Tuesday Night Open Thread

If you had any doubt the relief pitcher market would be insane this offseason, left-hander Zach Duke signed a three-year deal worth $15M with the White Sox today. He was awesome this past season after reinventing himself as a sidearmer (2.45 ERA and 2.14 FIP), but this is the same Zach Duke who had a 6.03 ERA (4.20 FIP) last year and a 5.32 ERA (4.49 FIP) from 2010-13. If one great year gets Duke that contract, David Robertson and Andrew Miller are going to get paaaid.

Anyways, here is the nightly open thread. The Knicks, Devils, and Islanders are all playing, and I’m sure there’s some college basketball on somewhere. Feel free to talk about those games, the bullpen market, or anything else right here.

2014 Season Review: The New Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I had kinda forgotten just how much Masahiro Tanaka consumed the offseason last year. The Yankees lost Robinson Cano and signed Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran as free agents, yet there were more words written about Tanaka than any other player. Even more than Alex Rodriguez, believe it or not. Here’s a quick timeline of how all this Tanaka stuff went down:

The Yankees had reportedly been scouting Tanaka for years and years, but he didn’t really jump into our consciousness until last May, and it wasn’t until last November that the Tanaka Watch became a day in, day out thing. Those 10-12 weeks or so from November until he signed in January felt a lot longer.

When Tanaka first arrived in Spring Training, it was a total spectacle. There were throngs of Japanese and American media following his every move, watching every pitch as he played catch or threw a bullpen session. Tanaka struggled to keep up with the rest of the pitchers during their early running drills — “Just the running part, that was really hard for me today. I actually didn’t know that I was going to run this much,” said Tanaka to reporters — and it was written about everywhere, mostly because everyone was looking for the first sign of failure from a guy who went 24-0 in Japan last year.

Tanaka made his Grapefruit League debut on March 1st and it was thrilling. He struck out three — one on his fastball, one on his slider, one on his splitter — in two scoreless innings and said afterwards he “was nervous, but it was a good nervous.” Tanaka made five appearances in Spring Training, allowing five runs on 15 hits in 21 innings. He struck out 26 and walked three. It was only Spring Training, yes, but he looked every bit as good as advertised. The splitter was filthy, the slider was underratedly filthy, the fastball was more than  enough, and he threw a ton of strikes. Like, so many strikes.

The Yankees felt it was necessary to lower expectations and take some pressure off Tanaka as he adjusted to a new league and a new country, which is why Brian Cashman said he projected him as a number three starter at the outset of Spring Training. Tanaka opened the season in the fourth spot in the rotation behind stalwarts CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda and perpetual “hey, maybe this will be the year he puts it all together” candidate Ivan Nova. Here is the very first batter Tanaka faced in MLB:

That … didn’t go according to plan. Tanaka settled down though, holding the Blue Jays to three runs (two earned) on six hits in seven innings. He struck out eight and walked zero. Tanaka made his Yankee Stadium debut a few days later and allowed three runs in seven innings against the Orioles. All three runs came on a Jonathan Schoop homer. That guy is really annoying. Tanaka struck out ten and walked one — his first walk came against the 41st batter he faced on the season.

The first two starts were a little up and down but the flashes of excellence were there. Tanaka’s splitter was just ridiculous, one of the most devastating offspeed pitches I’ve ever seen. He was also missing bats with other pitches, pounding the zone, and showing the poise and competitiveness the Yankees raved about after they signed him. Reports compared his makeup to Hideki Matsui and it showed on the mound. Tanaka is a straight up cold-blooded assassin. Never gives off the impression of excitement or disappointment. Stone-faced.

Tanaka’s coming out party, if you want to call it that, was his third start of the season, at home against the Cubs. He struck out ten, walked one, and allowed two infield singles in eight shutout innings. Total domination. Tanaka’s next start came up in Fenway Park — he was originally supposed to miss that series (by the Yankees design) but a rainout forced him to pitch — and he more or less had his way with the defending World Series champs:

From that game against the Cubs until early-July, Tanaka was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He made 14 starts during that cherry-picked stretch and had a 1.95 ERA (2.98 FIP) with 109 strikeouts and 17 walks in 101.2 innings. Opponents hit only .214/.253/.355 against him during that stretch. Those 14 starts included one shutout and three complete games, one more than countryman Yu Darvish has in his three MLB seasons.

