Mailbag: Cashman, Teixeira, Torres, Darvish, Sheffield

Got 15 questions for you in this week’s mailbag, though I tried to keep the answers short. Didn’t always succeed. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions. The email address is perpetually sitting in the sidebar in case you ever forget.

The Judge and the GM. (Presswire)
The Judge and the GM. (Presswire)

Daniel asks: What do you think Brian Cashman‘s legacy will be, and how much will it ultimately depend on this “transition” period carrying the Yankees to another championship?

Man, I have no idea. Cashman is very underrated as a GM. He gets overlooked because of the team’s payroll, and any success the Yankees have had under him has been written off as a product of the budget (or because someone else built the team). We’re not idiots. We know money doesn’t guarantee success. Look at the Phillies and the Angels. Or even the Red Sox. How many times have they finished in last place the last few years? Money helps, but it ain’t everything.

This rebuild may define Cashman’s legacy more than anything that’s happened over the last 20 years. If it succeeds, he’ll finally get some recognition as one of the game’s most successful executives. If it fails, well then it’ll only reinforce the notion he needs a big payroll to win. Cashman has been, by a pretty big margin, the most consistently successful big market GM. His worst teams have won 84 games, and he was able to field those clubs while still building the farm system into what it is today. Cashman’s legacy is complicated. Personally, I think he doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves.

Ross asks: I feel like the Yankees minor league pitching isn’t getting enough love. Here are top 6 teams in ERA in full-season ball for all leagues.

minor-league-era

The top 6 teams came from 6 different leagues (which surprised me), but all four of the Yankees full-season teams finished in the top 6 of 120 full-season teams. This is with their top 2 pitching prospects (Sheffield and Kaprielian) barely pitching for the Yankees in 2016.  What do you think the state of the Yankee minor league pitching is and if the stats are misleading?

The stats are misleading a bit. I definitely wouldn’t use ERA, either on the team level or individual level, to gauge prospect status. A Diamondbacks affiliate is third on that list and their system is terrible. The Yankees did have a ton of great individual performers this year — they had two of the top four and five of the top 17 minor leaguers in ERA, not counting the Mexican League (min. 100 IP) — and that’s awesome. Let’s not confuse great performance for great prospects though.

Also, keep in mind New York’s four full season affiliates all play in pitcher friendly home ballparks. Every one of them. George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa is the closest to a neutral park. Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton can be brutal for hitters, especially lefties, at night when the breeze is blowing in from the Delaware River beyond right field. That’s why what Greg Bird did there (.256/.366/.484 with 13 homers in 76 games) was so impressive.

Don’t get me wrong, the Yankees do have a lot of really good pitching prospects. James Kaprielian and Justus Sheffield are the headliners, but others like Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams are future big leaguers too. Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu are the high upside plays. The low team ERAs in 2016 probably speaks to the farm system’s pitching depth to some degree, but I wouldn’t glance at that leaderboard and confuse it for prospect status. The Yankees have some good pitching prospects, but the team ERAs would lead you to believe they’re deep in top arms, and they’re not.

Chris asks: There are many reports about the Rangers and the Cubs being the leading suitors for Tyson Ross. Shouldn’t the Yankees be in that group as well? I know he was injured most of last year, but assuming he comes back to full strength (big assumption), he fits the bill of a young starter who would be controlled for more than a year to slot into the rotation, right?

Ross isn’t under control for more than a year. He’ll be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season. And he’s not that young either. He turns 30 in April. That said, of course the Yankees should be in the mix for him. They could use more pitching and Ross theoretically offers more upside than the Jon Nieses and Doug Fisters of the world. Chances are these guys are all low cost one-year contract candidates. Ross can potentially bring the greatest reward.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge Tyson Ross fan, so if the Yankees miss out, I’m not going to lose much sleep over it. He walks a ton of batters, he throws an extreme amount of sliders, and his delivery is ugly as sin. A breakdown felt inevitable. Last year’s shoulder injury — the injury that sidelined him after Opening Day, not the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery he had in October — may have been the beginning of that breakdown. If he’s willing to come to New York on a one-year deal, cool. If not, eh, there are other fish in the sea.

