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.

It’s looking more and more likely Jorge Posada will fall off the Hall of Fame ballot this year

Team Jorge. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Hip hip. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

One week from today, the National Baseball Hall of Fame class of 2017 will be announced during a live MLB Network broadcast. At this point Tim Raines, who is on the ballot for the tenth and final time, seems to be a lock for induction, as does Jeff Bagwell. He’s on the ballot for the seventh time. Trevor Hoffman, Vlad Guerrero, and Ivan Rodriguez are all on the bubble as well.

Among the 34 players on the ballot this year is Jorge Posada, the first member of the (groan) Core Four to be eligible for Hall of Fame induction. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte hit the ballot in two years, Derek Jeter the year after that. Bernie Williams, the fifth member of the Core Four, was on the Hall of Fame ballot in both 2012 and 2013. He received 9.6% of the vote the first year and 3.3% the second year, which is why he dropped off.

Players need to appear on 75% of the submitted ballots to be elected into Cooperstown. They also need to receive at least 5% of the vote to remain on the ballot another year. Bernie didn’t in 2013, so he dropped off. So it goes. Posada, it seems, is on a similar path. Current voting results indicate he’s in real danger of slipping off the ballot in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility.

According to the Hall of Fame public ballot tracker, which is the product of the hard work by man of the people Ryan Thibodaux, shows Posada has appeared on only 4.2% of the public Hall of Fame ballots as of this writing. He’s already been mathematically eliminated from received the 75% necessary for induction this year, not that I expected him to get in anyway. Jorge is very much a borderline candidate. Borderline at best, really.

So far 185 ballots have been made public — those are from voters who posted their ballot on social media, in their newspaper, on a blog, whatever — while six others were sent to Thibodaux anonymously. That makes up roughly 44% of the voting body. Posada needs 14 more votes to clear the 5% threshold and remain on the ballot another year. We’re still waiting on ballots from many New York voters, which could help Posada, though historically players have received less support from private ballots than public ballots. It’s a long shot.

Now, I don’t think it would be some kind of grave injustice if Posada doesn’t make it into the Hall of Fame. Hardly. He’s one of my all-time favorite players, but I recognize him as a borderline candidate. Posada was unquestionably one of the best catchers of his era and one of the best in Yankees history, though you have to squint your eyes a bit to really see his Hall of Fame case. It comes down to his offense, because Jorge wasn’t a great (or even good) defender.

Among catchers with at least 5,000 career plate appearances, Posada is 12th all-time in OPS+ (121) and 14th all-time in wRC+ (123). He’s ninth in OBP (.374) and eighth in SLG (.474). As a catcher only, meaning ignoring time as a DH and all that, Posada is seventh all-time in homers (246) and sixth in extra-base hits (599). He’s also first in walks (818) and ninth in times in base (2,356). Posada hit .279/.380/.487 as a catcher. That’s pretty awesome.

There’s no question Posada, a career .273/.374/.474 (123 wRC+) hitter overall, was far better than the average catcher offensively. Far, far better. The question is whether the 12th or 14th or whatever best hitting catcher of all-time is worthy of being inducted into Cooperstown. For the vast majority of Hall of Fame voters this year, the answer has been no. Being part of four World Series titles teams (technically five, but Posada wasn’t exactly a key component of the 1996 Yankees) hasn’t helped his case much.

The fact the ballot is stuffed isn’t helping matters either. Of the 191 ballots on Thibodaux’s tracker, a whopping 110 voted for the maximum ten players. It’s really easy to come up with about 12 players worthy of Hall of Fame votes this year, but there’s only room on the ballot for ten, so inevitably a few deserving players get left out in the cold. Posada’s an easy one to cast aside. Heck, if I had a ballot, I’m pretty sure Jorge wouldn’t be among my “top” ten players, though I haven’t put a ton of thought into it.