In his first 16 starts of the season, Tanaka struck out double-digit batters five times and walked more than one batter only four times. He completed at least six full innings of work in all 16 of those starts and at least seven full innings ten times. I think my favorite game in that stretch was his four-hit shutout of the Mets in Citi Field, though striking out eleven Mariners in Safeco was pretty awesome as well. Tanaka’s worst of those 16 starts came against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. He allowed four runs (three earned) in six innings through a steady rain and that isn’t even that bad of a start.

On the morning of his July 3rd start against the Twins, Tanaka had a 2.10 ERA (2.94 FIP) in 16 starts and 115.2 innings on the season. He then had what was his worst start of the year at the time, allowing four runs on nine hits in seven innings against Minnesota. Tanaka struck out a career-low three batters while allowing a career-high nine hits. (Career meaning MLB career, obviously). It looked like just a blip on the radar, one of those starts every pitcher goes through, but unfortunately there was a little more going on under the hood, if you will.

Five days later, the Indians pounded Tanaka for five runs on ten hits in 6.2 innings, including a pair of homers. Right after having his worst MLB start against the Twins, Tanaka topped it and had an even worse start. Tanaka complained of discomfort in his right forearm/elbow after the game in Cleveland and was sent for tests. He was placed on the 15-day DL the next day and an MRI showed a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. Tanaka actually apologized for his injury:

“As recently announced from the team, I will be going through some treatment and rehab on my injured elbow over the next several weeks. I give everything I have every time I take the ball. With that, I also know that there will always be a risk of injury when playing this game that I love. Right now I feel that the most important thing for me is to keep my head up, remain focused on the task at hand and devote all my energy into healing the injury in order to come back strong.

“I want to apologize to the Yankees organization, my teammates and our fans for not being able to help during this time. I accept this injury as a challenge, but I promise to do everything I can to overcome this setback and return to the mound as soon as possible.”

Tanaka was personally examined by three doctors — Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad, Dodgers team doctor Neil elAttrache, and Mets team doctor David Altchek — and his test results were also sent to Dr. James Andrews for review. All four doctors agreed that because the UCL tear was so small, Tommy John surgery was not necessary and Tanaka should rehab the injury. So, rehab he did. The best case scenario had him back on the mound in six weeks.

After receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow, Tanaka rested for three weeks before beginning a throwing program. He started with 25 light tosses on flat ground before stretching it out and throwing off a mound. Eventually he reintroduced breaking balls and splitters. Tanaka faced hitters in live batting practice as part of his rehab for the first time on August 23rd, then he graduated to simulated games. A minor setback — Tanaka hit a wall during his rehab and was fatigued, though tests all came back clean — halted his progress for a week in late-August and early-September before he continued the throwing program.

On September 21st, two and a half months after the start against the Indians, Tanaka returned to the rotation and held the Blue Jays to one run on five hits in 5.1 innings. He struck out four and didn’t walk anyone. The Yankees had him on a strict 70-pitch count but otherwise he could have completed the sixth inning and maybe even the seventh as well. There were some obvious signs of rust, most notably his fastball location, but otherwise Tanaka will pretty damn good for a guy who had partially torn elbow ligament.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Tanaka’s next and final start of the season was a total disaster. The Red Sox B-team clobbered him for seven runs (five earned) on seven hits and two walks in 1.2 innings in the 161st game of the year. It was ugly and no, neither the defense nor the bullpen (both inherited runners scored) helped him any, but Tanaka wasn’t fooling anyone. Boston’s hitters were on everything he threw and it was disconcerting given his elbow. It was definitely not what anyone wanted to see heading into the offseason.

But, most importantly, Tanaka said his elbow felt fine both during and after the start. He chalked it up to being just one of those games. There were more than a few people who questioned the team’s handling of his rehab and letting him come back to make two meaningless starts at the end of the season, but if the doctors signed off and declared him healthy, what are they supposed to do? The extra rest wasn’t going to help him any, the elbow is as healthy as it was going to get. If Tanaka was going to completely blow out his UCL and need Tommy John surgery, the Yankees wanted to see if it would happen in September rather than next April. (It could still happen in April, obviously.)

All told, Tanaka finished the season with a 2.77 ERA (3.04 FIP) with excellent strikeout (9.31 K/9 and 26.0 K%) and walk (1.39 BB/9 and 3.9 BB%) rates in 20 starts and 136.1 innings. His ground ball rate was strong (46.6%) but Tanaka did show he is a little homer prone (0.99 HR/9 and 14.0 HR/FB%), which isn’t surprising given his home ballpark and willingness to pitch up in the zone. Out of the 149 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings in 2014, only Clayton Kershaw (14.1%) and Francisco Liriano (13.6%) had a higher swing-and-miss rate than Tanaka (13.4%).