Greg asks: Do you think Mark Teixeira gets no. 25 retired for him or a plaque in Monument Park?

Nah. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees reissue No. 25 as soon as this year. Maybe they’ll give it to Clint Frazier in Spring Training. I know Teixeira was part of a World Series team, but if No. 25 wasn’t retired for Jason Giambi, it sure as heck won’t be for Teixeira. Teixeira was a good player and a fun dude for several years. I’m guessing he’ll have a blast at Old Timers’ Day. He’s not Monument Park worthy in my opinion though. Good Yankee, for sure, but not an all-time great.

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Rubaiyat asks: Would it be a better idea to move Gleyber Torres to 3b or another position and keep Didi? Or keep him at short and trade Didi for prospects?

I’m going to take the easy way out and say “worry about this when the time comes.” Who knows what the landscape will be when Torres is actually ready to help the Yankees. That’s at least one year away, possibly two. Manny Machado could be a Yankee by then, in which case putting Gleyber at short and trading Didi Gregorius makes sense. Or maybe Gregorius continues to refine his offensive game and blossoms into a .290/.330/.450 hitter with 25+ homers annually, in which case Torres becomes the trade bait. Patience. This isn’t worth thinking about now.

Greg asks: A lot of prospect lists have Blake Rutherford as a top 5 prospect in the org. Does he have enough perceived value to headline a trade for an ace? I don’t necessarily want to see him go, I’m just curious how prospect ratings correspond with trade value.

I learned a while ago that prospect rankings and trade value rankings are not the same thing. Rutherford is a great-looking prospect, but I can’t remember the last time a rookie ball kid was the headliner in a trade for an impact big leaguer. Prospects closer to the big leagues have more trade value than the kids in the low minors. Does that mean Dietrich Enns has more trade value than Rutherford? Of course not. Talent matters. Prospect rankings are a measure of potential. Trade value is real world value, and teams have to consider the risk of a prospect not making it. Rutherford has a ton of ability, but he’s so far away from MLB and there’s still so much time for things to go wrong. That risk likely prevents him headlining a package for, say, Jose Quintana.

Jacob asks: What would Gleybar Torres have to become for the Cubs to regret the trade? Or does the ring mean they will never regret it?

I can’t pretend to know what last season was like for a Cubs fan. I’m spoiled as hell. I grew up with my favorite team winning championships left and right. So many Cubs fans waited their entire lives to see not just a World Series win, but a pennant. Just a pennant. Hopefully we’ll be able to look back at some point and determine this was a lopsided trade in favor of the Yankees according to WAR or whatever. I’m guessing the vast majority of Cubs fans don’t care one bit. This has a chance to be the mother of all win-win trades.

Alex asks: Unless the Yankees are in serious contention by the 2017 trade deadline, do you think Betances is all but a goner? It seems silly to keep him when you already have Chapman and could get another Frazier/Torres like prospect and more in return.

It’s going to depend on a lot of things. How far out of the race are the Yankees? How are the kids looking? Are we seeing progress, enough that serious contention in 2018 looks likely, or are they all crashing and burning? How does Dellin Betances himself look? I’m guessing one of the reasons the Yankees went ahead with their deadline sell-off last year was the fact they knew they’d have a chance to sign a top reliever in the offseason. Wade Davis is far and away the best reliever slated to hit free agency next year. After him it’s, uh, Addison Reed? And is spending huge for another reliever a smart move anyway given the luxury tax situation?

I am in no way opposed to trading Betances (or pretty much anyone on the roster at this point). The Yankees very clearly value having multiple dominant relievers in the bullpen though, and if they don’t feel confident in their ability to replace Betances in some way prior to 2018 — remember, they tried to sign Chapman to an extension before trading him! — they might not be willing to part with Dellin at the deadline. A lot of factors are going to go into any decision to trade Betances, either at the deadline or at some point after that.

