Here is tonight’s open thread. The Cardinals and Rams are the Thursday NFL game, plus the Devils, Islanders, and various college basketballers are in action. Talk about those games, the Winter Meetings, or anything else here.
Thanks to the Dodgers, yesterday was by far the busiest day of the Winter Meetings. They made four trades and also agreed to a four-year contract with Brandon McCarthy, so he is no longer a pitching option for the Yankees. There are still plenty of quality pitchers left on the free agent market but they’re starting to come off the board pretty quickly, so the Bombers can’t sit around and wait much longer to act.
The Winter Meetings have been relatively quiet for the Yankees. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday we learned they continue to say they won’t bid for Max Scherzer, will give Chase Headley four years in exchange for a lower annual salary, have talked to a few teams (Braves, Royals, Marlins) about bullpen help, and have some level of interest in Stephen Drew, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, and Rafael Soriano. Today’s the last day of the Winter Meetings and we’ll keep track of all the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here, so make sure you check back throughout the day. All timestamps are ET.
- 4:33pm: The Yankees did contact the Diamondbacks about Wade Miley and the Tigers about Rick Porcello before they were traded to the Red Sox. “Did I call Arizona? Yes. Did I call Detroit? Yes. I didn’t have Cespedes to send to Detroit. We are waiting for something we are comfortable with.,” said Brian Cashman. [George King]
- 2:02pm: Ervin Santana is currently finalizing a four-year, $54M deal with the Twins. The contract includes a fifth year vesting option based on innings pitched. Scratch him off the list of available pitchers. [Jeff Passan]
- 1:56pm: It’s unlikely Chase Headley will pick a team today. Earlier this week it was reported he would likely pick a club before the end of the Winter Meetings. So we wait. [Joel Sherman]
- 1:35pm: “There are still players in the market place who are attractive to us at the position they play,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler in the most generic Yankees quote ever. They’ve mastered the art of saying something and nothing at the same time. [Brendan Kuty]
- 1:06pm: Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees never did make an offer to Brandon McCarthy. “I figured the market would take him at a level that we couldn’t play on,” said the GM. [Bryan Hoch]
- 12:53pm: A team official said the Yankees are “definitely not” chasing Max Scherzer. We’ll see. I will never truly believe the Yankees are out on a big time free agent until the player signs with another team. [Bob Klapisch]
- 12:23pm: The Yankees are active in the trade market but are unwilling to give up their top prospects for a pitcher they would only control for one year, like Jordan Zimmermann or Johnny Cueto. [Joel Sherman]
- 9:37am: The Yankees are “kicking the tires” on Ervin Santana. The Twins are pushing hard to sign him and are reportedly offering four years though. Santana is probably the third best available starter right now behind Scherzer and James Shields. [Chris Cotillo & Jon Heyman]
- 9:30am: Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees spoke to the Dodgers about Dee Gordon and the Phillies about Jimmy Rollins before they were traded yesterday. Neither conversation went very far. We heard about their interest in Rollins a few weeks ago, but the interest in Gordon is new. [Dan Barbarisi]
- The Rule 5 Draft is at 12pm ET today and Cashman said the Yankee are unlikely to make a selection. They have three open 40-man spots but prefer to keep them open for flexibility. Lame. [Chad Jennings]
It’s a good thing the off-season does not end today, because if it did the Yankees would find themselves the fourth-best team in the AL East. If Tampa Bay has a few things break their way, the Yanks could find themselves finishing last in the AL East for the first time since 1990 (fifth for the first time since 1991).
The calendar might suggest that there are still two months left in the off-season, but the recent flurry of transactions means fewer players are available for the Yankees. The Red Sox, for instance, brought in three pitchers in the last day or so: Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Justin Masterson. That’s three fewer pitchers for the Yankees to consider.
Options on offense have also dwindled. Not that the Yankees have many places they can fit another hitter. Maybe they have some at-bats in the outfield, but probably not at a starter’s level. Their best option, Chase Headley, is still on the board. But will the Yankees offer the ~$45 million it takes to get him?
What it takes
Q: What would it take for the Yankees to reach the level of the Red Sox, Jays, and Orioles?
A: A $230 million payroll.
This is not unprecedented. The 2013 Yankees spent $228 million on a team that was clearly bad. They paid Vernon Wells $10 million. They paid A.J. Burnett $8 million not to pitch for them. A clearly diminished Kevin Youkilis earned $12 million. And then there are the down-roster players, like Ben Francisco and Brennan Boesch, who made far more than they were worth.
The point, apparently, was to paper over a depleted roster with the goal of lowering the 2014 payroll below the $189 million luxury tax threshold. And it failed, miserably, because when all those horrible contracts came off the books they had no one good left on the roster.