Tanaka was legitimately ace-like when healthy. Unfortunately, he’s not really healthy now. More than a few pitchers have pitched with a partial UCL for several years, Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana (still has it!) most notably, but once a ligament starts to tear, it’s only a matter of time before it fully goes. Hopefully the Yankees and Tanaka can avoid the knife for another few years because, as we saw this summer, the guy is a top 20 starter in baseball. Maybe even top ten. He was that good. The injury put a damper on what was otherwise a wildly successful MLB debut for Tanaka, who made the baseball and cultural adjustments looks easy.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer Yankees
(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Pay close attention to the wording of this quote, which surfaced in a story earlier this month about the Yankees and the free agent market, via Mark Feinsand of the Daily News:

According to a source, the Yankees have no plans to pursue either [Max] Scherzer or [Jon] Lester, the top two free agents on the market this winter. Shields, the third-best free-agent starter, is also off the Bombers’ radar, as is Sandoval, the Giants’ postseason hero who was given a $15.3 million qualifying offer by San Francisco before Monday’s deadline.

What it doesn’t say: That the Yankees have plans not to pursue these players.

Currently I have no plans to leave the house today. But if I open the fridge to make lunch and see that we’re out of turkey, I’ll probably visit the grocery story. The circumstances changed.

If I had plans not to leave the house, well, maybe I scrounge up something else for lunch. I really didn’t want to leave the house for whatever reason, so the circumstances changing doesn’t phase me. Perhaps I even accounted for there not being turkey in the fridge and adjusted accordingly before even opening the fridge.

It therefore comes as little surprise* that Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees might indeed pursue Scherzer. Between Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow and CC Sabathia‘s knee, not to mention his recently declining performance, the Yankees have huge question marks atop the rotation. Scherzer, the top-ranked free agent per MLBTR’s list (and predicted to land on the Yankees), could help carry the load if Tanaka and Sabathia falter.

*For a number of reasons.

Scherzer, the No. 11 pick in the 2006 draft, took a big step forward in 2012. While his ERA was right in line with his career average, his strikeout rate jumped to 11.1 from his 8.7 career average. He’s averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings since. That set him up for his Cy Young season in 2013, followed by another high quality season in 2014.

Let’s dig in.

Ace in His Prime

It took a while for him to blossom, but Scherzer as a bona fide ace at this point in his career. After cruising to the AL Cy Young Award in 2013, capturing 28 of 30 first place votes, he followed up with a solid season and a fifth place finish in the Cy Young voting.

From a fielding independent perspective, Scherzer’s 2014 was every bit as good as his 2013. His strikeout, walk, and home run numbers remained consistent. In 2014 he made one more start than in 2013, which accounts for the 5.2-inning discrepancy. The most noticeable difference was — you must have guessed it at this point — his BABIP: .259 in 2013 vs .315 in 2014. While the .259 figure is unsustainably low, the .315 number is a bit above both his career and the league averages.

That is to say, even if he doesn’t have another monster 2013 season in him, he seems capable of exceeding his 2014 performance in the future. Entering his age 30 season, there’s every chance he has one big Cy Young season left in his arm.

Where Scherzer ranks among MLB pitchers, 2013-2014

IP 434.2 6th
K% 28.3% 3rd
ERA 3.02 11th
FIP 2.79 6th

He’s not Clayton Kershaw. He’s not Felix Hernandez. But he’s in the conversation with pretty much everyone else.

The Necessary Durability

Max Scherzer
(AP Photo)

Early in his career, Scherzer looked like he might have injury troubles. A bout of biceps tendinitis towards the end of college hurt his draft stock. Considered the top right-handed pitching prospect before the 2006 season, he was the sixth one selected in the draft. (Although can we even count the Pirates’ absurd decision to draft Brad Lincoln fourth?)

Shoulder inflammation caused Scherzer to miss time in 2008 and 2009, which perhaps led the Diamondbacks to trade him to the Tigers in exchange for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy (from the Yankees, who received Curtis Granderson).

From there, though, Scherzer’s injury slate is as clean as you can expect from a pitcher. The shoulder problem cropped up in 2012 — the Tigers termed it fatigue — but it has had seemingly no long-term effects. Scherzer hasn’t been on the DL since the start of the 2009 season.