Posada’s best shot at getting into the Hall of Fame was always going involve a long stint on the ballot with a gradual increase in support each year. Perhaps a Rich Lederer/Bert Blyleven, Jonah Keri/Tim Raines style campaign would have been necessary. The longer he stayed on the ballot, the more voters would consider him and realize how great he truly was. That was the plan. (As an added bonus, the longer the stayed on the ballot, the more unclogged it would get it.)

In all likelihood Posada is going to fall off the Hall of Fame ballot this year, his first year of eligibility. That stinks. At least Bernie stuck around for a second year. Posada is one of the greatest Yankees ever and no one will ever wear No. 20 in pinstripes again. Most players couldn’t dream of having his career. Jorge seems destined to be overlooked as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, which is kinda fitting I guess, because I always felt he was a bit underappreciated during his playing career.

Prospect Profile: Justus Sheffield

(@MiLB)
(@MiLB)

Justus Sheffield | LHP

Background
Sheffield, 20, grew up in Tullahoma, Tennessee, which is about halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga. As a senior at Tullahoma High School, Sheffield struck out 131 batters in 61.2 innings while allowing only three earned runs. That’s a 0.34 ERA with seven-inning games. He had a 17-strikeout game and also hit .405 with three home runs, which earned him Gatorade National Player of the Year honors. No, he is not related to Gary Sheffield.

Like his older brother Jordan, Justus committed to Vanderbilt, which meant he figured to be a tough sign. Vandy is typically a tough commitment to break. Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the 49th best prospect in the 2014 draft class and the second best prospect in Tennessee, behind Vanderbilt righty Tyler Beede. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Justus as the 21st best prospect in the draft class while MLB.com had him 39th.

The Indians selected Sheffield with the 31st overall pick in the 2014 draft, the supplemental first round pick they received as compensation for losing Ubaldo Jimenez to free agency. Rather than be a tough sign, Sheffield was literally the first 2014 draftee to agree to terms. (That we know of, anyway.) The two sides agreed to a below-slot $1.6M bonus only hours after the MLB Network broadcast of Day One of the draft. Slot money for the 31st pick was $1.733M.

The Yankees acquired Sheffield from Cleveland in the five-player Andrew Miller trade at the 2016 deadline. Miller went to the Indians for Sheffield, outfielder Clint Frazier, and righties Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. It was a four-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Because he signed quickly, the Indians sent Sheffield to their rookie level Arizona League affiliate for his pro debut. Sheffield had a 4.79 ERA (2.67 FIP) with 29 strikeouts and nine walks in 20.2 innings after signing. That’s a 30.9% strikeout rate and a 9.6% walk rate. After the season, Baseball America ranked him Cleveland’s fourth best prospect.

During the 2014-15 offseason, Sheffield was arrested back home in Tullahoma for underage drinking and aggravated burglary after breaking into a home in the early morning hours to confront one of the residents about a personal matter. Sheffield pled guilty to underage drinking and a reduced charge of aggravated criminal trespassing, and was sentenced to probation. He also had to donate $500 to a local charity and was allowed to have the charges expunged from his record one year later.

Once the 2015 season began, the Indians assigned Sheffield to their Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League, where he was the sixth youngest player and second youngest pitcher in the league on Opening Day. He spent the entire season at the level and posted a 3.31 ERA (2.99 FIP) with 24.9% strikeouts and 6.9% walks in 26 starts and 127.2 innings while being nearly three years younger than the average Midwest League player. Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the club’s fourth best prospect and 81st best prospect in baseball after the season.

The Indians moved Sheffield up to the High-A Carolina League to begin 2016 — he was the sixth youngest player and youngest pitcher in the league on Opening Day — and he had a 3.59 ERA (3.80 FIP) with 22.8% strikeouts and 9.8% walks in 19 starts and 95.1 innings there before the trade. Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the 69th best prospect in the game in early-July, in their midseason top 100 update.