Frederick asks: Any chance the Yanks go for someone like Brandon McCarthy or Anibal Sanchez in a salary dump type of move?

I think they’d just sign a free agent instead. You’ll end up with similar expected production and the cost figures to be lower too. Why taken on Sanchez and his ZiPS projected 4.77 ERA (4.33 FIP) at $16.8M when you could sign, say, Doug Fister and his ZiPS projected 4.53 ERA (4.73 FIP) for something like $6M? Unless the Tigers eat a ton of money and take a non-prospect in return, I wouldn’t bother. (And why would they do that?) Just sign a free agent. Same thing with McCarthy, who has two years left on the deal. I wrote a Scouting The Market post about him earlier this winter, before it became clear all these iffy reclamation project starters would still be looking for jobs in mid-January.

Bird. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Bird. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Jonathan asks: We hear all about catchers, pitchers, middle infielders, and well, Andujar…but very little about first base beyond Bird/Austin. Is it just a PR thing or are the lower level 1B prospects not as good relative to the prospects at other positions?

First base prospects are a weird group. Most first basemen land at the position because they couldn’t play elsewhere. Joey Votto was a catcher. Miguel Cabrera was a shortstop. Edwin Encarnacion and Chris Davis were third basemen. So was Teixeira. Greg Bird was a catcher and so was Tyler Austin back in the day. MLB.com’s top 100 list includes only four pure first basemen at the moment, which is pretty normal. That’s not an unusually low number.

As for the Yankees, their best first base prospect beyond Bird (technically no longer a prospect) and Austin (still qualifies as a prospect) is, uh, Mike Ford? Maybe Miguel Flames if he can’t hack it behind the plate. Or Dermis Garcia if the hot corner doesn’t work out. The Yankees, like every other team, focus on up-the-middle talent because those positions are hardest to fill. There’s always a Chris Carter (former third baseman) or Mike Napoli (former catcher) sitting in free agency these days. There aren’t many middle infielders or top notch catchers though. The Yankees aren’t deep in first base prospects at all and in no way is that a problem in my opinion.

Seth asks: Which baby bomber do you personally think will outperform their expectations in 2017?

Aaron Judge seems obvious to me. For some reason I feel like most people expect him to hit .175 with about 275 strikeouts in 2016. Judge doesn’t get enough credit for his pure hit tool. Yeah, he’s going to strike out, that kinda happens when you’re 6-foot-7 with a huge strike zone and long arms, but I could totally see Judge hitting .230 or so with 25+ bombs in 2017. People will complain about that, I’m sure, but for a dude in his first full season in the show? Sign me up. Judge will be a good litmus test for the rebuild. Let’s see how patient fans really are willing to be.

Bob asks: In light of the Yankees need for starting pitching in 2018 and thereafter, wouldn’t it be better to force the development of several young pitchers in 2017 as opposed to signing a one year retread who only delays the inevitable?

Nope. You can’t force development. That’s when bad things happen. Running a young pitcher who clearly isn’t ready to be successful at the MLB level out there every fifth day is counterproductive. Maybe the Yankees won’t run into this problem with any of their young starters next season. That would be amazing. And if that’s the case, the Yankees aren’t going to let some veteran starter on a one-year contract stand in the way. There’s no such thing as too much pitching, especially when you’re trying to break in several young starters at once. I’d rather have the depth and not need it than need it and not have it.

Erick asks: What are your thoughts on Yu Darvish a year from now? He has been pretty good since coming over. We don’t what will happen with Tanaka, could we have two Japanese pitchers in 2018? Even three if you go completely crazy and imagine Otani getting posted.