Scherzer also has relatively little mileage on his arm, at least when compared to other free agent pitchers. From Heyman:

One reason they like Scherzer is an unusual lack of wear and tear on his arm. For instance, he didn’t reach 1,230 innings until he was 29, compared to 26 for Sabathia, and an amazing 24 by Tanaka, who obviously started young.

Among the top free-agent pitchers, Scherzer has thrown by far the fewest pitches, with 20,954, to 26,321 for Lester, and 29,461 for James Shields.

Fly Ball Pitcher in a Small Park

If there is any negative to Scherzer, beyond the standard risk of a long-term contract to a 30-year-old, it is his fly ball tendencies. In 2013 and 2014 Scherzer had the 10th lowest ground ball rate in the majors. That might have worked well at Comerica — rotation-mate Justin Verlander induced the 17th-fewest ground balls in that span — but Yankee Stadium is a different story entirely.

Would it be sensationalist of me to point out that Phil Hughes induced the sixth-fewest ground balls in 2013-2014? That worked very well for him at Target Field, even got him a couple of down-ballot Cy Young votes. I needn’t even describe his performance at Yankee Stadium the year prior.

No, Scherzer will not go from Cy Young candidate to Phil Frickin Hughes just because he’s moving to the same park where Phil failed. But it’s something to consider.

Contract Estimates

As the #1 ranked free agent on basically everyone’s lists, Scherzer is due for quite a payday. This contract will set Scherzer, and his children, and probably his grandchildren, for life. Scherzer already rejected six years and $144 million from the Tigers. So how much more will he get?

Bowden is uncanny with his picks, and seven years at $27 million per year seems well within the realm of possibility. The last free agent starter of Scherzer’s caliber was Zack Greinke, who got six years at $24.5 million per year following the 2012 season. Perhaps the presences of Lester and Shields will keep Scherzer’s price closer to $175 or $168 million, but it’s hard to bet against the higher number at this point.

In Conclusion

The Yankees need pitching. The only starters they can reasonably pencil in on Opening Day are Michael Pineda, David Phelps, and Shane Greene. Sabathia’s knee could blow out in Spring Training. So could Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow. Since Phelps and Greene are better suited to depth roles, rather than being relied upon, bringing in two pitchers might be necessary for the Yankees this off-season.

If they want the best, Scherzer is there for the signing. It would bump up their payroll a couple orders of magnitude higher than the $189 million goal they failed to reach last off-season. But as FanGraphs writer Kiley McDaniel heard from a Yankees source: “they could break even financially with a $500 million payroll expenditure (including luxury tax).”

Missing the postseason two straight years has undoubtedly hurt the bottom line. If the Yankees are ready to spend money in order to make money, they might not have any better place to invest than Scherzer.

Thoughts two weeks into the offseason

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

Yesterday was the busiest day of the offseason so far but the Yankees were not directly involved with anything. Every move in baseball indirectly impacts every other team in some way though, plus one of New York’s division rivals made a major addition, so it’s not like yesterday’s two moves don’t matter to the Yankees. Anyway, here are some miscellaneous thoughts:

1. I think the Jason Heyward trade makes a potential Justin Upton to the Yankees trade much less likely. (To be clear, that was never rumored, I just hoped and prayed it would happen.) That doesn’t mean there’s no chance of it happening, but it was a long shot to begin with, and the odds just got even longer. Braves quasi-GM John Hart has made it clear he’s seeking pitching this winter and the Yankees don’t have much of that to give up. One year of Heyward cost four years of Shelby Miller, and I assume Upton will be similarly priced. Unless the Bombers are willing to part with Michael Pineda, I can’t see it. (Aside: Am I the only one who thinks the Cardinals giving up on Shelby Miller, who they shopped aggressively last offseason, is a red flag? Miller wasn’t all that good this year and St. Louis knows pitching. They might have serious concerns about his long-term outlook.)

2. The Russell Martin signing is a pretty nice upgrade for the Blue Jays, who finished only one game behind the Yankees in 2014. Martin’s probably never going to hit like he did this past season again — he put up a .290/.402/.430 (140 wRC+) line for the Pirates this year — but he had a 99 wRC+ from 2011-13 and is an exception defensive catcher. Toronto’s backstops had an 87 wRC+ in 2014 and were terrible at throwing out base-runners (only 20%) and framing pitches. Martin is an upgrade in every way for them and that hurts the Yankees’ chances of contention going forward. Don’t get me wrong, Martin’s not a bargain, the Blue Jays paid top dollar to get him — five years and $82M, more or less Brian McCann‘s deal — but an upgrade is an upgrade, and the Jays made what should be a significant one yesterday.

