Monday Night Open Thread

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

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

Heyman: Yankees sign Wilkin Castillo to minor league deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

Fan Confidence Poll: January 9th, 2017

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

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Weekend Open Thread

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Wheel

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

That whole “New Year, New Me,” meme that we always see as the number turns on the calendar is not going to apply to the New York Yankees in 2017. Some of the names and faces may be different, but the big picture looks a whole lot like the one from last year. Questions about veteran bats like Mark Teixeira‘s, Alex Rodriguez‘s, and Carlos Beltran‘s have given way to questions about young players’ bats, like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, and the returning Greg Bird. The rotation, as it seems to have been for a while, is far from secure. Leading the similarities, however, is a bullpen headed by a “Big Three,” though this year’s trio will be missing the best of the bunch in Andrew Miller. Replacing him, as he did at the trade deadline last year, is right hander Tyler Clippard.

Clippard pitched well in his 25.1 innings for the Yankees last year, striking out 24.3% of the batters he faced (9.24 K/9) and posting a 2.49 ERA (177 ERA+; 59 ERA-), though that is somewhat belied by a 4.05 FIP (99 FIP-), owed to a high walk rate of 10.3% (3.91 BB/9). In what is likely to be his first full season as a Yankee (provided he doesn’t get traded), Clippard is going to play an important role as gatekeeper to the superior Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.

Given that the rotation isn’t likely to give much length, something I discussed last month, it’s possible that a lot of games are going to hinge on Clippard performing well in the sixth or seventh inning, holding onto tight leads to turn them over to Betances and Chapman. To mix metaphors, the success of the Yankees’ three-headed-monster may rely on its third wheel, represented by Clippard.

Unless the Yankees improve their rotation before the start of the season, though, they risk the team’s biggest strength being mostly mitigated from the start. While it’s obviously better to have a solid game-ending trio than to not have one, the importance of said trio is lessened when the rotation can’t provide quality or length and the lineup can’t thump its ways through thickets of poor starting to the meadows of high-scoring leads. This isn’t really a thing, but the team’s questionable starting pitching is a case of a weakness potentially turning a strength into something, well, less strong.

To cut back on some of the falling sky here, Clippard is still a good enough pitcher that I’m not too worried about him blowing leads before they’re put into more capable hands. I am worried, though, that he’ll be pressed into early service too often and that, as the season wears on, fatigue may set in. The Yankees need an innings eat to help make sure this doesn’t happen.