I have a hard time thinking the Rangers will actually let Darvish leave when he becomes a free agent next year. If they do, it would kinda worry me. What do they know that we don’t? Also, I wouldn’t get my hopes up expecting the Yankees to spend big on a free agent next offseason, not with the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold looming. The time to get Darvish was five years ago when he was in his mid-20s. He’ll be 31 when he hits free agency next year, and have Tommy John surgery in his not too distant past. Meh. Call me crazy, but I’d rather spend that money on Masahiro Tanaka.

Haven't used this one in a while. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Haven’t used this one in a while. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Luiz asks: Can we compare Sheffield with Banuelos? Both are southpaw pitchers listed at 5-foot-10, with big stuff, clean medical history, etc.

Manny Banuelos was a better prospect than Justus Sheffield at the same age. The key differences were their changeups and command. Banuelos had a phenomenal changeup and his command was big league caliber when he was a 20-year-old. For whatever reason that command disappeared when Banuelos reached Double-A in 2011 and it never came back. And he got hurt. A lot. Banuelos hurt his back and his elbow in 2012 and he hasn’t stopped getting hurt since. Sheffield and Banuelos are similar in that they’re short lefties, but there aren’t too many similarities beyond that. Banuelos was much more advanced as a prospect at the same age.

Michael asks: Among the contenders for the 4/5 spot in the rotation, who in your opinion needs more time at Triple-A? I agree that a de La Rosa or a Brett Anderson would do the team good, but I’m wondering if they might really need a guy like that, or if they’re at a stage where they can let Cessa/Green/Mitchell figure it out in the majors.

Probably Luis Severino. His changeup vanished last year and his command was pretty bad most of the summer. Luis Cessa seems most MLB ready to me. He has four pitches (and actually uses them) and is willing to pound the zone (4.9% walk rate in 2016). He might throw too many strikes. Cessa could possibly benefit from expanding the zone when he’s ahead in the count. That could help his strikeout and homer rates. I’m not really sure what more Bryan Mitchell can take from Triple-A at this point. I think his chances of landing the bullpen long-term are pretty high because he just hasn’t been able to develop a changeup, but he should be pretty good there given his fastball/curveball combo.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Looking for something fun and interesting to read? Check out Kevin Kernan’s article on Clint Frazier. Frazier talked about his offseason and his game, the usual stuff like that, but also shared some neat stories, like the time Reggie Jackson took him for frozen yogurt after an Instructional League game in full uniform. Frazier also said he’s working on his opposite field power at a batting cage that simulates Yankee Stadium. How about that? Anyway, check it out. It’s a fun read.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are all playing, though I’m not sure that’s a good thing. You’ve got a whole bunch of college basketball on the schedule too. You folks know how these things work by now, so do what you do.

If the Yankees are unwilling to extend Tanaka, they have to put him on the trade market right now

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Five years ago the Yankees played the entire summer knowing their best starting pitcher could opt-out of his contract and leave as a free agent after the season. This coming season, they’re going to do the exact same thing. Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out clause is going to loom over the 2017 season the same way CC Sabathia‘s loomed over the 2012 season.

The circumstances are different yet similar. The 2012 Yankees were expected to contend, and sure enough they won 95 games and went to the ALCS. The 2017 Yankees are kinda sorta in a rebuild, but they’re still trying to win, so much so that they spent $13M on a designated hitter and a heck of a lot more on a closer this offseason. The 2012 and 2017 outlooks may be different, but ultimately, the Yankees are still fancying themselves contenders.

A few weeks ago I wrote the Yankees should explore an extension with Tanaka this offseason, and that remains my preference. Yeah, I know, the elbow!!!, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, but Tanaka is several years younger now than Sabathia was when he signed his extension, and I think there’s a pretty good chance Tanaka will age better than Sabathia given their body types and pitching styles. It’s in the post. Go ready it.

