to sign him super cheap in February.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Ryan asks (short version): How about a three-team trade that sends Masahiro Tanaka to Team X, prospects from Team X to the White Sox, and Jose Quintana to the Yankees?

Interesting! Team X would have to be a contending team, so maybe the Astros or Nationals? Also, I don’t think the trade would be that neat. The Yankees would have to send a prospect(s) to the White Sox as well to even things out because Quintana has more trade value than Tanaka. The differences in their contracts and injury history are too great to ignore. My trade proposal sucks, but:

  • To Yankees: Jose Quintana
  • To Astros: Masahiro Tanaka
  • To White Sox: Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker, Jorge Mateo

Obvious question: why wouldn’t the Astros just kick in another prospect to get Quintana instead of Tanaka? That’s the big obstacle here. A potential three-team trade might not get off the ground because the third team may decide to keep Quintana for themselves.

As far as the Yankees go, trading Tanaka would really suck, but if the team is convinced he’s going to opt-out next winter and they’re not planning to re-sign him, they have to trade him. Letting him go for a dinky draft pick would be a mistake. Quintana is every bit as good as Tanaka if not better, and he’s signed long-term. Ideally the Yankees would have Tanaka and Quintana, but, if it has to be one or the other, I’d prefer Quintana.

Matthew asks: So the Orioles are going to sign Colby Rasmus for 1 year and he’s going to lead the league in HRs, right?? Any interest from the Yankees perspective? I’ve long been enamored with his swing in Yankee Stadium.

Rasmus to the Orioles makes a lot of sense, actually. They need corner outfield help and he’d fit well in that ballpark. The Yankees don’t have much use for him though. They have a lot of young outfielders and signing Rasmus creates even more of a logjam. The Yankees are trying to trade Brett Gardner to clear space for the kids. Imagine signing Rasmus to block them further? I can’t see it.

Also, holy crap, I didn’t realize Rasmus was so bad in 2016. He hit .206/.286/.355 (75 wRC+) with 15 homers in 407 plate appearances. Eek.

Albert asks: Say the Yankees ate 32 Million dollars from Ellsbury’s contract, 8 million a year for 4 years. Wouldn’t they be able to get a solid prospect? And even if they didn’t get much of a return, wouldn’t paying the 8 million a year for the next 4 years help get them under the Luxury Tax threshold since they will be saving about 14 Million a year? Love the site, keep up the good work!

Including the $5M buyout of his $21M club option for 2021, there are four years and $89.5M left on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s contract. Eating $32M turns it into a four-year deal worth $57.5M. Would Ellsbury get that as a free agent this offseason? I don’t think so, but I suppose it’s possible in a world where Ian Desmond got five years and $70M. I feel like the Yankees would have to turn Ellsbury into a $13M a year player to drum up trade interest, which means eating nearly $10M a year.

Eating all that money would stink, but you know what? It’s probably worth it. Ellsbury’s contract is a sunk cost. The Yankees have to pay it anyway. Eating $10M a year still sheds $13M a season, which is roughly what the Yankees would save by trading away Gardner. Let’s do the math quick. Here’s the trade Gardner/keep Ellsbury scenario:

2017 2018 2019 2020
Gardner $0 $0 $0 $0
Ellsbury $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M
Total $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M $21.85M

Trading Gardner and eating zero money is a dubious assumption, but I suppose it is possible. Let’s stick with that to make the math easy. Trading Gardner would clear an outfield spot for a young player and remove his $11.72M luxury tax hit. Now here’s the keep Gardner/eat $10M a year to trade Ellsbury scenario:

2017 2018 2019 2020
Gardner $11.72M $11.72M $0 $0
Ellsbury $10M $10M $10M $10M
Total $22.72M $22.72M $10M $10M

That’s better! The Yankees save more money long-term for a slight luxury tax payroll bump up front, and they’d also get to keep the homegrown Yankee. Now, the hard part: finding a team willing to take on Ellsbury at $13M a year for the next four years. I had a hard time coming up with potential landing spots for Gardner, who has two fewer years on his contract and has been the better player the last two or three years. What’s the market for Ellsbury going to look like? Nonexistent, basically.