After the trade the Yankees initially assigned Sheffield to High-A Tampa, where he made five starts and had a 1.73 ERA (2.33 FIP) with 27.3% strikeouts and 10.1% walks in 26 innings. A late season bump to Double-A Trenton saw Sheffield make three more starts, postseason included, during which he managed a 4.97 ERA (4.86 FIP) with 17 strikeouts and nine walks in 12.2 innings.

All told, Sheffield pitched to a 3.36 ERA (3.61 FIP) with 24.2% strikeouts and 10.4% walks in 27 starts and 134 innings in 2016. He was three years younger than the competition in both High-A leagues. After the season, Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the seventh best prospect in New York’s stacked farm system. He should be in the middle of all the top 100 prospect lists that come out this spring.

Scouting Report
Sheffield is a short little southpaw — he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 lbs. — with big stuff. His fastball is more of a two-seamer than a four-seamer, with run down and back in on left-handed batters. It sits mostly in the low-90s and has topped out at 96 mph. That’s pretty good velocity given his age (he doesn’t turn 21 until May) and size.

A low-to-mid-80s slider is Sheffield’s primary secondary pitch. He used to throw a curveball back in the day, but it’s morphed into a slider since signing and become a more reliable offering. Sheffield also throws a mid-80s changeup that has made a lot of progress since high school and is now an average-ish offering. On his best days, he’ll take two swing-and-miss secondary pitches out to the mound. Here’s some video from September.

Throwing strikes has been an issue for Sheffield at times, which is surprising because he’s a great athlete and repeats his delivery well. The hope is he’ll iron out his location with more experience. Sheffield has mid-rotation upside, but as a lefty with three quality pitches, he could exceed that ceiling with much improved command. Keep in mind it’s not unusual for a 20-year-old kid to lack pristine location.

The arrest a few years ago was a surprise because Sheffield was praised for his makeup prior to the 2014 draft. He completed his probation and hasn’t had any other legal problems, either before or since the arrest.

2017 Outlook
Sheffield will open the 2017 season as a 20-year-old in Double-A, where he figures to be one of the youngest players and pitchers in the Eastern League on Opening Day. You can never rule out a player starting extremely well and forcing a promotion, but I think Sheffield will remain with Double-A Trenton almost all season. He could make a handful of Triple-A starts at the end of the regular season and in the postseason or something like that, I suppose. The Yankees like to do that stuff. A midseason promotion seems unlikely though given his age and developmental needs.

My Take
It’s easy to overlook Sheffield in the system, isn’t it? He wasn’t even the headliner in his own trade (that was Frazier), and the Yankees landed other bigger name prospects like Gleyber Torres and Dillon Tate at the deadline. And they drafted Blake Rutherford. And guys like Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, and James Kaprielian are prospect list holdovers from last year. It’s really easy to forget about Sheffield.

That said, I think Justus is the Yankees’ best pitching prospect at the moment. His medical history is cleaner than Kaprielian’s — Sheffield has never had an injury, arm or otherwise — and his arsenal is more advanced than Albert Abreu’s. Fastball plane and homeritis is always a concern with sub-6-foot pitchers because they tend to lack downhill plane on their fastballs, but Sheffield has some natural sink on his heater and has kept the ball in the park as a pro (career 0.46 HR/9), which is encouraging.

There is no such thing as a low-risk pitching prospect — Sheffield has been healthy to date, but that doesn’t mean he can’t blow out his arm on the first day of Spring Training — but I feel like Sheffield carries less risk than the typical 20-year-old hurler. He has three pitches already, and he’s athletic and he repeats his delivery well. I’m optimistic his control will improve in time. Sheffield has less to figure out than most kids this age.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how Sheffield handles his assignment to Double-A this season. A good season at that level would put him in the game’s top tier of pitching prospects and make him a potential big league option for the Yankees as soon as 2018. It’s not often a high school pitcher reaches the big leagues within four calendar years of being drafted, but Sheffield has a chance to do it. That’s pretty awesome.