Anyway, earlier this week Brian Cashman confirmed that no, the Yankees have not discussed exploring a contract extension with Tanaka this offseason. They haven’t even discussed it internally, nevermind approach Tanaka’s representatives about a deal. Mike Mazzeo has the quote:

“We have a significant contract with Masahiro Tanaka,” Cashman said Tuesday night at the opening of Orangetheory Fitness in Manhattan. “Hopefully he has a great year, and then he’ll have a decision to make. If he doesn’t, then he won’t. I think he pitched like a Cy Young award candidate last year, and I certainly hope he does so again this year. But at this point we’ve had no discussions internally to pursue any kind of extension.”

It doesn’t surprise me at all the Yankees have yet to discuss extending their staff ace. That’s not really their style. The only three players they’ve extended before free agency over the last 10-15 years are Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and Sabathia, and Sabathia was literally minutes from opting out when he agreed to his extension. The Yankees waited until the last possible moment.

Assuming the Yankees don’t reverse course and sign Tanaka to an extension, I see this playing out one of four ways:

  1. Tanaka pitches well and doesn’t opt-out. (Nope.)
  2. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and still opts out. (Also nope.)
  3. Tanaka pitches well and opts out.
  4. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and doesn’t opt-out.

I would be very surprised if Tanaka pitches poorly while being perfectly healthy this coming season. He’s never not been really good when actually on the mound. Sure, the elbow might finally give or whatever, but as long as he’s on the bump, history tells us he’ll be effective. Health is a bigger variable than performance for me. As long as he stays healthy, he’s opting out.

Under no circumstances can the Yankees go into the upcoming season planning to let Tanaka walk as a free agent next winter. If they try to re-sign him and fail because another team blows their offer out of the water, so be it. But if the plan is to play out the season with Tanaka, then let him walk because the elbow is just too much of a red flag, it would be complete madness. It would be so insane that I’m confident it won’t happen.

Remember, under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees can only receive a draft pick after after the fourth round (after the fourth round!) for Tanaka or any other qualified free agent next offseason. You can’t let Tanaka go for that. That pick has so little value. If the Yankees are wary about an extension — remember, they know Tanaka and his elbow better than anyone — then they have to be willing to trade him.

Think about it. The free agent class is so very weak right now. It was weak at the start of the free agency, and now that Rich Hill and Ivan Nova are off the board, the pickin’s are slim. Jose Quintana is available and the asking price is high, which is scaring away some teams. Tanaka is not as valuable as Quintana because of his contract status and injury history, but the Yankees could still get a significant piece or two for him. No doubt.

The Astros stand out to me as the perfect trade partner. Houston has gone all-in this offseason and they’re said to be in the mix for Quintana. They just don’t want to give up the prospects Chicago is seeking. I get it. Tanaka would satisfy their need for a frontline starter and do so at a lower price, plus they have Brian McCann, the guy who has caught Tanaka the last three years. The learning curve would be much smaller. Those two know each other.

Either way, the sooner the Yankees make a decision about Tanaka’s future, the better. Are they going to extend him? Great, then get down to business right now and try to avoid waiting until Tanaka has all the leverage like Sabathia did following his 2012 season. Are they unwilling to extend him? That’s fine too, as long as the Yankees put him on the trade market right now. Waiting until the deadline is risky.

Cashman says the Yankees have discussed bringing back Nathan Eovaldi

(Steven Ryan/Getty)
(Steven Ryan/Getty)

Thanks to his relatively new splitter, the 2016 season was supposed to be a breakout year for Nathan Eovaldi. Instead, he struggled to keep the ball in the park all summer — at one point the Yankees demoted him to the bullpen — then he blew out his elbow in mid-August. Eovaldi managed to tear the flexor tendon clean off the bone. Ouch. He also needed his second career Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees released Eovaldi after the season because, well, there was no reason to keep him around. He would have qualified for free agency after the 2017 season, so it’s not like he would have remained under team control once healthy. The Yankees would have paid Eovaldi a hefty sum (projected $7.5M through arbitration) to rehab, only to have him hit free agency after the season. With 40-man roster space needed, releasing Eovaldi was a no-brainer.