The problem this year is that the Yankees already have almost $179 million committed — to 2016’s payroll. The only players scheduled to reach free agency after 2015 are Chris Young and Shawn Kelley, and maybe Brendan Ryan.
Which is to say, if they don’t spend now, they’re going to be in the exact same spot next off-season, only with everyone a year older.
$200 million to finish 4th
According to Baseball Reference’s payroll estimates, the Yankees are currently in for just around $195 million if you estimate around $9 to $10 million for arbitration guys, plus league-minimum guys. That is, if they make no real upgrades anywhere else. If they add a mid-level starter, that bumps them over $200 mil — and failing to add another starter means Adam Warren in the rotation and pretty much no depth behind the four shaky starters.
Worse, it would almost certainly mean finishing fourth or even last. Unless the O’s, Jays, or Sox face a series of misfortunes, that’s the Yankees’ fate.
This is the crossroads at which the Yankees currently stand. They can either spend $200 million for a roster almost guaranteed to finish fourth or fifth, or they can make a splash right now. They can go out and add two players and bump up that payroll.
Yes, Max Scherzer
Scherzer is currently the only difference-maker left on the free agent market. Chances are he’d cost about $175 million over seven years. Given his performances the last three seasons, he might be worth that. And he can seriously upgrade the Yankees run prevention corps.
He can’t be the only guy they add — which probably means bumping payroll above $230 million, since adding Scherzer alone will bring them very close to that — but the alternatives are not at all compelling.
Signing another player to a huge, long-term contract might not seem palatable. But it’s a risk the Yankees can take right now.
A two-year commitment
While no one comes off the books after the 2015 season, after 2016 the Yankees get some breathing room. Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira* have expiring contracts, amounting to $38 million. That gives them some breathing room. The next CBA will also be up for discussion, which will probably change the luxury tax threshold and penalty. So the Yankees will have another opportunity to duck under.
*CC Sabathia has a 2017 option, but it becomes guaranteed as long as there’s nothing wrong with his left shoulder. To date this has not at all been a problem. Maybe he does develop left shoulder issues in the next two years, but we can’t really bank on it. So we assume he makes $25 million in 2017.
At this point the Yankees, with Scherzer, will have around $155 million committed to eight players. That’s not ideal, but it’s still better than where they’re at right now. And at that point, Brian Cashman‘s job will again be up for consideration.
In 2017 Cashman enters another contract year. With promises of building from within, by this point we should see the payoff — whether in trades or in on-field performance. So 2015 and 2016 are a two-year experiment, where the Yankees play with a huge payroll in hopes that they can contend. In 2017 they have the real test of whether they can start plugging young, cost-controlled players into the lineup and rotation.
After the 2017 the Yankees free themselves from CC Sabathia’s and Alex Rodriguez‘s contracts. Brian Cashman’s contract is up. The picture will be much clearer by that point.
Am I rationalizing?
Glad you asked: Yes, I am. There might indeed be a long-term advantage to standing pat right now and looking for bargains. But the last two seasons have been difficult to watch, and so as a fan I hope that they make a couple of moves, namely Scherzer and Headley, and give us a glimmer of hope for 2015.
At the same time, Scherzer gives the Yankees all kinds of advantages. For instance, if Tanaka is healthy he gives them the two best pitchers in the division. He also gives them a bit more certainty at the top of the rotation, given the injury situations of Tanaka, Sabathia, and Pineda.
Most importantly, he gives them the best chance to contend in 2015. Unless they don’t intend to contend. Which, for $200 million, for the third straight season, is a damn shame.
The Yankees neither selected a player nor lost a player in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft on Thursday. That includes both the Major League and minor league phases. New York did have three open 40-man spots, but Brian Cashman told reporters on Wednesday the club was unlikely to select a player and instead keep those three spots open for flexibility.
All of the Rule 5 Draft picks can be seen right here. The best Yankees farmhands left unprotected this year were RHP Mark Montgomery, RHP Zach Nuding, and 1B Kyle Roller. As a reminder, Rule 5 Draft players must stay on their new team’s 25-man active roster all season or be placed on waivers and offered back to their original team before going to the minors. The Yankees added OF Tyler Austin, RHP Danny Burawa, RHP Branden Pinder, and OF Mason Williams to the 40-man roster in November to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft.
The Yankees have made a few Rule 5 Draft picks over the years, most notably LHP Cesar Cabral in 2011 and UTIL Josh Phelps in 2006. Phelps stuck for a few weeks in a regular season and Cabral, who was actually selected by the Royals and immediately traded to New York for cash, nearly made the team out of Spring Training in 2013 before fracturing his elbow at the end of camp. The Yankees lost RHP Tommy Kahnle to the Rockies in last year’s Rule 5 Draft. He had a 4.19 ERA (4.02 FIP) in 68.2 generic innings this summer.