3. The Cubs had been pursuing Martin before he agreed to sign with Toronto and I suppose that could put them in the trade market for a catcher. They have a decent backstop in Wellington Castillo, so it could be they will go forward with him and were only pursing Martin because they think so highly of him. If they are in the trade market for a catcher, the Yankees could offer John Ryan Murphy as part of a package for an infielder, but he wouldn’t be the centerpiece. I highly, highly, highly doubt there’s a McCann deal to be made. Chicago was reportedly offering Martin four years and $64M, which is approximately what’s left on McCann’s deal (four years and $68M), but McCann wasn’t all that good this past season and Martin was. McCann’s no-trade clause would be an obstacle as well. Maybe the Cubbies really like Murphy. Otherwise I expect them to go after a lower priced veteran catcher if they pursue one at all.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

4. For whatever reason, I am not at all confident the Yankees will re-sign David Robertson. I’m probably still scarred from Robinson Cano leaving last year. That was a bit different though. The Mariners made it very easy to say goodbye to Robbie with that contract. Something tells me Robertson will get a pricey but not insane contract the Yankees should totally match or beat, but won’t. I’ve got this terrible feeling that it will all play out similar to Martin’s free agency a few years ago. He hits the market, the Yankees talk about having interest in re-signing him, then bam, he agrees to contract with another club before New York even makes an offer. I dunno, maybe I’m just paranoid. Re-signing Robertson seems like a such an obvious move yet it hasn’t happened yet and that worries me.

5. So, with Martin and Victor Martinez signed, the Yankees are currently slated to have the 17th overall pick in next June’s draft. That is obviously still subject to change pending the other nine unsigned qualified free agents (including Robertson). The Yankees last picked that high back in 2005, when they took Oklahoma high school shortstop C.J. Henry with the 17th overall selection. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 1993 draft to find the last time they picked that high. (The Yankees took Florida high school righty Matt Drews 13th overall in 1993.) I think the Yankees will keep their first rounder this offseason but that could always change in a heartbeat. Ownership could decide to sign Nelson Cruz out of the blue a la Rafael Soriano or something. That said, it’s not unrealistic to think the Yankees could end up with a top 15 draft pick in 2015. All it takes is two more qualified free agents changing hands, and I would bet on Hanley Ramirez and Max Scherzer wearing something other than a Dodgers and Tigers jerseys next year, respectively.

Update: I should note that because of protected picks, the Yankees will only climb into the top 15 if the Rays, Marlins, Padres, Braves, and/or Brewers forfeit picks to sign free agents. Possible but unlikely.

6. Thursday is the deadline for teams to set their 40-man rosters for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees have four open spots on the 40-man but could easily open a few more by jettisoning Zelous Wheeler, Esmil Rogers, David Huff, and/or Eury Perez. Among the team’s Rule 5 Draft eligible players this winter are Matt Tracy, Mark Montgomery, Cito Culver, Angelo Gumbs, Mason Williams, Kyle Roller, Danny Burawa, Tyler Austin, Branden Pinder, and Zach Nuding. Austin is the only one I feel 100% confident the team will protect, though I also expect the Yankees to protect two or three of those bullpen arms. Maybe Pinder and Burawa. Adding Williams to the 40-man just feels like something the Yankees would do too. They’ve been … let’s so proactive at protecting former top prospects in recent years, like Jose Campos last year. Williams has done nothing to earn a 40-man spot, but he was arguably the top prospect in the organization two years ago. If another team wants to see if he can stick as a fifth outfielder, fine, let them. I have no reason to think he can. The Yankees have those four open 40-man spots and I think they’ll use all of them, which means they’ll have to open other spots when they make moves later in the offseason.

Monday Night Open Thread

Buster Olney started his annual look at the top ten players at each position yesterday — not quite sure why he started it on a Sunday, but whatever — with the catchers and continued today with the first basemen. Both articles are Insider only. Brian McCann ranked eighth on the catcher list, behind Devin Mesoraco and Yan Gomes and ahead of Miguel Montero. That sounds about right to me. Mark Teixeira didn’t even make the first base list. Not even the honorable mention. From here on out, I’m guessing we’ll only see Yankees make the left field, center field, maybe starting pitcher (Masahiro Tanaka), and relief pitcher lists. That’s all.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Steelers and Titans are the Monday Night Football Game, plus the Nets and Rangers are playing. Ryan Callahan will be back in Madison Square Garden for the first time since being traded away last March. That’ll be neat. Talk about anything and everything right here.