The release doesn’t automatically end the relationship between Eovaldi and the Yankees. In fact, earlier this week Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty the Yankees have had discussed a possible reunion with Eovaldi’s agent. From Kuty:

“Obviously, he’s a free agent, and we’ve had some discussions with Nate Eovaldi about trying to find a solution that works for both sides. But he’s still a free agent and there’s competition for him. Other than the injury, you couldn’t say enough about him. His makeup’s off the charts. His work ethic was off the charts. He was a performer for us. But, unfortunately, injury hit. But he’s on the free market, and he’s weighing a lot of different decisions. Yes, I’ve talked to (Eovaldi’s agent) Seth Levinson several times regarding him.”

The elbow injury and subsequent surgery means Eovaldi is not a 2017 option. He won’t help the Yankees or any other team this season. Whoever signs him will do so with an eye on 2018 and possibly beyond. Some quick thoughts on the Eovaldi situation:

1. Of course the Yankees should look to re-sign him. Pitching is a finite resource, there’s only so much of it to go around, and the Yankees are lacking it. Both at the moment (depending on your faith in the kids) and in the future, beyond 2017, after CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda and possibly Masahiro Tanaka become free agents. Eovaldi is essentially a lottery ticket for the future. Buy him now and hope he pays off down the line. As long as the Yankees don’t count on him for anything — “We don’t have to worry about a fifth starter for 2018 because Eovaldi will be back.” — it’s an obvious move.

2. The Yankees have done stuff like this before. Over the years the Yankees have signed plenty of injured pitchers with the idea of having them contribute a year or two down the line. Jon Lieber is the most notable example. He had Tommy John surgery in August 2002, the Yankees signed him to a two-year deal in February 2003, rehabbed him that year, then got a solid 2014 season out of him. Worked out perfectly.

Of course, most other times it didn’t work. Octavio Dotel didn’t pan out. Neither did David Aardsma nor Andrew Bailey. Not Matt Daley either. Tommy John surgery is a significant risk. I know the procedure itself is relatively routine, but the rehab isn’t. Sometimes guys take a while to get back to full strength, which was the case with Dotel. Sometimes they never get back to normal. That’s what happened with Aardsma. The risk will inevitably be reflected in Eovaldi’s contract.

3. Contract precedents exist. In each of the previous two offseasons, the Royals signed a pitcher who was rehabbing from a major arm surgery, so they’re Eovaldi’s contract benchmarks. The pitchers:

  • Kris Medlen: Signed a two-year deal worth $8.5M with a mutual option for a third year in December 2014. Medlen had his second career Tommy John surgery in March 2014 and returned to the mound in July 2015.
  • Mike Minor: Signed a two-year deal worth $7.25M with a mutual option for a third year in February 2016. Minor had shoulder surgery in May 2015 and made eight rehab starts in 2016 before being shut down.

Both contracts were backloaded — Medlen made $2M in year one and $5.5M in year two, Minor made $2M in year one and $4M in year two (the rest of the guaranteed money was tied up in the option buyouts) — which makes sense, because those two were rehabbing most of year one. An Eovaldi deal figures to be structured in the same way.

Of course, neither the Medlen nor the Minor contracts have worked out as hoped. Medlen had a 5.12 ERA (4.44 FIP) in 82.2 innings in his two years with Kansas City. Minor had a 5.74 ERA (5.52 FIP) in 42.1 minor league innings last year, and now we’ll see what he does this coming season. That isn’t to say they were bad signings by the Royals. They rolled the dice and weren’t rewarded. Medlen and Minor are just a reminder of the risk involved.