I thought the Yankees would roll the dice and take a player in the Rule 5 Draft given all their open 40-man spots, maybe a hard-throwing reliever or something, but obviously they felt it wasn’t worth it. The Rule 5 Draft is more fun as a concept than in reality. There have been a few success stories over the years, most notably Johan Santana and Dan Uggla, but the vast majority of players selected have no impact and are returned to their former teams. It’s not really a way to accumulate talent. It’s a shot in the dark.
Now that the Yankees know their dominant bullpen will feature only two elite relievers rather than three, the focus turns to the rotation, which needs quite a bit of help given all the injury concerns. The idea of relying on the Dellin Betances-Andrew Miller tandem in the late innings only works if the starter can get through the first six or seven innings, and right now I’m not sure if the Yankees have anyone capable of doing that.
Behind Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, the consensus third best pitcher on the free agent market this winter is ex-Rays right-hander James Shields. He’s older than Scherzer and Lester but is still outstanding and will command a hefty contract. Shields is also a top of the line workhorse and the Yankees sure could use someone they could count on for innings. Let’s see if he makes sense for New York given their pitching situation.
Outside of an ugly 2010 season in which he was alarmingly homer prone (1.50 HR/9 and 13.8 HR/FB%), Shields has been outstanding these last few seasons. He was very good but not truly elite with the Rays from 2007-09 before that down 2010, but since them he’s been dynamite. Here are the stats:
|IP||ERA||FIP||K%||BB%||GB%||HR/FB%||RHB wOBA||LHB wOBA|
Like I said, Shields has been consistently excellent since that ugly 2010 campaign. The declining strikeout rate is a red flag, especially since the league average strikeout rate continues to increase year after year, but there appears to be a perfectly valid non-decline explanation for the lack of strikeouts, which we’ll look at in the next section. Otherwise you’re getting everything you could want from a pitcher — innings, few walks, lots of grounders, no platoon split, the works. In summation: Shields definitely has a G Factor of 1.
Unlike Scherzer, Shields is not someone who will blow hitters away with high-end stuff. He doesn’t throw in the mid-90s, doesn’t buckle knees with a breaking ball, nothing like that. Shields succeeds because he throws five different pitches and consistently locates them in the lower third of the zone. In fact, among the 128 pitchers to throw at least 5,000 pitches over the last three seasons, Shields has 26th highest percentage of pitches in the lower third of the strike zone (and below) at 56.0%, according to Baseball Savant.
The strike zone continues to expand downward league-wide — this Jon Roegele post and this Jeff Sullivan post do a great job detailing recent strike zone expansion — so it’s easier to get a called strike at the knees (and below!) than ever before. Having the ability to keep the ball down like Shields is a great weapon. Nowadays hitters have to swing at these pitches to protect the plate and very few can hit balls that far down in the zone with authority. The result is a lot of weak contact and that’s a big reason why Shields is able to continually outperform his FIP.
As for his actual stuff, Shields does throw five pitches regularly, but his pitch selection did change a bit when he got to Kansas City two years ago. Check it out (via Brooks Baseball):
For whatever reason, Shields scaled back the usage of his changeup and curveball while with the Royals and instead ramped up the use of his cutter. The changeup was his go-to pitch for the early part of his career, he sold it extremely well (meaning it looked like a fastball out of his hand) and the pitch tumbled right off the table. It was devastating. The curveball is a good strikeout pitch in general. Certainly moreso than the cutter.
Fewer changeups and curveballs could explain why Shields’ strikeout rate has dropped the last two years, his only two with the Royals. Let’s look at the swing-and-miss rate of his five pitches over the last few years:
The changeup and curveball have been, by far, Shields’ best pitches for swings and misses over the last few years. The cutter is trending in the right direction and is it starting to catch up a bit, but there’s still a comfortable gap between that pitch and the other two. So this makes sense then, right? Shields has thrown more cutters but fewer changeups and curveballs during his two years in Kansas City, which is why his strikeout rate is down. We can’t really prove this but it certainly sounds plausible, doesn’t it?
I spent some time scouring the internet to try to figure out why exactly the Royals had Shields change his pitch selection — or whether he did it on his own — but came up empty. Maybe they wanted him to pitch to contact and get quick outs? Unless there’s some sort of underlying physical reason why he can’t throw his changeup or curveball as much anymore — I guess that if his elbow barking, it could explain fewer curveballs, but I’m not sure what would physically prevent a pitcher from throwing changeups — Shields should be able to use those pitches more in the future and boost his strikeout rate a few percentage points.
Otherwise Shields’ stuff has held up remarkably well over the years. In fact, his velocity increased this past season. Check it out:
Not often you see a soon-to-be 33-year-old pitcher add about seven-tenths of a mile an hour to his pitches, especially not when they’ve thrown as many innings as Shields. Hey, maybe throwing fewer changeups and curveballs allowed him to better build and maintain arm strength throughout the season. Who knows. Either way, Shields’ stuff is more than fine. No red flags here.