Cashman indicated other teams are in the mix for Eovaldi — the Rays were connected to him at one point earlier this offseason — which kinda stinks, because he might chase after every last dollar. When you’re only 26 and your elbow has already blown out twice, and your career earnings are under $10M, maxing out your next contract might not be a bad idea. The Yankees know Eovaldi and are apparently comfortable bringing him back. Hopefully that feeling is mutual and they work something out.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jon Niese

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Things have been awful quiet around the Yankees since the Aroldis Chapman signing, which both makes sense and is kind of annoying. The club was never going to spend big for a free agent bat, and trading top prospects for an impact pitcher was always unlikely, meaning there isn’t a whole lot going on at the moment. Tinker with the margins of the roster. That’s about it.

A small army of cheap veteran starters remain on the free agent market, and with the Yankees set to rely on young pitchers in two of the five rotation spots, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they swooped in to sign one before free agency. Among those still looking for a job is former Mets southpaw Jon Niese, who turned 30 back in October. He’s not the most exciting name out there, far from it, but is he a fit for the Yankees? Let’s give him a look.

Injury History

This is the best place to start, I think. Niese’s season came to an abrupt end on August 23rd last year, when he faced four batters in a spot start before being forced to exit with left knee pain. He had season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus the next day. After the injury, Niese told reporters he’d been pitching through knee pain since June, and it was bad enough that he needed the knee drained and a few cortisone shots along the way.

Aside from last season’s knee injury — by all account Niese’s rehab is going fine, and given the typical rehab timetable of a meniscus repair, he should be ready to go by now — Niese has dealt with on and off physical problems over the years. No arm surgeries, but not stuff you can easily ignore either:

  • 2009: Missed two months with a torn right hamstring.
  • 2010: Missed six weeks with a strained right hamstring.
  • 2011: Missed a month with a right intercostal strain.
  • 2012: Healthy!
  • 2013: Missed nearly two months with a small rotator cuff tear. He only needed rest and rehab.
  • 2014: Missed two weeks with elbow inflammation, then another two weeks with a shoulder strain later in the season.
  • 2015: Healthy!

The hamstring woes were kinda fluky — he tore the hamstring running over to cover first base — and Niese has had no hammy problems since. The arm injuries in 2013 and 2014 are more concerning, even though they’re a few years in the past now. Niese returned from the rotator cuff tear in 2013 and was marvelous (3.00 ERA and 3.11 FIP in 66 innings), so that’s encouraging. His arm hasn’t given him any trouble since 2014. Some scary stuff in there. No doubt.

Recent Performance

The Mets traded Niese to the Pirates for Neil Walker last offseason, then the Pirates traded him back to the Mets for Antonio Bastardo at the trade deadline. All told, he made 20 starts and nine relief appearances in 2016, and pitched to a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 121 total innings. Yikes. HOWEVA, look at the breakdown:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
First 12 starts 71 3.93 5.10 15.8% 7.7% 55.0% 1.52
Last 17 games
50 7.74 6.35 16.5% 9.8% 45.8% 2.34

Remember all that stuff about pitching with knee pain since June and needing cortisone shots and all that? Guess when Niese made his 12th start. Yep. June. That 12th start was the end of a five-start stretch in which Niese allowed six runs total in 31 innings. He was great. Then, suddenly, he crashed and allowed 28 runs in his next six starts and 30.2 innings. Hmmm.

Now, we can’t say anything definitive here, but it sure seems to me pitching through knee pain — it was Niese’s left knee, his push-off knee — may have compromised Mr. Niese’s performance. Call me crazy. His home runs were up all year — everyone’s home runs were up in 2016 — and that’s a red flag. Otherwise those first dozen starts were typical Niese. A below average rate of strikeouts, but plenty of grounders and not a ton of walks. That’s Niese.

In 2015, his last healthy season, Niese managed a 4.13 ERA (4.41 FIP) with 14.7% strikeouts, 7.1% walks, 54.5% grounders, and 1.02 HR/9 in 176.2 innings. That’s not great by any means, but it is serviceable. You could stick that dude in the back of your rotation and not sweat too much. That’s the guy whatever team signs Niese will be hoping to get this coming season, when his knee is presumably healthy.