Big Workload & Injury History
Like I said, Shields has thrown a ton of innings so far in his career. He missed the entire 2002 season in the minors due to major shoulder surgery but has otherwise thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2007 and at least 220 innings in each of the last four years. The guy is a bonafide horse. Shields has taken the ball every fifth day and gone deep into games his entire career now. He’s never been hurt aside from that 2002 shoulder issue. It’s pretty remarkable.
Shields has thrown just short of 2,000 careers innings to date (1,910.1 to be exact), so I wanted to see how other recent pitchers with similar workloads fared later in their careers. Since 1990, 40 pitchers other than Shields threw at least 1,800 innings before the age of 33, and 26 of those 40 have finished their careers. Excluding Daryl Kile, the remaining 25 pitchers averaged 2,080.1 innings and 36.3 bWAR before their age 33 season. But, starting with their age 33 season, they averaged only 586.2 innings and 7.2 bWAR the rest of their careers. That’s scary. (Here’s my spreadsheet.)
Now, I think we can all agree Shields is more Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte than Jeff Suppan and Jaime Navarro, but what if he’s Brad Radke? Or Andy Benes? Those guys were workhorses earlier in their careers and completely done after 32. Like done done. Without warning too. What if he’s Barry Zito or Kevin Appier? Healthy enough to continue pitching but simply not any good? That’s the risk whichever team signs him is going to take.
The Royals did make Shields the qualifying offer, so he will cost a draft pick to sign, but that’s only a minor consideration when talking about a player of this caliber. No team will lose sleep over forfeiting a pick to sign a high-end starter. Here are some contract estimates from around the web.
- FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: Five years, $90M.
- Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): Five years, $100M.
- Keith Law (subs. req’d): $16M to $20M annually.
- MLB Trade Rumors: Five years and $100M “or more.”
The offseason has been very quiet for Shields so far. The same is true for Scherzer. It seems like everyone was waiting for Lester to come off the board before turning their attention to the rest of the pitching market. The Giants and Marlins are said to have some interest in Shields but that’s all right now. Check out his MLBTR archive if you don’t believe me.
I think Shields is going to wind up with something like five years and $100M, right in line with the estimates. That’s basically the A.J. Burnett and John Lackey contracts from a few years ago adjusted for inflation. He’s not young and there are a ton of miles on his arm, but he is excellent and would be a major short-term upgrade for a contending team. Whoever signs Shields will be focused on winning in 2015 and 2016, not worrying about how the deal will look in years four and five of the contract. He makes the most sense for a win now team, basically.
Between his performance, his stuff, and his injury, Shields carries no red flags whatsoever. The only concern is his career workload to date and the expectation that it will eventually catch up to him and he’ll break down. After everything that’s happened with CC Sabathia these last two years, it’s hard not to be concerned about Shields’ workload. (To be fair, Sabathia threw way more innings at a young age than Shields.)
Shields would help the Yankees the way he would help every team. There’s not a rotation in baseball that wouldn’t get better by adding him. The contract figures to be shorter than the massive pacts Lester and Scherzer will receive, but you’re also getting fewer of his theoretical prime years. After all, is seven years for 30-year-old Lester or Scherzer all that different than five years for 32-year-old Shields? You’re getting a similar chunk of his career minus some peak years. Shields offers AL East pedigree and is a reliable innings guy, so that alone makes him a good fit for New York. Whether the price is right is another matter.
Right-hander Brandon McCarthy is close to a four-year contract worth $48M with the Dodgers, reports Ken Rosenthal. No word on the money. The Yankees had interest in re-signing McCarthy but, like most teams, they were not in love with the idea of going four years given his history of his shoulder problems. In fact, Andy Martino says the Yankees told McCarthy’s camp they were unwilling to exceed three years.
McCarthy, 31, had a 2.89 ERA (3.22 FIP) in 14 starts and 90.1 innings for the Yankees this past season after being acquired from the Diamondbacks for Vidal Nuno just before the trade deadline. McCarthy was damn near ace-like in New York and a huge help in the second half. The Yankees will not get any kind of draft pick for losing him — they were unable to make McCarthy a qualified offer because he was traded at midseason.
The pitching market has finally started to heat up these last few days. McCarthy is going to the Dodgers, Jon Lester is going to the Cubs, and Francisco Liriano is staying with the Pirates. Max Scherzer and James Shields are still available, ditto reclamation projects like Brett Anderson and Justin Masterson. Middle of road options include Edinson Volquez and, uh, Hiroki Kuroda maybe?
Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, and there’s the usual slate of college basketball. Talk about those games, MLB’s revenues, the Winter Meetings, or anything else right here.