Present Stuff

Niese is a five-pitch pitcher who uses three fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter), a curveball, and a changeup. He tinkered with a slider a few years back, but it didn’t work, so he gave up on it. Niese has never been a hard-thrower — his average four-seamer velocity peaked at 91.8 mph back in 2011 — and these days his four-seamer and sinker sit right around 90 mph. Here’s his 2016 game-by-game average velocity chart, via Brooks Baseball:

jon-niese-velocity

That dip at the end there screams “ow ow ow my push-off knee hurts so much.” The Pirates moved Niese to the bullpen in July and his velocity never did spike. And even though his knee started bothering him in June, it never showed in velocity. If you’d have looked at that graph on August 1st, you wouldn’t have been able to tell Niese was nursing a knee injury or had changed roles. His velocity held steady.

There’s nothing too exciting about Niese. His curveball doesn’t buckle knees and hitters won’t be so far out in front of his changeup they’ll break their bat on their back. He is what he is. A generic back-end starter who relies on ground balls and won’t wow you with pure stuff. Here’s some video:

That knee injury and the fact Niese pitched through it for several weeks is pretty much the only reason I wrote him up as a possible free agent target. I saw it as something that could explain his poor overall performance, and sure enough, the numbers kinda fit the timeline. How exactly did the knee injury affect Niese though? There’s no dip in his velocity. Let’s look at this four-seamer and sinker location, via Baseball Savant:

jon-niese-fastball-heat-map

In his first dozen starts, Niese kept his fastballs down in the zone, which is what you’d expect from a guy who lives and dies by the ground ball. After that, ostensibly when his knee started barking, Niese was much more prone to leaving his fastball up in the zone. That right there can help explain why his performance declined so much. He was throwing more hittable pitches, and since he lacks premium velocity overall, hitters made him pay.

Contract Estimates

Niese did not appear on a single top 50 free agent list this offseason, not one, so we have no contract estimates. Generally speaking, reclamation project starters have been getting one-year deals in the $5M range over the last two or three years, and Niese fits there. The Mets declined his $10M option after the 2016 season, and I’m guessing they gauged the trade market to see if anyone wanted him at that price. When there was no interest, they cut him loose. One-year and $5M seems like a decent framework. Maybe he’ll have to settle for a minor league contract.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

It ultimately depends on the price and health of his knee. It was a fairly routine procedure — Niese had the meniscus tear scoped like so many other athletes — and while you can never guarantee a return to full health, this is one of those surgeries with a high success rate. It’s not like taking on a dude coming off Tommy John surgery. If he’s healthy and the price is right, sure, sign him up as depth.

Keep in mind the Yankees have had interest in Niese in the past. They tried to get him from the Mets during the 2011 Winter Meetings, which was obviously a very long time ago. The Yankees liked the 25-year-old version of Niese back then. Do they like the 30-year-old version now? I’m guessing they like that he’s a lefty who gets ground balls, that he’s pitched in New York, and that he’s shown the versatility to start or relieve. (Niese was in the bullpen during the 2015 postseason.)

The question is, as always, whether Niese wants to try to rebuild his career in Yankee Stadium, which is something very few pitchers seem willing to do. The Marlins have been connected to Niese several times this winter and they might be a more preferable destination as an NL team in a big ballpark. I’m a fan of adding pitching depth. I’ve said that a million times. Healthy Niese might be the best pitcher available right now. If he’s open to coming to the Yankees, he’d be a fine low-cost pickup.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Internet celebrity Chris Crawford, who has covered the draft and prospects at a variety of places (ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, etc.) released his annual AL East Prospect Guide earlier this week. You can buy it here for a mere $1.99. It comes with rankings and detailed scouting reports (20-80 grades, the whole nine) for the top 20 prospects in each system. There are prospect guides for each division plus a 2017 draft guide. I wouldn’t pass this along if it wasn’t awesome. Crawford does great work.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks and Islanders are playing, and there are a few college basketball games on as well. That’s about it. Have at it.